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


BG said...

This blog post is really helpful because I'm now working on a novel that features domestic violence in the main couple and I'm really worried I'm not approaching it the right way. Thank you.

Kristen L. Stevens said...

Excellent choice of clip, Rachel! I like when comedians can be funny and realistic but not offensive. I mean, Carlin was awesome. He's kind of a hero of mine. But it's like the difference between Eminem's raps and Will Smith's raps. One built his career on being offensive, and the other built it around timelessness.

Which, funny enough, applies to the rest of my comment.

Some authors do it right. Sometimes rape, genocide, spousal abuse, etc. is done right. Sometimes they show the right amount of the victim being the victim and the offender being a monster. But they are still people.

And sometimes they make them cliches. A real monster for the offender or a trembling leaf of a victim. Sometimes the act itself is blown out of proportion because the author is afraid of making it seem trivial. And sometimes the author tip toes to avoid offending people.

Ultimately, I think the best advice for authors or writers that want to tackle these subjects is to be true. Be true to your reader (give them the best experience you can without worrying about where on the scale it falls) and be true to your characters (by allowing them to react naturally in any situation).

And, to close, I think your first rule ("don't be a jerk") needs to be applied to writing as a whole. Every time.

Mike Reeves-McMillan said...

Firstly, thanks. This is useful advice, and very relevant to my writing.

Having said that, you mean "canon", not "cannon". Sorry, the editor mode doesn't have an off-switch.

Anonymous said...

What astoundingly terrible advice - don't avoid hard topics but never leave the safety of groupthink. The title of this post should have been 'How to write the Safe Stuff'.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

Thanks for talking about this! I can't tell you how sick I'm getting of urban fantasy heroine's with tragic backstories who don't have any problems due to trauma. It's like the horrible issues of abandonment, assault, etc, don't exist because it's only a plot point.

Judith Smith said...

The Louis CK clip was very good, and you made good use of it. Still -- I come from a time when the answer to about the dangers men pose to women was -- to overprotect women. So, on the one hand, I understand how it is funny, but one the other hand all that backstory is screaming in terror and reaction. Definitely my issue and my reaction -- but, yes, dealing with difficult issues is tricky -- every reader will be dragging their backstory in. But then, what is art for?

Jason Freeman said...

Very interesting post. It is my opinion that good art requires us to shift our thinking and may often challenge our current understanding of the world. Whether it's "hard" or "soft", art needs to connect in order to influence. This goes both was of course. We recently published a blog post about the influence that readers are having on on content creators and publishers. I think you should check it out:

M.V.Freeman said...

This is a fabulous post!

I needed to read this because I like bringing in the hard stuff and I want to write it like you said: It has impact, and not make it into either a trite thing, or even grand-standing. But something visceral and resonates.

Now to unpack and let it unfold..a smidge trickier... (I think that is what edits are for..)

Thank you! :)