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Posts Tagged ‘challenges’

I Regret Nothing

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

That post title is a bit of a lie, but it’s also an excellent opening thesis statement. At least, I regret nothing vital.

I am catching up on about three months of back-reading, and my latest read is “The Author Sends Her Regrets” by Elizabeth Minkel, one of many reactions to JK Rowling’s recent remarks about what she might have done differently in her books. Minkel’s article echoed a lot of thoughts I had about Rowling’s remarks, but more importantly, it moved on to showcase five “Authorial Regrets” — mistakes that five great authors in history made, and how they dealt with them later.

I was charmed by Charles Dickens about-facing, even if only partially, on his portrayal of Jews; a person capable of stepping outside of their accultured prejudices in Victorian England wasn’t exactly common. And I recognized F. Scott Fitzgerald’s efforts to quantify what did and did not work about a failing novel, though I haven’t read either version of Tender is the Night and can’t actually say whether he fixed what was broken. Anthony Burgess and JD Salinger I have less sympathy for; if your biggest regret is that a book you weren’t that fond of made you famous, I have a hard time really empathizing. Ray Bradbury I have an even more difficult time sympathising with, because I am well documented in thinking he was a dick, so perhaps the less said there the better.

But the upshot is that it got me thinking about what I regret, in terms of being a writer, and the answer is not much. I am potentially a lot less complicated than the people the article talked about, in great part because I’m not as famous, but even in terms of fanfic — well, for example.

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange and said,

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about…

Now, I have read A Clockwork Orange, and after reading it I saw the film, and I don’t necessarily disagree with him about the latter — although I will say that, while flawed, the film very pointedly expresses the institutionalized brutality of the society in which Alex is incubated. But whether or not the film was any good seems somewhat irrelevant to me because the book was so spectacular — brutal and cruel, but amazingly executed as a pointed critique of British culture at the time and written in a language that bore only about a two-thirds resemblance to modern English. But Burgess calls it a jeu d’esprit, which when I googled that it turned out to be “a lighthearted display of cleverness”. He thinks the book’s a lightweight, and he wrote it in three weeks, for the money. If I could write a book half as good and iconic as A Clockwork Orange in twice the time, I’d feel pretty fucking great about myself.

Here’s the story as I love to tell it: a few years ago I was riding the train home when I got an idea for a fanfic set in the fictional universe of the television show Torchwood. It would be about the alien-hunting cast of Torchwood discovering an alien that looked exactly like a small grey cat, who only communicated in the kind of language you see in the LOLCat meme. I roughed out the story on the train, polished it when I got home, and posted it the next day. And it exploded. It got featured on a couple of well-known literary websites, even (which alas did not lead to networking opportunities for its author).

I wrote the damn thing on the train. And it will probably end up on my tombstone. (HE COULD HAS FANFIKSHUN.)

But for all I complain about the fame of “The LOLCat Fic“, I’m laughing while I do it — shaking my head over fate, but unashamed of it, because I know that within certain parameters it was the best work I could do. If I was going to write a story about LOLcats, by God, it was going to be the best, funniest, most interesting story I could possibly make it. I don’t regret it; I’d be a fool to regret something that has made others laugh and brought a certain measure of fame to me personally, at no cost to my dignity (not that I’ve ever had much to begin with, but I was creating something with intent, it’s not like I’m making an ass of myself on national television).

Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for the money, and I get why if that’s the case it might not be his best work, or at any rate he might not think it is. And sometimes you do have to work for the money rather than to please oneself. But that’s why I have a day job — so that I can always be sure the stories I tell, even if I’m not as prolific as a full-time writer, are fully the best work I can provide.

I may have regrets in life, I’m sure everyone has a few (perhaps too few to mention?) but I find it hard to regret even the errors I made when I was younger: they were part of a learning curve, and at the time they were the best work I could produce.

Rewriting Firefly

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked when I was soliciting discussion topics for this site came from Ailelie on Dreamwidth (thanks Ailelie!) and read as follows:

How would you have written [X] had it been your idea/task? For X, sub The Jungle, Firefly, Emma, etc. And why?

So let’s talk a little about Firefly. Or a lot; this essay ran long.

I saw Firefly when it aired, because at the time I was a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, so I’d heard the buzz about Joss Whedon’s new show. I was looking forward to it, and while I’m aware the show was aired out of order, I actually enjoyed that. The first Firefly episode that aired was the second episode which was supposed to air, The Train Job, and I thought it was super-gutsy to jump into the action that way, without spending a long time introducing any of the characters. What an innovative pilot, I thought.

But while I appreciated the show structurally, I ended up drifting away after a few episodes, disinterested and distracted by other things. I understand intellectually why it gained such a cult following, it’s just always been one of those shows I’ve never found much appeal in.

Part of the problem was how uncomfortable I found the show’s chosen theme, a Science Fiction and Western pastiche. There’s a reason you don’t see Westerns much on television anymore, and that is because they were a flawed, misogynist, racist genre to begin with; their central purpose has usually been to justify and legitimize the genocidal colonialism of Manifest Destiny.

I also personally just don’t find the Wild West that interesting, which could be a contributing factor.

I find it perfectly acceptable that the “pioneers” of space would be the same tough survivalist types as those that colonized the American West. I believe that oral history and folk arts would be exceptionally important, and a certain level of lawlessness would be the norm. But I think there are better ways to bring the Western into a postmodern viewpoint, which is necessary for the kind of metacommentary that the show seemed to want to make. When I rewatched the series and the film a few years back (which is when the bulk of this essay was written) I often felt as though the show left holes not only in the plot but in internal logic, for the sake of “the Western”. I’m okay with there being plot holes, but these seemed to serve the gimmick of the Western rather than any cohesive narrative.

So, as I sometimes do when dissatisfied, I started watching a story in my head, and I found it much more satisfying. I’m not saying this is better than what Whedon did. But this is what I wanted to see, and what I didn’t get.

Some of the problems that led to my rewrites may have been fixed if Firefly had stayed on the air. I know this, but it’s hard to find that a legitimate excuse, because none of what I’m suggesting couldn’t have come in right from the start. And, perhaps in part because it wasn’t fixed…Firefly didn’t stay on the air.

