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One of my favourite TV writers, Sarah Dollard, recently wrote some beautiful writing advice, which is applicable to all kinds of writing. Go read it!
I want to bring particular attention to this:
Be critical of film and TV, even the stuff you love . . . If you want to be a truly good writer, you can’t have sacred cows. If other people think an episode of your favourite show is sexist or racist or short-sighted in some way, hear them out and consider their point of view. You can enjoy a piece of media while also acknowledging its shortcomings. However, if you hold your favourite writer or producer above criticism, then you’ll likely fall into the same traps as they do, and you too may alienate or hurt people with your work. Accept that no one is perfect, not even your hero. Accept that no one’s writing is perfect, even if it’s hugely entertaining; we all have unconscious hang-ups and prejudices, and many of us write from a position of privilege. One of the best things you can do as a writer (and a person) is to listen to the way other people receive stories.
Because every word is the truth. We do not write in a vacuum. We write about the real world while living in the real world. That’s true whether we are writing about zombies or vampires or high school or genocide or butterflies or all five. Our words have effects on other people.
We need to be mindful of the history of the genre we write. For example, I’m watching Fear of the Walking Dead because I love zombies and will watch anything with even the slight possibility that a zombie might show up. Fear is a spin off from The Walking Dead. One of the biggest criticisms of that show is how few black people there are. There were hardly any black extras either, which is particularly weird given that it’s set near Atlanta which has one of the largest African-American populations in the USA. You would think that the creators and writers of Fear of the Walking Dead would be aware of that criticism. Yet the only named characters killed in the first two episodes were black. Seriously? You couldn’t kill a white named character? You couldn’t let one black character survive?
They ignored the history of their particular franchise and the broader history of US TV where black characters have always been treated as disposable. What were they thinking? They weren’t. They sat inside their blinkered world and wrote from there. Don’t do that.
Critiquing the things we love can also give us insight into the failings of our own work. As Sarah says “listen[ing] to the way other people receive stories” gives you a richer understanding of how our stories can be read and of what stories can do.
I wrote about the racism in my own work three years ago. I would write a very similar post if I were to write it today. It is essential to know as much as we can about our genre and its pitfalls when we write. Otherwise we’ll make the same mistakes.
I write YA. It’s a genre that in Australia, the UK and the US is overwhelmingly about white, straight, middle-class teenagers and overwhelmingly written by white, straight, middle-class authors. The blind spots of my beloved genre are many. This is why we have organisations like Diversity in YA founded by Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. They have a whole section where they look at the statistics on diversity in YA. I highly recommend checking it out.
All too often white writers who create POC characters expect to be congratulated for having made the effort and do not deal well with criticism of those characters. We forget that POC writing POC get criticism too. Have a look at the criticism African-Americans get for not representing their community in a positive way and for not writing uplifting books.
We must also remember that diversity is not just about who is represented in the story and on the covers of those books, which, yes, is deeply important, but also about who is writing and publishing the books. Having most of the POC characters in YA written by white authors is not a huge improvement.
Everyone gets criticised. No writer is perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t write a satisfying ending to save her life. Her books just end, people! So annoying. Georgette Heyer was a racist, anti-semite, full of horrible class prejudices. If she were alive today she’d be embarrassing the shit our of her fans on twitter every day. She and Rupert Murdoch would probably be besties. I still think Heyer’s one of the best comic writers of the twentieth century.
TL;DR: Read Sarah’s wonderful writing advice. Our writing heroes are fallible so are we. We must know the history of what we write. Listen to how other people respond to stories. Just listen!
A big deal is made of the first sentence of novels. There’s gazillions of pages listing good ones. Almost every obsessive reader can quote their favourite ones. Every Jane Austen fan can reel off:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I mean even I know that one off by heart and I have the world’s worst memory. Tragically it’s just about the only first sentence I do know. No, not even the first sentences of my own novels. I have to look them up.
Pretty much every agent or editor or writer when giving advice will tell you that the first sentence is crucial. That you have to get it right! When they talk about what a first sentence should do they tend to say it should make you want to read on, which, well, yes, yes it should. But that’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you write a sentence that will make readers want to read on?
I think a more useful way of thinking about the first sentence is to think about its relationship to the rest of the novel. Many first sentences operate as a kind of shorthand for the entire novel, giving the reader a sense of what’s to come, who’s telling the story, and what kind of story it is. Or, almost the opposite, messing with the reader, getting them to think it’s one kind of book when it’s not, which perversely also gives the reader a sense of what’s to come: a novel that will mess with the reader.
But you don’t have to be all show-offy to achieve that. Here are two simple first sentences. The first from one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948):
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
The narrator is a writer, possibly an eccentric who likes to sit in places not traditionally used for sitting, or perhaps a child who hasn’t quite figured out where it is or isn’t appropriate to sit or doesn’t care, or it could be someone with some kind of foot or ankle or lower leg disorder which means their feet need to be soaked, though why in the kitchen sink and not in a bucket? What is the “this” that she’s writing? Is is a journal? Does that mean “this” is a novel told in journal entries? Or is it a letter? Is this an epistolary novel? Or is it a novel that’s telling us it’s a novel? So many questions. Such an arresting image. And now I want to read the book all over again.
