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Writing Without Motivation

This post is part of the Writers Write All Blog Hop hosted by A Writer Named Charley. Thank you for organizing, Charley.


It was more satisfying in the era of typewriters

It was more satisfying in the era of typewriters

One of the hardest shifts I had to make as I moved from being a hobby writer to a professional was having to meet deadlines and put words on the page whether I feel like it or not. It’s quite a shock for someone who previously put about as much dedication into writing as I did into playing video games. We like to imagine writers moodily smoking cigarettes and staring out windows into the rain as they wait for inspiration to strike, but inspiration tends not to strike on a very convenient schedule, and unless you’re someone like George R. R. Martin, you can’t let your career languish for years on end as you wait for the right feeling. The rest of us have to write whether we feel like it or not.

I started out naïve to this difficulty. I fast-drafted my first two manuscripts with no problem, which was sufficient for me to decide that fast-drafting was how I wrote and all future manuscripts would be produced with equal ease. So I waited for it to happen again. And waited. After a year, I had to admit that this book wasn’t going to leap out of my forehead fully formed, Athena-style, and if I wanted it, I was going to have to drag it out by force.

Full disclosure states that I haven’t actually finished said manuscript, so you may want to take my advice with a grain of salt, but I have identified a few of the common reasons writing motivation just isn’t there and the course of action I find the most helpful in each case.

Life Intervenes

This is by far the most common obstacle that prevents writing from happening. It’s not writer’s block, per se; you’d like to write, but something more important always comes up.

On one hand, emergencies happen and of course they take precedence. But the things that most often interrupt writing are ordinary things. It’s finals week; the kids needed a ride to soccer practice; there was overtime at work. These sorts of things will always be there. It’s a classic mistake to think that when you graduate, or your kids are in school, or you have a job closer to home, then you’ll have time to write. That’s how you end up becoming that relative who’s been saying “I’ll write a book someday” for twenty years.

If this is the problem, you’ve got to push through it one way or another. Whether that means penciling in writing time on your calendar, going to your local distraction-free coffee shop or park, hiring a babysitter, you have to find a way to prioritize writing as part of your daily life, no matter how busy you are. In essence, that’s what it means to be a writer.

The Wrong Project

Busyness isn’t an easy problem to solve, but at least it’s an easy problem to identify. The remainder of this post deals with situations where you could be writing, but just can’t put words on the page.

Occasionally this is a sign that you should rethink the whole project. For one reason or another, you’re not completely invested in this project. Maybe you’re writing it because you heard it was selling right now, or because someone really wanted you to (my in-laws are convinced that the hamster comic I drew a few pages of right after college is my literary future), or maybe the premise seemed like a better idea than it actually is. In those cases, the right course of action may be to set it aside and work on something else.

Exercise caution. It’s much more common to throw away a viable project in a moment of discouragement than it is to soberly recognize that the project isn’t going to work out. If you’re anything like me, your computer is littered with aborted projects that could have gone somewhere if you’d been more persistent. And moving on to something else isn’t always an option. If you sign a book deal for a trilogy, your editor won’t be amused if you fail to deliver the last book because you weren’t feeling it.

Talking to someone else is helpful here. Find a friend who really cares about you but also has good judgment and high standards and ask them whether your project has potential. A second set of eyes can help you overcome your own biases and look more objectively at whether a project is worth the continued effort. Most often, it is.

That One Scene

Writer’s block doesn’t apply evenly to everything. It may strike a single scene, inevitably the scene you absolutely need to finish for your deadline today.

The obvious solution might be to skip the scene and come back to it later. I don’t recommend this. In my experience a difficult scene rarely becomes less difficult if you let it sit, and if you get into the habit of skipping around you can end up with a Swiss cheese manuscript where you already wrote the kisses, fights, and other fun bits and now have to slog through all the boring parts at once. (Everyone has a different workflow, so if skipping around works for you, don’t let me tell you otherwise, but I’ve never finished a manuscript that way.)

The best advice I’ve ever heard for writing difficult scenes—and some of the best writing advice I’ve received, period—is that if you don’t want to write a scene, readers won’t want to read it, either. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. So take a good look at that difficult scene and consider whether it’s really necessary to the story. If it is (for instance, if it conveys plot-important information), try reframing the scene in a more interesting context. In a well-known example, Spielberg spruced up a dull informational scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark by including a bowl of poisoned dates.

When it’s the opening scene of the story, a difficult scene can fool you into thinking that the whole project is difficult. It’s common to begin stories too early and end up with a lot of dull, everyday scenes to get through before you hit the part you and the reader really care about. If you’re having trouble getting a project off the ground, try starting in a different place before you conclude that the whole story isn’t working.

The Symptom, Not The Disease

Finally, in many cases, when you can’t find the motivation to write, writing isn’t the core problem. It’s a sign that something else is wrong. Maybe you’re wondering about your place in the writing community and whether the world really needs your stories. It’s next to impossible to write with in that mentality, and it’s one all writers wrestle with. I can tell you that the world does need your stories because everyone brings a unique perspective that enriches the literary landscape, but while that’s true, most people won’t find a boilerplate statement much of a consolation. You’ll need to find your own reason why your writing gives something to the world that no one else could provide.

Many writers struggle with depression, which can cause this kind of self-doubt and lack of motivation. It can feel easier to acknowledge the writer’s block in isolation than to step back and acknowledge a larger problem. But it’s extremely difficult to overcome writer’s block while depressed, and the attempt can plunge you into a bottomless spiral of guilt. Trying to write with depression is very much like trying to write with any other serious illness: It’s hard for reasons that are not your fault and mostly beyond your control.

I’m no expert on dealing with depression, but I can tell you that beating yourself up over your inability to write won’t help. Sucky as it is, there are sometimes seasons in life when writing intensively isn’t helpful to your well-being. In those cases, you have to cut yourself as much slack as you need.

This is not an exhaustive list of the reasons for writer’s block. It wouldn’t be such a universal problem if it were easily summarized in a bulleted list of causes and solutions. It can be caused by a combination of factors or it can strike for no discernible reason. In the end, every writer comes up with a blend of strategies and superstitions that works for them. I hope this post will help you figure out your own.


