Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “Writing and Editing”

Grammar, Style, and Usage are Three Different Things

Advice on grammar, style, and usage are often confused. This can be particularly troubling when, for example, style advice is touted as grammar advice. If you don’t think that can happen, just turn on grammar check and, assuming you use MS Word, look at all the green squiggly lines underneath grammatically pristine phrases. I type my blog posts in MS Word then cut and paste them into the blog. There are two in this paragraph already – one because the phrase “advice is touted” is passive and a second because the prissy little fuck doesn’t like contractions.

The distinctions are important, because ungrammatical phrases (which have a few subcategories of their own) are usually a problem. Style preferences are just that, preferences. Usage changes so much that it is one of the keys to communicating effectively with your audience. When grammar check or beta readers or other people providing critiques mistake a question of style for one of usage or grammar, for example, things get muddled. At a minimum, it helps to have a handle on the nature of the advice being given.

What is Grammar?

There’s a reason we call it “grammar school” and not “syntax school.” Grammar is less of a category than a broad term that covers a bunch of different fields of study. That can make things confusing, because the importance of any particular “rule” of grammar depends heavily on which category it comes from. From a linguistic perspective, there are areas of huge importance within the scope of “grammar” that we, as writers, don’t need to worry about. Not that they aren’t important, they’re just so ingrained in a fluent English speaker that we don’t need to give a shit about their linguistic/grammatical formulations.

Language came first, probably about 200,000 years before the first linguist showed up on the scene. This happened long before the invention of writing, when our ancestors were all either hunter/gatherers or sold Geiko automobile insurance and looked like this:

To be honest, more than one of my relatives and about eighty percent of my fishing buddies still look like that.

Linguistics came along to study languages after languages were a thing. And a whole slew of the grammatical issues they study (like why we know the word “cars” means more than one car, even if the Chinese use a completely different set of rules to make that distinction) just don’t matter if you can speak fluent English.

The part of “grammar” we really need to worry about is syntax and construction. The stuff that makes sentences make sense. Syntax is the building block for construction – it’s the basic rules that let us understand what the hell each other mean when we say something. “We ate pie,” is basic subject, verb, object syntax saying what happened in a way that English speakers understand. The cognitive construction involves the listener, who probably knows (from the context the speaker gives and/or pie stains on her shirt) whether “we” refers to the speaker and one or more other people or the speaker and the listener.

This is a really important distinction, because the listener’s (or, more likely, reader’s) role is key. It trumps everything else. Brilliant syntax is meaningless without cognitive construction. Put another way, lexicological formulations achieve Floccinaucinihilipilification when opacified through superfluous bullshit.

There are no green squiggly lines under that last sentence, because it’s grammatically pristine. It’s still a train wreck. Grammar, in itself, does not make writing clear to the reader. It often helps, but it’s merely a guide to what the reader expects to see. That’s the heart of what the “rules of grammar” really are. They are a guide, written down after the fact, to how we say things in the most easily understandable way. “Pie we ate” is probably still understandable, but it sounds weird (because it’s not the standard subject-verb-object formulation we use in English). It takes more work for the reader to understand the meaning, because you sound like Yoda.

Those are some important factors to keep in mind when thinking about grammar. Specifically:

  • Grammar is backward looking. First people communicate in a way they all find works, then linguists assign rules to explain what it is that lets it make sense.
  • The only reason we have “rules of grammar” is to give context to the information we are being provided.
  • Something that follows the linguistic structure for written English (i.e., is grammatically correct) can still suck balls. If you put a cardboard box on top of the foundation for a mansion, you haven’t built a mansion.
  • A phrase or sentence that is readily understood by the reader in a pleasing and predictable way has accomplished what the “rules of grammar” seek to accomplish, whether it follows those rules or not.

Don’t infer from the above list that I’m not a fan of following the rules of grammar. Outside dialogue, I do so the overwhelming majority of the time. But it is important to realize that the “rules of grammar” are a means, not an end. Occasionally, the choice is presented between a clearer sentence that breaks the rules or adherence to the rules at the expense of clarity. In those cases, clarity wins.

What is Style?

My favorite definition of style comes from Orson Wells, who wrote, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” My English professors (with one notable exception, who was awesome) did not agree. Style was something they often confused with grammar, imposing arbitrary little rules affecting voice and tone as “rules,” despite the fact that they have nothing to do with proper syntax. If you find someone who thinks the correctly named (but otherwise often incorrect) Elements of Style is a grammar guide, you have identified this problem.

Style, to an editor, is a set of rules that fill in the gray areas left by broad grammar rules. Issues like whether parentheses or em-dashes should be used to set off a particular clause, or how to hyphenate a set of compound numbers that combine to form a big-ass compound adjective. To a writer, style can best be defined as the set of preferences that aren’t syntactic rules. A subject worthy of it’s own post, but including:

  • Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions (there is no grammatical basis for that “rule”);
  • Don’t split infinitives (following this one sometimes screws things up in a big way);
  • Do not use contractions (that’s probably correct for most formal writing);
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition (what’s that all about?)
  • Passive voice should be avoided (by zombies!)

Those and other style preferences, which may be fucked in their own right, are often incorrectly pointed to as “rules of grammar” by writers, writing instructors, stupid green squiggly lines, and others. They aren’t. They’re basic bits of advice and nothing more.

What is Usage?

There’s a reason these three things need to be discussed in this order. Grammar is the basic syntactic framework of language, the nuts and bolts that allow two people speaking the same language to understand each other. We don’t use nouns to introduce adverbs in sentences without any predicates. We don’t even have to think to avoid doing those things, because most of those rules are hard-wired into how we think.

Style as the more flexible but easily definable constructs that (often) make grammatical sentences more easily understandable. There is no grammatical prohibition against using four negatives to state one positive, but it’s confusing as hell. There sure as hell isn’t a grammatical or linguistic reason for preferring active voice over passive, but it’s advisable 95% of the time. This is a gray area, and it’s like Velcro for bad “grammar” advice.

Usage, is that next level down (or up) toward genuine readability. It is the difference between:

“At least one individual in the overwhelming majority of U.S. households..”

and

“Every family’s got one…”

Just as people often call style issues grammar rules, matters of usage are regularly confused with style. And, in the true “style” sense, that’s fair. Strictly speaking, though, that flair that Welles was talking about relates more to usage than style. If you think of writing as an inverted pyramid, Grammar is the wide base – it includes every possible way of communicating a thought that will be recognized by an English-speaking person as correct. Style narrows that field down, eliminating the most tortured and inapt ways of expressing that thought. Usage is the tip, containing only those ways of stating a thought that will clearly resonate with your reader. It is, literally, the way we use the words to create an image. You need a reasonably good handle on grammar and style before you can focus on usage, but for a writer, usage is what matters most. It is the part of writing that is concerned with the reader’s reaction – not just her ability to decipher. It is the most flexible of the trio, and it is constantly changing. Grammar, by contrast, slowly evolves.

Why does this matter?

Because it gives context to advice. In truth, aside from fragmented sentences, violations of grammar rules are rarely, if ever, a good idea. But a whole shitpile of opinion about style and usage is dressed up as grammar advice, which gives both far more weight than they deserve. For example, here is a list from an article in the Guardian entitled: 10 grammar rules you can forget: how to stop worrying and write proper:

  1. Split infinitives (style, not grammar)
  2. Ending a sentence with a preposition (style, not grammar)
  3. Subjunctive verb form (usage, not grammar. I also think they’re wrong – but it’s a usage question, so I can)
  4. Double negatives (this is probably in a gray area between style and usage, clearly not grammar)
  5. Use of “between” to refer to more than two things (this is about as usagey as usage gets)
  6. Use of “with,” “by,” or “of” with an adjective like “bored” (if possible, this is usegier than 5)
  7. Using gerunds (verbs turned into nouns by adding “ing”) (style, not grammar)
  8. Conjunctions at the beginning of sentences (I agree. But this has nothing to do with grammar)
  9. Use of singular verb with the word “none” (which is based entire on the usage of “none”)
  10. Using try twice in a sentence (until I saw this, I had no idea it was a rampant style problem).

See the problem? There is not one fucking grammar rule on the list. If someone points out a grammatical mistake in your writing, you almost certainly need to fix it. If someone points out a usage issue, you need to decide how much that person’s take on usage is in line with your reading audience.

There’s a big difference.

Meet Mary Sue Part Two: A feminist linguistic deconstruction

On the surface, Mary Sue doesn’t present much of a problem. Good writing requires careful execution, and Mary Sues are paragons of poor execution. In a nutshell, they are extremely poorly developed characters whose stunted development is so dense, it creates a gravity field the story cannot escape. The story becomes one of author wish fulfillment at the expense of story development. In short, she sucks so much that it is impossible for a story including her (which means a story revolving around her awesomeness) not to suck as well.

Problem solved. Mary Sues suck, don’t write them, end of story.

