As promised, here is part two of my dissection of Rogue One and how, if I were given a magic wand to reshape the story, I would have done it. Spoilers ahoy, mateys! If you missed part one (all three thousand words or so of it), you can find that here.
I wanted to make this post weeks ago, but I was in a cast and not typing much. So instead you get it now — which might be better, since at this point I imagine that most people who intended to see Rogue One in theatres have already done so. This post and its sequel will be spoileriffic, so don’t click through unless you’ve either watched the movie or don’t care if I talk about what happens.
Outside the cut, I will say that I enjoyed Rogue One . . . but it also frustrated me immensely, because I felt like it had so much excellent narrative potential that it just left on the table. In the comments on several friends’ posts, I said that it could have really punched me in the gut, but instead it just kind of socked me in the shoulder. I wound up seeing it twice, because we went again with my parents, and on the second pass Writer Brain kept niggling at things and going aw man, if only you’d . . . I know there were extensive reshoots, and I’m pretty sure I can see the fingerprints all over the film, though I can’t be sure which underdeveloped bits were shoehorned in by the revisions, and which ones are the leftover fragments of material that got cut. (The trailers offer only tantalizing clues: apparently none of the footage from the first two wound up in the actual film. You can definitely see different characterization for Jyn, but the rest is mere guesswork.) I just know there are all these loose ends sticking out throughout the film, and since story is not only my job but my favorite pastime, I can’t help but think about what I would have done to clean it up.
There will be two posts because my thoughts are extensive enough that I think they’ll go better if split up. First I’m going to talk about the good guys — what worked for me, what didn’t, and how the latter could have become the former — and then I’ll talk about the villains.
There are many things I liked about Captain America: Civil War, but probably the best aspect of the whole movie is the fact that I keep thinking about it, and about the arguments it presents. Just the other night I got into a discussion about it again, which prompted me to dust off this half-finished entry and post it.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, first: from what little we know about the Sokovia Accords, it sounds like they’re a steaming pile of badly-thought-out crap. (Not to mention wildly unrealistic in so, so many ways; as one of my friends pointed out, the most implausible thing in this film isn’t super soldier serum or Iron Man’s suit or anything like that, but the idea that the Accords could spring into being so quickly, with so many countries on board, without three years of very public argument first.) So when I say I’m increasingly sympathetic to Tony’s side of the argument, I don’t mean its specific manifestation — nor his INCREDIBLY naive brush-off that “laws can be amended” after the fact — but rather the underlying principle that some kind of oversight and accountability is needed.
Because the more I think about the underlying principles on Steve’s side, the more they bother me.
I understand his starting point. He accepted oversight and followed orders; the organization giving those orders turned out to be a Hydra sock-puppet. Now he’s exceedingly leery of the potential for corruption — or even just so much bureaucratic red tape that nothing winds up getting done. And he’s presumably reluctant to sign a legal document saying he’ll follow orders when he already knows he’ll break his word the moment he feels his own moral compass requires him to do so. That part, I understand and sympathize with.
But here’s the thing. It sounds like he wants all the freedom of a private citizen to do what he wants . . . without any of the consequences of acting as a private citizen. Soldiers don’t get personally sued when they destroy people’s cars and houses or civic infrastructure; private individuals do. Is Steve prepared to pay restitution for all the damage he causes? (Or are the insurance companies supposed to classify him as an act of God, no different from a tornado or a hailstorm?) Would Steve accept it as just and fair if the Nigerian government arrested him for entering the country illegally? It sure didn’t sound like the Avengers came in through the Lagos airport and declared the purpose of their trip to officials there. Based on what we’ve seen, it looks like Steve wants all the upside, none of the downside, to acting wholly on his own.
And this gets especially troubling when you drill down into him acting that way in other countries. I’m sure he thinks that petitioning the Nigerian government for permission to chase Rumlow there would eat up too much precious time — and what if they refused permission? Does he trust them to deal with the problem themselves? No, of course not — Steve gives the strong impression of not trusting anybody else to deal with the problem, be they Nigerian or German or American. To him, it’s a moral question: will he stand by while there’s danger, just because a government told him not to get involved? Of course he won’t. And this is the part in my mental argument with him where I started saying, “right, I forgot that you slept through the end of the colonial era. Let me assemble a postcolonial reading list for you about the host of problems inherent in that kind of paternalistic ‘I know better than you do and will ride roughshod over your self-determination for your own good’ attitude.”
