Friday, December 27, 2013

We Are The Dreamers of Dreams: How Authors Impact Readers and Society

Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think of the most influential piece of art you've been exposed to. It might be a painting, a film, a novel, or a poem. Look at the events in your life, and ask how that piece of art changed the way you look at the world. Did you let go of grudges with your family? Decide to change your career? Did you finally start going to the gym more often? Whatever you did, picture that change in your world view.

Now imagine if that change swept through an entire culture. That's the power authors, as a whole, are wielding.
Your word processor is jammed barrel-first against society's brain pan.
I hear some of you coughing "bullshit". I'd like to point out that William Gibson created the idea of "cyberspace" while writing on a typewriter, Aldous Huxley predicted a world where privacy was a dim memory, and Jules Verne showed us a future where humans traveled above the clouds and beneath the seas. Dozens, if not hundreds, of writers out there have used their stories to present possibilities, ignite imaginations, and to show their readers a world of potential.

What's Wrong With That?

What's wrong with it is that literature is a double-edged sword. It can be used to shine a spotlight on the evils of the world, and it can even motivate people to fight against those evils. "Heart of Darkness" is a prime example. On the other hand literature can also be used to strengthen cultural stereotypes and to enforce the status quo.
Want to try that one more time, real slow, and in English?
All right, let's use specific examples of negative impact here. Maria Nikolajeva, a professor of literature at Cambridge University, put together a conference to discuss how books like Twilight are affecting young adults who read them. A full report of it can be found here, but what happened was that a bunch of academics got together to discuss whether or not a blockbuster book crammed to the gills with conservative, Mormon lessons about how young women should think and act thinly disguised as a sexy, angsty vampire story was affecting how teenagers were seeing the world. The answer; basically, yeah. Take the initial impact and expand it as a thousand knock-offs try to cash in on the fame of the original, and culture has been carpet-bombed with exposure to a given idea. In this case the idea that abusive relationships are, in fact, the most romantic things out there. That's going to lead to problems sooner, rather than later.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

One story may not be able to truly shape a culture. Even runaway successes only have so much force behind them. However, think of the novel that shapes a new genre or sets a trend as the head of a spear. If enough other novels, even ones that aren't seen by many people, follow that same path then you don't have just a single smash; you have a stream from a literary power washer. That kind of thing can upset the balance, or dig in established social norms even deeper. It can also turn vampires into something unrecognizable.

Let's think about women's roles in popular fiction. How common is it for a woman to be the main focus of a story, and not a side character or a love interest who must be alternatively wooed or saved from danger? How often are female characters referred to by their physical attributes? How often are characters who don't fit a cultural standard of beauty given important roles in fiction? The answers to all of these questions are indicative of the relationship between fiction and the culture the stories are a part of.
And that is just the tip of this shit.
You can expound on these questions for all sorts of social issues. How are homosexual characters treated in a story? Are persons with a trans-identity featured in a positive way, or even featured at all? Are inter-racial pairings common in a story, or are they so radical that they must become the story? Are characters from ethnic minorities shown in strong roles, or are they simply used as lackeys? Alternatively are characters from the dominant cultural ethnicity shown as being better at activities that typically belong to an ethnic minority (swordplay, martial arts, music, etc.)? All of this, and more, can make an impact.

These stories will then go on to shape the generations that read and watch them. If all the heroes are white men, the message in that is that other genders or ethnicities simply aren't hero material. If women are pushed to the side and turned into damsels in distress, sex objects, or both, then the message to girls is that you are someone else's happy ending rather than someone in control of her own story. Even if a writer didn't mean to send that kind of message, and he or she is just going off experience and cultural cues, the story will still be broadcasting this subtext.

But I Just Want to Tell a Good Story!

You're preaching to the choir, friend of mine. Personally I'd just like to write stories about Western gun hands taking on towns full of vampires, or alien-human hybrid super soldiers uncovering government plots. But as writers we have to ask ourselves "why?" whenever we choose to make a decision with our stories. Only by doing our very best to present realistic characters in believable stories which reflect authentic worlds and cultures can we use our impacts for the greatest good. Of course it's also possible to write stories which reflect nothing more than crass stereotypes which supplant real research with appeals to the audience's basest prejudices. After all, that's part of how "50 Shades of Grey" got so damnably famous.

