Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Don't Worry, Cancel Culture Is Not a Thing

Over the past year and change I have heard a lot of creators wring their hands about so-called "cancel culture" and the effects it could have on them and their careers. Generally speaking, though, cancel culture exists only in the way that writer's block exists... it's a term we've come to accept as real, but the thing it describes is not what you think it is.

And if you're willing to put in the time, the energy, and the creativity to understand and circumvent the issues in the industry, neither of them will hold you back.

So take a deep breath, and screw your heads back on for a second.

People Don't Owe You Anything

The idea of cancel culture, as I understand it, is that when a public figure says or does something that people find problematic, hurtful, or otherwise objectionable, people who disagree with what was said or done withdraw their support for that person. Like, for example, when an author of a beloved young adult series keeps making anti-trans comments, so her fan base makes it a point to stop buying her merch, cease reading her books, and to move their support to other authors who write stories they like, but who don't come with baggage.

In other words, "cancel culture" is just the free market at work. You need to keep the mob happy if you expect them to cheer for you.

Win the crowd, win your royalties.
Your work does not exist in some vague nether realm, apart from the things you do and the stuff you say. It is your product, and if you do something that upsets your fan base, they are under no obligation to keep reading your books, buying your stuff, or coming to your events. It is your job to make them happy. So the onus is on you to be what your audience wants, not on them to be understanding of your situation and to be forgiving of your mistakes.

Another thing that I think gets lost in the conversation about this is that you are never going to be able to please everyone. Sooner or later if you have any success at all, you're going to end up disappointing or angering someone. What you need to do is stop and ask if you're doing it for the right reasons, and to make your thoughts and positions clear for those deciding whether or not to support you.

Respond Thoughtfully For Best Results

As an example, let's go back to Rowling's work. She was often criticized for her depictions of strict gender roles, relatively few characters who weren't white (even fewer of whom were important in the series), and almost no female characters with agency. Those criticisms didn't stop her from selling millions of books, nor did it stop her fan base from growing, but there is also no denying it's a blind spot in her series.

How you respond to that criticism can make a big difference in how you're perceived.

Once that is pointed out, you could say something like, "That is a valid point, and one that did not occur to me while writing this series. Now that I have fleshed out the world somewhat, and I have been made aware that this is something my readers care about, I will keep it in mind going forward." That might be something of a milk toast answer with no specifics attached to it, but if you back it up by writing a more diverse cast in the future, you'll prove to your fans that you're listening to them, and that you are trying to make them happy.

What you don't do is argue that it's your book, and you can write it however you want. You don't angrily tell your readers to go read someone else if they don't like your book. And most importantly, you don't belittle them for the willingness to criticize. None of that helps you. Listen to the criticism, determine if it is viable, and then once you've thought about it consider if you need to take action on it.

If the criticism is valid, address it. If there's a way you can keep your audience happy without sacrificing your artistic vision, then it can only help you to do it. You're not obligated to bend with the whims of the market, but you gain nothing by pissing off the people who buy your books, and pay your bills.

And if you don't want your income to be impacted by your political views, then keep them to yourself. Because we didn't "cancel" Orson Scott Card just because he said some things we disagree with. Readers stopped supporting him because his platform allowed him to undermine gay rights, and he actively gave money to organizations that tried to remove protections for LGBTQ+ people. Huge swaths of people refuse to eat at Chick-Fil-A for the same reason. They don't want to be party to that.

But How Are You Supposed To Learn?

I've seen this criticism several times. That if you just yank away your support, how are creators supposed to recognize they made a mistake, and do better?

Well, I'm not an economics expert, but generally when the actions you take negatively impact your income, you figure out pretty damn fast what you did wrong, and that maybe you should stop doing it if the impact is big enough.

Looks like you need a little motivation.
Generally speaking, "cancel culture" refers to people who have an audience, and a platform. If you want them to listen to your criticisms, and take you seriously, you defund them. Because that makes it clear there are real repercussions for the actions they've taken, things they've said, etc., and that they need to adapt if they want to keep your support. And if it's a hill the creator is willing to die on, then readers who disagree will part ways with them.

