Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Writing (page 2 of 2)

The Dilemma of Writing “the Other”

One of my favorite sites on the internet is the Medieval People of Color tumblr. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the great stuff that is posted over there, but what I do read is inevitably fascinating: there’s so much history out there that isn’t taught in school, and it’s great inspiration for writing (I’ve been terrible about putting that inspiration to good use lately, but that’s a topic for a different post…).

Today I came across a link on the Medieval POC site pointing toward this article by Daniel José Older: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “the Other” (and the Self). It strikes at the heart of something I try to take very seriously: How can I, someone who has basically every privilege it is possible to have (white, male, cis, educated, financially secure, American, able-bodied, etc.), hope to respectfully write fiction about someone from a drastically different background? Do I even have the right to write their story?

This is particularly relevant because my current work in-very-slow-progress is essentially a retelling of the Spanish conquest of the Inca. It is set in a fictional world, permitting me some leeway in terms of accuracy, and the details of the cultures involved are changed, but my main characters are a teenaged boy and girl from the native culture and the story follows them as they end up on both sides of the conflict with the white invaders.

Reading the 12 Fundamentals that Older discusses in his article, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. I have absolutely no right to write about the European destruction of the Inca culture. My story involves multiple scenes with religious ceremonies. Am I violating point 7 (Ritual is not Spectacle)? What about if I find Christian rituals to be no more or less weird than Inca ones? I don’t doubt that people believe in their faiths deeply, but I’m not religious. And yet, a major component of my story is, of course, the conflict between the religion of the conquistadors and the natives. How can I do that justice? Neither religions in my book are identical to their real world counterparts: is that better or worse? Does it just reveal my ignorance about real religions, or does it provide a safe cushion from reality?

Point 12 is the most discouraging for me. “Why do you feel it falls to you to write someone else’s story? Why do you have the right to take on another’s voice? And should you do this? ” I’m not even sure how to answer these questions. I’m not trying to take someone else’s voice, and I don’t think “it falls to me” as if I have been ordained from on high to tell the saga of the Inca conquest. Is “because I find it fascinating” an acceptable answer? I find the early colonial era really interesting because it was a time when vastly different cultures came into contact, and the aftershocks of that contact are still felt today. I’m also interested in telling this story because I recognize that fiction is sorely lacking protagonists who aren’t white males, and frankly, I don’t want to read or write a story about someone like me. My life, and the life of people like me, is easy, and therefore it’s boring. I am drawn to speculative fiction and historical fiction because it’s a way to experience something different from my everyday life.

So here’s the dilemma: I could write about people like me, but not only would I find this boring, it would add yet another white male protagonist to a world that desperately needs more diversity in its fiction. On the other hand, if I write a story from the point of view of two Inca teenagers, I’m virtually guaranteed to get it wrong and offend someone. Not only that, but even if I get it right, will my telling of this story “occupy this space” and crowd out a voice that needs to be heard?

I don’t know. I think point 10 on this list is the one I need to focus on (emphasis added):

“You will jack it up. You’ll probably jack it up epically. I know I have. This doesn’t mean don’t do it. It means challenge yourself to do it better and better every time, to learn from your mistakes instead of letting them cower you into a defensive crouch. The net result is you become a better writer.”

That’s all I can really ask for right? To become a better writer? To do better next time? I have to hope that just being aware of the points in this list will help me avoid them. I have plenty of other reasons that I have yet to share my writing with anyone, I don’t need to use this as one more excuse.  I need to do the writing and learn from my mistakes. Just as that applies to crafting a compelling plot or a convincing protagonist, it applies to the points mentioned here.

Book Reviews: Before They Are Hanged and Warrior’s Apprentice

I’ve been consuming a lot of fiction recently, but have fallen behind on my reviews. So, let’s get caught back up with some two-for-one reviews, shall we?

