Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts
This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.
You will be rejected if you write.
Yes, even if it’s brilliant.
Yes, even if you know the editor and are the bestest friends.
Yes, even if you work really hard.
Yes, even if you have published before.
You will be rejected if you do anything.
Apply to school.
Ask someone out.
Apply for a loan.
Try to get a job.
Are a scientist…
…a parent, a teacher…
You will get rejected even if you get back up again, over and over and over, until your bones hurt and your heart feels hollow and you doubt your very soul.
You will be rejected now. And in the future. You will realize that scraps of hope you have clung to are just so much flotsam marking the place of past rejections you refused to see.
It will hurt. Perhaps less and less after time, but still some new rejection can be sharp enough to draw blood.
So maybe you can quit, you think. Escape the rejection.
But it’s still there. Always there. You can’t quit the world, and the world is made of the word No.
But not just No,
there is Yes, too. Atop the mountainous rubble of No, the towers of Yes stand.
I’m in the middle of reading The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. I’ll hold off on a full review right now, as I’m not quite halfway through the book, but there is one thing that I keep noticing: the book is averaging a naked woman every chapter.
Now, I’m not offended by this inherently. I like a naked woman as much as the next guy, I suppose. But these naked women…these are not love scenes we’re getting here. This is just pure sex, edging towards the pornographic. The women are described as sexual objects for the purpose of arousal. To be fair to French, he does the exact same thing to the male characters, too – lingering on descriptions of their muscular backs, their strong arms, and the rough dimensions of their penises.
French is not alone here. This kind of writing is fairly common in fantasy as a genre and in literature as a whole, and the purpose of this post is not to call out French as doing something wrong specifically so much as it is for me to wonder aloud why it’s being done at all.
Because, I kinda feel like those scenes – the graphic, sexually charged descriptive passages about breasts and buttocks and genitals – are totally superfluous to the story. Here I am, in the middle of a intrigue laden plot in a harsh land full of half-orcs and we have, suddenly and for no reason, a naked elf maiden hanging from the ceiling or the main character fondling some muscular half-orc female’s boobs. These moments are clearly intended to arouse but…like…why?
I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old or something.
I remember being sixteen or so and reading The Far Kingdoms by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. The opening scene had the main character – the dashing, fit, and charismatic Amalric – having sex with an incredibly gorgeous woman. This scene was described in deliberate detail and, as an adolescent in the pre-internet era, it was possibly the most erotic thing I’d ever experienced. I confess to reading that specific passage over and over again. But it had nothing to do with the story and in no way advanced or improved the scene beyond giving a teenager an erection.
And, like, what the fuck is going on with that, anyway? Why do that? I’m picking up this novel for a solid adventure story – I want excitement and danger and mystery and, yes, even romance. But I’m not looking to be aroused. In fact, it’s damned distracting when a novel is trying to turn me on in the midst of what is otherwise a tense and gritty tale of survival and gore. Maybe I’m alone here, but those are totally different channels for me. I’m so concerned about man-eating centaurs showing up or giant oozes dissolving the protagonists that time spent lingering on the curve of some female character’s ass is, like, really weird.
This is not to say that sex scenes – even graphic sex scenes – don’t have their place in this genre (or any genre). I’m not even going to sit here and tell you that sex scenes should be restricted to those who are in love. What I am saying is that a sex scene needs to serve the plot somehow – it needs to be important and consequential or even just thematically related. In Neuromancer, Molly is clearly sexualized, but Gibson is making a deliberate point with that sexualization – she is a woman trying to reclaim her agency. When she has sex with Case (and yeah, that’s a pretty graphic sex scene), she is firmly in control, telling Case exactly what to do and not to do. He is powerless to resist her, physically or otherwise. That scene, and how Molly is presented in it, is immediately relevant to the characters’ relationship, to the plot, and to the broader themes Gibson is exploring. So, in other words, it works.
In general, the same rules that make a fight scene work apply to the sex scene. Random, gratuitous violence that fails to advance the plot or affect the main character is boring. The reader is not invested in the battle and vaguely wondering why and, in the worst cases, ends up skimming ahead a bit. The stakes are not clear and the relevance is not established. Same goes for sex: if two characters are screwing for no reason other than to describe how their genitals are currently in use and how much they enjoy that, then the reader is going to feel like we just took a little side trip into some weird little fantasy inside the fantasy we were already reading.
And this doesn’t even touch upon the whole male gaze/patriarchal thing we have going on, too, that is driving and underpinning the whole affair. That is arguably even more problematic and is in large part responsible for this kind of thing much of the time anyway. But that’s both a huge issue and somewhat parallel to what I’m saying here – I’ll save it for a post for another day.
In general, my point is this: go ahead and write boobs and penises! Just make sure the boobs and penises are on topic, writers!
I’ve got another op-ed piece up on Stupefying Stories’s blog this week! In it, I chat about how to write interesting, compelling, engaging heroes instead of villains (as I did last time). This is a slightly more complex issue, so it’s a slightly longer article (and leaves a LOT open to interpretation), but I think it’s a succinct list that I pretty much use in my own writing, as well.
