Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Genre Fiction and Sexual Violence

One of the interesting contrasts between literary and genre fiction is what we expect from them: literary fiction we expect to give us good writing and interesting narrative devices, genre fiction we expect to give us a particular emotional experience.

With the recent kerfuffle about Game of Thrones and having gone to see Mad Max yesterday, I was thinking more today about the things I want from an experience.

This tweet summarizes a lot of it. I mean, at this point, we all kind of expect a pervasive threat of sexual violence from every shadow in Westeros. And, because I've seen other action movies, I was kind of expecting some threat of sexual violence in Mad Max. I was braced for the hit. And then it never came, and it was a gift, and I really love that fucking movie.

I read non-fiction and literary fiction both for school and for my own edification, and I brace in the same way when reading a lot of those. Sexual violence is pervasive in the real world, and so it pervades fiction set in the real world.

Which takes me to the genre fiction I read. I have a friend who, because she's perfect, heads an email filled with book recommendations as 'Trash Books!'

They are supernatural romance novels. They're amazing. It's great. In every single one, people fall in love in a long-term-monogamy sort of way, kick butt, have magic powers, and maintain healthy friendships. It is the best kind of wish fulfillment.

Also of note is the way it treats sexual violence. Rape still exists, in these worlds, because I tend to read the kind of paranormal romance with high body counts and so other kinds of violence come with that. Of note, though, is that rape attempts are far less frequent than in the real world. In the series I'm reading now, I'm on book 19 and there have been two characters who were raped, of which only one was a perspective character (the other character started a centuries-long war and she was considered justified except when she nearly murdered her kids). There were also three threats that ended in violence. This is significantly lower than anywhere in the real world. Also, anyone who tries to rape a woman ends up dead or severely beaten. It's very emotionally satisfying.

And it also makes these books kind of reassuring to read: one doesn't have to be quite so braced against the possibility of an onslaught.

That's what genre fiction offers. There are other genres, like cozies, where the only thing one has to be braced against are dessert cravings, but these tight genres offer a kind of consistent experience that's as relaxing as a glass of wine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Body horror and blenders


Becoming a monster plays into an aspect of horror that I'm very fond of: body horror. Becoming a monster sometimes involves physical changes - shifting, or things under the skin. One of my favorite incarnations is in Homestuck and Homestuck fandom, where there exist Helmsmen: high-powered psychics capable of directing a spaceship with their minds. Mostly they are chained to the ships, stripped of free will, and wired directly into biotechnological interfaces. Fanworks are frequently somewhat horrifying.

Body horror taken to this kind of extreme is its own kind of externalization - of different things for different people. Puberty is generally horrifying, with all of the growing and hormones. For trans* people, who sometimes experience their changing bodies as deeply and irreconcilably wrong, it can be deeply horrifying and an utmost betrayal. Disability, severe injury, and assault can all be traumatic. They can all be body horror, and expressing body horror as a plot device, as a way a character becomes stronger can be ways to explore the more mundane sort of body horror at enough remove that it's just fascinating. Body horror can also be a way to explore the ways we take - and deal with - damage.

I haven't generally been fond of the product of writing as therapy, but that has somewhat changed - body horror in particular has let me read stuff that I can relate to - and I've also come to a slightly different appreciation of the ways we use our experiences to create art, which is well-articulated in Amanda Palmer's review of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. I've found that I really like when things are fine-ground and spit out as art that's appreciable in its own right and not just as a reflection of the creator.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Schools of thought

I see two major schools of thought about writing when not on deadline, and I mostly see them dichotomized.

The first is that one must write every day, just plant butt in chair and get words done, get them out. Polish later, but write every day, no matter what. The discipline will mean you produce more and more easily and improve.

The second is to write when you feel like it, and to forgive yourself when you're not up for it for months on end. I've seen it mostly as a reaction to the first one, particularly from the chronically ill. A friend with arthritis goes through periods when writing is physically horribly painful; a friend with depression feels blank and flat and hates everything they force themselves to produce.

And the first is more popular generally, but the existence of the second is incredibly important: especially with mental illness, it's imperative to acknowledge that sometimes one's ability will not be the same as a well person, and to not beat oneself up about it.

The dichotomy of the two schools of thought kind of bothers me, in large part because the idea of not writing for months on end makes me feel kind of panicky. I write almost every day, even if it's just a little, and I write for work, and I write for school. I don't have a set word count or time. I just leave a story or two that I'm working on open in tabs (I usually only have five or six tabs open). If I have a thought, I'll go noodle in the document. Progress gets made eventually.

So writing daily - or at least having a constant reminder that I could be writing - is important to me. But not putting a minimum requirement on it is also important. I'm a full time student and paying my own living expenses. During midterms I had an hour-long breakdown over soup one day. I don't need the stress of a self-imposed writing requirement on top of that.

