In Defense of the Happy Ending

Happy endings have a pretty lousy reputation in modern culture. They’re considered childish, naïve, and worst of all, unrealistic.  Let us all gasp in horror at the audacity of creating fictitious scenarios in fiction, of all places!

Obviously, I find this viewpoint simplistic at best and downright nihilistic at its worst. Why don’t we dispel, right away, the myth that darkness and grittiness and doom and gloom are more realistic? Real life is not composed exclusively of bad endings. Nor, I acknowledge, is it composed exclusively of good endings. It’s not really composed of endings at all. Endings, and beginnings, are all matter of perception, of constructing a sort of narrative out of the rather random happenings of reality. You might dispute this by pointing out that birth and death are rather obvious starts and finishes in a story. Sure. But you could just as easily argue that if you were creating a family saga, one individual’s birth or death could mark merely the beginning or end of a chapter, only one part of a much greater, overarching generational tale. The beginning and end of a war could be a self-contained story, or it could be one more step in the broader chronicle of a country’s history. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Stories are, by nature, fabrications. Whether they’re purely fictional or an artful presentation of historical facts, they must be crafted into a narrative that requires a deliberate shaping by a writer.

So dark stories are not more realistic than optimistic ones. But we’re not really talking about literal realism here, are we? A plain, unfabricated relation of events as they tend to happen wouldn’t make much of a story at all — “He got out of bed. He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast. He drove to work. He had a conversation with a co-worker that will have no bearing on future events” — but we do want to offer something that our readers feel is realistic, even if it takes place in the most fantastic of settings. We want to ease a little bit of that burden of suspension of disbelief.  And when a story has no complications, no significant obstacles to overcome, nothing but an easy happy ending, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. It doesn’t feel realistic. I think, at the end of it all, that’s what people mean when they say happy endings aren’t realistic.

Obviously, as an avid reader and writer of speculative fiction, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief than otherwise. I don’t mind if the worldbuilding is fabulously unrealistic compared to the actual world, as long as it has decent inner consistency and an engaging story. In fact, I’d rather that the story didn’t hew too closely to real-world happenings. Why? Well, if I wanted to read stories that matched up with reality, I wouldn’t read fiction. I want a narrative; I want meaning. There is something deeply imbedded in human nature, I believe, that drives us to create narratives out of the random, chaotic happenings of our lives. To fabricate stories that reflect reality but have a more deliberate point, something more than “Life’s hard; then you die”; to make sense of reality by stepping outside of it for a while. Some people label certain types of fiction as “mere escapism,” spoken with a contemptuous sniff. But I fully embrace the notion of escapism as a positive feature of fiction. Its purpose is not to deny the existence of real life, not by any means; it gives us a place to examine all the deep questions of life from a fresh perspective. And if it’s truly good fiction, then it allows us to come back to reality with a renewed ability to cope with it.

Grim and gritty fiction, I feel, has very little to offer me in terms of coping with the real world. It presents just as fabricated a view on reality as optimistic fiction, but it leaves me bereft and hopeless instead of invigorated and hopeful. Even if the world really were as dark and pointless as such fiction seems to say, why embrace that? Why wallow in cynicism without relief? And for heaven’s sake, why do fantasy authors insist on claiming that the truly brutal stuff, particularly the violence against women, is a conscientious choice to hew to “realism” when they’ll happily include wizards and dragons and zombies? I’m not buying it, guys.

I’m not calling for stories without conflict. Those are hardly stories at all. (Though I might argue that a better word is complication. A good epiphany-tale, for example, has little conflict but plenty of complications as a character rises nearer and near to enlightenment.) I want to see the characters struggle and strive; that’s how I relate to them, as someone who’s struggling and striving through life myself. But I want to see a purpose to the struggle. I don’t want a happy ending that hasn’t been earned, but if it has been earned, then those characters darn well better get it.