The second one is from another favourite, Courtney Milan’s marvellous The Suffragette Scandal (2014):
“Edward Clark was disgusted with himself.”
This is the opening sentence and, boy, does it sum up the whole book in which Edward Clark continues to be disgusted with himself throughout. I’d argue that a big part of the plot is him learning to do something about that disgust, to change himself into someone who doesn’t disgust himself. Though it becomes clear that the initial incident that he’s being disgusted about is not, in fact, a big deal. Nor is he that disgusted. It’s more a figure of speech.
So, how do you write a good first sentence?
Buggered if I know. But I will suggest that it helps to not think about that first sentence when writing your first, raw, zero draft. For me that’s a recipe for sitting there staring at the blank page, coming up with nothing, and developing an increasingly strong urge to tweet, or go kill zombies, or clean the kitchen, or go for a run, or anything else that isn’t writing.
If I think about writing a perfect pearl of a first sentence I cry. So instead I just type, banging out the story, characters, ideas that are pushing me into starting a new novel.
I started my next novel in September 2013. I didn’t write the first sentence—or indeed the first chapter—until January 2015. The previous first chapter I threw out because it wasn’t working. This has been true of most of my published novels.
That said, you might be one of those writers who has to have a perfectly formed first sentence in order to keep writing. There are such writers. Many of whom manage to write many novels. So do not despair if you turn out to be one of them. Every kind of writer has their own burdens and to keep us own our toes what those burdens can change from story to story.
For me it’s impossible to write a good first sentence until I know what the novel is about and not being an outliner I can’t know what the book is about until I’ve written the first draft. Perhaps outliners bang out the perfect opening sentence straight away? Perhaps some of them have that perfect sentence in their outline? Sometimes I am very envious of how I imagine outliners write.
Of course not all opening sentences sum up the entire book in a neat way. Or at least that’s not all they do. Consider the opening of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987):
124 was spiteful.
So many questions it raises. How is 124 a who? How has a number become a name? Who is 124? Why are they spiteful? How can a number be spiteful? I must read and find out.
Then there’s massive generalisation openings, which Jane Austen brilliantly skewers with the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. These kind of overblown aphoristic openings are a hallmark of nineteenth century literature, and though oft quoted, are way harder to get away with these days—unless you’re writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. Though that makes me want to try one of these openings with a contemporary novel. Take Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities from 1859:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
While Dickens’ opening here is overblown it’s hard to deny that period of French history was kind of intense.
Then there’s Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877):
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
I call total bullshit on this opening. There are as many different kinds of happiness as there are of misery. So, boo to you, Tolstoy. Maybe it’s less stupid in the original Russian?
There is, however, no denying the poetry of both those openings. They trip off the tongue and are very easy to remember. Though, most people only ever quote the first two clauses of the
Tale of Two Cities opening because we are lazy creatures. Maybe that’s why long, elegiac opening sentences went out of fashion?
TL;DR First sentences. They are important. But don’t sweat them unless you have to. The beauty of writing as opposed to, say, live debating, is that you can rewrite until you get it right.
I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.
The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.
Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.
I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.
My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”
Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”
MP: “They’d shout through the door.”
Me: “What if they’re mute?”
As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?
MP: “Don’t hit your sister!”
Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”
MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”
Me: “But what if . . . ”
MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”
Me: *side eyes parents*
Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?
I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.
If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.
It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.
When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.
Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:
And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.
When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.
Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.
There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.
Finally, to tie this into Scott Westerfeld’s marvellous series on how to write YA, extrapolating about other people’s lives is a great way to build empathy, which Scott argues is one of the most important functions of a novel.
Sometimes I get asked questions on twitter that cannot be answered in 140 characters. Candanosa asked one such yesterday:
Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?
I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.
My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.
However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.
I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.
My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed me. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.
If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.
These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.
I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath, set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.
It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.
Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.
Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!
What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous. If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!
Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.
I don’t know who first called it process porn but me and many of my friends like, Gwenda Bond, call talking about how we write “process porn” and have done so for ages. There’s something delicious about getting together with a bunch of writer friends and talking about how we dealt with this or that problem. “Once I realised the mc hates water the whole book opened up!” “The switch from third to first person was what nailed it.” “Wrong pov. 30,000 words in and I realised it should be from the sister’s not the brother’s pov. Aargh!”
It feels wicked and indulgent but also practical and comraderly. Like we are a bunch of carpenters comparing our joinery and carving tools. It’s fun.
Gwenda received this wonderful piece of advice from Tim Wynne-Jones: “The most important thing every writer learns is her process.”
That is so true. When I started trying to write novels for the first time I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never read a single word about how other writers did it. I just started typing.
And I didn’t finish.
So I started typing something else.
