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.

Advertisements

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.

The Long View

Lately I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I feel a disproportionate irritation at the phrase “fan theory.” I think there are a few interrelated reasons for my dislike. First of all, from a pedantic standpoint, theory seems the wrong word to me for this particular usage. Theories are created through scientific analysis in order to provide a working explanation for something not yet fully understood. But you can’t approach a story the same way you approach natural phenomena. Stories aren’t created through some confluence of natural laws. They’re created by people. So any questions or mysteries that exist were either deliberately manufactured by the storyteller, or cropped up in the form of plot holes or inconsistencies. Deliberate mysteries have deliberate answers. Unintentional mysteries have none. Either way, the source is right there in the writer’s brain.

Now, I don’t mean to say that I disapprove of any exploration of a story beyond the author’s conscious intent. Far from it! You can interpret a story any way you please, whether the author agrees with you or not. But that’s creating interpretations, not theories. Every time someone uses the word theory, it seems to imply that they’re analyzing real events that arose from underlying causes other than “someone chose to write it that way” and it makes me twitch.

But my annoyance goes deeper than that, I believe. There are really two different kinds of analysis at play here, and the distinction between them is quite significant. The first type is most common with ongoing stories, particularly the sort wherein the storyteller likes to leave out all sorts of dangling questions to keep the audience guessing. It ensures that they’ll tune in next time, desperate for the answers that the following installment will provide. This sort of questioning takes the form of speculation, often accompanied by a fervid accumulation of spoilers. Who is So-and-So’s long lost family? What is the cryptic hero’s mysterious tragic backstory? How did this random character acquire the coveted object? And almost always, the set-up of the question is paired with the winking promise that the answers are coming, as long as you keep watching the next episode.

You might have gathered that I’m not particularly impressed with this sort of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I have jumped on the spoiler train many a time, caught up in the need to uncover mysteries just the same as everyone else. But I’ve learned from those experiences that the reveal of surprises, while exciting at the time, is not enough to make a story truly engaging. It’s a once-and-done thing, and the excitement fades with every subsequent re-watch. Because the answers are very simple once you learn them. There’s no more room for speculation or nuance. After a while it begins to feel like nothing more than a collection of a cheap gimmicks.

So what kind of analysis do I prefer? The questions that have no definitive answers, the mysteries that go beyond the limited scope of a story’s specific details to encompass the eternal questions of human existence. What is the nature of good and evil? What does it mean to be truly selfless? Is perfect happiness possible in an imperfect world? And so on and so on. What makes these questions so compelling is the myriad of potential interpretations, allowing you to go on thinking about them long after the initial idea was sparked. It’s not clear-cut. And it’s the sort of thinking that rewards multiple re-reads or re-views of a story rather than diminishing once the answer is revealed. The best stories, I’ve always felt, are the ones I want to keep coming back to. And if all the answers have already been given, what’s the point of coming back? As I’ve said before, I like stories that encourage me to think, not stories that tell me how to think.

I understand that my preferred method of engaging with stories is not universal…probably not even close. There’s a reason that cliff-hangers are so effective. And I’m not opposed to the occasional tantalizing question leading to a shocking twist. But a story that’s built upon nothing more than a series of ever-more complex mysteries is probably going to collapse in on itself by the end. For true substance, you need to have deeper questions that are worth considering long after the more straight-forward mysteries have all been revealed.

Make the Thing

Though I’ve explored fan fiction a bit before, I’ve been thinking about it lately thanks to this article, which focuses a great deal on the gendered factions of fan culture as well as the reasoning behind those divisions. It’s stuck in my head partly because I’m not sure I agree with all the reasoning or assumptions.

I certainly agree that a lot of the criticism of fanworks tends to be heavier against females, particularly teenage girls. It’s peculiar and quite sad when a group of people who have experienced ostracism, because of their interest in a niche topic like comic books or sci-fi or whatever, will turn around and ostracize a smaller group for not being “true fans” and other such hurtful gatekeeping. Stepping on people beneath you, so to speak, isn’t going to prevent those above you from stepping on you. Stop spreading the poison!

But in any case, why is it that female fans are overwhelmingly more likely to write fan fiction? Lots of theories have been thrown around. That article leans toward the assumption that females, and other under-represented groups, are more inclined to see a need for transforming their fandom’s stories into some more inclusive. I understand that inclination, but it can’t be a universal motivation — it doesn’t really reflect my own engagement with fanworks, for one thing. My fan fiction is less likely to focus on alternative scenarios or original characters and more likely to portray missing moments (what happened in between scenes, as it were) or the same events as experienced by a different point-of-view character.

In other words, with a few rare exceptions I tend to hew pretty close to the original canon, rather than transforming it dramatically. Am I in the minority? Maybe so. You’d have to take a pretty tremendous survey of fan fiction to collect sufficient data, and I’m not about to embark on a study that vast or labyrinthine. I think, mostly, I want to point out that there are probably as many reasons for creating fanworks as there are fanwork-producing fans. We all approach our fandoms in a different way. While there are obviously trends, hence the dramatic preponderance of women writing fan fiction, each individual will have their own varied reasons. For me, it doesn’t feel as much a feature of my womanhood as the simple fact that I’m a writer, and writing is how I engage with almost everything.