Captain America is, for better or for worse, the embodiment of the United States’ ideals circa 1942. Which means that along with the Boy Scout nobility, there’s also a streak of paternalism a mile wide.
Mind you, Tony’s side of the argument is also massively flawed. Taken to its extreme, it would recreate the dynamics of the Winter Soldier: that guy went where he was told and killed who his bosses wanted him to, without question, without exercising his own ethical judgment. And anything done by multinational committee will inherently fail to have the kind of flexibility and quick reaction time that’s needed for the kind of work the Avengers are expected to do. The politics of it would be a nightmare, you know that some countries will get the upper hand and this will exacerbate tensions between them and the rest of the world, and the potential for a re-creation of Steve’s Hydra problem is huge. Plus, how are they going to handle people who opt out of the program? What’s going to govern the use of their powers — or do the authors of the Accords intend to forbid that use, without government approval? That’s a civil rights nightmare right there.
But in the end, I come around to the side that says, there needs to be supervision and accountability. It’s all well and good that Steve feels bad when he fails to save people, but he wreaks a lot of havoc in the course of trying, and feeling bad about it doesn’t make the people he damages whole. (If memory serves, almost all of the destruction at the airport is caused by Steve’s allies, until Vision slices the top of that tower off: I doubt that was a narrative accident.) Is setting up that supervision and accountability going to be difficult? Hell yes. But there has to be some, because otherwise . . .
. . . well, otherwise we wind up with a larger-scale version of the problems we have right now with police violence. Which is a separate post, but I’ll see if I can’t get that one done soon.
WARNING: this post is about rape in fiction, and considerations to bear in mind when including it.
Last week I posted some thoughts on Twitter about rape scenes in fiction — specifically, thinking about the possibility (the likelihood, sadly) that someone in your audience is a rape survivor, and contemplating what effect you want to have on that person. Those thoughts are the epiphany I arrived at while thinking through the larger issue; I want to write about that larger issue now.
In my recent discussion of The Name of the Wind, one of the things that has come up is the way in which Kvothe is an unreliable narrator, and the text does or does not separate the character’s sexism out from the sexism of the story as a whole. This isn’t solely a problem that crops up with unreliable narrators — it can happen any time the protagonist holds objectionable views, or lives in a society with objectionable attitudes but you don’t want to make the protagonist a mouthpiece for modern opinions — but it’s especially key there. And since I brought it up in that discussion, I thought it might be worth making an additional post to talk about how one goes about differentiating between What the Protagonist Thinks (on the topic of gender, race, or any other problematic issue) and What the Author Thinks.
I don’t pretend to be a master of this particular craft. That kind of separation is tricky to pull off, and depends heavily on the reader to complete the process. The issue is one that’s been on my mind, though, because of the Lady Trent novels: Isabella is the product of a Victorianish society, and while my approach to the -isms there hasn’t been identical to that of real history, I’ve tried not to scrub them out entirely. Since the entire story is filtered through her perspective (which, while progressive for her time, is not always admirable by twenty-first century standards), I’ve had to put a lot of thought into ways I can divide her opinions from my own.
There are a variety of tactics. Because I think things go better with concrete data rather than vague generalities, I’m going to continue to use The Name of the Wind as an illustrative example.
I actually watched a bunch of things that day, one of which was the first episode of Peaky Blinders. I like Cillian Murphy as an actor, and I'm a sucker for well-detailed historical periods, and the show is solidly written . . .
. . . and I just didn't care.
Because I'm starting to feel like I've had enough. There's a genre of TV right now that somebody on the internet once dubbed "blood, tits, and scowling," and while there is a wide range of splendid material belonging to that type -- for starters, look at just about everything HBO has done in the last decade -- I think I'm hitting my saturation point. There's a cynicism about human nature that tends to be endemic to the genre, and the representation of women is often problematic -- though, in fairness' sake, I should note that Peaky Blinders made a couple of moves with its female characters that I quite appreciated.
At dinner the other night, a friend of mine said he wanted to find a TV show where nobody died, nobody was murdered, nobody did awful criminal things, etc. Ironically, we wound up chatting about two shows that feature people getting murdered as a central plot point -- but in both cases, the entire tone is different. One was Pushing Daisies, which is candy-colored and good-hearted even though the main character brings people back from the dead to solve crimes, and the other was Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, following an outrageous lady detective in early 20th century Australia. They are both very, very far from blood, tits, and scowling.