Image is from Superman: Under a Yellow Sun. Even Supes is not immune.

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An Introduction to Damsels in Distress

The damsel in distress is one of the oldest and most pervasive clichés in fiction and also one of the most reviled. So wide is the knowledge that damsels in distress are bad writing (or the meta-knowledge that other people think so) that it’s difficult to find articles that clearly, concisely explain why. There is no seminal essay challenging damsels in distress, the way there is with the manic pixie dream girl or the Smurfette principle. As a result, damsels in distress can feel like an empty taboo: a serviceable, time-honored plot device that everyone has decided to rally against for no real reason.

But the objections to damsels in distress are anything but empty. It’s both a hackneyed symptom of lazy writing and a harmful idea rooted in old-fashioned misogyny. This introductory post aims to lay out the serious problems with damsels in distress and why they rightfully belong on the literary scrap heap.

Kong33promo

Defining the term

Conversations about damsels in distress often get derailed by arguments about whether a particular character falls into that category or not. These arguments are smokescreens; if you’re splitting hairs about what counts as helpless, the character is at the very least swimming in the same sea of toxic gender dynamics as the damsel in distress. In the interests of avoiding such a derail, I’ll define the term as specifically as possible.

A damsel in distress is a female character who gets kidnapped or placed in a perilous situation by a villain in order to motivate a male protagonist.

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A damsel is almost always a loved one of the male protagonist, usually a love interest but sometimes a daughter, other relative, or friend. While she may have any number of skills or personality traits and may seem very capable in other scenes (see myth #1), she typically has no role in advancing the plot beyond motivating the male hero to save her, and her competence evaporates or proves useless in the scenes where she’s in danger. In plot terms, she’s essentially an inanimate object who could be replaced with any person or thing the protagonist cares about.

The villain or monster who kidnaps her is essentially always male. Sometimes there’s sexual violence or the threat thereof. In darker works, the villain may outright kill the damsel to further increase the hero’s motivation, overlapping with women in refrigerators. The damsel might be kidnapped abruptly while minding her own business, but often endangers herself due to her own stupidity; many damsels in distress are portrayed, intentionally or not, as vapid, useless women who can’t take care of themselves. Despite a modern push for more complex-seeming damsels, they are still often flat, one-dimensional characters who fall into various unflattering female stereotypes.

However, a character needn’t have any of these attendant traits in order to be a damsel in distress. She can be a complex, capable person who directly drives the plot in other scenes, but if she gets kidnapped and the male protagonist must save her, she becomes a damsel in distress.

Male variants do exist, but they’re vanishingly rare in comparison and they usually play out extremely differently. See myth #2.

What’s the problem?

In the first place, it’s the cliché to end all clichés. Even the damsels get sick of it sometimes.

According to a lot of people, the problem ends there. Damsels in distress are bad because they’re overused and usually prop up lazy writing, and because the damsels themselves are often one-dimensional characters with no narrative purpose except to be kidnapped. But if the love interest is complex and has an important role in the story, then it’s perfectly fine for her to get kidnapped and rescued by the male hero.

This view fails for two reasons. First, it’s essentially a meaningless metric. No one thinks they’re writing cardboard characters in a hackneyed plot, so literally everyone will respond with “My love interest is three-dimensional and important, so I don’t need to change anything.” At most, they’ll think they need to pile a few more scenes or traits onto her and then the problematic scene will become okay. This is how Hollywood continues to crank out cliché after cliché: When people say “Stop doing this,” they hear “Keep doing this, but make it look slightly different.” (See myth #4.)

Spider-Man_374Pyxurz

Second, the problems with damsels in distress run far deeper than overuse and clumsy use. Our society is saturated with a stew of misogynistic attitudes. In 2015, women made up only 1/3 of speaking roles in movies, and just 22% of protagonists. Women are still viewed as less important and less capable and often treated as accessories to the men in their lives, regardless of their accomplishments. Successful women who take charge of their own lives are widely disliked for being bossy and emasculating. These aren’t outmoded ideas from the 1950s, but modern stereotypes that have real effects on women’s lives (see myth #3).

When you render your female character helpless so that a male character can rescue her, no matter how well-written or complex she is, you’re reinforcing all those harmful ideas. In some ways, it’s even worse when the character is otherwise interesting and capable. It reinforces the idea that, no matter what they accomplish, women will always be plot objects that exist to motivate the real heroes: the men.

The gendered asymmetry becomes undeniable if you gender flip any well-known damsel in distress. A man who doesn’t have any role in the plot except to get rescued feels underwritten and implausible and leaves the audience constantly expecting him to show more competence. In fact, in many works, the male lead and the female love interest face essentially the same situation (for instance, both entering the villain’s lair to confront the villain), but the female character fails and gets captured, while the male character succeeds and rescues her.

Our culture is strongly resistant to change, especially change regarding social roles, so criticism of the damsel in distress has been quickly met with a backlash from hegemonic voices who insist there’s no problem and no need for change. A lot of this backlash comes from, or is closely connected to, alt-right communities like GamerGate and the Sad Puppies who make no bones about their desire to put women in their place, but nevertheless it’s been successful at muddying the waters and propagating misinformation about gender dynamics in fiction. So I’ll take a moment here to debunk some of the most common myths about damsels in distress.

Myth #1: She’s not a damsel if she knows how to fight.

While the classic image of the damsel in distress is a screaming, fainting princess who doesn’t do anything except fall in love with the hero (and there are still plenty of examples of that type), the basic principle is plot agency, not personality. In the wake of Princess Leia, one of the most common types of damsel is the sassy warrior princess who knows kung fu and constantly talks back to the hero.

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Another common misconception is that, if she has any moment of competence in the story, she can’t be a damsel in distress. Many recent works try to justify otherwise by-the-book damsels in distress by having them hit or throw something at the villain to distract him at a key moment in the final fight, allowing the hero to get the upper hand. Sometimes she even takes out her captors (lesser mooks, never the main villain) and only needs to be picked up. But, and this is the key point, the plot still follows the male character’s quest to save her.

