Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To

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Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.

Who?

A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).

What?

Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.

When?

I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,

Where?

Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?

How?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.

Why?

Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.

Finishing NaNoWrimo: Last Thoughts

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

So I just, less than an hour ago, finished NaNoWriMo.

I wrote 50,076 words, at final count. I had to fluff a little to get the last bit out and make it 50,000 words. With how I write, this’ll some day turn into a 100,000 word novel, so I’m not too upset about it.

But I feel a little funny.

Y’see, after all that effort–after all that work–I’m not sure it was worth it.

I know. Betraying the cause, etc.

But here’s the thing. I’m a professional. (If I keep chanting that to myself, it’ll one day feel like it’s true). I’ve written over 50K in less than a month before, and it wasn’t during NaNo. So the wordcount honestly doesn’t mean much to me. I already had proof of my own productivity, long before I did this.

The hard truth of it is, I don’t know if this is a story I would have finished, if not for NaNoWriMo. And I don’t mean that in an ‘I would’ve fucked off because I never finish anything ever’ way.

I mean it in a ‘this was not my best story idea’ way. In the last 25K, it lacked inspiration.

Editing can cure a lot, but I don’t know if it can EVER cure a lack of inspiration.

There’s a lot of talk on writing blogs about inspiration not being a real thing, but I think, deep down in our hearts, we all know that isn’t true. Inspiration is what happens when you write the good stuff, and yes, some of your stuff is better than other bits of your stuff.

You can still write without inspiration. I think I just proved that for about 25K words. The question becomes: should you? Really–should you?

I’ll be honest, I usually pick up the pen whenever I have that ‘a-ha!’ moment. Whenever I’m sitting around, thinking about that scene I left my characters in, and I suddenly know what should happen next. This isn’t to say I’m not a productive writer–I’m plenty productive. I know how to force the in-between moments when they need to be forced. In addition to my NaNo novel this month, I wrote two 6K stories, about 5K worth of blog posts, and, oh, we’ll say about 10K on a beloved side project. I can make the numbers add up no problem.

But, in the end, I don’t think NaNo quite leaves you enough time for those ‘a-ha!’ moments. And, while I think being able to force out 50K in a month is a good exercise, and might help folks who have trouble with it with productivity, I don’t know that it’s the right way to go about things for me.

Creative writing isn’t about cranking about copy. That’s an element of it, sure–but it’s an element in the same way composition or perspective are elements in the artistic process. Is it important to understand these things, and be able to use them? Yes. Undoubtedly. You wouldn’t get very far without them.

But a simple understanding of perspective does not a masterpiece make. Like good writing, good art is extremely subjective–and illusive. Long story short, if you don’t think you’re going to paint a masterpiece, don’t stretch the goddamn canvas in the first place.

Because, trust me. If you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got a masterpiece in you, you sure as hell won’t fool anybody else.

With the last half of this one, I haven’t fooled myself, and that is NOT a good sign.

So we’ll take our sad little NaNo novel, and we’ll let it rest for a month. And then, when the holidays are over, we’ll see if we can edit it into the story it should have been. More likely than not, it’ll have to be rewritten: but there’s the germ of a good story in there, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc. etc., aphorism aphorism.

So I won NaNo, but I don’t FEEL like I won. And all the chirpy little automated NaNo messages in my inbox–‘OMG u finished! Wow! We’re so proud of you for some reason!’–wind up ringing false.

I’m hard on myself, a little. But what I’ve done WASN’T an incredible thing, and writing isn’t about wordcount.
And that’s just how it is.

See you on Friday, kids. Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers.

NaNoWriMo: The Tough-Love Pep Talk

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NaNo Pep Talk: Tough Love

I warn you, NaNo brothers and sisters. This isn’t the pep talk you want. This isn’t the pep talk your fifth grade teacher gives you, along with a certificate for participating. This isn’t the pep talk Coach gives you, when you might not win the championship but thanks to Jesus, you’re learning all about your community and how to be a winner at life.

This isn’t the pep talk your girlfriends give you, when you feel like you’re fat but you’re such an amazing person ohmigawd don’t EVER talk down about yourself, like EVER.

Oh, no. This is an Emily pep talk.

To rephrase, for those who don’t know me as well: if I don’t lose followers on this one, I’m doing something wrong.

We’ll start at pissoff level and work our way forward from there. Here we go:

NaNoWriMo is not hard.

I know. You’ve already smashed your coffee cup against the battered edge of your writing desk. There are tears in your red-rimmed eyes.

You’re making this harder than it has to be, and that’s one of the prime reasons people fail at things.

Nano is 50,000 words in thirty days; or, roughly 1,667 words a day. Thousands look scary, right? I mean, if words were dollars, I could just take December off. However, look at it this way:

This post, so far, is 220 words. (Which, for the record, is utilities. So if words are dollars, I’ve paid my utilities for the month already). 

It’s taken me, like, ten minutes to type. So, if I do that eight more times–about eighty minutes, or 1780 words–I’ve done it, and a little extra.

Eighty minutes isn’t a lot of time. That’s lunch break time plus a few minutes while you’re waiting for dinner to cook in the oven. That’s two cigarette breaks at work and that hour you spend around seven on Facebook. I take a bus to work, so I use my time there to write, and guess what? A lot of times, I make my word goal on the fricking bus.

Some people’s daily word count takes longer to type than others. Some people take two hours to my hour and a half, some people take four hours. Some people take forty-five minutes.

You know yourself. You know about how fast you write. Can you do 50,000 words a day? Ask yourself honestly. Think of your day to day life.

Can’t make the time? Don’t do NaNo.

Maybe that sounds cold, but it’s true.

