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What’s Going On

I’ve been working through some serious questions for the last few weeks, so I thought I’d lighten up this time and just chat about what I’m working on.

I’ve nearly finished the first draft of my novella, Fang Marsh. I say nearly because, while I’ve reached “the end,” the last quarter of the book is very rough. I skeleton-drafted through it in order to get to “the end.” Now I have to go back and fill in the gaps. Fully describe, amp up emotions, make motivations clear, all that stuff. It should take me another week or so. I’m looking for about 35,000 words, a really good length for a novella.

After that, I’m switching over to the self-publishing process on my second Minstrels of Skaythe novella, The Cursed Grove. I’ve been thinking of a Thanksgiving release for it, but it could be ready sooner. With curses in the title, it could even be a Hallowe’en book. That might be pushing it, since this isn’t a standard horror novel. So that’s something I’ll have to decide.

I’m also working on various non-writing projects around the house. The garden season is basically over, which means I begin taking things down and prepping beds for winter. In addition, we decided to slowly transition our yard from mostly lawn, which takes a lot of care and feeding, to a more sustainable landscape. This requires digging out beds, laying pathways, transplanting, and so on. It’s hard work, but fun.

I hope all of you are working hard but having fun, too.


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Barbaric Traditions

Is it just me, or is there a weird thing in American storytelling where outrageously sexual and violent conduct is depicted as being “traditional” for some outsider culture?

I’ve mentioned the movie Aquaman, where two different women are subject to forced marriages, while the leading man is compelled to fight a death duel. A similar ritual of combat is a central theme in Black Panther. In both movies, we are told that this behavior is a sacred tradition, that to refuse would be a huge dishonor.

The underlying impression I get is that the modern screenwriters are setting themselves up (and by extension, the Americans in the audience) as superior to the cultures in the movie. “Look at those barbarians, how they need the American hero to civilize them.”

This really struck me in Black Panther, where all the natives are black. It isn’t quite so glaring in Aquaman, where most of the Atlanteans appear to be white people. (Except for the ones who look like mutated sea creatures, of course.) I had the impression that the creative team on Black Panther were all or mostly black themselves. This led me to wonder why they couldn’t come up with a more interesting “tradition” than hand-to-hand combat. Like, I don’t know, maybe something that actually is traditional in one or more African cultures?

Maybe it’s just me seeing this in the work. But I don’t think so.


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Forced Marriage

I mentioned how movies and literature often show it as supposedly an honored tradition to force male characters into ritual combat for political reasons. The flip side of that is when female characters’ families force them into marriage under a similar rationale.

In watching Aquaman, I noticed that the main character’s Atlantean mother had been fleeing an arranged marriage when she met his father, a surface man. But then assassins showed up and she left her surface family to go marry the guy who sent assassins after her. Wha..?

Later in the same movie, Arthur meets Mera, another Atlantean princess and freedom fighter. But just as they get close, guess what? She’s been promised in marriage to his brother, Orm! (Yes, the same guy he later has the death-duel with.)

Ugh! Enough with the forced marriages. We see these so often used as a threat against women. There’s usually a rationale that, on some level, the men who are forced into ritual combat want to fight and show their manliness. But with women characters, this is always sex-as-threat. Marriage is a way to control them, take away their freedom — and allow some man to creepily gloat over them. “I know you don’t like me, but once we’re married, you’ll be forced to sleep with me!” *Insert lurid chuckle.*

Arthur and Mera have been an established couple in DC’s main continuity for a long time, although I don’t know whether the original Aquaman stories had Mera being promised to Orm first. That could have been something the screenwriters threw in to make it “spicy.”

I know it can be hard for fans to let go of a familiar story, but Aquaman’s origin was written decades ago. 21st century screenwriters are in a position to add and subtract material that suits our times. I wish that they had done so, instead of presenting yet another odious, sexually threatening “forced marriage.”


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Ritual Combat

In the past, I’ve written about negative tropes around women in literature and media. In fairness, I want to mention one that my husband pointed out to me. This is when men are forced into single combat as a method of deciding leadership.

Daron first told me this while we were watching the movie, Black Panther. Our Hero, T’challa, inherits the throne of his homeland, Wakanda. But as part of the coronation, he has to fight challenges in single combat against any citizen who aspires to the throne. Later in the story, he is suddenly challenged by a cousin, Killmonger. (Honestly, who thinks of these names?) After apparently killing T’challa, Killmonger is allowed to assume the throne. “It’s our tradition,” T’challa’s friends and family say.

Bear in mind, Wakanda is supposed to be the most advanced civilization on Earth. They have all kinds of gee-whiz technology and spies in place all over the globe. Daron found it ridiculous that such an “advanced” society would choose its leaders through a ritual of combat.