See the article here.
Read it, comment, and, if so inclined, buy some of my books to see how I do it myself (and see if you agree!).
Talk to you all soon!
I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…
Then they tend to stall.
I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.
But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.
The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!
I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…
I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.
Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.
I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?
Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.
So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.
Don’t hold your breath.
The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.
Every once in a while, somebody I know (a fellow writer, usually), points out that I should belong to Codex. Codex is a professional writer’s forum and, to be a member, you need to have sold some amount of pro work (don’t ask me how much). It is a networking site, a place to find critique groups, and often has postings by editors and such advertising various themed anthologies and so on. In other words, it would be a really great idea to belong to Codex.
I do not belong to Codex.
I honestly can’t adequately explain why not. I don’t really consider myself shy and I’m not any more socially awkward than anyone else. And yet I’m reluctant to join a community. Indeed, I am regularly reluctant to join communities of any kind. I had to have my arm twisted to join social media. My wife signed me up for Facebook without my knowledge and then just handed me my profile and said “here, your friends miss you.” If there was a club or an organization in school I was a member of, I never really felt like I was part of it. At the jobs I have held, I’ve done my best to remain a competent employee who is, nevertheless, not really central to the office culture or society. It’s a weird and probably destructive habit. I feel as though it alienates people, and why shouldn’t it? I am deliberately alienating myself from them.
When I was 8 years old, my elementary school had a chamber orchestra for little kids. They trotted out the violin, the viola, and the cello. Everybody chose either the violin or the cello; I chose the viola. Why? Because everybody else didn’t pick it. When they could make my glasses prescription into contact lenses and everybody I knew was getting them, I didn’t – I stuck with glasses and stubbornly so. I don’t like shirts with sports team logos on them. I don’t own a single piece of clothing or paraphernalia with the logo of my college or graduate school on it. Just about my entire work history has been a story of how I could earn money without having to wear a uniform or work in a team or have to deal with coworkers.
Now, as an adult, I see this whole loner thing be nonsensical and immature. I like people, and I like making friends. I care about my job and I do my best to be helpful whenever tasked to work as part of a group. Indeed, the idea that I can somehow exist apart and away from everybody else is arrant nonsense. Where would I be without my beta readers? Without the feedback from my editors and my agent? Without the support of my family? Nowhere. Nobody does this alone. Hell, nobody does much of anything alone. It’s a myth.
The myth of the loner is, I think, probably tied up in the ridiculous notions of masculinity that get imbued into us as kids. Men are strong. Men don’t need anybody. Men can solve their own problems. I read stories of the lone knight slaying the dragon or the lone hero challenging the gods and took all that to heart. If you work hard enough, I thought, you won’t need anybody. You’ll be free.
So there I was, at Readercon this past weekend. It was a good con, by all accounts – my panels were all great and I met a lot of interesting people – but I still felt this discomfort. I was sitting there, talking with Ellen Datlow on a Saturday night about our respective allergies, and I thought to myself “I don’t belong here. This is their community. I don’t have a community, remember?”
Of all the arrogant, idiotic thoughts to have. I am – and should be – a part of the science fiction and fantasy writing community. Why the hell am I going to all these cons if I don’t want that to be the case? I am not different. I am not some kind of weird loner, living on the outskirts. These people have thrown open their doors and I ought to walk right in and start shaking hands, not lurk in the shadows and listen to the music from a distance.
So I’m writing this now as an entreaty to those out there who are like me: those who have long felt that they have no people and that there is no group large enough to hold them or shaped to fit them. That’s bullshit. That’s self-aggrandizing hornswaggle. Your people are out there. Hell, they are inviting you in right now. Being a writer doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Get out of your basement, meet people, make friends.
Dare to fit in.
Hey, folks! I mentioned a few weeks back that I had a story in this month’s Analog (on newsstands now!), but I’m back to tell you that I have an article up on their blog right now which is probably the closest thing to an academic paper I’ve written in a long while (and it is very, very far from an actual academic paper). Check it out here! It’s all about optimism and pessimism in post-apocalyptica!
Look, I enjoyed Solo. I did. But, well, I didn’t enjoy Solo enough. That movie was a slam-dunk waiting to
happen. It was a gimmie, a freebie – a “no way you can screw this up” sandwich. And yet, somehow…
This phenomenon is not constrained to Solo, either. For long ages it was the province of just about every single superhero movie. It plagued enormous swathes of scifi and fantasy cinema. It even happens in books, in video games – in everything. Somebody brings up a high-concept idea featuring characters we already love, slaps a huge budget on it, and releases it. And then you go to the theater, all excited, and…
Meh. It was okay.
That’s a weird feeling, right? Like, I really wanted to love Solo in the same way I wanted to love the original Hulk movie (Eric Bana! ANG LEE!) and was really excited to see Will Smith in The Wild Wild West and Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and then I saw these things and it just didn’t happen. The more I thought about the movies, the more I got pissed off. They had everything going for them! Why don’t I love them?