I'm starting to crave the change of pace. My taste leans toward drama, so people getting killed is going to be a regular feature of many of the things I watch (and read) -- but I can do without the cynicism, the muted color palette, the parade of morally dubious people doing morally dubious things. Right now I'm enjoying the heck out of Agent Carter, with its cheerful pulp heroics. I need to get hold of The Librarians; the made-for-TV movies it's based on are the best Indiana Jones films apart from Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. I want some light, some humour that isn't grim, some fun.
It isn't that the other stuff is bad. I've just had enough of it for now.
As promised, a follow-up post on the public revelation that Requires Hate and Benjanun Sriduangkaew are the same person, and the material collated by Laura J. Mixon on that topic. This is entirely about my own feelings and opinions on the matter; they’re not statements of fact, though I’ve done my best to be clear what facts I’m basing my feelings and opinions on.
Because naming gets complicated in a discussion of someone with multiple names, my approach has been as follows: I use Winterfox or WF when referring to that specific persona, ditto Requires Hate or RH, ditto Benjanun Sriduangkaew or just Sriduangkaew. (I would like to abbreviate that name as well, but since the initials there are BS, it would have a very unfortunate effect.) When I’m talking about the individual behind all of those personas, I follow Mixon’s lead in calling her RHB, for lack of any better referent.
Some brief prefatory comments follow, before I get to the main points.
A while back my husband and I got into a conversation about the iconic writers of different eras — the people where, if you can remember a single person who wrote in that time period, they’re the one you think of. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Austen. Dickens.
This led, of course, to us debating who from the current era might be That Writer two hundred years from now. It’s a mug’s game, of course, trying to predict who’s going to last; the field of literature is littered with names who were expected to be classics for the ages, many of whom are now utterly forgotten. But a mug’s game can still be fun to play, especially when you’re making idle conversation over dinner.
The way I see it, the author in question is likely to exhibit some combination of four qualities:
- They’re popular (though not necessarily critically acclaimed just yet),
- They’re at least moderately prolific (no one-book wonders here),
- They’re working in a genre/medium/field that is especially characteristic of their era, and
- Their work reflects the social issues of their time.
(Notice I say nothing about quality in there. I do think that quality matters, but I also think our ability to judge what qualifies as quality, from the perspective of later generations, is deeply suspect.)
I said to my husband that I fully expect the writer of our age — defining “our age” as the late twentieth to early twenty-first century — to be someone in the field of speculative fiction, i.e. science fiction, fantasy, and/or supernatural horror. There has undeniably been a boom in that mode of storytelling in the last few decades; I suspect that, as a result, those works may be remembered for longer than many of the quietly mimetic tales of literary fiction. (In fact, if I’m being honest with myself, I suspect that the Writer of Our Age is more likely to be a movie director — Spielberg’s a good candidate — than anybody in prose fiction.)
Popular, prolific, working in spec fic, reflecting the social issues of our era . . . .
My money’s on Stephen King.
He’s already acquired a veneer of respectability that he sure as hell didn’t have a couple of decades ago. His works are being taught in college courses. He caters — I mean the word in a non-derogatory sense — to a broad audience, and generally writes about very ordinary blue-collar types, in a way that can be read as social commentary, whether it was intended as such or not. There are other authors who may be remembered, as much for their impact on the field as on their works (J.K. Rowling for the YA boom, George R.R. Martin for being the most famous epic fantasist since Tolkien, etc), but I don’t expect their work to be read much outside of specialized circles a hundred years from now. They’re probably the Christopher Marlowes of our era, doing some pioneering work, but generally only read by people who are exploring that genre in greater depth.
I’m curious whether other people agree with my assessment, though. Are there other authors you think are more likely to be remembered in the long term? If so, who and why?
I originally posted this as a reply to John Scalzi here, but it occurred to me that it was something that might be of interest to my local audience — especially since I’m posting all these photos from trips I’ve taken.
In discussing his own feelings about travel, Scalzi said:
The fact of the matter is Iâ€™m not hugely motivated by travel. This is not to say that I donâ€™t enjoy it when I do it, nor that there are not places I would like to visit, but the fact of the matter is that for me, given the choice between visiting places and visiting people, I tend to want to visit people â€” a fact that means that my destinations are less about the locale than the company. Iâ€™d rather go to Spokane than Venice, in other words, if Spokane has people I like in it, and all Venice has is a bunch of buildings which are cool but which I will be able to see better in pictures.