All of this is akin to putting up different drapes and saying you have a new house. The window dressing might have changed, but the basic character role is the same: a plot football whose purpose in the story is to be rescued. She’s just a plot football with a sword now.

A true aversion is a scene where a woman gets captured in the course of advancing the plot herself, rather than as a secondary character in a plotline driven by a male character. She both gets into and out of the trouble on her own without involving a male hero at all, just as a man would be expected to, and the story follows her.

Myth #2: I can name a male damsel in distress, so it isn’t sexist.

This argument is false for three reasons. First, it misses the forest for the trees. Naming one male damsel doesn’t cancel out the hundreds and hundreds of female damsels. No one can tenably claim that male characters get damseled equally often. There’s a reason the cliché has a gendered name.

Second, your example may not actually be equivalent. When a male character get kidnapped, he’s usually treated with more agency. He’s less likely to be a love interest, more likely to be a point-of-view character, more likely to escape on his own, and more likely to actively advance the plot in other scenes. In other cases, the gender swap is played for laughs, the joke being that it’s funny to see a man being weak and helpless when we all know that in reality, it’s women who are weak and helpless.

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Third, even if the male character is a true, bona fide damsel in distress, the cliché isn’t truly fair because the world we live in isn’t truly fair. Portraying a woman being kidnapped and getting rescued reinforces the pervasive view that women are useless and dependent on men; portraying a man the same way doesn’t. Which brings us to the third myth.

Myth #3: It doesn’t hurt anyone.

It’s just a story, right? You’re not actually locking women in towers, and just because you enjoy stories where strong, powerful men save helpless, beautiful women doesn’t force women to act weak and useless in real life.

But stories affect real life. Just about any young girl can relate to the disappointment of play-acting your favorite show or movie and being forced to once again play the girl character and sit in the corner waiting to be rescued by the boys. What we see modeled for us, especially as children, shapes what we understand as possible, and that affects both how we ourselves behave and how we view those around us. The idea that women need men to protect them is so pervasive that the army is only opening its final positions to women this year. The damsel in distress cliché reinforce the real-world attitude that women belong at home while men are the ones who should be out accomplishing things.

AOKA

It harms men, too. Setting up men protecting women as the natural order of things (which you do, whether you intend to or not, when you show heroes behaving that way) places a heavy burden on men who feel pressured into a role they can’t or don’t want to fill due to disability, social position, or simple lack of inclination.

Myth #4: Other people do it, so I should be able to.

New examples of damsels in distress spring up every year in high-profile works like Batman V Superman and Deadpool. Maybe you look at these and feel that, if they were allowed to use damsels in distress, you should be able to as well. Or maybe you in all innocence wrote a story about a damsel in distress because that’s what you saw modeled in the media you consume, and now you don’t see why you should have to revise a perfectly good story.

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But the ubiquity of damsels in distress is precisely the problem: Our society doesn’t value women, so it continues to make stories that portray us in harmful ways, and it doesn’t value women’s voices, so women are naysayed or simply ignored when we point out the problem.

You probably could get away with a damsel in distress in your story, just like all those high-profile works. But you shouldn’t do things that harm people just because no one will stop you. You’re better than that, and your readers deserve better, too.

Plus, you know, it’s a cliché.


Images are from King Kong (1933), Super Mario 3D Land, Spider-Man (2003), the Rocket Raccoon Free Comic Book Day 2014 comic, Disney’s Enchanted, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Deadpool.

Causal Realism and Jared Leto’s Joker

Ever since those first stills of his character design, Jared Leto’s Joker has left many of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out why the portrayal seems so wrong. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but the Joker is supposed to be that way; writing “damaged” on his forehead is very on-the-nose, but this character was never intended to be subtle. The problem isn’t that his appearance is silly and over-the-top; it’s that his appearance is silly and over-the-top in a way that looks designed. You can imagine the Joker wanting to look that way, but you can’t imagine him actually going to all the work to make it happen.

The Joker might like tattoos, but would he actually sit still through multiple hours-long sessions in order to get them done? The Joker might collect knives, but does he have the patience to line them all up in a neat circle just so he can lie in the middle of it? And would anyone, however damaged, choose to write “damaged” on their forehead? What would be going through their mind?

The overall impression isn’t that this is the Joker, but rather that this is someone dressed up as the Joker. Compare this to Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose clown makeup looks slapdash and several days old. It’s actually possible to imagine him applying it.

The principle here is something I’ll call “causal realism.” Causal realism states that a design in fiction should not only look right for the character and setting, but should also have a plausible explanation for how it came to be. Causal realism is violated when, for instance, a punk street kid wears a leather jacket, fancy piercings, and elaborate hair that would cost hundreds of dollars, or when a nerdy character has a name like Dwight or Eugene, as though his parents knew at birth that he’d grow up to be a nerd.

Causal realism applies to settings, too. Somewhere in the Star Wars universe there’s an architect who keeps designing structures featuring narrow, railless catwalks over enormous drops, despite the lack of purpose for either the drop or the catwalk, and despite repeated fatalities from falls. Science fiction has a real problem with designing sets to look cool rather than to serve any practical function.

Depending on the work, causal realism may not always be an important consideration. Comedies, lighter works, and works for children may lean more heavily on suspension of disbelief. Nobody gets distracted from Harry Potter wondering who named the streets in the wizarding world and what the logic was for picking a bunch of puns.

But most works, especially those in more realistic or “hard” settings, benefit from a close examination of how all the set and character designs came to be in-universe and whether the characters actually had the time, resources, and ability they would have needed to make it happen.


This post is an expanded version of a Twitter thread posted on August 9.

Haircuts: A Tale of Katz and Valya

My discussion of fictional haircuts leaves out one possibly pertinent fact: I included a dramatic haircut in my own novel Among the Red Stars. So I’m going to talk about my reasons for making that choice and the message I was trying to convey.

img024The short answer for why my protagonist, Valya, gets her hair cut is because it happened historically. Like most Russian girls at the time, young Valya has long braids, and all the members of Aviation Group 122 were required to get short “boy-style” haircuts (as shown in the early doodle at left). But historicity is an incomplete answer. Of course I could have found a way to keep Valya’s hair long if I’d wanted to. One Night Witch even avoided cutting her hair by hiding it under her hat, and was later held up as an example by a male general who didn’t approve of the other girls’ boyish hairstyles.