And didn’t finish that either.
And so it went.
I didn’t finish my first novel until many, many, many years after my first attempt at writing a novel. The first draft of that first novel took eleven years to write. And I was only able to finish it after I had written my PhD thesis and discovered that, yes, I was capable of finishing a really long document.
That is I had to learn how to finish. I had to discover my process for finishing novels.
I didn’t sell my first novel until more than a decade after that and it was not that first book I wrote. Or the second one. It was, in fact, a proposal for three books that I hadn’t written yet, the Magic or Madness trilogy.
In the meantime I started to learn to rewrite. A long and agonising process that I’m still undergoing only I really enjoy it these days. Both the rewriting and the learning how to do it better.
And the way I did that was to read what writers I admired wrote about writing. Samuel R. Delany, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, Jean Bedford all guided my learning how to write before I ever met them. And, eventually, when I met other writers, I was privileged enough to have those delicious process porn conversations and ask those other writers about how they rewrote.
But mostly I learned to rewrite from, you know, rewriting. And I discovered that for me a key part of that is having other people read over what I’d written and tell me what they didn’t understand, which bits were boring, etc. etc. See yesterday’s post.
So what Tim Wynne-Jones said a million times. Learning how to write is learning how you, in particular, write. What your process is. For most of us writers it is incredibly useful to know how other people write. It shows you that there is no One True Way. And exposes you to other ways that you can try. They may not work for you but they may help you discover something else about your process.
One hugely reassuring discovery for me was that I do not write every book the same way. That I cannot write every book the same way. With the novel I just wrote I got stuck and found myself having to outline to figure out how to move on. Me, who hates outlining. But, whatever, it worked.
In conclusion: we writers talk process because it is delicious and fun and because it helps us become better writers. There are a million and one ways to write a book. You do not have to stick to the one way. Unless that is what works for you.
P.S. I wrote “point” and “porn” in the title of this post. Tee hee. I really hope my spam filters are working.
Below is a story that I wrote in my late teens. I remember the day I finished it. I was so full of joy and pride in my genius. It was the best story I had ever written. (True fact. I was rubbish back then.) Maybe even the best story anyone had ever written!
Or, so, I thought on the day I finished it. I don’t remember whether I sent it anywhere to be published. I do remember that at some point, not that long after finishing it, I decided it was, in fact, the worst story ever written and consigned it to the “this is crap” file.
It is pretty awful. But more in a bad-boring than bad-entertaining way. Nevertheless, I thought it might be educational for aspring writers to see what this particular published author’s juvenilia looks like. I’m sure there are other authors out there who wrote unbelievably great stories when they were teens. I, alas, am not one of them. Wasn’t till I was in my 30s that I wrote anything halfway decent. Some of us are slow learners. Very slow.
The good news is that it’s relatively short—just shy of 2,000 words—the bad news is that it seems a LOT longer than it is. Sorry.
I have added footnotes throughout to explain to you just what is so terrible about the writing. Not that it is even slightly difficult to figure out for yourself. I have resisted making any corrections because, really, the only remedy for this story is to be take it out the back and shoot it. I’ve also placed it behind the cut so that you don’t have to sully your eyes with it unless you really, really want to.
Girl Meets Boy
Felicé watched him. He was standing outside the café looking listless, a coke in one hand. He looked around him, at his watch, at the cars and buses and at his watch again. He started to pace back and forth, sometimes combing at his short hair with his hand. Yet he didn’t have an air of waiting for any one in particular. It was more like a ritual. He seemed too consciously alone; Felicé was sure he was waiting generally, for something to happen, for someone like her to talk to him. She closed the book she’d been reading and stared at him. He was very handsome. Perhaps he was waiting for someone.
0 Comments on A Story What I Wrote in My Late Teens! Avert Thine Eyes! Run for the Hills! as of 4/25/2012 5:15:00 PM
Every time I mention my RSI people suggest that I use voice recognition software. I do use it. And though I hate it I know that it has transformed gazillions of people’s lives. There are people who literally could not write without it. For them VRS is a wonderful thansformative thing. Bless, voice recognition software!
I am well aware that what VRS is trying to do is unbelievably complicated. Recognising spoken language and reproducing it as written language is crazy hard. The way we make sense of what someone says is not just about recognising sounds. We humans (and other sentient beings) are also recognising context and bringing together our extensive knowledge of our own culture every time we have a conversation. And even then there are mishearings and misunderstandings. Also remember one of the hardest things for VRS is for it to distinguish between the speaker’s sounds and other noises. Humans have no problem with that.
I know my posts here about VRS have been cranky so I’ll admit now that there are moments when I almost don’t hate it: VRS is a much better speller than I am. That’s awesome. And sometimes its mistakes are so funny I fall over laughing. Who doesn’t appreciate a good laugh?
I use VRS only for e-mails and blog posts. And sometimes when I chat. But I usually end up switching to typing because it simply cannot keep up with the pace of those conversations and I can’t stand all the delays as I try to get it to type the word I want or some proximity thereof. But mostly I don’t chat much anymore.