Firefly Redux

One of the biggest problems I had with the general ‘verse of Firefly is the war. The scenes set during the war are very evocative and they’re an excellent portrait of the brutality of battle. But…why was this war fought planetside? We’ve seen that they have space weapons, so was the Alliance taking each planet individually? Were the browncoats in space at all, or just planetary defense forces loosely organized under one umbrella? The Alliance is visibly ruthless; why not just bomb them into submission from the air? A galactic revolution that does not involve the majority of the battles being fought in space doesn’t work for me. So while I appreciate the scenes as works of art, and I understand their presence as driving forces in the lives of Mal and Zoe in particular, I can’t really incorporate them into the show logically.

What I wouldn’t give for a universe in which projectile weapons were only available inside a planet’s atmosphere, and other methods were used in space. Humanity of the future have obviously become masters of gravity, since they have ships with artificial grav that doesn’t appear to involve centrifugal force. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a space battle fought with gravity hooks and physics? I think so. I’m tired of PEW PEW PEW.

I understand that the Alliance in Firefly is supposed to be evil: corrupt, inefficient bureaucrats who plunder the pioneer planets of their natural resources and cheap labor. But we have no contrast to go by — we don’t know what the situation was like before the Feds came in. I really wish we’d been shown something pre-Unification so that we could judge better whether Mal was a hero defending freedom or a whiny asshole who didn’t want to get caught being a crook. We don’t get to see some of the Alliance ineffectiveness until several episodes in, which makes it harder to sympathize with the crew’s hatred of it. Especially when Inara said she voted for the Alliance, implying that not only was there a choice, but many rational people, if not the majority (was the “vote” fixed?) chose Unification. It’s hard to find the Alliance all that much more evil than recent American domestic policy, at least until we find out about Pax in the film. At that point we begin to understand the lengths to which they were willing to go to subjugate people, but to what end? And whose benefit? They already have a practical slave-labor force in the Indentureds. And considering how accepting society was of the concept of indenture, I’m guessing that pre-Alliance society wasn’t exactly a ball.

Cast of Characters

Firefly‘s crew were witty, but they failed to engage me on a level any deeper than “that was a funny quote”. I didn’t care about most of them. I wanted so much more meat.

In my head, I made Wash a severe agoraphobic. Possibly he steals downers from whatever medication they’re smuggling on any given trip, so that he can get through the times when they make planetfall. I think it would have been interesting to see how entire generations being born and raised on ships and stations would impact how we view wide open spaces, and Wash is a great doorway for that.

I think it would be fascinating to explore the idea of new religion in space, and I think Wash, as a pilot, is an ideal vehicle for this as well. Why shouldn’t he belong to a religious outfit of some kind? Most people do. I would love to see a group like the Church of Christ Cosmonaut from Rendezvous with Rama, who believe that deity came from the stars. Imagine that the crew contracts to carry a wealthy Spacer to their burial grounds: a huge field of caskets in an empty stretch of space, where signal beacons act as gravestones blasting out messages to the stars, awaiting the day the last man leaves the last planet so that all may be resurrected as stars themselves. It’s a great image and an easy plot; the crew vs. the grave robbers. I’d like to see that.

A more intent presence of faith in the narrative would give Book a function other than Being Mysterious, too. Shepherd Book was an interesting character — older than most of the crew and a man of the cloth, not just a religious man. I’d have loved to see some real commentary on religion using him. I joked with my friends that Book is “The space pope!” but really, why shouldn’t he be? After all, we know he has quite a bit of authority, thought we don’t ever find out why. There are also accusations amongst some critics that Book is the “magical negro” of the story, and while I don’t agree with that entirely, I can see where they’re coming from enough to be uncomfortable with it.

I would like Book to be the last eminent Catholic pope, the great leader of a dying cult. Faiths grow and flower and die — that’s not theology, it’s history. So I would like to see Shepherd Book, a respected theologian of a fading faith, on a pilgrimage to find a way to revitalise his religion — or at least keep its history from falling to dust. And how great would it be to see Book lead a Catholic Outer Space Tent Revival? I would love to see that.

I wish we saw more implication that Simon and River‘s parents knew exactly what would happen to her when they sent her away. I wanted to see a River who was rebellious, smarter than her parents, someone they couldn’t control — someone who intimidated them in a way their servile son never would, so that they’d send her away to be broken. I want for them to have sent her away believing that she would be tamed, lobotomised, so that they could have their nice gentle daughter and their good obedient son. It’s the only way their apathy makes sense, and their fury at Simon’s behavior. Suddenly their doormat good-boy isn’t, and it’s still River’s fault. I wanted River to be a survivor because she was a rebel first; that would be a biting indictment of the treatment of women in our culture today, where we are only fifty years out (if that) from institutionalizing women who didn’t bow to the patriarchy.

This also isolates Simon and River fully, because they become two brilliant children whose parents wanted to brutalise them into what they “should” be instead of what they could be. I want River to have an arc where she overcomes what people want from her to be who she is, and I want Simon to struggle with her process in that too, because he also has an idea of what he wants her to be.

I love the idea of the money-driven Jayne, but I wish he were more like Kyouya Ohtori from Ouran High School Host Club, who isn’t actively malicious unless there’s concrete benefit for him. I’d like to see a Jayne with a personal moral code, albeit a code completely detached from society’s. I’d like to see hired muscle that isn’t blatantly misogynist, hired muscle that can also think for itself: when the Alliance searched the ship, I wanted them to find his false wall, and then his false wall of guns, and a huge collection of contraband books on philosophy and sociology and religion behind that. And I want to see them burn the books, because then a money-driven man has a reason to hate, and we get to see just what kinds of assholes the Feds really are.

Most of the essay you’re reading today was written directly after my rewatch, several years ago, and when I read through it, I realized I’d basically left out Mal, Zoe, and Kaylee. There is some reasoning behind this, which is basically that I adore Zoe and Kaylee and I had no notes for them. I loved them and I wish I saw more of them. Because the thing I’ve noticed about Joss Whedon is that while his shows aren’t always as feminist as we’d like (or as people think), the women in them are often spectacular.

Mal is a bit more of a cypher, in part because he’s such an easy target. He’s the straight white male lead. It’s like he’s got a bullseye painted on. But there’s a lot you can do with Mal; for one, I started out wishing he was played by someone of African descent, because African-Americans had a huge role in the colonization of the American West, a role that has been largely erased. They were cowboys, soldiers, settlers, and everything in between, in large numbers, and rarely are their voices heard or their faces seen in modern history of the era. So I say yes to Mal Reynolds, Black Space Cowboy. But you know who else was hugely present in the American west of the time?

CHINESE IMMIGRANTS.

