Friday, March 20, 2015

Beginnings and Growth (Update 3.20.15)

While digging through stuff post-move, I ran across my first "novel". It clocked in at a stunning 164 pages and I wrote it when I was in high school. It was fun - a little space opera involving interplanetary intrigue - and also spectacularly awful.

Just for fun, here's the first page. (I don't think I ever titled this anything other than Shasta. Also, note the rip of the planetary name? I was a big Star Wars fan and had a crush on Han Solo and thought it would be totally cool to borrow Corillia (Corellia) for my book too.)

It was the year 6004. One the planet Corillia a new ruler had just come to power. This new ruler was Shasta Coral. She was the only descendant of the late Daren Coral. Kings, queens, princes and lords from the various surrounding planets were coming to pay their respects to the new ruler of Corillia. Many of them had a shock when they first saw Shasta. They had pictured her as being short and gracefully plump, with blue eyes and blonde hair, rosy cheeks, and a dimple in her chin when she smiled. Therefore it was quite startling to find that Shasta Coral was tall and slender, with black hair and green eyes, dark skin, and she had no dimple in her chin because she rarely smiled. 
Many of the visiting rulers were quite shocked about this, but there was a small group that was quite pleased. They could tell at a glance that this princess would make an excellent ruler. She was the type to stand up against anything. 
One man who was very please was a lord by the name of Van der Brecken. Hans Van der Brecken. He was a member of the Corillian Council. He was an extremely tall man. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, and he had a thick sort of accent. He waited until Princess Shasta was alone and then he went over to talk to her. 

So, first of all. I'm a little surprised I still have a copy of this manuscript because I really should have burned it years ago. But it's kind of amusing (in a toe curling way) to see where my roots in novel-writing lie. But there has also been something about the very basic structure of this story that I have always loved.

In 2008 (roughly 16 years after I wrote that first dreadful version) I wrote the following as a test prior to NaNoWriMo. (Although I have written as a hobby for most of my life, in 2008 I was finally starting to think about what I needed to do in order to write as a career. NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect challenge to test the waters, so to speak. But I wasn't sure I would be able to write the required number of daily words so I sat down and rattled off the opening scene of the now-evolved space opera plot as a test.)

This version also has problems. Number one is, the damn thing is unfinished. And those apostrophes. And the formal tone. But there's a lot more complexity to the notes I made on this version and there is a lot of development in the voice and craft (despite the aforementioned what-the-fuckery with names and formality).

So here's the first page or so of the version from 2008.

Incense filled the air, the thick, sweet ceremonial smell of death.

Na'Maru stood for a minute outside the great gates. Four years since she had stood here last and it seemed that nothing had changed. But the banners on the wall were not red in celebration of birth, nor black in the celebration of victory, nor green to welcome a new season but white, the color of mourning. In the distance bells tolled ceaselessly in lament. Not until the body of the king was laid to rest would they fall to silence again.

“My lady?” Gerard asked, a note of concern in his voice.

“It is nothing.” She straightened her shoulders. “Let us go in.”

Arrival through the gates was unnecessary. As the daughter of the heir-first she could have taken a skipper right into the estate. But Na'Maru had always enjoyed the walk from the massive gilt doors to the sprawling stone fortress that was the ancestral home of the family Makentyre. In older days many smaller walls had climbed the hill, protecting the king from encroaching threats.

Those walls were long since gone, their usefulness faded as were the stories of battle and bloodshed. The road had been widened and trees allowed to grow as they would. What had been a defensive feature was now little more than a walking park.

Gerard shook his head in disgust. “They grow lazy here in the central worlds.”

Na'Maru nodded but said nothing. They neared the top of the hill and the road became steps, broad and shallow. As they rose above the tree tops the city became visible, a dark and uneven mass that flattened out near the star-towers and climbed erratically into the mountains to the west.

Na'maru's staff-bearer made a chuckling noise that was not a laugh. “They have no fields,” she said.

“No, Anii'a. The fields are very far from here.”

“But if there is an attack how will they eat?”

“With great difficulty,” Gerard said wryly.
Sometimes it's easy to see where we've grown as writers. (At fifteen I could look back at the stories I wrote at the age of ten and see the improvement.) Other times it's not so simple. I compare the books I wrote last year with the one I'm writing now and wonder - am I getting better? Or just different?

