I will say from the get-go that I am not a fan of political correctness; it seems far too close to 1984’s Newspeak to me; at the very least, it is eerily similar. When I wrote my novel, Drasmyr (about 18 years ago, now), I pretty much paid little attention to variations in the human race and while writing, pretty much imagined all my characters as white (I’m white); however, I never went out of my way to specify human races in the novel, so, it would require little effort on the reader’s part to imagine the characters as black, or oriental, or what-have-you. The only thing that might jar would be the names. That said, as the author, I imagined the characters as white. So, let’s just assume they are.
Is that a weakness in the book? I’m sure some people think so. Personally, I think it is much ado about nothing. To me, the way to overcome racism is to be colorblind. It simply doesn’t matter that all the characters are white. By the same token, a black author should have no problem writing a book featuring all black characters. Or I could write a book featuring all black characters if I wanted to; either way, taken by itself, a book featuring human characters who are all of the same race should be acceptable, particularly since it is not necessarily true that—especially in earlier times—the human races were mixed equally around the globe. I mean, really, the reason racism starts, is because a homogenous population encounters someone who looks “different.” That presupposes that the population was homogenous in the first place. So, why can’t you write a story that takes place in that homogenous population before they encountered peoples of different races? A story set in ancient Japan would probably be strange if it featured American Indians, unless it incorporated a very specific justification for such, would it not?
Still, the politically correct forces are what they are. But they do lead to some strange, if not downright silly, results. A friend of mine actually pointed the following out to me: in the movie “Thor,” from a couple years back, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) is accompanied by a small group of companions. All of them come from Asgard, the home of the Asgardian “gods”—you know, Odin, Loki … them guys. His companions are, conveniently, a mix of different races representative of the peoples of the various places of Earth. Yet, as my friend pointed out, Thor and Odin were NORSE gods. The gods of every culture on the planet have always, according to the legends, pretty much been of the same race as the people who worshipped them—just bigger, stronger, and immortal (or they were human-animal hybrids). That kind of poses a difficulty for the movie “Thor”: if Thor had black and Asian companions, why didn’t the Norsemen worship them and have corresponding legends about them? Maybe that’s a trivial flaw—and I’m sure you could get by it with some mental gymnastics—but it does show how adherence to politically correct tenets can cause difficulties with plots and stories that might be better served if such tenets were ignored. In the case of Thor, political correctness might have been better served if, again as my friend suggested, the major Earth characters in the movie were of mixed races—which they weren’t.
Anyway, this leads to my next point: as a writer, I don’t like being “told” I have to include such and such a character in my story or the story is flawed or I’m a racist. I prefer to write characters that fit the story, and sometimes, an all white, or all black cast might be called for. That said, Drasmyr was written with only white characters in mind only because I never made a conscious effort to do otherwise. It was not intended as a slight to blacks or Asians or anyone else. All that being said, I will tip my hat to political correctness to a certain extent and include a black snake priestess in the next book. But only because I think she is really cool … and that’s the real reason to include a character, any character, in your novel.
The art of writing a short story is distinctly different from writing a novel. There is far less “room” in a short story than a novel; you must make every word count, particularly if you are up against a tight word count. The story must be unified by a single theme or over-arching idea; there is no room for subplots and parallel memes. Depending on the genre, the notion of a twist is also quite prevalent. In fantasy literature, for example, there must be something in the story that takes it an unexpected direction, or flips our expectations upon their head. A piece of clean prose that tells a simple straightforward tale will not cut it. Nowadays, there is a requisite of something unusual, something that makes one look at the story from a clever angle.
One is also limited by characters and viewpoints in the short story. Generally, the writer is limited to a single viewpoint with but one protagonist and one antagonist. There might be a couple other minor characters, but they will be few in number and their roles hardly substantive.
A novel is an altogether different animal. While it is true, that there is usually a central theme for any great literary work, there also can be sub-themes and sub-plots and what have you. These can be developed throughout the course of the work, because there is no word-limit on a novel (although length of a novel certainly is no indicator of quality). Complex literary devices like symbolism and such can be fully employed in a novel; one has plenty of room to develop and expand upon such concepts. In the fantasy genre, the novel, like the short story, must be more than a straightforward tale. We are drawn to the unusual and the surprising. Because of its greater length, the novel has room for multiple twists, each one eliciting a pleasant burst of “ahh!” from the reader. A story of a brave knight rescuing a princess from a dragon no longer cuts it today.
In the fantasy novel, multiple viewpoints and plotlines have become almost standard practice. Rare is the novel with but a single protagonist these days.