But it’s not. I have serious reservations about the label Mary Sue. Specifically, I have big-ass reservations from the term from a feminist linguistic perspective that make me hate the term. Unfortunately, I also have huge problems with most of the feminist discourse about Mary Sue, because it largely points to nonexistent problems to create a strawman (er, strawperson) argument. I’m not thrilled about picking their arguments apart, since I largely agree with the conclusions they are trying to reach. But there are much better and more straightforward ways to criticize the portrayal of women (or the reactions to those portrayals) than shoehorning them into Mary Sue through a logical fallacy. That, and they are completely missing the core problem the Mary Sue trope presents from a feminist/linguistic perspective.

The character development criticism the Mary Sue label attempts to assail –poorly drawn characters suck so much they kill innocent stories– is a valid criticism. Pretending it’s not misses the point entirely. And, since the standard feminist critique relies on a logic fallacy to criticize a legitimate argument about writing, it gives the false appearance that feminist criticism of Mary Sue is invalid. It also gives the impression that the feminist critique of Mary Sues –that strong female characters are often, if not usually, poorly portrayed and received in fiction– misses the boat, which it doesn’t. That’s a completely legitimate concern. It’s also a different concern, that gets lost when you try to make Mary Sue the core problem.

It’s not that I’m pro Mary Sue

Two things here. First, if you’re writing fiction for other people to consume, I have no problem saying you should never write a character who even comes close to being a Mary Sue. Nobody in her right mind is going to tell you that it is a good thing to put your own, overly idealized and poorly drawn author avatar into a story so that you can allow all other characters to fawn over you – er, her. It’s bad character development, it’s bad storytelling, there is no upside for the reader. Just, don’t.

Second, if you are simply writing for your own pleasure, feel free to write Mary Sue adventures all you want. This blog is about fiction writing for consumption by third parties. Some fiction writing is almost a form of therapeutic journaling, and a completely different set of standards apply. One standard, really, because you should just write whatever the hell you want. There is a pretty good argument to be made that, particularly for girls and women, writing Mary Sue adventures can be empowering and beneficial. Actually, that argument has already been made, in  (Re)Writing Mary Sue: E ´ criture Fe ´ minine and the Performance of Subjectivity. That is not the kind of writing I’m talking about. This analysis applies solely to fiction that will (at least potentially) be consumed by third parties.

The current feminist critique of Mary Sue misses the boat completely

The whole “every strong female character gets labeled Mary Sue” argument is bullshit. So is “Batman would be a Mary Sue if he were a woman.” I’m not saying that no idiot has ever posted an asinine opinion on a message board or Yahoo answers saying otherwise, but I have not found any serious review, criticism, or deconstruction of Hunger Games that actually takes that position. By way of comparison, I also Googled “Han Solo is gay” and found similar sources arguing that the guy who spent ten years trying to get into Princess Leia’s pants was really after Luke or Lando, so that’s the level of discourse those critiques are pointing to as an indictment.

BONUS MATERIALS: In case you’re wondering what Hunger Games would be like if Katniss were a Mary Sue, my friends at QueryTracker wrote it. It follows as the epilogue to this post.

The Batman argument is also just a logic fallacy wrapped in another logic fallacy and topped with a bunch of cherry picking. But you can still glean a little bit of the truth of the Mary Sue problem from the misused example. Using any objective measure possible, from box office receipts to critical and audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes to, my favorite, which movies Michael McDonagh thinks are awesomer, you get one result. The more conflicted and complex Batman is, and the more he must struggle to obtain his goals in the movie, the better everyone on the freaking planet thinks the movie is. I.e., the less those cherry-picked aspects of Mary Suism are present, the better everyone liked the movies. So, no, Batman did not get away with being Mary Sue because he’s a dude. The movies worked because he was decidedly NOT a Mary Sue. The less of a Mary Sue he was, the better the movies did.

Although they did make one movie that is pretty close to Batman Sue. The Green Hornet was essentially Batman without the psychologically conflicted, guilt ridden vigilante aspect. It also lost money. That movie gives us a pretty good point of comparison. Here is the difference between Batman and the Green Mary Sue(ish) kind of guy.

Critics

Audience

Receipts

The Dark Knight

94%

94%

$534,858,444

Green Hornet

43%

44%

$98,780,042

BECAUSE THE POINT HERE, AND IT IS AN IMPORTANT ONE, WHICH IS WHY I’M YELLING, IS THAT NOBODY GETS AWAY WITH POORLY DEVELOPED CHARACTERS THAT SUCK. Ever. Even with a $120 Million budget and special effects and big name stars and shit. People loved Batman because of the decidedly non-Mary Sue aspects of the story.

So, please, cut that shit out. It isn’t adding anything to the discourse, and there is discourse that needs to be happening. Instead, we’re dinking around with flawed arguments, logic fallacies, and heated responses to things that nobody said in the first place.

Gendered Discourse: the part we should be pissed about…

If you haven’t noticed (and I kind of hope you haven’t, because that means I’m doing it well), I pay attention to the gendered use of language. My standard nongendered pronouns usually default to she, I wouldn’t consider calling any individual other than myself a bitch, etc. There is a spectrum of discoursive feminism, and for an American (and certainly for a hetero white dude from Idaho), I’m pretty far on the feminist side. I basically go right up to the point on that spectrum where I would have to stop using the word fuck if I took one more step. I stop there, because, fuck that.

So, to me, the biggest problem that exists with the Mary Sue label is its name. The name was an accident of history, and there was certainly no evil intent at play when a parody story was penned naming the main character Mary Sue. But it stuck. And I suspect some (a lot) of that sticking power comes from the fact that it was a tropey, intentionally gendered name. Standing in isolation, it wouldn’t cause me a lot of heartburn, but we live in a society that often uses the feminine in discourse in harmful ways. At best, it can be used to diminish (e.g., every word you’ve ever seen ending in the feminizing suffix “ette” meaning diminished or smaller). A step worse, is blatant classification according to gender (notice there is no such thing as a doctoress, and nurses get their job title from breastfeeding). Then it gets ugly, using the feminine to denigrate (if you have a sister you love, you should be annoyed every time you hear someone referred to as a “sissy”).

Had the main character been male, the level of disparagement associated with the label would have been significantly diminished. Odds are, the trope would be less associated with the particular character and we would call it a fanvitar or something. Originating with an exceptionally female name made it far more likely the name would become the label, because we live in a historically patriarchal society that freaking LOVES to use the feminine to denigrate. Political rhetoric (particularly rhetoric advocating for war and violence) relies heavily on denigration opposing views by feminizing them. If you have a Nexus account and want to see a study of that in practice where the shit really hits the fan, check out The Rhetoric of Sissy-Slogans: How Denigrating the Feminine Perpetuates the Terror Wars in the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice.

So Mary Sue, having such a Mary Sueish name, was like glue for something bad in search of a name.

On the other side of the coin, language not only reflects social reality, it also creates that reality. “In other words, it shapes how we see ourselves and the world. If language use is constitutive rather than indexical, then it has the potential to help establish and maintain social and power relations, values and identities, as well as to challenge routine practice and contribute towards social change.” Goueffic, Louise, Breaking the patriarchal code, 1996.

That little bit of zing implicit in saying someone’s a “Mary Sue” instead of merely saying “poorly developed author avatar character that sucks” has a name. That name is sexism.

The problem with the Mary Sue label is not –as most of the feminist criticism currently claims –that characters who are not Mary Sues are being labeled that. From what I can find, that’s a fiction. But there is a very real problem in using such a distinctively feminine label as an insult cum criticism. That’s something we do all the fucking time, because our society has some pretty backward ass views on “feminine” and “insulting” being the same thing. And while I am all for eradicating characters with the poorly developed qualities of the character Mary Sue in the original Star Trek fan fiction, the criticism should not be wrapped up in the name “Mary Sue.”

This is where I circle back to where the original feminist critique landed. Although I think the rationale behind the criticism is, well, wrong, the potential harms they point to are legitimate. If anything, I think they are worse. Use of feminine labels to disparage things generally is bad. But the Mary Sue label, which is gendered as hell right out of the gates, is bound to more readily self-censor females writing female characters. And, since all of us write shitty, poorly developed characters who probably represent more self-fulfillment than we should for the first few (hundred) thousand words, the impact of that censorship could be severe. Particularly if it’s self-imposed.

Which puts women writing female action characters on a very narrow path. Maybe even a tightrope. On one side is Mary Sue, and on the other is the hyper-sexualized female action hero one writer dubbed the fighting fuck toy (FFT). There is plenty of room for well developed characters in there, and there is also room for legitimate criticism of poorly developed characters. There should, however, be no room for denigration based on the feminine nature of even those characters that stray over the line.

There are things to be concerned about with regard to the Mary Sue label. Batman and Katniss being Mary Sues are not among of them. That said, from a discoursive linguistic point of view, the trope and the label are almost certainly harmful and unnecessary. A shitty character who makes a book suck for that particular group of reasons doesn’t need a feminizing label any more than shitty characters who make books suck for any other reason. The focus needs to be on the quality of the writing.

Epilogue: The Mary Sue Hunger Games

By Bowden and Kodi

Scene District 12.  A cock crows.  Two girls rise from bed.