I’m not saying what folks’ll be assuming I’m saying with that: it has nothing to do with how serious a writer you are. It has nothing to do with how good you are, how dedicated, how strongly you’re bound to your Craft, or whatever faux-artiste chicanery you want to spread on the NaNoWriMo Wonderbread.

If you make a commitment, it needs to be a commitment. If you can’t make that commitment, you need to figure out a commitment you can make. But you knew that, right? You’re an adult.

For those who feel it’s a possible commitment:

NaNoWriMo isn’t a fun game, and it isn’t just a chance to finally blorp out that novel you’ve been swishing around for twelve years (though it can be that too, if you’re serious about it). It isn’t another badge on your Girl Scouts sash. It isn’t an artistic endeavor in which your plot needs both arc and trajectory. It isn’t Mount Everest, and you don’t need core training and special gear to climb it.

It’s learning to write a reasonable amount of words, every day. It’s learning to move past perfectionism and into the desert of the word-cruncher. I see a lot of happy blorping on the NaNoWriMo website about your ‘inner editor’, and, while that’s a very cute metaphor, let’s not personify our problems, shall we? Putting faces to our hangups just makes them more human, and Jesus, isn’t that the last thing you want them to be?

Your ‘inner editor’, much like your ‘muse’, comes from the same place as everything else you think. It comes from you. So turn it off. Learn to write slush, if that’s what gets you through. Writing slush is an important learning experience, too: your mind will run places you never thought it could run. And in that slush, after several hard months of editing, are unexpected gems you wouldn’t have come across any other way.

NaNoWriMo isn’t a heartfelt epic quest. You don’t pit your powers against an evil wizard, learn something about yourself, have a heartwarming denouement with medals and wine and dancing. You’re not throwing the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo. You’re just writing a novel. Not even a real novel: you’re writing a first draft of something that might someday become a novel. Think you’ve done something special? You haven’t. Unless you’re in a graveyard sitting between two tombstones, or in a preschool, the person to your right or left could do it, just the same as you.

Why do it, then?

Because not everyone cares enough to do it. You do.

Because you made the commitment: to finish the story, to get the rough stuff out of the way. To try. There are no trophies for participation (well–no real trophies) but there is the trophy of having that finished first draft at the end of the month, and knowing, should you decide to do something with it, that all it’ll take is some tweaking and editing. And, also, there’s the power of knowing you did it, and could do it again.

So don’t even ask yourself if you’re going to finish. Jesus, stop worrying about that. It’s only day eleven, why’re you freaking out about failure already?

Don’t worry. Just write.

Get into it. Write something stupid. Write five straight pages of dialogue. Take a scene to its ridiculous utmost limits. Who cares if it’s twenty pages before you hit your next page break? It’s just NaNo. The writing world’s ultimate freewrite. Enjoy yourself.

The more you enjoy yourself, the more you’ll find your wordcount doubling.

The final draft might be crap, but that’s what NaNoEdMo is for. (Don’t do National Novel Editing Month? I don’t blame you. I’m not sure it exists for anyone other than me, but it’s what other folks call January.) Just enjoy yourself.

I can’t say it enough. Just enjoy yourself. Writing is what you do, right? You’re not getting paid for this, you’re doing it for fun.

So why make it harder than it has to be?

FRIGHT WEEK!

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Lovely original image by jaime cooper, on freeimages.com.

Okay, I have a real post coming up for you, but I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately and I have a project to tell you about. And I am JUST. SO. EXCITED. And full of coffee. AND EXCITED.

Anyway.

This is like my favorite time of year ever. Working retail has effectively ruined Christmas for me, and has also effectively meant I rarely get home for Thanksgiving. My birthday is boring, and I’m not religious, so Easter doesn’t mean much. Valentine’s Day is overhyped.

So that leaves me with Halloween. Which is all right, because I can’t think of a holiday more meant to fit me–we can wear a lot of black, talk about serial killers, and not pretend to be thankful for things? ALL RIGHT. That’s like the best holiday an Emily could ask for. AND I get to dress up like a zombie? Megasweet.

AND I GET CANDY?

You’re fucking kidding me!

Anyway, with that said:

I’m going to do something a little different this year, and celebrate this lovely holiday with SEVEN DAYS OF FLASH FICTION. Yes. For the week leading up to Halloween (starting tomorrow, 10.24), I’ll post a mini horror story (1,000 words or less) with fun overfiltered horrorshow graphics ONCE A DAY. (Isn’t that font just full of camp?) Why, you ask? What good can this possibly do?

Probably none. But it’ll be fun.

An advanced warning, just in case you don’t usually follow this blog and don’t know me: none of these stories will be appropriate for little ones. Unless, of course, you take a laissez-faire view of parenting, and your bitty monsters have already seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or heard you drop the f-bomb in traffic. In which case, bring ’em on. 

We’ll see how I do. I don’t usually write a lot of horror, so this might be pretty terrible. But that’s what this blog is here for, right? Experiments. On you, my captive audience. Muahaha.

How and When to Fail

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As promised.

How (And When) to Fail

I know. You’re looking at the title of this post, and and the noble glitter of self-sacrificing patience has come into your eye. “Emily,” you say gently. “I don’t think I need help failing. It’s the succeeding I could use some help with.”

Well, surprise surprise. I think you’re wrong. (I always think you’re wrong. Haven’t you been reading my blog? Don’t you know that?)

Every writer, my dears, has a slush pile, and every slush pile exists because every writer isn’t churning out Nobel Prize for Literature winning palimpsests every palimpsesting second. If you continued writing every story in your slush pile until completion, you would

A) Have wasted a shocking amount of time, and
B) Have produced a shocking amount of things to start fires with.

And I note that ‘produced your masterwork’ is nowhere in that description.

