How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

Here We Go Again

Hello, everyone!

So, if you guys have read my posts on Tuesday and Thursday, you’ve probably already guessed what this post is going to be about.

As I stated in my first two posts, the first writing assignment for my fiction class included the following general guidelines: You will be provided with one line of text each day for a week (excluding Sunday), and you are to use that line as a starting point to fill the lined side of a 4 x 6 index card with text. You can’t look at your note cards right after you’ve written them. Instead, wait to the end of the week, and then type what you’ve written into a single document. You can then make all the revisions that your heart desires.

So, for those of you who still want to follow in my class’ footsteps, I’ll provide you with the last prompt (and my own response, just for fun). I’ll leave it up to you if you want to write it today or on Monday. 🙂


 

Prompt 6: “They fall asleep in rapid time during daylight.”

They fall asleep in rapid time during daylight. That’s when we’ll make our move. The only problem is that they’re damn light sleepers.

“Tell me again why we’re going with this plan,” Briggs says in a mock whisper—no danger yet, too far away from our intended targets—as he crouches down behind minimal cover. He checks his scope for any signs of movement from the enemy.

“Because we’re stupid, that’s why,” I reply, rechecking my ammo before clicking the clip in place. I slip the pistol back into its holster at my side.

There’s no way we’re going to let these bastards get the drop on us. Lovecraft really didn’t know shit about the Old Ones.

Every Day I’m Prompt Writin’

 

Everyday Gambit
I had to. Because Gambit.

So, since last night was basically me scrambling to put the finishing touches on a short story I had to turn in for my fiction class, I think I’ll just make this post be a continuation of my last one. (Okay, I’ll be honest, it was always going to be a continuation of my last post).

For those of you who read my post on March 1st—or who clicked on the handy-dandy link in the previous paragraph and just read it—the first writing assignment for my fiction class included the following general guidelines:  You will be provided with one line of text each day for a week (excluding Sunday), and you are to use that line as a starting point to fill the lined side of a 4 x 6 index card with text. You can’t look at your note cards right after you’ve written them. Instead, wait to the end of the week, and then type what you’ve written into a single document. You can then make all the revisions that your heart desires.

So, here are the next three prompts, with my responses included just for fun. 🙂


 

Prompt 3: “All over town, the lamps were going out.”

All over town, the lamps were going out.

Rachel knew this would happen. You didn’t play with electromagnetic energy in a town this size and not expect someone to notice. Her rain boots crunched against the hardened snow as she shifted her feet. Call her sentimental, but it was nice to be able to look at the stars without all those lights dimming the view.

“You know, you’d look pretty stupid if you end up freezing to death out here.”

Rachel would have turned around to get a good look at whoever was giving her a hard time, but the instinctual huff she made in response told her it only could’ve been Adam.

“What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Somehow she found his answering laugh simultaneously irritating and reassuring.

“Yeah, I can see you’re busy freezing. Get inside. Dad managed to make something good before the power kicked out.”


 

Prompt 4: “A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon.”

A shawl was a hat and hurt, and a red balloon wasn’t helping.

Of course, that’s probably because a woman was giving the balloon to her crying kid in an attempt to placate him. (It wasn’t working.)

Strangely enough, she had yet to notice me, although I was sitting on a bench not far from them, a granny shawl wrapped around my head (bobby pins jabbing into my scalp as they pleased) and a pair of pink sunglasses perched on my nose. Definitely not the attire you’d want wear to the park, especially one frequented by swarms of mindless, screaming children.

But I was on a mission.

If Kate’s ear for gossip could be trusted—and let’s be honest, it’s never been wrong before— then he stopped by here every day after school. So, here I was, sitting on this bench, looking like a creeper.

Waiting.


 

Prompt 5: “The weather, I think, must be changing.”

The weather, I think, must have been changing. That was the only explanation for the fact that the little punk was out sitting on our porch again. His mother had him wrapped up in at least three layers—he looked more like a marshmallow than a ten-year-old boy—but she must have deemed the weather mild enough if he was already waiting for me.

Normally winter was a no-go for Mrs. Jackson, but if it was warm enough she’d let her son roam where he wished—so long as he brought along his long-suffering neighbor and pseudo-babysitter. I sighed, pulling on my jacket and kicking on a pair of sneakers before opening the door.

“Let’s go,” I said, shutting the door behind me. I immediately shoved my hands into my pockets. It may have been warm according to Mrs. Jackson’s standards, but I was cold-blooded.