Prim:  Morning, Katniss.
Katniss:  Morning, Prim.  You’re looking lovely this morning.
Prim:  I wish I looked as lovely as you.
Katniss:  Oh, pshaw.  You’re like all blonde and pretty and stuff.  I’m like dark and skinny and crap.
Prim:  Oh, yeah?  Then how come I don’t have a bunch of hot guys following me around everywhere I go?
Katniss:  Them?  They’re just being polite and stuff.  They pity me because my dad dying and crap.  God damn, I’m hungry.
Prim:  Oh, no!  Why didn’t you say something sooner.  I’ll go milk my goat!

Mother enters

Mom:  Katniss.  How are you this morning.
Katniss:  (under her breathe) Well I’m cold and I’m hungry and I have a crick in my neck.  But if I tell you any of that, you’ll just be miserable worrying about me all day.  You deserve some happiness, so I’ll pretend I’m fine.
Mom:  What was that?
Katniss:  I said I’m fine.
Mom:  Are you sure?
Katniss:  Yes, mom, I’m sure.  Now leave me alone and think of yourself for a change.
Mom:  Ok, if you insist.  I just wanted to bring you this dress and draw you a bubblebath and brush your hair and give you a makeover with all this stuff that I just spent my life savings on.
Katniss:  Why?
Mom:  Because you’re the best daughter ever, and I can’t have people thinking I don’t appreciate it.
Katniss:  Whatever.
[An hour later there is a knock on the door]
Peeta: Wow!  You look beautiful!
Katniss:  No I don’t, but thanks anyway.
Gale:  Hey Katniss, I’m here to walk you to the quad.
Peeta: No, I’m here to walk her to the quad.
[Give each other dirty looks]
Katniss:  You can both walk me to the quad.  Peeta, can you, like, go get Prim?
[To Gale after he leaves]  I’m sorry I made out with Peeta.  I only did it to make you jealous.
Gale:  That’s ok.  I forgave you a long time ago.
Katniss:  Only, now, I’m like, starting to fall for him, so I can’t decide which of you I like better.
Gale:  Take all the time you need, Catnip.  I’m not going anywhere.
[Prim and Peeta return and they walk]
Peeta:  You know, Katniss.  You should consider becoming a career tribute.  You’d win for sure.
Gale:  Yeah.  Then we can all hang out together at the winners’ village.
Katniss:  No way.
Prim: Oh, come on.  The other tributes will surrender when they see how awesome you are.
Katniss:  You guys are so funny.
Prim:  Oh shoot.  They are drawing the names already.
Effie:  And the male tribute is:  Peeta Mallarky!
Peeta: Gack!
Gale:  Haha.  Guess who has two thumbs and is going to end up with Katniss by default.  This guy!
Prim:  Oh, snap!
Katniss:  Shush.  They are announcing the female tribute.
Effie:  And for female tribute:  Primrose Everdeen!
Prim:  No!  Oh, no!  They can’t pick me!  I’m the only doctor in the village!  What if Katniss gets sick!  I’m going to be so worried I won’t be able to sleep! I’ll lose for sure!
Katniss:  Fiiiiine.  I volunteer!
Crowd:  KAT NISS!  KAT NISS!  KAT NISS!
Prim:  Nooo!!!  You can’t take her!  I won’t let you!
Katniss:  Oh come, on Prim, you suck at fighting and you know it.  The guys are right.  I’m going to win for sure.

Scene: The Train Ride

A somewhat drunken man, a very enigmatic woman, and Katniss and Peeta sit eating:

Katniss: *gobbles everything*
Peeta: I wish I was you, Katniss. I’d love to eat everything and not worry about my figure.
Katniss: Oh, you look fine. I’m gaining weight! *is beautiful and skinny*
Haymitch: *drinks*
Katniss: Haymitch, stop drinking, we need to discuss strategies for the games
Haymitch: *Immediately throws the liquor out the window* Yes, whatever you say! But it won’t matter, because I’m sure you’ll win.
Katniss: You expect too much of me, I’m just a poor girl from district 12.
Peeta: *under his breath* Who has every boy trailing after her
Katniss: What Peeta? *flips hair*
Peeta: *twitterpated* Uh Gah
Katniss: Oh, we’re here, I guess we’ll meet our stylists now.
Effie: Like you’ll need them! You’re stunningly attractive as you are–the sponsors will fall over themselves to get to you! You on the other hand *side eyes a Twitterpated Peeta* will need some work.

[Katniss and the others enter the style room and the others are immediately shoved to the side by a hundred screaming stylists.]

Stylist 1:  It’s her!
Stylist 2:  OMG!  OMG!
Stylist 3:  Breathe!  Don’t forget to breathe!
Stylist 2:  [Hands Katniss a pen]  Will you autograph my shoulder?
[Katniss scribbles her name with a heart over the i]
Peeta:  I bet you’ll be never be washing that shoulder again.
Stylist 2:  Hardy har, smartacre.  It’s a tattoo pen.
[Katniss is mobbed by stylists stroking her arms and running their fingers through her hair]
Stylist 3:  How do you get your ringlets so perfectly tousled?
Katniss:  I dunno.  I kind of shake my head from side to side and it just falls that way.
Stylist 1:  Skin: Aphrodite Olive #2.  Hair: Dogwood Demigoddess #10.   [The other stylists furiously scribble into their tablets.]
Katniss:  I didn’t know I’d get so many stylists on my style team.
Effie:  [Laughs a high pitched laugh]  Don’t be silly! These are the stylists for the OTHER tributes.  They’re just here to try to poach some style tips from you.
Peeta:  Hey!  That’s cheating!
Katniss:  It’s ok, Peeta.  No sense in making this too easy for me.
Cinna:  Shoo. Get lost.  [All but three adoring stylists leave]  Hello, I’m Cinna, your wardrobe guy.  And these three are your stylists.
Katniss:  Charmed, I’m sure.
Cinna: I made you a charcoal-dust colored dress, but to be honest, I like what you’re wearing much better, so I’m just going to toss it in the trash.
Katniss:  This old thing?  Couldn’t you at least liven it up a bit.
Cinna:  What do you suggest?
Katniss: I don’t know, like maybe have flames shoot out of it, or something?
Cinna:  It’s genius!  I love it!

##Fin##

Meet Mary Sue Part One: Who is Mary Sue, Anyway?

Today you will meet Starfleet Lieutenant Mary Sue, the hottest, smartest, most awesome girl in the galaxy.

So much so, she sucks.

Birth of a blog post

I started working on a post about how readers’ brains function when reading fiction. It turns out neuroscience is more complicated than bitching about deus ex endings or kissing Anton Chekhov’s ass. After hours of research with nothing but data –which I love, yay data– I realized that bad boy is (a) a series, not a post; and (b) going to take about a Master’s thesis of research and a month to write if I’m going to do it justice.

Shit.

Not wanting to leave my throngs (read: fifty-five, and I love you all) of followers hanging for a month while I geek out on brain science, I put out a call for suggested topics. The first request I got was from my friend Kodi, who asked:

Could you do a post on something about “Mary-Sues?” Not, like, explaining what they are, but how they’re perceived by others and how in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called “Mary-Sue.” Especially if they’re female.

(An example I often hear is Katniss, who I wouldn’t consider a Mary-Sue–maybe a less emotionally developed person– especially after the train-wreck of events in Mockingjay…)

Katniss is a Mary Sue? What the fucking fuck is up with that? Does that mean Batman is a Gary Stu? ROFLMAO.

Less than two hours later, someone posted a question about Mary Sues on the watercooler, because of a making-the-rounds blog post about Mary Sues — one that seems to be creating some of this controversy:

So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly.  They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.

God, what a Mary Sue.

I just described Batman.

Which again raises the question, what the fucking fuck?

So Katniss is a Mary Stu and if Batman were a girl instead of a boy, he’d be a Mary Sue, so pretty much everybody is a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu?

I don’t think so.

I’m gonna start by explaining what they are

Sorry, Kodi, but you should know better. That’s how I start analyzing everything. When we know where something came from and its original context, we usually have a better handle on what we’re talking about. Mary Sue is no exception, although we aren’t taking our normal trip back to ancient Greece or Roman scholarship or even fourteenth century etymology. You see, there really was a Mary Sue. Her ancient origins? A parody piece of Star Trek fan fiction. Before you had to say TOS about Star Trek, because there was one Star Trek.

A Star Trek fan with a sense of humor named Paula Smith penned a piece of parody fan fic entitled A Trekkie’s Tail for the fanzine “the Menagerie” in 1974. Ms. Smith had noticed that most Trekkie fan fic was the same basic story: A supersmart, superhot, superyoung (i.e., the same age as the author) character shows up on the bridge of the Enterprise. Everybody adores her, wants to do her, and goes on adventures with her. Good thing she’s there, too, because she saves everybody’s ass, since she’s the smartest, coolest, and hottest person in the galaxy. Then she often dies and is mourned by all (because of said smartness, coolness, and hotness). Justifiably annoyed by the accumulation of fan fic garbage, Ms. Smith penned her own parody. It stars, you guessed it, Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet.

So, without further ado, here is the original text of:

A TREKKIE’S TALE

By Paula Smith

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”

“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”

“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”

Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”

“The Captain told me to.”

“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies , Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

You have now officially met Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet. The girl so awesome that an entire trope is named for her. Substitute the Captain wanting to do her for Nurse Chapel checking his junk on the elevator, maintain the same level of awesomeness (i.e., turn it into a male author’s self-insertion fantasy) and you have Gary Stu, Mary Sue’s male counterpart.

