Universally specific

Okay, one more before New Year’s.

Here’s a list of writing tips from Terry McMillan. It’s all good (and it’s all opinion), but the one I like the most is number 4: ‘Try not to think of an idea for a good story. In fact, leave your brain out of it.’

Not so long ago, the idea of what I now know to be called ‘craft’ and ‘narrative convention’ I labeled as ‘formula’, and associated it with other terms like ‘lowest common denominator’, ‘uncreative’ and ‘lazy’. I figured that, since everybody was already telling the same damn stories over and over with slight variations as their only excuse against accusations of just blatantly copying everybody else’s ideas, what was the point in perpetuating this if I wanted new stories?

Dungeons and Dragons really did a number on me; I discovered the way that restrictions and requirements – especially arbitrary ones – actually engender creativity rather than hampering it, but the flipside of that is that you’re still being restricted. Yes, being forced to obey certain regulations also forces you to really think about how you can use what you’ve got to hand, but when those regulations are the same every single time?

I’m talking genre here mostly. Obviously there’s variation within genres, and there are sub-genres and such, but there are still some shared core principles, mostly in terms of archetypes and plots. The importance of archetypes and plots is the importance of getting your story sold, as far as I can gather, because archetypes and plots are arbitrary.

‘Leave your brain out of it’. What I think of when I read that is something like an anecdote. Something that isn’t actually a story at all, just a sequence of events that happened to you, or a train of thought, or even a momentary wondering that had never occurred to you before. I think of taking that idea and running it out as far as it will go and seeing where it snaps taut. Generally what happens after you put in that kind of effort is that you start thinking in terms of narrative convention anyway – how to change the emphasis and pacing slightly so that it feels more like the rise-and-fall progression of a three-act story, taking certain creative liberties with the events so that they end up resembling recognisable narratives you’ve come across before and feel universal to you – not because it makes it better, but because you can, you can take this information that seemed utterly devoid of narrative value and actually, with fairly minimal effort, turn it into something you’ve seen or read a million times before. You can take the specific and turn it into the universal, and the power to do that is very seductive.

It’s a post-production ethos, I feel. The idea of ‘thinking of a good idea for a story’ is one that I’m very familiar with; I spent a lot of time doing that between the ages of 16 and 20, and the ideas never came to me. Story comes to me in two forms: after the burst of ideas like a session of connect-the-dots, or already fully-formed. Mostly the first one, and there’s a fair amount of overlap there, but I don’t get to the point of having a story until I’ve started out with something that is not particularly story-esque to build on.

But then that’s still talking about convention. It’s just that it’s coming in after the fact. And I feel, nowadays particularly, how invested I’ve become in the value of sticking to convention, using those rules and regulations to springboard off to get myself going, because it’s effective at getting something done. And I don’t think trying to abandon convention altogether is going to really feel that satisfying.

But I miss the way I used to do things, where I would use my own personal archetypes and narratives, the ones that we all have that don’t seem to fit Jung’s or Campbell’s data. These are the specifics that feel universal to us: the specific hierarchy and roles of our family tribe, who plays foil to who, who did what really crazy thing way back when that had X impact on Y; the particular forging of every contract of friendship we have; the exact reasons for why that tree or that park or that day at the beach means so much to us. You can look at those kinds of things and cast the net wide over them, adopt them into some more general, generic category, but that actually changes what they mean. Generalities aren’t enough, and yet the whole point is that they feel universal, even though the reason they’re important is that you know they’re not, that they’re yours, that this enclosed ecosystem of lived experience is your entire resevoir of any experience, your mythology, your philosophy, your morals and fables and reason.

And surely that is worth telling stories about.

Because, of course, there is overlap. Your crazy cousin Wilhelm is actually very similar to many other people’s crazy cousins; your grandma has that really particular way of giving you advice that you know only you understand, but that it also turns out is a shared grandmotherly trait among many grandmothers. But that’s not how it feels. And that’s what I miss. That’s what convention loses: the particularity. I guess that’s what writers mean when they give advice like: ‘Write it like it’s the first time it’s ever been written’. Write it as though nobody else in the world has ever had this experience, because that’s how it feels.

It makes me think of how Stephenie Meyer refused to read any vampire literature while writing the Twilight saga, because she didn’t want it to influence her personal take on the mythos. I have far more than 99 pr0blems with that series, but I think I understand that decision of hers at least: she was writing something that was hers, a story that she wanted to tell – something particular to her. Looking at how the rest of the world does things does feel like it’ll swallow up what’s unique about your perspective and wash you out.