I might as well include an example from my favorite thing to obsess about. The original trilogy of Star Wars has a happy ending, not because it ignores the existence of darkness and evil, but because it stares that evil right in the face and conquers it. It’s bittersweet, full of sacrifice and loss, but it is an earned, much-deserved happy ending. (Which is why, among many other reasons, I reject the Disney movie’s notion of “Ha ha just kidding nobody really lived happily ever after.) On the other hand, the prequel trilogy was written as a tragedy, and I fully expected a sad ending. Not a despairing, nothing-matters-what’s-the-point-of-trying ending, but sorrow with only the promise of hope many years in the future. It would have been unearned, not to mention bizarre, if Episode III hadn’t ended in tragedy. Different stories call for different endings. But there’s an enormous difference between a story of relentless bleakness where there’s no real distinguishing between the consequences of good or bad behaviors, versus a story where bad choices lead to sorrow. Yes, I like my stories to be moral. Not obnoxiously moralistic, but definitely moral.

Lucas himself sums it up pretty darn well: “Being a pessimist doesn’t seem to accomplish anything…if I wanted to change the world it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid. The way to make things progress is to point people in the right direction, to show how wonderful life can be. Tearing things down, being pessimistic makes people simply accept the conditions that prevail. Whereas if you give them hope and point them in the right direction, things are more likely to get better.”

Fans of Tolkien might have already recognized that I also share a lot of his ethos when it comes to the purpose of stories. I’m going to finish with a quote from him.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Advertisements

Strong

It’s time for a rant.

We are living in a marvelous era of compelling female characters. Thanks to the outcries of a vocal audience of girls and women, along with a (slowly) increasing willingness to support female storytellers, we see princesses who don’t need rescuing, women warriors who save the day with maybe just a little help from their male sidekick and/or love interest, and so many more narratives for ladies that revolve around something other than romance.

That’s great. But I’m mightily peeved by the oversimplification that can arise from such stories. One of them is a meme that was making the rounds and causing me an irrational amount of anger. It pictured Robin Wright’s Amazon character from Wonder Woman and Carrie Fisher’s recent portrayal of Leia Organa, with a caption saying something like “So great to see my childhood princesses become generals.”

Now, obviously, I’m going to be over-sensitive about this, since I have opinions about Disney’s current batch of Star Wars films, oh boy do I ever. But stick with me; I’m going somewhere other than just another bash-fest about Disney Space Movie (though a little bashing is inevitable).

I realize that when it comes to memes, we’re not really looking for a complicated explication of character development. We’re looking for something pithy, easily understood and easily passed along. I get it. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET AND I HAVE TO FIX IT. Ahem.

First off, the comparison of the two pictures is misleading, since we’re talking about two completely different characters for Robin Wright. Princess Buttercup was part of a very memorable movie, but alas, not much more can be said for her. She has a few awesome moments, like jumping out of the ship to escape her kidnappers or shoving (she believes) her lover’s murderer down a steep hillside, but for the most part she is the object of desire between Westley and Humperdink, acted upon rather than doing the acting. So of course playing a fierce warrior in Wonder Woman is going to be a major upgrade.

Leia, however, was already awesome. She was fantastic long before she changed titles. And if you want my excessively biased opinion, she was way better as a princess. Because she upturned every single expectation of the damsel in distress. Yes, Luke and Han rescue her on the Death Star, but she’s not weeping helplessly in her cell. She had willingly embarked on what was basically a suicide mission, transporting the space station’s stolen plans while pursued by Darth Vader himself. She’d done everything she could to get those plans into the right hands before being captured, and she subsequently refused to betray the location of her fellow Rebels even under torture and threat of death. She doesn’t want to die, but she’s ready to face it.

Then, when she sees the possibility of escaping, she takes charge from the two lunkheads who didn’t plan a way out. She’s resourceful, inventive and daring; she has a snappy retort for every attempted insult or disparagement. From the moment she showed up on movie screens, Princess Leia was a revolution. And she didn’t have to change her title to do it.