But I gave up almost straight away on using it to write novels. Here’s why:
1. The almost right word is the wrong word for fiction.
Near enough SIMPLY WILL NOT DO. I cannot keep banging my head against the stupid software getting it to understand that the word that I want is “wittering” NOT “withering.” THEY DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING.
Recently it refused to recognise the word “ashy.” Now, I could have said “grey.” But guess what? I did not mean “grey” I meant “ashy.”
The almost right word is fine for an e-mail. Won’t recognise how I say “fat”? Fine, I’ll say “rotund” or “corpulent” or whatever synonym I can come up with that VRS does recognise. “I’m going to eat a big, corpulent mango” works fine for an e-mail. However, it will not do for fiction.
2. Flow is incredibly important.
Most of my first drafts are written in a gush of words as the characters and story come flowing out of me. Having to start and stop as I correct the VRS errors, and try to get it to write what I want it to write, interrupts my flow, throw me out of the story I’m trying to write, and makes me forget the gorgeously crafted sentence that was in my head ten seconds ago.
Now, yes, when I’m typing that gorgeously crafted sentence in my head it frequently turns out to not be so gorgeously crafted but, hey, that’s what rewriting is for. And when I’m typing the sentence it always has a resemblance to its platonic ideal. With VRS if I don’t check after every c
Pain is extraordinarily hard to write about. Chronic pain is hardest of all. How do you write about a character whose every day, every moment, is shaped around constant pain? And not wear out the reader’s sympathy.
It can be done. It has been done.
And when it is done convincingly; those are often difficult books to read.
Half the time we don’t want to know about the pain of people we know in real life. Part of us wants them to suffer in silence. We’re embarrassed by others’ suffering, bored by it, made to feel helpless in the face of our inability to do anything about it, afraid it might be contagious, upset by it, angered, and a gazillion other complicated feelings.
It’s even hard to write about relatively minor injuries. There are gazillions of books out there where the character suffers an injury only for the writer to forget about it for the rest of the book or totally minimise it. I am guilty of this. Reason is injured in the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Somehow telling the story kept getting in the way of showing Reason’s injury and how she dealt with it. (Since the book takes place over a short period of time the injury would not have healed entirely.) If I could go back and rewrite the trilogy that’s one of the many things I would fix.
Pain is something we all go through to a lesser or greater extent. It’s something we all know intimately. Yet it’s so hard to describe and write about. It’s hard to push beyond “it hurts” and not wallow in it and also hold your reader.
I’d be curious to hear about your experience writing characters in physical pain. (For some reason emotional pain is easy as pie.) And also your experiences reading characters in pain. Are there any writers or books you think handle it particularly well?
One of the best books I ever read about language is Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene, which was published way back in 1995. It’s a wonderful look at the way people try to regulate language to make it functionally, aesthetically and morally “better” and how insanely outraged and angry they get about it.
There are people who are completely wedded to the Latin-ification of English grammar that began in the 1700s, thus they are wedded to “he” as the universal pronoun, believe that infinitives must not be split, and are deeply in love with the subjunctive mood, which is on its way out in English.1
There are those who are appalled by changes in the spelling and meaning of words. They’re outraged that “alright” is becoming as common a spelling as “all right.”2 They mourn the loss of the distinct meaning of the word “disinterest” etc etc.
There are those still wedded to what their English/MFA teacher taught them in primary school/university. Never use passive voice! Never end or begin a sentence with a conjunction! Avoid adverbs! Use adjectives sparingly!
A large chunk of my university training was in linguistics. I was trained in descriptivist traditions. That is, I was learning how to describe language use not how to police it. We never discussed wrong usage ever. That concept just didn’t exist. I studied how various different groups used language. We looked at language acquisition in small children as well as those learning English for the first time as adults. We looked at the way language changes. How what was once non-standard becomes standard and vice versa. Things like that.
I learned to listen to what people really said and to think about how and why. This is reflected in the novels I write. I use “alright” in dialogue because that’s what I hear many people saying, not “all right.” Particularly younger speakers, which is who most of my characters are. Many of my characters split infinitives, don’t use subjunctive, don’t say “whom” and thus commit what some consider crimes against language. Yes, I have gotten letters to that effect.
It is fascinating how intensely invested people are in language use. Especially writers. Whenever I discuss this with writer friends we don’t get very far because many of them are wedded to one or more of the uses I observe disappearing. Don’t defend the “alright” spelling in front of John Scalzi, for instance. I get that passion. I’m sad about “disinterest” losing its specific meaning too. But not that sad. There are other ways to say the same thing, which don’t confuse as many people. Sadly, they’re usually longer and less elegant.
I’m as invested as they are in my understanding of how language works and how it is deployed, which is why I get into so many heated discussions with my writer friends and protracted battles with editors, coypeditors and proofreaders, who are almost all prescriptivist. Like Geoffrey Pullum, I think The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is an amusing but insane set of self-contradicting rules: if you try to match rule with examples your head will explode. But I know people who find Strunk & White useful and have learned to write clearly from it.
