It shouldn’t be easier to identify with fictional ‘others’

It’s hard to focus on writing while every day there are more stories of children being kept in cages, separated from their parents, and there’s every indication that one country with nuclear weapons is being tricked by another country with nuclear weapons to tear itself apart. It’s even harder when you think about all the great novels and films out there that have tried their best to teach us how to empathise with others. How come it’s easier to identify with a depressed robot than a real-life child for some people? Why aren’t more people out there, protesting, concerned, fighting fascism?

 

Are you in or are you out?

As a psychologist, I’m well aware of the in-group versus out-group phenomenon. Since people are only able to keep a limited number of concepts in their brains, they form a subconscious barrier between the people they treat as individuals – people like them – and the people they treat as ‘others’. And unfortunately, the shortcuts they take in labelling those other groups usually lead to horribly stereotyped, often negative depictions in their head.

If you’ve never met a muslim, and all you hear from your incredibly biased news sources is how horrible they are, how will you ever learn they are just humans like you, with flaws and dreams and no control over what the extreme few do? I mean, do you have control over the hateful things people from your ‘group’ say or do? Or even your own family members?

Yet there are many books out there who try to teach us that everyone is flawed, A Song of Ice and Fire being probably the most well-known at the moment. How can some people feel for Jamie, who literally tried to murder a child at the start because he didn’t want people to know he was sleeping with his sister, but not for the people that live just a few blocks away from them and are struggling? I’d like to say it’s all the nuanced writing, the depth of character, and the fact that we don’t have such a close relationship with real-life others, but I know it could just as easily simply be because the guy’s white.

 

Celebrating the good

Rather than just stating the negatives of our current reality, I wanted to point out a good example of a novel that manages to make us question our stance on things and how we view humanity, without clobbering us over the head with the message. Because as much as some people might just never get it, the rest of us surely appreciate and celebrate fiction that acknowledges and celebrates diversity.

The novel, or rather series of novels, I’ve chosen is Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers Series, the third instalment of which is due to be released soon. The first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, sees a human with an (at the start) undefined past join a crew of aliens on a mission that, for once, has nothing to do with blowing anyone up or fighting with other races. It’s delightfully slow-paced, giving us all the time in the world to get to know the various alien races and fall in love even with the grumpiest of crew members. It discusses sexuality, how others have different concepts of private space, gender and sex, and how to embrace new and exciting ways of being.

The second novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, discusses identity and what it means to be a sentient being. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling these excellent books – seriously, go buy them or borrow them from your local library – other than to say that they have taught me that: a) you can write an excellent sci-fi book without having earth-shattering, widespread stakes (take out the planetary travel and races and Becky Chambers could have easily won a highbrow literary fiction award), and b) identity is a lot more complex than we pretend it is.

Back to the main point, this is just one series among the many that naturally compels us to empathises with alien races who are vastly different from our own. It makes me think, how hard could it be to make the parallels with people in our own world, and to just be kinder all around? Surely everyone who reads these books will have a more compassionate view of the world, right?

Then again, the recent controversy surrounding Star Wars should have taught me that even a film with all the right messages can have fans who don’t understand that the rebellion is supposed to be more appealing than the dark side – like the minority of Star Trek fans who are somehow also racist and sexist. Maybe I just need to accept that other people may have a very limited empathy-bubble and start preparing for the inevitable apocalypse. In the meantime, I tip my hat to all the writers out there who are managing to keep writing their stories. Well done, and good luck.

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Video game writing is hard, yo

A few weeks ago, I got this great idea for a text adventure game a la Zork. So, I downloaded a text adventure creator and gave it a go. Not only was it really hard to find free software that does what I want it to do and isn’t super hard to master (still looking for something better), but I also started thinking about the differences between novel and game writing.

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This is what Zork looks like, in case you were wondering.

One of the oft-repeated bits of advice for fiction writers is to write not for everyone, but have just one perfect reader in mind (note: you write the first draft for yourself, but the one that’s suitable for public viewing for this perfect reader). For Stephen King, this is supposedly his wife. Other writers use their agent, or simply imagine who they’d like to have read their book. Just one person.