Additionally, unlike most of the Night Witches, Valya chooses to keep her hair short. So in her case it’s a real turning point that marks a permanent change. All this is deliberate artistic choice beyond the dictates of historicity.

Picture2To get into the real reason, I have to share a bit of my own history. Like Valya, I had very long hair as a teenager, but never as part of a very cohesive or well-developed visual identity. I took poor care of it and unconsciously tended toward male-coded styles, such as pulling it into low ponytails and not tucking it behind my ears even though that was ubiquitous at the time. An inveterate goofball, I often joked around by doing imitations of Cousin It or Samara from The Ring, in retrospect obvious signs of discomfort with an appearance that didn’t suit me.

No one ever forbade me from cutting my hair, but implicit social pressures are strong. None of the girls I knew had short hair, certainly not the male-coded styles I now like best. I longed to buck conformity, but didn’t feel equipped to do so. Walking into a hair salon and demanding that they cut off all my hair was simply outside my realm of possibilities.

IMG_4590My personal turning point came during my senior year, when hair-donation charity Locks of Love experienced a surge of popularity and a group of my friends all got our hair cut. I lost 16 inches of hair in one go. Once I got past the initial novelty of showering in half the time and not feeling like an Old English sheepdog in the summer, I found a whole new world of self-expression open to me. For the first time in my life, I actually liked my hair and wanted to do something with it other than check the box of minimum social acceptability. I dyed it and put it into liberty spikes and finally did all the things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.

Valya’s experience parallels my own. We both grew up with socially acceptable haircuts that did not suit us particularly well, but the inertia of social pressures was strong enough that we never really considered other options. It took an outside reason other than self-expression to allow us to embrace an appearance outside the norm.

Of course the choice is gendered. All of society is gendered. Valya doesn’t cut her hair because she needs to “become a man” in order to become a warrior, but the two choices harmonize becoming a warrior is already a male-coded decision in our society, and embracing a minor male-coded choice—a haircut—makes it easier to embrace a larger male-coded choice that reads as real social deviance.

So that’s why Valya cuts her hair short. It’s not a referendum on female self-expression. It’s a personal choice for her, as it was for me, and it happens within the context of a variety of women making different choices: Some keep their hair long, some had short hair to begin with, and some cut it but grow it out again. There are many ways to be female and many ways to perform gender, and I hope Among the Red Stars will help girls see that.

Award Arithmetic

Many people in the YA community were less than enthused when the Locus Awards announced their 2016 finalists. The YA finalists were all men, one of whom was nominated twice, and several of whom it’s questionable to classify as YA authors at all. The recommended reading list they were chosen from was itself 55% male, even though YA is vastly female-dominated, again full of authors dubiously classified as YA, and riddled with glaring omissions: No Renee Ahdieh, no Victoria Aveyard, and no Sabaa Tahir to name just a few, even though they’re all bestselling, critically acclaimed authors beloved by the YA community.

Notably, the recommended reading lists are variable length and the YA list had an odd-numbered 19 entries. So the Locus Awards didn’t exclude these and the dozens of other female authors of YA fantasy due to limited space; they simply didn’t think they were worthy of consideration for the award.

And then it came to light that in the award’s 13 years, 9 times the award has gone to a white man (not counting one coauthored book). Only two women and one man of color have ever won. Seven times–more than half–the award went to the same three men (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and China Miéville).

Coming just two weeks after the Hugos fell victim to their second ballot-stuffing debacle in as many years, this time hilariously leading to the nomination of the Chuck Tingles dinosaur erotica story Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the Locus Awards were the last holdout of respectability for SFF awards. Naturally, voices in the sci-fi community were quick to leap on them as an exemplar of how awards should be conducted.

When YA authors, so rarely given a seat at the grown-up’s table in the SFF community, expressed their objections, they were met with a shrug, even from usually sympathetic quarters. Sure, it’s too bad that the award completely excludes women, so the response from Neil Gaiman went, but nobody cheated, so that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

Yes, we have fallen so far that an absence of slate voting is a major plus instead of an assumed baseline.

But let’s look at the middle sentence of Gaiman’s response: “But also award-winning authors who wrote popular books.” In other words, the nominations are fair because all the nominated authors deserved to win, a sentiment I saw echoed by other people as well. Let’s take it as fact for a moment (setting aside the question of whether those authors should have been in the YA category at all, or whether Joe Abercrombie was really twice as deserving as all the snubbed authors put together). This is common logic that gets applied to everything from who gets into college to who wins an Oscar. On the surface, it seems sound. Who can argue with deserving people getting rewarded? But the underlying assumptions are more complex and less innocent than they appear.

The Hugos have overshadowed this fact, but true award snubs, where an obvious shoo-in loses out to an obviously undeserving contender, aren’t terribly common. Most of the time, there are several strong contenders for an award, and while you might maintain that one of the losers should have won, you can’t usually unequivocally say that the winner shouldn’t have. The white male authors who edge out women and minorities for recognition aren’t usually guys like Chuck Tingles; they’re usually people like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who are good writers and do deserve awards.

Thus, it’s hard to pinpoint bias in any individual case because you’d have to claim that Coraline, for instance, didn’t deserve an award. It’s only when you look at the entire landscape that a pattern develops where the deserving winners are almost always white men, while the equally deserving women and minorities walk away empty-handed time and time again.

Where are the female Gaimans and Pratchetts? The household names whose every release is a major event guaranteed to sweep the awards? There’s no lack of talented women, but without the recognition of power brokers like the ones who created the recommended reading list, they have little chance of achieving that kind of widespread recognition. Sure, there’s two-time Locus winner Catherynne Valente, but as the only solo female winner, she’s a token. She deserves better than to exist as proof that women can technically win the award. (For that matter, Gaiman deserves better than to win awards because he’s the default choice of readers who simply aren’t aware of any of the women who might provide serious competition.) Besides, she can’t be used to excuse this year’s all-male nominees.

