Society speaks to me, and says: your narrative is not right.

Society speaks to me, often harshly. Frankly it’s enough to make me stop writing for long periods of time.

Here are some of the things it says to me in the night when I’m trying to write:

  • Racism is fun!

    • Your main character is Inuit. Why not make them half-white so that people can identify with him better?

    • Is it realistic for an Inuit to be educated? Aren’t they a bunch of drunks? That would be more realistic.

  • So is transphobia! Especially with a radfem bent!

    • HAHAHA your character thinks she’s male! How disturbed. You need to show her recovering from this delusion or else you’re being anti-feminist, especially since she’s your main character!

    • Why are you rewarding your sexually deviant character with romance? That’s unrealistic. And your character is totes sexually deviant, because she’s not straight, therefore she’s obsessed with sex.

    • What is this misgendering thing you’re accusing me of so shrilly?

  • Let’s not stop at transphobia. Where’s the fun in that?

    • Your character referring to … fine, THEMself … as being of both genders is just confusing. Confusing loses you readers. And you want readers, don’t you?

    • I have no belief in your character that refers to themselves as male one day, female the next. It’s arbitrary and disrespectful of gender. Didn’t you know there’s only two and you can’t be both? DOGS AND CATS LIVING TOGETHER.

  • How about some internalized racism? Even more fun!

    • Why are you making this character half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese? They are like, the same, right? So you are just writing a samey-character. Make him half-white! Better audience identification and contrast and theme!

  • WHITE MAKES RIGHT

    • Why are you giving your characters non-Western names? I mean, yes, they aren’t white, but everyone knows non-white characters in the West always have Western names, to reduce cultural friction. Don’t you want to be accepting of other cultures, especially white culture? Anyways, non-Western names are SO HARD.

    • Why are you portraying your white characters as being subtly racist? This upsets me. Are you ungrateful for being born in the best first-world culture in the world? ARE YOU?

    • You must always have at least one white person, or else it’s not realistic.

  • ABLEISM: WHAT’S THAT

    • Why is your character complaining about the prosthetics this advanced society gave him? Why doesn’t this advanced technology make his severe injuries all go away? WHY ARE YOU NOT MAKING YOUR CHARACTER ABLED IN THE FUTURE WHERE WE CAN FIX THIS SHIT?

    • You have to justify your character being disabled narrative-wise. Being abled is the norm, after all. Unless you are writing a message story, your main characters should be able-bodied.

  • Grand-daddy of them all.

    • Don’t be such a politically-correct pussy. You have a character who’s non-white, disabled, and transexual. That’s such a bingo card and obviously you’re leaning on this crutch because have trouble coming up with an interesting character. I know this because other people write really interesting white, straight, able-bodied characters and don’t need that crutch.

I once told a friend of mine of some of these misgivings which I attributed to society’s impression on me. Her response was pretty much, “This is just your problem. Those racist, sexist, transphobic, heteronormal, ablelist thoughts are ALL YOUR FAULT FOR BEING SO CLOSED-MINDED.”

Some days I just want to kill myself instead of writing.

Writing Dissonance: kishōtenketsu, or, plot without conflict

The West holds very strongly to the idea that you can’t have plot without conflict. Every writing book, writing blog, writing article I’ve read about plot emphasizes this point strongly. And I was despairing, as I often do, about the validity of my writing, because I have a very difficult time generating a plot in this sense.

Some time back I ran across this article: The Significance of Plot Without Conflict. I didn’t think much of it after that. After all, I could still learn to plot the right way.

So I was talking with a friend of mine about how I can’t write a plot. I write things like I’d Rather Be in Love and 15-and-4, which people have liked in the past but have always asked me to expand into stories, or else that they can’t link to the writing pieces because “they aren’t stories” and so on.

This morning I decided to find that article again and read it, on a whim. And I thought more about it this time around, since I have finally admitted to myself that traditional plot is difficult for me.

