Fat Girl

This is one of those Emily rant posts.

To explain, in brief: I’m sick of all of you–ALL of you–talking about ‘body image’. As though this were a great social course of action.

Let me explain. I went to the doctor recently, and stepped on those shiny scales for the first time in a while. And, lemme tell you, I’m fat.

Hang on, hang on. The first person to post anything REMOTELY resembling ‘aw gurl, but ur beautiful just the way you are!’ gets a ham-handed slap in the face. I AM beautiful. It has nothing to do with my body or my face. Neither because of, nor in spite of.

I’ll also dope-slap the well-meaning person who says: “no ur not fat!!!oneone”

I’m many things in this world. I’m intelligent, witty, kind of an asshole, well-intentioned, socially stupid, fond of whiskey, women, and song. Or, well. Women and whiskey, anyway.

I also happen to not be blind. And those numbers told me, with a quick cross-indexing of the BMI chart taped to the weighing room door, that I am–

–in all actuality, devoid of any sentiment, while failing to suffer from ‘negative body image’ or the surprisingly societally prevalent idea that peer pressure, for some reason, is MORE LIKELY to affect overweight women than any other demographic in history–

FAT.

Fascinatingly enough, I had trouble dragging this delicately worded truth out of my doctor. My DOCTOR. Who is the one person, in the world, who should be able to tell me with NO FEAR of offense if I’m doing something unhealthy.

No, I don’t need your shoulder to cry on. I don’t need you to dress me up in pinup costumes and photograph my soft mounds of flesh in an attempt to make me ‘feel positive’ about myself. I don’t give two blue balls in the innermost circle of hell about whether or not I match up to the picture society has painted for me to fit into. Frankly, I’ve never given much of a damn WHAT picture society paints. Of anything.

What I care about is that, for the first time in my life, I am unhealthily overweight. And I don’t look good, or feel good, about myself this way. Some girls can rock a little extra cushion. Some girls look stunning. I am not one. I look like a poached pear floating in a sea of ass.

Again–NOTHING to do with ‘society’. I’m very tired of ‘society’. It’s me. Just ME. This is how I feel.

So I’m dieting.

Cue the worried voices. Somehow, ‘dieting’ in our society has become associated with ‘starving yourself, giving in to the pressure of the masses, and stepping away from the ‘true you’ into the bigoted, stereotyping realm of the cultural whore.’ What it actually means, ladies and gents, is ‘exercising healthier habits and portion control in an attempt to get rid of the worst of your flab’.

Because your body and figure aren’t the ‘true you’. Associating these two things, in fact, is some of the MOST image-negative, shallow, and inappropriate nonsense you can foist uponĀ  your feel-good media feed of choice.

Any man or woman on earth has the right to diet, should they so choose. And, while it’s good that there are positive examples of bigger people in the media today–and while no one should ever have to feel bad about themselves because of their physical shape–I think we tackle this ‘problem’ the wrong way.

The problem isn’t the targeting of overweight people in the media. It isn’t coddling negative body image. It isn’t accepting yourself as you are–because sometimes, you just aren’t happy with how you are, and you’re not going to BE happy, and you’re better off devoting your energy to change than to meek acceptance and borrowed gratitude.

No. The problem is in the sheer amount of time and effort we devote to TALKING about body image.

Maybe you’re happy with how you look. Maybe you’re not. But either way, other people can’t see for you, and you can’t try to take their viewpoint as your own. Only you can see you the way you do.

And therein, perhaps, lies the secret. Yes, I’m overweight. Yes, I’d like to lose a little weight. Is this the sum total of my existence? Would I EVER let this tiny facet of the manifold presence that is myself become ME?

No.

Nor should you.

My final view on the subject of ‘body image’: you should be happy with what you see in the mirror. If you’re not, work on it until you are. But don’t let it become WHO you are, happy or not.

You are just as much of a person–just as much of a full and complicated human being, whose views contain just as much complication and resonant depth–whether you’re fat or thin.

To this end, next time you give a compliment–especially to a lady–remember that there are things in this world other than attractiveness. Perhaps this person is also funny? A good dresser? Wrote a poem or story you think is great?

It’s natural to feel bad about yourself sometimes. If you’re a few pounds overweight, if you were mean to a coworker at lunch, if your hair looks like shit, if you pronounced ‘Prague’ to rhyme with ‘vague’ in conversation.

But you work on it, right? If it really bothers you. If you’re happy and healthy with a larger figure, go you. If you think Prague and vague is the only rhyme you can justifiably use, use it. If your coworker deserved it, fuck ‘im.

Because it’s all up to you.

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Writing: The Right Words

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Original stock credit to Florian Klauer, via Unsplash. It did not originally say holy shit on it. No, no.

Writing Friday: The Right Words

When I was a little Emily, growing up in the same town I’m sitting in right the hell now, I went to college for English and Creative Writing. (At some point in the not too distant future, we’ll do a blog about my feelings towards the word ‘creative’ when applied to writing. They’re quite strong. They’re not positive.)

It was a stupid decision. Stupid for many reasons. Its stupidity is best encapsulated, perhaps, by this fact: I felt like I spent quite a lot of money for not a lot of education I cared about.