To be frank, General Leia is just sad. All her supposed awesomeness is implied but never proven. It’s lazy writing, frankly, giving her a new title as a shorthand for character development. Instead, her role is a massive disappointment that turns all her triumphs in the original trilogy into tragedy. Most of her scenes are reactions to something yet another man has done to screw up her life, either her son or her lover (husband? the movie never tells us) or her brother. She’s someone that men have abandoned. That’s the primary thing that defines her, reacting to things that other people do. What a sad, sad, removal from the woman full of determination and hope at the end of the original trilogy. It breaks my heart to know that Carrie Fisher’s health issues required a somewhat subdued role and ultimately stole away her chance to finish the trilogy. It breaks my heart especially because the fiery, inspiring, trope-defying princess was replaced with…a general. That’s a demotion. Princess hire generals and tell them what to do!

I could pontificate on what I would have rather seen (JEDI MASTER LEIA, COME ON PEOPLE) but instead, I’ll explore why we all seem to accept it as a given that being a general is an upgrade in awesomeness. It’s a military rank. It implies fighting prowess as well as leadership. Well, those are all fine. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that only men can be generals. Heavens, no. What I do find troubling is that we’ve been fed the lie that traditionally masculine roles are the strongest and the most worth doing. And now that we’re seeking more stories about strong women, which is great, we’re leaning heavily toward giving women characters only those traditionally masculine roles. Which is not so great. Because there are so many different ways to be strong.

Something that I’ve always loved about Princess Leia is that for all her toughness, she’s also warm, caring and gentle. She comforts Luke upon the loss of Obi-Wan (even though, for heaven’s sake, she’s just lost a whole planet). She values her relationships and connections with others. You get the sense that even while she’s a highly competent fighter and leader in the Rebellion, she’d really rather be a diplomat. A peacekeeper. Like her mother.

And Padmé’s character was not universally well-received like her daughter was. There are plenty of reasons for that, and I can’t possibly explore all of them, but I suspect that part of it came from the audacity of giving Padmé softer roles. Like falling in love rather rashly. And spending most of the third film being pregnant. And dying from the sheer emotional weight of her entire universe imploding, how dare she. Even though there are plenty of instances showcasing her strength and courage (for example, passing along a heritage of hope to her children with her dying breath), they are too often overlooked because she doesn’t enter every situation with guns a-blazing and a steady supply of witty one-liners. Would people have been more excited if she was General Amidala? Maybe. But I, for one, am very glad she wasn’t.

I find her portrayal to be quite inspiring. Not that I’m looking to follow Padmé’s unfortunate trajectory, but I appreciate the notion there are different kinds of strength. And sometimes, strong as we are, we can be overwhelmed. That doesn’t make us weak. It just means we live in a hard world. It’s all right to cry. It’s all right to be soft. It’s all right if you’d rather be an diplomat than a warrior. Sometimes the situation calls for a sword (or lightsaber) and sometimes the situation calls for an impassioned speech. Or a helping hand. Or kind words, or a smile.

I understand that fighting prowess can serve as metaphor for other kinds of strength in storytelling, particularly in fantasy, but I fear that we’re taking it a little too literally. I fear that we tend to demean anyone who’s not particularly keen on violence. And me? I can play around with toy swords and sabers, but I’m about as physically imposing as a goldfish. I don’t have that kind of strength. I do strive, however, to cultivate a different kind of emotional endurance and resilience. And that’s a trait of all my favorite characters, female or otherwise.

Fear

“People who are governed by fear are the most dangerous sort of all…Worse than anger…far worse than envy or bloodlust. In fact, you might say that every other dangerous emotion has its true roots in fear. Never underestimate a fearful man.”

This is from my novel Mimic. There is a definite irony in the context of who is speaking, and to whom (he’s manipulating her for his selfish purposes, enabled by her fear that he’ll reveal her secret), but I think it carries truth nonetheless. I’m also quite fond of Yoda’s iconic words from Episode I: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” Of course appropriate fear, perhaps better termed caution, is essential to protect one from unnecessarily endangering one’s self or others.  But in excess, it is debilitating, mind-clouding, even dangerous. I believe that the less I am governed by fear, the better my life will be.

