Monday, September 30, 2013

Almost there!

Just a note to say I haven't died or forgotten about this blog. My blogging time has been taken up by off site promo for my new SciFi book FORTUNE'S PAWN which, by the way, releases Nov. 5!

I'm also putting the finishing touches on a secret project I think you guys are going to loooove. I know I'm super excited about it! So bear with me and I'll make it worth the wait, honest! Won't be too much longer.

love and baby sloths,

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Write the Hard Stuff

First up, I wanted to share with you a preview snippet from some promotional writing I'm doing for Fortune's Pawn. It's a bit out of context, but I'm so proud of this paragraph I think I might burst.
"I'd actually say that the most pernicious aspect of sexism in Science Fiction isn't that there aren't enough of us [women], but how often the women who are here and have made huge contributions to the genre get ignored and passed over in favor of their male contemporaries. This vacuum of recognition isn't just unfair and dumb (seriously, why would you want to ignore Ursula LeGuin? That's like ignoring cake), it leaves every new generation of women writers feeling like lonely pioneers when we're really just the latest addition to a long, wondrous, and tragically undervalued cannon of female authored Science Fiction."

Okay, now that I'm done tooting my own horn (for now, at least), I want to talk about something much more serious. It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of SFF book review blog The Book Smugglers. I don't always agree with their reviews (because who always agrees with anyone?), but I absolutely love the way they approach genre fiction, a class of literature that often skates past critical scrutiny on the grounds that it's "escapism" and therefore below reproach, with the sort of serious analysis good writing deserves and bad writing needs. I especially love the way they call bullshit on sexism, racism, and privilege whenever they see it, and their take downs are some of my favorite reading on the internet.

But while Reader Rachel eats this stuff up, Writer Rachel gets a little nervous. This sort of criticism (which is by no means limited to The Book Smugglers. There's a whole host of fantastic review blogs out there putting genre books through the wringer and being entertaining and informative while they do it) sets a very high bar for thinking about my own choices in a novel--how I represent gender, is my cast all white, am I falling into any blind zones of stereotype, etc.

Now make no mistake, this sort of thinking is a Very Good Thing. Choices in novels should be carefully considered, that's what makes you a good writer instead of a thoughtless hack churning out unexamined drek. But at the same time, it's easy to overthink yourself into a panic, especially if your book is about tough topics like racism, sexual violence, addiction, or any of the other darker parts of the current human condition. You want to tell your story in an impactful, hard hitting way, but you (or, at least, I) don't want to get called out for being an insensitive jerk when that's not what you meant at all.

So how do you do it? How do you safely write about the hard stuff without softening it up? Well, the easiest path is just to stay away from controversial topics. No one can call you out for handling rape badly if you don't write it, right? And if you never write a character of a race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background other than your own, you're safe on that score, too. We're also missing the point.

The truth is, it's pretty much impossible to write anything that matters safely. Art, even the stuff produced purely entertainment purposes, is meant to push boundaries. If it doesn't, it's only reinforcing the same old status quo, which is a problem in and of itself. But just because it's pretty much impossible not to step on toes when you're herding sacred cows doesn't mean we should just let them be. These are powerful stories, and they need to be told. The key, though, is to always be sure to allow these topics the room and depth they deserve within your narrative, and, most important of all, to be sure you actually know what you're trying to say and feel proud standing behind it.

That fact that you're even considering how to write hard things the right way already puts you miles above the really problematic authors (you know the sort), but it can still be a complicated minefield, and one I was especially afraid of entering. It took me years to gain the courage as a writer to start tackling the harder topics, but caution can be rewarding, and I think I've worked some good rules of engagement over the years to make sure I don't accidentally come off looking like a jerk. And since this wouldn't be a Rachel Aaron writing post without a list, here they are!

1. Don't be a jerk.
This is kind of obvious, but considering some of the author reactions I've seen, it clearly needs to be said. If you are an actual jerk with jerky opinions who writes jerky jerk work, then all the writing tips in the universe won't stop readers and reviewers from calling you out for it. That's the price of jerkdom; not being liked or taken seriously. This isn't to say that you can't be a mega-bestselling jerk, but if you insist on putting offensive material in your books, then you can't get mad when people get offended. You will get mad, of course, because you're a jerk, but you have no ground to stand on. Not that you'll see that.

Fortunately, you, my lovely reader, are not actually a jerk, and so this point is not for you. Unless, of course, you are a jerk, in which case I'm very glad to have made you aware of your jerkitude. Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step toward recovery.

Caveat: this isn't to say you can't include characters who are jerks. Villains are the obvious example, but side characters and even protagonists can be homophobic, sexist, entitled, racist assholes and still be good characters. The key here, though, is to make sure the narrative calls these people out on their awful opinions and behavior. Have another character say something, or have appropriately bad things happen to them as a result of their biases (Woman Meteorologist, "Don't go out there! It's acid monsoon season!" Jerk, "Pah, what do women know about weather?" *Jerk goes out door, is melted by acid monsoon* and SCENE.)