The sentiment that it’s fair for white men to win all the awards as long as they’re sufficiently talented sends the message that women and minorities are supposed to sit down and shut up until the white men have gotten all the attention they deserve. And it sends another message, too: That the Locus Awards are just one more way the sci-fi community is out of touch.

The Full Story on Inkitt

ETA: Inkitt cofounder Ali Albazaz has been in touch to clarify a couple of points (see below). I will keep this post periodically updated as more information about Inkitt emerges.

If you’re active in writing on almost any site—Twitter, fanfiction.net, Wattpad, Fictionpress—you’ve probably been contacted, or will be contacted, by a site called Inkitt encouraging you to enter writing contests that can get you a Big Five deal. Here’s the full story.

  • You were contacted by a bot. They didn’t pick you because you caught their attention as an up-and-coming author; they will contact anyone who appears to be a writer. They have a whole army of Twitter spambots. They also apparently have four official Twitter accounts, three of which do nothing but plug their contests.
  • Their front page lists publications like The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, implying that they’ve endorsed Inkitt. Both publications only mention Inkitt briefly in passing while covering the same story about an author.
  • They claim the entries are curated by real writers, but in reality they’ll post anything. Many of the entries are riddled with errors, and your entry will appear side by side with them.
  • When you post your novel on Inkitt, you post it in its entirety. In the publishing world, this counts as publishing your book. You’re using up your all-important first-publication rights just by entering the contest. Few publishers will touch a book that’s been previously posted online.
  • They don’t promote your book aside from occasionally tweeting a link to a top entry. Notice that they always contact you asking you to enter a contest—never promoting another entry. Getting pageviews is entirely up to you. An average entry has maybe 5 likes; top entries have a few hundred. Inkitt is extremely low-traffic compared to reputable sites like Wattpad, and in particular, it has no readership: Everyone on the site is a writer participating in a contest or a friend who was pestered into voting. You can’t build an audience on Inkitt because there is no audience. The entire site is geared toward getting people to enter contests, not toward what happens next. And matters get even worse if you actually win.

    Inkitt vs Wattpad. Remember, a lower rank is better.

    Inkitt vs Wattpad. Remember, a lower rank is better.

  • They are notorious spammers. They email you multiple times every day encouraging you to pester your friends and family to like your entry.
  • Inkitt touts its “artificially intelligent algorithm” as the future of publishing, claiming it can predict future bestsellers that elitist agents and editors would reject. How does this algorithm work? We don’t know exactly, but it “analyses the behaviour of readers” and “measure[s] their engagement.” That sounds suspiciously like simply picking the entry that gets the most page views. But if you’re an indie author with a large platform and a lot of readers, you don’t need a contest in order to get found. An algorithm based on reader behavior can’t find the diamonds in the rough that no one is reading yet—the very books and authors that Inkitt caters to.
  • Inkitt claims “We pitch your book to A-list publishers” (oddly not referred to by their ordinary name, “Big Five publishers”) and strongly implies that you’ll get published by one of them if you win the contest. In reality, Big Five publishers have no relationship with Inkitt and little reason to be interested. Tor apparently picked up a recent contest winner, as apparently confirmed by Publisher’s Marketplace (although that’s behind a paywall so I can’t verify), but this deal is oddly ephemeral: The book, Bright Star by Erin Swan, is not on Goodreads or available for preorder and, less than a year out, there has been no buzz about it since its original announcement. Writer Beware has the full story.
  • If you do get a Big Five deal, Inkitt takes 15% of all the book’s earnings. That’s the same as an agent’s cut, but while an agent fosters a career-long relationship with an author that involves putting in an enormous amount of work pitching, negotiating, and promoting the book, Inkitt demands that fee for once putting your book on their website. Reputable writing contests will never take a cut of your earnings.
  • If you don’t get picked up by a major publisher, Inkitt claims they will publish your book themselves. The details of this publication process are extremely vague on their website. They list five books as “published” on their site, but there’s no trace of four of them anywhere outside of Inkitt (according to the Inkitt representative who keeps stalking this post, they’re coming out in September, October, and next year, but the site doesn’t include this information and makes no distinction between books which will be published in the future and ones which are already published). Inkitt’s “publishing deal” is nothing but publishing your book on Amazon through CreateSpace. They offer no advance and do nothing for you that you couldn’t easily do as a private individual. The one book that has been published this way, Catalyst Moon: Incursion by Lauren L. Garcia, is a new release less than a month old as of the writing and is ranked #16159 in fantasy. And this from a company that claims “we only publish bestsellers.”
  • Inkitt claims they will “run a marketing campaign to sell as many books as possible,” but have you ever seen a marketing campaign for an Inkitt book? Yeah, neither have I. In fact, the Inkitt website seems designed to minimize any mention of its “successful” books. The pages for previous contests don’t even list a winner, nor do individual entries; to see winners, you have to go to Writing Contests > Show All Contests and scroll down to find the winning entries printed in small text (linking, of course, to their Inkitt pages, not to a purchase page). Their list of published books is buried on a carousel halfway down the page on publishing, the rest of which is about their special algorithm. They do profile winners on their blog…which is hidden in a collapsed menu in the far corner of the page. There are no buy links or exterior links at all on the site. To get to their one buyable book, you have to go to Amazon and look it up yourself.
  • Rules vary wildly from one contest to the next. Prizes vary from publishing deals to gift cards, Inkitt branded merchandise, or nothing but a badge on your profile. In each case, you’re still sacrificing your first publication rights.

Like most predatory companies, Inkitt maintains just enough veneer of legitimacy to stay out of trouble. Yes, its contests do have winners; if the winners are barely mentioned anywhere on the site, that’s your problem. Yes, it is possible to get published through them; if they just use CreateSpace to post it on Amazon, that’s your problem. The places their behavior becomes really questionable are often the hardest to quantify. A legitimate publisher would have its new releases on its main page, front and center, with buy links and dates, but here “Get published with us!” is front and center and the books they’ve actually published are buried. A major red flag, but not actual proof of anything.

As the comments on this post reveal, Inkitt is deeply concerned with coming across as a legitimate organization, even to random private bloggers—but appearing legitimate is their only concern.

