Category Archives: Essays

Writing About Domestic Violence

Let’s be clear: this is not a sociology post. This has not been written to tell you how the world is. It has been written to make you consider how you treat domestic violence in your stories.

+ Domestic violence in research is generally referred to Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV for short. IPV will be used throughout this article.

In literature, domestic violence is generally portrayed as a more simple narrative than it can be. For example, the antagonist (a man) tries to use his societal power and physical strength to dominate the protagonist (a woman).  This is the traditional victim versus perpetrator, hero versus villain, narrative we embrace. We understand that powerlessness the protagonist feels and empathise with her as she attempts to escape the destructive cycle.

“What’s wrong with this Kenneth?” you might ask. “That’s how domestic violence works.”

See, that’s the problem. That’s how some of domestic violence works. Let’s have a look at a 2012 literature review conducted by Desmarais, S.L., Reeves, K.A., Nicholls, et al called Prevalence of Physical Violence in Intimate Relationships, Part 2: Rates of Male and Female Perpetration. 

This is an American-based literature review so please be that in mind.

Here are some key discussion points:

  1. The number of women who perpetuated violence against their partner was higher than men. 1 in 4 women reported perpetrating physical violence against their male partners. Whereas 1 in 5 men reported perpetrating physical violence against their female partners. Even more surprising, this was not an original discovery. This was consistent with previous reviews.
  2. The number of women who continue to commit IPV over their whole life is double that of men. 18.4% of men who have committed IPV against their partner continue to do it for the whole life. Whereas 31.5% of women are lifetime perpetrators.
  3. IPV victimisation and perpetuation peaks between the ages of 16-24 years of age. 
  4. In heterosexual relationships about 25% of them have some form of IPV. So if you have three friends in a long-term relationship, and you aren’t committing IPV, then statistically speaking one of them will be in a relationship with IPV.

As a person, these stats are more than scary. They’re terrifying. 25% of people (whether male or female) will be subjected to, or perpetuate, IPV.

There’s a lot more research about this, and there are some serious disagreements. Do the methodologies and measuring tools used overrepresent female violence against their partners? Do the guys lie more often than their spouses because it’s socially undesirable to be known as a ‘wife beater’? Are women using violence only as self defence?

These are difficult questions that the research I cited was not sure about and put lots of disclaimers on. And it links to over 110 studies that are good reads if you’re heading into that topic as a sociologist.

The point for this post though is simple though: IPV in real-life relationships is often complicated and uncertain. The narrative of victim versus perpetrator is neat and tidy. The narrative of men are violent and women are not is clean and easily digestible. It fits into the agressive / passive roles the patriarchy have carved out in the literature landscape. Unfortunately, that’s not all IPV is. Not even in most cases.

So, what’s the take away as a writer? That real relationships are complex and people do a whole variety of things for different reasons. Whatever gender you’re writing, whatever sex you assign to the character, they have an equal chance of being either a victim or a perpetrator. And that, hopefully, will free up some new myths for you to create for the future generations of readers.

Writing Tips 3 (Your Slow Writer)

The end is here: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. Part 1 discusses my thoughts as a reader while part 2 is a contemplation about how language study and writing practice overlap.

Fear not, in this final (and world-rocking) post, I’m going to espouse on what I discovered with my writer hat on this year.

Part 3: The Writer.

Plan your project based on your life as it is. 

In the arts (and sometimes teaching), everyone is an expert. Even your uncle, aunt and rarely seen Facebook friend from high school has an opinion about what makes a great author. They’ve all got ideas about how much you should write, how much you should read, what ‘evidence-based’ activities you should undertake to spur on your creativity.

Plus, there are professional writers’ opinions. People who have ‘made’ it and sit at home while spraying fountains of words on their adoring fans. They’ve all got their TIME-TESTEDtm advice. Write 2,000 words a day. 3,000. Don’t call yourself a true author until you’re doing  60 crunches while spitting hot prose to a stenographer. “Don’t even compare yourself to me,” a stray-author might say. “Or pat yourself on the back until you’re churning out 67 books a year.”

Let me brag a little too: I’ve produced 8 books (50,000 – 100,000 words each) and 3 novellas (20,000 – 40,000 words a piece) plus too many short stories to remember. I have two out in the public sphere. This discrepancy between published and unpublished is probably not good for my career. Hell, some of those have even been re-written from scratch. For example, one of my novels was so bad that I wrote it again (another 80,000 words), but only count it as one in my quota.

So I don’t know everything the cosmos has to say about production and work ethic, but sometimes I can make it happen. Thank you very much straw-person author. And what I believe is that there’s so much pressure on aspiring writers to meet some subjective standard of production.

2,500 words a day is a fine goal, if you’re a full-time author. (Although, even they often struggle with it.) Or if you’re single and are taking it easy on a redundancy payout. Or if you’re not studying a foreign language. Or if you’re not moving to another country, starting another job, or working extra (unpaid) hours for your ‘vocation’.

Some person out there, in the void, might argue I’m rationalising why I don’t have time to write. Or why I haven’t written that much this year. That’s fine, I am lazy. I struggle with motivation to do more than one serious thing in my free time. I either study or I write. Right now I’m studying Japanese, and working, and married.

Yet, I still sometimes encounter wagging fingers about how if I want to be a ‘serious’ author then I need to produce more. Usually by those who don’t have a job (nor understand that work doesn’t end at 5 for most teachers), and are not in a relationship. They raise their fist to the heavens and give you pat speeches about how you have to tick all the appropriate boxes to consider yourself a certain kind of author.

Maybe you’ve ran into that person on your writing journey? I don’t know. I hope you never do, but just in case, here’s the thing: I like being married. It’s more important to me than a chance at success in the future.

I like my job. It’s not the greatest workplace in the world, it doesn’t pay oodles of cash, but it’s not terrible. I keeps me from living on the street because I don’t come from an upper-middle class family where they’ll subsidise my life so I can ‘become who was born to be’. Also, I want to look after my wife. (Who doesn’t?) That means a job, it means money, it means paying bills and smiling at difficult customers.

So these are things that are real, and they take time. Whoever you are, your life is also full of choices. Full of decisions. You can be an asshole to your loved ones and focus only on your career. (Some published writers are.) You can put yourself first and skimp on your responsibilities at your job. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and everyone will understand; they’ll put up with your shit until you become enough of a success to quit. Maybe even your first book will be a hit and the strain you put on everyone else won’t be that much, who knows? Life is random.

For the rest of us though, we make small and difficult day-to-day choices. We want to be a full-time author but there are so many other things which we need to balance. So many other tasks that need to be completed if we hope to keep our life in harmony.

So, here’s a not-so-pro tip from someone with 8 books hanging from his belt: choose a project that fits your time schedule. Think about how much time you actually have to write. Can you produce one story a month? A novella a year? Three books in three months?

People want consistent output. Something that’s regular and expected. Think about what you can deliver consistently to your audience and then design a writing project around that. You don’t have to write novels. Or novellas. Or short stories. You just have to produce consistently to an expected schedule. No matter how slow or fast you are, consistency is what wins fans and readers over. It even soothes debt collectors.

If you do that, and are a professional, you’re an author. A serious one. It doesn’t matter what any other jackass on the internet says (including this one).

Be a professional

Hey, customers are hard work. Remember when you were a kid and disliked school? Or your job? And how you wanted to join the circus, become a famous TV personality, or start your own Norwegian jazz and salsa band?

Remember how close you came?

Being an author can be a little like that. The author lifestyle can be the rockstar dream for those comfortable in a shirt and jeans. Think about it. Thousands of people praising your novel and telling you how special you are. Filled up panels where you’re asked penetrating questions and hold forth on complicated topics. Where people listen in rapt attention as you speak out your wisdom to the ages. A place where you are respected, not for your looks or slow smile, but your innate personality and knowledge.

Just me thinking that?

In this bubble you are free to be that special, amazing, and wonderful person you could be if all those other people weren’t keeping you down. Weren’t negging you out. If you didn’t have to bend backwards to meet stupid demands / needs / ideas of your boss / senior staff/ customers.

FREEDOM!

Bullshit.

Writing is no different than any other professional endeavour. Everyone has an opinion about your skill set. Whether or not they publish it online (so you can see it), or talk about it with their friends around a coffee table, they have an opinion. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes they tell it to you, and sometimes they are writing for their friends / readers and you just happen to stumble onto it when you’re slightly tipsy at 4:00am in the morning.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a professional. People are willing to pay you money for your skills. You need to treat them with respect (even if they don’t deserve it). It doesn’t mean you have to change for them. It doesn’t mean you have to write for them. What it does mean is that you need to handle them in a way that shows you understand what they’re saying and are (kind of) grateful for their input.