There were some great classes, of course. There always are. The one I’m thinking of in particular was, of all things, an introductory poetry class–the professor, a kind and quiet man, understood words. He understood that, in addition to being pretty sacred baubles, they were also building blocks, skeins of syllables, cloth of many colors cut from rhythm and meter as well as meaning. His class, though it was supposed to cover the basics of poetry, has helped me immeasurably in everyday writing.

Why? Because the lesson he taught is important: words are not sacred. They are not unassailable. Words are merely groups of letters, and when the letters are placed together in just such a way you get rhythm and meter and rhyme and meaning. He taught me: never use fowl when chicken is right for the occasion. Or is it a poultry situation?

Forget rhyme for a second. We’re not poets here. But think, if you will, about the different flavors of those words: fowl, which sounds vaguely French but is I think Dutch in origin (not sure, and too lazy to Google), the refined French flavor to poultry or pullet, the Anglo Saxon blunt-fuckery of chicken. You chase a chicken in a yard. You wring its neck, chop off its head. You might also eat chicken, traditional meat of the poor–your child eats chicken fingers, you get fried chicken from KFC.

A pullet is a handsome little bird. Pullets roost happily in a well-insulated henhouse, are shown off by proud owners at country fairs. And a fowl is a little strange, a little out-of-context: a fowl from the sky, fowl as general birdhood. Fowl as the impersonal expanse of a bird’s pale flesh. Poultry can be eaten, or massed for slaughter in some remote location.

My professor told us a story (an old one, and one of questionable authenticity, but a very good example). When the Normans conquered England in 1066, the Saxon people were pushed into lower life-positions, peasants who farmed the land and served the new Norman gentry. Thus, a lot of our table-words for meat have a French flavor to them: pork, beef, mutton. The Normans, when eating them, would speak of them in their own language.

But the words for the animals, for the living creatures who were slaughtered and petted and raised and made much of, are pure Anglo-Saxon: pig, sheep, cow. Because the servants, speaking their own language amongst themselves, weren’t going to slaughter the master’s mutton, but their very own sheep.

Using the right word in English is vital. And it’s not as easy as going to a thesaurus and looking up synonyms–frankly, if I had my way, every thesaurus in the country would be burned, and their users would be left reading desperately, intent on developing proper language skills.

Would you say beef and cow are the same thing? No, not really. But they mean the same thing, right? More or less? Sort of?

No. They’re different words. They mean different things. At least, now they do.

I mention this because, goddammit, jubilant isn’t the same thing as happy. Nor are elated, thrilled, blithe.

They are different fucking words, and they mean different fucking things.

Here are the three steps to Using The Right Word Every Time:

1) Read.
It’s the only real way to increase your vocabulary, and increasing your vocabulary is crucial to Using The Right Word Every Time. Reading gives you the opportunity to find new words in a multilayered context: yes, you can check the dictionary to get an idea of what that word means, but how is it used? Happy and blithe, for instance, have a nice wholesome context very often. (F’rinstance–did you know ‘happy’ was originally closer in meaning to ‘lucky’? If you’ve ever wondered why happy looks so similar to things like happen and happenstance, something to think about). Elated and jubilant are more grand and heraldic in nature than a mere happy. Returning heroes are jubilant, their lordly fathers on their thrones elated. Thrilled has a delightful hint of sarcasm to it (think of the last time you told somebody you were thrilled. Were you? Really? Or were you pissed off?)

2) Listen.
Maybe this is a synesthete thing, but I don’t think so. Listen to your goddamn words. What sounds like the thing you’re trying to convey? Jubilant sounds like golden clouds, triumph, and stout wide strength, thanks to that first syllable. Elated is sharper and narrower, courtesy of that nasal a. Blithe, due to that prissy th and that old-school bl, sounds like a Victorian picture postcard. This might seem a little woo-woo to you, a little more poetry than novella, but trust me, it’s important. Your readers hear your words as they read them, at least a little. And if they don’t sound good, nobody’s going to believe your story.

3) Work.
Learn something about your language. No, not so you can sound clever at cocktail parties.

English, maybe more than any other language on Earth up until the advent of global culture, is created largely of borrowed words. It’s Germanic–nominally. We’ve got those crunchy Anglo-Saxon derivatives, like shit and piss and spit, for most of our bodily functions. But we’ve gotten a lot of Latinate language from French and the brief Roman occupation of England, as well as Spanish from our neighbors to the South here in America (who’ve, after all, been speaking the Romantic language for over four hundred years). A few oddjob words here and there, like bazaar and alchemy and gauze and, interestingly enough, alcohol, from Arabic. Sprinkle in some Dutch, Russian, etc., etc. A lot of our Arabic words tend to deal with medicine or trade. Perhaps because, while we were busy applying leeches and balancing the four humors, the Arabs had crazy things like medicine and science.

It’s important to know where your words come from, long story short. Linguistic history is, for me at least, the true history of a people–where they’ve been, where they’ve borrowed, where they’ve fallen short. And it’s important to consider, as exemplified in the sheep/mutton example, how different word origins make words feel to us. You’ll find, if you look up enough of them, that words of different origins often (but not always!) have distinct sounds. Beautiful, for instance, is more or less Latinate. As are pulchritudinous, fascinating, attractive. Whereas lovely and pretty come from Germanic roots. Don’t those words feel different, sound different? Wouldn’t you use them in different contexts?
So no, using the right word isn’t easy. No, there isn’t a ‘trick’ to it. There’s just a lot of work.