For real, though, let’s talk about this. Some stories–well, they’re failures. You started them, something went wrong, the magic went somewhere else, you got distracted. The question is, should you let them rot in the wastes of Slushpilia? When–and why–is it okay to fail? The answer is simple:

When the Magic is Gone.

I want you to note: I am NOT talking about ‘when it gets a teensy eensy bit hard to write it for a day or two’. When this happens, slog on.

I’m talking about that moment you realize you’ve patched fatal holes in your plot so often your story is more plothole correction than story. When you read a few pages out loud to somebody, and they nod and smile and ask you “so what happened, again?” If you’re juggling so many corrections your outline looks like a football play, it’s time to consider giving it up and starting from scratch. You don’t need to edit, again. The damage is too great for a mere edit. You need to rewrite. Whether the story is worth rewriting, I can’t tell you–only you can decide that.

Being a writer is a little like being a magician in some regards: you put a lot of work into something, a whole hell of a lot, but the last thing you want is for someone to see where you’ve been working. Your story has to look as effortless and instantaneous as a big stage illusion–when people can see where you’ve had to work for something, it loses credibility as a world of its own. If you can’t patch it seamlessly, don’t patch it. Rewrite it, or leave it to moulder.

Speaking of rewrites:

If You Like It, Don’t Be Afraid to Write It Again.

Rewriting is tough. It sucks. You start to question your own usefulness on this planet, whether you’re going to be writing the same story, over and over again, until you finally die, and whether or not hell is going to be a sad Sisyphean endlessness of the same goddamn story from here to Ragnarok. (Do you like mixing mythologies? I sure do.)

But rewriting is useful. I actually like to do it, on some things–when my first draft, for instance, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting in the first few pages. A rewrite brings everything together–you’re writing, after all, in full knowledge of what’s going to eventually happen (I’m a pantser. No outlines for moi. Have I mentioned that?). When you rewrite, you automatically have more control over the story. And, oftentimes, a story you were unable to complete the first time winds up being a VERY good story the second time around, when you’ve had a chance to iron out the plot or what have you.

Again, though, I’ve got to tell you:

I don’t know when you’ve failed.

Only you know that, Skipper. But you can feel it in your bones–trust me on that one. And what you do after that is up to you. Trick is,

Failing is Always a Learning Experience.

There are some times when you’ve had a terrible idea, and your execution was terrible, and you’re just going to leave those five or ten pages to molder on your hard drive until the kingdom comes, and that’s just fine, kthxbye.

But even those shitty ten pages happened because you had an idea. And you’ll have that idea, should you need it, forever.

That failed novel idea about the laudanum-guzzling sailor with a speech impediment who solves petty crimes? It might not’ve worked out, me matey, but perhaps you could use him as a supporting character somewhere else. Perhaps, in your steampunk adventure novel, your main character needs to be told the airship’s moving hard to thtarboard at least once. My main trilogy character, Jin, was actually a supporting character in a failed novel I wrote about ten years ago–and part of the reason it failed, I realized when I looked back on it, was because Jin (then named Jinnever) and her unlikely husband were actually far too interesting to be side characters. They stole the show whenever they came onto the scene.

So they got their own story. A much better story than the one I abandoned, all those years ago. I stopped working on the old story and moved on. I’m glad I did.

Because failure isn’t the shitty thing it’s painted to be. It’s a learning experience, and a damned good one. Even when you’ve failed utterly, you’ve still created something, and there’ll come a day–maybe a week from now, maybe twenty years from now–when that something will come in handy.

And if you keep trying to hash out your failures forever–if you buy in to the whole ‘never give up’ mentality–you’ll write glossy, completed failures. And nobody wants that.

Only you can tell when something is working, once more: but trust me. You can tell. And it’s worth rewriting a few thousand (possibly tens of thousands) of words just to make that happen. No one likes failing–certainly not I–but if it has to happen a few times to make your successes possible, then that’s just how it is. Failure is a part of the writing process. A big one.

Why You Should Write Short Stories

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Hey, guys. Sorry this post is so late, but it’s been a busy morning. I made it. That has to count for something.
Anyway.

It’s been a busy morning because I’ve been finishing up and editing a story for an AU anthology (and waiting fifteen minutes for a damned cup of coffee, but that’s irrelevant). Doing it got me to thinking about something I hear from a lot of writers:

A lot of us–a damned big-shame lot of us–never write short stories. Or: we try to write short stories, and they turn into novels.

Why is this such a shame? Because short stories are like the Adderol to your novel’s cocaine. (Insert some less offensive metaphor here, if you can think of one that’s still apt). Finishing a short story might not give you quite the buzz finishing a novel does, but it’s still damned fun, and it’s a good deal less involved. You can crank out a five thousand word short story in a day, if you feel like it. You can crank out two, if you have nothing else to do.

And writing within a word limit can teach you a loo-oooot about plot pacing.

Think of a short story as a novel without all the fluff. You need a complete story–a complete plot, rounded characters, a believable setting–but you need it in a fairly small amount of words. You need, my dears, to learn the art of economy to make it work. You need to make your action–and your other stuff–fit the size of your undertaking.

So here’s some stuff to think about, as you write:

1) Choose an idea that fits your word limit.
If it’s one hundred word flash fiction, the action can be something as simple as dropping a flower. If it’s five thousand words, we want to know why the flower was dropped, what happens before and after, why the flower is significant, and all the action that descends from this flowerful droppage. If it’s more than five thousand words, we want more action. Honestly: we probably want more action if it’s over five HUNDRED words.

But there needs to be action. There needs to be plot. There needs to be character. And it needs to fit the size of your story.