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

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This is the second book in the “First Law” series, and I thought it was a bit better than the first book. The first book ended after introducing a bunch of interesting characters but leaving them on the cusp of doing more interesting things. In book two, we see them set off on their respective quests: Colonel West and Dogman and his crew are in the North fighting against Bethod’s invasion, Logan, Luthar, and Ferro are off on a quest led by the mage Bayaz, and Glotka is stuck defending a besieged city in the south. Having multiple POV characters in the same place worked well, allowing them to play off of each other, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters dealing with those characters, and inwardly groaning a bit when I ran into a Glotka chapter. Don’t get me wrong, Abercrombie does an admirable job of making a crippled torturer a viable main character, but Glotka’s chapters always seemed more static, while the other characters are off having adventures and also growing and changing in response to those adventures and each other.

There is again lots of blood and gore, which is to be expected, especially with a main character who is a torturer. There are also some instances where traditional fantasy tropes are subverted, but I think overall despite its reputation as being a dark and gritty contrast to traditional fantasy, this series really celebrates the fantasy genre. Especially with the two plot lines following parties of adventurers, I was reminded strongly of Dungeons and Dragons (in the best possible way).

Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This one is also the second book in a series, but I’m afraid I didn’t like it nearly as much as Before They Are Hanged. I really want to like the Vorkosigan saga, which I have heard is such a great space opera series, but so far the first two books (Shards of Honor and The Worrior’s Apprentice) have both failed to impress me. They’re both very readable, but I would say they’re mediocre at best.

I complained in my review of Shard of Honor that the main character was too passive and that things just seemed to happen to her. I think The Warrior’s Apprentice suffers from the opposite problem. The main character is Miles Vorkosigan, a 17 year old son of a noble family who is brilliant but is born with a birth defect which makes him wash out of military training. So he ends up travelling to his mother’s home planet, where he buys a ship to help a guy he doesn’t know, then accepts a deserter as his servant to save him from being reported. To pay for the debt taken on in purchasing the ship, Miles smuggles weapons to a distant planet that is in the throes of civil war. When they arrive at the planet, they are stopped by merceneries, and somehow Miles manages to fight back, capture the merceneries, and within a week has them convinced he is a mercenery and that they now work for him. From there things escalate until Miles is in control of a fleet of ships, a mining colony, hundreds of people, and is negotiating with high ranking military and political officials.

It’s all very exciting and very readable, and Miles is certainly not a passive character, but my problem with the whole book is that I did not buy into the premise: Miles is a stunted 17 year old rich kid. Just because he is clever and wealthy and a good liar, I am supposed to believe that literally every adult he comes into contact with is going to blindly follow him? Even when it makes no sense to do so (for example, the captured merceneries who almost immediately begin working for him against their former employers)?

I found myself contrasting this novel with Ender’s game. In Ender’s game, the main character is also a physically unassuming, very smart boy. But Ender’s Game succeeds where The Warrior’s Apprentice fails in that Ender’s leadership makes sense: it ramps up slower, his genius is much more evident, he doesn’t rely on money, status, or an inexplicably cooperative bodyguard to help him, the people he is leading are for the most part other kids like himself, and his motives are much more clear. On the face of it the premise for Ender’s Game is just as preposterous as The Warrior’s Apprentice (most sci- fi sounds silly when distilled down to a one-line summary) but the execution is just so drastically better that it works while The Warrior’s Apprentice really failed to get me to suspend my disbelief.

I might try another book in the Vorkosigan saga someday. I know that Bujold can write good fiction because The Curse of Chalion was quite good. But I will be taking a break from this series for a while. Two underwhelming books in a row doesn’t make me want to rush to read the rest.

 

 

 

A Winner is Me! – Thoughts on NaNoWriMo 2013

2013-Winner-Facebook-Cover

That’s right! I “won” NaNoWriMo! Words written this month: 50,443. I was a bit of a NaNo rebel this year in that I was adding words to a work in progress instead of starting from scratch. If you count what I had before the month began, my novel now weighs in at a little over 66,000 words, which is approaching a comfortable length for a short novel.

Now that NaNo is over, I thought I would take stock of what I learned this year.