So how’s this for irony: I spent a lot of my time feeling terrified.

I worry about my children. That’s perfectly normal for a mother, especially when one of the children has special needs. I worry about our house falling apart and how we’re going to pay for repairs. I worry about running out of money; also fairly typical for a family living off the single income of a school teacher. I would say one of the main things I discuss with my therapist is how to fight off the crushing anxiety that weighs on me. Well, at least I’m working on it.

But I’m functioning. I’m doing my best to confront adulthood even if I’d rather hide under the bed like a three-year-old. It’s another set of fears that’s on my mind right now. The fears that keep from me putting my work out there for other people to see.

The fear of rejection. The fear of ridicule. The fear of achieving only the infamy of public mockery — or the fear of not getting any notice at all. These fears are truly crippling. I long to be published; it’s the only career I could feel really passionate about, even if I never become more than a mid-list author. And yet I hesitate to send out more queries, fearing that I’ll ruin my chance with another set of agents. Fearing that one more round of form rejections will have me so depressed that I’ll just give up on it forever. (And yet if I’m not querying, haven’t I already as good as given up?)

Even with my sillier hobbies, I fear to put it out there. Fear that for every person who enjoys the goofy Star Wars video I made, there were be some nasty troll. That there will be more snide laughter than good-natured chuckling. I am constantly torn between wanting so much to share what I’ve created and cringing in terror at the very notion of it. I’m not sure if the Internet has made this mindset better or worse. I find it delightful that I can post fan fiction and gain a following of readers who happily provide immediate feedback. I’ve also tortured myself if I post something and don’t get any replies within the first half hour. I’m sure without the Internet, my neuroses would find some other way to manifest. But anyway.

I suppose it would be helpful for me to acknowledge what I’ve been able to do, in spite of my fears. I’ve sent out plenty of queries. I’ve gritted my teeth through the rejections and sent out more. I’ve gotten helpful suggestions from beta readers and hunkered down to do revisions, even though I loathe revisions and sometimes truly fear that I’ll just make my book worse by trying to fix it. I’ve put some of my creations out there, fannish or otherwise, and weathered the negative responses along with the positive. It helps that I haven’t really encountered any trolls yet. But when I do, I’ll just have to remind myself not to listen to their voices, any more than I should listen to the little troll inside my own head whose name is Fear. I’ll finish with another quote, from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This Time, It’s Personal (But it’s always personal)

Back when my husband (then-boyfriend) was participating in a writers/actors/directors workshop in college, he invited me to the staged reading of all the plays they’d been working on. One of the plays was a sort of dramedy that explored a marriage wherein the husband suffered from narcolepsy. I enjoyed it well enough, though it seemed like it still needed a lot of polishing. And then, during the audience feedback afterwards, a woman spoke up and almost immediately began crying. Apparently she had come to see this play specifically because she was living it as the wife of a narcoleptic. It was powerfully validating for her to see it portrayed like this.

I recall feeling deeply uncomfortable. First of all, because this woman was having a personal, emotional moment and it gave me a sense of eavesdropping on something private. But secondly, I felt like every criticism I’d had was now irrelevant. What did it matter what I, a non-narcoleptic or spouse of a narcoleptic, thought? This wasn’t a metaphor for marriage issues as I had originally been interpreting it; this was a real problem and I couldn’t begin to comprehend it, so my opinions didn’t matter and I’d better just keep my mouth shut. (Ha, like I would have ever opened my mouth, shy and timid mouse that I am. But anyway).

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve grown and learned a great deal in the intervening years about what it means to engage with art on a personal level, both as the creator and as the audience. And I wish I could go back in time and tell my young self this important truth: your opinion is still valid. It’s not more valid than someone else’s, but it’s not less valid either. And you can just throw out the idea of objectively assessing a work of art, because such an assessment is impossible by definition. Every artist will approach their creation with a set of experiences and opinions, and every audience member will engage with that creation with their own entirely separate set of experiences and opinions. And that’s okay; it’s more than okay; it’s what makes the creator-audience relationship so exciting and dynamic.