The answer is yes. I write nearly every day and with every word I put down, I'm improving and growing and changing as a writer. That change may be so small that when I look at what I wrote today and compare it what I wrote a month ago, I won't see the difference. But I have to trust that in another year or three, I will. (I also have to recognize that people who aren't me may see the difference far more clearly. I do not, personally, see a lot of change between the current WiP and the last one, but my alpha-reader tells me the current one is much stronger. So, I keep writing and trust that I am doing what I'm supposed to.)

One of these days I'm going to tackle this (still unnamed) space opera and actually write a finished and not-full-of-suckage draft. One of these days.

In the meantime, it's one word at a time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Just Write A Good Story"

There are always a lot of advice-pellets regarding writing.
"Show, don't tell."
"You can't fix what isn't on the page."
"The story starts where the action begins."
"A chapter/book is as long as it needs to be."

We've all heard them. We've probably repeated a few of them or even printed them out and taped them over our writing spaces. (Somewhere online is the certificate that gives each writer permission to write a crap first draft.)

Sometimes those pieces of advice get taken the wrong way or offered as absolutes.
"Never start with a prologue."
"Never start with a character in their everyday life."
"POV/description must move like a camera in a film."

And sometimes a good piece of advice turns into something else altogether.

There are several variations on "Just write a good story." Sometimes it's expressed more in line with "Write it all down and then see what works and what doesn't." Sometimes you hear "Kill your darlings." All different riffs on the idea that every plot point, every character, every scene, and every word should serve the purpose of creating an engaging story and plot points/characters/scenes/words that don't serve the story need to be cut.

This is excellent advice.

But lately I keep seeing the phrase "Just write a good story" paired up with "Stop trying to write a message book." It came up in response to a column suggesting we should look beyond a binary gender presentation in fiction. It's been used as an argument against female protagonists specifically and also female characters in general who are more than a romantic interest or family matron. More recently I've seen it bandied about as the shut-out argument against diversity in fiction and especially in the fantasy genre. And by diversity, I mean including folks who are PoC, QUILTBAG and women as characters who are more than just bit parts. (And also as bit parts because if a world is diverse, the whole damn thing is, not just the protagonist and his/her/ier buddies.)

The assumption in every case is that any of these things that (some)* readers and (some) authors are asking for are somehow exclusive of presenting a good story. That somehow, if you want to have a cast of characters that are not all white and/or all male and/or all straight and/or all cis and/or all abled, that this automatically makes the book a "political message" rather than a good piece of fiction.

There are a number of words I would love to use in response to that idea, but, as much fun as I have with obscenity, in this case it only lends itself to an attitude of outrage which isn't helpful. 

Instead, I will point out two things.

First, the call for diversity in fiction is not a "socio-political message" - it's a call for a reality check. A little research shows that diversity is not only a fact of life now, but it has been for hundreds and thousands of years. (Yes, there are places in the world which were isolated, but they were primarily small, rare and not white. Partly because the majority of the world... isn't white.) Presenting characters who come from culturally diverse background, characters who are not all straight or male or abled, is not a radical statement of how the world should be - it's a reflection of how the world actually is. Giving me a world in which all the heroes are straight, white, cis, abled men is not realistic, it's wishful thinking**. 

Secondly, choosing not to present a diverse world in fiction is just as much a political message as choosing to is. Which is to say, it presents a certain bias - either toward inclusion or exclusion - because we are unable to completely divest ourselves of our personal assumptions about the world. When we choose the elements of our fictional world we are presenting a message. Period.

It might be something simple.
"Love is all you need."
"Love isn't enough."
"In the end we all die."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
"Every man for himself."
"All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."
"Anyone can be a hero."
"Money is the root of all evil."
"There are ghosts in the corners of your mind."

Or even, "Boys are icky, let's throw rocks at them."

Every book has some message to it. That does not mean they are not good stories. Nor does it mean that a good story must be presented within a certain cultural framework. It doesn't even mean that stories with really blatant messages are somehow inferior. (Think of books like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange or Ender's Game or even Hard Times. They are not lesser books or stories simply because they have a visible message.)

So maybe the advice should not be "Forget the message," but rather "Recognize your message." And then write a damn good story.

*I say "some" because there are, clearly, folks who feel differently and like things just the way they are.

** Can there be a good story reason to have this presentation as the norm? Sure. But since that's not what we see in the world around us I consider it to be a speculative element, part of the "what if?" of the story and therefore there needs to be a reason for it.