But that’s not how it works, thankfully. Not permanently anyway. Not if you just think back to your particulars every now and again. And in terms of marketing, it’s good to know that you’re not literally just writing the same thing as somebody else. I don’t think I’d ever condone refusing to read things that are similar to your own work, or at least plot summaries of published works just so you get an idea of what plots have been used, what specific gimmicks have already been capitalised on that you might not want to use as a main draw if somebody else already did. Or not. Maybe you do. Why should only one person have all the fun?

And that’s where it gets hard to reconcile the particulars of your own archetypes with the unavoidable similarities we all have to each other. The sometimes unbearable truth that we just aren’t that original. We all grow up in the context of others, of a culture, of shared values and narratives and conceptual frameworks. And sometimes it happens without you even trying to copy other people. It’s just that ingrained.

But yet, even with all of this similarity, there is still that particularity, the family sub-genre to wider society, the specific way one group of people interpret the rules – the way that little enclosed project takes the overarching genre conventions that we all have to abide by and puts their own twist on them, makes them work for their own purposes.

And more importantly – so what? So what if that nervous tic you have is the same nervous tic that several million other people also have? It’s still specific to you. It’s still part of your story. Why should you avoid acknowledging its centrality just because ‘somebody did it before me’? That’s being disingenuous.

So in the end, claiming originality in our stories is pretty disingenuous. In the end, we end up being conventional whether we want to or not.

But that’s what you think about afterwards, I think. That’s when it helps to tell your story. After you’re done getting your specifics out in writing, treating them with the respect they deserve as the unique facets of your life, your imagination, your narrative, as something from you that only you understand, after that. That’s when you starting thinking of being conventional. If you want.

And that’s the beauty of it. Perhaps we do end up being conventional regardless of our intentions, just because there’s only so much variation within any given set of rules. But that also means that our specific stories still carry a universal weight whether we want them to or not.

And, again – it’s fun playing with the rules.

It’s just nice to remember why I thought they were stupid. I only thought they were stupid because I thought that if I was going to use them, I had to put them first, and forgo anything of creative merit or the slightest bit of originality.

You don’t have to put convention first. It’s already there. So just do your own thing. Tell your own story, in all of its exact specificity. It’s all yours, and it’s also so many other people’s. There is no way to divide it. And really, that’s pretty beautiful.

Happy New Year’s Eve from New Zealand.

Cover Reveal: “Echoes” by Therin Knite

Partly because it’s Xmas over here in NZ, but mostly because writing is awesome (as is this blog), I thought I’d do what I can in terms of a signal-boost. If you haven’t checked out Knite Writes already, give it a look because it’s very cool, and this book looks very cool as well. Will definitely be picking up a copy once it comes out (and my bank account is looking a tad more robust).

More than words

As Tallulah is taking a well-deserved vacation for the time being, I started writing something else to tide myself over. I’ve had this idea kicking around for a little while of various fairytale princesses banding together to save themselves and each other from the various Big Bads rather than waiting around for Prince Charming to come their way, and decided that I didn’t have to wait until I felt like a good enough writer to do it justice, and could just jump in and start making things happen instead. (If somebody’s already written a story with this idea in mind, don’t tell me, let me live that fantasy.)

It’s fun so far. It’s also very … generic. And when I say generic – well, the main characters are all female, this being about fairytale princesses and all, and a couple of them are *shudder* Action Chicks.

Look, I like Action Chicks, I just hate how they’re generally written – I like good characters, and I also like action, and that is generally not what you get with your average Action Chick, perhaps because most Action Chicks that have currency in popular consciousness are written by men.

And so in my attempt to buck the trend of badly-written Strong Female Characters, it came as a bit of a disappointment to actually stop and read a bit of what I’d written. Namely, what I will dub the ‘I see your sexism and raise you a witty comeback’ trope, wherein, inevitably, the Action Chick will have to deal with some bit-part henchman who will, in their frustration, throw a mantrum and accuse them of providing sexual favours in exchange for money. Action Chick responds with some kind of witty comeback, generally also of a sexual nature, turning the slander back on the offending henchman, and scene.

I don’t like this.

On the one hand, yeah, take something offensive and ‘reclaim’ it so that it’s empowering instead. But on the other hand – it just feeds into that kind of attitude. Not so much in real life, but in fiction. It reinforces the code and makes the trope, well, a trope. Which is a trope of women who defy gender norms being subjected to sexist slander, invariably and inevitably.