The boy jumped, glancing back at me with wide eyes for a second before he smiled, scrambling to his feet.

“Where are we going?” he asked, tugging at my sleeve, and I couldn’t help the smile that pulled at my lips.

Writers Gotta Write

Writer's Gotta Write Zazzle
…This actually exists.

If you guys have read any of my posts from back in January, you’ll know that I’m finally taking a fiction workshop class at the graduate level. While I’m fairly certain that I’ve managed to get all of my obsessive excitement about John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction out of my system for the moment, I’m still really psyched about this class as a whole.

One thing that I’ve really enjoyed about the class is that it’s actually forcing me to write. I think every book on writing technique I’ve ever read has stressed the importance of writing consistently, every day—even if it’s as small a thing as meeting a 100-word minimum. Despite this widespread agreement that writers gotta write, for some reason I’d never actually taken the advice seriously before this class.

For our first writing assignment of the semester, our professor provided us with a line of text to use as a starting point to fill the lined side of a 4 x 6 index card. This was done over the course of an entire week, with the professor emailing us a one-line prompt each day (with the exception of Sunday, which we were told to take off). Our professor  gave us these additional guidelines for the prompt:

Write your text quickly or slowly, but put it away by the end of the day—do not go back and look until the end of the week. At the end of the week, type your texts into a single document—make edits or expansions if you like [. . .].

These texts may lead nowhere, or they may spark ideas that lead everywhere. You may creatively alter the given line, but the line must still be recognizable. Rather than exercises, think of these as possible beginnings.

Let me tell you, the exercise worked wonderfully for me. Because it was an exercise, I didn’t feel the pressure I usually do whenever I actually sit down to work on a story. I wasn’t worried about artfully crafting the perfect description or coming up with a flawless line of dialogue. Instead, I was able to just write—and there was nothing saying I couldn’t incorporate what I’d written into my actual work.

So, for those of you who want to follow in my class’ footsteps, I’ll provide you with the first two prompts so that you can begin to fill in your index cards with fervor. (You’ll want to wait and look at the second prompt tomorrow, if you’re planning on following our assignment to the letter.)

Just for fun, I’ll also include my responses for each prompt.


 

Prompt 1: “Dead leaves of every essence lie steeping in the rain.”

Dead leaves of every essence lie steeping in the rain. Musky odors mix with the smell of ground coffee beans and freshly baked pizzelles. Whitney doesn’t want these smells. It’s only been a week since she last visited the shop, and the scents drifting in the air are beginning to make her feel nostalgic. She sighs, breath escaping her lungs in fitful white puffs. It shouldn’t be this cold.

Not when all she wants to do is wrap her hands around a warm cup of coffee and spend time with friends she can’t have.

Not when all the smells are still so fresh, wrapping around her and carrying her to the one place she calls home, the one place she can’t be.


 

Prompt 2: “Tonight, I fish from the mile-high pier.”

Tonight, I fish from the mile-high pier. It’s not like I’m actually going to catch anything, of course. There probably isn’t even any water down there anymore—unless you count the large patches of mud where the dirt hasn’t dried and cracked in the heat. I must make an interesting sight, lounging in an old beach chair—who even goes to the beach anymore?—legs kicked back and my great-grandfather’s fishing rod wedged securely between the bottom of the seat and the right armrest. The line is properly prepped with the juiciest worm I could find—a tricky thing, when the worm population’s gone down the drain along with the water.


 

Feel free to type up your own responses and leave them in the comments section! 🙂

Why I’m NOT Excited about Deadpool

Deadpool! Theaters, audiences, and social media posts have been abuzz lately with the newest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen. But aside from the normal hype about the action and laughs, the Deadpool movie has also gotten lots of attention–both positive and negative–for being R-rated due to violence, nudity, and excessive language. While the superhero genre was once thought to be good family-friendly fun for kids, that is certainly not the case with this offbeat, over-the-top antihero, leading to high praise and enjoyment from some longtime fans and harsh criticism from others.

As a longtime comic book fan among other fans who usually flock faithfully to each new superhero film, mine is an unpopular opinion, or at least so it seems in my circle of friends. But, while admitting that I haven’t actually seen the Deadpool movie yet (and probably won’t at least until I can rent it on DVD), I must admit that I’m not excited about or in favor of this one. People say it’s a very faithful representation of the character in the comics–but guess what? I don’t really like Deadpool much in the comics either. And I’d like to tell you why. Do my moral convictions and objections to mature content have something to do with it? Probably. But I think it goes beyond that into the realm of good storytelling and character development as well. Allow me to explain.