As always, thanks for dropping in on the Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to keep us running feel free to donate on the button in the upper right hand corner, or check us out at our Patreon page. If you'd like to stay up to the minute with our updates, just follow us on Facebook or Tumblr. Lastly, if you're really curious about that hybrid super soldier thing, go check out Heart of the Myrmidon at Amazon here.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Show Don't Tell: The Case For Story-Showers Vs. Storytellers

I've seen some terrible shit as an editor. Stories with plot holes big enough to accommodate a longshoreman's forearms, characters so shallow they had "no diving" tattooed on their foreheads, and honest-to-gods villain monologues have all made their way across my desk. If I had to pick the one thing that keeps coming back like a monster movie slasher though, it's writers who didn't get the "show, don't tell" memo. Rather than just complain about a problem though, I want to try and help writers of all levels stop being storytellers, and start being story-showers.

So, let's begin at the beginning, shall we?
Yes my map is a circle. Yes it still has a beginning.
What Does "Show, Don't Tell" Even Mean?

I have no idea who first coined this phrase, and the Internet has let me down on discovering the origin. However, famous writers as venerable as Ernest Hemmingway and as recent as Chuck Palahniuk have endorsed the advice. One of Hemmingway's most famous quotes regarding the advice of "show, don't tell" uses an ice berg as a metaphor. It goes like this:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

This confuses a lot of people, but what big-daddy H is laying down is pretty simple to pick up. He's saying that if a writer needs to tell the reader every little thing, then that often represents a failure of communication. Story-showing uses words to craft a scene which the reader can take in, and draw the proper conclusions from.

What Does That Look Like?

Well, a picture is worth a thousand words. I'm not going to write that many, but an example will probably help. So, here, take a look at this image.

A look. Singular.
If someone were to describe this in the storytelling method, it might look like this:

The dancer was sexy.

You can replace "sexy" with whatever subjective word you want, point is that you are telling the reader how to feel about her appearance. You are, in essence, deciding how the reader is supposed to react and dictating accordingly.

Now, a description written in the story-showing style might look more like this;

She was music made flesh. Every sensuous curve gyrated, striking the bells on her hips and ankles in time with the plucking strings. Her smile was slow and wicked, like the sickle-grin of a Cheshire Cat. She swayed, and all eyes followed her hypnotic grace.

All right, maybe the second passage is laying it on a little thick, but look at the differences in context and in what the reader sees. In the first example words like "sexy" and "dancer" aren't very helpful to conveying the image to the reader. One reader might find women with large breasts and broad hips sexy, while another prefers slender, more athletic women. Some readers won't find women sexually attractive at all. Some people will think of ballet dancers, others of strippers, and still others will think of flash mobs or club dancers. By showing the audience the scene, by spending the time to draw out the details without just telling the audience what to feel, a story is greatly improved.

The Difference Between the Two

Some writers might be tearing out their hair, and angrily demanding of the screen if they're just supposed to never make statements about what's happening in their stories. If, to be considered good story-showers, they have to work purely in innuendo and couched terms in order to try to get from A to B.

No. No you do not. That isn't what I'm saying at all.
Then what DO we do?!
What you do need to do is to ask whether you are showing the audience what's happening, or if you're simply making the decision for the reader. For instance, you could say "John's car was a beat-up old rust bucket with peeling paint, but it was all he could afford and it still ran," or you could say "John drove an old '69 Gremlin, with mismatched doors and more primer than paint." By naming the car, you didn't tell your audience how to feel about a situation. You simply provided a detail to help set the scene. That is a "good" use of telling.

A "bad" use of telling would be to say something like "Jim was a real asshole." How do we know that? Subjective descriptions, whether positive or negative, should not be used in description. Dialogue is fine, because dialogue is where characters express their opinions. However, if you want readers to figure out Jim's disposition then you need to show him in a negative light. Have him telling racist jokes, blowing cigar smoke in people's faces, making threats, shoulder-checking people in the hallway; whatever it is that Jim does to make him dislikable, show that. The audience will get the picture you want them to get quickly enough, and you won't have to actually tell them.