To which I said:
I like seeing people, sure â€” but the second half of the comment is boggling to me, because itâ€™s so radically different from my own view, in two respects.
First of all, seeing is only part of the experience. Looking at a picture is flat, whereas being there is a full-body surround-sound sensory experience. Thereâ€™s sound, smell, the feeling of space or lack thereof, the process of walking through. Highgate Cemetery was more than its headstones; it was the blustery autumn day with the wind rushing through the trees raining leaves down on us and the tip of my nose going cold. Point Lobos is more than the cypresses; itâ€™s the smell of the cypresses and the feel of the dirt under my feet and the distant barking of the sea lions. Furthermore, pictures will never show me even everything from the visual channel: they may show me the nave of the church, but usually not the ceiling, nor the floor with its worn grave slabs. They will show me the garden, but not the autumn leaf caught in the spider web between two trees. I would have to look at hundreds of pictures from Malbork Castle to capture what I saw there. (Heck, I took hundreds of pictures there!)
Second, the most memorable part to me is usually the bit I wouldnâ€™t have thought to go looking for if I werenâ€™t there. The first time I went to Japan, my sister and I went to see the famous temple of Ginkakuji, which I loved â€” but I loved even better the tiny shrine off to the left outside Ginkakuji, whose name I still donâ€™t know. Or when I was in Winchester, and she and I walked to St. Cross outside of town; we went for the porterâ€™s dole (old medieval tradition: even now — or at least in 1998 — if you walk up to the gate and ask for the dole, they will give you bread and water), but stayed for the courtyard with the enormous tree and the most amazingly plush grass I have ever flung myself full-length in. I can look at pictures of famous buildings in Venice, but Iâ€™m unlikely to see pictures of the stuff I wouldnâ€™t think to look for.
I write all of this in the full awareness that I have been extremely fortunate in my travel opportunities. My fatherâ€™s work has often taken him abroad, so he has a giant pile of frequent flyer miles, and both in childhood and now Iâ€™ve been able to afford trips to other countries: British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Israel, Japan, India, Poland, Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, the Bahamas. Itâ€™s created a positive feedback loop: these trips have led me to really enjoy travel and the different experiences I have when I go places, so as a result I arrange more trips when I can. As a replacement, pictures donâ€™t even begin to cut it.
Not part of my comment to Scalzi, but I will add two further observations:
1) Clearly I do see value in pictures, though, or I wouldn’t take so damn many of them.
2) What it says about my sociability that I am liable to travel to places rather than to people is left as an exercise for the reader.
This is apropos of my recent post on cooking vs. driving. It seemed easier to make a new post than to respond individually to the multiple people who made related points.
When I talked about the “attention” either task requires, what I’m really referring to is the extent to which certain processes are automated or not. If you think back to when you first started driving, changing lanes involved something like the following steps:
- Look for a suitable gap
- Put on turn signal
- Check blind spot
- Move into gap
- End turn signal
(Or some variant thereof.)
Once you’ve been driving for a while, though, the process of changing lanes looks something more like this:
- Change lanes
All the smaller steps that go into the act are sufficiently automated that you don’t have to think about them, not to the degree that you did before.
Look at Hollywood. Look at TV. Look at how frequently they remake or reboot or sequelize existing narrative properties (for a host of reasons, not all of them terrible, but we won't get into that here). For crying out loud, we've got three separate Sherlock Holmes franchises in progress right now.
If you don't turn Starbuck female -- if you don't cast Lucy Liu as Watson -- if you don't make Idris Elba Heimdall -- if you don't break the mold of those existing texts in ways that will let in under-represented groups -- then your opportunities for having those groups on the screen in the first place drop substantially. You're basically left making them minor new characters, or else cracking the story open to stick in a major new minority character (and people will complain about that, too). Because all those stories we keep retelling? They're mostly about straight white guys. And the stories that are new, the ones that aren't being retold from one or more previous texts, can't pick up all the slack on their own. You make Perry White black, or you make a Superman movie with no black people in it above the level of tertiary character.
Which isn't automatically a problem when it's one movie. But it isn't one movie: it's a whole mass of them. Including most of our blockbusters.