Sure, you can assess skill to a certain degree of near-objectiveness. Some writing is clearly better crafted than others; great painters have more proficiency than lesser painters; a poorly-edited movie is going to be less coherent than a well-edited one. But those observations can only get you so far. Everything past that point is going to be opinion, and opinions are always, by definition, personal.

I have a son with low-functioning autism. He is non-verbal. This is a specific circumstance of my life that a great many people do not share with me. It informs so much of my day-to-day experience, and of course it affects my perception of stories, particularly ones that portray autism. I’m done feeling apologetic for that fact that I can’t objectively read or watch anything involving autism, judging it by its artistic merits alone. That’s just not going to happen. And my reaction is perfectly valid as long as I’m aware of and acknowledge how my personal life experiences are coloring that reaction. As long as I’m aware, in turn, of how other people’s reactions to my writing or any work of art are going to be colored by their own experiences. The quest for objectivity belongs in the realm of science. When it comes to art, it’s personal.

I saw Rain Man before my son was born and then again after he was diagnosed. It was a vastly different experience. The first time — I enjoyed it, thought it was a heartfelt, well-told story, with nice touches of humor and pathos. The second time — I was in tears almost from the very beginning. What struck me most was the character arc, not of the autistic character, but his brother. At the time the film was made, living in a group home with dedicated caregivers was just about the best they could envision for someone with the degree of disabilities Raymond has. So he doesn’t change much. He has a little adventure, but he’s not going to suddenly become functional or independent. The best possible outcome for him is to return to the group home, with at least the added feature of having a relationship with his brother Charlie. Charlie, on the other hand, undergoes a drastic shift. He begins the film as a very selfish, resentful man. He essentially kidnaps his brother just to try to get the inheritance he feels he deserves from his recently deceased father. Having to take care of Raymond, however, is a transforming experience. He has to think of someone else’s needs almost constantly — if he doesn’t, he could trigger severe public meltdowns or endanger his brother’s life. And gradually he learns to take care of Raymond not just out of necessity, but out of love. It all builds up to the climax, when he must become selfless enough to recognize that Raymond can’t stay with him and that the best thing he can do is let him return with his trained caregivers to the safety of his group home.

Let me tell you, taking care of someone with severe disabilities is beyond exhausting. It’s physically and emotionally draining on so many levels. And there are times when I fear that it’s turning me into the worst possible version of myself. I need stories that tell me there is hope of becoming a better person because of my caregiving.

Which is why reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. Because for me, personally, it presented the exact opposite message. I know this book is a celebrated portrayal of autism; it’s a bestseller; it’s been praised every which way. It might be a deeply sensitive, well-written book, a warm and meaningful experience for countless readers. All of that was irrelevant to me, because the main character’s parents are terrible. They do awful, awful, awful things, and it’s implied that it’s because his condition was so challenging for them to deal with. His autism made them worse. I couldn’t bear it. Oh, I know there’s a lot of realism going on there; marriages are frequently strained or broken by special-needs children. I already mentioned my fears of becoming the worst version of myself. I’m not denying those fears. I just don’t want to read a book where all those fears play out in vivid, vivid detail.

Clearly, this is not a universal experience. As it happens, my husband enjoyed the book. It’s not the parents’ story; their dysfunction is peripheral to the main character’s growth and development, and he liked that character’s story. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t get over the parents’ messed-up lives. Both opinions are valid. I don’t have to like the book just because lots of other people do, including parents of autistic kids. I don’t even have to like it because it’s well-written. It’s not for me.

The Speed of Dark was a very different experience. I came across it in a bookstore shortly after our son had been diagnosed and I was feeling very morose, particularly after perusing the parenting shelves that were full of cheerful guides on how to raise your child to be perfectly well-adjusted. Even the books on autism seemed to focus on high-functioning, verbal kids, and I just felt so alone. I didn’t need advice; I needed a story. And I found it, written by one of my favorite authors. It wasn’t until then that I learned she actually has an adult son with autism. Obviously she drew upon her on personal experiences and viewpoints in the creation of her story, just as I did in my reading of it.