And, yes, most of the writers of this trope also happen to be male. I can now add myself to that number. Yay.

It did not dawn on me just how much I dislike this trope until I wrote it myself, and it was even worse for the fact that it just kind of slipped out. Writing a first draft of anything involves a lot of autopilot, a mix of stream-of-consciousness with conventional wisdom. I ended up replicating this trope without even thinking about it, and by chance (or perhaps not, but this isn’t the first time I’ve ended up regurgitating the tropes and conventions I’ve been exposed to ad infinitum so I’d say chance) I came across this article today, talking about how movies are controlling us.

I don’t like the idea that media controls our minds, and I don’t believe that it does. But it does provide us with information, and while we can always excuse ourselves from being ‘gullible’ by telling ourselves that we know fiction is fiction, the article makes the good point of the fact that we don’t know which parts are fiction of any given narrative, unless we happen to have firsthand experience. The whole ‘you get one phone call’ thing, for example – I still don’t know if that’s a thing or not. But it is a trope, and even if you ‘know’ it’s all fiction when you see Garden State and we have our sad-puppy male protag ending up with the impossibly idealised and accommodating Manic Pixie Natalie Portman, if you don’t have anything to compare it to, does it matter that you know it’s fiction? If you have nothing else to go on, then you’ve only got what you’ve got.

And thus we end up replicating the stories we are exposed to, because we rely on the information that we are exposed to, and if that information happens to come in the form of movies – it’s not that it’s controlling us, but if we lack compelling alternatives, they may as well be.

The other reason I don’t like it is because, as a male writer who feels constantly out of my element when writing female characters, this kind of shorthand is really seductive, and relying on it to get you through a story with a character can end up preventing you from actually getting to know the character, thinking of why they respond a certain way to certain events or provocations. It’s the same with relying too much on any kind of conventional wisdom, and when you throw in the whole gender thing, the tendency for men to Other women because social conditioning and social attitudes encourage us to do this (or at least don’t really give us any penalties for not doing so), this particular instance of it proves … problematic.

I don’t like it, is what I’m saying. I don’t like that I’ve done this. But I’m going to let it stand because it’s a first draft, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt first drafts are good for, it’s being absolutely dreadful, and coming back to bite you in the ass so that not only do you see your mistakes, you remember them. And that is how you learn.

And I like this story, so I want to give myself a fighting chance at writing it. If there is any possible way I can make it work, I want to find that way. And it’ll be good to have something to write while I take a bit of a break from Tallulah. Something to do over the holidays.

Happy Holidays, my wonderful readers. See you next year.


So today, the dude who directed the little webseries thing I filmed over the course of this year sent me this little meme.

At first I was a bit: ‘Oh look, more generic battle-of-the-sexes humour, elle owe elle’ – I’m really not into that sort of thing – but upon reflection, the ending makes it interesting.

The back-and-forth, highly gendered narrative conflict between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ students is a conflict of legitimacy and representation. Whose story is more valuable, more viable? Rather than attempting to work together, each party barrels forward with an extremely normative presentation of gender, and gender expectation – girls are into romance and domestic drama, boys are into action and the fantastical. Not particularly imaginative, and very reductive across the gender board. It embodies the constant struggle between male and female voices to be heard and taken seriously, and although it does not have anything to say about which voice tends to come out on top, the use of genre is very telling – women get more recognition if they weave narratives, fictional or otherwise, of romance and domesticity, while men get theirs from narratives of adventure and flights of fancy, sky-high ambition to the point of absurdity.

But it’s the ending that really stuck with me. The ‘teacher’ gives the ‘collaboration’ an A+ grade, remaking that they ‘really like’ the end result. Said teacher is, of course, male (and a professor). What is it that he likes, exactly? The story? I don’t think so.

But the story of the writers? The narrative conflict?

Considering representations of gender and the way certain narratives, in mainstream media, are ascribed to heteronormative masculine and feminine gender codes, I can’t help but see this A+ as an approval of the status quo, where men and women are always at each other’s throats, where the nuances of lived experience is split neatly down the middle to allow for no overlap, to have men and women Othering one another, in life and literature alike. And particularly in literature, and perhaps especially given the large amount of YA I’ve been reading of late, I can’t help but link this meme back to the gendered narratives of City of Bones, The Hunger Games and Vampire Academy. And just the way gender is coded in literature that is marketed to the masses, that is intended to appeal to the largest audience for the most profit. It’s split down the middle, with boys and girls set up to oppose each other’s lived experiences like we have the idea of dogs and cats as natural opposites. And it’s just as ridiculous. Men and women are ‘natural opposites’ as much as bumblebees and pineapples. And it is the constant reinforcement and legitimisation of narratives of codified difference, taking what are, in many cases, shared experiences and tethering them to either side of a conceptual divide, that gives us the narrative landscape we have today.