Deadpool-cover
Art from X-Men: Battle of the Atom #1. Art by David Lopez. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

It’s a generally accepted rule of fiction that a protagonist has to be likeable in some way in order to garner the support of the audience. I even had one friend posit that “likeable” was not the criterion so much as “fascinating”; even if we don’t “like” the character per se, we as the audience have to find them compelling and interesting enough to care about for some reason or another. Feel free to form your own opinions, but I don’t see this quality much in Deadpool.

When I read a superhero comic book (which I do a lot), I’m looking for a reason to root for the hero, to think that he’s in some way the “good guy” (even if he’s a flawed character) and that he’s justified in fighting his enemies. But with Deadpool being a mercenary, commonly labeled as the “merc with the mouth,” I don’t get that sense of compelling support for a character. He’s only a mercenary, so he’s not fighting for some good or noble cause; a lot of times he’s just doing his own thing and fighting others for money or for fun. Therefore, I wonder, why should I root for him over his enemies? What makes him better or more likeable than the people he fights? Why should I care whether he wins or loses? I often can’t answer these questions with Deadpool.

Some people criticize me for this, saying that I must only like morally ideal characters such as Superman and Captain America. That criticism is simply not true, because I do often appreciate a certain kind of antihero; I find characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach all fascinating, despite or perhaps because of their moral ambiguity (more on this point later). But my thinking is that, if the character isn’t going to be morally good, then there’s got to be some other quality instead that makes them likeable or compelling to the audience. And, while some disagree, I still don’t really find that with Deadpool.

24781427042_f828d218bf_n
Promotional image of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in the 2016 film. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons user canburak.

In internet arguments (some specifically in preparation for this blog post), I’ve asked my friends to explain to me what exactly they find appealing or likeable about Deadpool’s character. I haven’t gotten a very compelling answer (in my opinion). A lot of people say they like him primarily because he’s violent, crazy, crass, and crude. And that simply just doesn’t hold much appeal for me. While I admit that I sometimes enjoy Deadpool’s pop culture references and metahumor (even I don’t completely hate the character, although I do think he’s vastly overrated), I usually don’t enjoy crude jokes when they’re there just for cheap laughs and no story purpose. And I don’t really see much purpose or compelling character depth in an insane guy who just likes to shoot things for money or for fun. That kind of character could easily be a villain (such as the Joker or Carnage), but again I ask, why should I root for them as a hero? What deep or complex quality in this character’s psyche is supposed to make me root for him or support him in his random misadventures? For the most part, I haven’t found one.

“But wait!” you may say. “Deadpool actually is a complex character with a complex psychological disorder! And he actually is a hero sometimes!” To that, I would begrudgingly admit that you have a point, and after some recent social media discussions with friends, I’ve concluded that it largely depends on who’s writing Deadpool at the time. The thing about comics characters is that they change creative hands quite frequently, and so their portrayals aren’t always as consistent as some of us would like to think. For example, due to the recent Deadpool ongoing series beginning in 2012, I’ve developed a somewhat greater appreciation for him than I previously had. Among other reasons, the writers gave Deadpool both a wife and a long-lost daughter, two reasons for him to genuinely try to be more of a hero. And I was like, “Yes! Finally he has something interesting to fight for other than just money and tacos! Finally there’s a reason for me to care about his character a little bit!” I’ve also heard some people claim that Deadpool was a much more complex character following his initial creation in the ’90s, but that he got watered down when his popularity grew in the late 2000s. I can’t really speak to that personally, as I didn’t follow Deadpool much until around 2008, but it may be true that Deadpool’s history has had some deep character moments that I’m not familiar with.

However, when I say that I don’t care for Deadpool much, I’m talking about what has, for better or for worse, become the most common portrayal of Deadpool these days. And from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think that’s the one who has a lot of deep character moments. Rather, it’s just the one who is known for, “YEAH! VIOLENCE AND SEX AND CHIMICHANGAS AND INSANITY FOR ABSOLUTELY NO STORY PURPOSE BUT JUST FOR RANDOM FUN!” It seems that whatever potential Deadpool may have for compelling plots or complex character development too often gets lost under the banal banner of utter ridiculousness that appeals only to the entertainment of our basest appetites. And, while I could be wrong, having not seen the movie yet, the trailers and reviews lead me to believe that this is the same version of Deadpool that has been translated to film.

