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.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


I didn’t watch horror growing up, and thought the genre was mostly faceless killers and shock stuff - cheesy gushing blood and dead cheerleaders. I was turned off by the whole concept, even aside from the lure it should have had as something that was forbidden in our house.

My first horror movie was Ghost Ship, which made me jump but didn't have any lasting emotional impact. A couple years later, I watched The Haunting. The Haunting made an impact - I wasn’t all that horrified, but I was amazed that it wasn’t a ‘proper’ happy ending, and I loved that death and transmutation were Eleanor's happy endings.

I didn’t really get into horror in any kind of meaningful way for about a decade after that, but now, years later, I watch Hannibal and Teen Wolf (the MTV show; yes, it’s horror), and love stories where the monster isn’t an external threat.

A large part of it is that I like the idea that we can all be monsters, given the right circumstances and motivations. That idea is intrinsic to both shows, like the second season of Hannibal where most of the FBI characters are drawn into Hannibal's web, and almost the entirety of Teen Wolf, where our beloved hero has attempted to kill his best friend on more than one occasion. Teen Wolf makes for an easier metaphor, here, because the metaphors at work are utterly transparent: the main character is bitten and turned into a werewolf. A lot of his internal struggle - and the struggle of other characters - is to not let that define him, to not let his monstrous nature make him do monstrous things.

There are external threats, of course, because that's what makes them lose their shirts and get extra powers, but it's a recurring theme that they struggle against themselves, that all of the characters try to remain themselves, try to work towards being better versions of themselves, despite the parts of them that say rending and killing and dumping the bodies in the woods is a really excellent solution to every problem.

Just as important, though, are the times they give in to the monster inside, and do terrible and horrifying things, and have to live with the aftermath. The thing I love about Teen Wolf in particular is that monstrous and terrible things are not the domain of men alone: one young woman gives in to grief and tries to kill a bunch of people, and another takes several years to even re-accept humanity at all, and another comes into knowledge of her own powers and acceptance that she might have to kill someone almost simultaneously. And young women becoming monsters and then grappling with that is a narrative I want to see more and more of, everywhere, because it's amazing. Meghan McCarron did a really fantastic interview with Kelly Link here about young women and monsters and The Vampire Diaries.

When young women are monsters, they become compelling, in part because literal monstrousness is a perfect externalization of the internal growth we grapple with as part of coming of age, and too much about femininity is still considered internal, private, something to be hidden. Black Swan embodies a lot of conventional femininity, at the same time dramatizing and externalizing it in ways that make it utterly compelling: ballet is considered intensely female, and it's a female-dominated movie, and most of the ballet company are women, and almost all the important interactions are between women. But, on the other hand, a lot of the major conflict occurs primarily internally to the main character. The physical changes she perceived were manifestations of psychological pressure.

More literal monstrousness brings femininity more into the open, erases some of the still-persistent separate-sphere ideology, and makes the problems of the young woman characters everyone's problem rather than something she has to struggle with on her own.

Becoming a monster means more and better and harder choices, and more freedoms, and I think that's beautiful, especially as an option for more and more women.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fanfiction as a social force

I did a guest post today on my mom's blog about fanfiction as a social force and reclamatory action by young women. Read it here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Let's (not) Play

My friend MahoganyPoet has been doing Let's Play videos on Youtube. Let's Play videos are a whole booming genre where you can watch someone else play video games. Which - okay. So video games are basically the only form of storytelling that one can actually be bad at: a Let's Play lets you take a passive role. That's why I like them! I didn't grow up with a video game console, and skills such that I don't die horribly and/or kill all my teammates aren't ones I've developed (or, really, tried to develop) as an adult. Let's Play videos can also let other players see how to get past tricky bits or see alternate endings to the one they got, and they let you listen to or watch entertaining people. MP's official job title is 'youtube personality.'*

Her first move is to close Skype to minimize noisy interruptions and to make sure the computer's running cool: the games + Avus4U recording software take a lot of RAM and if the computer heats up too much the game might freeze and crash, losing her place in the game.

Conveniently, this also lets her feed me cheese and fancy crackers.

MP has what she jokingly refers to as the most professional studio setup in the world - a couple monitors, a game controller hooked up to the computer, a freestanding microphone with directional settings and one of those spitguard screen things, and headphones so the game music doesn't get caught on mic. Her recording software already catches the noise from the game, so a microphone pickup would be out of sync, and probably not as clear.

She plays the game, Child of Light, fullscreen on one of her monitors, while the other one shows what's being picked up by the recording software.

I'm only able to see about a quarter of the screen from behind her, and moving might get picked up by the mic and would also take me away from the crackers and cheese, so I mostly know what's going on by what she says, and will pick up the action when I'm watching the video later. She accidentally summoned an ogre, which she hadn't intended to during this episode, which prompted her to pause, sign off on the video, and then start a new video so she could finish with the ogre and save the fish people.

It's not quite the same as watching someone play video games directly and snarking at them, which made it difficult to refrain from snarking when sitting directly behind MP and listening to her commentary, but the videos are cool and progress pretty linearly through the story.

