The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

You Forgot About Pain

[My ongoing series of writing advice inspired by Live Action Role Playing a vampire.]

Last night the gathered vampires participated in a chess game where each of the pieces was a vampire. Two chess masters had to play the board, but there were a couple of catches. Each piece had a "power" that the chess masters could not control (like switching with another piece or ordering the chess master to do something different than they wanted to for their next move). Also capturing involved WINNING, so it was entirely possible for a bad-ass pawn to NOT get captured by the queen simply by using some kind of vampric power or just throwing a punch.

Since this isn't True Blood, there was a deplorable lack of fucking.

It meant the chess masters had a more complicated game to play than just how to move pieces, but also to consider what each piece was good at. I was playing a pawn, but my chess master moved me into a position where a Brujah (fighter character) could take me, so I didn't even put up a fight when he came to capture. I just walked away with an, "Oh HELL no!"

My in-character impetus for this was that I didn't particularly want anyone knowing what I could do or how well I could do it unless I was in an actual situation of dire straights. I would much rather people sit around and think "Shit I'm not sure WHAT would happen if I attacked him! Would he disappear and use his mortal contacts to burn down our haven the next day, unload level five Dementation to make me crazy, or just posses my body and walk into a sunrise?" After I left the board, there were fist fights, near death combats, flame throwers, and more, not to even mention uses of social and mental powers.

I spent some time thinking about how cavalier characters are (and writers are with THEIR characters) about pain.


Pain is a big, big deal to humans, and from what I understand it's not particularly enjoyable to vampires either. Half the fucking reason we have nerves instead of thick, leathery skin, is because sensing and avoiding pain turns out to be better for our survival than just shrugging it off. Most of us go out of our way to avoid pain, especially the levels where we start to become injured. And even though some have a slightly different relationship to pain (or risk), it is almost always careful and controlled. And if someone threatens to hurt us (especially if we know they have the capacity to follow through on their threat) it is generally terrifying--even if we somehow don't run away yiping like a dog.

Our ability to heal injury is not an intellectual factor that we weigh passionlessly in an equation.

It's important to remember this. We can only actually conceptualize pain in the abstract unless we're actually IN pain at the moment. We lack the ability of remembering pain. We can remember having had pain, but we cannot re-experience the pain itself. This becomes important for writers if they want to make realistic characters, and it's one of the reasons that writing about pain can be so hard. When we assess risk, take chances, or consider our approaches to problem solving, most of us consider pain heavily in our calculus.

It's not that I think every character last night should have fallen down in a Lawrence Olivier caliber scene of agony or no one should play a character who dives into a fight with a masochistic grin or shrugs off injury until/unless its life threatening. There's a huge element of wish fulfillment in LARPing. However, characters who were more social or mental probably wouldn't have thought, "What the hell; maybe I'll get lucky." The fact that we probably won't die or will be able to heal wouldn't erase the fact that it's going to hurt and we're hard wired to avoid hurt.

Think about how careful people are in kitchens to avoid burns. Small, first degree burns will heal without any scarring in only a week or two, but we go to GREAT LENGTHS to avoid them. Why? Because they FUCKING HURT! It's not that we're paralyzed with fear or would fall over screaming if our wrist bumped the oven's heating element. It's just that we put on mitts and don't fry bacon in the nude.

I remember looking over a dirt hill for hours on my bike, afraid to go off the edge. The incline was very steep, and I knew that it was very likely that I would lose control of my bike. But it never even crossed my mind that I could DIE or end up with brain damage or anything like that. What I was worried about was getting hurt.

Where's the writer's lesson in all of this? Well, it's important to remember that pain can only be abstract to the writer, and a writer who isn't being careful can quickly have their characters coming off like suicidal swashbucklers. However, avoiding pain will be a very real concern to all but the most self-destructive, overconfident, or possibly well-trained characters. Writers sometimes tend to crutch on physical altercations to portray the emotional stakes of a situation. If there isn't a fight, maybe it wasn't a big enough deal. It's fine to have a character make a decision that risk is worth it, or to have one or two who don't seem to regard a very real possibility of injury as a good reason to exercise caution, come up with a careful plan, or just solve their problems without violence. Yes, of course some people have trained themselves to ignore pain. However, having many or most characters simply disregard the chance they could get hurt just so that a writer can cram in more "cool" fight scenes tends to actually lower the emotional stakes because the reader can't really relate to that sort of personal disregard. Normal people just don't toss each other into walls as part of conflict resolution.