Fascinating, fascinating work.

A final note:

The purpose to increasing your vocabulary and learning how it works isn’t, and should never be, learning bigger words. If you use pulchritudinous where pretty suffices, I’m going to assume you’re:

A) Sixteen
B) Studying for the SATs, and
C) Doing a very good job. Gold star for you.

However, big fat F on keeping me involved in the world of your story, and not taking me out of it with a knotty chickenshit unnecessary word. Because the point of all this, in a writing context, is the same as all of my other posts: you want to make your story believable, its world livable. And you can’t do that with the wrong language.

It would be like trying to knock in a nail with a screwdriver, or raising a barn made out of styrofoam. The results won’t be pretty, because you aren’t properly prepared for the job. Stories are made up of words, and before ANYTHING else, words are your tools and your building blocks.

So respect them, and learn something about them, before you start talking about plot holes and info dumps and all the other shibboleths that riddle the online writing community.

Thanks,
EFR

PS–I know, I know. But I haven’t gotten to say ‘shibboleth’ in years. And it is, again, EXACTLY what I mean.

Want to take a little time and play around with words? Here’s the cream of the internet crop:

Profanity Listand you thought it was easy. Over eighteen thousand naughty words–see if you can add a fresh ‘un.
The History of English–though I’m little inclined to trust anyone who uses the word ‘rollicking’, this is very informative, fun, comprehensive, etc. I’m not a serious etymologist, obviously–I’d be making more money if I was–but damn, they’re right, it’s entertaining.
Fun With WordsWhile the design of this website maddens me, it’s a great collection of all the fun shit you can do with English. Especially nice if you, like me, enjoy terrible puns.
9 Dirty Everyday Words–While I can’t speak directly for the accuracy here, it gave me tee-hees until I queefed glitter and dried remnants of My Little Ponies. Also useful if you ever wondered about the origin of ‘bollocks’, which some of us have, for entirely too long.

WW: All Five Senses

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Photo by Amanda Samdlin, via Unsplash. Speaking of smell.

Description With All Five Senses

This might be a little grade school for some of you. Or you might think it’s a little grade school. Frankly, I think we could all stand to be reminded. So there you go.

When you are describing something, it looks a certain way. Yes indeedy. We get that. We got it three paragraphs ago. We got the visual flavor of this city through your description of Corinthian columns, crenellated parapets, vast marble blocks that take twelve oxen a week to tow anywhere useful. Your description of classical statuary was helpful. I am very much educated by your sighting and detailing the French toe on the shoes of that passing nobleman. I don’t know if I needed all that information about the form and purpose of the city’s irrigation system, but there it is.

And yet, with all that detail, I’m still left with a burning question. And that question is, of course:

What the hell does this place smell like?

Is there incense drifting in a leisurely cloud over the temple district? Does the market smell like olives and spices and not-so-fresh fish? Is there a miasma in the air, like that which was present over Victorian London? (You want to learn about the Great Stink of 1858. Trust me, history is awesome.)

And feel. Are the cobblestones uneven, the graveyard ground squelchy? Does the wind blow hot and dry, or humid and cool? Do the stone walls sweat with the weight of the weather?

Is there a spot across from Madame Muessler’s bakery that smells uncannily of apple pie? Are there a lot of people gathered in it, jostling each other, looking for relief from the not-so-fresh fish smell of the rest of the market?

Description, like anything else, is a matter of reactionary chain. People have a spot in a nasty smelling market that brings olfactory piedom. Do they crowd to it, or avoid it? Do they think it’s cursed by the shade of the Mad Baker, who added most of the neighborhood’s children to his pies five years ago, and who was hung hard and long from the Trewithy Bridge when constables found the grisly remains in his garden?

But you know how I feel about all that stuff, if you read my blog. You know I’m going to tell you to ask why, create flowcharts, etc.

I want to keep this as a simple reminder: you have five senses. Possibly six. When describing something important, use at least two of them.

Note: I’m not telling you to cram as much sensory effluvia into your description as possible. This is tiresome. People want description discreetly, and want it to flow along with the story. If you have a descriptive passage that goes more than one sizeable paragraph without some small action occurring, it’s too fucking long.

But when you see your character–or your setting–what else strikes you? What else is important to the scene?

Yes, she has auburn hair and laughing green eyes. I hope her eyes aren’t really laughing–that’s kind of surreal–but otherwise, great.

But what does she smell like? Does she have a tinkling little laugh? Is her voice softer than a baby’s whisper on the private parts of a spiderweb? Is her skin soft and smooth, so smooth buffing with a chamois would leave it red and raw?

Think about what you notice on a day to day basis. Red cars aren’t just red cars–especially not if something’s wrong with their mufflers. Brakes squeak, tires squeal, exhaust leaves a tangible reek in the air. Your supermodel friend might have an incredibly annoying laugh. Your fluffball Persian cat has tangles underneath her topcoat, and every time you try to stroke her, your fingers get caught and she scratches the shit out of you.