This is why, from a storytelling perspective, I’m really not a big fan of Deadpool, or at least not the Deadpool we most commonly see. In my next few posts later this week, I plan to continue this discussion. I’d like to elaborate on why I like some antiheroes but still don’t like Deadpool (told you that was coming), and then on why I can appreciate some other very mature movies without appreciating Deadpool.

Do you agree or disagree? Is there more to Deadpool’s character that I haven’t considered and still should? Let me know in the comments.

 

Life Interrupted

Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th wedding anniversary was next weekend. There were people coming in to celebrate 60 years of love. A menu was created, the food was purchased and stored in the freezer. My aunt was asking for advice on a van, since she liked their van and wanted to know the pros and cons. There was wiring being done on their house by Grandpa. There were plans to go out and eat with people for the next two weeks. That’s simply how they rolled. Last Wednesday, they were preparing to go to Ash Wednesday service. Grandpa had to drive as Grandma’s been deteriorating from Parkinson’s. It’s a horrible disease, and those who have seen it know how debilitating it can be. Her mind is still good, but her mobility is hampered more and more.

Grandpa went upstairs to get changed. It would be quick, they would make it to church on time, and he had a nice outfit picked. After twenty minutes upstairs, Grandma called for him and received no response. She, very likely, struggled up the stairs. Grandpa was unresponsive. She proceeded to struggle back down the stairs, as her cell phone was downstairs, where she called my aunt.

We received text messages and phone calls halfway through our own Ash Wednesday service. By the time we were out and I saw the text that Grandpa had collapsed, then called my aunt, she stunned us with the news Grandpa was dead. She said passed, but as a writer words have a certain levity to them. Passed doesn’t do justice what happens at the end of life. Dead does.

I was to go to Utah the next morning for a writer’s convention. The plan was after church to do laundry, hang out with mom and dad, and be to bed by nine, since I had to be up around four. I nearly did not go. I definitely did not bring the clothes I was thinking I would. Due to the grace of Mom, I ended up with clean clothes at all.

Grandpa wasn’t supposed to die. His shoulder gave him problems, he was slowing down, but he still was filled with vigor at 83. There were countless plans surrounding him and his life, and no one expected the phone call. There were no health issues.

Suddenly my brothers were flying or driving in with their families. One of them expected to drive in next week for the celebration of marriage. Neither of them expected to come back home for the mourning of a death.

Life ends abruptly. Not always. My other Grandpa suffered for years from numerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the point he was basically incoherent for the final stretch. There were no plans made into the future, and every day we showed up to the nursing home and he was still breathing was a bonus. But how many people in our novels die that death?

When I was sitting in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room with Grandma going through all the reasons he couldn’t be dead, when plans were made and cancelled because of death, when I heard of the project which were happening and would not be neglected, I realized something about death, something I never realized because I’ve never before been in a house with a dead body that so immensely affected me.

Death leaves threads which are unfinished.

How often do characters going into battle have no tomorrow? A Victorian novel where two characters duel in the morning, but they have no plans for lunch later on. A teen about to be on the receiving end of a slasher flick doesn’t do their homework, unless we want them to be doing their homework when the horror starts. Even those who walk onto the battlefield. Our soldiers have families at home. They plan on seeing those families. Leave is planned out in order to visit them, sometimes during important events. Maybe it’s as simple as a planned poker game that evening, even though they are aware they are going into an encounter shortly.

People don’t plan to die. Make plans as if they will survive.

Bran, in A Game of Thrones, has an entire chapter on how he has planned out his life. Then he is pushed out a window and falls to become a cripple. His plans are interrupted.

Ned plans on exposing the incest of Jaime and Cersei, until they catch him. Then he simply plans on making it home to his family, hiding in Winterfell, and taking care of his kids. Both of these plans are decapitated when Ned loses his head in a rash decision by Joffrey. Not only that, but it was for naught. By Clash of Kings everyone knows of the incest anyway.

In H.P. Lovecraft, often his characters do not plan out anything beyond the terror inducing events of the present. The men go into a cave with no thought of tomorrow, a guaranty to their own mortality. While I still love his writing, why wouldn’t the man researching a hidden horror in a crypt make plans to return to the surface, writing fanciful notes from the psych-ward he would so justly deserve?