And like most professionals, you’ll have to tell a few lies to make your customers happy. Say that you did love their comment about your missing comma on page 9. Or how you are appreciative for them publishing a snarky article comparing your book to a Hitler / Justin Bieber mashup. It’s okay though, lies are our business. After all, that’s what storytelling is, isn’t it?

Everything is practice

Sometimes when I commune with the universe on top of a mountain while stroking a goat’s beard, I think about boxes. What is the purpose of the metaphysical genre box we built between fiction and non-fiction writing? Or between essays and short stories?

Are we not attempting the same thing? To communicate an idea in a palatable way to the audience? To find a way to sneak past their defences and lodge our own flag in their brain space? Isn’t that our job? To be the greatest advertiser ever known to humankind?

Probably.

Think of a book review and a book blurb. What’s the diference? Both are trying to effectively communicate to the reader what they will discover inside of a novel. A 5-star review should be (almost) the same as its blurb. If someone reads your reviews of another’s novels, they should come away with several things:

  1. What the book’s about.
  2. Does it achieve its goal of entertaining the reader?
  3. What the reader (you) thought of the work.

That’s it. Point 1 is exactly the same as a blurb (kind of, without the marketing gimmicks). So each time you write a review, you are practicing for your own blurbs.

Essays are the same. They expressions of your ideas put into words. They increase your vocabulary, give you a chance to find out how to engage readers and practice editing skills.

Everything you write is practice. Every interaction online with a friend. Every blog post about your day, every email to a friend is a chance to hone your writing skills. Think about how you can say something differently, think about how you can switch up your styles so your friend isn’t just honour bound to read the email but loves getting them.

Don’t waste these opportunities because there are so many. They’ll help you hone your style, develop the rhythm of your prose and expand your toolbox to contain a variety of screw and driver sizes.

Then, finally, when you come to your novel — you won’t have to start from scratch. You won’t have to reteach yourself things you’ve let go rusty over the years. They’ll be honed and the words will pour out onto the page in a torrent.

Maybe. Or perhaps you’ll hide under the covers like I do and play The Witcher 3 in the dark. Both are okay options because it’s your life. Live it. 😉

Picture:

Young girl sitting on a bench writing in her diary (C) andreaxt. Used under standard license from Dollar Photo Club. 

Yearly Book Recap 2015 (Fiction)

Good evening fine word connoisseurs,

As you know, this year I undertook the challenge to read more female authors than usual. My goal was a clean 50 / 50 split, but when failure struck my goal was to work harder at including other narratives than cis white male ones in my literature landscape.

This is the recap of that (very modest) goal. As I’ve read both non-fiction and fiction works this year, I ‘ve split them into two separate posts.  For the fiction post I’ll be using the below categories:

Fiction:

  • Change-your-life good.
  • Worth purchasing. (Fantastic, but not amazing.)
  • You decide. (Might contain some good ideas, some decent writing or interesting characters. Depends on your personal taste if you’re going to get your money’s worth.)
  • Nice try / Gold star. (The author put a lot of work into this, but it didn’t quite come off as well as it could have.)
  • WTF Random Publisher? (How was this even published? For indie authors, they are automatically excluded from this category. Quality control should mean something.)

+ Note: the list numbers do not indicate quality or ranking of the individual books against each other.

Change-your-life Good

  1. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is gritty, raw and punches the reader so hard in the face they’ll have to wipe away the literary stains. Imagine if Raymond Chandler was still alive, still wrote and embraced multi-cultural narratives. That’s what Zoo City feels like.

2. The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi

Here’s a book that grabs the 21st century, and pulls it screaming onto the page. It doesn’t know what american-centric story-telling is or why white people should be the coolest characters in the narrative. It’s the first (and only) book I’ve read so far that seems to have a global vision when it comes to where Sci-Fi should go.

3. Push by Sapphire

This novel is ridiculous. In 100 pages it manages to worm its  way under your skin and just stick there. Like an ooze. It’s about Precious, a sixteen-year-old with a horrific home life. Even though it takes you into this hell hole of humanity, it also gives you hope. It shows you how Precious (with the help of a good support network) is able to overcome and escape the cycle she was born into.

Female Authors: 2   Male Authors: 1    Various: 0

Worth Purchasing

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

A multi-generational tale about a family of immigrants who moved from Bengal to Boston. Although a little too focussed on the male-side of the family, it covers a range of perspectives and has a snappy pace to it. Highly accessible and very enlightening reading.

5. Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis

(Full Disclosure: S. Elliot Brandis and I belonged to the same writing club several years ago. ) 

Once Upon a Time at the End of the World is a novella about an android and a prostitute who form an unlikely alliance and engage in bounty hunts after the apocalypse. Exceptionally well written, but at times the dialogue and the themes explored contradict each other.

6. 2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke

An oldie but a goodie. The movie was a wash for my brother and I, but the book fleshes out a lot of the characters’ motivations and creates a fascinating world full of possibilities. Highlights why Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greats.

7. The Real StoryForbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson

An exploration of, or treatise on, the darker side of humanity. Stephen R. Donaldson seems to not know where the line is for the reader’s comfort, but creates a compelling story all the same. Consume at your own risk.

8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fun, whimsical and almost impossible not to enjoy. Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie as she struggles to inspire Howl to be brave, all while hoping not to fall in love with him. The characters are more selfish than the animated movie, but loveable all the same.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Difficult to categorise, Let the Right One In is a fine example of cross-genre literature. It takes the disquiet of horror, the character-building of drama and the poignancy of a coming-of-age novel and mixes them all together. The result is a captivating slow burn of a story that builds to a pitch-perfect crescendo.

Movie Note: Oskar is more complex than the Swedish movie, but possibly not as likeable.

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman knows how to write. He knows how to create diverse characters and infuse a story with compelling supernatural elements. Unfortunately, he can also get carried away. American Gods is full of profound ideas, but feels a little too loose on the narrative structure and sometimes events happen  that don’t propel the story forward. If it had been trimmed a touch, it would’ve been one of the best reads of 2015.

11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A coming-of-age / boarding-school drama that uses a sci-fi hook to hold the reader. Although the stakes are small and this type of story of love and loss has been told before, Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a tight little tale about 3 students which compels you to read on. Not the most original work to add to your library, but worthwhile to admire simply for its execution.

12. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

In many ways, a mess of a book. Plot threads are often left dangling in a strong breeze, the story takes too long to start, and then jumps around too much until it finds its focus. There are way too many characters. However, it’s well written and there are ideas piled on top of ideas wrapped in a sandwich of even bigger ideas. However, After the uproar about Patrick Rothfuss’s depiction of women in the Ademre society, The Mirror Empire may be questionably sexist depending on which lens you view it through.

Definitely worthwhile if you’re a writer for inspiration, as a reader of fantasy it might leave too many things dependent on a sequel for a satisfying finale.

13. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is an oddity. It’s a really good novel that’s about the lengths a mother will go to to save her son from his own foolishness. A story that features zombies, regret, a steampunk setting and several heart-clenching set pieces. Unfortunately, the front cover makes it look like a wild ride about air pirates. Not what the novel is about at all. So, if you can get over the shock and initial disappointment of not having any awesome dogfights or cussing air pirates in there, you’ll be alright.

14. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

It’s short, the stories are interesting and it’s … J.K. Rowling. If you’ve got Harry Potter fans in your house they’ll love it. If you don’t, they’ll enjoy the twists J.K. Rowling puts on our old myths and creates something new. Good fun for a rainy hour or so.

Female Authors: 6    Male Authors: 8    Various: 0

You Decide

15. All Over Him By Casey Chase

Hot, dumb, erotic fiction. Not quite paranormal though, despite the blurb promising it would be. If you like your sex hard and your men obnoxiously stalker-ish then this is for you.

16. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg

Part of the post-Harry Potter fantasy novels which take pre-existing rules and try to tweak them a little bit. Starts out well with a frustrated teenager (one just legal enough to be romantically involved with an older man) who gets put into the ‘worst’ field of magic: paper. This happens despite her ‘mad’ skills.

At the commencement of the novel, the book seems to want to have a conversation about sexism and how it affects women, but then undoes all that by having the main protagonist fall in love with her teacher.