Not only does multiple-sense description add to the realism and depth of your story, it’s also an excellent way to foreshadow conflict. A whiff of rotten scent in a beautiful city can hint at the corruption and decadence beneath. A scarred and muscle-bound mercenary with a sweet mild voice might not be such a bad guy after all. Or it might be the precise opposite–maybe he uses his voice to lure people in.

There you go, just a friendly reminder post. Because I keep reading stories that forget: garbage has a smell. A fire has heat. Magic, in addition to flashing lights, would doubtless also have a sound and a stench. I know, I know, we all do a lot of our research online nowadays, and might not be able to pinpoint precisely what gefilte fish smells like, whereas appearance we can see in JPEG form.

But it might be time to leave the internets for just a second. Or–in fantasy context–extrapolate on what you know.

Cheers,
EFR

A Note: Did you guys know my book came out a while back? Well, um. Now you know. Read it and weep. No, not literally. Please, not literally–those tears will fry your keyboard.

WW: Culture Shock

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WW: Culture Shock

So I’ve been reading The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. I’m about two thirds of the way through–it’s a long damn book, and it’s taking me like a week to read it, but it’s totally worth it. I like this one way better, actually, than I liked his first novel in the series, The Name of the Wind. Kvothe’s tendency to vacillate means something here. When parts of his life are ignored, there are consequences.

I mention this, however, because of a brief section I just went through where Kvothe has to learn to interact with a man from a very foreign culture. It takes a realization–which I won’t share, so as not to spoil the book–for him to learn how to do it. Their cultures are so different, Kvothe assumed some things about his companion that simply weren’t true. It took Kvothe letting go of his assumptions for them to become closer, and at last begin to understand each other.

It’s well done, and it’s something I don’t see as much as I maybe ought in fantasy type fiction. When two cultures are very different, there’s going to be some culture shock, and some misunderstandings. A dwarf, for instance, might not be so eager to take up residence in a tree house–maybe his elfin host, who hasn’t ever lived anywhere else, thinks his friend’s hesitation is over the quality of his house, and takes offense. Or just starts cleaning maniacally. Maybe the trouble is deepened because these elves think it’s extremely rude to show you’ve been offended–maybe an elf culturally expresses his offense by farting at the dinner table after a meal, something dwarves can’t even do. The gas passes, and the dwarf doesn’t even notice. He thinks it’s a fucking woodpecker outside (I imagine elf farts are very dainty. Leaves are probably involved somehow.) Tension grows, becomes deeper and deeper. Eventually, there’s a brawl: all because of acrophobia and a couple of farts (which, well, I guess brawls have been started for worse reasons).

But you see, just from that example, how cultural dissonance can help create tension in a novel. Not just out and out racism–these people hate these people, because of blah-dee-blah–but actual cultural incompatibility. Exploring this is healthy, not just for your plot, but also for your world and characters–there’s rules in point-of-view narration, just like there’re rules in fantasy worldbuilding, and how a certain character sees an action can help solidify these rules.

For example (I know you’ve missed my examples), here’s my morning routine as observed by the alien Schtok People, viewing me from somewhere in the next galactic neighborhood:

Subject enters the Green Temple, where inoffensive music plays softly for the Glory of God, at seven thirty every morning for five days in a row. Subject exchanges Card for small cup of the Sacrificial Brown Wine. Subject leaves small offering of paper currency in the collection box. Subject then finds a quiet place to worship, in full view of the Morning Sun, and waits the proscribed five minutes, smoking the customary incense of these people, which she carries in her worship bag. Only then, when there is no longer steam rising from the Sacrificial Brown Wine, does the subject drink her offering, placing the remains in the Hooded Altars placed neatly around the street. Sacrificial Brown Wine may be consumed sooner in the summer, when it is served over ice, as the crops have already begun to grow.
Only after consumption of Sacrificial Brown Wine is complete does the subject board the green device used for the relocation of the poor to start her day. Subject performs this rite unfailingly every morning, and is perhaps a priest or similar holy figure among her people.

Yes, I said it: Sacrificial Brown Wine.

Obviously, I’m just getting a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. But this foreign observer doesn’t know what coffee is–doesn’t know you drink it to get up in the morning. Starbucks is warm and dark and there’s music playing, I leave what he sees as an offering. The time before I drink the coffee seems ritualistic–he doesn’t know I’m just doing it so I don’t burn the roof of my mouth, and the cigarette is just a nasty habit and not incense at all.

He’s from a religious society, obviously. An agrarian religious society–he thinks the way I drink my cup of coffee, and the pause before it, has to do with prayer and making the crops grow. His society is fairly democratic, as well–he recognizes it’s mostly poor folks taking the bus, but he thinks, though he recognizes me as poor, I might be a priest of some sort.

There are more inferences you could get from this stupid example, but those are the basics. Note, if you will, that while it says something about our culture–that we spend too much fucking time at Starbucks, if aliens think it’s a religion–it tells us more about his.

Use occasions like this–moments of culture shock–to define your cultures. A large part of world building, of necessity, has to be done through your characters–after all, their eyes are the eyes you see your story through, and their eyes have been ‘tainted’ by the culture they’ve lived in their whole lives.