That example's a little extreme, but you get the idea. The key here is that you're using the narrative to separate a jerk character from the story as a whole. You may not be a racist, but if you put a racist character  who says racist things in your book and then allow those ideas to go unchallenged, readers have no reason not to think that's what you actually believe. I'm not saying that every character who's not a well-adjusted saint has to get melted under an acid monsoon, but there's got to be something that lets your reader know that this character's bigoted opinions are not reflective of your own. Unless, of course, they are. In which case, see point one.

2. If you're going to tackle a big idea, make sure you give yourself the room to do it properly.
Say you have a character in your book who is raped. That's heavy stuff. Maybe it happened a long time ago, or maybe it happens during the course of the plot. Wherever or whenever the rape occurs, though, it changed that character enormously, and it's not the sort of thing you can gloss over or hand wave away. Rape is not character development, it's a real and horrible tragedy that 17% of your white female readers, 18% of your black or latina female readers, and 34% of your Native American/Alaskan female readers have personally suffered.

Think about that for a second. That is some heavy heavy ordinance, and it needs to be handled as such. I'm not at all saying that a raped woman's character needs to be defined by rape (god, PLEASE don't do that), but at the same time, it's not something you can ignore, especially since there are readers (myself among them) who often just won't read books with rape in them because it is so upsetting and it's often handled so so badly.

Does this mean rape is a verboten topic? Absolutely not. But it's also not the sort of thing you can just throw in because you want something bad to happen. You can't have a character get raped and then be fine in the next scene. You can't have a character rape another character and then patch everything back together with an apology and a thirty second "You know what I learned today" life lesson. You can't have a character condone or ignore a rape and then expect us to like them without a serious "oh God, how could I have been so wrong!" character redemption arc. Rape is the nuclear weapon of things that can happen to characters, and if you're going to put it in your story, you have to be ready to handle the fallout with the respect and care that it deserves.

Rape is just one example. There are plenty of horrible, horrible things that people do to other people, and if your book is going to be widely read, chances are that parts of your audience have suffered those humiliations and pains first hand. So if you're going to tackle a hard topic, don't insult your readers, the people who make your dream of writing possible, by reducing their tragedies to a plot point. Instead, give yourself the narrative space to explore the implications and consequences of serious issues properly. You don't have to pull your punches, in fact, I hope you don't, but you do have to think long and hard about where they land, and, more importantly, whom you're knocking out.

3. Don't make the victim the butt of the joke.
Man, this is getting heavy! Let's lighten it up. Let's say for a second that you're like me, and you like to write fun, action packed books, but you still want to include issues like racism and sexism because they're important and make for cracking good stories. How do you reconcile serious heavy matter with a lighthearted story? Is it even possible to joke about this sort of stuff?

This is a pretty loaded topic, but I'm a firm believer than joking about the hard stuff is actually the best way to start breaking it down into something we can actually deal with. The key (as always) is that you have to be aware of what your joke is doing. Even a joke about sexual assault can be funny, provided you never ever ever make the victim the butt of the joke.

For example, comedian Louis CK has a very famous clip about how there's no greater threat to women than men.

In this bit, he talks about how a woman agreeing to go on a date with an unknown man is an incredibly courageous act, and also insane, because men are the greatest cause of injury and suffering for women. “If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion," he says. "‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice! I hope he doesn't do what he’s going to do.’”

At its heart, this is a joke about rape. Yet unlike other, awful, white-hot rage inducing rape jokes, this one actually works, because the victim is not the one being made fun of. We are not laughing at the person who was raped, or rape itself, or even the rapist. We're laughing at how screwed up our society is where this sort of thing is still allowed to happen.

By pointing the joke in that direction, Louis CK gently leads his audience to consider "hey, that is screwed up." And then maybe they'll start thinking about it, and maybe the next time they see something questionable happening, they'll say something, or do something they wouldn't have done if they hadn't heard that joke.

That's the power of making fun of awful things, it tricks people into thinking in ways they're not used to, or don't want to. That's the power of fiction, too, but as Uncle Ben says, with great power comes great responsibility. This sort of humor takes a lot of careful thought and consideration, and even then, humor is subjective. What I find funny, other people may find in horrible taste, that's just how it goes. But if you think about what you do before you do it and always take the time to consider "whom am I really making fun of here?" you can find some really new and creative ways to tackle difficult issues in a non-depressing fashion, and that's always a good thing.

So that's my post. I hope my box of tricks helps you tackle your own stories. I'm always interested to hear how you've tackled this sort of thing in your own writing, so leave a comment below if you care to. Also feel free to leave comments telling me how you disagree. I'm not quite as happy to get those, but they are important none the less.

As always, thanks for reading, and happy writing!
- Rachel