A case in point here is the webseries Emma Approved. I am not at all sure about the show – I like it, but not for the reasons I’m meant to, and certainly not because I think it’s good. But the gender dynamics drive me insane. We’ve got Emma, who is cartoonishly narrow-minded and actually really toxic and privilege-blind in her abuse of Harriet, not a peer this time but an employee who is materially dependent on Emma’s approval of her. And then we’ve got Knightley, who is the moral centre, the voice of reason, and he’s been set up to be so obviously in the right, so utterly without fault, so face-palmingly perfect – it’s quite despicable. These were similar problems that I had to the Gigi arc in the LBD, the dynamic between her and Darcy (a total counterpoint to the incredibly awesome relationship crafted between Lydia and George, for instance), and it is this kind of ‘men are from mars, women are from venus’ dichotomous representation of gender that the meme reminds me of. The meme has no obvious gender critique agenda that I can see, but it still points out the problems of gender normativity in the narratives we all live within and interact with, whether we reproduce or subvert them individually.

(On a side note: I am compiling a list of books to review for next year, and the Twilight saga has just found a place there. Because for all that I hate the hideous gender stuff and moral bankruptcy of those books, I only feel that way in retrospect. I feel I need to read them again and get a better sense of how I actually feel about them. And who knows? Maybe there will be some redeeming factors there. So that’ll be right after Artemis Fowl. Or before, perhaps, seeing as I don’t have the last book yet.)

Story of my life

We have just sold our house.

I spent the early hours of the morning fitfully resurrecting an old and decrepit magic system conceived of in the equatorial years of my adolescence, and actually managed to turn it into something quite … magical. Mystical at any rate. I made it up waaay back in the day when, for whatever reason, I was obsessed with subjecting magic to the systematic logic of science. I was determined to explain magic in real-world terms, make it feel plausible enough so that speculating about its existence would feel a little less fanciful and a little more ambitious. I think I needed something to hold onto back then, some kind of anchored life-raft to keep me going, and it was magic.

And then I got into videogames and D&D and systems and my scientific inquiry into the mechanics of ‘realistic magic’ transferred a little too effectively. So taking what is possibly the worst magic system I have ever come across, the one I designed when I was about 15, and turning it into something that actually feels like magic, is pretty dope. I’ve finally grown out of wanting magic to be ‘fair’, I guess, something that I can rely on. I don’t need it anymore, and as such I’m starting to find that it’s really quite enjoyable.

Old things have a way of coming back to us in new and helpful forms if we take the time to reconnect. Now that we’ve sold this house, the impending move makes me appreciate this place for the first time in a long time. But what’s funny about it is how I appreciate it. I did a bit of wandering the halls – well, hall – and reminiscing about all of those moments of childhood bliss, running around with siblings and friends, laughter filling up the walls, like always happens in flashbacks in the movies.

Then it occurs to me that, actually, it’s exactly like in the movies, this reminiscing – that shot with the main character looking wistfully off into the distance while an echoing laughter-track plays, evoking their childhood. I’ve got the soundclip in my head, and it’s that soundclip that I play to myself while reminiscing, and as I do this I am aware that I never laughed like that. You know the one, the Wilhelm Scream of nostalgic child-laughter that always gets used for maximum sentimentality. Not something from my actual memory.

And I’m still getting sentimental about it.

It is apparent that I am so far gone into the world of storytelling that there may not be much point in trying to turn back. I’ll just have to accept that I’ve got a script for my own memories, and it’s not even my own script. Narrative convention for the win.

But it’s been a good home to us. Also a crappy one. It’s been a home.

I even borrowed that little three-line structure. I bring a very new meaning to the term ‘life-hack’.

I am now listening to Tori Amos as a sort of musical comfort-food. I have discovered, after devoting the past three years of my life to becoming a social justice warrior and having that agenda influence every creative decision I’ve made during those three years, that what I want to write about more than anything else in the world is Kung-Fu Wizards with laser guns hanging out at a futuristic shopping-mall. Possibly with some kind of pseudo-Pokemon nonhuman companions.