Two years after Smith’s parody, the editors of the fanzine that originated the name used it to identify the kind of stories they hate:

Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in  everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [meaning, of course, Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

Born of parody and forged in sarcasm, Mary Sue is, generally, little more than an adolescent wish fulfillment fan fic author avatar. Its meaning has been broadened a tad, now encompassing all adolescent-level wish fulfillment fantasy stories, inside and outside fan fiction. Broadened beyond that, you have people incorrectly labeling characters Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) even if they don’t belong in that category. Like, for example, Katniss Everdeen and Batman.

This Batman is not a Mary Sue:

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Douchey Batman is, um, well, yea:

But this was a freaking parody, too!

What are the Elements of a Mary Sue?

All of the politics aside (any guesses what my next entry is about?), the core elements of a Mary Sue (you too, Gary) are straightforward. It’s a character who is so awesome she manages to be simultaneously a one-dimensional cardboard cutout and the epicenter of the universe. Not only is she bland and uninteresting herself, she also makes all of the other characters around her bland and uninteresting by sucking all of the oxygen out of every room she enters. Because she must be the smartest, fastest, most clever and amazing person in the universe, Captain Kirk and everyone else just hang out, basking in her awesomeness, while she takes care of everything. Mary Sue is an author avatar on steroids (and meth, with narcissistic personality disorder). Obstacles crumble before her, no group excludes her. The Three Musketeers order new stationary saying the Four Musketeers the minute she gets off her horse.

In short, it’s crappy writing. The character is entirely about the writer fulfilling the writer’s needs — like a selfish lover, paying no particular attention to whether the reader is enjoying herself or not.

A character is not a Mary Sue just because she is interesting, strong, smart, or attractive. It gets harder as you pile more of those elements onto a character, but even a character with all of those attributes is not, necessarily, a Mary or a Gary. More than anything, what defines a Mary Sue (for me) is her relationship with the other characters. As soon as she is one among equals, and not the object of near or total adoration from everyone else in her universe, she is not a Mary Sue. If she is a participant in the story — not the center of gravity, around which all other story elements orbit like fawning moons circling a planet of hot awesomeness — she’s not a Mary Sue. Unless other characters are rendered less interesting or competent or independent because of their love of and/or (but usually just “and”) reliance on her awesomeness, she is not a Mary Sue.

Because most of the Mary Sue “controversy” comes from people mislabeling characters as Mary Sues, or believing other people do, or something else with its roots in an incorrect definition of what a Mary Sue really is, the only place to start the discussion is with a clear understanding of what that term/trope means.

Kodi is right, “in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called ‘Mary-Sue.’ Especially if they’re female.”

Which is idiotic –to the extent said idiocy warrants an entire post of its own. The post Kodi was asking for in the first place; also known as “the one in which the hetero white male whose first language was the Rural Redneck dialect of English does a feminist rant.”

That comes next…

The Story/Plot Disambiguation Page

The Concept Was Simple (then writers started talking about it)

No concept is more basic to fiction writing than the concept of a story. After all, that’s the whole freaking point. We’re out to tell a story. The tricky part is telling a story well, which is to say interestingly. That’s what the plot is for. At its core, that is the difference between story and plot.

Story: Everything that’s happening in your fictional world, on or off stage, known or unknown to your POV character at any given time. It is the whole of the “real world” in your made up world.

Plot: The events that actually happen in front of the reader.

Put more simply, the difference is

Story: All the shit that matters, whether or not anyone actually sees it or does it.

Plot: All the shit – and, more importantly, only the shit – that your characters and/or narrator see and/or do.

This is an incredibly simple concept. Like most simple writing concepts, writers have written about it so much, and thrown around so many opinions about it, and felt so compelled to opine grandly about it, that it’s now completely fucked up. We have books and blogs telling people that story is the emotional journey, while plot is the physical journey. Print books that say, “story tells you what happened” (OK so far) and “plot is why it happened” (and then you fucked it up).

Don’t get me wrong, there are more nuanced and insightful concepts here, particularly with regard to plot. The problem is, many writers, including some creative writing teachers, seem to have come in on the tail end of the nuanced discussion, decided that’s what plot means, and confuse that nuance for a definition. Usually ending up with a definition that comes very close to being the opposite of what it should be.

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So we’re not going to do it that way. It’s a hell of a lot easier to put the horse in front of the cart, and nail the principal distinction first.

Story: A man drives to the store and buys whipping cream.

Plot: A man has a pint of fresh strawberries and decides he wants some whipped cream to go with them. He backs his car out of the garage, drives to the end of his street, and makes a right. He reaches a stoplight and, when it turns green, makes a left into the store parking lot. He parks his car, goes to the dairy case and finds heavy whipping cream is on sale. He buys a carton and pays at the self-checkout.

That’s the difference. The story is an event (or, in a novel, a whole series of events). The plot is the thought and the action that describe the event. End of (hehe) story.

The Story of Story and Plot

We can get a little help here from etymology. We get the word “story” from, not surprisingly, the word “history.” First to the Greeks and then in Latin, the word came down as “historia.” It was initially “a chronicle of events,” meaning real ones, but in 1500, the word “story” came to include recounting of fictional events. The function was the same. A story is the basic, underlying  historical event, even if it’s a made up history about vampires or intergalactic warriors. It only has one timeframe, which is the order in which the events occurred. Nothing but the chronology of events matters.

Plot has a fittingly murky history (the plot thickens). It’s possible that we get the word from the middle French word “complot” (which means a conspiracy). It also derives (or complot is related to) plot, as in plot of land, which may or may not be related to plat (which is a map of said plots, although sometimes plot also meant map). In 1901 philologist, Walter William Skeat boldly predicted, “When the words complot, platform and plot (of ground) have all been thoroughly worked out, we may be confident that the mode of formation of plot a conspiracy will appear.”

Apparently, Bill and I are the only people who get geeked out on this stuff enough to care, because nobody’s gotten around to working it out. And it gets even weirder if you try to go earlier than Billy W did, possibly coming to complot via comepeloter, a really, really old fucking word that means roll a ball.

The funny thing is, no matter where it comes from, it still means the same thing when it comes to plotting stories. It is a plan, overview, map, or conspiracy. Or, I guess, the shit that gets the ball rolling, which is probably the best definition of all.

One way or the other, by about 1580, plot meant to plan or map. So, before 1600, we have:

Story: A chronology of events.

Plot: A map or scheme.

Which means we just took the simple answer and made it simpler. And probably more accurate. It’s fairly easy to look at questions of story and plot realizing that, at their base they simply mean these things. A guy goes to the store is story. He has to make a right out of his subdivision to get there is plot.

So, How’d it Get all Fucked Up?

Writers did it. It started with E. M. Forster, a genius at plotting. In 1927, he gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Aspects of a Novel. The thing is, Forster nailed it, and his explanation is brilliant. Unfortunately, his example seems to be the only thing anyone paid attention to.

The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

In the context of his lecture, it’s a great example. Cut out and isolated, it leads to people stating, then repeating, the wrong premise. “The queen died of grief” is not the plot because it tells why she died. It is the plot because that is the character’s experience in the story. It has nothing to do with cause and effect or action/reaction or any of the other things people have spent ninety years saying plot means. It’s the plot because, instead of turning a left to get whipped cream, she turned dead because she was grieving.

In the same lecture, Forster said, “A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them.” It’s ironic, because a significant minority, if not the majority, of the people who use his analysis seem to lack said intelligence and memory, because they keep forgetting the fucking connection he was making.

Cause and effect is a huge component of plot, story couldn’t care less about either. Motivations often drive characters’ actions, which usually drive plots, but that does not make those motivations the plot. It’s just that motivations are not the story. The story is: A happened, then B happened, then C happened. Even if you choose to start your story at C, then drop back to B and only tell A through flashbacks, the story remains the same. First A, then B, then C. You are making decisions about your plot, how and when you make those things happen and reveal them to the reader with flashbacks and out-of-sequence narrative. None of that changes the story one bit.

For example, the story in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather starts with Vito Corleone’s father being killed and Vito fleeing to the U.S. He is a shop clerk, meets a shady friend, hates being ripped off by a mobster, and becomes one himself. Although the book starts long after he’s reached the pinnacle of power and not long before his death, the Story starts at a very different time and in a very different place. Because a story is always chronological, even if the plot is not.

Back to Simple Stuff that Makes Sense

If you think of your novel as a play, plot is the stuff that happens on the stage. If it doesn’t happen on the stage, it is not part of the plot. A nuclear explosion may be central to the story you are telling – and therefore be a key story element – but it probably isn’t happening on the stage. So it’s not part of the plot. Your characters hearing about or reacting to it, because that is what happens on stage, may be less important to the story than the explosion, but it is far more important to the plot. Because those reactions are the plot.

When you hear someone begin to explain the difference between plot and story with talk about how vague, nuanced, or theoretical the differences are, your bullshit meter should start going off. If it’s within the chronological list of events you are relating in your book, it’s story. If it happens onstage, it’s plot. A lot of things are both, like buying the whipped cream. It’s key to the story, it also took place on the stage, so it fits both definitions. If a thermonuclear war starts while the man is buying his whipped cream, it could be key to the story, but it will only become part of the plot when something related to it shows up on stage. Making a right out of the parking lot to head back home is a plot element, but that act, in itself, is not story.