Full of whimsy, but its main plot hook loses momentum half way through and the tone shifts drastically between scenes for drama purposes. The Paper Magician seems unsure if it wants to a contemplation on love and loss or a flighty road through a magical landscape. It tries to do both, but struggles under the thematic weight and collapses by the end.

17. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

Centers on the tribulations of Yeine Darr and her unexpected rise to the city of Sky. Takes some of the ideas of American Gods and twists them splendidly only to have all that setup undone by a passive protagonist. A novel that’s supposed to be about empowering women to challenge the world order, has Yeine’s actions mean nothing all while falling in love with the masculine (and emotionally distant) dark god in the novel.

18. Acid Row by Minette Walters

A thriller with a fantastic hook: what if a town rioted because a pedophile was placed in their neighbourhood? The story starts well with a little mystery and lots of suspense, but gets caught on its social message and psychologist jargon. The author attempts to convey that the community isn’t really bad, nor is the pedophile, it’s the way he was raised and proceeds to explain that three or four times to the reader. Eventually the story and likability of the characters gets buried under useless exposition and over-explained character motivation.

19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A classic, but one that was struggle to enjoy. Everything is there: a foreboding father, the backdrop of the moors, inter-generational hatred and domestic violence, but it fell short. I can’t identify why, but unfortunately it didn’t connect with me.

20. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A frustrating read. The first half, maybe even 3/4, is excellent. Great pacing, fantastic flashbacks and a powerful emotional ride through what seems to be an autobiographical story. However, the last 1/4 destroys all of that. There’s too much lumped in which feels tossed together at the end to make Amir’s life seem less messy than it was.  There’s the confrontation between the protagonist and his childhood antagonist, the mirroring of his friend’s son’s actions against an all too similar event earlier in the novel, a finale which only happens because the Amir forgets everything he knows about kids and says something inopportune, plus the shrinking of a village from many individuals into only those that are relevant to the story. If it was an autobiography, you could write it off. Life is strange. But when it’s fiction the coincidences can only get piled so high before it feels like the author is twisting the world inside-out to get the end out of the tale they want. This is one of those potential greats that got lost on its own trail.

21. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Magic for hipsters. Perhaps more precisely, magic for ivy-league, male hipsters. They kind of book that struts around pretending to be grown up but is simply a teenager trying on an executive-looking pair of pants. It spends 510 pages trying to get the reader to sympathise with a character who (SPOILERS) cheats on his girlfriend, brings about the death of a classmate and runs away from all his responsibilities. All the while bitching about how life has done ‘im hard. If that sounds like someone you love spending time with then buy away.

Female Authors: 11   Male Authors: 10    Various: 0

Nice Try / Gold Star

22.The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry

It features a pixie king and his human love interest  Otherwise a standard paranormal romance. A more comprehensive review can be found here.

23. Elis Royd by Ron Sanders

One of the few novels that starts out with the writer taking shots at some imaginary straw-authors before penning a poorly written tome. Clearly some thought has gone into it, but the execution struggles and the ideas could still with a few more hours in peculation.

24. Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher

A book based on many ideas which has forgotten that an interesting world does not make a novel. Starts out with a solid chase scene but slides into talking heads after that. You might enjoy it if you’re deeply in love with the prose of Atlas Shrugged. More details here.

25. Winter by S.D. Rasheed

A paranormal romance that features one strangely inserted sex scene and ever-changing character motivations. At times forgets its own story and then spirals out of control with a main character who must fall in love with the dark demon to propel the plot along. Possibly the only novel I’ve read this year where I’ve wanted more description from the author so I know what’s going on.

26. Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe

A thriller / mystery / romance about a lost ghost that returns to Canada to find her killer. (Perhaps?) Introduces a world full of drugs, violence and angry sex in the tourist section of Vancouver. All the ghosts have a confusing set of powers and none of the characters are believable or scary. At times I accidentally laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Unfortunately, you can feel the author had a clear vision they wanted to show in this work but it got lost in the execution.

27. Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle

Wanted to like it, but struggled with the character motivations. Full review can be found here.

28. Wool by Hugh Howey

I don’t want to put Wool here. I don’t. Yet here it is. Two of the best writers I know recommended this work. I read Hugh Howey’s posts on The Passive Voice and head nod along with him, but Wool was not good.

Wool starts with an interesting idea: what if we had to live in a silo due to a nuclear attack? Then he adds a conspiracy dimension to it, and a lot of events that don’t make sense. He kills characters for no reason, has villains pop out of nowhere to increase suspense and has the main character fall in love with a guy she’s met twice. What? How is that even a thing in 2015? Also, it’s long with extended introversion sequences that neither advance the plot nor the characters’ motivation. Overall, it’s a book that loses out due to pacing and plotting problems rather than writing skill.

29. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If Scott Pilgrim could come alive and write a novel, this would be it. Except it would’ve been written by the Scott Pilgrim before he had met Ramona. It features a protagonist that is cis, white and a HERO! Because … reasons dammit. He leads his multi-racial crew to justice against the evil corporate empire by cyber-stalking a woman, signing contracts without a lawyer looking them over, and acting like a teenager in front of a director of a company. If you don’t mind that, and the long sections which are not at all related to 1980s pop-culture, then you might want to snatch this up.

30. Speculative Japan by Various

A series of old sci-fi short stories that were translated from Japanese authors. It features 3 opening / introduction essays and 2 afterword pieces, which should give an indicator of what type of book it is. Many of the stories feel uninspired by today’s standards and of the ones that are solid, it’s difficult to know if the original story was blandly worded or the translation turned them into uninspired pieces of prose. Often it feels like a vanity project by those involved and is a tad expensive when compared to the many great anthologies are already available.

31. HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

It breaks my heart that this is here. I love Alistair Maclean. The Dark Crusader and Puppet on a Chain are two of my favourite novels of all time. In saying that, HMS Ulysses is chock full of b-grade war movie dialogue and overly dramatic scenes. Everyone is heroic and the characters, when not advising how dangerous things are, are unable to stop praising the dying captain. Interesting only as a reference point for how Alistair Maclean grew as an author.

Female Authors: 13  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

WTF Random Publisher?

32. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An Irish take on Push that goes completely wrong. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, A Girl if a Half-formed Thing is so full style that it forgets to tell a story. It speaks from the first person in a dialect so difficult to piece together that I simply gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I understood what was being said, but it was so painful and the main character continued to be so annoying that I quit of frustration and read the ending. Surprise: it’s dark ending. If you like art house books, almost impenetrable novels and think reading should be a chore then this is for you.

Female Authors: 14  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

Picture (c) sebra. Used under Standard License with Dollar Photo Club. 

Writing Tips Part 2 (Your humbled language student)

It continues: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. You can find Part 1 of this series here where I discuss my discoveries as reader. (Or you can scroll down. Don’t fight the mouse wheel.)

Today, I’m going to discuss writing from the perspective of a language student. (I study Japanese on the side.)

Everything is Practice

As an adult, life is a series of boxes. If you want to study a language, you pick a textbook and work through it. You set aside an hour of study each night and hunker down with a pen and earworms to truly soak it in. You go to class. You take notes and practice set phrases. Then you relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy an English movie.

Study and enjoyment. These are different boxes. If you want to get good at a language, you have to study. And you have to study a certain way with white walls, a serious-faced teacher and learn grammar structures.

If you want to be a writer, you need to read novels, write fiction and go part-time at your job. That’s the only way to get better at writing. I know because I’ve read author interviews. They usually say three things:

  1. Read 1,000 novels.
  2. Study your market.
  3. Write.

Except, that’s a way.

Go back to when you were a child. When you were trying to grasp what all those confusing letters and sounds were. Think about what you did to get better. You attended class, studied a textbook, listened to radio shows, watched TV, wrote in your journal, sent letters to a friend, told stories to co-workers, played video games, gave speeches on topics you hated, read comics, completed difficult to understand government paperwork, laughed at memes and gifs. You did all of these things. And all of them were done to a less than perfect standard. All of them were practice. You practiced so could communicate better with your loved ones. So they could understand you and what you meant. You did all of these things so when you had a conversation, people grasped what you were discussing.

As an adult, it’s easy to forget that enjoying a Japanese comic is just as much practice as drilling phrases. It doesn’t fit in that neat cuboid. Listening to a podcast, writing a letter to my in-laws, expressing my opinion about a movie, watching a dumb variety show … all are exercises of the alternative sort.