Then I realized: I write kishōtenketsu: a conflict-less plotting style. What provides interest in this kind of plot is contrast. In a way, it’s a four-panel manga strip:

1. Introduce the status quo.
2. Develop the status quo’s world.
3. Introduce a surprising element.
4. Bring about conclusion of element’s change on the status quo.

That doesn’t sound boring. It sounds different. Not the West’s cup of tea, so to speak, but at the same time… I find that I do like stories written like it, and that, just as with Western plotting, there are badly written kishōtenketsu, and well-written ones, and even kishōtenketsu that can almost fool you into believing they have a conflict.

Actually, it’s amusing to do this exercise: you know how there are some writers who, on analysis of plot, will try to shove every story into a three-act structure? Even plays that are 5-act, like Shakespeare’s? What if we tried to cram every plot into a kishōtenketsu structure? Granted, this is more of a petty vengeance on my part, as I am annoyed by the number of times stories have been pressganged into further interpretations of The Hero’s Journey.

Let’s play with this idea, though!

Lord of the Rings a la kishōtenketsu:

1. Hobbits live in a wonderful quaint world.

2. We explore this world, and then the wider world of Middle Earth as the Ring is taken on a quest.

3. Surprising element: due in large part to the betrayal by Sean Bean Boromir, Frodo and Sam have to take the Ring to Mordor by themselves.

4. They do this, and their relationship is strained by and grows through this hardship.

From this point of view, it almost doesn’t matter that at the end eagles swoop in and save everybody.

Let’s look at something else in more detail; that is, chaining kishōtenketsu. Here’s part of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a la chained kishōtenketsu (with each kishōtenketsu labeled by letters):

A1. The wizarding world is introduced briefly.

A2. Harry Potter’s mundane world is introduced in contrast.

A3. The letters from no one arrive.

A4/B1. The Dursleys grab Harry and flee to an isolate lighthouse.

B2. Harry Potter’s birthday arrives.

B3. Hagrid arrives. We find out that Harry is a wizard.

B4/C1. Hagrid takes Harry away to Diagon Alley after a confrontation with the Dursleys.

C1. We are introduced again to the wizarding world. Quirrel is involved.

C2. We are introduced more deeply into the wizarding world with Diagon Alley, this time contrasting with the mundane world.

C3. The surprising element is introduced gradually: Voldemort.

etc.

How about many murder mysteries?

1. The world is explored. People’s motivations in particular.

2. Murder occurs, changing the world, and spurs the detective into action.

3. The aha! moment of the detective.

4. Explanation and comeuppance of the murderer.

This actually also doesn’t quite fit, but then again, others have tried shoving murder mysteries into the Hero’s Journey, which fits about as well: wrinkly and ill-tailored.

So when I look back on the work that made me happiest to write it (which is perhaps not a good measure of what a writer should write), I see much more strongly the kishōtenketsu structure than a three-act structure (or a five-act structure, or what have you). It fits me and my writing like a glove.

Now, how to reconcile this with the fact that I live in the West and, frankly, the West does not like conflictless plots?

Well. I guess I either have to accept that I’m never going to write crowd-pleasers, or else I’m going to need to learn to plot with conflict.

Storyist, Plus Writing About a Vietnamese-American Proto-Detective

Well, I’ve been working out some characters on Storyist for iPad. I rather prefer Scrivener on the Mac, but unfortunately there’s no Storyist-to-Scrivener converter (as of this blogging) so I’m stuck thus far working with Storyist if I want a decently featureful novel writing software on my very portable iPad. Hopefully Scrivener will one day present an iPad version, in which case I’ll drop Storyist for iPad like a hot potato.

Anyways, I spent a little bit of time working out a Vietnamese-American proto-detective character’s goals, and a little bit of backstory; as well as his long-lost sister, and a little bit of backstory. Names, I need names. And, I know, actual personalities rather than simply backstories. I’m thinking of an eccentric personality for the man, and a serious and no-nonsense personality for the woman. Of course, they’ll need to be deeper than that, or else they’ll be rather cliche and shallow. I suspect character will come out of what they end up doing as I explore the ramifications of the backstories.