Inkitt claims to be the future of publishing that will revolutionize the industry and create a new path for overlooked authors. In reality, it’s a predatory company that preys on inexperienced writers, luring them in with exaggerated promises of book deals while driving traffic for their site only by recruiting more and more writers. Give Inkitt a hard no and only submit your book to vetted contests that have a track record of success within the industry.

Some reputable pitch contests to consider are listed after the cut.

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Common Mistakes: Behavior

The goal of this post is to help beginning writers by pointing out some of the common mistakes I see in first novels. Not the obvious stuff you know to avoid, like info dumps and cliches, but the subtle stuff that seems perfectly natural and you might not realize was a mistake or even notice you’re doing. Many of these you might pick up from movies, video games, and RPGs, which have different genre conventions. I’ll be focusing on mistakes relating to behavior: Things it’s really easy to make your characters do but which are actually weird behaviors that no one would do in real life.

Enjoying the Action Scenes

This is a really easy mistake to make: You want your readers to enjoy the action scenes, so you make your characters enjoy themselves, too. After all, action movie stars laugh and quip during fight scenes all the time.

Sometimes $50 million of contractual immortality.

Sometimes $50 million of contractual immortality.

But in real life, being in mortal peril is not fun, not even if you’re a devil-may-care rogue or a dashing pilot. A real person will respond to an action scene like they’d respond to any other kind of trauma: Fear, crying, a fight-or-flight response, and so on. When characters have the complete opposite response, the impression is that they know they’re in a story and aren’t in any real danger due to contractual immortality. This undermines reader investment and actually makes the reader enjoy the scene less.

A character may laugh in the face of danger, sure. But laughter is not the same as enjoyment. Are they laughing to cover their fear? Is it the dark, ironic laughter of someone who knows their life is being squandered for no good reason? Is the need to accomplish a goal suppressing their self-preservation instinct? Any of these is an understandable, human response. Enjoyment is not.

If you write a lot of action and peril scenes, it’s worth checking out a book of war memoirs to get a sense of what people actually think and feel when they’re in life-threatening situations.

Being a Dick to the NPCs

spades-casino-crop

Anyone in a blue shirt is fair game.

In role-playing games, a PC is a player character, while an NPC is a non-player character controlled by the computer or gamemaster. Since the NPCs aren’t “real people,” it’s common for players to not show the NPCs much respect. This can range from being rude to outright killing people who annoy the player or get in their way, especially in computer games, where there may not be any consequences.

Nobody in books does anything that extreme, but I do often see protagonists who seem to understand that the named main characters of the story matter, but all the random unnamed people they encounter on a daily basis don’t. (This can’t be explained away by them leading an insular life: The unimportant people may include anyone from their own family to the king, as long as those people aren’t major characters in the story.) Sometimes this is direct. A character steals something they need from a shop, but this isn’t portrayed as a morally questionable act, because the shopkeeper isn’t a character and doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it’s indirect. Say the free-spirited princess secretly sneaks out of the castle to go on an adventure. That’s fun for the princess, but for the people of the kingdom, the unexplained disappearance of a member of the royal family would be a crisis on par with Princess Diana’s death combined with a terrorist attack. Now, the princess can sneak out, but it can’t simply be written off as harmless hijinks. It needs to be portrayed as a thoughtless act and the princess needs to grow to understand how much distress she caused, as in Roman Holiday, for example.

This doesn’t mean that every character needs to be nice to everyone. But how nice they are should be governed by their relationships, personality, values, and so on, not by the understanding that some people aren’t real characters in the story and therefore don’t need to be treated like human beings.

Cursory Behavior

This one is really hard to pinpoint, but often when you’re left with the vague sense that a scene doesn’t work, this is why. Imagine that a character is supposed to be jealously guarding a secret, but the protagonist figures it out in the next scene with no difficulty. Or two characters who are supposed to be sworn enemies are forced to work together, but they just snipe at each other a couple of times and then become best friends. Or the protagonist is trying to warn law enforcement about some imminent threat, but when law enforcement initially dismisses them, they immediately give up and go off to confront the threat alone.

In all these cases, the problem is that the characters aren’t really invested in their own actions. They’re not acting like they want to accomplish a goal, but like they want to seem like they’re trying to accomplish a goal so they can check that box and move on with the story. In the third example, the protagonist is acting like they know they’re supposed to confront the threat alone and are only talking to law enforcement to head off the inevitable question “Why didn’t you go to the police?”

"You seem like a trustworthy fellow."

“You seem like a trustworthy fellow.”

This one shows up a lot in RPGs, where player usually have a good idea where the story is supposed to go (or where they’re trying to make it go) and actions to the contrary are done to add a veneer of realism, not because that’s what the players really want to do. For instance, when a new PC joins the group, everyone knows they’re a good guy who has to become part of the group as quickly as possible so the story can move along, so any objections  are quickly put aside. (Same goes for when a player leaves a group and no one tries too hard to convince their character to stay.)

Always make your characters fully invested in their actions. They can be uncertain, but if they really think they should do something, they must really attempt to accomplish it to the best of their ability, rather than just trying to get it out of the way so they can get on with the story.

Plot Prescience

Building on the previous point, many characters show an uncanny knowledge of the plot. This can include anything from setting off in the right direction on a quest when they had no way of knowing which way to go, to figuring out correctly that a situation is or isn’t dangerous when there isn’t actually enough information to determine that.

This is closely related to the plot contrivance, a minor sin of which all authors are guilty at one time or another, but the key difference is the character’s motivation. If the character goes out for a walk and happens to stumble across the thing they were looking for, that’s a plot contrivance. If the character goes out specifically looking for that thing—without any clues about where to find it—and stumbles across it, that’s plot prescience.

And Aragorn knew to be carrying four hobbit-sized swords.

And Aragorn knew to bring four extra swords.

Movies, especially adaptations, must often make use of this device because they don’t have time to establish the how and why. In the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo and Sam randomly run into Merry and Pippin, that’s a plot contrivance. When Merry and Pippin then accompany Frodo and Sam all the way to Rivendell without even asking what they’re doing or why, that’s plot prescience. (Yes, Frodo is being chased by Nazgul, but that’s hardly a reason why a couple of random extra people with no useful skills should stay with him.)