Writing is the same. What is writing? It’s communication. It’s taking something in your head and conveying it to a wide audience. That’s all it is.

Do you know where you can practice that? Emails. Letters to friends. Journal entries. Blog posts. Skype chat.

Want your characters to be funnier? Try making some jokes with your friends.

Want to learn how to describe a scene? Write a review about a concert event.

Need a better way of being poetic? Try your hand at songwriting. Or creating a different version of your favourite band’s tunes.

It’s all communication. Eventually those skills you hone in life will work their way into your stories.

I often forget that. I love my boxes, but now I’m trying to drown them in a the waters of the orange cosmos.

Passive Practice is Overrated

You ever met that person who loves to talk about talent? They take off their monocle and snort, only a little, out of their petite nose. Then they proceed to lecture everybody within earshot about how you need to read to be a good writer. And the reason you (or your friend) is not very good at writing is that you haven’t read enough.

I don’t disagree that writers need to read. How much I’m not sure, and what constitutes ‘reading’ is up for debate as well. News articles? Monthly magazines? Chat conversations on-line? Book reviews? Essays about political topics? Comics? Scripts?

The thing is I’ve yet to meet a teacher who is excellent because they’ve only read a lot of teaching textbooks. And if passive practice was all we needed then there would never be a bad parent. We could assign them the 50 best parenting books and look forward to never hearing a screaming infant again.

As a language student, as a person who has had to start from scratch and then scratch again, it becomes woefully clear that listening, speaking, reading and writing are four very different skills. If I want to speak well, I can’t just listen to others. I need to speak. I fail, flop around with my words and blurt incomprehensible sentences, but I have to. If I don’t, I will never speak well. I have to do it worse before I can do it better.

Writing is the same. If I want to get good at expressing my thoughts on a page then I have to put them down. If want to learn to write drama scenes, I can read the top 500 of them over and over, but until I start putting quill to parchment, I’m not going to get better at writing them.

Take my language study as an example. I learn about four new phrases a chapter. It takes me, perhaps, 1-2 minutes to read them and understand them. Then I practice those same structures for 10 hours. I practice them by writing them down, by speaking them out loud, by listening to them on the CD. Do you know what happens after those 10 hours?

I’m still not fluent. I still communicate poorly with my in-laws.

{Sad Face.}

So when someone in your writing group says, “You haven’t learnt how to dialogue tag correctly.” How long do you think it’s going to take for you to master that skill?

Do you really believe that by reading a few books and writing for 3-4 hours you’re going to master dialogue tags? Or dialogue?

No?

Which means you should stop reading this completely and go and write for 10 more hours. Like I should be studying harder.

{10 hypothetical hours later}

The basics are the most important thing you’ll ever learn. 

I love shiny things. I love new things. I embrace dancing sloths on top of rhomboid aliens more than anything.

It’s why language study is hard for me. See, I don’t want to do the basics anymore. I want to dress my literature up with pirates and forcefield cannons that emote over bitter divorces. For movies, there should be long dissections that discuss theoretical constructs and symbolism.

Instead, I’m in the corner struggling to explain where the lamp is. Every class is, “I had a good time at bad camp. It was cold. It was wet. Let us go to band came next week.”

Where’s the fun in it? Where’s the zesty zinger of a fantasy mind?

In books, why do I have to know how to spell? Or proper grammar? (Seriously, fuck grammar.) Why should I learn, re-learn and learn once more all about topic sentences and ‘show, don’t tell’? Why do I have to keep going back to the beginning to start once more?

‘Cause, with these skills, with these phrases, we can build cathedrals of words. We can carve out a universe full of gooey life that clings to people’s souls.

Eventually.

Writing is no different. At first, y’know, you try to make it esoteric. To skip past all the ‘boring’ bits like plotting and world building and planning. Except that’s where it’s at. Sitting down with a pen and learning how to describe a room effectively. How to evoke mood and write decent dialogue. How to structure a paragraph so it’s not too long. How to cut unnecessary words.

All these things that we learned in 101 Writing. We will do them 100 times, then we will do them 100 more times.  Yes, they’re boring. Yes planning is awful, but essential. Yes, re-reading grammar rules suck. Yet, these are what makes us better. These are what elevate us to the cosmos where our finger tips stretch back in time and touch the big bang.

Or you could just write more. Write until your fingers bleed and your brain is in synch with the cosmos. Anything that works really.

Image: Student (C) stillkost. Used under Standard License from US Dollar Photo. 

Writing Tips Part 1 (Your reader in-house)

It’s the end of the year so I thought I’d give those budding writers out there some not-so-pro tips about writing. I’m going to do this in three sections: as a reader, as a language student and as a writer. I can also do it as a top-hat wearing movie addict, but I thought that was too much. Although, after deep introspection, how does one know if they don’t try?

That’s enough intro though. Let’s get down to it.

Part 1: The Reader.

 

Long debut novels are not (this) reader’s friend. 

There’s no way to be empathetic about this so I’ll just say it: there are a lot of good authors out there. From the classics, Jane Austen, to the modern classics, Kurt Vonnegut, to the current Japanese sci-fi authors being translated, Project Itoh, there are numerous people I want to read. There are perspectives from immigrant cultures, feminist writers, non-feminist women and hard-core right believers that are all profound and are all waiting to be enjoyed. And that’s just in novels, that’s before we get to non-fiction.

I don’t have enough time in the day. I don’t have enough time in my life.

And, here’s the thing, I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy your work until I read it. Sure, I skim the pages. I read the blurb. I raise my hipster glasses and snort my nose at your sweat and soul. However, I have no concept if I’m going to like it until I’m flicking through the pages on the train and imagination deep in your land of elves with laser rifles fighting zombie sharks.

Even if you’re super famous (and critically acclaimed), your thing of beauty might turn out to be zirconia in my hands. You can scream, you can yell, and beat the keyboard that I’m wrong but it doesn’t matter. In my house, in my tiny world, the only opinion that counts is mine.

And if I think your book is boring, then it is. A boring novel that I’m stuck with until I finish it. All 590 pages of your morbid, self-congratulatory text. All that time wasted which I could’ve spent, I don’t know, reading someone else.

Even a novel that’s mediocre-to-decent can turn infuriating after 200 extra leafs of prose. Here’s an example, I loved Catch-22, for the first 400 pages. Then I wanted it to be over. Except it didn’t end. It went on and on and on and on. Maybe the story needed those extra pages, maybe the narrative wouldn’t have been as satisfying without the additional troubles Yossarian goes through. Who knows? All I know is that I don’t want to read another Joseph Heller novel.

So, let me ask you a question. Do you believe you’re a better writer than Joseph Heller? Do you believe, with your whole soul, that your prose and wit is elevated beyond his? Cause he’s a damn fine author. If not, cut those pages. Cut your first novel into the tiniest of sizes.

Do you know whose books I love? Whose books I not only want to return to but crave? Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse-five (215 pages). Cat’s Cradle (206 pages). 

Do you know who else rips me to emotional shreds? George Orwell. 1984 (328 pages.)

Sapphire. Push (192 pages.)

I look at a 400+page novel with a sigh and a hint of resignation now. It affects my purchase choices too. As much as I love new authors (and I do, there’s so many freshly printed names on my shelf space at home), I hesitate when they creep over 400 pages. This means if your book is not super duper awesomely recommended, it gets the pass over. It gets the sigh and added to the bottom of the list.

This is from a person who (outside of comics and Harry Potter) hardly buys a second book from the same author. You may not think that counts, but it does. I’m not hanging out for my favourites, I’m willing to wade through sublime awful to get to that great tome by a debut novelist. As long as it’s under that word count.

My shelf is not infinite in size, width or depth. 

I don’t understand the book-marketing machine. There’s a chance that the Big 5 or 6 or 3 have some magical data analysis I don’t, but I as the Kindle has come to dominate the market, I doubt it. What I don’t understand is why so many of their books are of such varying sizes. Novels go from the tiny to the gigantic.

Why?

Do they think I’m a wizard that can change the size of my bookcase? Or do they think I’ll buy an entirely different bookcase to meet their new marketing strategies’ needs? Is their arrogance so all encompassing they imagine we use books for furniture? Large art tomes for the tabletop, inspirational / quote books for the legs?

Here it is: my shelf is 21 cm high. That’s tall enough for a DVD to fit into, tall enough for my Xbox One games and tall enough for my comics. There’s very little empty space between any of these and the bottom of the next shelf. It’s perfect. I can fit a lot of things in this space and it makes my apartment look tidy. Why should a book be any different?