It is not the job of your customers to educate you, or to make you a better person. It is your job to give them a product they want, and to make sure they don't have to question where their money is going once they hand it over. And, generally speaking, it's not all that hard to do. Write a good story, pay attention to problematic tropes, and try to be on the right side of history.

Contrary to popular belief, if people like a thing you've made, they will not just shit can you the instant you say something offensive, or release something with a problematic description. People will bend over backwards to help the creators they like. So stop clutching your pearls, and worrying about someone "canceling" you because you didn't present exactly the right blend of diversity in your sci-fi novel, or because you had a villain use a slur because you wanted to make it clear they were the bad guy.

If you want people to cancel you, generally speaking, you have to try. Especially if you're making something they really want to enjoy.

Edit: "But What About Organized Mobs!?"

So, this has gotten more conversation than I expected, and a constant point people keep bringing up are, "What about mobs of organized people who try to take down your work and ruin your career? Doesn't that prove that cancel culture exists?"

Not really, and for a very important reason. By the definition we're using, you actually have to support something before you try to take away your support. Nine times out of ten when you see organized groups of people trying to ban something, they're not fans of that thing who were disappointed by a creator. Those Internet hate mobs who tried to drive Anita Sarkesian off the Internet weren't fans who disagreed with the direction her work had taken; they were enraged trolls who didn't want to hear a woman's opinion on their precious video games. Those angry mothers who tried to ban Grand Theft Auto years ago weren't huge supporters of Rock Star who wanted their voices heard; they just wanted the company to suffer. And so on, and so forth.

The behavior of groups of people attempting to ban media or behavior they don't like is not new. We've seen it with rap music in the 90s, and heavy metal in the 80s. We saw it when Christian activists targeted tabletop roleplaying games, and when advocates for sobriety got Prohibition passed. That's not a new phenomenon, and acting like it's this weird force that was birthed from the Internet is disingenuous at best.

And I would also put forth that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Because if a bunch of people who aren't patronizing your platform are upset by what you're doing, well, who cares? They have no bargaining power (in a financial sense, anyway, people can and will do awful shit, and GamerGate is a perfect example of unfettered, horrible behavior) because they can't support you even less than they are already. And if they make enough noise, they might draw people who will support you.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Danger of Cat's Paw Characters

The phrase cat's paw, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to an old fable where a monkey uses a cat's paw to get chestnuts out of a fire without putting himself at risk. More colloquially, though, the phrase refers to a person who is used (often without their knowledge, or duplicitously) as a tool by another person.

Nicely done... and all according to my plan.
While characters being used as cat's paws within a story is fairly common place, I'm using the term "cat's paw character" differently in this circumstance. When I say it, I'm referring to a character that you, as the author, are using as a kind of sleight of hand to disguise the actions of another character who is usually seen as the real protagonist of the story. Typically the cat's paw character acts as the point of view character, or as the narrator, allowing you to keep your story's real protagonist mysterious and in the shadows, while still giving your audience tantalizing glimpses of their skills, powers, and prowess without ruining the mystery too much.

It's a tried-and-true storytelling method, but you need to be careful that your cat's paw character is still an actual character that people like, and want to follow since they're stuck with that character for the duration of the story.

The Good Doctor, and Setting an Example

It's elementary, really.
One of the most famous examples for what I would dub a cat's paw character is everyone's favorite medical narrator Dr. John Watson. We read the stories (or listen to the radio shows, or watch the movies) to see what Sherlock Holmes is doing, but Watson is our chronicler. He's the one whose perspective we follow, and it is because we see things from his perspective that the mystery of the story can be drawn out. If we were seeing things from Sherlock's perspective, the whole sordid affair would be explained within the first three paragraphs, and then it would all be over but the shouting.

The thing that Conan Doyle does that a lot of authors forget to do, however, is he makes Watson a character. He has his own life, his own timeline, and his own, unique way of speaking and looking at things. Over the course of the cases we come to learn just as much about Watson as we do about Sherlock.

