Thursday, 28 September 2017

Ink Tip: Is "Show, Don't Tell" False Advice?

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Cecilia Tan which tore apart the most well-known piece of writing advice: show, don't tell.  She pointed out the inherent assumption behind it, namely that the writer's experience is universal.  But we know that isn't true, even within North American culture.  Tan makes a convincing argument that "show, don't tell" is actually an exclusionary tactic, used to regulate genre fiction as less than literary fiction, and silence diverse voices.

I've experienced genre-shaming first hand on several occasions since I began to write.  After all, I write romance, which everyone knows is trite, formulaic and done to titillate bored housewives, and I write speculative fiction, which is only read by nerds who can't hack the real world.  (Everyone got the sarcasm?  Okay, good, we can move on.)  

However, I hadn't thought about how "show, don't tell" assumes a false universal experience, one that shuts out diverse stories.  After all, if someone doesn't fit into the accepted box (which sadly tends to be white, male, cishet, and middle to upper class), then they have to "tell" in order to give the reader context.  That "telling" can then be used as an excuse by publishers and editors to refuse the manuscript, citing that it's bad writing.

But is the advice itself actually bad?  Like most writing advice, the short form is incomplete.  The full advice should actually be: "Show, don't tell, except when telling works better for the story."  Showing something is more emotionally impactful to the reader, but telling speeds up the pacing.  So there are times when telling the reader something is actually the right choice for a narrative, just as there are times when showing is the preferable choice.

For example, if I want to establish a character as cruel, then telling the reader that the character is a "bad guy" won't have the same gut-instinct as showing him/her doing something cruel.  But if I'm establishing why the stakes are high for an intergalactic conference, that's something that I need to tell the reader because showing it would require a couple of Tolkienesque bulky appendices detailing the history and interactions of the various cultures.  

Good writers are able to tell the reader information in a way that feels natural and doesn't interrupt the flow of the story.  That's an important skill and one that shouldn't be dismissed.

I'll admit that I'm used to dismissing literary fiction, which I generally find to be dry, patronizing and thinly-disguised commentary.  I like genre fiction of all types because I find well-written genre fiction to be engaging, character driven and thought-provoking.  So I'm not particularly bothered by the idea that "show, don't tell" discriminates between genre and literary fiction.  I'm also not bothered by the idea that the creative writing courses and Masters of Fine Arts programs focus on literary fiction.  If that's what a person wants, go for it.  If you want the other stuff, there are plenty of other groups that will help to teach an aspiring author the necessary craft.

But if "show, don't tell" is being used to shut down diversity, that makes me angry.  Because publishers should be encouraging diverse voices.  It should be something that they actively seek out and promote.  Now, I don't have the personal experience in the publishing industry to say one way or another if that is the case, but given that people of colour, LGBTQ+, and those with disabilities have repeatedly shared that they have trouble getting contracts, I suspect there are challenges that need to be addressed.

Show, don't tell is still a valid piece of advice (if overly simplistic).  Like all writing advice, it's one that writers have to learn when to ignore.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Weekly Update: September 17 to 23

Weekly word count: 3300

As I write this, I'm in Cambridge on a training trip.  It's a lovely small city in southern Ontario, near Toronto.  And I'm trying to deal with the fact that our air conditioner has failed back at home, leaving us to scramble to find somewhere suitable for the cats to stay until we come back.  Luckily, I've got some very good family and friends who are helping us deal with it long distance.

I'm getting my presentations ready for Persisting Beyond Margins and ORWA, on Thursday and Sunday respectively.  And I've been working on Judgment, which is coming along nicely.

Back to work.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Too Dark for Children: Lois Lowry's The Giver

Ever since I was asked to participate in ALSO's Persisting Beyond Margins event on September 28th, I've been doing a lot of thinking about banned books and why people ask for books to be banned.

In the case of Lois Lowry's The Giver, the number one reason why people want it banned is because they feel it's too dark for the intended audience (10-12).  The story is about Jonas, a young boy in an egalitarian society where everyone's birthday is celebrated on the same day with the same presents.  He is about to turn Twelve, the age when children are apprenticed to their adult assignments.  The decisions are made by the Council.

Normally, this would be a story about an underclass revolution or showing the horrors of having one's life determined by others, but Lowry's book is different.  The people of Jonas's community are actually happy.  The kids are pleased with their assignments and the Council has obviously done a great deal of work based on the child's personality and skills.  Families discuss their feelings every evening.  Food and medicine are available on demand.  There's no poverty or abuse.  It's the happiest dystopia that I've ever seen.