Your novel shouldn’t be any larger than that. If you want me to keep it, make it 20cm. Hell, if you want me to buy it, you should make it 20 cm. I look at larger novels now with suspicion. I don’t know where I’m going to store them while they wait to be read. I don’t know where I’m going to put them (if they’re any good) after I’ve finished. So I just don’t pick them up anymore.

Maybe you like the larger look. Maybe you think it’s a ‘coffee table’ manuscript. Maybe you just want to irritate me. That’s fine, make it bigger. Make it 40cm high. Make it 100 feet high. Do what you want. However, if you’re an indie author trying to sell a few then think about where the uni student is going to store it. Where’s the outspoken female reader going to keep your fantastic adventure when she moves in with five other young women in New York? Where’s the father of two living in a small 1 bedroom, 2 bathroom going to stash your rip-rolling tale of love and abandonment when he has all his daughters things to find a place for?

Contemplate on these people’s lives before you decide on the size of your tome.

The bed is not my reading friend.

At home I have many things to engage me. You may not like this, you may believe the written word is the highest form of art, but that’s in your house. In mine, I have a best-friend and partner who teases me and shares about her day. I have unfinished Xbox One games. I have unwatched movies bought years ago and Netflix.  There are shows I want to watch one more time, comedy hits on YouTube and iTunes music videos I love to scroll through. There’s TripleJ. There’s iMac apps.

Hell, there’s my writing. This blog. My Japanese study. There are things that I don’t even want to do like washing dishes and ironing shirts. All of those time sinks listed above gurgle with my chronos as it washes down them.

Yes, I do read at home. This is true. But only for the best. Only for most powerful and dynamic of word creators (see part 1 of this essay), or if I’m hate reading. Could be either really.

Where I truly read though is on the train. I get 40 minutes one-way. 40 minutes crammed up against some sweaty office worker who is as disgruntled as I am. I’m not reading to enjoy it (although I am), I’m reading primarily to escape. To escape from the 40 minutes and the bodies hard-pressed against me. I’m reading because I hate wasting time when it could be used better.

This is where your precious literature is consumed. Not by some elegant, yet down-to-earth, top-10% grad student who came from a humble background but still has enough money to go to Harvard. Not by a person with a slow smile, seductive walk and gangly arms. On the train, shoved against an overweight woman who isn’t sure why she had kids 13 years ago.

I do this because crap fiction is easier to read in 40-minute periods. I do this because it’s the only time I can spend focussed on a single world. I do this because … I think devouring ego-shattering ideas should be done without an escape hatch.

So, here’s the thing. Your novel should be designed for that reader. For the person who carries it. The person who trudges up and down the stairs in the rain and on humid days. I don’t care about your novel’s paper quality. Even though I’m a hobbyist typographer, I don’t care if the pages are 80gsm or 110gsm. I’m going to read your work and cram it on the shelf next to everything else I own. It’s going to be manhandled and mistreated.

I care very little about your precious love for the look of the work. I may not like the Kindle version because they hurt my eyes, but I like books that are heavy and awkward to lug around even less.

I read about so much hand-wringing in online communities when authors discuss ‘book quality’ and ‘production values’. What’s the right font? The right width to make it look good? The right paper thickness? For some sophisticated readers that might be a thing. Perhaps it is. Unfortunately for this pleb, none of that matters.

I ask if it’s cheap, if it’s expendable, durable and portable. If you’re designing a POD book (and I recommend you do because that’s how I purchase mine now), think about those things. The book industry forgot where its readers consume their material long ago and look where it got them. I recommend not forgetting it yourself  You might just pick up a new reader.

Introspection is not depth.

Let’s finish on something more friendly: story and character. I’ve read two books this year, Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the author(s) seem(s) to have gotten lost on the path of introspection.

It’s difficult to describe story, motivation and character. Cthulhu knows better writers and teachers have tried. It’s almost impossible to discover that sweet (and billion dollar) spot for people to love your work, but one thing’s for sure, having the main character describe their thoughts about something to the reader does not make it profound or deep.

It does not make me sympathise more with the main character either. The character must do something. They must take their knowledge that they’ve discovered by their inner-gaze and turn it into a weapon of action.

This is what motivates me to read on. It’s what galvanises me as a person to turn the page. Precious is introspective. She sees the world through her lens, but each revelation jolts the story forward. It tells us about her friends, her family, her obstacles. We see the way she navigates them (or fails to) because of her thought process.

In Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms we get to read a lot of thoughts that are just that … thoughts. Sure, they’re good thoughts. They might even be well-written thoughts, but as Stephen King said, “It’s supposed to be good. That’s your job.” You shouldn’t bore the reader with a character’s thoughts because they’re well written, that’s not what’s important. Do they add to the character? Do they layer them more? Do they change the course of the plot?

No?

Then out they go.

They’re not deep. They’re not profound. They’re not worth anything. They are a racket or static which distracts from the important parts of your symphony. They are the long lulls that make me disengage with the text because nothing is happening. If I want to hear a teenage girl’s thoughts without story, I’ll go talk to a teenage girl. If I want to hear a left-wing group of young women discuss gender politics, I’ll read Jezebel. It’Il be both more interesting and more enlightening  When I read a novel, I want those characters to be part of a story, a statement, a hook, an arc, and that means cutting things. It means making sure their voices add to the wild road of the narrative instead of overriding it.

Otherwise, what am I reading your work for? I should watch a documentary instead.

(Image by: CrazyMedia. Licensed under Dollar Photo Club’s Standard Agreement.)

The Inevitable Screech of the Bourgeois

I believe — though I have no empirical data to prove this — every writer / writing critic / reader eventually encounters the inexplicable-author-success story. Perhaps you know of what I speak? The best-selling novellist who cannot write. Goddammit!

Their prose is archaic yet filled with jargon. Everything is too vague despite all the details. Women exclaim, introverts prance and characters stutter through their consonants as if they’re speaking for their first time. Worse still, everyone’s racist, sexist, leftist, rightist, downist, upist and topped-to-the-brim with idealogical fervor.

A true reader — you, me and your neighbour’s cat wouldn’t touch it. We wouldn’t embrace those kinds of terrible, torrid and torturous pamphlets of pettiness, would we? I say NO to you good ma’am, no we will not.

And yet the words “New York Times Best-seller” adorne the crisp card holding those printed vowels together.

“Why?” you cry to the ceiling at Big W. “Why have the masses failed us so?”

Today it’s Stephen King’s turn. Apparently, and to my surprise, he can’t write very well. He uses the word “mazelike” and also “steep”. He also utters this phrase  in Mr. Mercedes:

“When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting”

Michael Conniff argues that the descriptors used in this passage are too vague.  Too simplistic. What kind of auditorium? Red, pink, blue? 19 doors?  How steep? 16 degrees? 17?

He posits (let’s fancy it up on this blog) that Stephen King isn’t a good writer because he doesn’t respect words. And words are the basis of writing. As such, Mr. King has clearly violated the nobellious (go with me here) writerius decree or some such and should hand in his literary card.

He clearly shouldn’t have assembled (and published!) a book about the craft.

Firstly, I’ve read On Writing — right to the end, and the advice on how to put nouns and verbs one after each other recently. I can’t recall where he’s anti-words. There’s a section where he shows how an author can be effective with simple, or literary phrases. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to how your love of vocabulary shouldn’t overtake the story element of a novel. How sounding smart and communicating well are two different things.

Let’s put all of my opinions on the luminous-bench of public judgement: I found Steven King’s handling of our current erudite legacy very even-handed. He advocated that anything goes, that you should speak from your truth, and use any literary tool as is your won’t AS LONG AS it doesn’t get in the way of the story. (A big but, if there ever was one.)

 Clearly, I’m sympathetic to Steven. Friends even.

Secondly though, I support Michael’s frustration with those he deems are not worthy of their financial success. I too have a cadre (a whole cadre!) of authors that have achieved a measure of success I am uncomfortable with. Woeful, wonky, wretched yarns they spew. Yarns that have beguiled the reading public all the while reaping their creators nothing less than wads of yuan.

Alone (yet in unison with Michael) I stand in front of the ‘great’ legacy of printed documents and fend off the uninvited. Who do they think they are? Popular support does not a classic make.

Obviously, I’m in solidarity with Michael’s hypothesis. Chummy even.

