Not Wordy Today

The toddler got me up early again – presumably the nasty ear infection is still causing her some pain – so I’ve been awake since four AM and I am not delighted or creatively stimulated by that. All the coffee has achieved is to make me feel queasy, as it often does when I’ve dropped below the Minimum Rest Threshold.

I’m also a little drained because I actually had a very small paying gig yesterday. A friend commissioned me to write a little piece of fan-fiction for his lady’s birthday, which I did. Even though it was just a small thing, it made me feel pretty good. I got something *done*, and I did it fast and, I think, reasonably well. And someone thinks I’m worth paying a small fee to, which is also a lovely validating experience.

But today my hands are a little tired. Typing 2500 words in two hours is apparently hard on my old-lady hands. Damn wussy knuckles. When I was in my teens, I could type all day without my knuckles twinging!

If you are a young writer, enjoy this time you have with strong, resilient knuckles, and get as much wordcount banged out as you can. Your hands won’t always be this sturdy! I mean, not everybody gets aching knuckles when they get older, but you might, so appreciate your hands while they’re at their best.

Oh, good, the kid’s gone back to sleep. Goodnight, all.


Constructive Criticism, ‘Constructive’ Criticism, and Varying Mileage.

Okay, so I ranted a bit yesterday about a particularly noxious piece of feedback. I don’t want to give the impression that I think I shouldn’t be criticized – I should, and I am, and usually I can take it with little more than a wince and a grumble even though I hate it with the fiery passion of any sensitive egotist.

But I hate being condescended to. Oh, do I hate being condescended to. Nothing sends me into a fit of incandescent rage faster than being talked down to. And feedback along the lines of ‘oh, well, it was a super try and all, but you really didn’t do this thing to my standards and I think it would have been much better if you’d done it this other way, I know you’ll be grateful for my sage advice’ makes me personally want to reach through my monitor and rip the condescender’s face off with my fingernails.

This has caused some friction between me and my husband, now and then. He was raised in a family where criticism should be phrased ‘nicely’, whereas I grew up in two households that placed the highest value on reasoned plain speaking. So the few times he’s ventured gentle criticism, he’s wound up clutching at his verbal evisceration and wondering what the hell just happened.

In this, of course, as in everything, your mileage not only may vary, but will vary enormously. Some people are sufficiently emotionally mature and stable to shrug this stuff off, and I envy them. Some people, who think direct criticism is horrifyingly rude, would no doubt think that the email I received – and I’m not going to repost that specific one, because among other things I’m not actually mentioning here what name I write fic under – was phrased the way it was in an attempt to be nice. It’s just barely possible that it was, even, though I have trouble believing that anyone can be that smugly condescending without doing it on purpose.

But there are also a lot of people out there who use the phrase ‘constructive criticism’ as a means of justifying being unpleasant. Most writers of fan-fiction have probably gotten one of those missives at one point or another, the sweetly critical ‘now, dear, I know you don’t know any better, but you made some big mistakes and I’m just pointing them out to help you because you clearly NEED my help, so here’s my suggestion for how you can be better’ stuff that’s laced with a few feeble compliments and carefully phrased so that any negative response can be brushed off with a claim that the author is being oversensitive or, horrors, cannot take ‘constructive’ criticism.

It’s the exact same tactic used by a particular kind of bully – the ones who will, at work or school or in a writer’s group or wherever you find them, very gently run you down while asserting their own greater knowledge and correctness, over and over again, leaving you feeling powerless to protest because those carefully chosen words are never quite offensive enough to make a complaint sound legitimate to an outsider. It’s insidious, and it’s horrible. And it is hard to explain to anyone else that nebulous line between being ‘nice’ and being Dolores Umbridge, because when you describe it to someone else it never sounds that bad.

Sometimes you aren’t even sure yourself when it happens, because maybe you are being oversensitive and maybe they are just trying to be nice and getting it a little bit wrong and maybe they are right and you should just do what they say. And then you feel small and stupid and powerless and awful and start questioning yourself about everything.

Again, mileage on this subject varies enormously. But personally, this would be my definition of constructive versus ‘constructive’ criticism.

Constructive: Reasoned criticism of the story.

‘Constructive’: Emotive or condescending criticism of the story and the author.

