Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

Taking Editing Ranks

Oof, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? *waves hello*

My last few months have basically consisted of a combination of friends’ wedding events and editing. Much, much time in the editing trenches. Oh, and my YA space opera manuscript is DONE. =D

While I regret my silence around these parts, the good news is that I think I’ve leveled up in editing. I’ve found a process that works for me in terms of getting edits done in a timely fashion, figuring out what edits need to be made in the first place, and going about making them in a way that actually improves the manuscript.

It surprised me to learn that editing is emotionally harder for me than writing. While writing for sure has a hefty share of madness associated, the challenges are not the same.

The key difference is that when I’m writing a first draft, I know it doesn’t have to be perfect, because I can fix it later. But once I’m editing, the pressure is on: now I have to make it right. I have to figure out how, and I have to be able to do it, and if either of those were easy I’d have done it right the first time.

Now, the wonderful thing about beta readers is that they give me feedback on how a story is being perceived by people outside of my own head, so I can tell which parts are working and which aren’t. The problem is that not only do beta readers disagree with each other, they can be wrong — which has nothing at all to do with their reading or analysis and everything to do with the story I’m trying to tell. What different readers look for and react to in stories varies; the story they would tell with the same premise is different than the story I would tell, not just as a matter of content but also of style. I have had AMAZING beta readers, but in the end the story is mine to fix, not theirs.

Even with beta readers I trust, I can never take all of their feedback. From a relatively small reader sample, I have to weigh concerns. When beta readers disagree, it makes me especially aware that any change I make can improve the story for some readers and derail it for others. Obviously, I have to choose whichever changes are best for the story, but — well, if I could tell what changes the story needed that easily, I wouldn’t need beta readers.

Essentially: without outside feedback I can’t tell how the story is working, but the feedback doesn’t always clarify matters; sometimes it just gives me more to worry about. So not only do I feel pressured to get it right, when I’m editing it’s often hard to tell if I’m actually making the story better.

The final problem for me is with tracking progress. Part of how I motivate myself to write is with deadlines and word count quotas. The tracking is key, though, because I never feel like I’m doing enough; numbers and spreadsheets are how I prove to myself that I’m being productive, which in turn makes me feel productive, which then causes me to have an easier time producing.

I can still give myself deadlines for editing, and I absolutely do. But for me, tracking editing word count is nonsensical. I’m not necessarily striving to add or take away words. I could try and edit a certain number of words each day, but depending on the type of editing I’m doing (line edits, rewrites, structural overhauls…) some chapters can fly by, and some take hours or days. I could edit four chapters one day and half of one the next. Unlike writing, I don’t edit in chronological order. Some changes have to be made throughout the text, and sometimes I don’t know to fix something earlier until I’ve made a change later.

I’ve found a solution that works for me in terms of tracking progress — I won’t detail it here, but the main thing is that there is a list of daily tasks that I can cross off once accomplished or, like with word count goals, that roll over into the next day. They don’t go away if I don’t do them, but once I have, I have evidence that I have been useful. That makes the whole process easier, and anything that makes it easier matters. Then I can marathon the work and if I’m lucky collapse in a heap of books for a week or so afterwards, as one does.

Even after the book is drafted, the work doesn’t get easier. If I’m doing my job right, the story gets better, but editing is every bit as much of a skill as writing. All I can do is put my fingers to the keyboard and work on leveling my skills and my story up.

The Problem with “Almond Shaped Eyes”

So I’m going about my business, having a good time reading with this story, and then the author introduces us to an Asian character. Great, yay for not having all white characters!

Then this Asian character is promptly described as having “almond shaped eyes,” and I facepalmed so hard.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one other fantasy book I’ve read in the past year that uses this exact description. That’s two too many.

I get where this comes from. Especially as people in SFF are pushing more loudly for diversity, authors want to make sure readers know that they have non-white characters. And so the thought process goes something like, ‘How can I clearly mark this person as Asian? Physical characteristics. What do Asian people look like? Well, they can be pale, so that’s not obviously helpful, and white people have dark hair too… I know, eye shape!’

Do you see how quickly that already slippery slope went totally off the deep end? Let me unpack this a bit, because it was actually totally off already by the “clearly mark this person as Asian” point.

By deliberately marking non-white characters as having a separate, racial-wide set of physical characteristics, we literally mark them as others.

First, I hope I don’t need to point out that among ALL THE PEOPLE IN ASIA, there is a wide variety in eye shape beyond almond?

Second, I’m not trying to say that white writers are the only ones who do this. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be pulling examples from English-language SFF to illustrate my point. I’m also not addressing all forms of diversity that people get wrong. Okay?

Pressing right along then. Human brains fall easily into categorization and patterning. In writing, this can lead to a form of laziness, and a harmful one. How many times have you read a fictional black (especially female) character described as having “a warm, chocolate brown skin tone”?

In fact, think about female characters. This is one reason authors, when introducing women in their stories, will start out with references to their breasts or their beauty: to differentiate from the male default. But in drawing reader attention there in our very first impression, they mark those characteristics as the most important, the most notable feature of those characters.