That’s about all there is to it.

Gun Control with Anton Chekhov

First, fair warning, I’m Anton Chekov’s bitch.

In my opinion, few writers have provided good advice as consistently as Anotn Chekhov. He primarily wrote plays and short stories, but I’m not sure anyone has explained the key elements of fiction writing as well. He seems to have tapped into a blend of science and art that afforded him the humility of an artist and a scientist’s (or professional athlete’s) understanding of the process that created the art. He was not a “I just sit down and fluffy butterflies come out of my ass” writer. He was a “I have worked hard to understand this process, and this is what I have learned” writer. Which is a boon for me, because I don’t tend to have fluffy butterflies coming out of my ass. Even if I did, I would still want to know how the hell they got there.

By far, Chekhov’s most famous writing advice relates to the famous Chekhov’s gun. Advice he appears to have given in many forms and with different phrasing, sometimes referring to acts of a play, other times to chapters of a book, and still others to placement in a story. It isn’t apocryphal – Chekhov said it – but he said it many times in many ways. To novelists, it’s best put:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The end.

Seriously, that is where a blog post on Chekhov’s gun should end. I mean, he’s right. We should be shoehorning 150,000 words of STORY into 100,000 words. 500 words about room décor or intricate descriptions of clothing should get axed on the first edit if they don’t move the STORY forward. It’s a simple concept, it’s true, and I sure as fuck can’t say it better than he did, so the “what a Chekhov’s gun is” part of this post has now concluded.

Related Concepts

There are a few ways to play with Chekhov’s gun beyond, “don’t spend two pages describing your protag’s car unless there’s going to be a car chase or he’ll be buried alive in it later.”

1)    Turning off the turd machine

As indicated in my last post, there is a beautiful interplay between stashing Chekhov’s guns and avoiding deus ex machina (a/k/a turd machines). Deus ex endings are those with a combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) an improbable, intervening force. By telling us when not to hang a rifle on the wall, Mr. Chekhov impliedly tells us when one should be there. Put another way, Chekhov’s guns can change crappy “I didn’t see that coming” endings into riveting, reader doing a face/palm, “I should have seen that coming” endings.

In fact, when people disagree about whether an ending was really a deus ex, it boils down to whether the author did a good enough job stashing Chekhov’s guns earlier in the book. In a discussion over at QueryTracker about my deus ex post, one of my friends from that board said she’d never considered the end of Lord of the Flies deus ex, because using a signal fire to attract ships was discussed significantly in the beginning of the book. Because of that, a ship being attracted by the fire the wild boys set was, at least somewhat, foreshadowed. Similarly, another pointed out that Tolkien mentioned the eagles throughout, and they had and helped Gandalf escape Saruman’s tower, so that might not be a deus ex. To me, that’s just serial use of a deus ex device, which does not make it less deus exey, but the response still highlights the interplay between DoucheyZeus and Chekhov. To the extent a reasonable argument can be made that either is not a deus ex, it is because of a gun hanging on the wall in Chapter One.

I’m not saying this would, necessarily, make either book better, but what if that gun were more obviously hanging there? If three paragraphs were added to Lord of the Flies from the bridge of a ship patrolling the area near the island, the appearance of the naval officer would suddenly be much less deus exey. If the little barefoot dudes in Lord of the Rings had a conversation with the Dumbledor looking dude about how the Eagles would not fly near Mordor while the ring still existed, their appearance right after it was destroyed would, in a sentence, make more sense. Although there is plenty of room to argue that those resolutions are not better, they still show how, with a few sentences, Mr. Chekhov can arm us against Deus exey endings.

2)    Chekov’s Joke

Not surprisingly, since I like to write humor, one of my favorite uses for Chekov’s guns are Chekov’s jokes. If you think about it, every joke you know starts with a Chekov’s gun – or three. “A lawyer, a priest, and a stripper are on an airplane…” The punch line is going to have something to do with how their respective professions relate to not having enough parachutes. Probably something about strippers not screwing people or teasing them with promises of things that aren’t really going to happen. Three people, three guns. The first sentence of nearly every joke ever told is, effectively, “So there’s this gun hanging on the wall…”

Writing literary humor allows a lot of time between the setup and punch line, which is a great tool to play with. For example, the second sentence of the novel I’m querying, is: “Feeling like he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried to look casual, pretending to read the various magazines lying around McClintock Publishing’s lobby.” 253 pages later, the person Nick was there to meet – who has become his employer and his friend in the intervening 80,000 words – notices that Nick doesn’t “even resemble the awkward young writer he’d watched nervously pretend to read magazines in his lobby a few months before.” Not hilarious, by any means, but hopefully amusing. More to the point, it’s a callback in Act 3 that, if I did my job well, flashes the reader’s mind through the rollercoaster the two men have been riding since that meeting. At a time when the cars seem to be coming off the tracks.

I should probably provide a more well known example, since this blog post is already more well known than my manuscript. There is a doozey in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The first book opens by talking about a woman who realizes how much better everything would be if Earth were just destroyed. In a very Monte Pythonesque move, Adams then informs us “This is not her story.”

And it’s not.

That story doesn’t come up again for the rest of the book. Or the next one. Or number three. Then, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Adams opens exactly the same way, I think word-for-word, up to the point he informs us, “This is her story.”

I think Adams’ execution on that one is brilliant. The first part of the first book is amusing by itself. A bit of Brit humor, not at all unlike Monte Python’s, “And now for something completely different.” It stands on its own as amusing. Which, if you are going to wait five years for the punch line, it has to.

With the punch line, it moves from amusing to genius. A pretty banal opening at best (seriously, try querying “This is her story” and see how it works out) is, in truth, a massive, and massively delayed, payoff on a five year old setup line.

The fact that it could stand on its own as an amusing line is also key to intentionally ignoring Mr. Chekov’s advice when we look at:

3.       One Possible Exception: the red herring.

Back to being Mr. I Hate Absolutes. There are limits to even this (almost) completely true advice from Mr. Chekov. While I am not a fan of including things with no relevance to the story, sometimes things need to be nuanced in order to keep the story from being blatantly predictable and boring to the reader. The most obvious example is a mystery. If the only gun anyone has in Chapter One is the murder weapon, a glue-sniffing kindergartener will probably be able to solve the mystery. A grownup will be bored. Or get drunk and spend a night badmouthing you with a one-star review on GoodReads. I’m not just talking about genre mysteries here, either. All novels need to have some form of mystery to them – if the reader doesn’t wonder what’s going to happen, she’ll never pick the book back up.

Although I’m not talking about genre mysteries, they provide the easiest examples. And those examples show that – even when his advice needs qualification – Chekhov is still basically right. Bad red herrings in mysteries are just plot devices shoved into the narrative so there are other possible suspects. The difference between a good red herring and a contrivance (yes, just different turds from the same machine) is that a skilled writer can work in clues and suspects who muddy the “who done it” waters while at the same time also adding something to the STORY.

For example, all of the victims in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None were also suspects. But the things that made them suspects were also the reason each one was a victim. So each red herring was also part of the plot, apart from merely being there to divert attention from who the killer really was. Much like Adams’ mildly amusing joke was justified in itself, even if it later proved to be the setup for a much bigger joke, Christie’s suspects support the story in their own right, in addition to being red herrings on the “who done it” end of things.

But I digress

(which is probably what I should have named this blog, with an F-bomb thrown in for good measure)

Chekhov’s advice was less about foreshadowing and avoiding deus ex than about avoiding unnecessary detail and description. In practice, though, it pays huge dividends in those areas as well. Making sure any guns in Chapter One are fired before the end of the book, and making sure any guns being fired in the climax aren’t being mentioned for the first time when our hero draws them, are unavoidably linked by good storytelling.

Deus Ex Machina: A Literary Device That Has Sucked Since 400 B.C.

First, an overview:

What is Deus Ex Machina?

Literally, that phrase is Latin for: “A god from the machine.” Roughly translated, it means: “You wrote a shitty ending.” Actually, if you change it to deuce ex machina, as in “drop a deuce” or “go number two,” then it really does translate to “turd machine.” Either way, it is not a good sign.

Not all shitty endings are deus ex. The trademark of a dues ex ending is the combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) some improbable, intervening force. If you take one of those elements away, it isn’t deus ex. It may still be a bad ending, but it won’t be the mother of all bad endings, which is what deus ex almost always is.

Let’s take the “cavalry rides to the rescue” ending as an example. Is that always deus ex? Certainly not. If you are writing about the Battle of Vienna, a massive cavalry charge turning the tide is a huge part of the story. But (a) it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming from the outset. Although (b) it did solve the hero’s problems, (c) it was not improbable at all, nor was the cavalry an outside force intervening in things. That charge was part of the “hero’s” plan from the outset.

Now let’s say you are writing a contemporary story about a woman on the run from the mob. She’s alone in the park and notices five guys in trench coats closing in on her from all sides. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. But then:

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 Deus ex cavalry charge. Notice the cars in the parking lot.