Cat's paw characters are particularly useful for drawing out the drama of a story, and for allowing a mysterious character to keep their methods to themselves without giving the audience spoilers. Whether it's Holmes with his unique investigations, or Nero Wolfe sending Archie Goodwin out to confirm his theories, they have all the answers between their ears... but if they just told us what was happening then there wouldn't be a story worth reading. Or, at the very least, it would give the game away too soon to maintain audience interest.

A cat's paw can be a very useful thing for making sure your audience gets exactly as much information as you want them to have, and from a particular perspective. However, if you're going to seat your audience in another character's POV, remember to make sure they still have a comfortable and enjoyable seat. Otherwise they might not actually reach the end of the story you're trying to tell.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Death of The Author, And Not Supporting Disappointing Creators

There are few things that hit us as hard as finding out the person who created a piece of work that we enjoy, and which affected us deeply, is someone on the wrong side of history. As a pulp fan I experienced this early on when I looked into the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (which only confirmed the problematic aspects that were in the text of their works), but for a lot of other readers it can take years before their favorite creators finally let them down.

And for a lot of folks, JK Rowling is finally crossing that line as a disappointment.

That facial expression should look familiar to a lot of us.
For those who aren't in the know, Rowling has been purposefully obtuse when it comes to trans people, and trans rights. Those who've read her tweets have labeled her a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) for some time now, and that has been the breaking point for a lot of fans. Especially when one considers that the series itself is often about standing up to authority figures who tell other people what to believe, and who hold up outdated notions of right and wrong, and who gets to be respected.

This week I'd like to talk about how if you're a fan of the Potter series, you don't have to leave it behind. However, you should still think about how you choose to enjoy stories to make sure you aren't propping up someone you don't want to support.

Death of The Author

Most of us have heard the term Death of The Author, but not all of us are really clear on what it means. So, if you're not familiar, the term goes back to a 1967 essay by French critic Roland Barthes. What Barthes argued is that the author's intentions, their politics, their personal beliefs and interpretations regarding their work are irrelevant when it comes time to criticize it. A critic can only read what is on the page, not what's on the page filtered through their knowledge of the author and that author's beliefs.

That seems strange, but it was common. Really common.
The effect of this is two fold. The first is that it allows us to take the story on its own merits, and to discuss it based on what is and isn't included. Any talk of whether certain characters are gay or straight, bigoted or not, relies entirely on what we see in the story. Author's intention and, "Well, in my mind they were always..." are excluded from the discussion, which removes a lot of frustrating clutter from discussions surrounding a story.

The second effect death of the author has is that it relinquishes their hold on the story in a spiritual sense. The story is not just the property of one person's, whose sole interpretation must be regarded as the one true way of reading a text. The story belong to those who love it, and who read it, and you can love the story without loving the person who penned it.

That Author Still Gets Paid, Though...

While it's true in an intellectual sense that an author does not have the sole claim to the meaning of a story, or the ability to claim a bunch of stuff not on the page should be taken into consideration, the author usually does still have a legal right to that story.

As well as to all the merch that comes with it.

Books are just one part of the formula, after all.
That's why, even though you don't have to bury your love of a story or your enjoyment of a fandom when an author reveals their problematic nature, you do have to consider what your purchases as a consumer are funding. When you buy a book, a tee shirt, a movie, etc., some of that is going to end up back in that author's pockets.

Again, as a pulp fan, I had the advantage that most of the authors I found problematic were already dead, so I wasn't supporting them with any purchases I made. Still, it's important to consider alternative sources for your books. Whether you check them out at the library, or buy them from resale shops, that flow of money stops before the author gets any. The same is true when you buy art or crafts from smaller, independent artists. If someone at a convention is knitting Ravenclaw scarves, your purchase isn't going into Rowling's bank account; in all likelihood, it's just going to the artist so they can pay rent, buy food, etc. Fan fiction archives are legion, and fan meetups are a great way for you to come together, and bond over this thing you really love.