It's only when Jonas is assigned to be The Receiver that he begins to understand the flaws in his society.  The Receiver holds the memories of the society before this one (our world).  He or she uses them to deal with unexpected problems.  Those memories can be transferred to the new Receiver.   

Jonas remembers love, hate, war and laughter.  He begins to see colour.  He realizes the price of complacent conformity is a flattening of the emotional experience.  People experience contentment, not happiness, and irritation, not anger.  He finds himself more and more isolated as the story progresses.  But the tipping point comes when he learns that the Ceremony of Release, which is done to underdeveloped infants, and the old, is actually a euphemism for lethal injection.  He's horrified when he realizes that the baby in their household will be released and escapes into the night.

The story is dark.  There's no promise of a happy ending, no sign of a revolution.  Just one boy trying to understand how his world can be so different from the one that everyone else experiences.  

That's the part that I feel is so valuable for children.  It introduces the concept that what they experience might be different from what others experience, but it doesn't mean that it's wrong.  It introduces the concept that adults can lie to them and that comforting euphemisms can gloss over horrible things.  It can serve as the start of a discussion about the dangers of an "equal" society (ie, where everyone is forced to be the same) and the nature of happiness.  

When my children were young, I was deeply annoyed by the constant "everything is fine" riff in children's shows.  If something was destroyed, all was forgiven with a smile or a song.  If someone was being a bully, all they needed was an invitation to friendship.  Everything always works out with very little effort.  The optimistic message is helpful for children, it makes them feel safe and encourages them to make social efforts.  But it's not a true depiction of the world.

At ten to twelve, children can begin to understand the complexity of the world.  Lowry's book is well written and introduces several difficult topics.  I think that those who complain that it is too dark are indulging in some wishful thinking about both their children and the world in general. 

I've never been a fan of banning books, especially controversial ones.  (Although I admit that I've been tempted to ban some horribly written and trite books.)  Books are a way to live dozens or hundreds of lives, giving insight into cultures and experiences that would otherwise remain unknown.  Readers tend to be more tolerant, more thoughtful and more curious than non-readers.  They're exposed to different ideas, making them less likely to accept things at face value.  Limiting the number or types of ideas isn't helpful.  The real solution is to expose them to more and then encourage them to think and talk about what they've read.  Recognize their reactions and thoughts and have discussions.  Teach them to recognize convincing lies and euphemisms.

Next week, I'll be at Heartwood House (404 McArthur Avenue), enjoying some wine and cheese, as well as some amazing authors and books.  The ticket money goes toward supporting adult and family literacy, so it's a good cause.  Please consider joining us on Thursday, September 28th from 7 to 9.  It looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, but it's also an opportunity to stand up against imposed silence.  I hope to see a lot of Ottawa people there and hopefully we'll have a sold out event.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Weekly Update: September 10 to 16

Word count: 5000

Feeling very good about where things are going... until I looked at the calendar this week.

OMG!  I have two back to back events coming up and lots of stuff scheduled for the next 6 weeks.

On Thursday, September 28th from 7 to 9, I'm participating in ALSO's event: Persisting Beyond Margins, reading from banned books while enjoying some wine and cheese.  It's a fundraiser for adult literacy and people will get to see me tongue-stumble while I read.  What's not to love?

Then on Sunday, October 1st from 2:30 to 4, I'll be doing the ORWA monthly workshop.  By popular demand, it will be Beyond the Furrowed Brow: How to make your characters say it all without speaking a word.  It's a look at how to use non-verbal communication in your writing.

Then there's Can-Con on October 13-15.  This is a fabulous conference and one of the best organized I've ever been to.  If you like speculative fiction, this is your stop.  From hard-core sci-fi to alternative histories to fantasy to the paranormal, they've got it all (including me!).  I'll be giving away chocolate and buttons and having a weekend draw.

Once Can-Con is done, I will be most gratefully enjoying a week on a southern beach with several RWA ladies for a writers' retreat.  With luck, when I come back, I'll be able to report that Judgment is nearly ready to go to editing.

And, oh yeah, I've got a business trip for my other job starting next week.  (Don't worry, I'm scurrying back to Ottawa for Persisting Beyond Margins.)  I'm bringing my laptop and hoping that I won't be too horribly exhausted to write at the end of the day.  (Since my bosses would probably not be impressed if I tried to quietly do it while I'm supposed to be paying attention during the day.)