1. I need an outline – Before the month began, I spent some time planning out the major events of the novel by writing a short synopsis of each chapter. But I made the mistake of not setting aside enough time to do this all the way through to the end, so at around two thirds of the way through the month, I ran out of outline and lost my momentum. I found that I am not very good at just writing and seeing what happens. I need a slight hint as to the events and conflicts that need to happen in a given chapter. Without that, the writing is like pulling teeth. I actually ended up mostly skipping a day to outline the rest of the story, and then the next day I was able to get the words flowing again. Lesson learned!

2. I suck at description. At least, on my first draft. The vast majority of my novel suffers from what is known as “white room syndrome”, which is a writerly term for when there is not enough information about the setting so it feels like everything is happening in a white room. To be honest, for me this extends beyond just setting and also applies to introspection. Basically, most of what I wrote is dialogue. There are very few pauses to get an idea of what the characters are thinking of feeling, and the writing is weaker because of it. But even though I outlined most of the novel, I viewed this first draft as a way to figure out what the main plot points would be. Once that is sorted out, I will be able to go back and add in the description of setting and the introspection that makes the writing more vivid and engaging.

3. I like using history. As I have mentioned before on this blog, my work in progress is based loosely on the events of the Spanish conquest of the Incas. It takes place in a fictional world, but the main events of the real conquest are there in some form. And let me tell you, this is great for when you’re not sure what should happen next. Just take a look at what really happened! I think this year’s effort has far fewer plot holes than past years. The downside of this is that sometimes the real historical events are hard to believe. For example, the siege of Cuzco, where ~200 conquistadors and their few thousand native allies won against a besieging Incan army ~100,000 strong.

4. 1667 words per day, every day, is too much. Before NaNo, I had been cautiously getting back into writing with 250 or so words per day. This was not enough: I was done with my daily quota before I really got back into the writing zone. On the other hand, the 1667 words per day required for NaNo was too much most days. I found that I felt best at around 750 to 1000 words. Long enough to get into the story and make things happen, but not so long that I started to wish I was doing something else. I think going forward, this will be my daily goal.

5. Sometimes writing is not what you need to do. I mean, yes, this is obviously true in life. Stuff happens. For example I skipped writing on Thanksgiving. But what I mean is when you are working on a piece of fiction, sometimes the most productive thing is not to dump more words on the page. Maybe you need to look up some piece of research (for example, I spent a few hours one day looking up just how the heck did the Spanish survive the siege of Cuzco), or maybe you need to spend some time and really think about a character’s motivations , flesh out their backstory, etc. The main thing is to not get bogged down in these things. Don’t go off and spend a week researching lots of minutiae. Just find what you need and get back to writing.

All in all, I found NaNoWriMo this time around to be a bit easier than last time, and I think the end result is better than my previous attempt. I’ll be taking December off from writing: I have some work deadlines and lots of travel for work and holidays. But come January, I plan to throw myself headlong into editing. Hopefully I’ll be able to turn the raw material of my first draft into something fit for human consumption!

 

Book Re-Read Review: Shogun

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For those of you living under a rock, Shogun is an epic historical fiction novel about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in the year 1600 and goes on to become a samurai and adviser to one of the most powerful lords in feudal Japan. I first read Shogun about 5 years ago and loved it. I don’t re-read books very often, so it has to be a very special book for me to want to read something again. (Warning, this review is slightly spoilery. If you haven’t read Shogun, go do that. It’s awesome, and it has pirates fighting ninjas. But I repeat myself. If you like giant epics that you can fully immerse yourself in, with lots of political intrigue and a large cast of characters, then you will like Shogun.)

Last time, I read the book the way most people do: silently, to myself. But this time, I convinced my wife to come along for the ride. We read aloud before bed, and have tackled books of similar epic proportions (for example, the full Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire series), so we knew what we were getting into. Years ago after I read the book, we had watched the miniseries, but it did not do the source material justice, and I wanted to experience the book again.