This is where trouble is. If a character’s possession of a pair of breasts is worthy of note, that marks the trait as abnormal. By clearly marking a character’s eyes as almond-shaped, the implication is that “normal” eyes are not.

When have you seen a white character described by the shape of their eyes? Characters’ eyes may widen in surprise, narrow in suspicion, bulge out, etc., but I have never read of a white person’s eye shape as a defining characteristic. Nor their skin tone: if they’re pale, maybe they have a computer job; if they’re tan, maybe they can afford expensive vacations. But there are reasons the reader is learning any of those physical characteristics, because they tell us something about the character, about their life or disposition or how they act. Whiteness doesn’t tell us anything about a character. You know what? NEITHER DOES BEING ASIAN.

What “almond shaped eyes” tell me is that the author wanted to make sure that I immediately knew this person was not the default white, which assumes that white is the default. That if you don’t tell me a character is female, I will assume they’re male. Because those are the people who get to be in stories.

So I appreciate the effort to include diverse characters. I really do. And as the market is not exactly flooded with stories that don’t center around white cis male characters, it’s important to bear the need for diverse stories in mind.

But authors also need to make an effort to be aware of the implications of these descriptions, how they can actually work totally against the authors’ intentions and otherize where the author was trying for inclusion.

We all get shit wrong sometimes; no one can be perfectly aware of all of our own biases. But it matters that we try, and that we make a conscious effort to not mark people as “others” by accident.

So please, please. Find other ways to describe your Asian characters than with a quick marker of “almond shaped eyes.” We can do better than that.

Retconning Against the Reader

A (somewhat) brief thought regarding the latest reveal from JK Rowling, fully cognizant that those comments are outside the context of the full interview yet to be released:

I don’t care.

There, I’ve said it. I love the Harry Potter series, and JK Rowling can drop bombshells like these until the end of time and I do not give a single shit, because they don’t matter.

Remember when George Lucas actually went back and reedited Star Wars to try to convince us all, belatedly, that Han Solo wouldn’t have shot first? Shockingly, this didn’t work particularly well, because we all know that Han did shoot first. Moreover, we remember how that incident shaped our understanding of the narrative, and so we reject the change. He can’t change how we experienced the story.

I’m not even going to address what Rowling’s comments would mean for the story and why they’re problematic in that sense. To me this is a demonstration of the conflict between authorial intention versus what is actually in the text.

Now, those two don’t have to be in conflict, and I’m also not here to convince anyone that the author is dead. However, the author is separate from the work. Milton can proclaim he’s writing to justify the ways of god to man all he wants, but that doesn’t mean it’s what he’s actually doing. And even if you’re of the camp that believes that is what he does in Paradise Lost, the fact remains that once the work is out there in the wild, people are free to interpret it however they damn well please.

Authors may violently disagree with those interpretations, and I’m sure they’re appalled by some of the things that crop up in fanfiction if they learn of them. They may also be surprised and impressed by interpretations. But in the end, what the author and reader have in common is the text.

The problem with trying to retroactively change work because an interpretation bothers you is that you’re trying to control what your audience thinks, and that fundamentally undermines your art. I want people to think about and interpret art. Every person who reads the same book is going to have different impressions, they’re going to fixate on different parts and come away with different thoughts and perspectives and that is beautiful.

So if an author tries to tell me that my thought is wrong when it is backed up in a complete narrative, that’s the same as telling me they don’t trust me to do my own thinking. I’m never going to be okay with that.

I would have loved for the Harry Potter series to have explicitly gay characters. I don’t know why that never made it into the books; there’s very likely a good reason. But in the books Dumbledore’s sexuality is a non-issue, so I can’t give her any credit for treading that ground. No matter what she intended for him, it’s not in the text.

You know what is in the text? That epilogue that I despise, that lays out clearly her intentions for the futures of the characters. And I hate it for how it unnecessarily interferes with and limits the interpretations readers can take when she has to know how inspired her fans are by her stories to create their own. But however much I hate it, it’s in the text and nothing will change that.

So upon reflection, after some perspective and growth as a writer, JK Rowling thinks she would have written some friendships and romances differently than she did. Whatever, that’s totally cool. But for the shippers who are now either despairing or triumphant? Would have is not the same as did. Of course it’s interesting to hear the author’s opinions of her own work, but they don’t actually change anything.

Although, I suppose if there is an upside to all this controversy, it’s that people may be actively engaging in more discourse about narrative and how story works than usual, and I’m all for that.

Maybe in their fictional future Hermione and Ron will break up and she’ll somehow get together with Harry. Or maybe they’ll have lots of couples therapy and have a healthy relationship forever. Maybe Hermione will say fuck it none of you deserve me and fly off into the distance. Maybe she’ll take up dark lording out of spite and the conviction that she’s better than everyone! Possibilities abound.

And this is when reader imagination gets to fly. Because the one thing Hermione won’t do is go back in time and travel through dimensions to have JK Rowling rewrite the Harry Potter books so that none of what we’ve read happened. Even if she’d made some kind of egregious error, she can’t go back and undo it. None of us can.

I’m in enough danger of drawing on Barthes without bringing in Pirandello, so let me wrap this up. To summarize as eloquently as I can: no take backs.