Mahogany Poet can be found on Twitter and, of course, on Youtube.

*Seriously, it's her job: turn off Adblock for Youtube.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Piracy and books

I spend a lot of time talking to writers.

I spend a lot of time specifically talking to indie writers who make all their own publishing decisions.

It's pretty great!

But one frustrating part of it are some of the myths that get perpetuated, like that free stuff hurts sales. This can take the form of distrust of and unhappiness with Creative Commons licensing, but on the whole tends to take the form of aggressive anti-piracy stances.

And, hey, I'm not super enthusiastic about piracy, because intellectual property is important and it's important to respect it and the people who create the things one likes. But the thing about piracy is that it's not actually lost sales.

You heard me right.

The people who are pirating your books either never would have bought them or are going to like it and either buy a copy or consider buying future works of yours.

Okay, let me talk about examples from my own life. Four books I have pirated are the 50 Shades trilogy by E L James and Sunshine by Robin McKinley.

50 Shades I wrote about here: to say I was unimpressed is a dramatic understatement. I also knew, going in, that it was going to be probably-enraging Twilight fanfiction, and made a deliberate decision to not support the author. That was never going to be a sale. I was never going to purchase anything written by her. It does not affect her sales numbers in the least.

Sunshine* was the opposite story: I love it, and have purchased two paperback copies of the novel, both of which have gone missing. It's also not available as an ebook through legitimate channels. So nor was that a lost sale: I'd already purchased it, and was unlikely to purchase it a third time in the same form.

Piracy can actually increase sales, but hey, if you don't want in on that, the best way to discourage piracy of your particular works is to make legal downloads ubiquitous. Make DRM-free purchase of your works for multiple platforms easy, and I can guarantee at least some people will find hitting the 'buy' button more appealing than piracy.

*Ms. McKinley, if you happen to see this and be unhappy with someone pirating your work, I'd be more than happy to Paypal you your royalties.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Walking Away

Something not a lot of people know about me is that sometimes I get rage-induced nosebleeds. Conditions have to be right: fairly dry weather, and I have to be sitting still so that the spike in my blood pressure is a substantial difference, and I have to be really enraged. But it's happened, a couple of times. I get headaches, too. More frequently, I'll burst into tears when I'm really frustrated.

None of these circumstances are great for making an argument, which goes kind of counter to my burning and vicious desire to get the last word.

One of the things I was told when I was bullied as a kid was to just walk away. This was not helpful advice, as kids are, by and large, sociopathic and predatory, and pounce on weakness. Turning your back and trying to 'be the bigger person' like adults advised was not a functional solution, and sometimes made things worse.

The good news about kids being awful is that they grow up!

As an adult, arguments that degenerate to shrieking that someone else is a poopy-head . . . are not productive, and for me the stakes no longer involve social ostracism. The stakes different, a lot of the structure of disagreement is different, and usually the premise of the disagreement is different (Russia should be sanctioned for human rights violations vs. "you're fat"). This means that a lot of the - really maladaptive! - strategies I developed as a kid are no longer functional.

Which brings us around to walking away. Because it's a more tenable strategy now. I get to consider things like 'will staying engaged in this conversation yield anything productive?' and 'is getting the last word now worth the headache I'll have in an hour?'

And if the answer is no, I can walk away. I can physically remove myself or say 'I'm done talking about this right now,' or  'can we please be done with this,' or block people on social media sites, and I'm not required to engage in things that harm me. Being an adult kicks ass.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


So I referenced the fact that I'm in university again in my last post.

I'm back at UW-Whitewater, this time majoring in Liberal Studies, and this is my second semester, and the second doing courses entirely online. Doing it all online has required a major reshuffling of my time, which has coincidentally enabled me to work more hours. Time management helps, who knew?

It's interesting being back in school, especially as an older student: I'm much more inclined to argue with authority. One of my textbooks this semester said something heinously and easily verifiably wrong in a chapter about research, so I ended up putting together a long and well-cited argument about why it was wrong.

As a condensed version: top-level domains are sometimes shorthand for figuring out credibility of information. Sponsored top-level domains are almost always going to be much more trustworthy than generics, so it's important to know the difference.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Literary Analysis

I've actually been attempting a fair portion of literary analysis in the last few months, and the deconstruction of narratives in general. The only issue, and the reason it's not here, is that it's all fandom-based.

My reluctance isn't a matter of shame (please see links on Words page to erotica I've written), but a matter of context: the discussion occurs primarily on Tumblr, and is tagged such that mostly other fans see it. I don't have to introduce characters or concepts and I don't have to preface arguments with a description of the common perceptions I'm rebutting: I get to rest on the laziness of shared common knowledge.

But this semester I'm taking a required entry-level literature class, and I'm finding exegesis much easier. Surprisingly, arguing about the significance of driving to a relationship or about how someone's mistranslation means they're evil (it was true) has prepared me very well for expositing at length about women as portrayed in 1946 movies about veterans. Of course, it's also prepared me for injecting comparisons to Jane Austen and the Vietnam War into the same essay, but that's what second drafts are for.