(A side note–this is why most fantasy narrators tend to be outsiders. Farm boys, alien explorers, etc. You need a narrator who, like your reader, is seeing this culture through relatively new eyes. Kvothe, for instance, couldn’t have grown up around the University, or he wouldn’t find anything about it worth mentioning. Frodo couldn’t have spent his life kicking around Gondor, watching the fires of Mordor get all firey again.)

Homework Assignment:
Describe YOUR morning routine through the eyes of an alien observer. Remember: while you need to be honest about what you do, you need to look at this through the eyes of someone who’s never seen it done before. What is this alien’s culture like, that he makes these assumptions about what you’re doing? DON’T write it out–let the story of your morning routine, seen through his eyes, speak about his culture FOR you.

WW: Five Things To Ask Your Characters

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Well, here we are. It’s Wednesday. Ish.

I thought I’d do something different this time around and talk character development. Not mine, no. Yours. (Yes, that was sarcasm. Your character development is what we DO here.)

Here are five questions which, when properly explored, might help you get to know your character better. When answering them, I suggest you think about your own behavior, and your friends’, and, well, all those other people you know who aren’t quite your friends, but you know them, so whatever. What kinds of people do what kinds of things? What does one thing say about a general trend in behavior in this person?

I tried to keep them as world-general as possible, so they’d apply to a broad variety of situations. But I want you to notice–no talk of worldbuilding here, no talk of magic, futuretech, personal appearance, etc. These answers shouldn’t become worldbuilding answers. At least, not mostly, though they might help you with that stuff too. They’re about personality.

If you want to share your answers, I’d be tickled. Maybe I’ll do mine too. We can share things. Because sharing is caring. Which, I guess, also means drinking is thinking, and hoarding is waterboarding.

1) Your character walks into a bar and orders a drink. Describe what happens.
Is the bar busy or quiet? Does your character know the bartender? Does s/he push past people to get to the bar, or patiently wait his/her turn? Does s/he order beer–if so, what sort? A Cosmo, LIT? A peaty twelve-year whiskey? Water? Does it get sipped, or gulped in one frantic movement? Does your character pass moral judgement on other people in the bar, if there are any? Does anybody get hurt? Do they deserve it?

2) How does your character affect his/her environment?
Does he or she litter? Does he or she treat small animals well, or torment them? Was his or her house built with local materials, or imported? Does your character know the names or flowers and trees, or barely know what a goddamn tree is? Does she hunt? If she hunts, does she just take what she can use, or does she hoard far more than she can eat for herself? If your character is drinking a glass of water and doesn’t have time to finish it for some reason, does he dump it at the base of a tree, or right in the middle of the street?

3) Your character gets caught in a small but bald-faced lie by a parent/guardian. How do they try to resolve the situation?
No ‘but my character is all aloooone’ nonsense, please. At some point, your character had parents, or at least a legal guardian. How would this situation have happened? Would your character try to white lie his or her way out of it, or tell the noble truth? Get mouthy and defiant? Did they succeed in escaping the situation? Feel guilty, if the blame got shifted to somebody else? If they didn’t–was the punishment in proportion to the crime? Did they suck it up, or weep like a crabby baby?

4) Your character has a WHOLE DAY off. No bills to pay, no world to save, nothing but twenty four hours of leisure time. What does he or she do?
No just answering ‘sleep’. C’mooon.

5) Your character has to be at the bank by noon. Trouble is, he’s not totally sure where ‘the bank’ IS in this town. He’s in a foreign city, it’s early, and he doesn’t speak the language. If he has a communications device, it’s out of battery/sparkly battery magic. How does he cope?
Does he spend valuable time trying to find this city’s version of an embassy? Go to the local market, try to charade out his request? Beat someone until they start speaking his language, intentionally or not? Search for somewhere that’s open, so he can buy a map? Collapse into manic tears? Start searching the city, in a circular pattern, for bank signs? Or would this never happen to him in the first place, because he’s just that goddamn organized?

Yes, all our characters have Mysterious Pasts (more on this subject later). However, like us, they spend 24/7 in the world of your choosing. They have to poop, go to the bank, go to work. They have embarrassing childhood stories, pet names they don’t want anybody else to hear, professional lives and private lives. They have that time when they were sixteen where they drank a whole bottle of Bailey’s on a dare, and had THE WORST hangover, the WORST, and told their mother they were ‘sick’ so they didn’t have to go to school, and etc., onward and outwards, more horrible childhood stories as you see fit.

These things–ordinary people things, anecdotes and nicknames and friends and embarrassing moments–make character. Yes, we’ve all had traumatic moments and yes, they do affect how we live and what we do. But if your character’s first boyfriend called him Binkypants in lovey-dovey moments, and he later on meets someone whose name/nickname is Binky, that’s going to have an affect on him too. How that relationship went–what it meant to him, how it ended, whether or not his boyfriend wound up being Douche Captain of the World of Tomorrow, all these things will affect his treatment of this person named Binky.

So don’t just draw from deep trauma and mystery for your characterization. Draw on the everyday, open-ended situations where your character has to make telling decisions. You might just find there’s more there–more for you to work with–than in your character’s Great Destiny as the Chosen One of his Mighty People. Because, yes, his parents were killed in a terrible fire, and yes, your villain was the arsonist. And that’ll affect you. But it was one moment in a life that stretches X number of years–there are a lot of other, less-traumatic moments in there too. And a person who was shaped entirely by one event, whose life has been lived as an endless series of reflections on one moment–this person is monomaniacal in the extreme. Probably pretty fucked up.