Except …

As someone who has penned two tomes (a fictional biography! a fantasy!)  that exist in relative obscurity  I must concede that, perhaps, it is my pride showing. A dash of green flicking beneath the collar. It took me a while, but I got there.

See, no matter what technical flaws I believe those books (and writers) have, they had something I didn’t. An ability to connect. An ability to connect with an audience I did not. (And perhaps do not at the moment.)

And, in finality, when you think about it — isn’t that what a writer does? Communicate? John talks. Kazuki runs. Smith gambols. Do I need to know how fast? How quick? How well? Surely all I need to know is what’s happening to John, Kazuki and Smith.

Do all these tools in my toolbox even matter if my truth on the page fails to reverberate with the reader? Isn’t everything else dressing? Do people really pick up a novel to find out the width, colour, height and style of a man’s chin? Am I paying $3 or $5 or $19.95 to discover new English words?

Or is it because I want to know why the slovenly man, with gun poised, decides to ramble about the CIA into a reporter’s camera?

Or, like all flawed thinkers, am I wrong? Is the story supreme, or only another topping to be served on a lexicon of lifting lights?

Where Things Are

So, it’s been a long, quiet summer. A long, quiet spring. A long, quiet year.

This is the point where I stand up and declare … a new book is out! Buy now! But, alas, that’s not what this post is about.

You may not know this, but I write under pseudonym. Kenneth A. Mugi is not my real name. It’s a play on my last name in Japanese with my grandfather’s first name slipped in. I used it (instead of my own) because I wrote a semi-autobiographical story in The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer. I needed the protection an alias provided. I didn’t think about it much beyond that in all honesty.

I wasn’t in this for the cash. I was in this for the rage. Not the rage of being an indie author, but because I was enraged. I was mad at work, mad at life, and I took that fury and wrote. I write when I’m angry. I write when I’m spitting sinister soliloquies under the night sky. I take the darkness churning in my soul and use it to scream words until I can tie my imagination down in paper form.

Back then I wrote because … I could. Before The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer, I’d written 3 novels and an anthology of short stories during my time at uni. Before the internet revolution happened, before there was a place to market them. So I knew I could do it, hell, I’d already done it.

Let’s not mince words though, they were awful. Eye destroying, burnt out crap which would’ve been mocked in the slush pile. Someone has a copy of them somewhere, I feel sorry for them. I wish to avert their eyes and promise I’ll get better. That I am better.

So I wrote and edited in a rage, and my job didn’t change. So I wrote some more. I wrote a supernatural YA. Got a good review for it too. (Thanks Midu.) I wrote the sequel and didn’t like it. My wife (who is my before-market critic) didn’t like it either. So it got shelved. I wrote a high-fantasy novel.

In total, I probably wrote around 240,000 words or something that year. I honestly don’t know know how much because some of the edits were extensive and I don’t add edits in my word counts.

Despite my delusions that I would get rich and swim in greenbacks (things that I knew were delusions), I didn’t think any of it through. I was a mad rapper with a corner block and a voice that hollered.

Yet, I joined a writer’s group soon after that because … I met the President of a writer’s group during the course of my job and she was … really nice. Amazingly nice. You don’t meet people that nice very often. And she was kind and invited me.

So I went. And I took my bag of anxiety with me.  And I met people. Let’s say most of them were nice. Let’s say a couple of them were nice at the start, but turned into something else at the end. Let’s say that overall, despite some really not great experiences with (only) a couple of people there, I had a pretty good time overall. I still do. I still love my writer’s group.

Will do it again. Heart them all, even the two I had conflicts with.

The thing is … and this is the thing … when you write for no reason, when you invest your time and energy in something to escape your demons, some people don’t understand that. They’ve got their goals, they’ve got their ambitions and their targets. They have all these plans, and you’re not… you’re not playing the same game. And if you have any skill (which in my case is debatable), somehow they don’t know what to do with you. It’s as if you’re a mercenary who heads into a combat but doesn’t ask for coin when payment is due.

That kind of action is stupid to them. They need to help you. They need to put you on a path. The righteous path, the path laid with silver. That path filled with gold.

Except, I was on a path. I didn’t know it then, but I was on a path out of my inner hell and they were trying to turn me around. They wanted me to trudge back to the demon dog and steal its purse.

They almost got there, and who knows, maybe it would’ve been for the best.  Maybe I’d be rich now. The problem is / was I’m stubborn. I know this. I’m stubborn because I’m cynical and I’m cynical because the world is shrouded in fog.  People even more so. Self-awareness about this doesn’t excuse me, it just means that I know part of myself and I live with it. Like I live with all the demons screaming in my mind. The thing is when you tell someone that X is part of you, you need them to believe you.

You are asking them to draw lines around the activities they want you to undertake and when they don’t, when they continue to push you against your will, you give in and let that cold core become you.

You get mad, you get angry, you get furious and yell at the stars in the heavens because you’ve opened your heart to them so that they don’t accidently put in a situation which could push you to your breaking point. And if you’re like me, then in these hours you write.

The seas of tumult become nothing more than words etched through the lines of the cosmos. You see nothing, you hear nothing but the faint whispering of the fantasy land. When you sweep your net into the sea of ideas, it comes back full. Nanowrimo? Fuck that shit. Finish it in a week.

I wrote the first draft of The Salvation of Yellow in 7 days. I wrote a 50,000 novel in 3 weeks while working a 16-hour-a-day job and with only 3 hours of sleep a day.

Because I was mad. Because I was going to tear through the universe and put my foot down God’s throat.

And when that same someone decided to be an asshole to me because, y’know, they didn’t uphold their end of a bargain they’d made with me, and I was being pulled apart by the cosmos, I just gave up. I dismantled everything I had to do with them and drifted.

The thing is … I’m still drifting. Sure, I finished The Salvation of Yellow, but that was mostly due to latent fury. I’m not consumed with a tinge of red now, I’m here. I’m being more careful with my triggers, I’m keeping my barriers higher and my vigilance keener. I’ve learned. Perhaps.

Yet the problem is that in this “good” state, a state where I can live, I don’t write. I don’t edit. I don’t need to run and hide and trundle into fantasies. I work on practical things. The things that have to be done.

Right now I live in Japan and if you’ve read any of my acknowledgements you’ve probably figured out that my wife is Japanese. It’s likely we’ll be here for a while. Perhaps forever which means I need to work on my (dismal) Japanese. That’s a more important life goal than creating novels which may or may not succeed.

Being a good teacher (the profession I earn my dollars from) is another excellent practical goal. Practical, cynical. Me.

Losing weight, spending time with my wife: all important things. Reading books, playing video games: all good things.

And the Kenneth A. Mugi name, it doesn’t quite work. It does, but it doesn’t. I don’t want to write under my name. I think there’s a narcissistic danger in that. Yet, I do want to write and Kenneth A. Mugi is great, but he needs to be separate from the genres I create.

With that in mind, I launched an experiment based on the idea that a traditional, white male name would obtain more sales. Actually, the idea that a white name would obtain more sales. And, I’ve got to say, they were right.

I released the same novel: The Salvation of Yellow, under two different names and with two different titles.

Alexa Robertson: Borrowed Gods

William J. Grant: The God Thief

They didn’t do well, not by a long stretch, but The God Thief outsold Borrowed Gods by about 2:1. And Borrowed Gods outsold The Salvation of Yellow by about 3:1.

To whatever side of the debate you’re on that data can mean a lot of things. What it does mean, however, is that I need to switch things up. I need to make some changes.

As such, here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. Kenneth A. Mugi will be used for stories based on my biography. Tales set in real life. It will also be used for short stories with my writing group because … why change now?
  2. Alexa Robertson will become my Y.A. / contemporary issue persona. I’m not sure what I’ll write under her, but eventually He was a hero will be re-released under her name.
  3. William J. Grant will be the sci-fi fantasy guy. I’ll start transferring all the fantasy titles under him soon. For the next few months though, I’ll keep my little experiment going and see what the results turn up.

Also, I’m going to go black for a while. Not on this site, but in regards to novel and novellas being published. I want to have a series of works to release within a certain time window. A novella a month or something like that. I doubt this will lead to increased sales and writerly freedom, but I want to do it right. I want to take a few extra months and have everything prepared for a tight launch.

Why? Why am I telling you all this? Simply because it’s unlikely I’m going to get angry again. Those days are over and I have to be realistic: this is who I am, this is who’ve always been. And this is what I can bring to the writing world. I wish it was more, but my hands are small and my skills meagre.