If you pick a plot that’s too simple for your word limit, your story’s going to be fluffy and dull. If you pick one that’s too complicated, it’s going to be confusing (and, therefore, dull). Character-based though much of my writing is, even I have to acknowledge the importance of plot as infrastructure–if you don’t frame your dwelling soundly, no matter how pretty it is, it’s going to fall down.

2) Keep within your word limit.
We’ve all done it: you started out to write a 10,000 word story, and you wound up writing a 500,000 word trilogy. Whoops! Tee hee! Aren’t you an adorable little overachiever? Doesn’t that just prove you’re soooo totally committed to your cause?

No. It just proves you can’t write a short story.

For those of us who tend to literary effusiveness, the short story is a tool, and one of some worth. It teaches us to trim, to cut, to cinch in our literary verbosity. It teaches us not to use three words (like I did in that previous sentence–natch!) when one will do. I started a novel, once, with some stunning (to me, at least,) visual imagery and a plot that moved like treacle. It took me owing something to a publication on VERY short notice for me to look at that half-finished novel and realize: all that time, it had been a short story. It didn’t have enough of a plot to work as a novel. So: I relieved it of its pretense and rewrote it as it was meant to be. And it was much better.

Valuable lessons learned.

3) What’s important?
This is a subset of item two, really, but it’s worth mentioning in a separate context. To keep within your word limit, you’re going to have to think pretty hard about what’s important in your story and what isn’t. Short stories will teach you how to kill your darlings, and they’ll teach you how necessary that sometimes is.

In a work of fiction under 10,000 words, the main question you need to be asking yourself is:

Does this scene do two things?

Does it show your main character’s bravery and get the toothpaste in the picture for that cavity-fighting scene that happens later on? Does it provide a crucial amount of the mother’s backstory while casually reinforcing how hard it is to find a good dentist in town?

If it doesn’t accomplish at least two purposes, you could probably use those limited words a little better. People say every scene needs to mean something in the course of your story, and yeah, that’s true. Otherwise, you just rewrote Tropic of Cancer. In a short story, however, take that advice and double it: now everything needs to have two purposes, and you need to be a literary Macguyver.

4) Experiment!
The other great thing about short stories, kids: you’ve got a LOT less editing to do when you’re finished. It’s easier to stay in control of a shorter story. There’s less time, as it happens, for your faults as a writer to boil to the surface. You can think about the bare-bones mechanics of the story a little less, simply because there are less of them.

Therefore: short stories are a great place to experiment. Been debating an attempt at second person present for a while? Write a short. Just kind of curious how a story written from the POV of a dying star would look? Dabble all you like. Want to write a circular tale where the end and beginning lines are both the onomatopoeaic sound of an elephant’s ear wax dribbling down a concrete wall? I reckon that sound is sshlrrp. Have fun. If you find something you like, you can craft a heavier plot and novelize later.

5) Learn to accept defeat.
I know, nobody likes to see that one. But there are times–a LOT of times–where the thing you’ve been trying so hard to save just isn’t going to work. You’ve tried to patch it up so many times it’s more deus ex-type patch than story. There’s a plot hole that’s too big, a character inconsistency that’s too prominent. And in these cases, you have two choices: either put the thing down, ostensibly to give it a rest but really probably never to pick it up again, or start over.

I’ve had to start a TON of short stories over, and while it’s never pleasant, let me say this: it gives you the experience to recognize when this needs to happen with a novel, and it gives you the courage to LET it happen. Not everything’s a keeper. Everyone has a literary slush pile. Don’t be ashamed, but likewise: don’t be afraid of the work. If you really feel like there’s something in there that could be saved if you just start over, start over.

Wow. That’s probably going to be my next blog: When to Quit. It’s an important thing and it never gets talked about.
At any rate, love.

EFR

Writing: Keeping a Notebook

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Okay. So that picture isn’t of my current notebook. That is, actually, a notebook of mine from college, a million or so years ago. I found it in my studio when I was going through some drawers. Looking through it, sampling its fascinating combination of French homework and pretentious teenaged bullshit–well. I guess it’s finally served its purpose, in that it inspired me to write something. Namely, a blog entery ooo-oon….

Using A Notebook

Let all that meta sink in, if you will.

Anyways, I think using a notebook is important, but not for the reasons a lot of people say it is. When I’m trying to think of something to write, I almost never thumb through mine. The statement ‘Ooh, I know I had a good idea, but I can’t remember it–thank God I wrote it down!’ has possibly never been uttered near my word processing device. Good ideas I usually remember no problem.

If you’re one of those people who tends to think of something really, really worth doing and then promptly forget about it, I guess it might be worth your time to have a notebook for the above reason. But, if this doesn’t happen often:
why write shit down?

Well, for one, I hope the big brawny ideas that come striding, lumberjacklike, out of your writerbrain aren’t the only reason you keep a notebook. I keep mine f’rinstance, mostly for minutae–names I like, facts I didn’t know, words I don’t recognize. Those things (along with  shopping lists, reminder notes, and confirmation numbers scrawled in the top margin) make up the majority of my little notebooks.

Are these things important, overall? Maybe. Probably not. But they give you a good and writerly habit: the habit of curiosity.

Good writing–dependable writing–is twenty percent genius and eighty percent follow-through. A notebook encourages you to explore the things that’ve made you curious–find definitions for new words, find out the history of funny names, look up a process or an item that you found interesting. If you’re not sure about a detail (such as: how much control does a game designer have over the game’s final content?) write it down so you can look it up later. This serves the excellent double function of making sure you remember things you might be writing incorrectly, and indulging that curiosity habit I’m talking about. Looking these things up might, after all, show you that you need to take your story in a new direction to make it work–or give you mental fodder for other stories, later on down the line.