They say that if you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no-one, as it’s impossible to please every single person. Writing isn’t about hedging your bets, it’s about bleeding on the page, about making something special and unique.

When it comes to video games, any kind of video game, you can’t just think of one person. Instead, you have to think about the many strange ways in which gamers can interact with your game. This isn’t just relevant for the designers and coders, but also for game writers, as they have to think about in what order a player might come across their narratives. The last thing you want is to confuse the player.

As an example, I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni 2, and sometimes when you talk to an NPC, you’ll find you’re reading the second bit of conversation before the first. A small thing, and certainly not anything that dampens my enthusiasm for the game, but something to keep in mind from both a gameplay and immersion perspective.

When it comes to a text adventure, where it’s basically all text, a writer may want to think about someone who just puts “fart” into the text box over and over again. Then again, this might not be a player you’d mind losing, depending on how difficult the game is.

So, what do you write into the game, and what do you use a standard “does not compute” response for? While it’s still impossible to write for everyone and think of every single thing people might write/click, the audience has to be wider than just your partner or agent.

That said, any type of writing requires passion. Ticking boxes for the things you think people will want to see (moody, silent protagonist, check, annoying supporting character dialogue, check, repeated instructions… you get the gist) will generally not make people want to keep playing, let alone play your game over and over again to find all the little things they’ve missed.

In summary, video game writing is an under-appreciated art form that is super hard to master and I take my hat off to all that do it for a living. I’m having a hard enough time trying to please my one perfect reader (the first, of course, being myself), let alone weave an intricate story into an action-packed frenzy that can handle players making all the most non-obvious choices.

Levelling up as a writer

A few weeks ago (just before I went on holiday, which is why I haven’t posted about it sooner), I got an article published on The Mary Sue, one of my favourite websites. While I publish articles on a (week)daily basis for work, this felt different, like I had levelled up. Not only did I get to write about a topic I enjoy and feel passionate about – books – but also on a website I feel strongly about.

I read The Mary Sue on a near-daily basis; it talks about films, TV shows, feminism and many other geeky things I love. Sometimes it feels like it reads my mind, or at least my Twitter feed, as some of the things I think about/pay attention to are published as articles mere hours later. For my article, I talked about Naomi Alderman’s The Power in comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale. Have a read if you’re interested in that kind of thing. While books aren’t a big section on the site, a lot of its consideration of film and TV through a feminist lens can certainly teach writers a thing or two – especially about what not to do.

My point, I guess, is that this felt like A BIG DEAL. And now here I am, back to writing for the day job, feeling uninspired. After a moment of clarity, I’m back to where I was, and my imposter syndrome is preventing me from pitching any more articles at the moment.

The same thing happened after I got a story posted on Dear Damsels (except this time I got PAID). There’s a moment, maybe a few moments, of feeling on top of the world, and then it’s back to reality. Is this how everyone feels? I would love to know.

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A typewriter is definitely levelling down at this point, no? Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Of course, it could be because I keep posting these things under a pseudonym, with almost none of my real-life loved ones knowing about it. But I don’t have an appealing real name, internationally speaking, and I don’t want to confuse people with my scientific articles, which are under my real name, and I don’t want my current employer to know what I’m doing in my own time. So, at this point, I feel like I’m stuck writing as L.B. Zumpshon.

I don’t think writing under my real name would make much of a difference, though. There’s still the feeling of elation, followed by the crash back down to reality. So, what do I do? Hope I feel strongly enough about another idea to pitch it, and just keep writing in the meantime, I guess…

How many ‘How to Write’ books is too many?

Over the years, I’ve read some great books on writing. Particular standouts are not just the ones everyone mentions, namely On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird from Anne Lamott; Chuck Wendig has taught me a lot of practical and humorous things in the Kick-Ass Writer, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is basically a workshop in writing everything from characters to whole worlds. As a companion to her amazing podcast (as mentioned in a previous post), there’s also Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing, with plenty of exercises to try.

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These are all great books, and there are plenty of others. It’s good to try a few, because every writer’s style and work method is different – you need to take some time to figure out which writer, or combination of writers, most closely resembles your own writing style and practice (note that this can change over time or per book). Then there are the fiction books you need to read in order to learn – read widely, most advice-givers will tell you, and know your own genre well enough not to insult your likely readers.

