Writing Advice: Shop at ALDI

Where I live, we have several options for buying food. In addition to the local grocery store chain, there’s a fancy yuppie market, a “whole foods” -style store that sells a lot of vegan/veggie foods, a farmer’s market (a couple of days of week through the summer), an Aldi, Walmart, an Asian market… even the Target has a grocery section. Usually, I do one or two big shopping trips to Aldi a month, and that covers everything except for what I get at the Asian market (lumpia wrappers, pancit noodles, etc), and a a trip to the chain store to get the few items I can’t get otherwise (or I’ll get them if I have to go to Target that month).

The last few weeks I’ve been so busy that instead of taking the time to shop at Aldi*, I’ve been picking up just what I need most, at the chain store. It’s much more expensive, and though it’s quick, it’s a time spent on lot of little trips. Plus, instead of having a fridge full of food to choose from, I end up stressed and annoyed that I don’t have choices; I don’t eat as healthily, and it’s tempting to get fast food or order delivery instead of yet another trip to the store to get dinner…
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11 Exhausted SF Tropes You Should Avoid. Really.

Some ideas have been done to death in science fiction. We all know there are no new ideas anymore, and what matters most is the execution of the idea you stole have, but there are a few things that are not only over-done, they’re either incredibly stupid or offensive, as well. Here’s a partial list of tropes I’d love to never see again:

Stupid/Lazy Writing

  1. Funky Alien Language: your aliens from across the galaxy speak perfect English, except for a few “untranslatable” slang phrases? Or the language is made entirely of clicks and apostrophes? Hey, I know! All of your proper names are made with the 5, 8, or 10 point letters from Scrabble. Worst yet is when all of the men have harsh, hard-sounding names, and all of  the women (or other effeminate species) have soft, vowel- and f/l/sh-heavy names. This is an instant clue that you’re dealing with a writer who thinks of gender in the strictest binary sense. Plus, woman-soft and man-hard societies? Languages which don’t have a linguistic structure other than “sounds alien”? That’s damn lazy world building.
  2. Nothing Ever Changes, Far Into the Future. Hundreds, thousands of years into the future, when we all have jetpacks and flying cars and tame velociraptors we can ride to the office, and spaceships and alien world and… humans are still exactly the same. Same government, same ideas about love/sex/prostitution/marriage, even the same jokes, slang, and phrases. It’s us from 2005, all dressed up in tin foil suits and see-through plastic dresses as if we’re not in the future at all, but stuck in some Halloween-party with a frat boy, a cabbie, and a party girl. Look back at what humans thought was right and important a hundred years ago, and everything that’s changed between then and now, and tell me how nothing but the tech changes going forward? Look at the difference between Shakespeare’s use of the English language, then Charles Dickens, and Raymond Chandler’s. Compare their slang to ours–and then look at the geographic and cultural differences in language between different cities and ethnic groups in the US. Read a history book, and see the changes in civil rights since 1900–not just the law, but what most people think of as normal. Or, go read Ferret’s thoughtful post about how birth control changed society in just the last two generations, and tell me you think we’ll all still be exactly the same in another two generations.
  3. Artificial Gravity, But Only On Spaceships, and Only To Keep Your Feet On The Ground. Artificial gravity isn’t yet an option, and we already have space travel. Assuming someone figured out how to make it work, would it really be in every ship, no matter how small/old/beat-up? Okay, fine, so you’ve got pocket-sized anti-grav generators, and that’s why no one has to wear magnet boots inside. If that’s the case, why only use it to keep your soup in your bowl? I’m not opposed to creating gravity in space as much as I am annoyed when writers don’t use that tech for any other purpose. (Note: Anti-grav and artificial grav are definitely two different things, but almost always shown as related technology in fiction.)
  4. Babel Fish. Call it a Universal translator, or blame it on the lingering effects of TARDIS travel, but is there anything lazier than a writer who makes it possible for everyone, every alien, every creature or robot or monster, to talk to each other with perfect understanding? A universal language translator based on technology instead of telepathy (which is probably silly but at least makes sort of sense) is likely impossible because there’s no reason at all to think every creature in the universe has a language structure compatible with human ones. I loved what Ted Chiang does in “Story of Your Life”, because he shows that language is wrapped up in other concepts. We can’t even create a universal translator for Earth languages, we’re so complex. But aliens will think and speak just like us, only using a different combination of sounds? (ETA: I don’t need this process of language-learning to occur on screen or in your novel, but at least make a nod to the fact that it did happen at some point in your backstory.)
  5. The Easy Hack. Inserting a disk into an alien shuttle’s dashboard and uploading a Mac OS virus into the mothership. *drops mike* *walks away*

