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.

Advertisements

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.

When is The Lord of the Rings not The Lord of the Rings?

The short answer, of course, is when it’s not written by JRR Tolkien. Now I should make it clear that I am not talking about the movies in any way, we can all agree they are a perfectly valid adaptation of The Lord of the Rings’ books, Peter Jackson has the rights to prove it and everything. I want to talk in this post about the countless of authors, and countless of books, that over the years have been inspired by The Lord of the Rings.

Handed down from one generation to the next, until there is only tape holding it together.

The cover of my (very nearly dead) copy of The Lord of the Rings

Now JRR Tolkien is by no means the first author to have written what can be described as ‘a life’s work’ or ‘magnum opus’. That honour belongs maybe to Homerus (or Homer, as the English-speakers call him), or some Egyptian with a very strong arm (from chipping out all those hieroglyphs, geddit). What JRR Tolkien did was write an era-defining, genre-defining (probably even genre-creating) work of fiction that influenced a generation of young kids who then became the authors we love (not just authors, of course, I think it took the internet and social media to create the first generation wherein everyone is an author of some kind, but that’s an aside), as well as influencing several generations after it, present and future included.

There are of course the obvious influences, like David Eddings, Steven Erikson, basically any epic fantasy writer. It is easy to see how these authors have been influenced not only by the story structure (i.e. person finds out they are special, goes on quest, hijinks ensue, thingamabob is used to destroy ultimate evil, the whole world breathes a sigh of relief), but also the rich and fantastical world creation of Tolkien. Then there are some authors who take the world-building, and create a different kind of story (hello, Laura Lam), or take the story structure and transpose it into our world (Wesley Chu, maybe? I can’t think). Then there are authors like Stephen King, George RR Martin, and Scott Lynch, who do something that is similar yet completely different.

I am currently reading the Dark Tower series, which is what influenced this whole post in the first place. At the start of every book in the series (at least the edition I’m reading) there is a little intro by King, talking about being 19 and wanting to create his own Lord of the Rings (mixed with a Western, say thankya). Yet there is nothing about the Dark Tower series that seems to relate to Tolkien’s vision. Yes, there is a tower, and yes, there is a big evil with a big eye (of sorts). And yes, there is a ‘hero’ seeking the tower. But Roland Deschain is not really a hero, not in the Tolkien sense. He murders, a lot, and isn’t that good at making friends, let alone keeping them. The world is somewhere between a complete fantasy world and ours, with elements of both thrown together (I’m trying not to be specific so I don’t spoil anything). And, most importantly, it doesn’t feel at all like The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is at least a little good, a little evil, and a lot screwed up. Right and wrong is not so clear-cut. The lines between reality and fantasy get quite blurred a few books in (book 6 oh em gee go Stephen). I’m sure people who hate The Lord of the Rings could still enjoy the Dark Tower series.

The same can be said of the world Scott Lynch has created for Locke Lamora and the Gentleman Bastards. From their name alone you can tell they won’t be squeaky-clean heroes. The world is pure fantasy, but there’s science more than there is magic, and tricks more than there are actual illusions. It’s gritty and real and immersive in a completely different way from Stephen King, from Tolkien, from anyone else. The same goes for Westeros, which has often been described as Middle Earth with added boobies and swearing. It’s got more political intrigue, more shady characters, more murders, more dragons, and more kick-ass girl assassins than Tolkien could ever had contemplated. And most importantly of all, it has its own unique voice.

Twice dead :(

OK, so Westeros and Middle Earth do have something in common…

Now, this might seem fairly obvious. No writer writes like any other writer. And I’m sure you could argue that the straight-forward epic fantasy examples I’ve mentioned are also completely different from the world of Tolkien. But my point, as far as I still remember that I had one, is that the best writers don’t try to deny their influences, they don’t try and hide the fact that their work was inspired by the previous generation, and they don’t try to copy it. By appreciating it for what it is, by letting it be its own thing, and by going so deep into appreciating the story that they sort of mind-meld with the writerly ghost of Tolkien himself, they can create something that is wholly their own, and therefore wholly different.

So don’t be afraid to read in the genre you write in. Don’t be afraid to read outside it either, read whatever you want. As long as you commit yourself to making something that is wholly unique, wholly you, and always aim to become a better writer, no matter where you are in your career, there is no fear of you being accused of reusing plots or copying others. You don’t avoid such things by avoiding reading, you avoid it by reading deeply and understanding as much as you can about the writers that have gone before you.

P.S. Sorry it took me a while to get this post out (which I promised to be ‘coming soon’ in my last post), and that it’s not more coherent or more directly related to The Lord of the Rings. I’ll aim to be better next time.

Short post on a short-short story

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Dear Damsels (for some reason I keep trying to write Dead Damsels, hmmm), they are a collective of kickass ladies who publish all sorts of short stories (up to 800 words, can be fiction or not) under a monthly theme. If you are a female writer starting out with short story submissions, it’s a great place to go and get inspired, and write about a given concept in your own unique way.

I am very happy to report that on this amazingly sunny Sunday, my short story Same Old has been chosen to kick off May’s theme of Tradition on the site. Please check it out, and also check out some cool stories under last month’s theme of language, sign up to the newsletter, etc. As always, I would love to get some feedback, on the story, my bio, my pen name, whatever you want to comment on. Now I’m off to enjoy the sunshine again with Mur Lafferty’s Ghost Train to New Orleans as company; hope it’s sunny wherever you are! You can expect a bigger blog post (on Lord of the Rings, but not of the same length) some less sunny day in the not too distant future.

Happy writing!