Just remember to be careful with your money. Death of the author may apply to their spiritual hold on a story, but it won't apply to their income unless you make the conscious choice to to that.

Also, if you're looking for alternative stories to read and enjoy, my novel Crier's Knife is still out there. Also, I've heard some very lovely things regarding K.A. Applegate, the author of the Animorphs series!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

What Is Your Story About? (Don't Overload Your Themes)

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it."

If you've ever heard this phrase before, you may not know that it's what's called a malaphor. A malaphor is a blended idiom, cliche, or aphorism, and the term was coined back in the 1970s. Things like, "You really stuck your neck out on a limb," or, "You hit the nail right on the nose," are also malaphors.

Sometimes they work, and they become the new, preferred slang. Sometimes, though, they really don't work, and you can end up confusing people rather than making a point.

I'm... not sure what that's supposed to mean.
The point I'm making here is that mixing metaphors can sometimes work. More often than not, though, you're going to end up with some hideous mutant that just doesn't make all that much sense, or communicate any real meaning. The same thing can be true of the themes in your story, and the messages you're encoding in them.

What Are The Messages in Your Story?

Not all of us set out to write fiction as a vehicle for a personal message, or as a metaphor for a social ill or struggle. Sometimes you just want to write a fun story about a crime fighting vigilante, or a pack of werewolves protecting a small town from a zombie plague. However, all of our stories make statements, whether we intend for them to or not.

A man is often more, or less, than what he seems.
Take the most basic story of a knight going on a quest. It's a classic tale setup, but it asks a lot of questions. For example, is this knight special because of their bloodline, meaning that heroism is something inherent inside them? Were they simply given advantages that others don't have (wealth, education, weapons training, quality weapons and armor, etc), and thus they are the most capable person to handle this situation? Are they a hero because they were anointed and dubbed a knight by their society, implying that the government structure that sanctioned this character is good? Is it their faith that makes them special or powerful, implying that it is taking an oath in the service of a higher power that makes them the hero?

This list goes on and on, and we haven't even gotten into the specifics of the quest yet.

On the one hand, you might argue that these questions are reading too deeply into the story, and that people will see messages that aren't there. On the other hand, as I've said before, just because you didn't intend for a message to be in your story (or interpreted in a certain way) that doesn't mean it isn't there. The judgments you ask your audience to make tell them how they're supposed to feel, and that makes a difference in the way your story is read and perceived.

Which is where we get to themes.

What Is Your Theme?

A simple way to understand theme, as Your Dictionary points out, is that it is the message someone can take away from your story. It might be something as simple as, "true love conquers all," or, "the circle of life," for those of you who've been re-watching Disney movies during quarantine. A story could also deal with the idea of light and darkness, the power of friendship, overcoming prejudice, or a thousand other ideas.

The problem you run into, though, is when you try to put too many themes into one story, and you end up with the literary equivalent of a malaphor.

What's my book about? It's... ummm... well... just read it, it will make sense!
Sometimes you can get away with having a main theme, and one or two secondary themes. It's the same way you can have the main plot, and one or two subplots going on throughout the story. But if you've ever read a novel (or even a series) that was jammed with subplots you forgot about, or couldn't keep track of, then you know that it's better to focus on a few than to cram in as many as you can in hopes you have something for everyone.

So before you keep putting words on the page, take a step back and ask what the theme of your story is. You may not have thought about it that way, but pretend for a moment you're one of the Brother's Grimm; what lesson would children who read your story take away? Is it that noble sacrifice should be honored? That you can become anything if you try? Or is it that the best of intentions can still lead you to become the villain in the end?

Whatever you pick, remember that a theme is like anything else in your writing; clarity is always more important than fancy technique. Much like how purple prose and mixed metaphors can confuse your reader, make sure your theme is central, strong, and that it's coming through clearly.

Lastly, make sure that you actually know what it is, so you don't accidentally put in a theme you didn't want to be present.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!