Offensive

  1. Aliens Based on Negative Stereotypes About People of Color.
    • Jar-Jar Binks, drawn from the “Magnificent Coon” era of minstrel shows–and, oddly, is completely different from the rest of his race in attitude and speech. Uncle Ziro, who was not only purple, not only wore feathers and makeup, but also owns a nightclub, as if to say, of course he does. Oh, and the Tuskan Raiders. And the Neimoidians. And, okay, fuck it, pretty much every non-Jedi Star Wars alien Lucas ever invented (and some of the cannon fodder Jedi, too).
    • BattleField Earth‘s Chinkos are pretty much what you’d expect.
    • Ming the Merciless. Who lives in Mingo City. On planet Mongo. And whose three main desires are to destroy Earth, join forces with Flash Gordon–the great white hero–who, Ming thinks, will legitimize his rule, and to marry the white woman (Dale Arden), which will make him a man. Ming’s an early example of a lot of Yellow Peril aliens/antagonists, including the Dragon Emperor from the Mummy, Memnan Saa from the Hellboy comics, Ra’s Al-Ghul, etc (plus, Ming did keep reappearing in Flash comics/movies up until the 1990s).
    • Joss Whedon’s Reavers, who are the vicious/rapey Space Indians in his Space Western. (Note: Whedon says that’s what they are.)
    • The Prawns of District 9, who fit neatly into every reason the white South African settlers ever gave for oppressing the black Africans around them, including “naturally suited to being governed by a ruling class/caste instead of governing themselves” and “let’s put them in a ghetto because they wouldn’t know what to do with anything better”. (Note: Of course District 9 uses apartheid tropes because it’s looking at racism; this isn’t my revelation. But it is an example of using aliens to represent the negative stereotypes of non-white people.)
    • The Predator, from every Predator movie made. Because a big, muscled, dreadlocked, dark skinned, male alien, hunting you down in a jungle, isn’t meant to be a scary stereotypical black male, right?
  2. Getting Diseases From F*cking Alien Women. Suggesting one catches diseases from sex with alien women is based on the classic SF method of hiding racism by attaching negative stereotypes to “aliens” instead, and includes sexism by blaming such things on the women instead of men. Sure, ha ha, Bob got space herpes, how funny! Except, have you actually thought about why you think that’s funny? Whether it’s because you’re not comfortable with people having sex unless they “pay for it” by contracting a disease, you think women who work in the sex industry are disease-ridden whores, or you don’t like the idea of race mixing (you did what with that?), the supposed humor of the situation is based on deriding and degrading either women or people of color. Would you write, “Bob caught something from one of those black women that hang out at truck stops” and assume the audience would laugh? Or “Kevin spent too much time with those little brown sisters in Vietnam, and now he has to pee sitting down” as if that’s a throwaway line no one will really notice? Because that’s exactly what you’re saying here.
  3. Let’s Kill Hitler! Travel through time, stop the biggest bad guy of the modern era–what could go wrong? Except everything, of course. Whether it’s something worse happening in the void he leaves behind, or not being able to kill him in the first place (he was hard to kill in real life, actually), it’s all been done before. There’s even a name for the phenomena: Hitler’s Time Travel Exemption Act. The problem with the whole idea? That killing Hitler fixes everything, as if he were the only person responsible for the annihilation of roughly six million Jews–as well as millions of others, including homosexuals, the disabled, Gypsies, Serbs, and more. Let’s everyone else off the hook, doesn’t it?
  4. The Noble Savage, Alien Edition. (Read more about what the noble savage is here.)
    • Teal’C from Stargate Continuum
    • STNG Klingons (TV Tropes uses them as an example on the “Proud Warrior Race Guy” page, and several books have been written that discuss it. I should point out that Classic Trek Klingons looked “oriental” but their society was based on our Cold War interpretation of the Soviets.)
    • Na’vi
    • Star War‘s Wookies, Ewoks, and Togruta
    • People of the Wind in A Swiftly Tilting Planet
  5. Only White Heroes.
    • Shepard Book dies and Zoe loses her husband, but Captain Mal gets the girl, the ship, and the successful completion of his quest. Oh, and, WHERE ARE ALL THE ASIANS?
    • Martha gets to be a maid while trying to keep the Doctor safe while he falls for another white woman, to make it different from the rest of the time Martha’s his companion but not really since no one will ever be Rose—except for River and souffle girl and…
    • In Avatar, the Na’vi who saves the day is actually a white guy who’s “gone native”. Because the actual native aliens couldn’t save their planet in the way that the white guy wearing a Na’vi suit could.
    • Jazz is the only Autobot who dies in the first movie.
  6. Mystical Pregnancy. Watch the video. It’s got all the highlights.