Travel inspiration

Write what you know

To write a lot, read a lot

Observe people and how they speak

There is a lot of ‘age-old’ writing advice, little nuggets that in reality are entirely dependent upon the writer’s personality, the kind of stories they want to tell, and probably also the weather. One of these pieces of advice writers are often given is to travel. While I think that’s a great (though costly) suggestion, and I’ve certainly enriched my stories by traveling to places that have then been featured in them, I would like to mention some possible addenda to this advice.

travel890

Stories create (imaginary) travel, travel creates stories

When people think of travel, they are prone to think of a vacation, a brief trip to a new place. Often this includes highlights: famous monuments, buildings etc., popular shopping locations maybe, and of course the very best (touristy-oriented) local foods. While these kinds of trips may give you some interesting places to describe, and some much-needed relaxation to recharge the creative batteries, I don’t believe they are the kind of travelling that enriches a writer’s imagination.

The advice to travel is closely related to the advice to observe people. The kind of travel that gives writers new insights, that really can make a huge difference (and has, if you look at some famous writers’ biographies), is the kind that allows you to observe local people in their everyday lives. Not just the way they speak, which might be entirely foreign, but the little things that you never realise could be done differently until you view them from an outside perspective, as an anthropologist of sorts. Just try to explain your Christmas traditions to someone from a different country; even Americans and Brits, cultures thought to be so close together, will need to do some ‘translating’. People from different states/provinces might even give different answers. From an outside perspective, you can see and write down things that you would otherwise have thought needed no comment. This works even if your stories take place on a different planet.

The other benefit of traveling is to get to know yourself better. By staying to the safe, popular options, you are less likely to gain new insights. Learning about local differences, talking to new people, maybe overcoming some social anxiety (or that could just be me), can teach you a lot about yourself, and help you grow as a person. There’s a reason why so many European students/18-year-olds take a ‘gap year’ after school to travel around.

Not everyone (hardly anyone, in fact) can afford to move to a different continent and live there for a year, soaking in the atmosphere, the local ways of doing things, the realities of what it means to be a local in an entirely foreign culture. Sure, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert on a small budget, but she still had a budget and didn’t have to worry much about what she was leaving behind. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for more settled people. All it takes is to go sit in a pub or cafe frequented by locals, instead of visiting the Louvre. Sit all day, chat to people, really soak up the foreign-ness of where you are. You may not need to even leave the country to do this, just going a few towns past your ‘known world’ can be enough to expose yourself to different ways of speaking, doing, and seeing the world.

For the best results, you’d need to spend a substantial amount of time in a place, to ‘go native’ as anthropologists say. What also may work is to go some place outside your comfort/home zone frequently, to spend your weekends discovering new local watering holes in places all around you. But you won’t know what kind of inspiration you’re looking for, what kind of insights you might find, until you try.

So this holiday season, when/if you have some time off, why not try an experiment? Take your notebook, go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a place that a lot of locals hang out in, and just observe. You could even take your laptop and profit from your instant imagination-boost. As the age-old advice says, it can only make your writing better.

evening-kerry-pub-sceneIn a way, everything you do can make you a better writer, as long as you are observant enough to notice what, why and how you are doing it.

 

Reading’s a steal: Lessons learned those who came before me [part 2]

While I have read Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book very recently, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at it with any sort of analytical eye. There are too many emotions caught up in it for me, too many goodbyes. So instead, I’m taking a stab at Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in a trilogy. I’m currently reading the second book, which has given me some more perspective on the first one.

The kindle cover of the version I’ve read

To shortly summarise the book, it’s about a boy who is the son of a crown prince and an unknown woman, a bastard as everyone so often reminds him. When he is dropped off at one of the royal palaces, his very existence causes the crown prince to put himself into exile. He is grudgingly accepted as Fitz, i.e. bastard, and raised by the stable master. As Fitz grows up, he comes to pledge his royalty to king Shrewd and the new crown prince, his uncle Verity. They train him as a royal assassin, a faithful executioner for the crown, and try to teach him the Skill, a form of telepathy. Naturally he is more inclined to the Wit, a highly forbidden form of telepathy with animals that sometimes gets him into trouble. Throughout the book, there are increasing hints of political friction between members of the royal family, which eventually leads Fitz to be caught in the middle of an assassination plot that nearly kills him as well as Verity.

Of course, there is a lot more to the story; it is a big book. I hope I haven’t given too much away as it is. Robin Hobb is not afraid to take her time, and slowly build up the world of the Six Duchies and beyond. As a result, the world seems very big and alive. She also does a lot to set up the sequel(s), by introducing a variety of different, interesting characters that clearly have more story to tell, and leaving the ending open (just like most political situations are never-ending). There’s a second trilogy that centres more on one of the minor but very vivid characters with his own secret past. Given the richness of the world, I’m sure there could be an infinite amount of books set there. If you don’t mind books that build slowly, or getting frustrated by how much the bad guys seem to keep winning, then this is a great book (series) for anyone who loves the worlds of Middle Earth, Ice and Fire, Arthur, Mazalan and Tortall.

So, what have I learned?

  • If you write well enough and make readers invest in your character, not much has to go wrong to cause anguish. This in turn keeps people reading.
  • There is a fine line between suspense and frustration.
  • There is such a thing as being descriptive in the right way (I have just passed a sentence in the second book that’s close to purple prose but then also just so perfect in a universal, philosophical sense).
  • I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a novel in this style; I’m too impatient for real action to happen. Also, I was right to never go into politics; I would literally start stabbing people out of frustration.
  • The book is basically a masterclass in how to build a rich, vibrant world, and how not to dump all of it into the reader’s brain against their will.

That’s about all I can come up with. Has anyone else read the book and stolen some tips from it? Have I interested anyone in reading the book? I got it when Robin Hobb was offering the ebook for free, so keep an eye out on (necessary evil) Amazon.