At first I thought this would be a rewrite of my defunct story, Crime and Violins, but as the idea germinated in my head I realized it was its very own thing.

I hope that the novel captures my own gradual journey into my lost Vietnamese heritage, as well as the terror of an emotionally and physically abusive family, the seediness of adopting a child trafficked into the underworld of international adoption, and the plight of internalized racism. I’m not entirely sure if this is enough; I want my novel to say something other than simply being a mystery, and I wonder if this is enough material to start off with contemplating this eventual goal of the text.

Because this is a mystery, I really do need to plan ahead. So that means, instead of going ahead and writing story, to start plotting out characters, scenes, plot points, etc.

As I’ve joined the Clarion Write-a-Thon for this year (I’ve got a rather bare profile and everything), I’ll be posting daily updates on my progress—no spoilers, but general thoughts about where I’m going with this, along with possible excerpts of any backstory or character exploratory text I end up writing.

I Write Like Somebody, Maybe

I saw some tweets, most notably from Nick Mamatas, about a site called I Write Like, which supposedly, given a text, analyzes it and spits out who you write like, out of a limited selection of authors (I wonder what the male/female ratio is; probably a high ratio of white males, to be honest).

So I started pasting some texts that were either public or that I didn’t care about any more, and this is what I got.

Seal Tales‘ beginning, no matter what POV rewrite I use as the input text, reads like Rudyard Kipling. I can see why, since it was going for a folk tales feel, but man, I hate Rudyard Kipling so much. On the other hand, I might be a closer match for some other author, but Rudyard was the guy I got stuck with because of the limited selection. Still, I think the pretentiousness of this passage doesn’t suit me, and that would probably explain why I tend to go nowhere expounding upon it.

At least the consistency of the result despite the POV changes seems to indicate there is actually something behind the algorithm, whatever it is.

15-and-4 reads like David Foster Wallace. That’s interesting. I’ve never read him. Though apparently David Foster Wallace writes like Steven King according to I Write Like, so it can only be trusted so far. I wonder what seed texts it was using? Technically you ought to be able to get like to match with like for any sane algorithm, right?

Oh well, even if it is wrong, it’s at least consistent. Because the next input text I used was Christmas in a Strange Place, which also apparently reads like David Foster Wallace—or at least, like the computed style that the program labels, for better or worse, “David Foster Wallace”. I will shorten this style to DFW’. Whatever style DFW’ is, both “15-and-4″ and “Christmas in a Strange Place” are both what I think of as my honest writing, when I’m not trying to be, for lack of a better word, pretentious (or even precious) about my writing.

What about something out of left field like I Killed Cthulhu’s Cousin in the Library with a Nerf N-Strike Barricade? Reads like Douglas Adams. And yes, I can see it with this story, which is really odd for me. Points for going somewhere stylistically close, I Write Like.

As for I’d Rather Be in Love, it reads like Anne Rice apparently. I’m pretty sure the phrases that affected the scoring most were references to darkness, owls, and night. I’ve never read her, though, so I don’t know what other little tells triggered this particular scoring.

And for my last text, I used The Saddest Superhero is a Turnip. The result? ERNEST HEMINGWAY. For reals. GO READ IT. TELL ME HOW THE HELL IT’S LIKE HEMINGWAY.

By the way, I might need to question my sanity, since this blog post reads like H. P. Lovecraft.

I can’t write and I’m not worth anything

Maybe I should get rid of this category on the d20. I haven’t been able to “write write”, that is, write fiction. I lost a friend through my own fault (what does it matter if I blame myself? It still happened, it was still my fault, and I learned nothing, and I’m a base creature who learns nothing from her experiences, so why should I be alive? And so on), and so far it’s tanked my desire to do anything of the nature I had been doing up until that loss.