This was the perfect, most beautiful opportunity to put at least one Chinese character into the show and to give Mal some real meat to wrestle with — a Chinese man who disagrees with a culture he came from, an outsider both to his own people and to the people he finds himself among. It also reduces the Invisible Chinese Hegemony by making the bad guys an oppressing class, rather than an oppressing race. (More on this later.)

I’m going to talk about Mal some more, but I’m going to do it in relation to Inara. There are so many clouds of fail around Inara, so let’s work through a few and see how they might be fixed.

I’m not going to give you a history of imperialism, orientalism, and the fetishism of the exotic, but Inara represents all of these things. Whedon has openly said that Inara represents “Eastern” religion and culture, in a contrast to Mal’s representation of Western culture. What this means, in the text, is that some of the oldest and most complex cultures on on Earth, cultures which are still generally misunderstood by Eurocentrists or fetishised in Western media, design, and sexuality as exotic, are bundled up together into the generic “East” and represented by a prostitute.

And before we get into the whole “Companions are respected!” thing, please. If a union card is all that apparently separates a Companion from a regular and/or illegal sex worker, and Mal (who seems very much a product of his environment, and thus indicates that environment) doesn’t respect a Companion and definitely doesn’t respect sex work in general, I find it hard to believe that Companions are more than barely socially legitimate. People might smile at Inara and find it acceptable for men and women to ask for her services, but behind their hands they whisper about the kind of person who chooses a life like that. Given that she represents a generic Eastern Cultural Ideal, and she engages in what is generally shown to be a dubious pastime on the screen and is a criminalized, stigmatized act in our culture today, fail. So right off the bat, you have to strip Inara of the weird Eastern Fetish thing that’s going on with her. You stop exoticising her. Comparing Eastern and Western cultures can be interesting, I guess, but when it’s coming from a Western position it is generally inappropriate at best.

But above and beyond that, there’s something amazing you can do with her: you can make her a man. I promise this is not as crazy or misogynist as it sounds, and at least this makes Mal’s stupid “I want you but I won’t chase you” thing much more interesting.

I’m not suggesting that making Inara a man legitimizes her position as a sex worker. I’m suggesting that we start by acknowledging the real lack of legitimacy she already has; if you make Companions visibly straddle an uncomfortable line, then you’re actually exploring cultural attitudes towards sex, instead of pretending to, and making your audience think about their own judgments in that regard. Why should, for example, the prostitutes from The Episode Of The Besieged Bordello be so cheerful? Sexual servitude might be a fun kink if you’re into that but it’s hardly a good way of life if it wasn’t freely chosen. I’m not intimately familiar with the history of sex work, but I’m pretty sure if women chose to become sex workers in any culture at any point in history, it was most frequently because the alternative was worse. Why not acknowledge that?

So you remove the veneer of legitimacy, which was never more than cosmetic in any case, and then you present Inara as something other than modern-day heteronormative. (I don’t count the one woman we see Inara with, because it’s a creepy lesbian porn gag.) Women are commonly exploited for sex on television; men very rarely. On the few occasions you do see a male prostitute on your tv screen, they’re usually being murdered in a forensic crime drama. If Inara is a male prostitute, he is no longer safe or familiar or acceptable-in-spite-of-his-job to the viewer.

Make Inara a man, and leave Mal’s attraction to him intact. Homosexuality is still obviously somewhat contested if not taboo in this culture of the future. The foundation of social unease that began with a delegitimized sex worker begins to extend to sexuality and the nature of attraction. Yes, it could be considered fanservicey, and yes, I realize Firefly aired at a time when queer sexuality was even less acceptable on network television than it is now. But wouldn’t it also be more interesting to have the designated lead character attracted to a man? That means that either we have to witness Mal repressing his wants, or we have to witness him working out what his attraction to Inara means to him in terms of identity.

I realise that this drops a woman from our cast, but I have a fix for that. I want to introduce a new character: The Professor.

I began formulating this character after the crew’s first encounter with the Reavers, and while the film demystified the Reavers that actually only increased the legitimacy of this character in my eyes. So in order to talk about the Professor, let’s talk about the Reavers.

The Reavers

I was never that put off or frightened by the Reavers. In part, I think, because they came too early and showed too sudden. They were great as a myth, as a silent ship floating in the darkness, as a story to scare children with…but super-aggressive bicycle messengers? For me, when we first saw a Reaver he ranked as slightly less scary than the Futurekind from Doctor Who a few years back. And they were not that scary.

I liked the idea of the Reavers as ghosts in vicious, impenetrable ships, encountered in person only late in the series, and rarely seen even then. I liked the idea of them leaving blood spatters and bodies so hideously disfigured that all we saw were the crew’s reactions. And then I had to fix that too, because I realized that in the “cowboys and indians” universe of Firefly, the Reavers are the Indians. And I had a real “what the hell?” moment.

I like the idea of the Reavers, the mythical madmen from the edge of the Black. But the links between the old stereotypical barbarian Western Injuns and the Reavers are there, which is racist and hugely disconcerting. If you are going to take an incredibly racist trope and insert it into a postmodern pastiche, you can’t just say they’re monsters created by a drug and then let the tiny white girl kill them all. That’s not good enough.

So I came up with the Professor.

She is a defrocked academic, an anthropologist who became interested in the mythology surrounding the Reavers. The Alliance naturally didn’t want anyone poking too deeply, so she was eventually dismissed from teaching. She is a genteel fugitive — the Feds want to find her, but she’s low on their hit list. She spends much of her time tracking down myths about the Reavers and trying to work out their social structure without ever having encountered them. (The Reavers have to have a social structure: there are too many things that don’t work if they don’t, as many arguments about Firefly down the years have proved.)

The Professor fears the Reavers, but is the only one who sees more than fear in them. She wants to know about their culture: How do they determine social rank? How do they build weapons? Flying a spaceship is complicated, and I don’t buy that mindless rage-filled cannibal rapists could do it if they didn’t have some sort of social structure. How do they raise children? How do they engage with one another?

Some of these questions, of course, are mooted by the discoveries made in the film, but others are raised by those discoveries. At least, if we have the Professor, someone in the crew is capable of feeling sorrow for the Reavers, who are also innocent victims of Pax. In earlier episodes, when we first see their handiwork, there’s the potential for a wonderful crisis of faith: oh God, this is what I’ve been pursuing? Am I able to follow it any further?