I’m happy to say that Shogun remains one of my favorite books, and serves as the Platonic ideal in my mind of what historical fiction should be. It is so huge and intricate and detailed that it really sweeps you away to feudal Japan. The plot is a familiar one, shared by Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Avatar, Fern Gully, and many others. But for all of the problematic aspects to this plot template, I still love it because, when done well, it introduces the reader to a culture that they are not familiar with, and helps them to understand and sympathize with that culture.

Of the examples of this familiar plot, I think Shogun succeeds the best. The book is long enough and detailed enough that the reader comes to understand the Japanese culture along with Blackthorne. At the beginning of the book, the Japanese people that he encounters are strange and brutal and utterly different from what Blackthorne views as “normal”. But by the end, it is almost painful to ride along in Blackthorne’s point of view as he reunites with his former crew and realizes how rude, filthy, undisciplined, and pitiful they are compared to the Japanese characters we’ve just spent 1000 pages with.

What impresses me about Shogun is that the disturbing parts of the Japanese bushido culture are not swept under the rug. They are just put into context. So the first merciless killing of a peasant by a samurai early on is horrifying to both the reader and Blackthorne, but placed into context, with the strict codes of conduct that are a part of feudal Japanese culture, such killings begin to make a sort of sense, even as they remain disturbing to western readers. This cognitive dissonance is one of the more interesting parts about reading Shogun.

Of course, Shogun is fiction, and it would be foolish to think that it is a purely accurate depiction of feudal Japan. I, sadly, don’t know enough to say which parts of Shogun are accurate and which aren’t, but as I understand it, much of it actually holds up pretty well. In writing this post, I came across the interesting site Learning from Shogun, which has a nice (free) book in PDF form written by scholars in Asian studies and history as a companion to the novel, just before the 1980 miniseries came out. In the introduction to the book they write:

“In sheer quantity, Shogun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.”

In fact, it is sometimes odd while reading Shogun when the author takes time to define Japanese terms which are now so commonplace that the definition is superfluous. For example, he has to spell out what samurai, katanas, and ninja are. Shogun is not solely responsible for this increased knowledge about Japan, but there’s no denying it played a big role.

I think one aspect that saves Shogun from some of the pitfalls that plague other works of fiction that follow a similar plot is that the white, western main character is very much just a pawn in the great political game that is being played. Although he does gain in power and prestige over the course of the novel, Blackthorne is still at the mercy of the daimyos he is working for, particularly Toranaga. Even having read the book twice now, some of the political intrigue was still over my head. Let’s just say that if you want to be Shogun, you need to have a deep understanding of your rivals’ family trees and how to use them to your advantage. Winning battles is the easy part.

Re-reading the book, and particularly in reading it out loud, I was struck by one aspect of the writing that I did not even register the first time I read it. Clavell is constantly jumping around with the point of view. Not many books (at least not many that I read) do this successfully, but in Shogun it feels very natural. It’s a clever trick to allow to reader to get to know many of the dozens of characters much better than if the point of view had been stuck inside Blackthorne’s head.

My main complaint after re-reading it, is that the book is really extremely long and could probably lose 200 pages and still be great. The length was fine when reading it to myself, because when doing that I could go much faster and so I never felt like the book was slow. But reading out loud, and particularly because our out-loud reading was disrupted for a few weeks, it started to feel like a drag toward the end until we got to the final climax. I strongly recommend reading this book silently to yourself rather than listening to it as an audiobook or reading it out loud, just because that way you it won’t seem to drag as much.

Interesting side note: As we were nearing the end of the book, we decided to get a bottle of sake to sip as we read the final chapters. I had only had sake once years ago so I wanted to try it again. Turns out I really like it a lot! Erin doesn’t, but that just means more for me!

Bottom line: Shogun is awesome, if a bit long. The plot is a familiar one, but it tells a great story and you will learn a lot about Japan in the 1600s even if the book is not 100% factual. Also, there are scenes where pirates and ninjas fight. If you have not read this book, you should probably go do something about that.