When a healthy character is about to die, especially in an epic where tomorrow matters, have them make plans. It makes it more real. It makes us understand. We recall that death strikes at any time, and the reaper does not care what we wanted to do tomorrow. It takes us all the same.

The rest of the week will consist of information from the writer’s conference, which was a blast. Today, however, having been the funeral, this is what slapped me in the face.

grandpa

In memory of Grandpa, who gave countless virtues and blessings to his daughters, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. Who taught us faith, an even temper, and a determined approach to this world. You were taken by a thief in the night, but you’ve left behind so many great reminders as to the amazing man you were. I miss and love you, Grandpa. Until we meet again.

Guilds, Bargains, and General Deviousness

Writer’s block, as we have mentioned before, is a real pain in the…er…plot. Mine’s lasted for about three months. I’ve spent agonizing hours in front of my computer screen, trying desperately to write something, more agonizing hours plotting chapter outlines in the showers, and even more…less agonizing hours doing everything but writing as I pretend that I’m not working on a novel. However, someone has finally dipped the Bucket of Motivation (+5 to Stamina, +3 to Persuasion) into the Well of Lost Plots, and I find myself writing again, quite enthusiastically. Such a happy occurrence, is, of course, not due solely to sheer force of will (iron though mine may be) or a new influx of brilliant ideas (even though I’m sure those are en route). Rather, my new and improved page count is due to a potent combination of three motivational strategies that I thought I would share with you today, in the hopes that something in a similar vein may work for any of my fellow suffers.

I joined a Guild. Well, of sorts. We call ourselves that for motivational purposes and because most of us are writing fantasy stories, so it fits the tone of our works. That, and it just sounds cool. Anyway, there’s a group of six of us in a six-week program. We set individual goals and milestones for the duration of the program, public for everyone in the group to see, and let the coordinator know what kind of feedback we’re looking for. Each person is paired with two reviewers and two reviewees. I post what I’ve written every other week, and my reviewers comment on what I’ve written, using the requested feedback guidelines, after which I do the same for my assigned reviewees. I’ve been a little bit behind on my deadlines, but I’ve kept working at it, and writing is being done.

Why it works: Double accountability. General accountability doesn’t often work for me; just knowing I’m supposed to write a certain number of pages every week so I can show it to someone at the end of the week doesn’t put enough pressure on me to break the writer’s block. The Guild’s system, however, means that I have to comment on and provide feedback for other people’s writing, and that means terrible self-inflicted guilt when I don’t meet my own goals for them to critique. The threat of that guilt and (for me, anyway) embarrassment is enough to make me write, even if I feel like what I’ve written is crap.

guild
More fun than this, I promise.

Bargaining. As most of you know by now, I am an avid Star Trek RP’er. Tom and I both role-play on The USS Intrepid (now recruiting, if anyone’s interested) and the new Play-By-Email site Outpost Eden. Both sites are a great deal of fun, and I spend a lot of time writing for my various characters. Tom has even more dedication to the sites, and he has also been wrestling with writer’s block. So we made a deal: I can’t post on either site until I’ve written 500 words on my novel that day, and he can’t post until he’s written his 500 words. I let him know when I’ve met my goal, and he does the same (or, if I finish first, I pester him until he reaches his goal, because that’s what a good First Officer does).

Why it works: it’s the reward system, with (for me) high-stakes consequences. I’ve been role-playing for almost a decade, and this writing forum is extremely important to me. I love it very much. So knowing that I can’t do anything with it until I accomplish another task makes me focus very, very hard on getting those 500 words written.

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Photo credit: Tom

General Deviousness (aka, Netflix). When I write academic papers, I can’t have any distractions. The only song I can bear to listen to is the 24-hour playlist version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Knowing this, I’d never tried creative writing with any background noise, thinking it would just distract me. However, this past weekend, I put on an episode of Suits, pulled up my Word document, and started writing. Lo and behold, I managed to get almost a thousand words written in the space of two episodes of one of my favorite shows. Repeat attempts at this strategy have proven successful (as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this blog post now), and so I’m rather happy to have discovered it.

Why it works: Distraction. Writing brings out two of my biggest neuroses: perfectionism and linear thinking (logical plot progression). My need to make everything perfect the first time and know exactly how each detail fits into the plot often makes my writer’s block the major problem that it is. I overthink. But when I turn on Netflix, my focus is split, and the perfectionist bit of my brain gets distracted. I write almost on autopilot, and my subconscious brain takes over. Writing gets done, and it may need a good bit of revision afterwards, but the important part is that the words are there.

netflix
Netflix came to Poland in January, and there was much rejoicing.