So I personally think that The Professor would be a great addition to the cast.

Fixing the Alliance

Having talked about the racism of the Reavers, let’s move on to talking about the racism of appropriating Chinese culture. You guys know how this goes; one of the most common statements about Firefly is: “For a universe where China is a dominant cultural influence, you sure don’t see many Chinese people.”

There is a reason for this: Joss Whedon isn’t interested in China, at least not in Firefly. Firefly isn’t about multi- or inter- culturalism, not about introducing Eurocentrists to Chinese culture — religion, food, language, customs, any of it. The Chinese presence in Firefly is about two things:

1. A unique design concept
2. Being able to swear without getting beeped out.

And probably more 2 than 1.

There is a long history of this in comic books and even in other science fiction television shows, notably Red Dwarf, which invented the dumbest swear word ever: smeg. It pops up in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, and in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I will give points to the show for not making up words that the actors would feel stupid saying. Using Chinese is a relatively aesthetic way to go about it. But it also takes some pretty intense cultural appropriation to get there.

The theory is that Chinese culture rose to dominance in the handwave between now and the future where the show is set. It’s a reasonable idea, given the population of China and its growing economic power. But the result, in Whedon’s universe, is a bunch of white people who say Chinese words, a dominant Chinese class that is never seen, and some decorative arts that may or may not have been thoroughly researched. The fact that there are no Chinese people in Firefly is pretty bad, but also irrelevant to the fact that the cast speaks Chinese, because they don’t speak Chinese in order to incorporate Chinese culture into the show. It’s about the swearing.

To  fix this, you can of course recast many of the characters both lead and supporting with Chinese actors, and write scenes where Chinese culture is more than light-some-incense-oh-wait-it’s-a-bomb-fuse. But, as I discussed in the section on Mal, you can also diffuse the idea of “Us versus the Chinese” by setting up the Alliance not as an ethnic hegemony but as an economic one.

It is totally possible and actually really interesting to predict a future where China became the global superpower. But even if that were to be the case, China is no more unified or homogenous than any other country, and exploring the idea that not every Chinese person is an invisible moneyed oligarch responsible for the current dystopia takes a lot of the racism out of the subtext of the show. If you show Chinese people being oppressed alongside other races, it becomes less us-against-China and more poor-against-rich, which gives you a wide swathe of material for actual, meaningful social commentary.

The Problem

This show would never get produced.

With a radical anti-Capitalist (or at least anti-rich) philosophy built into the universe, a Chinese lead who may or may not be queer, a pansexual male sex worker, a Pope with only a few thousand followers, and a firm, intellectual voice continually reminding viewers of the attempted genocide of America’s indigenous peoples, there is no way this show gets made ten years ago. There is no way this show gets made now.

But, twenty years ago, there is also no way my voice describing this particular show gets heard by thousands of people, either, and right now, at this moment in time, it does. We are moving towards a society that is more capable of suggesting these things on a broad band, making them legitimate and normal, making them acceptable and hopefully, one day, desirable. One of the reasons I work in self-publishing is that I could write a queer communist novel full of people of color, and I can put a cover on it and sell it to you, and nobody can stop me.

As fun as this exercise was, the actual rewrite isn’t the event; it’s collateral. Firefly is just the trimmings on the big, mind-blowing fact that if I do commit the act, I can share it with the world, and hopefully the word will get passed on and on.

Because the one thing I would never change about Firefly is that you can’t stop the signal.

The Punctuatin’ Monkey

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

I spent a lot of time in January working on a “warm up” novel — whipping myself through a mediocre murder mystery I decided to write, in order to get back into practice after not working on original fiction for-ev-er. I posted about it in January, but I thought I’d share the post here, too, albeit a bit later.

Among the Google searches I performed for the work was a string of increasingly frustrated searches about the punctuation of text messages:

  • Grammar when narrating text conversations
  • Grammar when describing text messages
  • Grammar text message fiction
  • Chicago Manual of Style online

I am fortunate to have access to the Chicago Manual of Style through my work, but for the record, the Chicago Manual of Style does not define how to incorporate text messages into dialogue. My question was how to punctuate the following text message conversation:

Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was.

I don’t know, there’s a sexy note to tape and nudes.

LOL Not when it involves scalpels.

Should it be, in prose, punctuated thusly, the way dialogue would:

Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was, Anais answered.

I don’t know, there’s a sexy note to tape and nudes.

LOL. Not when it involves scalpels, she shot back.

Or should the punctuation on the text should be preserved, thus:

Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was. Anais answered.

I don’t know, there’s a sexy note to tape and nudes.

LOL Not when it involves scalpels. she shot back.

And if so, should that last “she” should be capitalized, given the text ended in a stop.

I thought I’d go for the nearest approximation once it became clear I wouldn’t find anything in the Chicago Manual about chats, SMS, text messages. The problem is, I found two: one digital and one old-school.

When quoting something containing an email address, “Readers of print sources should assume that any punctuation at the end of an e-mail address or URL belongs to the sentence” meaning that you should punctuate the same way the digital statement was punctuated; plus, when citing a digital source, the Chicago Manual says it’s permissible, though not necessary, to enclose the URL in brackets which will isolate it from surrounding punctuation (thus preventing a corruption of the URL). This does look rather stylish and somewhat futuristic:

[Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was.] Anais answered.

On the other hand, the Manual suggests that “unpublished field notes (the author’s own or those of a colleague or assistant)” which is informal communication comparable to a text message, should be “edited for consistency — with other notes and with the surrounding text—in matters of spelling, capitalization, punctuation…” and so forth. Which would mean punctuating the text messages like a conversation, per the first example.

Oh, what a madcap world in which we live.

When I talked about this on my livejournal, early comments favored the brackets, mainly I think because brackets do look cool. The end majority, however, thought that — being a conversation — the text messages should be punctuated like one. On the other hand, if logic ruled grammar, our world would be very different, I feel…

Research Part Two: Too Deep

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, last time we talked about not doing enough research. Most writers know they need to do their research, though; workshops teach it and everyone preaches it, and it’s easy to be humiliated by someone more knowledgeable if you don’t do it. So that seems to me to be a less prevalent problem in published work than the other side of the coin: too much research.

I thought about dedicating a post to how one should research, inbetween “too little” and “too much”, but research is such a subject-specific issue, and honestly it’s not that hard to learn how to look up what you need to know, especially with google’s search engine getting more frighteningly intelligent every day. So I thought it was more important to focus first on why you should research, and now on how you should deal with what you find.