It’s the story that I tried to make for for 12 years, and I think the reason I want to make it work now is because it is quite possibly the strongest tie that I have to my past, the only through-line of my history that remains in tact to this day. I want to excavate and nurture it, cultivate it into a glorious self-sustained life-form. I want to finally expose it to the light, and watch it grow, like I’ve wanted it to for a very long time.

And with that, I can finally let it go, let it stand on its own, while I make the effort to do the same.

Mission accomplished

This year has been a rough one for my WIP, Tallulah. I finished draft 1 in January, tried to make a plan for a second draft that didn’t end up getting off the ground until September, and then took much longer than I thought to complete that draft, which became a ‘light revision’. I printed it out at the end of November to take notes, and I learnt the valuable lesson of leaving margins with which to MAKE notes for next time.

Three weeks and 15 A4 pages later, I have finished making notes on the second draft of Tallulah.

I realised that this is really a second draft. Not only did I cut about 39k words and several chapters, not to mention reorganising the order of events rather drastically, but the resulting 86,001-word revised manuscript I have been poring over for the past three weeks had over 22k new words written for it. And upon reflection, that counts as a proper second draft, or at least not a ‘light revision’ as I’ve been calling it. I guess this is the First Revision, and it’s a proper revision.

So yeah, I actually accomplished much more than I set out to accomplish, and now I feel less guilty about it taking much longer than I hoped it would. Fair trade.

So, now for the ‘proper’ rewrite.

The most heartening thing is that, in a very general sense of narrative progression, this does feel like a proper story, with good pacing and stuff. It could be better, much better, but this is exactly what I hoped it would be: a solid foundation to build upon. That sense of speculative wonder that I had in the first five chapters came back in the final four, so almost half of this draft has given me material to expand upon and use to fill in the gaps. I just need to work out what’s best for the story.

One of the big concerns is going to be making it feel more like a stand-alone story, rather than a Part One. It does have a sense of closure at the end, but the lead-up happens too fast and there are a lot of loose ends. It would work as a stand-alone story as it is, with a few corrections to the patchy continuity that makes the characters come across as quite inconsistent, but I feel it would only be scraping by. And there is still a lot of work to do before I feel like I’ve done this story justice.

It’s a difficult story, and it has been from day one. There are so many moving parts, and cutting out so much of the filler has brought home just how true that is, and shown me where the weaknesses lie more clearly. Now it’s all down to killing darlings and all that jazz. I am anticipating that the word-count will shoot back up over the 100k-mark when I’m done with the next rewrite, and that’s fine with me. I like big books. I cannot lie.

But there. It’s done. This revision that looked for a while like it would never even get off the ground has not only happened, but I’ve made notes on it. Lots of notes. Hopefully good, useful, helpful ones. This is farther than I’ve ever been with a novel before.

The goal now is to have it ready to go by July next year at the latest; I’ve hopefully got two and a half months completely free to get Draft 2 planned and written. The first month, I’ll be totally honest, I’m probably going to spend writing other things. And reading. Reading a lot. I think I need some space. And then I’ll come back, read it again, make new notes, make a plan, write that plan … rinse and repeat.

And next semester, I will manage my time so that I get all of my coursework taken care of nice and early so that I can actually have time to write. And we will see how it goes.

Onwards and upwards.

Like rain on your wedding day

But not, because this is actual irony: after writing that last post about how all the old stuff doesn’t work as well as it used to, I just read two chapters that were mostly all original stuff with one (very key) changed scene and it made me cry.

Because it was good. Not because it was bad. I forgot I was reading my own work; I forgot I was reading a book and got so wrapped up in the characters. It gives me hope that I’ve done right by them in telling their stories. Because it all felt right. It was so painful, and I never quite respected how very sad this story is until now. It’s actually pretty horrible. It makes me feel like a horrible person for doing this to these characters, and it makes me admire them for how they handle it, what they’re going through because it happened to them. All of this tragedy befalls them and it’s all my doing, and I got so angry with one of them and then so sad for the other two and it just …

Well, I’m glad I kept going.  And now I’ve got 18 pages to go before I’m done. My only worry is that this feels like the ‘first in a series’ installment, and it’s going to be stand-alone so I need to rectify that, fleshing things out and giving them their due development across the span of the story. But that’s minor at this point.

I feel like I’m doing good. I feel like I’ve gotten that perspective again, like reading somebody else’s work, to the point where the majority of my notes for these past two chapters has just been comforting and commiserating with my characters (or insulting them and calling for their deaths).

Today, I am a real writer.