Again: keeping a notebook doesn’t have to be a super-organized thing. It doesn’t have to be something you live or die by. But when you have a chance, it’s good to indulge.

My notebook from the Distant Collegial Past doesn’t look much different from my notebooks now. I still use the tiniest notebook I can write in comfortably–small enough, preferably, to fit in a back pocket. No, I don’t give a shit if they’re Molskine. I’ve got a whole slew of them in the studio: cheap drugstore notebooks, the kind you used to be able to buy at CVS for fifty cents. They’re not particularly organized, and once I’ve looked up what I’m going to look up from them I rarely look back at them, except when I’m cleaning or feeling reminiscent. They’re undated, because I’m not a damn scrapbooker, but I can usually figure out which ones are from when, more or less.

But the process of writing down things you notice, even if you never look at them again, will help you remember them better. That alone is a good reason to keep a notebook. And I have to say, though I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me:

How you keep one matters, too.

I know, I know. You’ve gotta do what works for you. I’m not going to stop you, but I do have to say: I don’t think it works as well to do it on your phone or tablet or what have you. I think it makes the whole process take longer, and speed is what you want–if writing stuff down in a notebook is going to be difficult, you’re not going to do it. A bitty book and a pen, in easy reach in your pocket or the confines of your purse, is faster than a six hundred dollar electronic device. Also, if it rains, your pen and paper will forgive you in a way your phone won’t.

So, once more: my notebooks don’t contain the genius-bombs that hit at four in the morning. Contrary to popular belief, those’re usually pretty easy to remember. They don’t contain lines of unabashed beauty, the unfinished sestinas of public transit induced anguish (at least, the ones past college don’t). They contain, mostly, a wilderness of strange names, snippets of conversation, odd questions (‘who makes slaughterhouse bolt guns?’, says one page of my college notebook). And, of course, phone numbers, shit in French, and life stuff (‘Remember toilet paper PLEASE PLEASE.’. Or, most mysteriously: one page with the word DACTYL written on it in block caps).

There are no fun clues to the person I used to be in there. No tinsel-sparkles of effervescent young genius. I rarely look at the notebooks, because they’ve already served their purpose: simply by writing this shit down, I remember it better. Most of the notes are meaningless to me now, useless (such as this random picture of the Pimp Coat of Christ, which I couldn’t for the life of me give you context for present-day:)

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But it helped me to do it. It gave me a reason to explore the world a little bit more, for a little bit longer. And for that, it’s worth doing.

How about you guys? Do you keep notebooks? How? What do you write in them? Do you feel like it helps you?

Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living

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Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living

Since I was a very little girl–six, maybe, or seven–I thought I wanted to be a writer.

Of course, I had a very romanticized view of what ‘being a writer’ was. Especially in high school. It involved writing longhand and leatherbound books and having a study, whatever the hell that is. It involved typewriters and Hemingway in Cuba and suffering, which is like black licorice crack for Troubled Young Artists. It involved suffering for art, which is like black licorice crack coated in doughnuts and unicorns.

I guess I was more realistic than some. Instead of imagining my Pulitzer prize and immense popular appeal, I imagined myself in some barely-heated Parisian garret somewhere, imagining my Pulitzer. It was all very meta and clever. I smoked a lot of clove cigarettes for that dream.

But I’m an adult now. I’ve supported myself for a while. I know that starving isn’t romantic, and it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t fun. And it isn’t proud, either–you beg your friends for twenty bucks. You beg your parents for twenty bucks. You think about payday loans. You see the interest rates, you know what a royal screwing it is, and you still think about payday loans. Your power gets turned off, you remember that oh yeah, electronic writing devices don’t work without a charge, and you discover that writing longhand by the light of a single candle is not only irritating, but it also hurts, like, a lot, and there’s a reason word processing is a step up, and boy your hand is, like, burning.

So here’s the thing. I can pay my water bill with writing, and that’s enough for me.

People often, I think, confuse the idea of ‘writing professionally’ with the idea of ‘taking writing seriously’. They are, in fact, independent concepts, and one can very much exist without the other.

I take writing seriously. There’s nothing I take more seriously, except possibly soft-boiling eggs (which is a serious subject. Pull them fresh and cold out of the fridge and put them into about 1/2 inch of water in a saucepan at med-high heat, rolling boil. Cover, obviously. Put them in there for exactly six minutes and thirty seconds; pop ’em out and run them under cold water for half a minute or more. Crack and peel with the soft puckered fingers of a baby angel. This gentleman got it absolutely right, and it’s the only thing I’ve tried that works every time.)

Anyway, digressing.

Writing professionally is sitting down at your word processing device in the morning with the intention of making rent. It’s trying to pay for your fashionable Parisian garret, your two-pots-a-day coffee habit, and all those cloves with that 800 word article about dog shaving you wrote last week for the Indy, which took two weeks to research. It’s squabbling over the exact worth and value of your craft with people who’ll make a lot more money off it than you will, and discovering that (surprise!) these people who’re making money off it don’t think your art is nearly as valuable as you do.

Me? I like the illusion my art is a priceless pearl in the oceans of crude commerce. Do I know it’s an illusion? Oh, yeah. Trust me, I do. But I like it.

So I’m content to halfass. I get that royalty payment, I smile pleasantly, and I go on about my workday. Because I have a job for paying my bills–one that I like fairly well, one that doesn’t keep me stressed out or working at odd hours. I have this low-stress job because my bills are small and my needs are simple, and it gives me time to do what I love doing.

When you want to write professionally, a lot of times what you really want is to look your friends and family in the eyes and say ‘I’m a writer’ when they ask you what you’re up to for work. And that’s awesome. Trust me, I wish I got to do it. I hear it helps you talk to people at bars.