There is also something that appeals to me in the inherent challenge of creating something new within an existing framework of parameters. Yes, I really believe that in some ways fan fiction — at least well-written fan fiction — is more challenging to create than original fiction. I’m not even talking about pleasing the audience (although a fandom audience, however eager, will possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the story’s details and will pounce on you if your fic doesn’t match up). No, I’m talking about my own personal determination to keep my work canon-compliant. It’s a sort of exercise in finding solutions that are consistent with established boundaries. In the world of Harry Potter, you can’t resolve a problem by having your characters fly off in a spaceship. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the worldbuilding. However, it’s quite reasonable in a Star Wars fan fic. If you were crafting a Harry Potter/Star Wars crossover, of course, we’d have to revisit that, but let’s talk instead about an entirely different sort of crossover that I embarked on last year.

The idea of tackling a challenge was probably the primary motivation behind one of my most expansive fanworks — setting the story of the Star Wars saga to the tune of songs from Les Miserables. It was a massive undertaking, and utterly useless from any practical standpoint. So why did I do it? It started out, of course, from a mutual love of Star Wars and Les Mis, and the realization that a song like “Stars” could be easily modified to portray Vader’s search for Luke. But why did I continue writing songs until I had covered pretty much the entire six episodes? Why did I go on and create videos with still clips from the films and recordings of my shaky voice singing every single part? These were not short videos. And it was never an easy project. I had only just learned how to use iMovie, and my amateur skills led to a lot of frustration.

And yet I had so much fun, overall, that I find myself wistfully recalling those hours and hours of work and wishing I had a similar project to throw myself into now. Overcoming the challenges was part of the joy. I wanted to find a song for every single significant plot point or emotional beat. I wanted the song choices to be consistent with the individual moments as well as mirroring similar moments at other points in the saga, just like the motifs that recur in the original movies and in the original musical. I put a lot of thought into writing every lyric. I studied the libretto of Les Mis and used a rhyming dictionary. Then I selected literally hundreds of screencaps from Star Wars to correspond to the songs.

Why? Because, simply, I enjoyed doing it. Yes, I would like it if hordes of people complimented me on my songwriting/video-making skills and listened with rapt attention as I explained every one of my choices with the music and the rewritten lyrics (I’m still too nervous about trolls to post the videos on anything but the unlisted setting) but just making the thing was a source of joy.

So — make the thing. Don’t worry what anyone else assumes about your motives or your relative geek status or any of that nonsense. If the process of creation brings you joy — and as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or impede your general functionality as a human being — go ahead and make the thing.

Empire

I’ve never been a regular participant in National Novel Writing Month, simply because I haven’t needed the fixed schedule and/or motivation to get myself writing. Every time November rolled around, I was either already writing a novel or had just finished one. But as it happened, last year I got an idea for a story close enough to November that I figured, why not wait until the 1st to start writing the book, then try to write every day for a month and see what happened?

Where I got the idea, by the way, was from my brilliant, imaginative daughter. She has about fifty ideas for stories, and she was rattling off just a few of them to her brother when I overheard a premise that instantly grabbed hold of me. I asked her if she would mind if I wrote that story, and she happily agreed. The basic idea (which originated in a dream she’d had) is that a girl dies and wakes up to discover she’s an Empress.

I started making character sketches and generating some preliminary worldbuilding. By November 1st, I was quite impatient to get started. I didn’t end up writing every day, but when I did write, I usually tried to push myself to at least 2000 words. I was pretty close to 50,000 words (the bare minimum length for a novel; most YA books are longer) by the end of the month, so I pressed on at a similar rate until I finished the story at around 67,000 words on December 16th. I’m not sure if it’s the fastest I’ve written; I’d have to look up the stats for Mortal Failings, which I wrote in a rather vituperative frenzy. It was certainly one of the fastest. Not that speed is a necessarily a quality of a good writer — it might even be the opposite. However, there is an undoubted value in the practice of discipline, of making oneself write frequently and consistently. The only difference between a would-be writer and a writer is actually sitting down and writing. (Or standing and writing, if you prefer. Whatever gets the words on the page.)

Empire is the working title; not sure if that will change. The story itself was quite fun to explore. Being transported from the mundane world to a fantastic one is quite a common trope, but I tried to tweak and twist the conventions in a fresh way. For one thing, Rachel dies. As far as she knows, there’s no going back, afterlife dream or not. Also, a lot of protagonists go through a stage of denial, insisting that it’s all a dream, but mine never stops denying the reality of this strange Empire she’s supposed to rule. I fully acknowledge that this was influenced by the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to a certain degree, though, um, with significantly less darkness and horror and self-loathing. I wanted to explore that tension between trusting our senses or wondering if everything we experience, if indeed all reality, is nothing but the product of our minds.