English is a contradictory sprawling mess. Any attempt to map it out with a set of rules is doomed to self-contradiction and insanity. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is as bad as Strunk & White. But has also been useful to many floundering in the mess that is English. Even attempts to merely describe the language are doomed. It’s too big, too unwieldy and growing too fast.
That’s part of why the English language makes me so happy.3 I can’t spell it very well, according to many I abuse its grammar rules, but English lets me break it open, pull out new words, mash up old ones. I get to play with how it looks and sounds and feels.
Like those who stand tall to defend English from the likes of me, I love it.
Just, you know, my love is more fun. 4
There are many words I like the sound of, really enjoy saying out loud, that offend and hurt people. I was once quite addicted to the word “spaz.” When it was pointed out to me (I was young) what it actually meant and how it could hurt other people I tried really hard not to use anymore.
I slip though.
I used to use “gay” to mean uncool. Despite having grown up with lots of gay and lesbian friends. I didn’t even make the connection till I started hearing people at school use “gay” in deliberately hateful, homophobic ways. I stopped using it pronto.
I have used the word “girlie” and told people not to behave like a girl. I am a girl.
“Spaz” and “lame” and “mongy” and “crip” and “gimp” are all words that say being able-bodied is in every way better than not being able bodied—that the non-abled bodied people aren’t as human.
And these are just the obvious words. There are so many ways in which assumptions about sexuality, gender, able -bodiedness, skin colour are woven into our everyday metaphors. “White” is good in a million different ways. The “white hats” are the good guys. (And all too often white actors are the good guys in movies. Don’t get me started on the casting of the Avatar movie.) White lies are less bad lies. “Are you blind?!” “Are you deaf?!” are often asked in situations where there is a moral failing in not seeing and not hearing. It’s not far off implying that there’s something morally wrong with being blind or deaf.
But I have gay friends who use “gay” to mean uncool. I used to fence with a paraplegic guy who called himself “mongy”, “para” and “crip”. If they use those words that then way why can’t I?
Because they have earned that right. Because they are the ones who are hurt by those words. Because they are mocking themselves, which is entirely different from being mocked by someone else who does not understand or care about them. Who is saying these words makes all the difference in the world. And, yes, white, straight, affluent men should be held to a different standard. They should be more careful about what they say. They have far more power to hurt and discriminate.
The problem with talking about hurtful words and language is that so often it’s contextual. There are times and places where you can deploy these words without causing offence. Although I am fond of swearing I don’t on my blog because I know it offends some of my readers. Of course, I still run into trouble over what constitutes swearing. I have offended people using words I don’t even think of as swearing. It’s tricky. All of this stuff is tricky. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all work hard not to offend people. Especially people who are in weaker positions than we are.
I have no problem with people calling me a honky or calling me an Aussie as though that’s a bad thing because there’s no long history of discrimination for being either of those things. Nor do I feel even slightly bad about referring to English people as “Poms”. That is not a word with a long history of oppression. English people are not being beaten up, kept out of jobs, and denied their civil rights because of their Englishness. And, yeah, I do think people who whinge about it should get over themselves. Besides, you pommy bastards, you know we Aussies say it with love and affection and no Colonial resentment whatsoever. Some of my best friends are Poms . . .
I still love the sound of “spazmatron”. I love how it feels exploding out of my mouth. But that pleasure pales compared to the pain it can cause. I wish “spaz” had a different origin so I could keep using it. But it doesn’t and it really does hurt people.
My real world policy on hurtful language is that I try to avoid using it. I try to avoid causing offense. Sometimes I fail. Probably often I fail. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I don’t think anyone is a a bad person for saying thoughtless things.1 I think you’re a bad person if you don’t care that your words hurt people.
How does all of this translate into my fiction?
I have seen many authors attacked for deploying words in their fiction that people are offended by. Often there seems to be a confusion between the views of characters in a book and the author’s views. Many people seem to think that authors believe every single thing every character in their books say.
That view is absurd.
In Magic’s Child Jay-Tee and Tom have a debate about religion. Jay-Tee is a devout Catholic, Tom is an atheist. If authors’ views and characters’ views are identical then I must be a devout Catholic atheist. And my head must explode several times a day.
I have created teenage characters who use “lame” and “spaz” without thinking. Just as many do in the real world. They say and do things I don’t approve of. My foremost responsibility in writing stories is that they be true. That I avoid as many false notes as I possibly can. Sometimes my characters use hurtful words and behave badly. And frankly, if they were perfectly behaved at all times it would be a lot harder generating any plot, and the books would be extremely dull.
Although many of my books have fantastic elements I work very hard to ground them in the real. To accurately reflect the world I live in. Using words that some people find hurtful is part of that. Writing about the ways people hurt one another is also part of that.
You could almost say that’s what my job is.