It’s a book with a lot of ambiguity. Set in the near future, it addresses some pretty intense issues. Is it right or wrong to seek a cure for autism — is it wrong to even call it a “cure” when it’s just a different way of seeing the world? I’ve seen reactions to the ending ranging from exuberantly positive to deeply negative, which seems to indicate that Elizabeth Moon struck a peculiar balance between portraying the main character’s choice as either right or wrong depending on your own personal perspective. My daughter read it recently and said it was a sad ending. I think it left me more contemplative and wistful than sad. But it was what I needed at that time in my life. I understand the criticisms I’ve read about it. I understand the frustration that too many books about autism focus on a cure plot-line rather than almost anything else. I wouldn’t object to the wider inclusion of autistic characters in stories, because the more variety we have, the more likely chance of finding one that strikes the right chord with an equally wide variety of individual readers.

The important thing is recognizing that your personal response will rarely, if ever, be universal. And that’s just fine. It’s still no more or less valid than anyone else’s personal, fully subjective reaction. It’s always personal.

Sticks and Stones

Words are powerful.

Of course I believe that. It’s not really possible, as a writer, to believe otherwise. Why else would I choose words as my primary medium? And yet I find it fascinating that sometimes the most powerful words are those that approach, without ever quite arriving at, the inexpressible. Sometimes it is the very ambiguity, the approximate value of language, that does more than precise words ever could.

Let me offer Jane Austen as an example. She has this peculiar habit of avoiding direct dialogue quotation during her most dramatic scenes. Any fan of Pride and Prejudice knows Mr. Darcy’s famous, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” but what does he say after that? There is no precise quote, only a description that allows the reader to fill in the details of how he manages to simultaneously gratify and insult her. Again, after his second proposal, Elizabeth’s reply is described indirectly — “Elizabeth…immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change…” Rather vague, so that readers have interpreted it to mean anything from a blushing, stuttering, “Yes, my feelings have changed,” to a decidedly non-verbal (and non-ladylike for the time period!) passionate kiss.

Why does Austen do this? It’s clearly a deliberate choice. In other passages she displays a clear talent for writing excellent dialogue, so when she chooses not to, we can assume that she felt a certain amount of ambiguity would serve the narrative better. Sometimes the most powerful thing that words can do is to say, “It was so amazing, I can’t even describe it.” In fact, another of her characters, Mr. Knightley from Emma, says as much during his proposal. “I cannot make speeches, Emma…if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” I find it quite amusing that this line, claiming an inability to compose sweepingly romantic speeches, is frequently cited as one of the most romantic lines in literature.

I’m sure that the inherent ambiguity of language is the primary reason for the warring agony and ecstasy of being a writer. Sometimes the perfect turn of phrase seems so close, almost within my grasp…but I can never quite reach it, having to settle for whatever approximation is sufficient. And yet I love the striving, always trying for perfection, even if by their very nature words will never quite be enough. If not for ambiguity, reading would be dull and workmanlike. The meaning of every phrase and passage would come across without effort or nuance. Useful if you’re reading a how-to guide, but not if you’re trying to delve into the mysteries of the ineffability of existence. Those mysteries are fluid and multifaceted, and a writer must find the language that mirrors such complex fluidity. It may never be a perfect reflection, but we never stop trying.

Place Title Here (Subtitle Optional)

I love coming up with titles. Book titles, chapter titles, even titles of blog posts. Not that I claim to be especially good at it — in fact, I think I enjoy it because it’s so challenging and I know I have plenty of room for improvement. I’ve spent considerable time, far more than necessary, on finding just the right word or sequence of words to pithily encapsulate a story or message. I don’t always find it, but when I do it’s intensely satisfying.