As Jayne says, "Pain is scary."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

An MFA Teacher Speaks

I keep meaning to post something short because I need to do some cleaning on the house (now that it will stick), go to Costco, blog for Grounded Parents, catch up on non-blog writing, and indulge in some serious binge reading, but then I keep having topical ideas come up that seize my brain. First about the Diverse Author Reading Challenge and then yesterday about Leonard Nimoy. I already write about too many "current events" when they're over a month old and everyone has moved on.

I almost wrote something today about that damned dress and the colors no one can agree on. But here, I'll save myself an entire post and just hit the highlight reel:

Let that dress be a lesson to writers that different people LITERALLY perceive the world differently and will work very hard to get their perception validated, and that your characters should reflect that. Having every character be a reflection of you is critically untruthful writing.

Got the concept? Good. Now I can go clean my house, play Skyrim until my eyes bleed, read, write some other stuff and get ready for tonight when I go pretend that I am The Night.

Instead of a proper post, I'm just going to point you toward this thought provoking article that OG shared with me this morning. While I will say that I  put a lot more emphasis on hard work than talent (since I clearly have none of the latter), I have said something similar when pressed.

Anyway, give this post a gander (especially if you're contemplating an MFA):

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One

ETA: I take issue with everything said in this MFA teacher's post to greater or lesser degree.  Chuck Wendig voices a lot of my concerns (and pees bees when he does it, so it's worth a read). Chuck's article articulated a lot of the things that were making my scalp itchy even as I posted this yesterday.

Though I think the distinction here in perspectives is absolutely vital. Chuck Windig doesn't even have an MFA vs. someone directly inside the system for decades after being beaten down by an endless deluge of pretentiousness. They are naturally going to have wildly divergent perspectives and "both be right," depending. I remember my creative writing program and I had at least one class a semester that was joint MFA/undergrad so I've met a LOT of writing program students (hundreds, perhaps low thousands)--most of those people could stand to hear this advice, and I'm not saying that casually. After teaching literally THOUSANDS of students who are making the same mistakes over and over again, it's got to be hard not to want to issue a few blanket statements that acknowledge the cold reality of how statistics measure up to dilettante ambition.

It really is important to understand the scope of MFA populations and the target audience of this post. I agree with most things Budinot said. I agree with most things Wendig said. It's just a question of which side one approaches the issue from.

I've also never particularly conflated speaking generally about a sub-culture's proclivities for weakness to be the same as telling a single person such things in a one-on-one context where it could be very hurtful or assumed that everything said in hyperbole was literally true. I think Wendig was just going for the throat with some of his response.

Additionally, I spent some time on FB yesterday talking about how I think there's a big difference between those who love writing at a young age, leave to have a career because they need a "real job," and then come back to writing as opposed to those who pick up the pen on a lark for the first time in their forties or fifties. That is not a common story you hear among writers. The narrative that you hear 90% of the time is that the writer always loved writing. I also think citing the notable exceptions right out the gate was important to set the tone that they DO exist.

Simply put, as many exceptions as there are and though the original article could have worded the generalization more precisely, if we took out all the one-hit-wonder writers, what we would have left is almost entirely (though not exclusively) those who are pursuing a life long passion.

Blood Sucking Fiend

Since I seem to actually be sticking with blogging about my ongoing vampire LARP through a writer's perspective, it's probably time to give those posts their own sub-menu. I will likely expand this description in the future if I stick with this project for longer.

Introduction: Seems I'm going to be in a vampire LARP again.
The Myth of the Rag Tag Group
You Forgot About Pain

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy In Memoriam (Personal Update)

If you know any geeks at all in your life, you know that Leonard Nimoy died. It was all over all my social media when I woke up. I would love to tell you that celebrity news never affects me, but this one hit me where I live.

See, there was a time in my young adult life when I was riddled with A.D.D. (but didn't know it), and I thought I was a terrible person and a fuck up in life because I couldn't seem to get my shit together when it came to remembering when to be home or doing homework or practicing. My parents and teachers kept demanding to know why I didn't just apply myself a little more, and I had no answers. I didn't know why I was SO damned bad at concentrating. I was obviously just kind of useless.

I felt like I cared about things, but when it came time to act, I would constantly mess them up. After years of being told "Why don't you care about this?" eventually you start to wonder if you really do. How could anyone who cared be so easy to distract? How could a sincere intention not to talk in class or come home late or end up daydreaming while doing homework fail if I weren't just a fuck up?