In this new world, Rachel (or Su-mari Endira Rakhel, as she is called by her courtiers) is a revered Empress who wields great powers to protect a vast Empire. In her old world, she was an ordinary girl just about to graduate from high school. Why wouldn’t she prefer the new world? Because she has no memory of it, and she remembers her old life and fully believes it was real. And it was a happy life, simple and unassuming though it was. To deny that would be to deny her family, her friends and all her experiences and memories. And yet she can’t hide away and ignore her new life. Dangers threaten the Empire. Even if it’s all a dream, she want to do the right thing and protect the helpless. Not that she has any idea how to wield her powers. There’s also the little matter of discovering someone else from her old life in this new one….

I haven’t touched it since finishing the first draft in December, so we’ll have to see what I think of it after letting it sit for a month. I’m sure it’ll need plenty of revising — alas, my least favorite part of the writing process — but it sure was fun creating something out of nothing in less than two months.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Cimorene

This character and series of books (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede) provided one of my earliest encounters with the notion of turning tropes upside-down. I had a solid familiarity with the usual conventions of fairy tales and fantasy stories when I first discovered Dealing with Dragons as a pre-teen. A story that toyed with those conventions in such a playful, entertaining fashion was just about the perfect book for me at that time.

Cimorene is a princess who voluntarily runs away to live with dragons rather than being kidnapped by them. In addition to managing the household of her dragon, Kazul, she has to fend off the countless princes who keep trying to rescue her. Eventually she discovers, and subsequently foils, a secret plot to overthrow the dragons’ ruling structure. Along the way there are amusing bits like outsmarting a vengeful genie (“CHOOSE THE MEANS OF YOUR DEATH” “Old age, please”) and discovering that wizards can’t be melted with plain water like witches, but if you add soap and just a little lemon…

First and foremost, it’s funny, and rewards those readers who know the typical tropes by heart. Second, it portrays several well-rounded female characters in addition to Cimorene — one of them, a witch named Morwen, is the main character of the third book. Thirdly, the plotlines are engaging and contain just the right level of peril for young readers. There is some romance, but it doesn’t undermine the rest of the story or character development as is too often the case in other books. It’s a series that I was happy to recommend to my own daughter.

There are, of course, plenty of stories that subvert familiar conventions (my sister has noted that it would actually be subversive, at this point, to have a princess who enjoyed embroidery) but this is the particular one that encouraged me to really start thinking outside the box. I started actively looking for other books that told their tales with a bit of a wink or a smirk. In later years, I learned to deconstruct tropes as I studied literature, acknowledging what made them work but also seeking fresh, creative ways to remake them or do away with them altogether. And in my own writing I have gleefully looked for ways to turn conventions inside-out. I have no doubt that all of this carries the influence of Cimorene, who ignored the protests of traditionally-minded sorts to find her own peculiar path.

Well, that’s 26 posts in this series. I’ve spent a year on it and enjoyed it very much; now I think it’s time to wrap it up. There are, of course, countless more women writers and characters that I could discuss, but I’d like to move on to something different next year. To start with, I’ve just finished another novel — hooray! –and I have a few things to say about that. Let’s be honest; I’d love to see my own characters showing up on a list like this someday. Anything is possible…

Women of Speculative Fiction: Luthien

I would be remiss if I failed to mention J.R.R. Tolkien, the widely-acknowledged father of modern fantasy, at some point in this survey of speculative fiction. And yet when it comes to female characters, it might seem like there’s not much to write about. His famous works — and therefore most read — are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but among all the characters of The Hobbit, the book contains literally not a single woman. The trilogy fares a little better in this regard, with several significant female roles including the powerful elf Galadriel, Arwen of Rivendell, and of course the sword-maiden Eowyn. There’s something truly epic about how she reveals who she is just before slaying the Witch-King, who believed himself invincible because of the prophecy that “no man” could destroy him.

Still, it could appear that as far as Tolkien was concerned, powerful women were the exception, not the rule — unless you dig a little deeper. If you’re willing to crack open The Silmarillion,  you’ll find that Tolkien was perfectly happy to create striking female characters. The ratio is still skewed toward men, true, but it’s a marked improvement over zero or three. And then we have Luthien.

As her story begins, you might fear that she’s playing the passive part of a typical princess in a fairy tale. Luthien, the daughter of a elven king and a Maia (basically the angels of Tolkien’s world) falls in love with the mortal man Beren. Her father demands that Beren bring him a Silmaril from the crown of the evil Morgoth as the price to marry her (thinking it impossible) and then imprisons Luthien to keep her from going to help him.

But this is not the tale of a helpless maid in a tower. Using the powers she has inherited from her mother, Luthien escapes and goes to Beren’s aid. She befriends the mighty hound Huan, defeats Sauron (currently the servant of Morgoth), rescues Beren from captivity, transforms herself into a vampire and Huan into a werewolf to infiltrate Morgoth’s realm and mesmerizes him with song while Beren steals the Silmaril. Oh, and she also travels to the realm of the dead and manages to persuade the Lord of the Dead to return Beren to her after he dies, then chooses to become mortal so they can remain together.

If that’s not enough to impress you, Luthien carried deep personal meaning for Tolkien himself. He was greatly moved by the sacrifices his own wife had made, particularly her conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism so they could be married. On the Tolkiens’ tombstone, “Beren” is written below his name and “Luthien” is written below his wife’s. It was the highest tribute he could offer.