In most cases, it’s easier to be wordy than concise. It requires a special kind of discipline and creativity to pare something down to its most essential elements. I haven’t gotten a Twitter account because I know I’d drive myself crazy trying to contain my thoughts within a particular character limit. Writing a one-page synopsis of a 80,000 word novel? Exhausting. So you can see how coming up with a brief title is an exercise in supreme self-control.

I’m especially fond of one-word titles. There is something so powerful about a single word evoking an entire book, particularly when ambiguity comes into play. Silver is probably my favorite, because it refers to a hair color, a type of woman and a collection of supernatural abilities all in a single word. Of course with just one word there is the higher risk of other books with identical titles, but sometimes it’s worth it. Other times, as with, well, Other, I’m fully aware that it will probably only ever be a placeholder title, because it’s just too generic. Yes, it’s referring doubly to the Other World accessed by magic users and the fact that the Beauty and Beast characters are the other, or opposite, genders from the original, but it’s such a generic word that it simply doesn’t stand out enough. If I ever get it published, I’m sure there will be a new process of selecting a title.

In the world of books, shorter titles are usually better, easier to remember and less unwieldy on a cover. But on the Internet, long headlines are growing more and more popular. I can’t say I have a high opinion of this trend, because it’s related to clickbait. “You’ll never guess what how this inspirational story ended” “This video will restore your faith in humanity” “What happened next will shock you”. Please, no. A headline or title should be a deft tool, offering a glimpse of what the entirety contains and allowing you to decided for yourself whether you want to read it. It shouldn’t be a sledgehammer that cracks you on the head and commands you to click the link.

As artists, we have a fine line to walk between a fostering of emotional responses and plain old manipulation. Of course I want people to read more; of course I want to them to click on my links. But I want them to come honestly, without being tricked. If it’s not something they’d be naturally interested in, that’s too bad, but better for them to know it from the start.

Readers don’t like to be tricked. Let them know what they’re getting into! This is where titles can be a useful indicator of genre or tone. If it contains words like “dragon” or “sword” or something fabricated like “Sinhallia,” it’s probably a work of fantasy. “Forbidden”  or “desire” (or both together)? That’s a romance novel. Oh, but then there’s that pesky ambiguity, giving us two “Invisible Man” titles in drastically different genres. (One science fiction, the other a work of realism that examines race relations!) So there’s another fine line between teasing your audience and just confusing them. It’s not easy, but it sure is fun to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

Reviews, Please (not that I’m begging)

I want to write a little bit about audience feedback and what it means for an artist. By writing this I’m aware that it could be construed as a shameless plea for feedback, but being shameless is kind of inherent in the process of putting your art out there. Too much shame will just make you want to bury your head in the sand.

It’s hard to expose your work to the world. It requires a peculiar combination of vulnerability and thick-skinnedness. You have to know that there might be negative responses from people who don’t like your art or simply don’t like you. And yet you yearn for acknowledgement and praise, and the only way to get that is to risk the opposite.

So we have two basic categories of audience response; negative and positive. But of course it’s more complicated than than. Some feedback is mixed. And sometimes there’s no feedback at all. Allow me to offer a look at the continuum and a sort of ranking of which feedback is the most gratifying and useful, and which is the worst. All of this is my own opinion drawn from my personal experience, but I hope it’ll match up fairly well to the average artist’s experience.

Let’s start with negative just to get it out of the way. The worst kind of feedback is the nasty, personal attacks that have little or nothing to do with the actual work. These are particularly common with Internet trolls whose only drive seems to be spreading around poison and cruelty. Obviously, this is awful. But it’s so blatantly awful and thoughtless that you should be able to recognize how little bearing it has on the actual quality of your work. These people would probably attack the Mona Lisa if they thought it would get them attention.

So it might be even harder to read a well-written and thoughtful review that thoroughly eviscerates your work. This is someone who has taken the time to examine your art seriously and reaches the conclusion that it’s terrible. Ouch. And yet, if it’s honest and written without rancor, you might use it as an opportunity for genuine artistic soul-searching. It’s not fun to realize your work isn’t very good, obviously, but if it leads to improvement, there might be value in even a scathing review. And then, sometimes you can shrug and dismiss the whole thing because they clearly weren’t the right audience for your work, and the right audience got it.