Am in the pretty churchy city of Adelaide for a wedding. What larks. I love weddings! And these two crazy kids are great together. But internet access is not so much limited as BLOODY EXPENSIVE. Stupid gouging hotels! Colour me outraged.
So quickly: “gaol” is an another spelling of that place where people are locked up which is usually spelled “jail”. It ain’t slang. It used to be the only way the word was spelled but is on its way out. I cling to it out of love and perversity.
And thanks again for all the congrats on the Norton win. I can’t believe I’m still getting them! Yay! And an even bigger yay for the impact it’s had on my Amazon sales and my secret NYC bookseller friend who told me she has some people come in and ask for the Norton winner. Who knew?
Have any of you read any Jacqueline Wilson books? Some of you must have given that she’s sold gazillion billion trillion copies. I’ve been reading and really enjoying her Girls in Love books. Lovely.
And now I go before they demand my first born child.
Apparently “doobalackie” is not a universal word for “thingamybob”—you know, that thing for which you do not have a name, that “doohickie”. I had no idea it was just us Australians who reach for doobalackies.
Is it just us? Any South Africans or New Zealanders or Jamaicans or English or Welsh or Irish or Scottish people care to weigh in? What do you call the thingie for which you do not at that moment have a name?
I learned the non-Americanness of doobalackie from the the livejournal devoted to Megan Whalen Turner’s fabulous Attolia trilogy which recently discussed my worship of said trilogy* and wound up discussing a bunch of different Aussieisms.
The whole thing got me curious so I looked up “dooberlackie” in the Macquarie Dictionary and discovered it’s supposed to be spelled “dooverlackie” or “doovahlackie”. To be honest I’ve never seen it written down before, only heard it. That aside, spelling is not my strong point. Dunno if I’m gunna budge from dooberlackie, but. That’s how it sounds in me head. You should never mess with your own head.
It’s amazing how many words I thought were universal turn out to be Aussiesm or, at least, not much known in the US. Usians don’t do the whole brekkie, pressie, chrissie, journo, muso thing. They have no mates called Dazza or Shazza. They don’t squiz at stuff or chuck a right. They’re never lizard flat-out. They don’t know what bitumen is. And the way they pronounce “condom” is deeply strange.
How many of you English speakers have discovered that some of the words and expression you thought were global English turn out to be just from your part of the world? What words were they? Share!
In other news: it stopped snowing but it’s still too bloody cold. Also I am reading the second Buddha and I am in heaven. I heart Osamu Tezuka. Thanks, Anne!
Oh, crap, now it’s snowing again. Aaargh!!!
*Are there still any of you who haven’t read Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy (The Thief
, Queen of Attolia
and King of Attolia
)? If not, why not? On your bikes!
By: Justine Larbalestier
Blog: Justine Larbalestier
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For the record: yes, Scalzi should, and I hope he wins for all the reasons that have been described in great detail here, here and here. I’m also not comfortable with people telling other people that they are or aren’t “fans” or “geeks” or anything else. Those are the kind of labels you get to choose for yourself.
The geek half was inspired by my being asked to contribute a story to an anthology about geeks and geekery. My instant response was to say, “No.” Not just because I can’t write short stories, but because I couldn’t begin to think of a geeky story. (Plus no way am I biting the head off a chicken. Ewww.)
Also I was just curious about how you lot define those words. Part of what’s interesting in the great Is-Scalzi-a-Fan debate is that there were so many different definitions of what a “fan” is, which led to much talking at cross purposes. Seems the same is true of “geek”. Veronica defined it the way I would, but Cecil defined it the way I would define “fan”.
A number of people take “fan” to mean someone who loves something uncritically. I can’t help but laugh at that when I think of the number of letters I’ve had from self-proclaimed Magic or Madness fans who tell me in minute detail the stuff they don’t like about the trilogy, just as much as the stuff they do. Clearly, these are slippery, slippery terms.
Thanks everyone for such fascinating responses.
So why do I call myself a fan but not a geek?
Let’s take the word “fan” first. I’m not a fan of science fiction, which may sound odd for someone who did a Phd on it, which became a book. To be honest the whole PhD thing was never a passion. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer, but as everyone knows there’s no money in that, so I went for an academic career to support my writing habit. The subject of my PhD was an accident. I’d read sf as a kid but I’d read lots of other things too and, honestly, I think the vast majority of sf (film, television or film) is on the nose. Many of the so-called classics of the genre like the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke or Star Trek or Blade Runner leave me cold.
It’s the world building that does it for me with science fiction, being transported to somewhere that is not like the world I know. I get that just as readily from books about places I’m unfamiliar with: Japanese crime books fascinate me; Australian ones not so much. I also get that button pressed by books from the past (Jane Austen, Tale of Genji*, Elizabeth Gaskell, Miles Franklin et al) historicals, fantasy, westerns and so on. Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson create worlds that are almost completely alien to me. I adore their work.