And, while we all wanted a little of that nebulous fucked-upedness in our characterization, too much of it leaves you with an unsympathetic character, incapable of learning or growing.

Not your hero, in other words. Maybe your villain.

Some more ‘everyday stuff’ to think about for your character:

1) How did this person’s parents/guardian put him or her to bed as a child?
2) What happened the first time your character got drunk? Has it happened yet? If not, what does your character THINK would happen?
3) Write a vignette about an occasion where your character was injured (semi-seriously: broken limb, stitches, etc.) as a child.
4) What kind of music does this person listen to, and how?
5) What happened the first time your character knew, without a doubt, that his or her parents/guardians were wrong about something?
6) Describe your character’s first relationship. If they haven’t had one yet, what do they THINK it’ll be like? How’d it end, and what did they learn from it?
7) Describe your character’s favorite outfit. How does s/he feel in it? Beautiful? Powerful? Comfortable?
8) What makes this person fall OUT of love?
9) Does your character arrive places on time? Early? A day late? How has this affected their chances in life?

And, for bonus points:

10) Your character TOTALLY clogs up a friend’s toilet. Like, totally. Like, there’s no coming BACK from how clogged this toilet is. Does she tell her friend? Try to find the plunger and fix it for herself? Just leave it: hell, it’s the guest bathroom anybody, nobody’ll probably know for days?

Writing Plans for 2015

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Copyright Jeff Sheldon, via unsplash.com. Because plans.

What’s Up With Me

Well, it’s January. Ish. And it’s therefore a New Year. Ish. So this is the part, I think, where I have to sit down and tell you guys What’s Up With Me. Because you’re curious. And you loved Aurian and Jin. And you want the other two books so bad. So. Bad.

And it’ll happen.

At some point.

Here’re my publishing plans for 2015:

1) Never publish anything that close to the holidays again. Ever, ever.

You heard me. This Christmas was crazy, and I felt I didn’t have the time to devote to my marginalia I would’ve liked to have (thus promoting it, I suppose, to what? Majoralia? Why not.)

Therefore, Little Bird, the sequel to Aurian and Jin, will be coming out September 15th, 2015. (See how all those numbers are divisible by three? That’s because I’m a little obsessive-compulsive. But, you know.) You guys’ll like it. It has a male princess, a guy with a pegleg, and more Jin antics than you can shake a stick at (which I wouldn’t recommend doing, as Jin would probably take the stick out of your hand and stab you with it). Cheerful violence! Well-meaning but morally bankrupt individuals! Future-farting mages! Hurrah!

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL.

OH HOLY GOD NO.

My novella The King’s Might, which I am editing the fuck out of even as we type, will also be available on Amazon, come July, for ninety-nine cents. Because I ROLL like that. And I love a challenge. And, even though it’s something I wrote a while ago, it still ranks pretty high as one of the best things I’ve written.

The King’s Might is the story of Jalith, Northborn heir apparent to the Souchladil throne of Averdan. He’s a very sweet-tempered and stable young person, which is unusual for me, because stable isn’t something I know very much about. When Jalith accidentally (and brutally) injures a couple of the King’s men, he’s sent out to take Census in exile, with only his friend Alair, Seventeenth Prince of the realm, for company. Naturally, he begins to run into trouble almost as soon as he leaves the palace gates–and the more trouble he runs into, the more he begins to realize his place in the world is far grander than he ever cared for it to be. Old school heraldic fantasy with magical creatures, family values, etymologically correct swearing, and Goode Olde Fashioned Young Adult finding yourself.

Way more fun than that pack of gum you were going to buy with your dollar. More fun, even, than the four packs of ramen you were eyeing in the grocery store. A googleplex more fun than the skunked-out PBR they offer at your favorite pub on dollar beer night. Possibly more fun than tipping a stripper just enough to make her angry. Though I don’t know. That last one could be pretty entertaining.

I’ve also started a series of short stories centering on the world of Aurian and Jin. There might be a teeny anthology. I haven’t decided yet.

In 2016, be on the lookout for Death Dealer (last book in the Sundering trilogy) and The Apple and the Tree, my novella about magicianhood, water escapes, and alchemical revival in the antebellum South.

I may also. ON THIS VERY BLOG, torture you with an occasional sestina. God, but I love those things.

Righty-ho. What what. Stiff upper lip. Burrhurrhurp. Colonel Mustard. Trafalgar.

Obviously, I’ve said everything I need to say–which is very different, mind you, from saying everything you want to say.

Writing Wednesday: Reading as a Spectator Sport

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So, how many of you guys have Goodreads accounts?

I mention it because, even though I’ve had one forever, I’ve really only recently started spending time on there. (Here’s my account, if anyone wants to friend me up). It’s pretty cool. All those readers in what is essentially a social media site–talking about books, talking about writing, friending other readers who like similar books.

Sounds great, right?

And, I mean, it is. Of course it is. It’s fun, seeing what books you’ve read that other people have read, why they liked them (or didn’t). But it’s made me think.