A lot of my young life was spent feeling pretty worthless.

What I didn't know was that I had a brain that was working differently. That my diagnosis at five of hyperactivity wasn't just some funny doctor's reason for why I was a bad kid. My mom was working tirelessly behind the scenes to beat off every teacher and administrator who wanted to get me on this new drug called Ritalin. No one ever really explained to me that it wasn't my fault.

My sophomore year in high school I was given the Star Trek 5 Movie boxed set. (Six would come out on VHS later that year.) I watched them over and over and over and over. I didn't realize what was happening at the time (I do now) but with Star Trek going on in the background I could THINK better. I could focus for longer. I could remember things. My mind didn't seem to slip away from me quite as easily. I could even sit down and write....for hours.

Even at that age, I wanted to be a writer, and perhaps the greatest thing I discovered was that if Star Trek was humming in the background I wouldn't be so damned distracted by everything. I would sit and write and it would just keep coming out.

Star Trek made it possible for me to write.

The perceptions I have of that time in my life are clouded with angst and hormones and nearly twenty-five years ~coughcoughcough~ of memory. I got grounded all the time because of my grades, and though I look back on an absurdly privileged existence, at the time I was deeply vested in the "My life sucks" milieu.   

However, there was a very real way in which Star Trek was a profound comfort to me. The way bibliophiles at that age sometimes describe books as friends, I felt about Star Trek. I would put them on and feel my mind calm. They didn't judge. They didn't wonder why I sucked. They were always the same story, so I could miss something and it would be okay. For at least a year, I probably watched one of those movies almost every day. While they droned in the background (and little known to me, calmed my distractible brain to a point where it could concentrate) the world would not seem so insurmountable. With the possible exception of Star Wars, I may have seen the Star Trek movies more than anything else as a kid.  (Especially 2, 4, and 6.) Literally hundreds of times each. 

I don't have a lot to say. Eighty-three is a good run, and I had a feeling when he was admitted to the hospital with chest pains that we were going to get this news. About half of the original actors have passed now, and those that haven't are in their seventies and eighties. Actors are mortal even if they give us something of themselves that will last forever. 

But I am undoubtedly sad. 

Nimoy's final tweet.
Now where did I put those tissues...

I know Nimoy was so much more than Spock. I loved his book I Am Not Spock and his photography projects were a profound display of the best of humanity. He fought for pay equality back in the 60s when people just didn't do that. In fact, he was a writer as well, publishing two very successful autobiographies. But like many geeks of my generation he got "locked in" to his role in my mind before I understood the difference between actors and their characters, and I almost have a hard time seeing him as anyone but Spock. 

My Facebook feed exploded with the "my friend" quote or "live long and prosper" or the funeral scene from Wrath of Khan (which I can't even handle right now) but here's the one that has meant the most to me as I've navigated social justice and entered a world in which empathy, compassion, and a ceaseless struggle against human nature has taken center stage from the endless vicissitudes of overly rational thinking:

"Logic is the BEGINNING of wisdom, Valeris, not the end. "

[ETA-As this sort of became it's own article as I wrote it, I moved the original status report beginning to the bottom. Feel free to skip this part.]

  • I'm finishing up something for Ace of Geeks today. If you want to know the moment it lands be sure to follow me through one of the "All Updates" media. In the meantime, I give you a blast from the past about the movie Ender's Game, and why I might never see it. (I still haven't).
  • I didn't remember anything going on from my last save in Skyrim (apparently I am supposed to assassinate someone--what???), so I had to restart it in order to do my ongoing research to continue my Skyrim Articles. I'm about half way to where I was in the main quest line and my eyes have not started bleeding yet. I must try harder!
  • Since The Contrarian is a part of the Top Secret New Zealand strike team (that you didn't hear about from me), I have been delighting in the fact that when I clean things, they stay clean. (If that's not a sign you're old/have kids, I don't know what is.) Hopping up to get that post up yesterday meant that I had to skip cleaning or patrol, and with no heroes in town to do patrol for me, it had to be cleaning. It's pretty sad when you're really looking forward to getting to some cleaning, but welcome to my life. 
  • And then there's this last thing–news I woke up to, which affected me more than I care to admit and made my early morning writing too raw and personal for blogging:

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Year of Diverse Authors (Cue Literary Frenzy)

There's an article that issues a challenge going around my Facebook these days. K.T. Bradford has challenged readers to focus on marginalized authors for a single year.