This is a hard mistake to avoid, since it ties into plotting. Ideally, every plot beat is a logical lead-in to the next. But if that isn’t possible, remember that contrivance is allowable. Prescience isn’t. It’s better to allow your protagonist to run into the next plot beat by coincidence than to have them head directly for it without any way of knowing that’s what they’re supposed to do.

All these mistakes stem from the core problem of letting external factors your characters shouldn’t be aware of drive their behavior. The characters don’t know the fight scene is supposed to be exciting, or that some people they meet are characters in the story while others aren’t. Often this is so subtle you don’t even notice it’s happening, because from your perspective outside the story, their actions seem fairly normal. It’s only from within the story that you would notice how bizarre they are.

The solution is, unfortunately, not quite as simple as “always have your characters’ actions proceed purely from their in-world personality and motivations,” because strong plotting is also important and it doesn’t intrinsically follow from characterization (regardless of what you’ve heard). Instead, develop the plot and the characterization side by side so that they seamlessly feed into each other and the action the plot requires is also the natural thing to do from the character’s perspective.

Easier said than done, I know. But you owe it to your readers—and your characters—to craft a story where everyone’s behavior is human and understandable from within the context of the story.


Images are from The Avengers, Wasteland, The Gamers, and The Fellowship of the Ring.

Anachronistic Attitudes

You’ve seen her in every historical adventure or fantasy film you’ve ever watched: The plucky female character who wears pants, refuses to get married, and shares her outspoken opinions about suffrage, slavery, and so on with anyone who will listen. She is the anachronistic character.

Sherlock-Holmes-Movie-sherlock-holmes-and-irene-adler-12073171-1920-1080An anachronistic character is someone in a historical-inspired work whose attitudes and opinions would be wildly out of place within the setting, but would fit right in today. Women from the Victorian era or the middle ages who have modern feminist opinions are the most common example, but it can also include progressive attitudes about race, politics, and social structure (for instance, a character in a feudal culture advocating capitalist democracy). Beginning writers often write anachronistic characters because they’re worried that readers will mistake their characters’ attitudes for their own; for instance, not wanting to make a character in early 20th century America racist for fear of seeming racist themselves.

Now, not every character who disagrees with social norms is anachronistic, nor is every character whose attitudes would fit in today. Every era has had its reformers and dissidents; American abolitionism, for instance, are as old as American slavery itself. And sometimes attitudes only seem anachronistic because of modern misconceptions, like the idea that every premodern culture was as prudish about sex as the Victorians.

movies_20_memorable_movie_queens_15The key point is not just that the character’s attitudes are unusual for the day and age, but that they’re specifically chosen to appeal to modern sensibilities. For instance, a lot of female characters decide to defy conventions and wear pants, whereas male characters never defy conventions and wear dresses, even in settings where both would be considered equally deviant.

Another important aspect is the scope and connotations of the opinions. Anachronistic characters act with the aggressive confidence of someone who knows for a fact that their opinions will be validated in the future. They happily reject values and principles that would have been considered foundational in their culture and instead use modern reasoning to support their positions. Sometimes they end up sparking full-fledged social movements and changing the whole culture. Needless to say, these movements always succeed.

In real life, there have always been people who didn’t fit well into their prescribed social roles, both in real life and in fiction, from Jo March to Scout. But these characters are also products of their culture and they interpret their experiences in that light. They know full well when something is unfair, but they don’t necessarily conclude that their whole culture is at fault, and they usually respond within culturally acceptable bounds. This doesn’t make them weak or oppressed by their culture; people today obey similar social boundaries. That’s why not many men wear dresses.

p15The solution to the anachronistic character, then, is not simply to go the other direction and make every character in the story unthinkingly accepting of the status quo. This is unrealistic in its own way, and things like racism were wrong and ugly even in contexts where they were widely accepted. Your characters can and should be critical of their culture at times, but they must do so from within that same cultural context, taking into account all the attitudes and beliefs that inform it, and with a realistic understanding of what they can accomplish. Don’t just make them sound like time travelers from 2016.


First image is from Sherlock Holmes (2009). Second image is from King Arthur (2004). Third image is from Mulan 2.

Comp Titles

IMG_2223Comp titles: Agents love them; writers agonize about them. Comp titles are one of the most consistently misused aspects of querying, and it’s no wonder so many authors would rather dispense with them entirely. But a good comp title is a great selling point for any book. It’s well worth learning how to choose an effective comp title to use in a query.

In this post, I aggregated 12 blog posts from industry professionals (list is after the cut) and noted what advice they mentioned most often.

Don’t use extreme bestsellers as comps: 7
The most common advice was not to use extremely popular books as comp titles. Authors constantly claim their book will be the next Harry Potter, but doing so only demonstrates two things: That you’re not realistic about your goals and that you probably haven’t read very widely.

Comps should be recent: 6
This was the second most common advice. Using really old comp titles, like The Lord of the Rings, is not helpful because it doesn’t demonstrate that there’s a market for your book today. (This is true even if the book still sells well today, because it doesn’t doesn’t show that there’s a market for a new book  Agents listed cutoffs anywhere from 3-20 years, but the more recent, the better.

Comps demonstrate the market for a book: 4
The most common misconception about comp titles is that their purpose is to demonstrate what your book is like. It isn’t. Their purpose is to demonstrate that there’s a market for your book: That there are readers who bought similar books and will probably buy your book, too. That’s why it’s so important that comps be the same genre and age category, and above all, recent.

Don’t use overly obscure books: 4
The flip side of not using overly popular books is not to use overly unpopular books. A comp title is no use if the agent hasn’t read it, and if the comp title didn’t sell well, it’s not a good way to demonstrate that your book will. On which note, you also shouldn’t usually comp self-published books, since you’re trying to show that your book can compete in the world of traditional publishing.

Comps should be in the same genre and age category: 4
I lumped these two together, as did most agents who mentioned them. This is self-explanatory: If your book is kidlit, the comps should be kidlit. If it’s fantasy, the comps should be fantasy. Don’t use a book from another genre even if it’s really similar thematically or otherwise.