So either we chuck out the old stuff wholesale (and as a folklorist, I entirely understand why we don't do that), or we rewrite it to suit our times. (And as a folklorist, I entirely understand that too -- and I cheer it on. Go, folk process, go!)
It happens because I'll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players -- people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was "Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet."
In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters' thoughts. They don't know they're in a story (not unless you're writing something very metafictional), so they won't reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that's obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it's frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader -- but since the reader isn't actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.
So this is why I keep saying "screw subtlety." Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn't tell you what's really going on. You'll have to work to get the rest.
Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it's a cousin to the notion of "burning plot" -- making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there's something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn't work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.
Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?
( Fanfic first! )
( Next, the original stories. )
And now, thoughts on how they compare.
I am not surprised in the slightest to discover that in fanfic, I am vastly more likely to pull the trick of not introducing the character(s) right away, but just referring to them with pronouns. Where I do the same thing in original fiction, odds are good that I'm retelling some existing story or bit of history. In other words, that's a stunt that works best when you have a certainty or at least decent chance of your reader knowing the character already. They don't need to know that person is the one referred to; sometimes you can get a good effect from briefly hiding the character's identity. (Or permanently. In some of these stories, like "Footprints," I never give a name at all: you can tell it's Cinderella gone wrong.) But the technique only works when there's a shared familiarity there. I have no reason at all to withhold Noirin's name (to pick one example); it means nothing to the reader, and so treating it as a revelation is not only pointless but counterproductive.
I am also not surprised in the slightest to discover that while I may begin my short stories with description or other forms of scene-setting, I almost never do the same with fanfic. They begin with characters, not context. This is because a) context is often unnecessary -- the fanfic reader already knows what the world is like, and b) character may be what the fanfic reader has shown up to the story for in the first place. To continue using "Remembering Light" as my example: I can't give you Noirin's conflict right away, because you don't know who she is (and therefore have no reason to care), and her conflict also depends on me first establishing the environment of Driftwood. But I don't have to tell the reader that Aviendha is a warrior recently forced to put aside her weapons; they already know that, and I can jump right into her dealing with an intruder.
What's interesting to me is that I don't feel like I had to learn to approach the stories differently, when I first waded into Yuletide a couple of years ago. Looking at those first fics (which haven't made it into this list), the only one that starts at all like an original story is also the one that starts from the perspective of an original character. It seems to have been natural for me to follow the structure of a fanfic, where you don't have to establish context to the same degree. Is that because it's somewhat like jumping to an interesting scene in a novel? Or something else? I don't know. The next question, of course, is whether fanfic has changed the way I start my short stories . . . but really, if I'm going to blame anything for a difference there, it's going to be all the time I've spent writing in a vaguely eighteenth- or nineteenth-century voice. (Man, is that hard to get rid of.)
This is good stuff for me to think about, though, because I'm going to be teaching a three-week writing course this summer (more on that later), and my students, who will be twelve and thirteen years old, may very well have written fanfic. So I'll want to watch out for the habits of that genre, where they may shortchange some of the work an independent short story has to do.
To quote wshaffer
The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether "realism" is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?
I love things like this, because they simultaneously clear up a bunch of confusion in my head, and make it possible to see things I couldn't before. Let's take her questions one at a time.
( Read more... )
So my take on these multiple conversations would be to toss the "realism = superior" thing out the window, to decouple realism/grittiness/etc from grimdarkness (as per my last post), and then to have a more focused discussion about the specific portrayal of negative issues, and where the line is between depicting those things to critique them and depicting them out of habit, or for the shock value. Which is a situation where you're mostly going to benefit from analyzing specific texts, before you try to make statements about trends -- and that, I will admit, is where I probably have to step out, because I don't have the data to argue my point. I haven't read Martin since A Feast for Crows was released, got only halfway through Abercrombie's first book, and so on with the rest of the key names in this debate. I know I don't agree with every criticism I've seen of Martin (nor every defense), but I also know I should re-familiarize myself with the text before I try to debate it.
I doubt we'll be able to get the debate to focus on that third question, because this is the internet. The conversation is going on in two dozen places, not all of which are aware of one another, and it's sliding in new directions with each post. But I do think it helps to bear in mind that the question exists, and isn't coterminous with the other things we're talking about.