I love the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Maureen McHugh and Ursula K. Le Guin. But I’m not convinced that it’s the science fictioness of their work that does it for me. I’m just as happy when they’re writing fantasy or memoirs or criticism or blogging or whatever else they choose to write. I love the way they string their words and sentences and paragraphs together. Yum.
If I were to be banned from reading one genre it would be less of a hardship for me if that genre were sf rather than fantasy or historicals. (Naturally, I exempt manga from all these categories.)
I’m also not a fan in the sense that Ulrika is talking about. That is I’m not a member of a community that came together around a love of science fiction in the late 1930s and is still going strong today. Or am I? I definitely feel like I’m a part of the WisCon community. For years I helped with the running of that particular science fiction convention. I was on the ConCom. Can you get much more fannish than that? And, like John Scalzi, I feel very much at home with many members of the science fiction community who definitely consider themselves to be fans.
However, I’ve never written fanfiction. So I’m not part of that thriving aspect of fandom. Nor do I read it. Though there are definitely books and stories I love, like The Wide Sargasso Sea, that are a kind of fanfiction—but the kind that plays around with out of copyright texts and thus gets to be published.
I’m happy to call myself a fan not just because of the WisCon thing, but because there are a lots of things I love. Elvis Presley’s voice. Cricket. Madeleine Vionnet and Hussein Chalayan’s clothes. The writing of way too many people to list here. I love Bring It On and Deadwood and Blue Murder and My Brilliant Career and ES and Nana and Osamu Tezuka and mangosteens and the food of countries like Spain and Mexico and Thailand and Japan and Italy and Ethiopia and the great wines of Australia and New Zealand and Argentina and South Africa and Italy and France and Spain and many other places.
I don’t think the word “fan” implies uncritical love. There are clothes of Vionnet and Chalayan’s that I think are naff, Cricket matches that bore me, Angela Carter books ditto, and Spanish food and French wine I’ve had to spit out.
So why aren’t I geek?
First up, the word is American and doesn’t have much resonance for me. I never heard it as a kid nor “nerd” neither. Not outside of a John Hughes movie. (That’s not true of younger Aussies.)
The people I know who are self-described nerds or geeks have passions for stuff that bores me. Video games, role-playing games, board games and the insides of computers. I have many friends who are into these things and, well, I am not like them in this regard. I do not know what “chaotic good” is, even though Scott’s explained it to me like a hundred times.
I’ve had flirtations with various computer games over the years, but my attention span for them is microscopic, and ulimately I’d much rather be reading a book.
Once I got into Go for about a year, to the extent that I was playing it with a bunch of Go fanatics on servers in Korea, and reading books on it. But it was largely research for a novel I was writing. When I finished writing the book my interest in playing Go lapsed. It’s still by far the best game I’ve ever played, but I doubt I’d even remember how anymore. I haven’t played since 1999.
Many of my geeky friends are also collectors.
I hate stuff. I spend a large chunk of my life recycling and throwing stuff out. I hate things that sit on the mantlepiece and serve no purpose other than to collect dust. I see no point in them. Nor in stuffed animals, or dolls, or collectable cards, or any of that. I love cricket but I have no desire for cricket stuff cluttering up my house and am endlessly giving away the cricket tat people give me (clothes excluded).
If I collect anything, it’s books, but I cull them ruthlessly and often. If I’m not going to reread it, or I’ve had it for more than a year without even cracking the spine and there seems little likelihood that I will, then out the book goes.
Also I have a terrible memory. Always have had. I can’t tell you what year Bring it On came out, or who directed it, or who all the actors are without looking it up. I have to read a book a billion times before I can remember any details about it and even then I’m pretty crap. I just did a test on Pride and Prejudice I don’t think I’ve read any book more times than that one. I got 5 out of 10. I would not be able to tell an original Vionnet gown from a knock off. I do not have the trainspotting gene.
So, yes to “fan” and to “enthusiast” (thanks, Bennett), no to “geek” or “nerd”. I’m also quite happy to be called a “dag”. Yes, I am also a “spaz”. (Though, Christopher, I say to you: Know thyself!) And “dilettante”? Oh, yes, that’s me. I have the attention span of a gnat**.
*I confess I have never finished The Tale of Genji
despite repeated attempts. The bits I’ve read have been fabulous. It’s just that the book is so damned heavy and hard to read in bed. I know, I know . . . dilettante.
**Except for blogging, apparently. Bugger but this was a long post . . . Sorry!
A question for you all:
Would you describe yourself as a fan, or a geek, or both? And if you do describe yourself in that way what do you mean by it? What’s your idea of a “fan”? Or of a “geek”?
For the record I’m a fan but not a geek.
This one breaks my brain.
From the Sydney Morning Herald the Australian cricket team responds to accusations of being arrogant, rude, sledging bastards:
“The way I look at cricket, you do everything possible to win. Some people like the verbal side of the game, some don’t, but you just get one with what your job. I take what Vincent is saying as a backhanded compliment.”
Hayden, Clark’s Australian teammate, was equally indignant.