An old classic from XKCD

It’s easy to go down the rabbit-hole when you’re researching, especially on the internet. It’s called “wikiwandering” — looking up one thing you need to know, and ending up reading about ten thousand things you didn’t need to know but suddenly desperately want to know. It happens on Wikipedia, but most infamously on the TV Tropes website, and other sites like Cracked.

As an aside, I did some looking-into the phenomenon of wikiwandering and found that there’s been essentially no scholarly work done on the psychology of it. I would venture to say that whatever the evolutionary trigger behind it, it’s worse on TV Tropes because usually on Wikipedia you at least have an inkling of the meaning of the link you’re following; on TV Tropes, because of the funny titles, you have much less clue about what the link will lead to, which inversely affects your curiosity.

Back to the subject at hand. There’s nothing particularly harmful about wikiwandering, at least in moderation. Some people call it a time-waster, but if the knowledge is valuable or even just entertaining, there’s not much wasteful about it; nothing more wasteful than reading a book on any given topic, or going to an educational museum. Even if you just meant to look something up and get right back to writing but got lost, the writing will still be there in an hour or two.

Occasionally, that sheer wall of knowledge can be paralyzing: information overload, the so-called bane of our time. There’s been a lot written about that online, about how our brains can’t handle the level of data we can now pull off the internet or the frequency with which a high level of data assaults us on a daily basis. (While I do agree that an overload can be harmful, the onus is not on the internet to filter your information for you. The responsibility lies with the individual, to put filters in place and to know when they’re reaching a critical point. It can be a process, but I think for a researcher it’s an important one.)

Being unable to write because of information paralysis is certainly an issue; there’s no real cure for that except to clear your head, ditch the research, write what you want, and fix it later. Especially since nothing ruins a good book, fiction or nonfiction, like information overload transmitted from the writer to the reader.

I was trying, a couple of years ago, to read the biography of a famous con man. It was a hefty book, which I’d hoped meant there would be a lot of meat about his life, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The writer had clearly intended to write a biography, but what they had accomplished was a wide picture of life in the subject’s era. A little too wide, in fact; when the con man went to prison, a full history of the prison was provided; when he was put on a “prison ship”, a history of the ships was given as well. Not a paragraph, not a page, but page after page of information that was accurate but not relevant — at least not to the stated purpose of the book.

And if it’s possible to provide too much information even in nonfiction, it’s downright easy to provide it in fiction; you control what people say, so you have endless opportunities to make them deliver lectures on things the writer desperately wants to share but the reader probably doesn’t care that much about.

For a writer, research is a process of learning, in order to be able to place a framework on the page. The peril falls where the framework begins to devour the subject matter — where including a fact is more important than building a narrative. That’s a much harder filter to install, to be honest — the filter that says “okay, stop providing information now, it’s getting in front of the story”. There’s an urge to share knowledge that I think is natural and human, and the more interested in it we are, the more we want to share it with someone else. But that is — if you absolutely must share the information — what an appendix is for.  I would rather read a well written, poorly-researched novel than a poorly-researched but excruciatingly accurate one.

Put that brilliance in the back matter. Better yet, tuck it away in your brain and feel smug that your knowledge contributed materially to your novel, whether or not anyone else ever knows or notices.

Research Part One: Too Shallow

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Well, I did say last time that the research aspect of writing deserves its own essay…and I ended up writing two.

Research is a necessary part of the writer’s toolbox, and most people are aware of this. Even if you’re writing “what you know”, like an autobiography, you will sometimes need to look up dates and names. Unless you have some kind of superhuman memory, in which case it’s not nice to brag, keep that to yourself. Writing fiction, where even “what you know” can be tweaked and changed, contains its own problems.

There are two aspects of research that can ruin a good story: “not enough” and “too much”. They’re very different issues, each with hidden perils as well as more obvious ones. Today is all about Not Enough; next time we’ll be discussing Too Much.

It’s reasonably obvious that you have to do research, even when writing fiction. Not necessarily sit-down-and-read-at-the-library research; maybe you just need to stop for a minute and Google what the weather’s like in Tokyo in the winter. But nobody really talks about the reasoning behind research; it’s the assumed good thing.

Why should you need to do research, after all, if you’re making the whole story up as you go along? Is it necessary to be slavishly faithful to the real world when you are writing fiction that merely uses it as a framework? Is it necessary to know facts when writing fantasy? It is naturally easier to get by without research when you’re making up the world as well as everything in it, but as humans we still want constants: we want physics to work the way it always has, we want people to react in ways that are comprehensible if not predictable.

Research does more than provide facts. Research creates the ground on which you build. Because we all have certain things we just grow up learning — like language, the layout of the areas in which we live, the ways our families cooked food — we don’t really think about those things as being “research” so much as “knowledge”, but the distinction is minimal. And extending knowledge is necessary even when it may not seem like it.

One of my favorite examples is the proliferation of fanfics in the Avengers fandom set in “Stark Tower”, a New York high-rise building, right after the film came out. Most of them were light on details, which is good when you’re light on research, but once in a while you’d have someone say that they could see the entire city from…the 29th floor penthouse. Which, if you’ve never lived in a major urban center, or been to the 29th floor of somewhere, doesn’t seem irrational. However, if you’ve ever worked in or visited a high rise building, you know that the penthouse is more likely on the 99th floor than the 29th — and you definitely can’t see an entire city from only twenty floors up.

Unless it’s a very small city, I suppose.

This kind of misinformation — assumptions based in neither knowledge or in research but just in “eyballing it” — can throw people out of a story. I admittedly have a limited tolerance for people who complain they’re thrown out of stories; sometimes it’s legit, sometimes it’s just nitpickery to make themselves feel bigger. The same holds true for scientific or historical nitpicking of films. Sometimes it’s educational! Most of the time it’s just masturbation.

A lack of knowledge does genuinely affect the prose, though. It leads to a shallowness, because so many things have to be either skimmed over or left out. If you have no depth of knowledge, it can often show through in what you choose not to say because you don’t know how to say it. It can also mean missed opportunities to add layers to a story because the information that would have supported those layers is lacking.

Most people know you need to do your research, but for beginning writers it can be a quagmire of where to start and more importantly where to end — which is what I’ll be discussing next time, in part two, where I defend wikiwandering and will probably link you to TV Tropes.