But that isn’t my dream. Am I owed payment, for what I do? My answer, surprisingly, is: no.

Because I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid. In a lot of cases, I do do it even though I don’t get paid. Because not making your dream your profession is a luxury and a blessing, even if there’s some stigma attached to it. It enables you to write what you want when you want to write it.

Mind you, I write every day. Probably somewhere between 1,000 to 5,000 words a day, seven days a week, depending on the time I have and how I’m feeling. If we take a low median average and say I write 1,500 words a day, that makes for 547,500 words a year. It’s probably more than that, but you get my point. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, so I can say I’ve got Heinlein’s (or whoever’s–who did say that first? Ms. Woodward over here did some research, God bless her), million words pretty well covered, several times over.

I’m prolific. I’m clever. And I’m pretty damn good.

Am I a hobbyist? Yes. I don’t pay rent with my writing. But I’m a damn dedicated hobbyist. And I take my little hobby very, very seriously.

And I think, maybe, happiness for a lot of young ‘unsuccessful’ authors lies in a similar place. Don’t worry about other people taking you seriously. That’s, well, always been unproductive. Don’t worry if your resume can list ‘freelance writer’ as an occupation. Should writing be a hobby for you, or a profession? I don’t know. I can’t make that call for you. But I can tell you that, either way, it demands attention and respect.

So stop freaking out about how ‘professional’ you and your ‘author platform’ look. Worry about how good your writing is. Worry about what you’re learning, what you’re gaining, and not whether you deserve to be called an author. Nobody other than you cares about that. Trust me.

And if you can’t pay the bills with writing–and you won’t be able to, at least not at first–find yourself a job. Starving conditions leave your mind awfully full of ways to cook the three hot dogs remaining to you on a piece of tinfoil, and shockingly empty of plot devices and clever synecdoche. If you respect your goddamn art, you won’t do that to it. Writing with no power on is, let me tell you, not the primo environment for ars poetica composition. It’s not the primo environment for much, in fact, except cooking on Sterno cans and going to bed when the sun sets.

Job going to cut into your literary time? Sure it will. Make more time.

Because the illusion that not having a job will allow you to ‘make more time’ for writing is just that–an illusion. Unless you happen to have a patron who believes in you, the alternative is starving, which leaves you about seven days of time before you’re too weak to do shit.

So good luck to all of you. Write well, and don’t waste away while you’re doing it.

Writing: Women in Fantasy

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Writing: Women in Fantasy (and Four Common Tropes I’m Bored With)

I know, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these ‘Things I’m So Damn Tired Of’ posts. And you guys have been so lonely without them. So very, very lonely.

Today’s liberal dose of hatred and despair is leveled at four fantasy heroine types who, especially in YA fiction, have become alarmingly prevalent. Now, mind you, there are good ways to do everything, and even these four maidens of mystery can be done well. But what I describe here is not the right way to do them. It’s the right way to make my fillings ache.

A brief note about ‘how to characterize women in fiction’, a subject I see touched on periodically, and grace with a brief chuckle every time I view it: you don’t have anything special to prove, when you write a woman. You don’t have to go out of your way to make her ‘badass’. Women, like men, have a remarkable range of personality traits, and a woman is no more likely to be weak or unlikeable because she’s a seamstress than a man is because he’s a tailor. A girl doesn’t have to be a tomboy or hold a sword to be awesome. A lady can, in fact, be ‘strong’ and ‘badass’ with four kids and a job as a laundress. It’s one of the weaknesses of the fantasy genre today, I think, that folk feel the need to shove a sword in someone’s hand and wrap her in chainmail to make her ‘strong’.

On the other hand, if your lady is a fighting lady–make sure she really is a fighting lady. Not everyone in a medievalesque fantasy universe runs around with a sword and fighting skillz–why did your fighting lady choose this path? What’s made her a soldier? And, for the record–it doesn’t always have to be revenge. I mean, think about it–you probably have a few friends who’ve served in the armed forces. Did they join the military for revenge?

Really?

…or did they do it because they wanted to serve their country? For the pay, maybe? Because they came from a military family? Because Dad said it was either that or go to college? Or maybe, maybe, just because they wanted to. Not everyone clutching a hauberk has to be doing it for some Great Noble Purpose.

Anyway. Without further ado:

1) Princess Hellion
She’s a princess. Which is great and all, except she totally would rather be out in the woods fighting and stuff. Except when she’s forced into fancy (usually elaborately described) gowns, has to use all those somehow-still-considered-useless Courtly Deportment lessons, and attends balls which, for reasons unknown to the plot, take up like a whole chapter. Where she meets Prince Charmingly Not Like All Those Other Men Who Expect Her to Wear A Dress All The Time. And engages in witty and pleasantly hostile repartee. Because she’s badass, which means she Says What She Means. And she’s also a princess, which means she expects to have her own way all the time, which is what princesses are like always, right?

The Breakdown: I’m so tired of the plucky princess trope. Princesses learn to behave, too–probably more seriously than the rest of us, since being shitty and offending the NExt Country ambassador can have serious consequences. If she’s really that much of a spoiled pill, guess what? People–probably the whole court–are going to despise her. No one likes a brat. Especially not as many people as like this particular type of character in fiction. Her father always adores her, Prince Charmingly Et Al. falls in love with her. Why?

How to Do It Right: Aerin, from Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, is a little Mary Sueish, but she’s still one of the best heroines of this type. She’s a princess who likes to fight, sure, and she’s got a temper–but she’s also a genuniely likeable person, and she works hard for her dragon-slaying rights. She gets scarred, gets hurt, and makes sacrifices to save her country and earn the respect she deserves.

2) The Tortured Waif
It’s A Tragedy, Whatever Happened.