One Last Thing...

Every story is going to have a certain amount of telling in it. Sometimes there's really no efficient way to get important data to the reader except to just tell them about it. That said though, it is best to let the readers draw their own conclusions whenever possible.

Nowhere is this more true than with characters' thoughts and feelings.
Except in some, extreme circumstances.
Sometimes writers can get away with this. First person stories, particularly gritty, noir style stories, are renowned for feeding us exactly what a character is thinking and feeling. We let it pass because we are supposed to be riding around in that person's head. If we are not jacked into that person's inner Twitter though, then you should not be giving us the play-by-play of feelings and thoughts.

This mistake happens a lot. It's most common when writers want to convey important feelings to an audience. Love between two leads, hatred between rivals, etc. It's tempting to use words like "angrily" to modify speech, or to just say "hate was written all over her face." Your writing doesn't have a broken leg, and it doesn't need a crutch. Roll up your sleeves and shape the important stuff with the same dedication you do all your other writing. Give us facial expressions, body language, word choice, and all of the other nuance that you have at your disposal to make us hang on your description. Draw readers in, and they'll never want to leave. Tell them how to feel, and they'll slam your cover hard enough to billow your dust jacket.

I hope all my readers, those who write and those who don't, found this week's update useful. If you'd like to keep the Literary Mercenary going, then drop some change in our donation cup in the upper right hand corner. Or, if you're a patron of the arts, check out my Patreon account here and pledge today! As always if you want to stay plugged into my latest, follow me on Facebook and Tumblr to get my updates before anyone else does. Remember, around here, we deal in red.

Thursday, December 12, 2013 Bringing Patronage Into the 21st Century

Artists come in a myriad of mediums. Some of us work in watercolors, while others dabble in dance. Authors and poets make pictures with words, while photographers and filmmakers work to capture events as they unfold. From stone and wood to clay and sound it seems that artists can and will shape absolutely anything. For all our differences though, there is one thing that brings us together.

Most of us are broke.
I'm sorry my friend, but it was you or me.
Yes there are some of us out there who make a decent living as professionals. There are even a fortunate few of us who "made it"; the Stephen Kings, Madonnas, and Leonardo DiCaprios of the world. On the other hand, a majority of us have to hustle at art fairs and conventions, post endlessly to social media, and wheedle our way into interviews with local newspapers and television stations to get the word out about what we do. We hand sell a few books here, get a few Google AdSense clicks there, but more often than not we have to patch the holes in our budgets with part time jobs, holiday gift money, and tax return checks.

For those of you wondering if there's a better way, there is. It's called Patreon.

What the Hell is That?

All right, quick history lesson. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, and even into what most people would consider the modern era, the landed gentry owned pretty much everything. The kings, dukes, lords, barons, dons, and associated titled people owned all the land, bore all the titles, kept pretty much all of the valuables, and more or less ran the show. Commoners worked the land, made goods, and supported the upper class. So not much has changed, really.
Pictured: the Medieval 1%
There was an invention created around this time called patronage (the idea existed before then, but they called it something else). The word patron stretches back to the year 1300, and it comes from Old French. It meant a lord or protector, and soon after it was used to mean a benefactor. So if an artist had a patron it meant that a lord or lady was footing the bill for daily bread, ensuring said artist could focus on creating better and better art.

This notion never really died out. Wealthy people, endowments, not-for-profit organizations, and dozens of others have continued to donate money as patrons of the arts for centuries. The problem is that there's a lot of artists, and there are only so many rich people.

That's where comes into the picture. It gives everyone the ability to become patrons of their favorite artists.

How Does That Work?

All right, I'll give you a concrete example for this one. As my regular readers know, I'm an author (and I have the Goodreads page to prove it). I write primarily short stories, and I've been featured in half a dozen anthologies now. Because I am not swimming in royalty monies, I started this blog as a way to increase my reach, and perhaps earn some advertising cash. I don't charge any kind of membership to read my blog, and even if 10,000 readers come through every day there's no guarantee that I'll make a single red cent off them.