So I'm thinking about our terminology -- "gritty" and "grimdark" and so on. What do we mean by "grit," anyway? The abrasive parts of life, I guess; the stuff that's hard and unpleasant. Logistics and consequences and that sort of thing, the little stony details that other books might gloss over. It's adjacent to, or maybe our new replacement for, "low fantasy" -- the stories in which magic is relatively rare, and characters have to do things the hard way, just like us. Hence laying claim to the term "realism": those kinds of details that can ground a story in reality.
But that isn't the same thing as "grimdark," is it? That describes a mood, and you can just as easily tell a story in which everything is horrible and doomed without those little details as with. (As indeed some authors do.) Hence, of course, the counter-arguments that grimdark fantasy is just as selective in its "realism" as lighter fare: if you're writing about a war and all the women are threatened with sexual violence but none of the men are, then you're cherry-picking your grit.
What interests me, though, are the books which I might call gritty, but not grimdark. I mentioned this a while ago, when I read Tamora Pierce's second Beka Cooper book, Bloodhound. The central conflict in that book is counterfeiting, and Pierce is very realistic about what fake coinage can do to a kingdom. She also delves into the nuts and bolts of early police work, including police corruption . . . I'd call that grit. Of course it's mitigated by the fact that her story is set in Tortall, which began in a decidedly less gritty manner; one of the things I noticed in the Beka Cooper books was how Pierce worked to deconstruct some of her earlier, more romantic notions, like the Court of the Rogue. But still: counterfeiting, a collapse in monetary policy, police corruption of a realistic sort, etc. Those are the kinds of details a lot of books would gloss over.
Or an example closer to home: With Fate Conspire. I was discussing it over e-mail recently, and it occurred to me that I put a lot of unpleasantness into that book. Off the cuff, it includes betrayal, slavery, slavery of children, imprisonment, torture, horrible disease, poverty, racism, terrorism, massive amounts of class privilege and the lack thereof, rape (alluded to), pollution, fecal matter, and an abundance of swearing. All of which is the kind of stuff grimdark fantasy revels in . . . yet I have not seen a single person attach that label to the novel. Nor "gritty," for that matter, but I would argue that word, at least, should indeed apply. A great deal of that story grinds its way through the hard, unpleasant details of being lower-class in Victorian London. Realistic details, at that.
Of course, the book has a happy ending (albeit one with various price tags attached). Which makes it not grimdark -- and also not gritty? Or maybe it's that I was writing historical fiction, not the secondary-world fantasy that seems to be the locus of the term. Or, y'know, it might be that I'm a woman. One of the posts Buhlert links to is from matociquala, who -- unusually for this debate -- names some female authors as having produced gritty work, and Buhlert takes that point further. This is a highly gendered debate, not just where the sexual abuse of characters is concerned, and if we don't acknowledge that, we're only looking at a fraction of the issue.
I'm sort of wandering at this point, because there's no tidy conclusion to draw. You can have grit without being grimdark, and you can be grimdark without grit, but doing either while being female is rare? Not very tidy, but something to keep in mind. I think I'd be interested in reading more gritty-but-not-grimdark fantasy, from either gender. Recommendations welcome.
Which Came First
The chicken or the egg? The story or the world? Does the story you want to tell determine the setting, or does your chosen setting demand a certain kind of story to be told in it? Are there some types of stories that simply cannot be told in a particular setting? How do creators balance these seemingly opposing forces in imagining their tales?
Which has gotten me reflecting on that question and how I would answer it. Off the cuff, I thought I probably start more with the setting -- hi, anthropology, yeah. But does that hold up when I actually look at the data?
(For simplicity's sake, I'm going to keep this to novels, but I will include unpublished novels in the list. It's probably a different ballgame if I look at short stories; that, however, would require more time than I want to devote to this right now, and a refresher course as to what the heck I've written.)
( Cut for length; I have more novels than you guys know about. )
Final tally: seven for setting, seven-ish for story, two for character, and three that don't classify easily (two that were both setting and story as a package, and one that was a thematic argument). It's noteworthy that four of the seven counted as story-first are later books in a series. In one sense you would think sequels would be setting first, since the milieu is already fixed; but I'd argue they're more likely to be story first, since the books I counted that way are born not from their world, but from me having another plot I wanted to explore. For contrast, I can offer up one I forgot to include in the list, namely the second of Isabella's memoirs: that one came about via "okay, now I want her to go to a West African kind of place," with the plot built around it. It's a distinctly different trajectory for me than when the setting is just lying there, and I think up a plot.