Some Notes on Editing a 10-Year Old Writer

A few weeks I mentioned on Twitter that a child in my son’s fourth-grade class wanted me to read his novel. He had a first chapter, he knew what his story was about, and he wanted to know if – based on that – it was publishable. (Sound familiar?)

Since then he’s emailed me the chapter, and he and I had a meeting about where he was, and what he should do next. I can’t excerpt the story for you, but I can share some of what I told him:

  • It’s not ready to be published now, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it isn’t done yet. Just like homework and sports and games have a lot of steps, writing has a lot of steps, too. Chapter 1 is just the beginning.
  • You can’t* publish something until after it’s been edited, and you can’t edit until it’s been written, so the fact that you’ve written something – anything – is a good first step.
  • In your story, you have a lot of things that you’re making up. You have a world that doesn’t exist, you have a main character flying through space (you’ve never been to space), and your character is 15 years old… so he’s going through experiences that you haven’t had yet. Your reader needs to have something real in the story to hold on to. Like when a story has a cat-like alien in it – even though it looks green and scaly, it acts just like a cat would, so you can identify with the animal and the creature who owns him if you’ve ever had a cat. The reader has to be able to find what’s familiar to them, and that’s going to be something that you know so well you can describe it clearly. It’s okay to have a made-up world, or a made-up person, but you should have at least one part of the story be based on what’s real in your life.**
  • Now that you’ve written the first draft of your story, go through and re-read it as if everything were questions. Then, answer those questions. For example, if you say he’s wearing a space suit, what does that look like? If he ate breakfast, what did he eat? How did he cook it? What color is his hair, the walls of his ship, his toothbrush? If you know the answers to those questions, you don’t have to put all of the information into your story, but you can choose to give us a few more details that will help us see the scene in our heads.
  • When you go through to re-write it, read your story out loud. If the words the character says don’t feel right when you say then, change it to something that sounds like what the character should say. If you write a really long sentence and have to stop to take a breath, consider stopping it at that point and making two sentences, or at least adding a comma. If you have two different things going on in the same paragraph, or someone else starts speaking, that should be a new paragraph. At the same time, if you have one thought broken up into two different paragraphs, and neither one is more than a few sentences long, make it all one paragraph and see how that reads.
  • The best thing that you can do to become a better writer is to read as much as possible. Check out books from the library! Read other books that have characters the same age as yours, or that are set in space, or Steampunk books. Read every night if you can, even a few pages. Read so that you know what you like, and what you don’t.
  • Keep writing! Anything you write, you can make better, except a blank page.
  • And, lastly, thank you for letting me read your work.

Anything else I should have told him?

Oh, and my favorite part of the meeting – he never asked if he was a writer. He didn’t say he was an “aspiring” writer. His friends, who wanted to know what his story was about and how long it was and if things blew up, never asked if I thought he was a writer. As soon as he had written, he was a writer, and he knew that in the black-and-white way in which kids know things.

The truth is that the only time you’re an aspiring writer is if you’ve thought about writing but haven’t actually done it yet. After that you can aspire to be a better writer, to be published, to sell a certain number of copies or be picked up by a certain publishing house or agent, but you’re past aspiring to be an author. Write, or don’t, those are your two choices. And please, stop calling yourself “an aspiring writer”.

Even a 10-year old knows better than that.

* Yes, I said “can’t publish”. I’m aware that many people interpret that as “shouldn’t publish, unless you’re certain it’s brilliant, in which case, go ahead”. I’d like to start the kid off on the right path by encouraging him to edit his work before he considers it finished.

** He decided to make the main character 10 years old, so that he could put a “real” person into his “fake” setting, and keep all of the Steampunk/space aspects he was having fun with.

The Jazz Solo; or, What Writers Do When We Compose Intertextual Dialogue

A quick thought to start the (writing) day:

To the unaccustomed listener, a jazz solo, particularly a solo that strays far from an easily recognizable melody, can seem abstract, formless, linear. Yet most jazz performances take place over a repeated sequence of chords, the chords that underlie the piece the group is performing. A composer might write an attractive song, as George Gershwin wrote “Embraceable You,” and a jazz group will begin by playing a loose version of the 32-bar melody together. (Most songs that began in Broadway musicals have an introductory verse which jazz musicians rarely perform. Jazz musicians simply repeat the chorus over and over.) Then a soloist will create his or her own melody while the rhythm section essentially repeats an accompaniment to that 32-bar chorus. Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody, by following the chord progression. In fact, the procedure of most jazz is based on one main principle – that a nearly infinite number of melodies may fit any song’s chord progression. The jazz musician’s traditional task is spontaneously to compose new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated over and over as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.” – Jazz, From Its Origins to the Present, Porter, Ullman, Hazel

In music we call that an “improvisation”. In writing, it’s an “homage”. Sometimes we admit outright that’s what we’re doing, sometimes it’s “inspired by” or a “retelling of.” Umberto Eco calls it “inter-textual dialogue” and I think that’s the most accurate term. A piece of writing quotes another piece of writing in a stylistic or thematic way, and the impact of a story on the reader is heightened when the reader understands what’s being quoted.