That's why I opened up my own Patreon account here. This page is sort of like an ongoing Kickstarter. The difference is that I'm not asking people to give me a boat load of money to write a novel, put together a new video game, or make a movie. I'm asking people to leave me little donations (say $1 a month) to cover my expenses so that I can keep producing useful, engaging content on The Literary Mercenary, and over on my gaming blog Improved Initiative. If someone wanted to help support me they would go to my Patreon page, and pledge a certain amount of money for every new blog I put up. If that someone was concerned about his or her monthly budget, then my mysterious benefactor could put a cap on the generosity. Someone might be willing to give me $1 per blog, but they can only spare $5 a month to help me out. I'd accept that, and say thank you for being a loyal reader and supporter.

Spread the Wealth
No, really, we kind of need you to.
Patreon is specifically geared toward people who need their fans to help them make a living, and who aren't shy about asking for a small donation to free up their time and energies to create more content. If you're willing to drop your change into a barista's jar, or to leave a couple bucks on the lid for the piano man, then why not toss some cash to your favorite Youtube actor, BlogSpot blogger, or Spotify singer? Seriously, why not?

If you're a creative type looking to make some scratch off of what you provide to your fans, stop on by today and ask them to help support you. The worst they can say is no.

As always, thanks for dropping in and seeing what I have to say. I am the Literary Mercenary, and I deal in red. Even if you don't have any change to spare, feel free to check out my Facebook page, or to mainline me over at Tumblr.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Big R: How to Deal With Rape in Your Fiction

Fiction is often a mirror onto the reality in which an author lives. Even in the most outlandish fantasy or the most far-flung sci-fi writers have to inject realism into the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of their characters. Not all of those actions are pleasant. In fact, some of them are downright horrendous. Rape is one of those actions.

Let us make no bones about just how common rape is. The numbers reported by the Department of Justice (and found at the homepage for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network here) estimate that at least 1 in 6 women are victims of rape or attempted rape in America today. That rough 16% is based off the reported numbers, and common wisdom says the numbers are even higher than that because of the number of rapes that go unreported. Additionally, 3% of American men are also victims of rape, with the same caveat that rape is a severely under-reported crime. So yeah, including rape in a story does inject an element of horrid realism. That isn't the problem. The problems are some of these other things.

Problem #1: Making Rape Sexy

Rape is a total violation. It is the use of someone's body without their consent, often through violence. It leaves scars that can damage someone's psyche for life, and it represents a complete betrayal of someone's trust. I don't know why someone would try to put a glossy coat of sexy on this, but apparently there are writers out there who have. It is for that reason that even the most salacious erotica publishers have in big, red neon "No rape for titillation" on their submission guidelines.

Under. No. Circumstances.
Let's clear the air on this one. Lots of people enjoy forceful sex. They enjoy holding their partners down, or being held down, and being taken hard. However, rape is not about the type of sex someone has; it's about consent. Rape is not sex; it is an act which happens to involve penetration, but it is not about the intercourse itself. It's about someone's willingness to participate, and about that person's volition. It doesn't matter what physical form rape takes, whether there's leather and chains or candlelight and mood music; once that consent goes away, the act becomes rape.

On the one hand, yes, there is a marked appeal of rape as a fantasy. According to Psychology Today's entry here surveys of women's sexual fantasies consistently turn up at least a 40% of women who regularly have rape fantasies. On the other hand, I would personally be willing to wager that none of the women surveyed who are of sound mind and body would like to be raped in real life. That's the difference between fantasy and reality.

But isn't my story just a fantasy? some writers might ask. Yes and no. On the one hand if you're writing a piece of fiction, then yes, you are creating events that did not happen. On the other hand, authors have a responsibility to create a real, believable world. The depiction of that world is important, and by attempting to make rape into something sensual, by focusing on the pleasure the rapist feels or paying an inordinate amount of attention to the victim's body and reactions, authors are sure to snap the suspension of disbelief. Or worse they'll create a world in which raping someone is considered the sexiest thing one person can do to another, thus giving it the social rubber stamp that normalizes it.