It’s a tragedy, because it left this young woman with total, like, scars. Not real scars, no. Those make people ugly. But emotional scars, totes. Usually, this is a princess or duchess or some other purebred lovely floaty ladything. Often, for reasons I can’t figure out, she’s associated with magic.

The Breakdown: Something happened, and now a whole major plotline just has to be devoted to this girl getting over it. Because there is nothing more fascinating than watching pretty people not-cry in public after weeping in private. (The villainess version of this, by the way, is even more common: the Lady Twisted With Revenge).
But she’s so strong, you know? So strong it takes her three hundred and fifty pages to ‘let go’, whatever that means.

How to Do It Right: Gonna be straight up honest, I can’t think of a single good example of this being done well right now. Usually, it’s employed more in soppy fantasy romances, anyway. My long term feelings are, if you need Great Trauma to prove how strong your character is, enough attention hasn’t been paid to characterization.

3) The Innocent Rogue
Her eyes twinkle, her fingers are nimble. She usually has freckles (and she is, entirely too often, an unknowing heiress to something or other, hidden away or abandoned at birth, etc.). She’s got a set of daggers on her, when she’s scaling buildings and scampering along roofs in the underbelly of the city. When she’s acting as the blind at a fancy ball (because there’s always a damn fancy ball in these stories) she’s charming and devastatingly beautiful and full of bon mots.
But, much though she loves a rogue’s life, she never really does anything nasty. Because thievery, as long as it’s happening in a fantasy world and not to you, is charming. Right? Right? It’s okay. She’ll save the world somehow in the end.

Breakdown: Why do people steal? Usually because they don’t have enough of stuff. This girl would either be a fairly unwilling thief, or have some nasty personality parts hidden deep, deep down. Either way, I don’t know that she’s the lady you really want as your queen later on, when she discovers her ‘heritage’ and suddenly goes legit. That whole ‘taxes’ thing is going to seem tempting.

Done Well: There were parts of this novel I disliked, but Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn deals with this character type well and believably. The main character’s brief life of crime happens first unwillingly, and then to a reasonable purpose. She’s also refreshingly clumsy at balls. Because, you know. She’s never been to one before.

4) The Woman Warrior
She’s mean with a sword. She’s struggled, sometimes quite a bit, to become The Woman Warrior (usually the only woman warrior in the story). She doesn’t have much truck with girly shit, like wearing dresses and balls and stuff (though she will, like fricking always, wind up at one eventually. Because even this attitudinal lady has to be seen in a dress. Because she’s a lady, and she has to have a softer prettier side for Love Interest to be Interested). Her movements are graceful, her sword is swift, her attitude is either repressed anger or more of those damned witty bon mots. She’s the fantasy world’s tomboy: and, like all tomboys, nobody would like her if she wasn’t still pretty. Right? Right?

Breakdown: A real soldier has spent some time being a soldier. If you’ve led a lot of campaigns, you’re probably sunburned, scarred, hoarse-voiced from shouting commands at all those assholes who don’t know as well as you do. Even if you’ve managed to escape all that, there are points when you’re on a battlefield killing people where you’re covered in blood and effluvia and your hair looks like shit. You’ve got some serious muscle, and, since you’re a warrior through and through, you don’t immediately lose your famed fighting abilities as soon as you gain a love interest.
Because no one really looks good in chainmail. No one.
I’m not saying a gal has to ugly up to do this, but come on. Soldiery is hard. Being in battle is hard. It doesn’t leave you with flawless moon-pale skin, and being around a ton of soldiers doesn’t leave you full of social graces.

Done Well: I’m going to be a self-promoting bitch and refer you to my own book here, of course. Because I do things well. I do.
The other thing that comes to mind, curiously enough, is from a YA series I loved as a kid: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books. While Alanna gets irritatingly close to the word ‘plucky’ sometimes–and you guys can imagine how I feel about ‘plucky’–she fights hard and trains hard to become a knight, and her fiery personality comes across as a drawback as well as a bonus. And, though I think Pierce still pretties her up sometimes, she takes no shit. She’s also short, which I think is what endeared these books to me as a kid. Short people power.

Notice some trends here? These hated ladies are always pretty, always young, almost always white, usually noble, and there’s always a ballroom scene. (A ballroom scene, for those not operating at full capacity this morning, might not actually take place in a ballroom. It’s that reveal scene, where you see your ‘rugged’ heroine in a dress for the first time. You know the one. Oh, god, you do.)

There’s no proper way to portray a woman in a fantasy world. Laundresses, farmgirls, and servants are just as common–honestly, probably more common–than the nobility that makes up 90% of fantasy novels.

And another thing–women aren’t always young. Or single. Or childless. Or beautiful. ‘Strong women’ don’t always hate dresses and despise the court. I think it’s time we moved away from the pretty young tomboy and looked in on the other ninety percent of fantasy womanhood.

A badass is still a badass, even in pink–and I’m tired, so very tired, of that Disneyesque ‘ballroom scene’ where a tomboy has to dress up and let her hair down for some forsaken notion of ladyhood and ‘becoming beautiful’. When you do that one scene, you’re discrediting femininity terribly. You’re saying, essentially, that no one has noticed this woman is a woman until she puts on a dress. And, through elimination, you imply that there’s only one way to be a woman–and that way isn’t ‘strong’ or ‘badass’.

So, really. If you want to write a good fantasy female, take out the motherfucking ballroom scene. Tempting though it is, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors. You can write a lady who is young, attractive, ‘plucky’, mysteriously parentless, and all those popular things. I’m not saying you can’t. But please, please, be realistic, and take a second before you do to consider the other ninety-eight percent of women out there, and whether or not you might have a stronger story with one of them.