A big thank you to Midu (if you’re reading this) who took a chance on my works and reviewed them. I didn’t expect such good reviews (although I hoped for them), but I got them and they helped give me the confidence to continue.  Thanks.

A big shout out goes to Allan Walsh as well. Like his site, enjoy his journey. He’s a great guy and gives great feedback.

Also, a big thank you to the 99% of the writing crew I roll with and still roll with. You’re beyond awesome, stay sweet.

Trahern

(Kenneth A. Mugi)

P.S: The good news? I’ve created some bad-ass covers over the years. Check them out:

(All stock images are licensed from Dollar Photo Club. Copyright of their respective creators. Stock images were purchased under the Standard Royalty License Agreement and modified by myself.)

Darkest-Depths Borrowed Gods V1 -- Alexa Robertson

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All Your Isms (or Ics)

At some point in  your writing career (today, tomorrow, after you’ve died), someone is going to say your work is sexist, racist or homophobic. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re peering into your work and discovering uncomfortable truths about themselves that they don’t like. Critics of Something Positive might run along those lines.

Unfortunately, they’re not often far from the mark.

“This isn’t true,” you might declare. “I’m not sexist. I’m not racist. I think of everyone equally. I just write racist characters. Some folk are simply over sensitive.”

Sure. Some people are. Centuries of being denied promotions, having a campaign of domestic violence inflicted against your ancestors, and being cyber-stalked might do that. Hundreds of years of exploitation, state violence against your neighbours and your family might lead to you being a ‘touch’ on the angry side too.

However, structural sexism / racism is a vile thing. It’s this worm that gets in you, winds itself through your thought process and is almost impossible to remove. Once it’s in there, it whispers and says, “This is normal. This is how the world is, this is how things are. Everything else is a lie. All those other perspective are distortions. Mistruths.”

It’s why Lena Durham wrote a show about women in NYC with only white female characters and still won’t accept that maybe she’s got a racist spore somewhere in her body. It’s why there are 22 women in The Wise Man’s Fear and hundreds of male ones, but Patrick Rothfuss is not quite convinced he’s got a piece of that icky lurking in his profound heart.

Hey, let’s face it, that’s the way the world is, right? And, if we’re really truthful with ourselves, we can’t sympathise with a racist character. As a post-racial / sexual human, we get all angry and shit about those racist / sexist / homophobic white, male folk out there who demean others. We hate them so much. We will punch any book that contains those characters in the cover.

Unless it’s Ready Player One. Or Brooklyn Nine Nine. Or Old Man’s War.  Or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Or Twilight. Or Tomb Raider. Or… Or…

I’m going to start with Ready Player One because it was heralded by the Daily Mail as the stand out sci-fi novel of 2011. It has an endorsement from Terry freakin’ Pratchett. From feminist / activist John Scalzi himself. A man, who despite fighting for women rights every other second, tells me I need to experience a nerdgasm over this work.

What is it though? Ready Player One features six main characters. Parzival (male), Art3mis (female), Aech (male), Daito (male), Shoto (male) and Sorrento (male). You can see from that list alone there’s a problem.

“But Daito and Shoto are Japanese!” you might exclaim. “So it’s ok. Minorities!”

Sure. Oh, by the way, SPOILER ALERT! because that’s the turf we need to go to.

Firstly, there is no reason why Daito and Shoto couldn’t have been female characters and female avatars. I know a number of super Japanese geeks who happen to be women. It’s pretty common. It’s not rare. Why do they both have to be male? Why didn’t the entire editing division of Random House say that he needs to switch their genders?  It wouldn’t have been that hard, they only have about twenty lines of dialogue between them.

(Did you know that 9/13 people involved with this project at the  original publisher were women? It tells us so in the acknowledgements.)

Secondly, Parzival (the protagonist) spends the whole time getting hero worshipped by Shoto. Shoto can’t revenge his brother? No worries, the white guy will sort that out. A rare pill that could’ve helped Shoto with his quest is given to the pale-skinned dude from the U.S. by Daito because, hey, that’s how the world should work.

Ignoring that small slice of white racial supremacy which crept into the text, let’s have a look at Art3mis and Parzival’s relationship. Art3mis is a famous gunter who writes a popular blog about the quest they’re both on. Our main man has an infatuation with her. That’s fine. We all have crushes. He then proceeds to cyber-stalk her, which again, kind of fine. It happens. Guys do that, Google it.

Except instead of freaking out and never talking to him again, Art3mis responds and they become besties. Not only that, but at the end of the story she admits that when she suggested splits-ville it was a mistake and she’s so sorry. Hey, why not? Parzival’s such an awesome guy. Who knew that the random, cyber-stalking, privacy snooping, crazy-man fan would turn into such a compassionate guy? All you have to do is just give in. Let him kiss you.

Not only does she serve as his motivation, love interest and digital helper, but the story treats this situation as if no other male has ever done this before. As if this activity is a good idea. As if cyber-stalking (done with the best of intentions) is ok.

No, it’s not ok. It is never ok. If you want to freak out about the stalker-abuse relationship in Twilight that’s fine, but you’ll also need to write long-winded posts about the same issues in Ready Player One too. 80s nostalgia doesn’t make it all go away. Computer generated worlds set in the future don’t change ethics, bro.

Which leaves us with Aech, the totes awesome friend. So this is a weird one. You have a male avatar, who acts like a male avatar, yet who is actually an African-American female. (Let’s ignore the issue of all the characters, who are nineteen / twenty, acting like 13-year-olds for the moment. Or forever. It’s a different issue.) This secret is revealed right at the end and Parzival gets upset as he thinks he’s been betrayed. Which is strange because the world is full of people who look like aliens. Some avatars have six arms, others are hundreds of feet tall. Would he have gotten upset if she’d been a six-hundred pound, wobbly, extra-terrestrial but then he discovered she’d been an Indian American from Oklahoma?

Is that the worst part this reveal? Probably not. This reveal is normalising whiteness. It’s saying that if you can create any character, you should generate one that’s white and male (even in the year 2044) because it will be the standard identity for everybody in the future. Where’s the multi-ethnic Earth we all dream of? The effect of the growing Asian economic powerhouses? The changing demographics of our society?

Forget it, let’s brush past all that terrible universe building. If famous authors can give it the thumbs up, so can I. Except, something else happens. Parzival struggles to accept the real identity of Aech. Even though she’s identified herself as an African American lesbian, that’s too much for our hero. Even though she explained the only reason her avatar is white and male is to appease people like Parzival and get them to treat her normally, he strips her of real identity in the next few pages. He calls her a male. He removes her agency and re-labels her with an artificial name that’s socially acceptable to him.

Acceptable to the reader. 

To us. 

Did I miss the outrage? The part where message boards were lit up describing how cyber-stalking is not an acceptable behaviour? Where warping someone’s real life personality into something else you’re more comfortable with is not just uncool, but also an atrocious and unacceptable social act?

Ok. Ready Player One and I have issues together. We’re not friends. We don’t sleep in the same room any more.

Let’s glance over at Brooklyn Nine Nine. I love Brooklyn Nine Nine. It’s witty, it’s funny, it makes me laugh. My wife and I spend hours chortling it up with the crew.

It also can’t change the fact that Jake Parelta (a character I adore) is a little sexist, maybe a little racist. Sure, it’s accidental racism. And certainly, it seems the writers have deliberately constructed him that way. They know what they’re doing.

Still, when people rush out and say, “You can’t like a racist character,” it’s a big statement. We do. All the time. 

Let’s take two situations. One is Parelta’s use of ‘boy’. Boy is not a good term to use for any grown man. It’s infantilizing them. It’s reducing them to something less than they are. When you use it to refer to African American man though, it carries a lot more history and bigotry with it. It is dredging up a past where if you were white, you could use the threat of state-sponsored terror to force a person of colour to do what you want. Or else.

Jake uses this controversial phrase several times to refer to his boss, Captain Ray Holt. This is despite the fact the Captain has specifically advised Parelta to never call him boy.

Secondly, Jake slyly disrespects Amy Santiago. Sure, it looks innocent enough. A joke here and there about her sex life, the way he doesn’t do what she wants when she asks and how he’s always poking at her for her seriousness. They’re friends? Right? That’s how things go down.

Yet then there’s the way he’s uncomfortable with her having relationships outside of his sphere of control because he likes her. Not enough to admit this, but just enough to keep trying to passive-aggressively dominate her life.