Problem #2: Definition by Rape

This is perhaps the simplest example of lazy writing I can think of, and it is given a pass time, and time again. I'm looking at you Nora Roberts, and at least the first few books of your "In Death" series. A female character (sometimes a male character, but that's very rare) is raped. Maybe it was a random man at a bar, maybe it was her father, maybe it was even multiple persons, but whoever it was the rape changed her. It made her what she is today... and that's the problem.

Something's missing... I can feel it...
Once again, rape is a horrible experience. It can alter the way a person sees him or herself, and it leaves wounds that will be a long time healing. It is not, however, the only reason a person becomes who they are. Your characters, just like real people, are a collection of a lifetime of decisions and choices, experiences and actions. Being raped is often important, but so is losing a child, suffering from a terminal disease, going through a warzone, or recovering from drug use. None of these traits should wholly define who a character is, even if some of them are more visible than others.

There's one last, important note on this section as well. Defining a character through the short hand of the rape survivor is used almost exclusively for female characters. On the one hand, yes, women are victims of rape more often than men. Don't be fooled though; this insidious bit of sexism is used to create an optical illusion that a shallow character with a single, defining trait actually has depth. There are no shortcuts to making a rounded character, including a horrible back story.

Problem #3: Trauma Drama

If you were to ask an average person-on-the-street what the worst thing one human being could do to another was, rape would be near the top of the list.
Because average people lack twisted imaginations.
While the horror writers might have chuckled at that, the sentiment isn't very funny when you look at it. So often in fiction characters are raped not because it's an important part of the story, but because the writer wants to create tension. Rape does this, without question... but is that all you could come up with?

Rape has become the knee-jerk reaction when lazy writers want to do something terrible to characters without killing them off in order to keep the plot interesting. Just shop around for a little bit and read how often this happens. Ask yourself why? Why rape? Why not having someone's good looks permanently ruined with a scar and missing teeth? Why not having their house broken into and a cherished family heirloom stolen? Why not losing a limb in a car wreck, or developing a mental condition that makes the character struggle just to get through the day? If it isn't crucial to your story, cut it out and move on.

Problem #4: Making the Victim a Means

One of the worst things about rape as an act is that it turns someone from a person into an object. They are acted upon, and thus they were stripped of identity, of meaning, and in a real sense of their personhood. With that said, why would a writer do that accidentally by making rape in a story about anything other than the rape itself?
There are better ways to make villains evil.

This happens a lot when the writer is looking for ways to make the bad guy seem more vicious or evil. This in turn makes the hero all the more heroic when he defeats the villain, and sets his victims free from a life of sexual violence and objectification. Notice something in this setup? The rape victims are pawns; set pieces whose only purpose is to cast brighter lights on the good guy, and darker shadows on the bad guy.

Don't. Just don't. If you're including rape in your story, then take a long, hard look at what that rape is doing. If it's only purpose is to make the bad guy twirl his mustache, or the hero step up to protect a nameless, faceless woman, then you are doing it wrong. If you want to make better bad guys, look here instead.

Problem #5: Not Doing Your Research

Writers are consistently hammered with the idiom "write what you know". However, a more useful maxim is "know what you're writing". If you're going to include rape in your story then take that second one to heart. Write it on your wall. Tattoo it on the back of your eyelids. Carve it into the skulls of your enemies.
Whatever you need to do.
Jim C. Hines makes a big point out of this in an entry he wrote for Apex Magazine here. Hines says when it comes to rape he's seen so many mistakes in who commits rape, who gets raped, and what decisions lead to rape that it reads like a formulaic guide on how to write an offensive scene. It isn't that someone is being raped. It's that someone is being raped by a scruffy nobody in the back of a deserted parking garage when the victim had been drinking. And the guy has a knife. Because symbolism.

It's your world, and it's your story. If your character is one of the remarkably few cases of stranger rape (most rapes are committed by persons known to the victim), and if that rapist is an angry, recalcitrant thug unable to approach women (it's much more common for rapists to be normal people, or even highly charismatic ones), then that's your business. But if you're going to take on the task of portraying rape as part of your story, then don't shirk at your due diligence.

Again, thanks for dropping by the Literary Mercenary. Thanks for your support, and for spreading the advice in Notes From the Editor's Desk to all your friends. Feel free to make a small donation in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.