Yea, that’s a deus ex. You can tell, because it sucks.

Western Civilization as it Relates to Deus Ex 

The term itself originated around 19 B.C.E. Yes, B.C. As in, Before Christ, which, regardless of your belief in the divinity of Christ, was a long, long, long fucking time ago. It comes to us courtesy of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, whom the English speaking world usually calls Horace. He coined the term in Ars Poetica, which was basically a style guide for Roman poets, where he instructs poets that they should never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots “unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen.”

Like most things scholarly and Roman around that time, it was not a Roman idea. Horace was parroting Aristotle’s 335 B.C.E. bitchfest about Deus Ex, entitled Poetics. Translated, Aristotle said, “It is obvious that the solutions of plots, too, should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance.” The contrivances he hated so much in ancient Greek plays were – you guessed it – gods being lowered or raised onto the stage by way of some kind of machine. Usually it was a crane, sometimes a trap door.

Either way, you have your Greek tragedy going along just fine, we’ve been through Act II, the characters are in a hopeless position, all seems lost, then *POOF*

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 DoucheyZeus is here to save the day.

Zeus shows up and just fixes everything. And around 400 B.C., most people agreed that ending kinda sucked.

For a little perspective, the first novel printed in the English Language is believed to be William Caxton’s 1483 translation of The Book of the Knight of the Tower. So people giving advice about how to write had been saying deus ex sucks for almost two thousand years before the first book was ever printed in the English language. It’s been well over five hundred years since that book was printed, and nothing much has changed.

Deus only knows how many not famous books are not famous because they suffered from this malady. Some famous novels do, too. The important thing to note is that those books’ fame is usually attributed to their other, more worthy aspects or the prior fame of the author. Criticisms usually point to those other aspects and note that the books are successful despite – and never because of – the crappy ending.

For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are surrounded by an army of about two million evil minions inside a dark overlord’s volcano lair. Oh, yea, then the volcano starts to erupt. Pretty impossible situation, right? Apparently, because Tolkien couldn’t even think of a satisfactory solution to the problem.

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Yea, so, um, then giant eagles show up and fly them to safety. The end. Bad enough to undo the prior thousands of pages of epic Middle Earth storytelling? No. But in my entire life I have not heard one person say, “I love the part where the eagles just show up from out of nowhere and save them.” He also gets a bit of a pass because the real story conflict was already over. The ring was gone, Golem met his fate, the boys had accomplished their mission – the story was done. They just happened to end said story and mission in the middle of an evil overlord’s erupting volcano lair and surrounded by an evil army. Tolkien was just cheating to make the characters survive, not to complete the saga of the ring itself.

Why is Deus Ex so Bad?

I like to think of this in terms of investing. When readers enjoy a story, they are invested in the characters and the plot. Those things matter to them. The better job we do writing, the more invested they are. By the time we get to Act III, they have invested time, they are invested in the characters and the story, and they expect that investment to pay off.

Then a deus exey writer says “Forget all that, here’s something that has nothing to do with any of it. Story’s over, the end.”

Every moment spent investing in the story and the characters was wasted. Three hundred pages of learning about the situation and wondering how the characters could possibly get out of it were answered with: “They can’t, but they live happily ever after, anyway. The end.” Basically, it feels like the author is saying “Fuck you, it’s your fault you read the first 300 pages, because all that matters is the last one.”

More truthfully, though, a deus ex is the author’s admission that he painted himself into a corner. H.G. Wells told a great story in War of the Worlds, right up to the end. I’m sorry, but more advanced civilizations wiping out native populations are generally the ones with the nastiest bugs, not incapable of dealing with them. Stephen King, no stranger to writing himself into a corner, uses it in a very in-your-face way in the Dark Tower series, intervening as author/god and sending a note into his fictional world that actually says, “Here comes the deus ex machina.” Kurt Vonnegut did something similar in Breakfast of Champions.

 Is Deus Ex Always teh Suk?

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know my distaste for commentary about writing that uses “always” or “never.” Because my only “always” is that such commentary or advice is never true.

Deus ex has been used for comedic effect brilliantly. Monte Python uses it with abandon – A UFO showing up to rescue Brian after he fell off a cliff, characters being terrorized by an animated monster being saved when the animator keels over from a heart attack at his desk, a modern police raid ending the medieval battle – it’s one of their favorite devices. And they’re not the only ones:

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 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (The writers hung a lampshade to protest the producers’ demand for a happy ending)

Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive is another wink at this device. The drive got its name from the fact that he’d painted himself into a corner, Ford and Arthur are floating in space without space suits and it was ridiculously improbable that any spaceship would come along and rescue them in time. Voila, the Infinite Improbability Drive is born.

In my opinion, William Golding’s ending to Lord of the Flies may be an acceptable use. The situation is hopeless, the protagonist is facing certain death, and then a naval officer shows up and stops the story in its tracks. It’s unquestionably a deus ex — even Golding called the ending a “gimmick.” But allowing the hero to prevail through some reasonable course of events would completely undermine the point Golding was trying to make. Plus, like Tolkien’s example, the deus ex was used there as a device for returning the characters to the normal world after the core story had completed. It was not offered up as a resolution of the core story.

Having said that, outside comedic uses or the need to put a stop to the slaughter of innocent children, deus ex is usually pretty bad. Like cholera is usually unpleasant and Fran Drescher’s laugh is slightly annoying. It is a symptom in Act III that you have severe problems with Acts I and II, and can unravel everything you’ve done in those acts with a single paragraph.

Outside parody, nobody sets out to write a deus ex ending. It’s a last, worst option. And there’s usually a better solution. If you’ve painted yourself into a corner and find yourself staring DoucheyZeus in the eye, you still have another option. Wait for the paint to dry, go borrow a gun from Anton Chekhov, and shoot the motherfucker in the face.

Which might give you a hint what my next topic will be.

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The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

Because writers love to write, there is no shortage of things that have been written about writing. Add the countless interviews with famous writers, where one writer talks to another writer about writing, and pretty much everything there is to know about how to write has been written. That’s a good thing.

It’s also a bad thing.

Or, more accurately, it can be a very bad thing when writers read just enough about writing to “become dangerous.” Particularly when a new, inexperienced, and/or unpublished writer is faced with advice from someone more experienced than she is; i.e., pretty much everyone. What I advise doing with that advice is precisely what I advise doing with regard to advice you get from other writers in the same situation in On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk). Whether the advice comes from a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prizewinner, ten-time NYT Bestselling Author, or some schmuck like me, what you should do with that advice remains the same:

You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it.

Many of you may respond to this by saying something along the lines of 

 

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The answer is, yes. I am absolutely serious. Which leads to the follow-up inquiry:

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Or, more accurately, WTF makes me think I can ignore the advice of someone who won the Nobel or the Pulitzer or sold a bagillion books? Let alone tell you to listen to me instead of them.

God, I must be an arrogant prick.

Except, that’s not really what I’m saying. I am certainly not saying to ignore the advice. That’s where the you should be willing to consider everything part comes into play. You should never ignore a piece of writing advice from anyone. The point here, and it cannot be overstated, is that you can’t write better just by doing something someone tells you to. Ever. You have to figure out how the advice offered fits with your writing. Regardless of who’s giving the advice, it might not work for you.

Which brings us back to me being an arrogant prick. It’s also where you can use the tsunami of advice about writing to your advantage. You see, there are few things, if any, that writers agree on.

I have absolutely no problem ignoring Steven King’s advice to sit down and write because outlining is a waste of time. The fact that E. L. Doctorow seems to agree with him doesn’t sway me, either. While they’re both fine writers, I’ve tried writing with and without an outline. I write better with one. So King and Doctorow can kiss my lily-white ass.

Arrogant? Not really. If there was a general consensus among all the great writers that outlining hampered storytelling, I’d be inclined to force myself to write without one, figuring I’d eventually get their point. But there isn’t. A quick internet search says that, among others, the list of people who completely disagree with Steve end E.L., include: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Henry Miller, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Hillary Mantel, and what appears to be a majority of renowned writers. All three of last year’s Pulitzer finalists outline, too. 

So it’s not that outlining does or doesn’t work. Steven King thinks he writes better without one. More power to him. John Irving thinks he writes better with one. Who am I (or who is E. L. Doctorow) to tell him he’s wrong? And nobody, other than me, is in a position to tell me whether I write better with or without one. 

It’s tempting to look at a phenomenally successful novelist and try to emulate her process as much as possible. The problem is, while there are valuable things to learn from that process, not all of it may add value to your writing.

Writing habits are a good case in point. Some writers advise that you must write first thing in the morning. Others say you must require yourself to write a certain number of words per day. Still others advise that your brain is at its peak in the late morning and early afternoon. One famous writer says that, until the story is completed, you must dedicate nearly every waking hour to it’s completion. Another is more concerned with having a firm cutoff, so your writing does not get stale. E. B. White likened writing to surfing, and advised waiting for inspiration to arrive then riding it like a wave. None of them are wrong. None of them are right, either. Except with respect to themselves and their own habits.