Last night, we were watching another comic book, movie, Aquaman. Once again, Our Hero was told that he had to fight a duel to the death in order to seize the throne of Atlantis and stop his brother from making war against the Surface World.

Again, Atlantis is supposed to be the most advanced civilization on the planet. Yet they have this “tradition” of choosing leaders through battle and the outcome is binding. What gives?

Sure, fist fights are exciting and comic book movies are full of dazzling effects that amp up the drama. But, still. We modern people like to think that we’re pretty advanced, too. Most nations in the world today choose our leaders through the ballot box. Why do we have this myth that leadership isn’t real until somebody is bleeding?


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I Call B.S, Part 2

One of my quarrels with the tired idea that “the villain believes they are the hero of the story” is that it contradicts the character’s own purpose in the story.

This is standing a bit outside the story, looking at it from the writer’s point of view rather than the reader’s. If you think of the story as a living thing, there has to be a skeleton beneath the skin of the tale. The writer assembles this skeleton so that it will “move” smoothly and all the parts work together for an effective telling.

In the skeleton, the hero has a job to do. In some ways, the hero embodies the reader and allows them to experience the events of the story. The villain has a job, too. They provide obstacles that make the hero’s struggle meaningful. A villain is not meant to be sympathetic in the way a hero is.

If the writer consistently finds that they are building more into the villain than the hero, then they might need to do some thinking. Who is this story really about? Would it be a better story if the villain was the hero instead?

As some of you know, I enjoy flipping things in my stories. I think you could write a great story where the hero was on a slippery slope and became a villain, and vice versa. But you have to build that into the skeleton or the outcome will feel arbitrary.

Blithely saying that the villain thinks they’re the hero is sort of like putting wrist bones where the ankle bones should be. Wrists and ankles are similar, but not interchangeable. It’s okay for a writer to keep their readers guessing, but they still have to know which is the wrist bone and which is the ankle.


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I Call B. S.

It’s a widely taught lesson among writers that “the villain thinks they are the hero of the story.” I am here to call B. S. on that myth.

Allegedly, this villain has some intense goal, and they do bad things for their cause. For people who who benefit by the cause, this makes the villain a “good guy.” Again, that is B. S.

Let me frame this with two different examples. First, the light-weight one. At the grade school where I work, you often have big kids taking things away from little kids. Basketballs, juice boxes, pencils. Why do big kids take things away from little kids? Because they’re bigger. Because they want that thing. Because the adults are going to mumble something about making good choices, and won’t actually stop them. (Except for me. I’m the Mean Lady of the school.)

Do these kids think they’re the hero of the story? No. They knew what they did was wrong, but they did it anyway. Would anyone looking at it from the outside think the bullying kids were heroic? Not likely.

Now for the heavy example. On September 11, 2001, a group of men hijacked several airplanes and caused them to crash into buildings here in America. Thousands were killed, and the U. S. later went to war in an effort to bring justice to the victims.

These hijackers believed in an intense cause. Did they think they were heroic? Maybe. But would anyone looking at it from the outside ever believe they were heroic? Again, not likely.

As writers, our most important job is to be honest. Even if we write something silly and flimsy, there has to be a core of truth. Don’t believe me? Read anything at all by Sir Terry Pratchett.

Writers cannot write some B. S. about bad guys thinking they are heroes and just leave it at that. “Oh, but they’re so noble!” No, they are not. If they truly were noble, they would find a non-evil solution for their problems.

Our villains know what they are doing is wrong, and they still choose to do it. We cannot make excuses for them. We have to own it.


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I have one lesson left from reading that book I didn’t enjoy. That is, even though it frustrated me, it was still worth it to read. Many of my author friends seem to feel that they have to stop reading in order to get their own stories written. Time is short, and they can’t do both. I certainly can see that a gripping book would distract you, but I still believe it’s a mistake to give up on reading.

For one thing, a writer sometimes needs a break. Especially if you’re a pantser, like me, and you need to think your plot through before proceeding. You can break a writer’s block by focusing on other things for a while.

More importantly, reading other books can give you great ideas. If you’re an SF writer, reading about the latest scientific research might spur a story. Romance writers who read about a heroic firefighter might get the spark for their next lonely lover. Even a familiar children’s story might inspire a contemporary re-telling.

Finally, reading other work can give you insights into your own. The whole point of this thread has been finding value in a so-so book, right? If you write in a specific genre, you have to keep up with what’s current in that genre, or you may hear from editors that your work is too old-fashioned. Do you want to work hard on a book, only to find out your whole approach is stale and tired?

So my last lesson is this: keep on reading!


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