Writing: Popular Pedantry

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Popular Pedantry

I’m going to start this story with its own little story. We’re going to talk, for a few seconds, about the food stamp ‘issue’ in America.

See, there are people looking to beef up food stamp regulations in this country–beef them up to keep folks from buying ‘luxury items’ such as soda, junk food, steak, or lobster. I don’t want to get too into the politics of this–I’ll just say that, if I were on food stamps and they banned me buying soda, I would be a quivering pile of unhealthy and certainly unemployable jelly for a period of months as I got over my Diet Dr. Pepper addiction. Afterward the state would undoubtedly be paying my living wages, as well as for my breakfast, while I picked up the pieces of my shattered sodaless life.

Anyway.

The reason I’m bringing it up is the same reason lawmakers and pushy online commentators bring it up. The reasons folks have been giving for supporting such a bill have little to do with an overextended budget, or a lobster shortage, or what have you. While the purpose of the bill is essentially to curb abuse of SNAP benefits, that isn’t why people support it. The reason folks support this bill is because, at some point in their lives, they’ve been standing in line at the grocery store, and they’ve seen someone pay for steak or lobster or what have you with food stamps. This whole issue blew up because of a receipt some lady found in a parking lot this one time.

I know, right?

Your first question, upon reading this statement, was probably the same as mine: why the fuck were you paying this much attention?

I can honestly say I’ve been standing next to a stranger while he or she pays for groceries maybe, oh, .05% of the time I’ve spent in a grocery store line. Usually, I’m back a polite distance, reading the tabloid headlines. Sometimes, it takes me a minute to notice they’ve left.

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed what card they used to pay.

And that’s been my main reaction to these restriction attempts. Not oh no poor people don’t deserve lobster or gah rich entitlement. It’s been: wow. Are we really this open about our own nosiness now?

We spend a lot of time (and I blame the internet for this, though it’s always happened to a lesser degree) concerning ourselves with other peoples’ business. What women wear, what poor people eat, chance remarks by some C-list celebrity.

And, in writerly circles: about typos and grammar.

Why are we all so suddenly concerned about the Oxford comma, someone’s placement of who and whom?

Don’t get it twisted, if someone published a novel and the grammar therein is execrable, by all means, point it out. This is a serious problem, and it denotes sloppy editing. If you didn’t care enough to figure out the basics, I don’t care enough to give you five stars. My reasoning for this has nothing to do with me liking you as a person, or caring deeply about English grammar–your lack of care interfered with my ability to read your story. It made your story crappier. It lessened my ability to enjoy your novel. A more conservative person than I might point out that your tax dollars are going into that food stamp purchase–so I might argue your money went into the purchase of this sloppily edited book. Therefore, if the grammar got in the way of you enjoying your money’s worth–well. Mayhap the literary steak and lobster of grammatical license isn’t to be given.

Y’see, grammar exists for one reason, and one reason only. English grammar is the set of rules that help a reader decipher meaning in the complicated code of the English language. If your shitty grammar gets in the way of someone understanding what you said, you have a major problem, and you need to correct it.

If, however, your use of the fucking Oxford comma doesn’t meet Chicago style handbook regulations, boo hoo. The situation where an Oxford comma is necessary is relatively rare, so why is the internet blowing up about it?

The fact is, typos and grammar errors happen. Every once in a while, you’re going to make one, and you (and your proofers) are going to miss it. It’ll burn you, when you’re rereading your published masterpiece. It sure will. But it happens. Even if you think it hasn’t happened. You might not even have noticed it yet.

I’m mentioning all this because I picked up an indie novel recently. I noticed, in perusing reviews, a reader had complained about the grammar in the novel, and had given a three-star review for that reason. So I opened the book with some trepidation, but hell, it was only a buck.

Imagine my surprise when the grammar was just fucking fine. There were a handful of typos, and a few occasions where I might’ve made a run-on sentence a little shorter, but overall–just fucking fine.

Were those small infractions really worth dinging a story two stars?

I didn’t think so. The story was good, the plot cohesive, the characters well drawn. I enjoyed it. I had no trouble reading it. I’ve occasionally seen more typos in ebooks released under a major publisher.

My point: we sometimes use grammar criticism for our own nefarious purposes. We use it as a way to bolster our own literary appearance and writerly status. This needs to stop. Grammar is a tool, and a story is infinitely more than the tools it was built from. I’m a grammarian and an amateur etymologist by nature–I love me some words, basically–but even I recognize there are occasional faults in the machine, even (grammar gestapo, go ahead and gasp) places where poor grammar works better than perfect. If it works, reward that.

Writing is a magical and mystical process, in which you put a bunch of typed characters together and, if you do it well enough, images are generated in someone else’s brain. It’s a little bit like telepathy. If poor grammar stops or damages the flow of these images, by all means, ding someone a star. If it doesn’t–if, basically, you only noticed it because you were looking–consider letting that dangling gerund phrase go.

In short: stop looking in other people’s literary carts. Mind your own business–when reading a novel, the business of a reader–and ask whether or not the story worked for you, not whether or not it plays by the rules.

And, again, to quiet the hounds: if you feel your literary ‘tax dollars’ are being misspent, do what the food stamp folks are doing. Take to the internet and complain about it. Bad grammar might be a reason the story does not work. Ruinous grammar is, well, you got the idea from the adjective.

But a typo or two? Not the mistake of the century. Not lifting your out of the story too much.

And a note: if you must be Gina Grammar to someone’s self-published ebook, at least be helpful. You ‘found a few typos?’ List them, and where they are. Ebooks can be republished at a few hours’ notice. If you’re kind enough to list, the author will probably thank you. Nobody wants typos, and it’s far easier to correct them when someone tells you where they are.