I’m reasonably certain that advice from successful writers about writing habits is advice for overcoming those particular writers’ weaknesses. If you’re prone to procrastination or easily distracted, committing yourself to sit down and write for a set number of hours first thing in the morning makes sense. It worked for Earnest Hemingway, anyway. If you tend to obsess about minutiae to the point it interferes with getting a reasonable amount of words out, setting a minimum word count will compensate for that. I suffer from writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s block, and I could happily write seven or ten hours at a time. But I’ve also found, particularly with humor and satire, my writing starts getting stale after four. The key for me is a firm cutoff, and it has nothing to do with the number of words I’ve written. All of those essays and interviews about author habits are interesting, but they don’t change what my individual strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses are.

A friend from writers boards loves to quote Heinlein’s Rules of Writing. The most famous (infamous) of which preaches:

 You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Contrast that with Earnest Hemingway:

I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Heinlein says, “refrain from rewriting” Vladimir Nabokov says, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Those opposite, mutually exclusive approaches worked, both men achieved their goals. 

So, there it is. Plenty of advice about how to write, which begs the question:

I think the first step is take writing advice for what it is — that particular author’s take on how that particular author writes best. Sometimes, maybe even how that particular author wrote a particular book or story best. None of the advice out there will tell you how you should write everything. It’s useful, but its usefulness is almost archaeological. You can look at how prior writers achieved success. It can’t hurt to take note of those things. Just realize you are looking at something that happened to someone else in the past, not a blueprint for your future success. Being able to take bits and pieces of knowledge and tailor them to ideally match your strengths and weaknesses is a blueprint for success.

The real lesson is seldom found in the advice itself. That advice does, however, give you a way to understand the reason for the process. 2,000 word per day minimum? That goal seems to insure against procrastination or getting sidetracked with research questions. Advice to wait for the “perfect wave” makes me think E. B. White constantly came up with ideas, unless he was writing something else. He had to stay unconnected from a story until he knew it was the right one, because the faucet turned off for him when he was working on a story. Don’t revise? Many people think this advice is stupid, but a writer prone to endless cycles of revisions won’t ever submit anything. Even a rough draft is a better submission than no submission. Somewhere between never revising and revising until you’re in a pine box is something we can use. 

So, I’m not saying ignore writing advice from great writers. However, you don’t want to follow it, either. It’s useless at face value, but there is a lot of value to understanding the motivation behind it. For fun, take the next piece of writing advice someone quotes at you and research its opposite. There’s about a 99% chance you will find a Nobel Laureate saying that you must avoid doing whatever that piece of advice is telling you to do. 

The bottom line is: Our novels are the product of a lot of variables, the most important of which is how our brains individually function. As much as I love reading Kafka and Hemingway, I’m also happy my brain functions differently from theirs. No matter who’s giving it, we can’t just follow advice about how to write. But we can mine it for the lessons it stems from, learn from the perspectives it offers, and even take it for a test drive. It it works, use it.  But that way you’re using it because it works for you, not just because someone told you to do it that way.

Writer Unfiltered

Filters are usually a good thing. The oil filter in your car makes the engine run better, the filter in your heater cleans the air you breathe, and the filter on your fish tank makes it look like this:

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Yay, filters!

In writing, though, “filters” are considered bad things. Filtering words are words that put a layer between the story and the reader. For example, “He watched a bolt of lightening strike the tree” is a filtered version of “Lightning struck the tree.” By “filtered,” in this example, I mean shitty.

So, how is this kind of filter bad when every other kind of filter is good? Easy, filter words aren’t really filter words. Filters clean things so they’re pure. Filter words are impurities. Not only are they misnamed, the name is the opposite of what they are. The story isn’t “filtered” by needlessly passing it through someone’s perspective, it’s cluttered by doing so. They shouldn’t be called filter words at all. They should be called: Words that prove my fucking filter broke and now my writing looks like this:

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Boo words that prove my fucking filter broke!

I realize they’re called “filter words” because they pass the action through a character’s perspective before it gets to the reader. The problem I have with the term is, just dragging something through something else and adding impurities is not filtering. Straining a glass of water through a pile of horseshit is just a way to add horseshit to your water. It’s not a filter.

We’ll start with the easy part: Identifying horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke

I’m going to start with a list, right after I warn you about it. As far as it goes, it’s a decent list of (for lack of a better term that isn’t eight words long) filter words. It’s in past-tense because, well, I write fiction in past tense. If you use present, tweak it. As a filter-word filter, this list isn’t bad. It won’t catch them all (because there are no limits to the ways we can add horseshit to our writing) but it catches the overwhelming majority in my writing. I don’t write “He itched for another glass of tea” often enough to include “itched” on the list. When editing, I still see “itched” as a variant of “wanted” and know I’m filtering. So, long story short, the list has limitations.

Here is my list of horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke.

Assumed
Believed
Could
Decided
Felt
Heard
Looked
Noted
Noticed
Realized (This is my personal Achilles’ heel)
Saw
Seemed
Sounded
Thought
Watched
Wondered

What do you do with a list of horseshit words?

Whatever you want to. It was a gift. I’ll tell you what I do, but that has a lot to do with how I like to edit myself. I’m a big fan of using the search function as an editing tool. I will go through a completed manuscript and look at every word ending in “ly” to see if it’s an adverb and, if so, whether I need a stronger verb or can just cut it. I also go through my manuscript and look at each word on that list. I look at the sentence, decide whether it’s “filtering” or not and, if it is, decide whether it needs to stay. I do it with the root (e.g., “wonder”) so I catch not only “wonder,” and “wondered,” but also “wondering.” Some, like “saw” require separate searches (“see”).

On the one hand, this is a huge fucking pain in my ass. Going through 100,000 words and looking at every use of “saw,” “see,” “seeing,” and “seen” is time consuming and tedious. On the other hand, I think the search function forces us to stop on things that we would otherwise miss in our writing. You can’t gloss over something without noticing it when it’s highlighted in yellow. When I’m stopped like that, I find I’m much more objective about my sentences.

But, whether you use the list as something to keep in mind when writing or something to keep in mind when editing or something to plug into the search function to look at individually — or, like me, shoot for all three — a list is a decent starting point.

What shouldn’t you do with a list of horseshit words?

Think of it as a list of horseshit words, for starters.

  • Not all uses of those words are filtering. “The prisoner watched the searchlight sweep the yard, timing his sprint.” He needs to watch the light to make his break. The significance here is not the light’s sweeping, it is the act of watching it. Watching is the key action in the sentence. As a general rule, when the filtering word is also the key action, it’s not filtering. If your story is about a cult brainwashing someone, that character finally “believing” may be the story’s inciting event. Inciting events are not horseshit.
  • Not all filtering is bad (the gray area). I’m editing a beautiful literary piece right now, and the opening scene is a woman giving birth under a mosquito net in Nigeria, Her anesthesia is a stick they gave her to bite down on. If every sentence was “she felt this” and “she felt that,” well, for starters I wouldn’t have just described it as beautiful. Considering the nature of the scene, the number of filter words is impressively small. This is admittedly in a gray area between non-filtering and filtering uses, because what she’s feeling is central to the chapter. The deft use of a light hand with the filtering though, clarified the picture (truly filtering it) instead of obscuring. Even by Nigerian mosquito net standards, this birth does not go well, and the pain is largely described as pain, not her “feeling” pain. So on those occasions when we are told what she feels, it draws us in instead of pushing us away.
  • Some filtering is good (the lesser of two evils). Filtering is often a way of avoiding the much, much bigger sin of head-hopping. Comparing the two in a legal context, filtering is like a speeding ticket — you can get away with it once in a while, but if you do it much, you’ll get caught. Do it too often, you may even lose your license. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is like using a chainsaw to decapitate nuns. Absent the zombie apocalypse, once is too often. Used with a light hand, filtering can give the benefits of head hopping without requiring you to fire up the chainsaw. Instead of hopping from one’s mind to another’s to convey “God I hate being hit on in bars,” you can stay with the first person and convey the second’s thoughts: “She looked weary, not leery. He realized she wasn’t afraid of being hit on, she was sick of it.” Without breaking POV, filtering lets you effectively communicate a second person’s thoughts. This application may be the most accurate use of the term, because you are filtering a second POV through your POV character to share the information without breaking POV. Although I still wouldn’t call it “filtering.” Let’s call that move “POV laundering.”

Sinning My Way out of a Shitty Act III

Well, my muse finally showed up about six weeks ago. This is Erato, the Greek muse of lyric poetry.

She is not my muse.

In my world, a muse is more along the lines of:

And, yes, she uses the whip. Since this isn’t a novel, I’m going to start with backstory.

After about a year of toil, my manuscript (MS) way finished. Yay Me. Then I got to spend several months revising and editing and refining and everything else I recommend people do — including letting the damn thing fester for a month before I did said revising, editing and refining. Then I queried some agents, had MSs out and had to wait. And wait. And start going crazy, because all I could do was fucking wait. 

But that wasn’t true, there was something else I could do. I could start the new WIP (which wasn’t IP yet, just an idea). Ironically, about an hour after I started it, I got another full request. Karma.

Somehow, though, starting the new WIP gave me breathing room from the old MS that even making it fester for a month did not.

Life Lesson NO. 1: Starting the new novel is probably the best thing you can do for both your sanity and your old novel.