Comps are important: 3
Three people specifically mentioned that it’s important to include comps. However, one person specifically mentioned that you don’t need to include comps (see below). But no one said that they hate comps and never consider them.

Comps should be in the same format: 3
This is getting into the more technical publisher side of things, rather than the agent side, but if you plan to release a print book, don’t comp an ebook. If you want a hardcover run, don’t comp a trade paperback. Also, your comp titles should be, you know, books.

Comps should be from the same publishing season: 2
I’d never heard of this, but two different people mentioned that comps should be released at the same time of year as you plan to release your book. Again, this is mainly publisher stuff.

Finally, the following tips were each mentioned once. These are individual opinions and may not be representative of the industry as a whole.

-Comps should share your book’s themes
-Don’t use more than two comps
-Comps are not essential
-Movies and TV shows make good comps
-Tone is more important than plot
-You should be able to explain why the titles are comparable
-Comps demonstrate that you read your own genre

Conclusions
Two types of advice stood out as the most common. First, comp titles should be in the right range of popularity: Modest enough to be realistic, but popular enough to demonstrate your book’s potential. (My suggestion: Use titles that are very popular within your narrow genre or subgenre. For instance, I use some of the most popular YA historicals. They aren’t mega-blockbusters, but any agent or editor with the skill set to take on my book will know them.)

Second, comp titles should share as many technical features with your book as possible: Genre, age category, format, publishing season, and of course a recent release date. Conversely, few people mentioned more subjective elements like plot and themes. I conclude that finding reasonably popular comp titles that closely match your book in these respects, even if the plot or general feel of the book is very different, is a much better strategy than using more loosely-related books, even if they capture the subjective feel of your book very well.

The sources I used are after the cut.

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The Secret

img002It was the days shortly before the Lord of the Rings movies were released and my sister and I were patiently trying to coax our mother into the world of Tolkien by means of the beautiful BBC radio dramatization. Mainly, of course, this was self-serving. Our mother required a constant stream of chatter to amuse her while she drove us to school, and if we were unobliging, she’d force us to listen to NPR, so the epic 26-episode series provided a full thirteen hours of sound we actually wanted to listen to. We knew she wouldn’t go for it, and she didn’t. Somewhere in the middle of The Return of the King, she announced, “All these names mean nothing to me! ‘Aragorn met Saruman at Minas Tirith:’ It’s just gibberish!”

I privately thought that, if I absolutely couldn’t get my mind around something, I wouldn’t announce it with so much pride.

img002 (3)It was the days shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies had been released and New Line was trying, unsuccessfully, to recapture that success with The Golden Compass. My father was a little more amenable than my mother had been to The Lord of the Rings, but he kept calling the Gyptians “Egyptians,” with no apparent awareness that this was a mistake. I was in college by then, and beginning to notice a pattern.

I had been aware of adults’ disdain for fantasy, and indeed for anything creative, for a long time. The more “official” the adults in question, the more marked it was. It showed up in schoolwork: No room for dragons between A Separate Peace and The Old Man and the Sea. It showed up in the ubiquitous persuasive essays (as a contrarian twelve-year-old, I delivered a persuasive speech against persuasive speeches, based on the iron-clad thesis that no one wants to listen to them) and in the ostensibly “creative writing” assignments that were just anecdotes about our own lives. I wracked my brain for anything that had happened to a middle-class suburban good girl that was worth telling. I learned to recycle assignments, not out of duplicity, but for the sake of sheer survival. A decade later, creative writing is my job and persuasive writing is only a hobby. Draw your own conclusions.

img002 (2)In art class, my portfolios overflowed with extracurricular doodles and drawings of mythical creatures, drawn in the spare moments between the still lifes, contour drawings, and abstracts that made up the actual curriculum. I knew that real artists either drew from life or they drew abstracts. They didn’t draw from their imagination, and they certainly didn’t draw illustrations of fantasy stories they made up themselves. I was lucky enough not to have many authority figures outright condemn my creativity, but there was always that quiet, firm pressure to move in a different direction.

As a kid, I unquestioningly accepted that the kinds of books and art I was pushed toward by school curriculum, by reading lists, by museums, by the dreary Newbery award, were superior to the kinds I chose on my own. I could read The Lord of the Rings if I liked, but it would be better to read some nice realistic fiction. Why would the critics like it so much if it weren’t better?

img002 (4)I was wrong. I’ll tell you a secret: Critics, teachers, and other “serious” people don’t dislike fantasy and other forms of imaginative self-expression because they’re bad. They dislike these things because they don’t get them.

My mother didn’t dismiss The Lord of the Rings on the grounds that it was sophomoric wish-fulfillment; she dismissed it because she couldn’t keep track of all the names and places, and it was easier to write the whole work off as nonsense than to accept that it was maybe written for people sharper than her. My father substituted the name of a real group of people for the name of a pretend group of people because he couldn’t make sense of them unless he related them to something he was already familiar with. And so it goes. Scratch a snobbish fantasy-hating critic and you’ll find someone who is hopelessly out of their depth and desperately doesn’t want to admit it.

img003What about those autobiographical “creative-writing” assignments? There’s a whole class of people who simply can’t comprehend writing about something other than themselves. For them, writing a story they didn’t directly experience is a challenge, one that didn’t really happen is an impossibility, and one that not only didn’t but couldn’t happen is not even to be dwelt upon. That English teacher kept assigning us essays about ourselves because he literally couldn’t think of any other possible topic.

Bird ManThe same bias shows up in art. One of my beginning drawing books described drawing from imagination as “difficult, but exciting.” But if I began doodling a curvy line, it would sprout wings, legs, and a monstrous face. Drawing from imagination is not, ipso facto, difficult; that author was just bad at it. (Conversely, I find it difficult to draw abstract geometric patterns without turning them into something representational. Fantasy is not a superior or more advanced art form; all art forms require skill sets that some people have and others don’t.)

So the next time someone tells you that serious writers and artists don’t waste their talents on fantasy, remember: What they really mean is that they just don’t get it.