Unsurprisingly, the prime failure mode for my projects appears to be when there's a big lag time between those two components -- one shows up without the other close behind. The end-of-the-world thing has a plot, but only vague sketches of a setting; ditto the epic fantasy one. The dream piece and the pirate one have cool settings, but I'm not quite sure where the story is going. All of those have been sitting around for years, going nowhere. Of the other unfinished projects -- the lady knights and the Japanese one -- both of those are just waiting for their moment, i.e. me to get a contract. I could write either in a heartbeat.
As for the novels that got written, but not well, I don't think there's a clear pattern, except that their disparate elements never came together like they should. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with their starting points.
<looks at the last two questions in the panel description> Nah, not gonna touch those. The answer to the first is "yes," and the latter presupposes one agrees that setting and story are "opposing forces." Ah, panel blurbs -- you say the silliest things, even for good topics.
(Both that post and the rest of this one discuss sexual violence -- quelle surprise, given the obsession gritty fantasy has with that topic -- so if you don't want to read about them, click away now.)
This is part of a much larger discussion floating around the internet right now, which I keep encountering in unexpected corners. The most recent of those is "The Rape of James Bond," which makes a lot of good points; toward the end, McDougall talks about her own decision-making process where fictional sexual violence is concerned, and whether you agree with her decisions or not, her questions are good ones.
But the part I found the most striking was where she talked about reactions to Skyfall and the first encounter between Silva and Bond.
( Cut in case you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid a spoiler. )
The first comes from C.E. Petit at Scrivener's Error; scroll down to the third bit to find his thoughts. I tend not to talk about "theme" because the word has been so badly treated by high school English classes, but his point is a sound one, and can provide guidance as to how the author might gauge whether their story has begun to grow out of control. Are you diluting your thematic message by adding in all these other subplots? Or, conversely, are you hammering your reader too energetically with that message, by playing through sixteen variations on the motif? (Which is not, of course, to say that the work will have only one thematic message, especially if it stretches to four books or more. But a central line is still vital.)
The second, or rather the second and third, is Patricia C. Wrede's two-part response to my own argument, which digs further into the question of why authors fall into these traps, and what they can do about them. I want to say that she is 100% right about the arbitrariness of your opening structural decision: even if you base it around some kind of pattern (as she suggests in the second post), ultimately that's a framework you then try to pour your story into, rather than a natural outgrowth of the story itself. You don't set out to write seven books because that's precisely how much character and plot and so on you have to tell; you write seven books because you decided to build each one thematically around the seven deadly sins or chronologically around the years Harry will be in school, and then you try to scale everything else to match.
Note that we do this all the time in fantasy: it's called a trilogy. You sign a contract for three books, okay, and so you plan your story based around that arbitrary decision. I'd venture to say that the vast majority of series that are planned as trilogies end up as exactly that. There are exceptions (Terry Goodkind, as discussed in Zeno's Mountains; George R.R. Martin; the Hitchhiker's series), but it seems that most of us are capable of sticking to three books when that's what we said we'd do. It's only when we go beyond three that our control seems so liable to slip -- because we have so few models for how to do it right, and because one more book is much less expansion when it's ten instead of nine than when it's four instead of three. And, maybe, because if you're selling well enough for your publisher to support nine books, they're eager for you to make it ten instead.
But we manage it with trilogies, and TV writers manage it almost without fail when they write shows with season-long arc plots. Absent the network jerking them around, they finish their story in twenty-two episodes of X minutes each, period, the end, no "please just one more ep" or "sorry, this one ran twelve minutes long."
Is that kind of discipline detrimental to the story? Sure, sometimes. But so, manifestly, is allowing one's discipline to falter. And I say -- with the spotless virtue of an author who has never yet had a publisher throw stacks of money at her, begging for a bestselling series to continue -- that I would rather make myself find a way to tell my story more efficiently, with fewer digressions and wasted words, and end it while people are still in love with the tale, than risk losing sight of the original vision in a swamp of less productive byways.
("You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Speaking of tales planned as trilogies, and delivered that way, and in my opinion all the better for it.)
It isn't easy. As Wrede points out, it requires frequent check-ins with your plan, however you may have built said plan. It may require you to murder some very beloved darlings. But just as a sonnet's structure can force you to make really good use of your fourteen allotted lines, so can a fixed length to your series.