Reading used to be a solitary thing. It used to be your entertainment when you were stuck somewhere–on a bus, at a doctor’s office, etc. You might talk about a book briefly with a friend you knew in some other context, or one day a week with a group of helmet-haired ladies in a coffee shop who like to make jokes about how much they love wine (they called this phenomenon ‘book clubs’. It was the beginning of the social reading revolution).

But that book, in a weird way, was yours. What you got from it was yours. How you felt about it was yours.

Now, at your fingertips, there are a thousand opinions about any book you choose. There are strangers from across the world, with lifestyles you don’t know about, to tell you whether or not to read it. And if you have a Kindle–like me–my God, you can tell Amazon how you felt about that book the second you finish it too, joining the cacophany of voices. If your Kindle has WiFi (mine does), you can hop on Twitter or Facebook and share that you finished with the whole goddamn Internet. The discussion can begin. Your alone time is over.

This is terrifying.

I read a lot as a kid. I’m not going to say reading was an escape–I had nothing to escape FROM, I was nine–but it was a great way to fight boredom. Why would I want to poke around the front yard when I could journey back to Ithaca with Odysseus? I was an only child. I had few friends my own age. But there were always books, always a lot of books. And books never changed their minds, never yelled at you, never made you feel any way about yourself you didn’t choose to feel. Books knew how to stand back and let you make your own assumptions, your own choices.

The Internet can’t say the same.

When I read something popular now, I find myself wondering how much of any opinion I have about the book comes from something I’ve read online. Why wouldn’t it? I go online to buy most of them. Amazon reviews are right there. Goodreads reviews are right there. Reviews in newspapers and on television were easy enough to ignore–reviews from ‘people like you’ (they aren’t), not so much. There are so many of them, for one. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone likes to share it.

And my own book? I get a five star review, I’m happy for weeks. How much do I validate myself–how much do I trust my own skill–based on golden stars awarded by ‘people like me’?

Reading has become interactive. It’s become a spectator sport. And I’m not sure it hasn’t lost something for that–a small part, perhaps, of its value, of its worth to our characters and souls.

Don’t get it twisted, I’m an indie writer. This new interactive reading has given me a way to be published on my time and my way that I might not’ve otherwise had. But the social media upkeep–and I am by far and away not one of the people most into it–is immense. Even updating people on what’s on sale when is work. And often, when I turn my Kindle on, I don’t go straight to the books any more. I go to Twitter, or Facebook, or, yes, Goodreads. I check my email. I check my sales.

I actually stopped writing this week, and I did it so I could read.

I might post star ratings on Goodreads for the things I’ve read. If something’s particularly good, I might post a short review. But am I interested in talking about these books in depth, talking about what’s good and bad, what I think should’ve been different? No. Surprisingly, no.

Because I know how I felt about what I read. I don’t need you to tell me, and I don’t need to know what the author had for dinner, or how cute her kids are.

And honestly? You might’ve read the same book. You know how you felt, too. Does it do us any good to talk about it, really? Or does it cheapen it, somehow?

I know this poem is oft-quoted and you’re probably all sick of seeing it, but I wanted to leave you with Keats. On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, specifically. Because I want everybody to think, for just a minute, about poor little John Keats, the hostler’s son and fantastic poet, who, though unable to read Greek, opened Chapman’s Homeric translations in the company of a friend and was transformed.

Next time, when you read something, take a moment to stand, silent, upon a peak in Darien. Nobody around you gives a shit what you thought of the plot devices, or what your level of education and experience is in the reading. Just take what you take from it. Just do it.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse I had been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

THEY: A Love/Hate Grammatical Story

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O RIGHT HI this is free right now.

THEY: A Story of Love and Hate

I’ve been moping around here all day, watching my KDP numbers, trying to think of something to write for you guys. By the way, Aurian and Jin is FREE in ebook form for a few more hours, and I highly recommend you take advantage of that shit.

Anyway. To the story.

‘Write about something you love to hate’, one well-meaning blog prompt suggested. Well, worth a try, eh? I passed up pickles as too boring, my waistline as too banal, my current story, in which I am unabashedly stuck, as too personal.

And then I was commenting on someone’s post on Facebook, right? And I began typing this phrase: “I prefer to go up to a person, and when they–“

Wait, hold the phone.

NOT they. This is singular. A person, not people. So not they, right? He or she.

But GOD, that’s fucking bumpy as hell. I hate ‘he or she’. It smacks of grammarian and becoming the sort of grandparent who says yes, of course, you can have a soda, and then folds his or her (!!!) arms and stares at you smugly, waiting for the apologetically mumbled ‘may’. It smacks of that creative writing professor who failed your critique group poem because, instead of writing about womyn, you Bukowski’d it up by farting out that common faux pas women.

Well, I’m not a sexist piece of shit (not particularly, at least), nor am I a grammar Nazi, nor am I going to be the sort of grandmother who clucks under her breath when you go to lay down.

I do, however, like to be right. I think most of us share this liking. I like, in particular, to be right about grammar, because, honestly, conscious grammar usage is one of the things that, in my opinion, separates a professional writer from someone who really enjoyed writing stories about their favorite animes in high school.