The Problem Of Choice

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

A few months ago, The Atlantic published an article called The Evolutionary Case For Great Fiction. It was pretty packed with information, and the thesis was intriguing: Jennifer Vanderbes, the author, posited that storytelling is an evolutionary trait which, back in the day, increased the chances for survival (and thus procreation) in the early human tribes who practiced it.

Here’s the idea: stories are “low risk surrogate experiences” — they allow us to understand the consequences of certain actions, for good or ill, without actually taking those actions. Not only does this give us options in perilous situations, allowing us to choose optimally for survival, but it provides us with theoretical skill sets. The example Vanderbes uses is a successful hunter, “Ernest”, who tells in detail the story of his hunt, allowing other members of the tribe to absorb the theory of his technique and the environment in which he succeeded.

And there’s math, of a sort, speculative math anyway, to back it up: while the benefits of the storytelling hunter are obvious, even if they weren’t, they could still be helpful. Vanderbes points out that “a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative […] can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations.” Four thousand generations seems like a lot, but in terms of evolution it’s next to nothing. New evolutionary theory says there were probably a lot of different genetic variations on humanity coexisting in our early evolution; in four thousand generations, the Storytellers could have taken over, and given our current state of being, probably did. Superiority of tools, climate, food sources, and physical condition (due to variations and mutations) all played a part, but so in theory did stories, which is rather lovely on its own.

But Vanderbes also slips something in there without really discussing it, a subtle but clearly intentional addition: Michiko the critic.

Ernest isn’t just telling the story because he wants to. He’s telling it because he’s being judged by Michiko, a “moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories”. Michiko’s approval or disapproval is what sets Ernest and his tribe apart from a second tribe, where John the hunter is also telling a story of his hunt. John’s story isn’t very good, but it’s not just that he’s bad at storytelling. He has no impetus to do well, because John’s tribe has no Michiko. Their stories all pretty much suck and nobody cares, and thus they don’t actually pass on the information which increases those necessary procreational odds by 1%.

Michiko makes this an article not so much about storytelling as about the importance of quality of a story, and also about the choice of story we have in the modern world. We don’t just get stories around a campfire, even mediated ones — we’re bombarded by stories all day long, from novels to news to television, films and podcasts and fanfic. So the question becomes, evolutionarily speaking, which stories give us a top survival advantage?

Which is a little silly, actually, because of course we don’t at this point need stories to survive, not in the way our distant ancestors did. In a spiritual sense, perhaps, but not in a literal “I didn’t see that water buffalo coming” sense. But we still have to decide what stories we allow into our lives, and critics are a part of that decision-making process.

Critics of everything — film and novels, pop culture, art — help us to sort out the “prime” stories. So do editors — as guardians of what makes it to print.

In theory.

In reality, critics dictate according to their own tastes and editors choose based on their own biases. Most English-language newspaper and magazine critics are white men. Editors assume books about girls won’t sell — because girls will read books about girls or boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. (Supposedly.) Rumor has it that cartoons can get cancelled if more girls watch them than boys, because girls “don’t buy toys”. (I don’t know where they’re getting that statistic but most of the girls I knew as kids had action figures and dolls, branded t-shirts and shoes, stickers of She-Ra and Spider-man.)

Which is why critics in the more generic sense are important, but official gatekeepers are problematic. Because anyone willing to make a statement and defend it can be a critic, but a gatekeeper is someone with the fiscal power to control what you experience. Like Walmart. Like all the white dudes in the review industry in the UK.

I have long been a proponent of self-publishing, and of course the big problem with self-publishing is that there’s no way to ensure, if you shop around on lulu.com for example, that you’re going to get a quality work — a work with quality characters and an interesting plot, with good research…with good spelling, let alone proper typesetting. There are blogs out there devoted to reading self-published works, but a lot of them are for-fee and it’s a difficult sea to navigate. For self-pub, word of mouth is the most powerful advertising, because self-pub is already locked out of the dominant culture’s professional reviews.

Michiko is important because she isn’t the head of the tribe, she doesn’t occupy any visible position of power. She’s just the one who’s willing to say what is good and what is not good.

We could use more critics like Michiko.

Embarrassments of my Youth

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am

There is a popular saying which goes something like this: Once it’s on the internet, it’s on the internet forever. I happen to know this isn’t true; in 2008 my main online journal, Copperbadge on LiveJournal, was hacked and completely erased. Five years of journal entries and their comments were deleted. Using various caching services I managed to reconstruct about 80% of the journal posts, but some were gone forever, and most of the comments were as well.

One of the fortunate things I had done before this took place was to shift all of my fanfic, including fanfic that had been posted on my main journal, to a separate archive on a second LiveJournal account, Sam_Storyteller (this archive is now housed under the same name at Dreamwidth). So all my fanfic was preserved. I say this is fortunate, but in retrospect, I’m not entirely sure it was.

My archive houses work that began in 2003 and runs up to the current day; I just posted a story there last week, and will be posting a few more in the coming weeks. I’ve been adding these stories to my Archive Of Our Own account (I can be found at AO3 under the username Copperbadge), because it offers features like better tagging systems and the ability to download the stories as PDF files.

The problem I’m coming up against, now that I’ve added most of the stuff I’m really proud of, is what to do with the stuff that I’m…less than proud of. There are various reasons for not wanting to add certain stories. Some, by my standards now, are not very well written, though most hold up surprisingly well to the test of time. Some just don’t seem to be that entertaining. Some are so short I don’t feel I ought to bother.

And the question becomes, what do I do with these stories? I’m not especially sentimental about my work in the general sense; I’d be happy to remove them from all archives everywhere. On the other hand, it seems wrong to keep them on one archive and not on another. I know in the past I’ve gone looking for stories I really liked only to find the account deleted or the story locked, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of a story they like, even if I no longer think it’s very good. We all have different tastes, after all.

In a larger sense, there’s a question of completism, and of owning the work I did which was less, for whatever reason, than the work I do now. Is it correct to erase what I’m no longer fond of or proud of?

This is a question professionally published writers face, to be sure. Writers have tried to disown their work, or have publicly said they hated something quite popular with the reading public.  Sometimes a story comes out of a trauma or a situation that the writer would prefer to keep in the past, and the story haunts them with the memory. Sometimes they just don’t think it’s any good. Once in a while it’s a question of shifting ideology; Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play that inspired Chicago, later became a born-again Christian and spent years paying fees to prevent the production of the play because she felt guilty about making money from the stories of real-life murders. Anne Rice has never renounced any of her books, but questions about her views on her past work have arisen in the course of her public struggles with her faith.