Now, of course, there’s no magic bullet here – each of these films wasn’t that great on its own merits. Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was actively terrible. Some other movies fall into this category that I actually liked quite a bit – JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot comes to mind – but, despite my enjoyment, I recognize as deeply flawed works that fall short of their potential. In any event, I do think there’s a common thread to a lot of them that’s worth teasing out and discussing: most of them are ham-fisted.
Ham-fisted is a slightly more intense version of “ham-handed” and it basically means the films lack subtlety, grace, or wit. They are dull, meat-headed slogs that fail to understand what it is they’re doing. They are, in a word, stupid movies made about a smart premise. See, stupid movies made about a stupid idea are a whole other category of thing – they are B-movie thrillers and brainless entertainment. Smart movies made about stupid ideas are your cult classics and secret masterpieces. But stupid movies made about smart ideas are ham-fisted. And there’s a hell of a lot of them out there, with Solo as the most recent example.
To discuss Solo specifically, here’s what I feel like happened (outside of the directorial hell the movie went through, which is very likely why it wound up doing this). In order for this movie to be a glorious romp all you needed to do was have Han meet Chewie, put them in the Falcon, and have them run their first smuggling run. That’s. It. It isn’t complicated, it isn’t flashy – we want to see Han, we want to see Chewie, and we also want the Falcon and Lando. Then we want a heist story.
And…we kinda got that? Sort of. But the movie overreacted. Not only did we meet Chewie and Lando and get the Falcon, we had to have Han get his last name and his blaster and the Falcon to get its nav-computer and have another asteroid chase scene (with the same damned music!) and see the Kessel Run and have a robot uprising and talk about the Rebellion and have Han Shoot First and see stupid Darth Maul. And it was all graceless and blunt and so obviously forced. And all of this was done because the filmmakers really wanted to give us the entire “Solo” experience which they interpreted as meaning “giving the fans what they want.” They seem to have had a storyboard somewhere that had a checklist of winks/nods to the audience and you literally couldn’t go five minutes in that movie without somebody cramming another reference down your throat.
Darth Maul’s cameo is a great example of this. “Hey,” says the filmmakers, “you know what these nerds like? Darth Maul!” “But he’s dead,” says a guy and then some other, nerdier guy in a sarcastic T-shirt explains a subplot from Star Wars Rebels and everybody’s like “Oh, so it’s canon!” and bam – Facetime with Darth Maul. And then, while we’re all looking at Darth Maul thinking to ourselves “is that really him or some other guy of the same species” he ignites his lightsaber (so we know he’s serious) and we all kind of blink and wonder “did he just ignite his lightsaber while on a phone call?” That, friends, is the epitome of ham-fisted storytelling. Just cramming shit in there that they think we’d like, but lacking any grace or rationale.
And there’s one thing that the ham-fisted story forgets every single time. They always assume that characters are a summation of their clothes and their stuff and their fight scenes and forgets entirely that what really makes a story work is the deep character foundations you lay down that you can build conflict on top of. To that end, the Solo and Kira relationship worked. The Chewie and Han worked, too, if somewhat less well (they don’t really have a good moment together). But you know what was squandered? The Han/Lando relationship doesn’t go anywhere. Nor does the Han/Beckett relationship. Nor does really any other relationship. We are too busy with the heist and picking out the signposts that tell us it’s a Solo movie to notice that we’re actually watching a Solo movie. We have missed the forest for the trees.
All of that doesn’t mean Solo was a bad time. But it does mean Solo could have been a much better time. And I wouldn’t even say this is a result of people not caring what they produced – I think they gave it an honest shot. But they didn’t do it with grace or subtlety. I know, I know – a bunch of you out there just yelled “but Han lacks grace and subtlety!” I don’t mean that – I’m not talking about the exact plot, just about how that plot was conveyed. Look we all know Inigo Montoya is going to fight the six-fingered man. We know it. But what does the Princess Bride do the moment they face on another? He runs away! Why? Because it is totally in keeping with his character and, no matter how much the audience wants a duel, the filmmakers knew that the audience is not always right. If you give the people what they want, when they want it, all the time, the people become bored. Very very bored.
We all know Han is going to get the Falcon. We all know he’s going to win at cards. We all know they need the Falcon to complete their mission. So when Han loses at cards, we are surprised, yeah, but we also know that nothing has been settled because that’s not how it happens anyway and because the movie is mismanaging the Han/Lando relationship, nothing comes of it, and Han winds up flying the ship everywhere anyway and so, in the end, that whole card scene was a waste of time. No build. No dramatic tension. All we get is why Lando pronounces Han’s name wrong. Ham-fisted.
And it could have been so much better.
I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.
In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.
I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.
These People Are Not New
The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.
The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.
This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.
The PCs Can Take It
There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?
Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.
Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!
Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.
The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters
The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?
A Seat At the Table
As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.
And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.
Pretty cool, right?
Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.