And these days, with the advent of self-publishing as a major force, there isn’t as much to separate these groups of people as there used to be. Maybe this sounds cruel. Hell, it is cruel. But when I’m out looking for something to read, and I’m browsing Kindle Free titles because I’m broke, good grammar is one of the things I look for as an enticement to click that ‘download’ button.

Now, don’t get it twisted. I know that ‘they’ as second person singular isn’t entirely wrong. It’s accepted. Famous writers have used it. But it still has the taint of informality to it, and it still, in my personal opinion, stinks to high heaven. And, dear god, I’m not the only person who thinks so. By FAR.

But it’s not wrong, not exactly, right? So why do I care?

Because, my beauties. No, it’s not exactly wrong; on the other hand, it isn’t exactly RIGHT.

Because I’m serious about reading. I read or reread about a book a day, and yes, I remember a lot about them, and yes, I can answer questions. And I don’t like to waste my time, which is at least precious to me, parsing my way through someone’s thinly veiled and poorly spelled Harry Potter fanfiction. (A note: if it were PHENOMENAL Harry Potter fanfiction, well written and edited, sure. I’m not saying this to get all shitty on folks who write fanfiction. But that’s still not really my thing, okay?)

And when your novel’s tagline is ‘A person can take a lot, but can they survive MORE than a lot?’, let me tell you.

There is a brief and terrible supernova, complete with flashing lights and the buttery scent of dying electrons, in my skull-hole.

I repeat. There is a quantum blood diamond RAVE in my brainpan. 

There is a extrasensory orchestra, complete with supersonic tympani and piccolo solos in colors our limited eyes can’t register, twining within my motherfucking grey matter. And it’s a SHITTY extrasensory orchestra, folks. I can’t identify it, but I know it’s fucking terrible.

And I go: “AW, FUCK THAT.”

And I click next.

Why? Why do I care so much, when I think the alternatives to ‘they’ are clunky at best, contrived at worst? Why, when I’m perfectly willing to use ‘they’ when I’m texting a friend or making a comment on Facebook? Why, when it isn’t even technically wrong?

Because I’m a reader and a writer, and I think your story’s blurb needs to contain not even a WHIFF of grammatical wrongness, because even that whiff takes me out of your pitch and onwards into the cold blue wonderland of grammatical sophistry. Because, even though it’s increasingly unpopular these days to do so, I think we owe the written word a lot of respect. And if you’re a writer, hoping to make a name or a living for yourself using the written word as your toolbelt, I damn well expect you to do the same.

Yes, there are times when ‘he or she’ or ‘a person’ is just too clunky, or doesn’t fit the mood of the scene. And, yes, the universal ‘he’ is a little sexist. And you will never, ever, hear me say you should stick to the rules when they just don’t work for you. Thackeray and Austen, who’re after all kind of hard to argue with, employ ‘they’ as a second person singular pronoun. But here’s the thing, kids: when someone’s making a thoughtful departure from ‘he or she’ for good reasons, you can tell. Just trust me on this: you can tell. You can tell, in fact, because it won’t bother you. You won’t have to look twice at that sentence to figure out what it means, because the writer, in searching for the least distracting way to convey a second person singular pronoun of uncertain gender, determined it to be ‘they’. And, whaddya know. THEY were right.

However, one of these times should NEVER be in your story blurb. Because that handful of words is all you have to hook people in, and, honestly, the right sort of reader DOES care about that sort of thing, and a lot of them, just like everybody else in the whole frigging world, are still on the fence about ‘they’. It’s not wrong, necessarily, but it’s noticeable, and noticeable grammar is a bad, bad thing.

You want ‘the right readers’ to read your book. Why? Because you want to be appreciated by people who know what they’re talking about. It might not always get you far, but it’ll get you somewhere you want to be. Maybe it makes me some sort of ‘ist’, but I’d much rather be respected by ten people who know what they’re talking about than two hundred people who don’t. If I’m a plumber, I want to be recommended by all the good plumbers in town, not the shitty ones. I want the customers who loved me to be the people with five diarrhea-ridden children who use their single toilet every day, not the spinster who takes a dump every two weeks, and only at three AM when no one can see the light go on in the bathroom.

And, maybe I’m an idealist, but it makes long-term sense as well. Because who do you go to for a plumber recommendation: the constipated spinster, or Mr. And Mrs. Dominic Dook?

Wow, that was a serious digression. Anyway.

Questionable grammar pulls you out of the story pitch and makes you blink. It makes you ask, in true grandmotherly style, ‘wait, whose bathroom, again? You said it was THEIR bathroom’. And, if it happens enough, it’s just irritating as fuck. Grammar exists as a way to make language more concise, more universal, more understandable.

I’m a fan of it, as far as that goes. Grammar is a tool, just like outlines and pretty adjectives. But when the tool is more noticeable than the end you’re trying to achieve, it isn’t good sales pitch fodder.

So lay off THEY. Make the sentence plural, or his or hers it up, or revert to the universal masculine. Or, probably a better idea: delete the sentence. Because if you need a 2nd person pronoun of indeterminate gender, it probably isn’t that captivating anyway. If I see it in your story from time to time, I’ll forgive you. Hell, I even do it myself in the right circumstances. But your blurb isn’t the place.

Righty-ho. Off to gaze at my mountainous KDP reports again. Le sigh. If only these sales represented actual money.