My own dilemmas are less dramatic. I’m proud of my original work and I only put my name to work I feel is the best I could possibly do — which happily means that even if I find in later years it’s not very good, I know I was doing my best at the time. With fanfic, it’s different. Some stories I wrote just to entertain friends, or on stupid ideas that in retrospect don’t work as well as I thought they would.

I don’t really have an answer yet. For professionally published writers, the story is out there, and they can’t just pretend it isn’t. For me, I have to work out whether I want to continue to claim this work, or quietly tuck it away, or simply not move it over to the new archive, letting it languish in the convoluted navigational web of the current one.

How do you solve a problem like a Fall Out Boy/Heroes crossover? I’m still working on that one.

Playing A Book

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

A couple of weeks ago, at the London Book Fair, Faber & Faber announced that it was creating a “fully playable, fully immersive product” when it came to ebooks. It was working with software publishers and a developer, The Story Mechanics, to produce a reprint of John Buchan’s early 20th-century serial novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which most of us — if we know it at all — know from Hitchcock’s film adaptation.

My knee-jerk response was that any book which has achievements you unlock, items you collect, and music which plays at points during your reading is not a book — that’s a video game. But I reined in my what the hell is wrong with you almost immediately, because whenever I find myself saying “that’s not the thing it says it is, it’s some other thing” I usually end up having to have a long argument with myself (occasionally even other people) about definitions.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with video games. I know I’m not the only person who does this, but I enjoy video game narratives without needing to play the game. I don’t especially want to play Assassin’s Creed, but I am entranced by the story, so I enjoy watching other people play it. If they made a movie out of the cut scenes, I would probably go to see it. I actually got frustrated that there was no way to pause the cut scenes in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess because when I was playing that game, people would invariably try to talk to me during a really long cut scene. I failed the final level of Braid so hard and so often that it soured the whole game for me and I no longer even care how it ends (apparently it’s incomprehensible anyway) but the only reason I played it as long as I did was the story.

It’s not like a video game has never been based on a book before, either. And there are books you can “play”, like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. But these ebooks, which have a soundtrack and achievements — and maybe levels? Do they have bosses you have to defeat? — blur the line a great deal between what a game is and what a book is.

I keep thinking about Dara O’Briain’s comedy routine about video games: no other medium prevents you from experiencing it based on skill. He points out that music doesn’t make you dance competently before playing the rest of the album; books don’t stop you after chapter three to ask you what the theme of the work is. But we now have a fairly widespread platform for reading where a book could give you a test before allowing you to go any further. Which is a little freaky.

So with the production of books-as-interactive-experiences and video-games-as-narrative-media I suppose there are two questions left to answer: where does the line between story and experience fall? And, if we can cross or blur that line, does the line matter — do we actually need to know?

I am a competitive person and I frustrate easily, so I don’t want to play a book. I just want to read it. I’m also not that keen on paying for a book that has involved a software development team, because I suspect either I’m paying more or the author of the actual story is getting less for features I will not use. But that’s not a good reason to prevent the exploration of a new medium, or a melding of two older mediums, and it’s not a good reason to say that’s not a book — because what does that prove, anyway, and who told me I got to arbitrate what a book is? People have been “playing” murder mysteries for over a century, trying to solve the case before the detective does.

There’s a lot of fear in the publishing industry right now, that ebooks are going to kill paper printing, that authors who grew up in a video-game generation (authors who are — or will be very soon — the children of the MTV generation) don’t have as much invested in the written word. I can’t speak to the former, but I’m pretty sure the latter is bunk — or we wouldn’t get awesome stories in our video games.

So as long as they warn for video games in our awesome stories, I guess I’m good. Trepidatious, but good.

Science Fiction Does Not Require Grace

In Uncategorized on May 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

I made a post on my tumblr the other day reminding people (and informing those who didn’t know) that Ender’s Game is a great book, will likely be a great movie, and you should not pay to see it, because Orson Scott Card is a rabid anti-gay activist.

This isn’t about how Orson Scott Card has threatened to tear down the government over gay marriage. This is about the reactions I got, which were really interesting. The top two were:

1. How does a man who espouses such beliefs in real life write a book about acceptance and understanding like Ender’s Game?

2. How can a science fiction writer be so closed-minded?

I can’t answer #1. Best guess I have is “by accident” or possibly “his better nature had a brief moment of freedom”. The second question, however, I have some thoughts about. I spoke about them a while ago on LJ, but I’d like to see if I can vocalize them a little more clearly a few years on.

To be open-minded, in the way we generally define it, requires three things: imagination, empathy, and the willingness to accept you may be wrong. This is true whether you are being asked to accept two women getting married or whether you’re being asked to consider the idea that a sky-god actually did make the world in six days.

The writing of science fiction — the writing of most fiction — only requires imagination. That’s pretty much it.

Good writing generally employs a high level of empathy, of course. Not only the ability of the writer to put themselves into a situation strange to them, but to put the reader there as well. But it’s a very specific, very localized empathy, and it’s not strictly speaking necessary. If you’re a good storyteller, you can tell a story and even if it’s not true and people know it’s not true, they will still buy into it because you’re telling it in a compelling manner. Sometimes, science fiction is quite clearly a writer telling a story about something they desperately wish would happen to them — which requires very little empathy — and if they’re good at it, they get away with it. I’ve done this; I know there are professionally published writers who have. Talent can take the place of empathy when all you’re doing is sellin’ a story.

And writers of speculative fiction, of fantasy and sci fi, rarely have to entertain the idea that they might be wrong in their writing. Their world isn’t our world. If you set a story in the year 3000, you’ll be dead (presumably) by the time the year 3000 rolls around to prove you wrong. If you tell a story that opens after a massive alien attack has nearly destroyed humanity, you’re probably not going to be around when and if that actually happens. And if you are, people are going to have more pressing issues than whether or not you got the details right.

Science fiction writers don’t have to have the three key components of an open mind in order to tell a story. Some do; some don’t. But it goes beyond “people are different from each other”.

There is an expectation of science fiction writers that because they spend a lot of time thinking about potential futures, they will embrace the real future as it rushes towards us. This seems logical, but it doesn’t take into account the disconnect between what we want and what we get.