“If he considers that to be the case, I’m not unhappy about it, to be honest,” Hayden said. “It’s a great clash between New Zealand and Australia and long may it continue. It doesn’t matter what sport — we could be playing kick a cockroach from here to the wall and we’d want to be competitive.”
You know last time I looked “indignant” meant “cranky”, “pissed off”, “ropeable”. It did not mean “bemused”.
Talk about sloppy journalism of the Let’s-try-to-manufacture-controversy-even-if-the-quotes-don’t-fit variety. That or the journo truly doesn’t know what “indignant” means. Well, whoever wrote that, I am indignant at your use of the word indignant.
Though maybe they were just being a smartarse? Cause Hayden is just as indignant as Clarke, i.e. not at all.
By: Justine Larbalestier
Blog: Justine Larbalestier
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What have I started? Arguments about the relative merits of zombies and unicorns rage across the intramanets. And on each thread someone suggests the zombie-unicorn hybrid. Great minds think alike? Or fools seldom differ?
I was greatly distressed that lovely friends of mine like Holly Black, Cecil Castellucci, Meg McCarron and Literaticat have fallen pray to the false glittery charms of unicorns despite the fact that being virgin fascists unicorns would have nothing to do with them. I guess it falls into the whole desiring-what-you-can’t-have camp. Perhaps to resolve our issues Holly and I should collaborate on a Zombies vesus Unicorns novel? I will write the zombies and she can have the unicorns. Though I’m not sure how well that will work given that she won’t read about zombies and I won’t read about unicorns.
Some school librarians are saying that they won’t have Susan Patron’s Newbery Award-winning novel, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, in their library because it contains the word “scrotum” (in reference to a dog). Apparently “scrotum” is an offensive word. I had no idea. I thought it was an anatomical term for a part of the male body. I’ve never heard anyone use it as a swear word and I come from a swearing people.
The New York Times also covers the story but seems to think that authors sneak words like “scrotum” into their novels solely to offend.* Um, what now? Rosemary Graham responds eloquently to the extremely unbalanced Times coverage. The best reporting on the whole story can be found at Publishers Weekly which points out the role Jordan Sonnenblick and Asif! had in drawing attention to it.
I write novels to tell the best stories I can for teenagers. I try very hard to write characters who are believeable and I choose the language they use accordingly. I do not set out to offend anyone. I’m sorry when that happens, but I’m not going to write less believable stories in order not to offend people. That leads to the worst possible kind of censorship: When you start second-guessing yourself. Can I use the word “pom”? No, that will offend English people. Can I use the word “pink”? No, that will offend pink-haters (and possibly also pink-lovers). How about “jasmine”? No, Margo Lanagan will come gunning for me. When does it end?
Librarians and school librarians in particular have an incredibly hard job. I admire them tremendously. I just wish we were living in a world where people’s response to being offended was to talk about why, to explain the history and context of the word, and how that has made it offensive to them, rather than trying to wipe the books that contain the word off the face of the earth. I mean I am not advocating banning books about unicorns. I just won’t blurb them.
As soon as it is warm enough to go outside I’m off to buy a copy of The Higher Power of Lucky from my local children’s bookshop.
Update: Scott adds his two cents’ worth.
*For the record, if concerned adults can find the naughty words we wicked authors sneak into our books then we clearly haven’t been sneaky enough.
and the never-ending debate about what words are appropriate for what age groups made me realise something very important: You USians talk funny!
See, in Australia where I grew up the words that some people think you should never say and others use all the time are called “swear words” and the act of using them is “swearing”. Here in the United States of America they are “curse” or even odder “cuss” words and when you say them you are “cursing” or “cussing”.
Both of which sound unbelievably quaint as well as kind of cute to my ears. It’s as if I’ve been chatting with folks who appear to be from the twenty-first century and then—Bam!—all of a sudden a time machine has landed in their mouths, taken control of their tongues, and they can now only say words from the 1700s. “That blasted sea dog cussed at* me!”
Okaaay, I think, backing away slowly.
And I use words like “hence” which makes many USians think that the time machine’s grabbed my tongue. These fun linguistic differences are why I keep coming back here. Such larks! (Oh, okay, and the fact that my fella is a Seppo. Details, details!)
Here are my favourite USianisms (some are regional; some have spread far beyond her borders):
Discombobulate (Best. Word. Ever.)
Copacetic (A fancy word for “okay”. Who knew? So euphonious. Pleasure in my ears!)
All the myriad different words for a bad sandwich such as “hoagie”, “hero”, “grinder” etc etc
Sketchy (Meaning “dodgy”—obviously “dodgy” is better than “sketchy” but it still ain’t too foul)
On line (As in “Are you standing on line?” I’ve only ever heard this one in NYC)
Burglarize (Hah! I giggle every time I hear it. Scott has the same reaction to “removalist” back home)
Can’t think of any more right now. What are your favourite American words? Am I alone in finding “cuss” antiquated?
*Cussed on me? Near me? See? I don’t even know what the right preposition is!