Of course it's the blogging world so the easiest way to get hits is not to write the title as a challenge of inclusion, but actually one of exclusion. Oh and put a slash through a wildly popular artist's most popular book. That's always a way to whip up some rage clicks.

Fortunately, since this is the internet, no one rose to the bait. Here in the blogoverse, that sort of cheap trick to rile them up gets less traction than a station wagon on a muddy mountain backroad. Everyone was calm and collected, they read the entire article (which was actually pretty awesome) before commenting, and they kept in mind that it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain an idea without embracing it. They did this because on the internet, responses are measured and reasonable.

Shortly after this, the sun came up in the west and Pope Francis revealed that he was Jewish.

No, what actually happened is that people lost their fucking minds. In droves. Like some zombie movie where humanity is the real monster. (God forbid challenges be...you know....challenging.) While not even every response was as reactionary as "The Social Justice Warrior Racist Reading Challenge," which I refuse to even link because exposure to it will require anyone of conscience to exterminate all human life, even those who generally care that publishing is whitewashed and feel like they should maybe do a little more about it bought guns into their fortified basements with their canned goods, and grew thick survivalist beards. Packs of feral children roamed the streets. War was upon us.

Of course some claimed it was just the tone. "'Challenge' sounds like it's from authority," they said.

The word "challenge" didn't seem to bother anyone when people were pouring buckets of ice over their heads.

"If she hadn't said 'I challenge you...' and instead had said, 'I discovered something interesting when I spent a year...' the reaction would be a lot different."

Actually, I agree with this.

The reaction would have been a lot different.  In fact, that is demonstrably true: the reaction WAS a lot different because this was already done. Bradford's original article even linked the first piece (a fact I'm sure everyone noticed since they read the article before knee-jerk responding to just the title). So we can actually compare the reactions side by side.

And yes, it's true. The reaction IS a lot different.

Notice how no one is talking about that article? Notice how no one is linking it? Notice how far fewer conversations have been sparked? When social justice issues are confronted in a non-confrontational way, the only thing they accomplish is being easy to ignore. No one ever nicified their tone enough to make their marginalization heard.

So let's unpack these knee jerk reactions just a little.

"Of course this bothers me. Just as long as I don't have to give up anything."
But I'M a cis, het, white male author. What about MEEEEEEEE?

Yeah, so am I. Did you actually think we would achieve equality without having to give up some of our institutional advantages? I stand to lose from this if someone takes a break from my blog for a year. I still think it's a great idea. Look this isn't about excluding our privileged asses. Our voices are far, far more places than we have any right to be. This is about consciously incorporating those voices which are generally lacking. I'm not diversity. I'm the opposite of diversity.

Anyway, don't worry about it so much when it (for once) goes the other way; our systematic advantages have and will continue to work for us in a way that no year of reduced readership will possibly impact.

Besides, anyone who's seen my proofreading knows I don't really read myself anyway. ~rimshot~

But what about X author? I just can't live without him.

I know series are crack, but let's get some perspective here. We're talking about reading OTHER great things for a finite amount of time, not swearing off Dresden or Taltos for eternity.

Look this is a challenge not an edict. You decide your level of engagement. Mix it up if you want. Let yourself read your guilty pleasures but promise a "make up" book. Do it for a month and see if you want to "renew your contract." Do it by ratio instead of time (four diverse books to "earn" a cis het white male author). Add other axes of marginalization like disability or poverty. I'm a particular fan of the, "I'm making an exception for blogs/I'm making an exception for Chris Brecheen" house rules I heard yesterday.

Me? I'm planning on giving myself one or two "cheat" books each month, and then extending the exercise by 30-40 years.

Why would we put this prejudice crap over skills. A good story is a good story. Why should I judge authors by their external makeup. It's not about skin color. That's what MLK said! I have a dream, motherfucker.

This isn't actually about skin color or plumbing or sexual orientation or gender identity as such. This is more about life experiences than "external makeup" (although the world certainly tends to provide people with particular external makeup very different life experiences than those cis, het, white males). Cis het white males experience the world with the feeling that they are the "default everyman" or "just a person." With other voices the world makes them very aware of their identity and it shapes the way they write. These voices are tragically less represented and so an average voracious reader may have to make an effort to seek them out. It would be more analogous to reading British lit for a year if you only ever read American authors or giving your favorite genre a break to see how other genres work and feel. (Which is also a good idea, by the way.) Marginalized writers' lives are different, they write in different ways about slightly different things.