But there’s only so far reading can take you. In the end, it all comes down to writing, and more writing, and figuring out how to improve (or simply abandon) your writing. Finishing your own stories is more important than finishing that great (writing) book.

Which is, of course, exactly what I haven’t been doing lately. While I’ve done a bit of writing (not to mention my daily professional work), I’ve substituted practice with reading and considered it work. This is a dangerous pattern to fall into. If you’re reading about writing, reading books for research, doing nothing but plotting, or just even staring at the screen, then you’re not writing. I’m not writing.

A lot of this can be explained by imposter syndrome, and the idea that as long as I’m not writing I’m not actually failing at writing. It’s also to do with feeling burned out after a long day of writing mostly boring work stuff. However, I’m trying to change this, and hopefully writing this blog post will be the start. Time to implement those lessons other writers have been trying to teach me, and get some more words down on (digital) paper!

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The first word’s still the hardest

I remember when Google started – now it’s telling me what to write

Who knew that three letters could have such an impact? I’m not talking about YES, I mean SEO. Search Engine Optimisation. Such a nebulous term, yet for writers having to deal with the internet, it seems like it’s everything nowadays.

Way back when I was a teenager, I got my first very own computer. With the internet! Of course I couldn’t go online if anyone wanted to use the house phone, but once that dial tone had done its thing, the world wide web was mine for the taking.

Even back then, I used Google. There was Yahoo too, but it looked bad and worked worse, so there was only one thing to it – Google things. It felt so weird to use the word Google as a verb for the first time, like a joke. I guess it’s the same thing with the iPad, or the Wii. Strange words that we’ve all just learned to accept.

Likewise, most people have accepted that Google is the way to search for things on the internet. An ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. And that means websites have to make themselves look nice for Google. That’s where SEO comes in.

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“Use the Googles!”

These days, everyone’s trying to be on page one of Google, and there are more than enough websites out there to make this a challenge. One way to do it is by paying to sit at the top. Another way is to make some poor writer (like me) write content geared specifically towards the search engine.

You see, people only use Google as long as the results remain relevant and desirable. So they keep trying to automate their search engine so that it puts the best results at the top. And people keep trying to find out how the code works so they can get their website the best place in the queue.

I’m not one of those people, the SEO specialists. I’m the other person in the team, the one that gets given a bunch of keywords and things to include and then told to “write the thing”. Because most sites also want to give people a reason to stay on the page, and just writing a bunch of keywords in a random order really won’t do the trick.

So, in a lot of ways, I’m writing mainly for Google, while still trying to be informative for human readers as well. A lot of it is common sense, of course. If you want to attract readers looking for bicycle helmets, use the words bicycle, helmet and bike (but not too much!). Then there’s the dark voodoo of meta information and such, which is where the Google-whisperers really shine. All of this combined should result in better rankings, more clicks, more readers, and ultimately more money for the company.

It’s not very inspiring as a writer, however, to be working to appease a mega-corp, without getting paid by said mega-corp (and also knowing how bad monopolies are for the world at large). Especially not when you remember how innocently it all started, with just a white page and a box to type in.

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1. SEO, 2. ??, 3. Profit!

Now how does this relate to fiction writing, if at all? First of all, please don’t write a book with Google in mind, or in any way optimised for the internet. No matter what you’re writing, you’re writing foremost for your own pleasure and that of the readers, not for our AI overlords.

That said, your book’s description and query could probably do with some SEO-think. Are you mentioning what genre(s) it is, clearly and completely? Are you describing what other works the book’s like? Are you making it easy to see what the main topic is, i.e. what your bicycle helmet is?

These are all things an agent is likely to ask for, and if you’re self-publishing, it’s how you can help get your novel noticed among the countless others. Really all I’m trying to say is: please don’t write for Google, but do have some common sense.