The key to understanding the similarity is this line:

Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody

How often do you read a story and think, “Oh, I recognize this fairy tale!” even when it isn’t the original telling of the story? Revamped and reconstructed fairy tales are quite popular at the moment, and range from subtle barely-there mentions to stories which wrap themselves in the original tale like a cape, only differing in setting or dialogue. (Read Kelly Link’s “Swans” for an example of this.) You’re supposed to have enough knowledge of the first version of that story to recognize all of the elements in the modernized tale. In fact, a good author can remove the details which are commonly known so that you don’t see them, but you recognize their absence and your mind fills in all of the missing pieces anyway.

Just like in jazz.

The Problem With Pen Names

There are a lot of reasons for using a pen name these days. From wanting to keep your writing a secret from friends or employers, wanting to keep two distinct writing styles separate so that readers from one genre aren’t turned off by the writing you do in another, or preferring a pen name which is less gender/racially specific than your legal name*, the reasons behind wanting a pen name are many and varied and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with any of them. However, I’ve run into a few people whose actions, enabled by the use of a false persona, are running dangerously close to unprofessional or even illegal.

Author Seanan McGuire also writes under the name Mira Grant. It is an open pseudonym, in that McGuire openly admits to using it. From her FAQ’s:

Q: Why are you Mira Grant?

A: I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some “distance” between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.

Both websites use photographs which are actually of McGuire, and while the Grant site has a brief faux-bio blurb, the rest of the information is factual – release dates, book info, and the bio and the FAQs both end with pointing out she’s also McGuire. Author Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of author Stephen King, and felt a need to write under another name in order to be judged on the merits of his words instead of his father. His website and Twitter feed and books all say “Joe Hill”, but the pictures are actually of him, and when he talks about his children or his predilection for pie, he’s actually talking about his own life. These are just two examples of what I consider to be acceptable use of a pen name: you’re changing the name for the purposes of story submission, so you’ll be judged “fairly” when a publisher considers your work or a reader buys your novel, but the rest of your life as it’s presented under that name is close to 95% true.

Submitting stories under a pseudonym without informing your publisher that you have another, legal, name – or much worse, signing a contract under your pen name – can cause legal issues and certainly makes me less likely to want to work with you, but we’re still talking about just one mistake – not disclosing your legal name. I’ve had authors do that, and learn from it, and stop making that mistake, in which case, I’m happy to keep looking at their work. At what point does it go beyond acceptable use of a nom de plume for work purposes and pass into unacceptable, creepy, or disturbing? That point differs for everyone but for me it’s when the fiction becomes not just a mask but a lie. There are authors who use more than just a new name: they create a whole new life. Websites, Facebook pages, even in chatting online with others, they use not only another name, but false images and fake biographies. Posting pictures taken from the Internet, of people who are not you and don’t know you’ve stolen their image, to support your pen name is one example of going too far. Writing lengthy blog posts about the life you don’t actually have, with people who don’t exist, supported by pictures you didn’t take … unless you label the site as itself being fiction, you’re trying to convince your readers that you are someone who doesn’t exist. What’s the purpose of that? If it’s just to support your pen name with what you consider to be a reasonable back-story, then it’s possibly only poor judgment on your part.

What really makes me angry are the people who create this fictional life and use it to prey on others. Creating a persona that is (for example) a young, sex-hungry woman and then using it to flirt online, manipulate others, play games with their emotions … or use it to turn a profit, soliciting donations from others to support what is essentially a hardworking avatar … that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong, and when I find out that authors are doing this I will never, ever, accept work from them.

Personally, I don’t use a pen name. I made a decision a long time ago to be read and judged and known for who I really am. I like knowing that my friends actually know me. I feel lucky that I’m not in a situation where I’d be forced to hide my writing, which is so much a part of who I am, in order to get a job or maintain peace with family members. I understand wearing a mask in this business, but you should ask yourself if you really need it. Do you think a white-washed name or a bio photo which is younger/thinner/prettier than you think you are is protecting yourself from being judged wrongly, or is selling more books? Are you honest about yourself within the confines of your persona, or is everything you present to the world a lie? And if it is … why?

* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not using the phrase “real name”. What that is can be very different depending on who you’re talking to, and no one has any right to decide what’s your real name but you. I’m only interested in the distinction between “legal” (often but not always “birth name”) and “pen name”, a fake name under which you write and publish, which is not the same as your legal name.