Less useful is a negative response without any qualifiers. Just “I don’t like it.” It carries the same painful quality as the full-fleshed negative review, but not much instruction on how to improve. It’s the equivalent of disliking a video on YouTube, and while there’s certainly no law against someone simply not liking something, it can be very frustrating as an artist to wonder why.

On the positive side, we have the “like.” This is great for a quick, easy boost of confidence for an artist. Counting likes or 5-star reviews is highly encouraging and provides a tangible, even numerical, sense of how popular your work is. But it’s not the best possible positive feedback, because after all it doesn’t help the artist know why or how their art was successful for that particular audience member.

So specific feedback is even better. Not just “I loved this” but “I loved watching how the protagonist changed throughout the story” or “the descriptions were so evocative” or whatever. I understand that while this comes fairly naturally for me as someone who spent her college career writing about literature, it might be a bit more challenging for others. But even a brief detail or two is so helpful. It doesn’t have to be an eloquent 20-page paper (though I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose at that either!), just anything specific. And if you liked the work overall but some things didn’t work for you, please include constructive criticism. Because, again, opportunity for improvement is much appreciated by any artist whose ego hasn’t grown too inflated to accept it.

I would have said that detailed favorable reviews are the best, but my husband pointed out that there’s one way to improve upon them — a favorable review that finishes with “I’m an agent/editor/producer and I want to work with you; shall we draw up the standard Rich and Famous Contract?” So, there’s that.

Now I’m going to finish with what might be the worst response: none at all. I’m divided on this, because trolls and merciless review can be pretty awful, and I don’t know that anything could necessarily top them in testing the thickness of an artist’s skin. However, silence is most assuredly not golden. The answer why is very simple. Artists are blessed and cursed with rich imaginations, and when you get no response, you begin to fill in the silence with the worst possible scenarios. How could we not assume that our work was so abysmal that no one dares to respond, unable to come up with a polite way of saying, “It stinks!” Now, if one takes a moment to reasonably consider the possibilities, one might realize that it’s just as likely the reviewer doesn’t feel they have anything new or useful to contribute in terms of feedback. But one is not inclined to behave reasonably when one is putting one’s work out there in view of the entire world. One feels terrified, and one could take the slightest hint of rejection as good cause to turn and hide one’s work in a hole in the ground forever.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed participating in my church’s choir. Usually my contribution was as the accompanist or one of many sopranos. I was confident enough in my piano skills, though always gratified to receive compliments after a performance. I was not as confident in my singing, but I could safely hide among the blending voices. Until one day the choir director asked if I wanted a solo. I was rather terrified, but the part wasn’t terribly complicated, and in a fit of daring, I decided to give it a try. Even if it didn’t turn out great, I figured that people would be nice enough to acknowledge my efforts.

After the performance, no one said a word. No one told me I’d done badly or offered any backhanded compliments. But no one offered any praise or encouragement or the slightest acknowledgement that I had done anything at all. And the memory still stings some twenty years later. Because of course I could only assume that I had sung so terribly, no one could think of any way to respond other than avoiding any mention of it. They couldn’t say anything nice, so they said nothing at all.  I must have been really bad.

I have no idea how I actually sounded; maybe I was terrible and maybe I was fine. And it’s not like it stunted my promising vocalist career. That was never going to happen. But I cannot tell you how much of a difference it would have made if just one person had said something nice. Not fake, overwrought flattery, just “Hey, good for you to get up there and sing a solo!” I don’t believe we should convince mediocre artists that their work doesn’t need improvement, just to protect their fragile egos. As I said, constructive criticism is very valuable. But above all, feedback. It’s basically the only reason we put our work out there. Deep inside, most artists are like that 12-year-old fanfic writer who posts “PLEASE READ LIKE AND REVIEW” with every new installment. We’ve just gotten a little better at hiding it.