 

 

Worldbuilding in GIMP

It’s no secret that I like to write (hence this blog), but what you may not know is that I have a long-standing interest in writing fiction. Note that this is different from actually writing fiction: I rarely do so, for a variety of reasons that really deserve their own post. But several years ago I did manage to successfully participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), churning out 50,000 or so words of rather awful fiction. One of the key steps in preparation for NaNoWriMo that year was doing some basic worldbuilding.

I have a really hard time writing a story if I don’t know the lay of the land…literally. If my characters have to venture off into an undefined world, then I don’t know what their options and limitations are and so I am paralyzed with indecision. A map provides the framework on which the events of the story can play out, and I find that the constraints that it provides are crucial for understanding everything from the placement of cities to the boundaries of nations to the history of empires. So much is influenced by geography that without it I’m lost.

I am trying to get back into fiction writing: I have had the nebulous idea for a novel rattling around in my head for years but to really write it, I needed a world. For my NaNoWriMo map, I used the program AutoRealm which had some nice capabilities, but didn’t make very attractive maps. So for this new worldbuilding effort, I decided to use a proper image editor: GIMP.

GIMP is an open-source program similar to Photoshop. I use it all the time for work to make figures, so I know my way around it, but I haven’t used it much to just draw. And to be honest, I didn’t want to just draw continents because it’s actually quite difficult to draw natural looking coastlines. I needed something more random.

After searching online, I found an excellent site called the “Cartographer’s Guild”, where lots of worldbuilding enthusiasts share their tips and tricks in very helpful tutorials. I won’t duplicate all of that effort here, but I will point to their helpful collection of tutorials. In particular, I found the one entitled “Using GIMP to create an artistic regional map” very helpful.

It turns out GIMP has a tool that renders a cloud-like texture, and by stretching the black and white levels on randomly generated cloud textures, you can make random continent-shaped blobs. For most people, this would be enough, but since I know way too much about planets, I wanted to make my random cotinents more realistic, with things like island arcs and shapes that could conceivably come from plate tectonics. So I made several sets of random blobs ranging in size from continents to islands, and selectively merged them together to make what I thought were more realistic (but still mostly random) continents. Here’s what the end result looked like:

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I played around with some of the other tips in the tutorials to make attractive oceans and land colors and got this:

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From here, the next step was adding mountains. I went back and forth on whether I wanted to try to make realistic looking mountains or line-drawings like you might see in a map in the front of Lord of the Rings. In the end, I decided to go with the line drawing option. I alread had some idea of where I wanted my mountain ranges, the trick was drawing the actual mountains. I am too lazy to draw them individually, so I looked up how to create a brush in GIMP that cycles through a set of simple images with each click. The term for this is an “image pipe” and it’s actually pretty simple: you just make a small image in GIMP with multiple layers and draw a different image on each layer. They you save it as the appropriate file type and voila! Choose that brush and then each click draws one of the layers. Here are my mountain layers as an animated gif:

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With mountain ranges in place, the next logical thing to add was deserts. So I thought a bit about what the prevailing winds are like on an Earth-like planet, and the placed deserts in the rain shadow of mountain ranges. I also added some nice white shading toward the poles and gray shading around mountain ranges.

At this point it was looking pretty good if I do say so myself! The main missing natural features that might be relevant to any stories set in this world are forests and rivers. For forests, I decided to just use one of the built-in brushes in GIMP, along with the “apply jitter” option to paint scattered dark green specks for trees. Rivers were a bit trickier. Just like the continents, I didn’t want to hand-draw them because they would not be naturally random enough. For this, I found a simple free program that can draw fractal lines and export them as vector graphics. I drew a bunch of fractal lines then loaded them into my GIMP project, colored them blue, and placed them where it seemed appropriate. The end results? Realistically random-looking rivers! Here is the final map:

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I’m pretty happy with this map, and I’m eager to start adding cities and countries and figuring out how the geography that I’ve created here influences the seed of a story idea that I am trying to develop. And even if the story that I write set in this world doesn’t end up being very good, I learned a lot of fun GIMP tricks in the process of making this map!

 

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