Flash fiction challenge: a world without guns

Last week, I happened to take a look at Chuck Wendig’s very useful writer website, Terribleminds, when I noticed a new flash fiction challenge. And a very relevant one, at that. Chuck has asked people to write a story in a world that doesn’t have guns. I was inspired almost instantly to write about a world where everyone has impenetrable skin, so nobody ever had a reason to invent guns in the first place.

I got halfway through when I was taken out by illness. So, I’ve missed the deadline, which was this Friday, but here’s the story anyway. Please comment and let me know what you think, I can always use some constructive feedback!

Alternatively, feel free to write your own short story using the same prompt (max. 1,500 words), post the link in the comments, and I’d be happy to offer my own feedback.

 

Weakness

Emma adjusted the collar around her neck, grimacing as she once again felt it dig into her skin. She hated wearing it, but her parents insisted. They were always so unreasonable. There hadn’t been an incident in ages! She looked over to her crush, Jamie, as Mrs Farnsworth droned on about economic theory. Class seemed to be taking forever and the odd temperature in the room was starting to make her sweat.

As Jamie turned around to look back at her, she almost looked away, utterly embarrassed that he had caught her staring, but something in his expression kept her entranced. His handsome eyes were wider than usual, his skin an unattractive red. He opened his mouth to speak, then collapsed in slow motion towards her. His hand seemed to be reaching out to her as he smacked loudly face-first onto the floor.

Instinct took over as Emma tapped her collar to pull up her mask. The sounds of emerging chaos disappeared as the apparatus covered her head, and she gratefully breathed in the plastic air. All around her, kids were either putting masks on or collapsing. She looked over to the teacher, who strode over to the window and punched it. The glass didn’t stand a chance against the teacher’s unbreakable skin. Emma thought she could feel the fresh air rushing in and caressing her exposed arms.

She looked back at Jamie, kneeled down next to him and activated his mask. She hoped it wasn’t too late. Looking for his pulse to make sure he wasn’t already dead, she felt her own throat constrict. For a panicked second, she thought her mask wasn’t working. Then she realised she was crying and breathing too fast, and tried to calm herself down. Her mask only had enough air for 20 minutes or so, and she didn’t want to make it run out any faster. Or worse, drown in her own tears.

Thinking of her parents and for once loving them for their paranoia, she reached back into her bag to take out her phone. She briefly noticed that her teacher had finished punching all the windows open, and was now attending to another fallen student. She found her phone and texted her mom. ‘I’m safe, but the school’s under some sort of attack. Call the police. I love you and dad, I hope I’ll see you soon x’.

Emma looked to the door. A few people were already heading out, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to risk it. A hand on her shoulder made her jump. It was her friend Danai. She was talking to her, but Emma couldn’t hear through her soundproof mask. Danai gestured for them to leave the room. Emma nodded. She looked down at Jamie, but knew there was nothing she could do for him. At least his heartbeat seemed steady enough.

She grabbed Danai’s hand and they walked to the door together. Emma briefly looked behind her, but Mrs Farnsworth was too busy with other students to notice them leaving. She hoped everyone she left behind would be ok. She knew there was a small chance she’d never see them again, but she tried not to think about it.

As soon as they stepped out into the hallway, they were overwhelmed by a stream of students running down the stairs, towards the main exit. Emma started to follow them, but Danai stopped her. Her fingers were digging deep into Emma’s skin, but she didn’t mind it. The pain kept her centred, and there was no way Danai could break the skin. After all, nothing could break human skin – though many had tried throughout history to build a weapon strong enough to do so. Nobody had succeeded yet, which left only the mouth, eyes, ears and other openings as humanity’s weakness.

Emma tried to tug at Danai, her heart racing as the feeling of panic renewed itself, but her friend stood her ground, talking to her with a serious frown on her obscured face. With her breathing mask the cheaper, not soundproof kind, she couldn’t help trying to communicate with words.

Emma was about to give up on her, when Danai mouthed a word that Emma understood.

“We can’t go find your sister, she could be anywhere!” The shout echoed uselessly in Emma’s own ears.

Emma tried to convey her meaning through gestures, but only managed to vaguely wave at the mess that surrounded them. Danai, still holding Emma’s hand, pulled both of their hands up and made a praying gesture. “Please,” her eyes, her hands and even her mute mouth were telling Emma.