And, and, AND, I need to get my kids' Halloween costumes done.  I usually sew and hand-craft them but I'm starting to think that this year will be a store-bought kind of year.  Which makes me sad, but if buying them a costume ruins their life, I probably wasn't doing so well on the whole mothering thing anyway.

I'm starting to think I should set up a Paypal betting system for when I'll collapse of general exhaustion.  Good odds on anything before November 1st!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Heroine Fix: Trapped In A Nightmare: Offred from The Handmaid's Tale

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at characters I admire and influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article contains spoilers.)

Normally, Heroine Fix focuses on the kick-ass, take no names kind of heroines.  But those aren't the only kind of strong heroines to look up to.  So this month, I'm sharing a heroine who is an ordinary woman trapped in a horrific nightmare and finding the strength to both survive and carry on: Offred from The Handmaid's Tale.

To be clear on my biases right up front, although the concept intrigued me, I didn't enjoy the book or the 1990 movie of The Handmaid's Tale.  I found it difficult to connect to Offred and understand how a society could end up so wrong.  I thought it was unrealistic that Offred hadn't tried to escape before the rule of Gilead cracked down or that the collective women, Marthas, Handmaids and Wives, didn't revolt against the Commanders.  When the new television series came out, I initially wasn't planning to watch it.  But a number of people whose opinion I respect kept telling me that it was different and I needed to see it.

When I gave it a try, I was surprised by how quickly I became involved in the story.  Maybe it's because I'm older and know more about how both people and societies can find themselves trapped.  But I also think the story-telling method that the show chose made a big difference.  The first big change was using more flashbacks, not just for Offred but for other characters.  It made her story one among many and helped to cement the reality of the dystopian Gilead.  It also helped me to understand who she was before she became Offred, the depth of society's panic over the fertility crisis, and how the theocratic elite achieved a surprise coup.

When Offred was June, she was an ordinary woman.  She had a best friend, Moira, and they jogged and laughed together.  She had work that she enjoyed.  From the flashbacks, I get the impression that she wasn't particularly political or focused on the big world stage.  Instead, like most people, she was more concerned with the drama of her own life.  She'd fallen in love with a married man, began having an affair with him, eventually breaking up the marriage so that June and Luke could marry.  She was only vaguely aware when the theocratic cabal faked a terrorist attack that took out most of the government, allowing them to take over and establish martial law.  She was caught by surprise when the government stripped away her right to work and own property, transferring her bank account to her husband.  By the time she decided things were too bad, it was too late to run.

That's when June had to make a difficult decision.  After her capture, she could decide to fight, bringing down swift and harsh punishments that included physical maiming, or she could decide to submit, ensuring her survival.  It's a difficult decision, and one that no one quite knows which side they'd fall on until the situation arises.  June is clearly in shock and numb compliance is the easier and less immediately frightening option.  But as she gets deeper into the role of Handmaiden, she learns that she can expect physical and sexual abuse, constant monitoring, and that she's still under threat of maiming if she does anything that offends the theocracy, like reading, making eye contact or doing anything but act submissive and pious.

I don't think that June made a conscious choice to assume the expected mask of a Handmaiden, with the hope of escaping later.  I think she was scared and not thinking.  But gradually, she does start thinking again.  She can't ignore the injustice any more and she can't live with herself if she does nothing.  She recognizes that hiding and hoping that the lash doesn't fall isn't any kind of life.

The character of Offred speaks more to me now because I understand how women can find themselves in bad situations.  How the idea of fighting back can seem like assisted suicide.  How they can tell themselves that it's not as bad as it could be.  I understand how a person can become accustomed to the horrific, a situation blindness that allows them to survive.

Through the eleven episodes of the first season, we watch as Offred takes the first steps of rebellion.  She clings to her own name and history, refusing to become a faceless automaton.  She takes the risk of speaking to a fellow Handmaiden to share information with the resistance movement.  She carves "You are not alone" in the inside of her closet as a message to the Handmaid who will replace her.  And ultimately, she refuses to participate in the system, even though she knows her open defiance will earn harsh punishment.

Watching her transform back into a woman taking charge of her own life is both satisfying and inspiring.  She's not a Katniss Everdeen, serving as the face of a revolution.  She's one woman who is standing up and saying No.  She's refusing to be complicit any longer, regardless of what it costs her.

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines like me?  Sign up for my Heroine Fix mailing list and you can join our ranks, never missing your next Heroine Fix.

Next month, I'll be looking at Wonder Woman, one of the first strong female characters in pop culture.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Weekly Update: September 3 to 9

Weekly word count: 3800

Not quite goal, but respectable.  