I am sometimes upset but never offended by someone who says ‘This character’s behaviour in this instance seemed dubious to me because of this other thing from canon and the likelihood of X’ or even ‘this event seemed to come kind of out of left field, what was up with that’, and the upset often comes from realizing that either they are right, or that I didn’t make what I was doing clear enough and caused a misunderstanding. I am both upset and offended by someone who says ‘oh, sweetie, it’s a shame you got this so badly wrong, let me give you my own personal opinion with no reasoning or sources provided because I’m clearly right and you’re clearly wrong’. The first assumes that I am a rational human being who can examine her own work and criticism thereof with some sort of objectivity, the second assumes that I should be told what to do by someone ‘wiser’ than I am and that I should be grateful for it.

From what I’ve read, pros get even more of this stuff than fan-fic authors do. There’s always someone who seems to genuinely think that their opinion is so damn important and brilliant that someone who’s spent months or years hammering out tens of thousands of words is going to drop everything and rewrite the lot just because His Or Her Gracious Majesty has deigned to point out where they have gone terribly wrong. I do not know that Ms Duane or Mr Scalzi actually wish to punch the Gracious Majesty in the face when this happens, but then I don’t claim to be on par with either of them.

I’m not sure where to really go with this. It’s a thing that happens, it really bothers me, but it’s incredibly hard to explain and the people who would benefit from being told all this are the very people who would never, ever listen because His Or Her Gracious Majesty is right and I am wrong, wrong, wrong. And oversensitive.

I guess what I want to say is that if this has happened to you, you’re not alone, you weren’t exaggerating, and it’s okay to be upset. If it hasn’t, it might, so be ready and try not to take it to heart too much. And if you’re trying to be nice about criticism, ask yourself ‘Is this how Dolores Umbridge would say this?’ and if it is, a rewrite is in order.

People Have Strange Ways

People handle stress in strange ways.

I know someone who has literal fainting fits when under extreme pressure. I know a couple of people who actually lose the ability to digest food properly, to the point of a doctor asking pointed questions on the ‘are you sure you’re not anorexic’ theme of someone who ate half a chocolate cake for breakfast but is losing weight anyway. I know one person who gets enormously constipated and one who gets nervous diarrhea, neither of which are even slightly helpful. I used to know someone who coped with sudden stresses by dying her hair. I know one person who develops crazy protein cravings (crazy as in ‘walks around muttering about needing a bucket full of meat’ levels of intensity)  and another who sucks down water continuously as if stress can be flushed out via the kidneys.

One of the above people is me. It’s not the chocolate cake one.

Point is, people handle things in non-standard ways sometimes.

So it drives me mad when I hear complaints about ‘weird’ or ‘unrealistic’ characterization choices in fiction because people aren’t responding to grief or stress or fear in a ‘normal’ way. Not everyone copes with pain by sitting down and having a long talk with a Possible Romantic Interest about their Innermost Feels, or getting very angry at someone who died for dying and being really unreasonable and then having a good sob. Sometimes they do, and that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re Loki and respond to being emotionally hurt with ‘You’ll all be sorry when everyone’s DEAD’ and just go completely off the rails. Sometimes they’re Tiffany Aching and go so deep into denial that they need perspective shipped in by broomstick. Sometimes they’re Dean Winchester and I don’t even know where to start with that guy.

You know what’s unrealistic? Sex-fixes-everything. That’s unrealistic. Romance does not cure all ills. Yes, sometimes sex can be reassuring or cathartic or a desperately-needed interlude of not-thinking, but it doesn’t fix you. It doesn’t cure depression or trauma or grief. It is, at best, a comfort, not a cure.

So don’t feel constrained by the tropes when writing a character in pain. They can get angry at the world, they can just BAKE ALL THE THINGS, they can eat or not eat or cry or not cry or go on a mad killing spree. Whatever works for the character. Some people faint when given a shock. Some people punch the messenger. People do what they do, and it’s not always what you-the-reader or you-the-writer would do, but that doesn’t make it an invalid response, as long as it’s consistent with the character, or even inconsistent in a plausible way.

In case anyone wonders why I am so insistent on this, I got a rude feedback message which called me on ‘poor characterization’ on the subject of how a certain character handled a stressful event. And told me smugly how much better my fic would be if I would just make my characters more ‘plausible’, by doing it right like this yahoo says I should. I AM RAGE. I am annoyed by this because not only was the smug condescension incredibly offensive, but because the yahoo in question was advocating a very limited and culturally inappropriate (to the character) set of reactions that would ‘work better’ on the strength that he says so. In case anyone is wondering, ‘it would have been better if you’d written it like this’ is a TERRIBLY RUDE THING TO SAY TO A WRITER. Pointing out that the plot flags a bit two thirds in? Fine. Suggesting perhaps that a character is a bit exaggerated? Sure. Calling me names because I’ve mentioned abortion in a less than totally negative way? Won’t be the first time.