Emma sighed. Then she nodded. She worried about Danai as they fought through the streams of kids going the other way. Danai wouldn’t be protected against a noise canon. She could die. And yet, so could her sister.

When they reached the classroom, Emma pulled at Danai’s hand to stop her marching in, and gestured for her to announce herself. The door was closed, and who knows what the people inside were thinking. Danai shouted and went in, letting go of Emma at last. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed. Inside, she found the teacher huddled in the far corner, hugging those kids who were still awake. More than half the class was out cold on the floor, including Danai’s little sister. Emma shuddered. She knew these kids were still alive, at least for now, but it still looked like a macabre mass murder scene. This was not like the images she sometimes saw on the news of faraway places. This was real.

As Danai rushed to her sister, the teacher mimed for Emma to take the children. She nodded, gulping away her fear. The kids crawled over to her, heedless of the broken glass that could not penetrate their skins. She took the first girl by the hand, then the teacher arranged the rest of them in a line. Meanwhile, Danai had picked up her sister and started walking out. Emma followed, then the kids, leaving the teacher to close the door behind them and protect those who could not protect themselves.

By this time, the stream of students had slowed down to a trickle. She noticed a few students laid out in the hallway, whether taken out by the gas or caught in the stampede she could not tell. She focused on the task at hand, on navigating the kids outside, where it would be safer. She hoped.

They were nearly at the entrance when the light coming from outside blinded her and she stumbled over something. Danai, not looking back, went through the door, while the kids stopped and fell against her and each other, screaming and crying wordlessly. Emma looked down. She had fallen over a canister of some sort. It had the same label on it as her gas mask, the same supplier. She wasn’t sure what it was, and she didn’t have time to think about it. She got up, helped the kids back on their feet, and pushed them towards the sunlight, where safety awaited them.

Lessons learned from failing NaNoWriMo – the 2017 edition

So, I took part in NaNoWriMo again this year. And unlike the first few years when I took part, I did not win (winning being defined as writing 50,000 words in November). To be fair, I did not make it easy for myself.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with National Novel Writing Month the last few years, wondering if it’s actually helping me write or just write badly, which is part of the reason why I’ve taken a few years off (alongside life reasons, naturally). I even have a draft blog post about the subject, which I may finish someday.

This year, to see if I could improve while writing wildly, I set myself the impulsive task, thought of a few days before November while in the shower, to try and write a short story a day. I’ve been trying for a while to improve my short story writing, so I can start submitting stories to magazines and websites, and actually get paid to write fiction. But it’s a different beast from novel writing, so I thought some deadline-delineated practice would do me good.

I thought of a few story ideas, and then when November came around, I started writing. It all went downhill from there. While I had some vague ideas, the same kind of vague ideas that have led to whole novels in previous years’ NaNoWriMo attempts, trying to condense a story into 1,700 words (= one a day) and give it a satisfying start, middle and ending is a lot harder, at least for me.

By the third story, I realised most of my words were coming from dialogue, and I wasn’t filling in the story, giving anything a background, or indeed doing anything that would be required for a decent story. So, I started writing a story about someone locked in the trunk of a car with duct-tape over their mouth. And then I stopped.

NaNoWriMo is good for a lot of things – for getting you out of your comfort zone, for letting you make mistakes, and for helping you finally get that (part of a) first draft down on paper. It’s not very good if you are trying to level up your writing, at least in my experience. That said, it did bring home what it is I need to be working on. I may not have won, but I’ve learned a lot anyway.

So, if you want to improve your writing, try writing a short story (could be about a minor character in your novel), figure out what you’re doing too much of or not enough, and then try to write another story that does the exact opposite. And, crucially, don’t give up, as I did.

I’m hoping to get back to my weird non-dialoguey short story after the holidays, but as you can see from the 18 days after November it’s taken me to write just this short blog post, I’ve clearly got some mental blocks I need to push through first. Hopefully I’ll be able to get through them and report back to you how I did it.

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Reach for the stars! Try not to think about the long drop down!

Meanwhile, happy holidays, everyone! Wishing you lots of writing and life success in 2018, and hopefully some return to general sanity after these last two years.