Writers like control. Even the ones who espouse chaotic theories like to hold the conversation with themselves. We call it “dialogue” but really it’s a monologue spoken by two different people. I love to write dialogue because I control both sides of the conversation, whereas in real life, about eight times in ten, I get wordless and stammery two or three sentences in. I’m not good at conversation with other people. That’s not the other person’s fault.

Science fiction writers control every aspect of an entire universe. They get to say who survives the apocalypse. They get to say who’s in space and why. They get to say whether the aliens are nice and what technology we’ve held onto. Have you ever noticed that in most scifi television shows, all aliens that come from one planet usually have the same skin colour? They have the same religion, too, and the same social structure. Minbari only have one faith. Klingons only have one social code. This isn’t a hard rule — there are exceptions. They’re just not terribly frequent.

Earth isn’t like that. We have lots of different skin tones and faiths and sexualities and social mores and clothing styles and monetary systems. But a society so vast and complex is difficult to grasp, certainly difficult to encapsulate in fiction. When you do, you end up with the imaginary Princess Bride story where the “good parts” were edited together by the narrator’s father because most of the book is about boring stuff like economics. Economics is necessary but it does not make for compelling fiction.

This is where it gets scary. Because if you control the future in fiction, eventually you forget that you don’t control the future in reality. You want the future to be one way and then it turns out, whoops, cellphones. Whoops, the internet.

Whoops, gay marriage.

Oh snap, yo. Are two dudes kissing in space? I didn’t write that. Who gave the internet permission to happen? These damn cellphones, what the hell is SMS?

You can’t control the future. There are too many variables. And if you can’t control the future, but you desperately want to, the next instinctive, illogical step is to prevent it from happening. Keep things the way they are. Maintain the status quo and you don’t have to worry.

Ray Bradbury likened social justice to censorship, and was violently opposed to his book about censorship being turned into an e-book that literally could not be burned. Orson Scott Card is terrified that legalising gay marriage is going to screw up the social fabric of the entire country, despite the fact that gay people were happily cohabitating with each other long before he was born and will be long after he is dead. Science fiction writers don’t automatically want to see the future. Some want to script it. Some think the only way to do that is to prevent it from happening.

It’s okay to love fictional futures and to write them. It’s okay to be afraid of the real future. It’s also okay to want to guide that future.

But preventing the future? In the books, that’s the province of the villain.

The Touchiest Of Topics

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 10:26 am

This post builds a little bit off a previous post about sex in literature, and also a little off my earlier series on how to define a YA Novel. It’s about a hot topic in the literary world right now: YA Lit and Sex.

I think that the topic is hot because YA Lit is increasingly prominent in our culture, and because sex in literature is as well. There’s also been a lot of talk lately about how dark YA Lit is becoming, but even with books like the Hunger Games series, which is held up as the ultimate symbol (if not the only one) of dark writing for kids, sex isn’t often something that comes up. At least, I assume; I figure I’d have heard about it by now if all the starving kids were also having sex. And, in part, publishers are realising that literature aimed at young adults isn’t just being bought by young adults. They’re now working to satisfy the adult desire for something a little steamier. There are a lot of great reasons for adults to read YA; I personally used to pluck random YA novels off the shelf during exam time in college, because they were easy on the brain and could be read quickly.

But, yes. For all of these reasons and others, as well, sex in YA Lit is becoming a forefront discussion.

Sex was an issue I faced when I was writing fanfic, especially Stealing Harry and Laocoon’s Children, two stories that rewrote the Harry Potter novels within an alternate universe. Because I was writing fanfic and not trying to sell anything to children, I had more latitude than a pro-published writer would; I was already including sex scenes between adults even when I was writing about Harry Potter as an eight year old. But as the kids I was writing about got older, I wanted to reflect what everloving horndogs a lot of kids are in their teens. So I was glancing off the idea of teens engaging in romantic and sexual situations; I didn’t want to write kiddie porn but I did want to be honest about how teens behave. I lost my virginity in high school; presumably it wasn’t unlikely that a tightly-knit group of friends would have similar experiences. It’s not that I feel kids ought to, it’s just that I feel like whether or not they ought to, a lot do.

I never got there, because that story fell by the wayside, but it has stayed with me, the idea that people in their teens do have sexual urges and sexual encounters. It’s a tricky place to go, because most writers (quite rightly) don’t want to use underage people as devices for sexual titillation, and more importantly they don’t want to be accused of doing it whether or not that was their intent. And I don’t want to add to the weird societal pressures surrounding sex, the conflicting “Have sex now or you’re abnormal!” and “SEX ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, IT’S A SIN.”

I believe that people shouldn’t be ashamed of having sex, of choosing their partners and the number of their partners, as long as said partners are consenting and capable of consent. I believe people should be told that they’re supposed to enjoy the sex they have, and if they aren’t, they should be encouraged to stop what they’re doing and seek alternatives, be that different partners or different kinds of sex or no sex at all. And one of the things I discovered while exploring the nature of YA Literature is that it is predominantly about adults who have a message they want to convey to young people — like what we think about sex and how we deal with it as adults.

There’s a fantastic quote by a fellow WordPresser, fozmeadows, discussing adolescent sex in YA:

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember.

Fozmeadows is speaking primarily about the way young women are treated both in the world of YA lit and within the books that compose it, which is entirely appropriate given, well, how young women are frequently treated in YA Lit. But it has a broader application as well: the idea that imbuing the concept of sex into a YA book automatically gives the reader just a little more agency and ownership than they had previously.

It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

It’s true, too — even books that discuss teens committing complicated crimes in an adult world, like the Heist Society series, shy away from teens committing sexual acts. What really hit home for me about that second half of the quote, however, is the concept of not putting an actual sex act into the book: not having to write explicit sex between underage partners — just the legitimate, unflinching potential for sex to occur, or the mention of it happening. Even the desire for it to happen unhampered by the usual “am I ready?” self-flagellating self-examination that media aimed at teens generally includes (almost exclusively with the eventual answer of “No” at the end) would be refreshing. And Fozmeadows is right: it is enough to show readers that they get to control what happens to their bodies and when, without necessarily baring everything.

I think this is important because even authors writing for adult audiences have trouble with sex scenes, as I talked about last week. So understanding that sex in literature is something that people look for and something that can positively influence the way young people see their sexuality (and those of others) is important. But it’s just as important for writers to know that there is space between “never talking about it” and “explicit sexual description” — that wanting sex and experiencing desire can be just as important as the sex that actually happens. It’s not just teenagers who could use a higher comfort level with discussions of sex and sexuality, after all.