This post, unlike the others, is not WoT-specific. Iâ€™ll be referencing the series, because itâ€™s the primary source of my thoughts on this topic, but the point here is to talk about the specific challenges of writing a long epic fantasy series -- here defining â€ślongâ€ť as â€śmore than a trilogy, and telling one ongoing story.â€ť (So something like Mercedes Lackeyâ€™s Valdemar books wouldnâ€™t count, since theyâ€™re a conglomeration of multiple trilogies.) My points probably also apply to non-fantasy series, but other genres are much less likely to attempt multi-volume epics on this scale, so Iâ€™m mostly speaking to my fellow fantasists.
I do not pretend this is in any way, shape, or form a recipe for commercial success with an epic fantasy series. After all, most of this is a checklist of errors I feel Jordan made, and you could paper the walls of Torâ€™s offices in fifty-dollar bills with the cash he made for them. Nor am I claiming artistic failure awaits if you fail to heed this advice; you might squeak through on luck, or just really good storytelling instinct. But I do feel that bearing these points in mind can help the would-be writer of an epic series avoid falling off some of the more common and perilous cliffs.
With all of that intro material out of the way, letâ€™s get to it.
( Read more... )
There are many other things I could say about the flaws in the Wheel of Time, or in other long series. But these are the main points, the ones I think are universally applicable, rather than specific to a particular narrative -- along with, of course, the basic lessons of good writing, like not using twenty words where five will do. A storyâ€™s quality depends heavily on its shape, on the timing of various twists and revelations, the pacing of its arcs and the rate at which the characters grow; and good shape rarely happens by accident, especially on a large scale. Ergo, I firmly believe that you need some fixed points by which to navigate during your journey. Know how many books youâ€™re going to write, hammer in a couple of pegs to say that certain events will happen at certain points, and then hold to your course. If you stray from the path, you may never find your way out of the woods.
Rumor has it, of course, that Jordan was asked to stretch the series out, because it was making so much money. I have no idea if thatâ€™s true. But as I said at the start, my concern here is not the commercial success of a series; Iâ€™m addressing the story itself.
Iâ€™m speaking, mind you, as someone who has yet to write a series longer than four books (and those structured almost entirely as stand-alones). This is all based on my observations of other peopleâ€™s efforts, not my own experience. But as I said to Tom Simon in the comments to â€śZenoâ€™s Mountains,â€ť thereâ€™s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other peopleâ€™s mistakes.
In the first scenario, I believe -- operating on the remnants of my physics knowledge -- that it would accelerate downward. Gravity still acts on the rod; it will move, and the bits of it that pass through the blue portal re-emerge from the orange one with their momentum conserved, so it's (I think) functionally no different from letting it fall a really long distance. Probably it will achieve terminal velocity at some point.
In the second scenario, I think the rod would accelerate the other way? But I'm not sure. The falling orange portal would push some of the rod back out the blue portal, which pushes more into the orange portal, and you've basically got the same situation as in #1, except in the other direction. But the part I can't figure out is what happens when the orange portal comes to rest atop the blue one. (Or even not directly atop it -- you could stop any distance away that is less than the length of the rod.) Does the rod bend? There's no longer enough room for all its length between the portals, so I feel like it must, but I'm not sure how the force for that works out. (And actually, if the rod is allowed to move as in scenario #1, then I think you get this problem right away. Because then the rod is trying to come and go from both portals at once.)
In the third scenario, I think that if the portals are shot as depicted in the diagram, you've made a weak projectile. Move the orange portal, and now the rod falls through the floor and out the wall. (If you've let it build up momentum via the first scenario, then maybe it's not so weak.) But that assumption depends on what I think is an as-yet unanswered question in the games, namely, what happens if a portal goes away while something more solid than a beam of light is athwart the boundary. I'm presuming it severs the object in question, so that you've basically made an ordinary piece of pipe with a solder in the middle, which then falls through the blue portal. I'm not sure we ever saw that issue in action during the game, though, at least not as a puzzle. (Probably people have left turrets or cubes balanced on the portal boundary and then shot a new one; my guess is they fell to whichever side had the majority of their mass. But that may just be a coding default, rather than a conscious choice on the part of the designers to say that portals can't slice objects in half.)
It's been years since I thought about this stuff, though. Tell me, O internets: where have I got it wrong?