In summation: Double-accountability, the reward system, and distraction. On their own, none of these three methods worked for me, but together? They’re magic. I’m writing. My characters are speaking. And the story happens. I encourage you to try combining methods, when you have difficulty writing. Find what combination works for you, even if it’s weird, and let it fuel your writing. What strategies work for you, and why?

Fiction as Theology Part 3: Communicating Your Message

51E0ZN6GHKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_Glenn Cook isn’t much of a fan of organized religion. Did you know that? I honestly can’t say that for certain. I don’t know him personally. However, that is the very, very strong feeling that I get from his novels. He seems to have it in for priests, religious fanatics, etc. Similarly, Steven Erikson dislikes (though perhaps despises is too strong a word) the idea of salvation by grace or by the sacrifice of another. Man must redeem himself because man is the only one who can redeem himself. Again, I can’t say this from personal knowledge, but the theme that man must redeem himself is certainly very strong in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Similarly, Lars Walker believes that even truly evil men can be redeemed (Year of the Warrior) while C. S. Lewis believes that good guys can make mistakes and be redeemed, but truly even people cannot be redeemed but must be destroyed (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawntreader; The Last Battle; etc).  You might be surprised how much of your conscious and unconscious beliefs come through in your fiction. It’s possible to simply allow your ideas to be spread, unfiltered, through the stories that you write, and to some degree this probably happens with all of us. However, it’s also possible to be intentional about the messages that come through in the stories you tell. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that everything we write should have two goals: 1) to entertain, and 2) to educate. A work of non-fiction that isn’t entertaining is unlikely to do much to inspire the reader and stick in his mind, but a work of fiction that is trite and superficial has little, if anything, in the way of actual value–in fact it may even inspire vice (…Charlaine Harris, I’m looking at you…).

Victor_Hugo_by_Étienne_Carjat_1876_-_fullOf course, anyone can misread what you write. In fact, I just had a student who submitted a paper confidently explaining that Augustine believed that man was completely free of God and that he had no need of a deity for goodness, morality, happiness, or fulfillment. If you’ve every read Augustine you will recognize that this is literally the exact opposite of what he argued (I’m pretty sure that my student read all of half a chapter from Confessions). However, the fact that some people will probably misunderstand what you write through their own ignorance and carelessness is no excuse for you not to consider the messages that you are presenting. In fact, the best of fiction (whether modern fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc) has always had something meaningful to say about the world. This is true of the Greek poets, of Plato, of Lucretius, of Thomas More, Jules Verne,  Victor Hugo, Miguel Cervantes, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Gustave Flaubert, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Steven Erikson. This is not to say that there are not good authors who aren’t trying to say something specific or solve some problem. For instance, I enjoy Kim Harrison’s books, but I don’t find much in the way of educational value in them. However, I also wouldn’t put Kim Harrison in the same league as any of the above authors and I don’t know anyone who would. So, just as we can use our own writing to figure out what we believe, we can and should use our writing to point others towards truth and goodness. Now, as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what Person A believes are true and good may not be the same as what Person B believes are true and good, and thus we wind up with a variety of opinion, presented in a variety of ways, both in fiction and in non-fiction.*

quote-art-for-art-s-sake-is-an-empty-phrase-art-for-the-sake-of-the-true-art-for-the-sake-of-the-good-george-sand-310004However, this doesn’t mean the the message should overwhelm the story. This is one of the mistakes that Heinlein has been accused of (though I think it is only true in some of his novels), and in my opinion it is one of the problems that tends to plague the Christian fiction genre. Remember that what you write should be educational and entertaining. If your message comes at the expense of meaningful and individual characters who as in consistently believable ways (like those Christian novels where everyone miraculously changes their minds and get saved at the end), or long philosophical diatribes overwhelm the flow of your story and action (Heinlein and Hugo both do this in places), then you wind up sacrificing entertainment for education and you wind up with a boring door-stop of a book. Similarly, if you cut out your philosophy for the sake of keeping the story ‘action-packed’ and ‘titillating’ then you wind up sacrificing education for the sake of entertainment and you wind up with a trite, meaningless, and mindless work. So, the key here is to balance entertainment and education in your novels. That is, to develop a world, characters, and a story that can convey the viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that you wish to spread in a way that effectively engages the mind of the reader while simultaneously making him/her think deeply about the fundamental nature of truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.**