For the next several weeks, my nightly walks with Coho the Wonderdog turned into critique sessions about my Act III. Eventually, my critique group (the dog and I) came to unanimous agreement that my Act III kinda sucked. Except for the kinda part.  Because it sucked. Boo me. That was soon confirmed by a rejection, accompanied by eight pages of notes. Notes that can be summarized in a six word memoir: Love your writing; Act III sucks.

Hope and despair soon began arriving in my e-mail (and on my telephone) in the form of instructions to revise and resubmit my manuscript (R&R). Three of them, to be precise. Any guesses what those three agents thought I needed to change? I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with Act III sucks.

Whoever said admitting you have a problem is most of the solution never had this problem or is a big fat liar. Admitting I had the problem was nothing compared to highlighting and deleting about 30,000 words. And that was a breeze compared to figuring out a completely new ending. In fact, that part was even harder writing the new 35,000 words, plus another 10 or 20 thousand worth of cutting old and putting in new to make the new ending flow. In other words, writing half the novel from scratch was easier than thinking up what to write. That part was so hard, I gave up on using my normal thinking time (yes, the dog again). I finally decided I had to get my ass in a chair and start writing (an outline for the ending, not the actual prose). 

Life Lesson No.2: There is no substitute for getting your ass in a chair and writing.

Not coincidentally, that’s when my muse showed up. She didn’t fill me with inspiration, she reminded me that I’m her bitch. So I started putting out. It took me about a week (around 25 hours of writing time) to crank out a two page outline. But I knew exactly where I needed to go by the time I was done. I was certain of it, in a way that I hadn’t been certain of even the parts of the book the agents loved. It took another week or two to draw all the threads from Act I and Act II together for the new ending, and then (after about a month) I started writing my new ending.

Who’s the bitch now? Well, I am, because I still had a third of a novel to write.

And this is where we get to my sins. The new ending needed to be told from a new POV. My protagonist’s wife, who went from the No.2 secondary character (or maybe No.3) to the clear No.1, and the MC (not just the main POV character, the main acting character) for part.

I like tight POV. And I don’t like shifting POVs unless absolutely necessary. It happened in the original MS, when I had simultaneous things happening in different places for a couple of chapters, but the break was clean. With the new ending, I couldn’t make a clean break, and I spent about two weeks of my life trying. Fearing the lash, I finally said, fuck it. I just wrote out the ending with some pretty gnarly head-hopping. At least I’d have something on the page. I’d list that one as a life lesson, but it’s mantra — you can’t edit what isn’t on the page. It just hadn’t made such a stark appearance in my life before.

If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about rules. They are guidelines. Anything that makes the story work better for the reader is the rule, and any conflicting rule should be disregarded. That said, most of the “rules” are summaries of the things that work best for the reader, so they are not to be disregarded lightly. Not bouncing around POVs is one of the cardinal rules. So is not changing narrative perspective. Together, they’re damn near sacred. Which is why I was so certain I was doing the right thing when, after weeks of trepedation and seeking alternatives, I concluded both those rules can go to Hell. For a couple of pages. Not even pages, but for a for a smattering of lines in the pages leading up to the new POV shift.

Life Lesson No.3: When you agonize about breaking a rule for a week or two and still can’t find a better way to do it, the rule needs to be broken. No matter what the rule is.

Ultimately, I found myself throwing in a few lines from a limited omniscient POV, sharing what the main POV character and the soon-to-be POV character were thinking. In theory, I freaking hate that solution. On the pages, though, it really seemed to work. Instead of one jarring shift (and I don’t shift back for the rest of the novel), there is a relaxing of my super-tight protag POV. Soon after, there is the introduction of his wife into the POV. Then I cut him back and increase her and she is the super-tight POV for the rest of the book.

Did I mention I hate that idea in theory? Because I really do. And I’m nervous about what the agents will think of it. Because, unlike the recreational reader, they’ll be looking for it. My solution was basically to adopt a typical flaw in unskilled writing. A couple of them, actually — shifting POV and head-hopping with the characters. It’s a gamble. But it was also the best way to move the story forward. Not out of laziness, but directly as a product of how it unfolded. And I hope the measured and precise way I changed focus — essentially passing the baton — will not be lost on them.

Because, to be completely honest, I’m proud as hell of how it came out on the page. And if there had been any other way to do it, I would have. So I’m pretty sure (sin and all) it was the right way to do it.

There’s More to Writing Members of the Opposite Sex Than a Name and a Haircut

Growing up with three sisters and being the primary parent to four daughters, I have a passing familiarity with females. My closest friend over the past 30 years (since high school) is also a woman. Shit, even my dog/constant companion is female; as is our cat. We also have a frog. I don’t know whether it’s male or female, but some species of frog have been known to change their gender. In my house, if you had a choice, you’d probably be a woman.

Having spent my life treading water in an ocean of estrogen, I think I write women reasonably well. Being a huge fan of women helps. Seriously, if there is a fandom for womanhood, I’m in.

The popular, and politically correct, thing to say about gender is that “people are people, and it makes no difference.” That’s a lovely thought, but it’s also complete bullshit. Straight men are different from straight women, gay men, gay women, genderqueer men and women, and pretty much everything except other straight men. And everyone in each group I mentioned is different from every other group I mentioned, too. If you want to write from a gender and/or sexual (or asexual) orientation other than the one you inhabit, I earnestly believe step one is: There are differences, deal with it.

You can’t write a good woman if you’re a man or a good man if you’re a woman by acting as though they aren’t different and just attach a female gender designation to a generic character and expect her to be believable. You can’t include LBGTQ characters in your manuscript by taking a heterosexual couple and gender switching one of the people. Most gay male couples I know are more like hetero couples than they are gay female couples. The European Union spent ten billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider to study shit that less complicated than some of the lesbian couple dynamics I’ve been witness to. So, no, you can’t just rename Jim “Jane” and call it a day. Trying to address the LBGTQ issues this topic implicates would expand it way beyond a blog post, so I’m going to drop that issue here, except to say that the same general principals apply.

I hate gender binaries, but the fact remains — there are generalized differences in the way women and men react to things. We process somewhat differently. That doesn’t define who a female character is, but (like education level, the stability of a character’s childhood home, and a billion other things) it colors how the character will act and react to things. Ignoring those differences is not healthy or helpful. It might be nice to claim to be gender blind, but it’s also stupid.

It’s not writing related, but the example that leaps to mind comes from the time I was a college debate coach. Understanding the difference between the way you motivate (most) 20 year-old men vs. motivating (most) 20 year-old women was a watershed in our success. Embracing, rather than pretending to ignore, that difference is critical.

The problem is, just recognizing the differences and basing characters on them leads to shitty character development at best, and harmful stereotypes and tropes at worst. The differences between men and women don’t define men or women as individuals. Which brings us to step two: Those differences don’t define a character. Gender differences constitute one aspect of the lens through which she views things or reacts to things. It exists alongside her upbringing (abusive alcoholic parents vs. Leave it to Beaver) and education level (junior high dropouts tend to view things and react to situations differently from – and be in different situations than – people with doctorates). There are a thousand things that make up a character’s perspective. Gender is an important one, certainly, but it is still just one of many.

The funny thing about this subject is that the “trick,” if there is one, is a nuanced version of “ignore step one.” Or, more accurately, embrace it at a very deep level. There are two standard pieces of advice on this subject, and they both suck. The first is to just write good characters and not worry about whether they are male or female. That, to me, is equivalent to saying “just write good characters and don’t worry about whether they are eight, fifty, or eighty years old” or “people are people, so it doesn’t matter whether your character is devoutly religious” or something like that. The second piece of bad advice is to study the people you are trying to write – in my case study women. I understand where this advice comes from. If I want to write about a beat cop, you can bet I’m going on ridealongs with the police as often as they’ll let me. But this is one of the rare instances where studying what you write is a mistake. At least, going outside yourself to study it.

 

So here’s Step three: Come to terms with the fact that all people are cocktails of femininity and masculinity. It’s not an on/off switch between men and women, it’s a question of addressing each character’s unique blend. 

Women tend to be higher on the femininity, but that’s not always the case. In my manuscript, for example, my protagonist is a fairly feminine guy (feminine, not effeminate). He is extremely close to his sister, who is fairly masculine for a woman, and certainly more masculine than he is. She’s still quite female, but not particularly feminine in her behavior or the way she processes information. I didn’t spend a year structuring my manuscript that way so I could prove a point in a blog post – That’s just the way those characters came out when I wrote them eighteen months ago.

So if I were going to try to give a piece of functional advice, it would be to start by realizing we’re talking about different ratios of Masc/Fem, and both are present in every person. Instead of looking outward at women as a starting point, if you’re a man, look at yourself and evaluate your feminine qualities. They are the same ones that are present in women, they’re just there in different proportions. They’re probably easier to spot when you realize you share the same characteristics, just (possibly) a different blend. When looking outward at women, pay attention to what you probably consider masculine traits. Again, they’re all there, just in different proportions. Then mix and match those traits in all of your characters. Each character is a different cocktail of those traits. There is no “woman” character and there is no “man” character. And the easiest place to find and understand those characteristics is in yourself, because all of those traits are in all of us.

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