On the other hand, I can blog. Kinda. That’s been coming back gradually, though I doubt I’m ever going to do change logs again. It just hurts too damn much. In fact, I think I’m going to cry for a while after this entry.

If blogging comes back gradually, then maybe the writing of fiction can too. If it does, it’s going to come back irrevocably changed; there’s no way I can write a jaunty little romance tinged with sadness. I’m going to open a vein all the way, instead, and spill it on the paper. Or the screen. You know what I mean.

It’s a shame. I have an iPad I enjoy writing on (at least, the writing I can do right now) and I wish I could fill its days with something.

Of course, I have a tendency to do the exact opposite of what I say I can’t do. It’s a quirk of mine that I guess people don’t understand. I don’t really understand it myself.

How did I ever get away from my parents?

Commit log #137

I saw the bartender today. We talked about a few things, such as my breakdown on New Year’s Eve, and my current extreme loneliness and need for frequent hugs.

We talked about how anger was a more appropriate feeling for the stage in life I’m currently at; that it’s better than being taken by the fear (common as that is for people who’ve been through traumatic experiences). At this point I started crying and saying that I didn’t want to be angry, because that would focus the memories, and I didn’t want that.

And my bartender pointed out that I would be remembering the memories anyways. That I couldn’t simply forget them, any more than a war victim can put aside what s/he experienced. So I might as well be angry, and possibly channel my anger into something constructive.

As for the loneliness and need for hugs, the bartender wants me to expand on my social network and also to forge in-person relationships. I don’t know how to do this, really, in a world that involves occupations instead of scholarship. It’s easy enough to make friends with classmates (well, relatively easier), but you get into dangerous territory when it comes to coworkers. Conflict of interest if things go poorly, for one thing. And human relationships often do go badly, even if it’s only for a little while.

I have thought about how to channel my fear and possibly anger. I will channel it into my writing—not directly, not writing angry stories or whatnot, but to use that energy to power my writing efforts. I’m not entirely sure how to do this either—it’s like alchemy, turning crap into gold through some mysterious process. Anyways, once I feel more comfortable with what I have, I can move on to creating a tumblr and posting the work there.

Anyone want to beta-read? It’s a fantasy about a disabled seal-turned-transman (extending upon Inuit mythology, not the selkies per se, though there is a relationship there I may explore in the future) and his adventures. I have chapter 1, tweaked quite a bit and mostly final, though when it’s put onto tumblr it’ll be broken up into smaller pieces. Chapter 2 is going to take some reworking, but I have the basics of what I want there in a previous draft. (I have some 16 drafts of all this, taking drastic changes in plot here and there. I should be able to manufacture a complete story out of them, somehow.)

Advent: December 6

Ken Liu is a new and upcoming voice in SF&F these days. Liu’s work has an elegant, heartfelt charm that lulls you into whatever story he’s currently weaving for you. He won the Hugo Award for “The Paper Menagerie”, which you can listen to on Escape Pod; listen, and tell me if his writing has that soul that sits with you and spools a story into your ear—not sly, not pandering, but so open that you fall in.

And just because his work has that comfortable charm about it doesn’t mean that it can’t reach out and strike you through the heart and mind, bite your sensibilities and make you weep. That reach would be incomparably demonstrated in The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Free PDF) (Kindle). But perhaps that would not suit your taste today.

Fortunately, today, featured on io9.com is “The Perfect Match”, a story that’s probably been ironically shared through all the social networks by now. If you’re wondering what “Il Sospetto”‘s first movement (Allegro) sounds like, there it is above. Spoiler: if you’re not conversant in Italian, this is what it means. This paragraph is FULL OF IRONY.

Not only is Ken Liu an awesome storyteller, he’s also a pretty boss translator of works such as that of Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” and Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” (part 1 and part 2).

You can follow more of Liu’s stories at his website.