Ahhh, the sweet, sweet quiet of back to school.  How I have missed it.  For the next ten months, I have provincially-funded silence from 1-3 in which to write. 

There will be interruptions.  That's life.  But if my health holds out, then I should be able to get back to regular 4000 word + weeks.  Fingers crossed that I can get Judgment ready for publication before Ad Astra in May.  That means that the manuscript needs to be in editing for early January at the latest.  So that's the new deadline.

I don't have the third Spirit Sight short story ready for release this year and I'm sorry for that.  I don't like disappointing readers but I hope that they will understand and be patient.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Privilege and Being An Ally

Over the last few weeks, there's been a lot of discussions in various forums about diversity and the challenges that people still face due to skin colour, their gender, their sexuality and all kinds of other factors.  People have shared some heart-rending stories and while there's been a lot of support, there's also been a lot of people getting offended at the implication that they (and the culture at large) has a bias.

Recently, I failed to catch an opportunity to be a proper ally.  A friend of mine made a comment dismissing the experience of another friend of mine and I didn't hear it in the moment.  As a result, the second friend felt very uncomfortable and decided not to participate in a future event.  I feel incredibly guilty that it happened while I was there and that I didn't say anything, leaving the second friend feeling isolated and exposed.

So I want to take the opportunity here to share a couple of thoughts on privilege and how to be a good ally.  

First off, let's look at a common misconception, that privilege is the result of having things given to you rather than earning them.  The idea that someone hasn't earned his or her achievements strikes close to home for most, which tends to make them defensive.  But the truth of the situation is that we all have advantages that we haven't "earned" except by being born in the right time and place.  For example, if I'd have been born a hundred years ago, as a woman, I wouldn't have had the vote, the right to earn my own money or own property, or have a voice in whether or not to keep my children (that was all the husband's choice).

Privilege doesn't mean that someone hasn't worked hard for what he or she has accomplished.  But it means that the path has been easier than it might have been due to the efforts of previous generations.  The suffragettes of the past fought hard so that I could have the vote and be considered an equal partner in my marriage.  Other revolutionaries fought hard so that my family's income and social class didn't determine my life path.  Those are some of the privileges  I earned by the luck of birth.  Others come from meeting society's expectations, again in ways I had no control over, such as being cis, hetero and middle-class.

Second misconception: that privilege only comes into play when dealing with bigots.  This is a harder one for people to grasp.  But we're all subject to unconscious biases.  The good news is that if we are aware of them, we can overcome them.  But first of all, we have to acknowledge that even with the best of intentions, we are going to be subconsciously perpetuating the status quo.

That leads into the next half of the topic, how to be a better ally.  The first step is acknowledging that those who have a position of privilege can not understand how daily life is for those who don't.  That's why it's important to listen to those who are affected and not dismiss what they have to say, even if it's surprising or now how we think the world works (or ought to work).  

The next step is preparing to be an active ally.  Each person has to decide how comfortable they are with confrontation.  Are you comfortable speaking up?  Physically stepping in?  Decide that in advance and then be prepared to take the actions you've decided you're comfortable with.  I'm a talker and a debater, especially in friend groups, so I'm usually happy to talk someone's ear off.  I try to research different points of view and then share what I've found.  But even a simple statement like "I don't think that's true" can be helpful in making sure that people don't feel stranded and alone.

There was a great metaphor being passed around.  Opportunity is like a shopping mall.  There are many different stores and there's no guarantee that your store will succeed, so people have to work hard.  But some communities have roads to get to the mall and some don't.  Those of us who have access to the mall owe it to the others to help them to get access too, because others in the past helped us to get access.  Once the road is laid, then everyone benefits from the increased traffic.

I hope this post has made people think and raised the level of awareness.  Because I believe that we can make this world into the kind of world it ought to be.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Weekly Update: August 27th to September 2nd

Weekly word count: 1200

It's been a busy final week of summer vacation for me, with sick kids, bored kids, a new kitten a.nd plenty of other challenges.

But in a few days, it's going to be back to the regular routine.  

As of this week, I've officially missed my usual deadline for a February/March release date.  I knew it was coming, but it still discouraged me more than I was expecting.  I guess it shows that no matter how gentle and understanding I try to be with myself, there's still an inner perfectionist who will insist on being heard.

I'm about halfway through the draft for Judgment and I really love the story that's coming together.  I think you guys are going to enjoy it too and I hope that you'll think it's worth the wait.