Being absolutely colorblind actually reinforces the status quo.

I just read what I enjoy, okay! I judge writers by their skill.

Who in the fucking world suggested you read books you don't enjoy? Who said these writers weren't skilled.

Seriously?  You can't find anything you enjoy that isn't cis, het, white, male?  Like are you saying, you don't like Divergent, Hunger Games, Dream of the Red Chamber, And Then There Were None, The Alchemist, Anne of Green Gables, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Thorn Birds, Norwegian Wood, The Kite Runner, A Wrinkle in Time, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Life of Pi, Nancy Drew, Twilight, The Vampire Chronicles, Out of Africa, Little House Books, Rainbow Magic, The Joy Luck Club, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, True Game, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Importance of Being Earnest, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mrs. Dalloway, In Cold Blood, The Hours, American Psycho, On The Road, Angels in America, Wicked, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Color Purple, Leaves of Grass, Our Town, The Salt Roads, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Butterfly Effect, Frankenstein, Kindred, Shadow over Avalon, Beloved, Sula, The Disposessed, Left Hand of Darkness, Who Fears Death, Nights at the Circus, Vorkosigan, Oxford Time Travel, The Mars Trilogy, Hainish Cycle, The Patternmaster Series, Company Wars, Paradox Series, Imaro, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, ...

~deep breath~

...or maybe even Harry Potter?

None of them? Seriously?

If there's honestly nothing not written by a white, het, cis man that you could possibly enjoy, I apologize for wasting your time. You are clearly an outrageous transphobic, homophobic, misogynist racist, and I didn't mean to disturb your delicate world view.

If what you actually meant is that you don't think about who writes what you consume and enjoy, that is entirely, ENTIRELY the point of the exercise. To find good writing by people with slightly different world experiences.

How in the world are we supposed to be able to tell what race or sexual orientation an author is?

Jesus Literally Titfucking CHRIST are you listening to yourself? "How ever will I discover such arcane information. If only I had access to the greatest repository of human knowledge in all of history (ever) on my cell phone then perhaps I could discover the answer to this perplexing mystery."

Far be it from me to suggest that a struggle for equality might warrant fifteen seconds on Google, but....  No wait. My "Be it's" are not far from me at all with this one.

And while it is theoretically possible that you might not be able to figure out if Xrandombook is written by an author from a typically marginalized voice, but it should be a breeze to Google "women authors" or "authors of color" and come up with a reading list. Shit, I enjoyed making my reading list. I probably tossed three years worth of books onto that TBR pile.

If finding out who wrote a book is actually too much work, then you may sit down. You're excused. Don't hurt yourself.


It's really not.

What it is, is subversive. And that feels like "difficult," until you take a closer look, because it's not what we're used to. (Like saying that keeping track of fifty or sixty words that are used as slurs is really hard, and you should not have to remember anything more than the N word,"Kike," and a couple of others to be golden. Meanwhile you've memorized The Holy Grail in its entirety including when the guy in the dungeon is clapping along to the song.) You literally only have to find out if an author is a woman OR transgender OR LGBTQ OR a person of color. You only need ONE of those things. It is actually ridiculously easy.

The point is to break out of your typical thinking and reading patterns and see what happens when you enjoy a diverse set of viewpoints for a sustained period. If that didn't involve some minor discomfort, ask yourself why you're reacting so powerfully to it.

I could make up a reading list of Bujold, Cherryh, Morrison, and Butler that I could enjoy for a year without breaking a sweat. It might feel a little unfamiliar (which is the point), but it's not hard.

I am completely incapable of working the Google.

19 Must Read SF/F Books by Women of Color
Non Male/Non White Author Recommendations
Best 100 Books By Women
Best Gay Authors
25 Favorite Authors of Color
YA-Friendly Books By and About Transgender People

And there's always Wikipedia.

Or don't.  That's an option, you know. Just DON'T DO IT. Say "no thank you," and go on about your day like you would if someone invited you to do their all-grapefruit diet. I'm sorry if your head feels itchy because of your that's-not-a-moon realization that at an institutional level you might be of part of the problem.*

But these excuses don't actually hold water at all, and you can just politely decline without coming off like you're protesting too much.

*Just kidding. I'm not really sorry.