 

*This is not to say that there is no moral reality. I will and have argued stringently that the idea of a world lacking moral reality is not only terrifying, but also meaningless. If there is no moral reality than all of the concepts upon which we base society (i.e. truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc) are entirely meaningless and there is absolutely no reason to prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany. However, it is very obvious that the vast majority of people from the vast majority of widely divergent cultures do prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany (though they may not be fond of either), and this should tell us that perhaps there actually is a reason to do so. Moral relativism, in all of its varieties, while popular on the street and with a few discrete groups of philosophers today has never been particularly popular among the majority of philosophers from a wide variety of different traditions throughout history. …In fact, did you know that relativism, in some form, has been presented in virtually every philosophical tradition (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Continental European, British, Greek, American, etc) and in virtually all of them it has been soundly rejected (I will argue that we are in the midst of seeing this happen in the American tradition). Looking at the history of relativism is actually kind of like watching a very long game a wack-a-mole.

**I refer here to three of the four fundamentals of classical metaphysics: the true–or the form of truth (i.e. reality), the beautiful–or the form of beauty (i.e. the truly pleasing), the good–or the form of goodness (i.e. the truly desirable). The fourth is the one–or the form of unity (i.e. the truly simple or that which has no parts).

Fiction as Theology Part 2: Understanding Yourself

know-yourselfIt’s interesting how little we often understand about ourselves. Everyone believes that they know themselves, know what they believe, know what they feel, know what they need, etc. And yet, when we are put to the test, we often find ourselves incapable of putting our beliefs into words. I see this with students all the time. A student will state a firmly held belief, and I will respond with ‘What do you mean by X?’ The almost inevitable response is ‘Umm… I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about that,’ or ‘Well, I think what I mean is…’ followed by an often convoluted and/or contradictory explanation, or perhaps the more defensive and hostile, ‘It’s obvious, any normal person could understand what I mean! Why can’t you? Are you some kind of idiot?’ I’ve heard all of these countless times in response to very simple questions such as ‘what do you mean by good?’ Or ‘what do you mean by duty?’ Or ‘what do you mean by faith?’ The truth is that all of us have significant blind-spots in which we fundamentally don’t understand ourselves. Generally speaking, the more confident we are that we know ourselves very well, the less we actually know of ourselves, and the more likely we are to lash out at anyone who risks exposing that fact.

This piece was done by BurenErdene. More of his work can be found here.
This piece was done by BurenErdene. More of his work can be found here.

As authors, we should avoid that risk. One of the purposes of writing (whether fiction or non-fiction) is to explore our own inner worlds, discover what is there, and determine to change the things that need to be changed. I can easily give you a very personal example. In my own novel, Rise of the Neshelim, one of the issues that I dealt with was the nature of a god. This began as a minor side-notion in the book, something that was meaningful to the main character, but as a matter of idle curiosity. However, in attempting to present his own answer to the question, I realized that I wasn’t actually sure myself. I could give my own specific conception of what I meant by The God, or the triune Christian God. I could explain, as well as possible, the nature of the trinity, the attributes of Yahweh, and the roles of each person of the trinity. However, the main character of the book wasn’t a Christian. In fact, Christians don’t exist as such in his world. Thus, what I meant when I spoke of The God couldn’t be the character’s answer to what a god was, and further, I didn’t actually know how to answer that question myself. I believed in powerful spiritual forces other than Yahweh, in fact scripture speaks of a number of such entities, but simply saying that a god was a powerful spiritual force seemed insufficient. Thus, this question captured my mind, and in capturing my mind it captured the main character’s mind as well, and together we worked our way to a solution. In so doing, this question became more central to the plot of the novel than I had originally intended, but it also enhanced the major aspects of the novel with a deeper degree of meaning and understanding. It also helped me to understand how to answer my own question: what is a god?

This aspect of fiction writing is, I suspect, more important than I am able to express here. In every novel, and especially in every early novel from any particular author, I believe that it is likely that we see them working out in many ways their own understanding of themselves and their beliefs. This is especially true of theological and spiritual beliefs in the writing of fantasy, as gods, magical forces, and spiritual powers are important aspects of any work of fantasy. This does not mean that everything we learn about ourselves should be published. This is what editing is for: if you self-edit you will need to have a keen eye for areas where you have learned about yourself that do or don’t enhance the main story of your work (I suspect that I may have been poor at this myself), and often it will be better to have many other sets of eyes on your work, willing to point out areas where you should excise things that are personally important, but are not important to the story that you are telling.