But ‘I could have written your story better than you can, you silly person, benefit from my wise counsel’ or ‘you should have written it the way I like to envision the character because that would be better’? Not cool. If you think Snape should be written as a misunderstood snuggly kitten or that everyone in the history of time and space should universally accept that eighteen is the Right And Correct Age Of Consent In The Face Of All Logic And Reason, fine. YOU write it that way. But don’t tell me to!

I think the point I’m trying to make in my rage-fuddled way is that saying ‘your story suffers from these flaws’ or even ‘your story isn’t very good’ is fine. Ever, ever, ever telling another person that they should write the way you think they should, or what they ‘should’ write or what you ‘expect’ from them? NOT FINE NOT EVER FINE. SQUID OF ANGER.

I need some chocolate and a drink of water.

Writer’s Block And You

I am still super, super blocked, thanks to the Bucketloads-O-Stress that the fates have been dumping on me, but I am ridiculously proud of the fact that I managed a couple of hundred words of bad fanfic yesterday. Hopefully the dam is cracking!

When you’re truly stuck, sometimes it helps to fall back on my All Purpose Writing Advice, and just make some words. Any words. If you can get something down on the page, no matter what, it can start cracking the dam that Blocked has set up on your creativity. I used to get into haiku-exchanges with bored co-workers, that was fun. But whatever you do, don’t start beating yourself up over not being able to do your ‘real’ writing, because that almost always just builds the damned dam up even higher. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that writer’s block doesn’t exist, or that this or that method is the only way to get around it!

Your brain works how it works, and there are a million things that can affect it, from depression to tiredness to boredom to self-doubt, all the way down the list to diet and exercise. (An undiagnosed food intolerance, for example, can do a truly hideous number on your brain, I speak from experience). The best advice I can give is that you should read all the advice you can find, think about all the things that you do that might make it better or worse, then try everything and see what helps and what doesn’t. The scientific method is best! If powering through keeps you going, great, do that. If you need to take a break to write some Ratchet/Clank slash, sure, go nuts. If you need to stop and sort out some daily-life stress before you can create again, that’s fine.

Take the time to figure out what works for you, then keep doing that. I like long walks listening to my ipod, writing bad poetry, reading books in whatever genre I’m writing in to get the mindset going (and find tropes to subvert) and eating a lot of chocolate. Those are fun things to do and I recommend trying them, but they won’t work for everyone.

Everyone has their own process. You’ll do better with your own than with someone else’s, no matter how good a writer they are.

Adapting Classic Works

It’s big these days. From Clueless to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, stealing adapting the works of classic authors is a surprisingly long-lasting Latest Thing. Especially Jane Austen. Ms Austen is cool. L. Frank Baum is also big, theftwise.

I personally enjoy doing this. The closest I’ve ever come to finishing a manuscript is my adaption of The Wizard Of Oz, entitled Mobile City: Overlander Z. (I posted the first draft of the first chapter a while back, if anyone’s interested. Any comments will be extremely gratefully received.) But as with anything, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I understand P&P rewrites/sequels/adaptions are getting a chilly reception lately, which is why I’ve shelved mine for now. (Jane and Bingley’s POV! Let them tell their love story! It would be fun, must get back to it some time).

I’ve been rereading Jane Austen’s works lately, as I frequently do when I’m tired or depressed or don’t have anything new to read or it’s Tuesday, because I love them and will basically read them over and over forever. It struck me that while P&P adaptions are rampant, and Sense and Sensibility and Emma have had their turn in the spotlight, you don’t see a lot of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park or Persuasion gadding about in new covers or movie adaptions.

Which is a real shame, because while Mansfield Park is reasonably tightly anchored to its own time, the other two would adapt pretty well, especially as Clueless-style movie retellings. (I know a lot of Austenphiles don’t like Clueless. I don’t care, I think it’s just adorable) Take Northanger Abbey: idealistic, slightly silly young girl goes on holiday, meets cute guy and sweet or duplicitous girls, visits guy and his sister, frightens herself half to death with wild imagination, marries boy. It’s got Hit Romantic Comedy written all over it.

Persuasion would be even better. Girl is firmly discouraged from getting married at nineteen, boy leaves in a huff, woman never really gets over the loss, then is taken advantage of by her self-absorbed sisters and father, before meeting boy again, having a couple of adventures, rescuing father from marrying sister’s scheming friend and then living happily ever after. It would transition really well into a modern setting, I think, and I like Anne as a heroine. She’s a bit over the romance-heroine hill instead of being a Young Thing, philosophical about her disappointments, and always considerate of other people’s feelings – unlike charming but thoughtless Elizabeth Bennet, just for example.