Fortunately, the show pushes back against these ideas — and hard — it knows that these actions are hurtful and makes Jake Parelta the butt of the jokes for being…sexist and racist. If those words make you a might uncomfortable, that’s fine, we can call him immature. A man-boy. A character with father issues.

We can keep smudging the real undercurrent of why he’s doing those things with external factors until the reality of his isms against others go away.

“He’s misunderstood,” some might cry. “He’s complex,” other straw-people might say.

Yes, he is. Yes, he’s one of my favourite characters. (Along with Captain Ray Holt and Rosa Diaz.) But, part of that complexity is that he’s a little racist and a tad sexist.

So, structural sexism. It’s real. It’s as real as the Earth is round and the sky exists. The worst part, perhaps the most terrifying aspect, is that it isn’t going to dissolve in us. We can’t snap our fingers, spin around three times, and have it disappear.

It’s our worldview, it’s buried deep inside of our identity about how things are. How things should be. How the world works. It is there in the micro-seconds we assess people, and the fraction of a moment before we open our mouth to reply to a person’s comment. It haunts us as we write, as we create, and as we breathe.

There’s a way to fight it though. It’s not easy. It’s not the simple path of virtue and long-winded speeches. It’s this: to admit you’ve got it. To admit that somewhere, hidden inside your construct of humanity, is a dash of sexism, homophobia and racism. To realise that it isn’t going away and you’re going to have to fight against those things until you die.

I do it. Most times I fail. I craft a character or write a scene and realise it’s full of a culture that puts white males at the peak of the hierarchy. That says it’s ok to objectify and silence LGBTI folk, women and people of colour. I err, but I know that I do that. I know that can be my default mode when I’m not careful, so I go back over everything and check it for structural issues. I ask not what kind of society the book should be set in to appeal to the current culture, but what kind of society should it be set in to encourage true equality.

And even then I fall, stumble and find my pen gushing out things that hold us tight to the old world order. Yet I fight — badly and inadequately — to conquer myself.

How about you? Are you willing to enter the fray? To do battle against your greatest opponent? The dark-self hiding in the mirror world?

The world is waiting.

Diversifying Your Reading

I read a blog post, a few months back, about how we generally purchase and consume authors who are the same gender as us. The argument went that if you were a man then it was likely you’d buy 90% male authors and only 10% female writers.

The study implied the opposite was also true: a female reader would procure 90% female authors, but just a mere 10% male wordsmiths would end up in her shopping basket. As you can probably guess both of these situations are problematic. They’re challenging for authors who wish to include male and female perspectives in their works but primarily only read one side of the continuum, and an issue for those of us grasping at empathy without a solid foundation of the other gender’s point of view.

So, I took up the challenge. I became more conscious of my book choices and looked more critically at the author’s name and life experiences before walking the tome to the till.  At first, I thought it was going to be easy. I mean, it’s just swapping out one fantasy author who is male for  one who is a female. Simple, right?

It wasn’t though. Perhaps you’re smarter than I am and have already guessed the problems, but one of things that I didn’t expect was that the blurbs on the back of the (white) male novels seemed much more in line with what I wanted to read. There was some violence, a little bit of banter and a rip-roaring ride. Tragically, the blurbs on the back of female writers’ works (or, at least the ones I perused) were more focussed on relationships. In some cases, forbidden love.

So, it took more work to find female authors that I thought would be interesting. Or (at the very least) informative for me to read. How have I done so far? Let’s see:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (M)
Jarhead by Anthony Swofford (M)
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (F)
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (F)
Tesla by W. Bernard Carlson (M)
The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi (M)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (M)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (F)
Capital by Thomas Piketty (M)
A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia (M)
On Book Design by Richard Hendel (M)
All Over Him by Casey Chase (F)
1001 First Lines by Scarlett Archer (F)
The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry (F)
Elis Royd by Ron Sanders (M)
Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher (M)
Winter by S.D. Rasheed (F)
Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe (M)
Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle (M)
Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis (M)
The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg (F)
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (F)
The Purposeful Classroom by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (MF)
Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa (M)
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (F)

  • Total Number of Works: 25
  • Total Number of Male Only Works: 14 / 25
  • Total Number of Female Only Works: 10/25
  • Total Number of Male & Female Works: 1 / 25
  • Percentage of Female Authors Read: 40%

That’s super depressing. Even though I was working on reading more female authors (ones I thought would be interesting!), I still selected males 60% of the time. And you have no idea how many male-written works I put back on the shelf because I checked their names and realised I’d picked up yet another masculine-filled tome.

In my head, I’d thought I’d done so well (definitely over 50%!) so I relaxed a little and purchased the rest of this year’s reading. Here’s the full list:

The Chieko Poems by Takamura Kotaro (halfway) (M)(G)
2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke (M)
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith  (M)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemsin (F)
HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean (M)
Forbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson (M)
Basilica of the Sagrada Familia (Corporate)(MF) (G)
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (F)
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (F)
Wool by Hugh Howey (M)
Ready Player One by Ernest Clive (M)
On Writing by Stephen King (halfway) (M)
Pacific Rift by Michael Lewis (M)
Acid Row by Minette Walters (F)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (F)
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (M)
Speculative Japan by Various Writers (MF)
The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (MF)
Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (M)
Understanding Iran by William Polk (M)
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (M)
Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (F)
Distortion by Jesse Duplantais (M) (G)
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello (M)
Unmerited Favour by Joseph Prince (M) (G)
Body of Secrets by James Bamford (almost finished) (M)

  • Total Number of Works: 26
  • Total Number of Male Only Works: 17 / 26
  • Total Number of Female Only Works: 6 /26
  • Total Number of Male & Female Works: 3 / 26
  • Percentage of Female Authors to Read: 23%

NOTE: (G) indicates that the book is a gift from a friend / family member.

Are you super bummed? I’m super bummed too. The worst part is that I’m winning. I’m 13% ahead of the average.

Even if I’m generous to myself and say that I include the female co-authors while removing the gift books that still only makes it 8/22. Or 36%.

*Sigh.*

I’ve got a long way to go.

Still, how about you out there? What’s your reading list look like? Can you recommend any great female authors to me that I can snatch up before I start buying next year’s books?

Hyper on the Low

The shirt flickered like dead static. Blue, grey, green, grey, yellow, grey it went. It jumped and stopped — as if holding its breath — and then proceeded to shake and jitter.

Alex pulled the fabric away from his muscular toso and stared at the light emanating from the cloth. His v-shaped jaw quivered as he continued to gaze at the spectrum of colours. “I’m not one of them,” he said to the silhouette of a person hiding in the shadows of basement.

“Who are you?” growled a distorted voice. The sound of metal gears scraping against each other filled the space and drowned out the noise of the rattling pipes on the walls. “Who are you?”

“I’m…I’m more than that. I’m more than GamerGate, I’m a soul.” Alex’s body started to shake and he inhaled sharply as if he had become cold. “I care. I believe games are all things. Meant for all people.”

“Fifteen days ago you read the banned list,” the voice said. “In violation of its terms you played twenty-one pieces of patriarchal programming. You promoted a culture that silences the voices of the void. For those crimes, you are being banished.”

Alex slumped onto the ground and rocked backward and forwards. He cradled his torso in his arms and stared at his skin as it started to flicker. “You can’t do this to us, we’ve, we’ve got rights too.”

The silhouette stepped out the dimly lit corner. The person was a woman — not slim, but not overweight. She had a healthy frame with long brown hair and hazelnut eyes.  Her blue jeans and low-cut singlet made her look normal, almost. Half of her face, the right side, was missing and had been replaced with metal and gears. As her jaw lowered, metal screeched against itself.

“Oh, I know about those rights,” she said. “I count them sometimes. I notch them on my externals, I slice them into my skin when I remember the pretty gamer boys who made one too many grabs for my breasts. ‘Don’t…wear…hyper-colour…t-shirts. One absolute rule. One.  Not like the thousands we have. “

“I’l change. I promise I won’t laugh at the list anymore. I won’t mock it, help me. I’ll hire more women for my team, I know they can be good coders too.”

“The patriarchy never changes,” she said taking the lantern off the ceiling. “The patriarchy never dies. Only the voices of the void do not heed its call.” She leaned down and lifted Alex’s chin up, his face reflecting in her polished metal. “And I am one of those voices.”

With a singular motion, she brought the lantern down on his head and the static was consumed by the dark.