Fiction as Theology Part 1: Is Fiction Theology and If So, What does this Mean?

waffles-vs-pancakesYesterday I started reading John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship Volume 3: Doctrine of the Christian Life. I bring this up because Frame makes the claim in his introduction that life is theology and theology is ethics, thus life is ethics. Now, he explains that by this he does not mean that there God is desperately interested in whether I have pancakes or waffles for breakfast in the morning, and thus my decision between pancakes and waffles is both a theologically significant and morally important decision. However, if I am to understand the purpose of my existence as being to glorify God (consider that Colossians 1:16 tells us that everything exists 1) because God made it, and 2) for God’s purposes) then the way I approach my decision about having pancakes or waffles (or perhaps sausage and eggs or a bowl of fruit) fundamentally changes. No longer am I considering this decision simply as a matter of preference, but I am considering how to best glorify God–which inevitably involves my own enjoyment of his creation, my health as a human being, the example that I am setting for others, the habits that I am forming as an individual, etc. Suddenly my decision about what to have for breakfast is no longer merely a choice of which tastes I prefer this morning, but it is a matter of 1) who I am as an individual and who I want to become as an individual, 2) what the likely results of my actions are, 3) what the intrinsic nature of my actions is, and 4) how my actions express the image of God that I bear. Now, all of this may sound unbearably and unnecessarily complex for those non-Christians reading this post. However, I might point out that this is not wholly dissimilar to Aristotle’s perspective, though with an eye towards the Christian God. More importantly, I might point that that any belief system requires a focus. For me this focus is God, for a Muslim it may be Allah, for an Atheist it may be their own good or some abstracted concept of the common good. Now, as a Christian I will argue that some of these foci are more intrinsically valuable than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a focus to each of them. Every action is performed for an end–even when that end isn’t consciously considered.

blind-beliefSome of you may also be wondering what in the world any of this has to do with writing fiction, and I’m getting to that, though this is only the first of three posts. Reading Frame’s argument got me thinking: is writing a theological practice? If life is theology and theology is ethics, then it must necessarily include that fiction writing is a practice of theology which is in turn an application of ethics. Thus, all fiction writing would be the practice of theology. How might this be so? Does this mean that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a work of practical theology? Well, when practical theology is considered as a discipline, not so much. However, when practical theology is defined as the application of one’s beliefs about god, gods, or the lack thereof to some particular aspect of life in this world, then yes, in a sense it is. I must stress this in a sense because Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, while certainly a work of political philosophy, says little, if anything, about God. However, consider that everything we write is set on the basis of our fundamental notions*. A friend recently described Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to me as ‘very clearly a Mormon fantasy,’ and he was exactly correct. Sanderson is a Mormon and this particular series is very clearly a fantasy (well-written and well-plotted) that is heavily influenced by a Mormon conception of god, life, and the universe. What we believe often has a much greater influence on what we write than we realize. Often, even when we go out of our way to write something that is fundamentally not what we believe, it still clearly communicates to others what we believe.

trust_me__i__m_ten___t_shirt_design_by_lantis_erin-d52yu6xSo, what do we do with this knowledge? What does this mean for Christian, Atheist, Mormon, Hindu, Agnostic, Wiccan, or generally confused writers? First, I will point out that it is fundamentally impossible to not have beliefs. As soon as we are exposed to something we begin to form beliefs and opinions about it. These may be more or less informed, more or less accurate, more or less consistent with other beliefs, etc. However, the only way to have no beliefs at all is to not exist, and the only way to have no beliefs about some particular idea or thing is to never be exposed to it. So, in my next two posts I’m going to focus on two questions: 1) how can my writing help me to explore my own beliefs and discover inconsistencies in them? 2) how can my writing help me to communicate my beliefs effectively to others?

I hope that you’re looking forward to them. I’m looking forward to writing them, that’s for sure.

* This is true whether one holds to a historicist, empirical, constructivist, etc theory of knowledge. Regardless of what knowledge inherently is or how beliefs are initially acquired, once we have established a set of consistent beliefs or biases the rest of our interaction with the world (both input and output) tends to be defined around these beliefs and to reference them regularly.