For me the starting point had to be that it's okay to try and fail. I can try to write every day, or try to write five thousand words a week: I can set any goal I want, but if I don't make it, it's okay. I haven't failed as a person, I'm not doomed as a writer for my lack of discipline. It's okay.

I think we have too few messages that it's okay to fail. So the second school of thought, the idea of forgiving yourself and taking care of your needs first, is desperately important. But it's not a terrible thing to also go to the first school, and set goals. We just need to be able to get off each other's - and our own - cases when we don't meet those goals. Because it's okay.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Character Creation: Cheesy Broccoli Casserole

A story is food for the mind. A drabble is an amuse-bouche, satisfying to the palate but not the stomach. A novel is a multi-course meal, with tastes that complement each other and segue into the next part.

Characters are the ingredients. You combine a little salty, a little sweet, a little bitter, a little sour, a little umami. Umami is a Japanese loanword, for pleasant savory tastes, like meat or onion sauteed in water with a little salt. It’s what makes a meal satisfying, and what makes a character feel real and stick with you.

So a novella can be taken as cheesy broccoli casserole. One dish, consumed in a single sitting. Not as many complexities as a novel, not as many twists and turns and things to synchronize. Importantly to all of this, I need to know what I’m making before I start: ingredients aren’t important until they’re used.

I start with the pasta and the chicken. The pasta is a fairly straightforward character, who’s gone through some hard times and lost some stuff. The pasta’s tragic, boiled backstory has to stop before they’ve gone completely limp. They still need to have some body in order to support the other characters and work well as a group. It’s also important that the pasta be properly drained: having pasta water floating around makes everything lose coherence and draws too much attention to a single character. Their backstory contributed to who they are, but it isn’t the totality of their character.

The chicken has a different sort of backstory, one of murder and personal tragedy and exposure to medium-high heat until thoroughly cooked. Even though the chicken and the pasta both have horrible backstories, they aren’t the [i]same[/i] horrible backstory. Identical characters unbalance the whole dish, no matter how exciting the shared story is. The chicken then gets sliced into smaller chunks. The size of the chunks depends how much I want the dish to be about identity politics, how much I’m okay with having big chunks of narrative devoted entirely to this one character.

The broccoli is a big part of the story, and is usually the main character. It knows the pasta, usually, has a bit of a shared history in that it, too, went in the boiling water. But the broccoli was only in there for a little while, and it only made the broccoli more vibrantly green. Some of the brittle rawness of the broccoli is gone, but it’s still crunchy with vigor and determination. The freshness makes for a good YA protagonist, a fighter that everyone can root for.

The shredded cheddar is not a tragic character, and is part of the glue that holds the group together. Even a glue character, though, one that facilitates group cohesion and keeps our ingredients together when they want to fall apart, can’t have that as their only identity: they need their own sharpness, and enough of them needs to show up in the story that their personality is on display.

Campbell’s 98% Fat Free Broccoli Cheese Soup is our supporting cast, our environment. The minor, supporting characters should at least imply that they can and do exist separate from the story, that they don’t stop existing when the main characters stop needing them. The soup is much improved by using it as a casserole ingredient, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on its own. The helpful innkeeper might be married to the surly coachman, or cousin to the secret informant with the critical information. It doesn’t need to be on display - we don’t need to make broccoli cheese soup from scratch just to throw it in the casserole - but it should at least be implied. The supporting cast should be dumped all over the other ingredients and mixed well, because our main cast doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Seasonings are part of atmosphere and setting, but they’re also important to character: salt is something some people avoid out of health concern or prudishness, but it highlights different aspects of character. Sexual content isn’t a bad thing on its own, and can show up different sides of an ingredient, but it’s at the discretion and to the personal taste of the cook. How much salt I use varies - by mood, by how fresh the broccoli is, by whether I want to feel like I’m eating something with pretensions at health or want intensely comforting food. Audience matters, and influences character and cookery in various ways.

Garlic is part of worldbuilding, too: it adds umami and brings the whole together, but overdoing it and giving it too much space in the casserole means that only very particular palates will like it. Foul language can also be peppered in at the discretion of the author, with the knowledge that it pairs differently with each individual ingredient.

After cooking in the story for 45 minutes at 375, the ingredients are still recognizable, can still be pinpointed, can even be enjoyed on their individual merits. But it’s the whole that’s important, and they only serve the whole. The characters can no longer be extricated from the story. Even if I were starting with the same building blocks, the same basics of tragic-but-strong or my-whole-family-is-dead, the details would change with the dish, because the story as a whole comes first, and the characters are only there to further it, and there can frequently be substitutions.