The more I think about this, the better the idea sounds. So IT’S MINE AND I CALLED IT.

I’ve always meant to try scriptwriting…

Little Details And Coffee Fandom

Little details are important. A little thing out of whack can get the attention of someone of someone who knows how things are supposed to be.

I used to work for the Queensland Police, and I really impressed them once by identifying a counterfeit twenty dollar note from across the room, while it was in a bag. I couldn’t tell that the note was printed on paper instead of plastic, or that the holograms were missing… but I could see that it wasn’t exactly the right shade of red. (Australian twenties are orange-red) I’d worked for years in a supermarket, and one of the few things I do remember well is colour. I see a scarlet red instead of an orange red on a twenty and I know something is wrong.

Someone who handles money all day – and pays attention to it – is much more likely to spot a forgery than someone who only uses it to buy things. Someone who spends all day taking care of kids will notice the signs of illness, especially in a kid they know, before a non-expert. Someone who spends all their time in a particular place – the woods, the city, whatever – is going to notice something out of place that no visitor would.

… I had to get up and deal with the kid and now I have no idea where I was going with this.

So, I really like coffee. But I don’t like good coffee. I like cheap instant with way too much sugar. I’m really bad at liking coffee, or so I’m told by *real* coffee-lovers. But I don’t care. I like it how I like it and it works for me.

Coffee fandom is a lot like most other fandoms, when you get right down to it. Everyone thinks their flavour preference is the best, people get really passionate about what sweetener their coffee is shipped with, and they can be very judgemental of other fans who don’t like coffee properly. Seriously, walk into a Starbucks and order a plain black coffee, or ask for a mocha frappucino in a nice cafe, and see how people look at you. It’s Avengers Movieverse vs 616 all over again.

So it can be a good way of explaining fandom. A lot of people drink coffee, and they understand that drip vs instant is a whole big thing, and sometimes if you can find a comparison they understand, people can transition from ‘god, you’re so weird for being so obsessed with fictional characters’ to ‘God, you are not seriously comparing Captain America to a cappucino how does coloured ink on paper compare to SWEET CAFFIENE’.

Well, it’s not perfect.  But if you’re trying to explain fandom to a Muggle, coffee isn’t a bad gateway obsession.



Cut Off

My friend Miranda’s internet has been cut off. She lost it for almost a week during the flooding not long ago, and this week it has gone out again. She called tech support, and was cheerfully informed that a tech would be along on Monday. She made this call on a Tuesday. So another whole week of being cut off.

I don’t know about you, but the very idea of losing my internet access gives me the heebie-jeebies. How could I write my blog? Check my Tumblr? Email friends, play Candy Crush Saga, write, and do all the other things I do daily?

Well, obviously I couldn’t. I’m just not sure I remember how to fill the day without them. Playing with the kid is good of course, and there’s stuff to do, it just… isn’t the same. And as Miranda pointed out to me, it can make writing really hard.

It’s funny how completely necessary Google has become to me when writing. What vegetables are native to Spain? What’s the average number of kittens in a litter? What fabrics would be used in seventeenth-century Italy? How does a flint-lock pistol actually work? What’s the average distance a laden horse can travel in a day? What about a wagon, how fast are those? All of those, except for the kittens, are searches I made for my last NaNoWriMo novel…. a fantasy set in Analogue-Europe. Researching a novel is a pain in the butt at the best of times – during November, going and finding a book on the history of Italian fashion takes FAR TOO LONG, especially if you only need the dress for one scene.

I know, I know, the Internet isn’t the most reliable source. But Wikipedia and its many cousins are generally reasonably accurate, which is nice, and there are lots and lots of references out there that are maintained by unpaid enthusiasts on subjects obscure enough that finding a book would be very difficult. On the other hand, finding a picture reference for seventeenth-century Spanish peasant garb only took me about twenty minutes online, and the Internet allowed me to forward this to an artist I have never met, via Deviantart, and commission a little picture of my characters as a reward to myself for finishing. The Internet is awesome, and the thought of losing it even for a little while is quite distressing.

So today I’m going over to Miranda’s house to watch Ghibli movies and cook. It’s the least I can do for a friend in need.

Here is my NaNoWriMo picture! EcoKitty does lovely cartoony commissions and I recommend them.

My protagonists, ready for action!

My protagonists, ready for action!