So which one will you write? For myself, I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve written a number of short stories, with a few minor publishing successes. However, I got into writing to write novels not short stories. Short stories are great to hone your craft, to figure out the intricacies of fusing dialogue with narrative and what-have-you. And I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on short stories—I even have a number of short story ideas that will probably never come to fruition—but I have decided that I want to focus on novels. Besides, short stories don’t pay enough to support a writer. They exist to fluff the resume. And they are great for honing your craft. But, in my opinion, that is all they can do.
I run a blog (this one, of course) and try to post to it at least twice a week, sometimes three times. There are a number of blogs that post far more often. Some five times a week; others, even several times a day. My purpose for blogging is to gain exposure for my writing. My blog, itself, is not supposed to be my career, but a complement to it. Other bloggers make their living off their blog. I’ve heard, and I kind of assume, that posting only once a week or less is not really worthwhile. Even posting twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, seems to be severely limiting. But, as I write fantasy literature, I’ve only got so much time to work on my blog. Twice a week (with an occasional extra) will have to do. Clearly, there is a minimum number you should post if running a blog, but is there a maximum?
Perhaps it is my technological naïvetee, but I seem to have problems keeping up with some of the more numerous blog posters. I own a smart phone, and for a while, I was following certain blogs and having the messages sent to my phone. Because they were posting so often, my inbox was being flooded with updates for each and every post. I finally broke down and set up filters that sent the blog posts to their own individual folder, so at least the primary inbox would remain clear of everything but the most essential e-mails.
I guess the answer to my question depends upon each individual consumer. For me, I like a more sparse number of postings: two or three times a week. It’s easier to keep up with and it’s easier to work into my schedule. Because keeping up on blogs, is almost as essential to my writing career as my own actual blogging. At one point, I didn’t bother following some blogs, or unfollowed others, because they just posted too much. I’ve had to rethink that strategy. I guess it was naïve for me to think that if I was going to follow a blog, I would be able to read every entry that blogger made. That seems more genuine, at least. But there are innumerable bloggers whose stats indicate they are following hundreds or even thousands of other bloggers. It’s almost like reverse spam. I do see the reason it happens, and understand why—and I will probably begin even doing it myself—but it still feels disingenuous.
Under such conditions, where people are seeking to maximize followers and maximize the blogs they follow, it seems that the best strategy is to maximize the number of posts you make. Each post has a chance of picking up more followers for your blog. But I think there is a certain innocence lost. I must wonder what happened to the blog-followers who just kept up with one or two blogs that interested them. Have they become a vanishing breed? If so, is that a good thing, or not? I honestly don’t know.
What do you think?
Writing fantasy literature, or any kind of literature, is hard work. And as it is often said, the secret of writing consists of “Revision. Revision. And Revision.” Any piece of original writing can be improved with revision. No piece of writing will come out perfect on the first draft, that’s a fact. The human brain just doesn’t work that way. You might get a few choice one-liners in the first draft, but on the whole, it will require reworking it to produce the polished gem you want.
However, in my experience, any piece of writing can be improved upon ad infinitum. This leads to a question: when is the revision process complete? If you insist on perfection, it won’t ever be complete. There must be some point at which the writing can be regarded as “good enough.” Does that mean we are settling for second best? That we’ve given up, because the struggle is beyond our capacity? I don’t think so. It is just a pragmatic way to deal with reality. As one revises over and over again, the manuscript will improve by a smaller and smaller degree each time. At a certain point, the reward (the degree to which the manuscript improves) will be insufficient to justify the effort (all the editing, proofreading, and rewording that goes into it). Determining this is, of course, a matter of skill and experience, and not a function of variables you can plug into some computer or some odd calculus you can do in your head.
Ideally, every writer should have at least one, preferably several, practice readers for their work. For my book “Drasmyr,” I had basically my sister—she’s got an English degree, but spends most of her time taking care of her kids—and a high school buddy who not only has an English degree, but some experience in the field of journalism. I would have liked to have hired a professional editor, but alas, I do not have the finances for that. The book has received several four star and five star reviews, so I think the process was ultimately thorough enough. Still, if I had to do it again, I would hire the editor… even if I had to scrounge for the money. The rule of thumb is: “If you got the dough, hire an editor.” Anyway, it is important to remember that even with the professional editor, the person with the final word on the document is you. You can only make so many changes to a document before you will start getting sick of looking at it over and over again. At this point, you have a choice to make: either publish it as is, or put it aside for a month or two, or even a year, then look at it again with fresh eyes after the allotted time has passed. Regardless, at some point, putting it aside will just turn into wasting time for meager improvements. At this point, just publish it. In today’s day and age it is very easy to do so… well, easier, anyway.
So you want to be a fantasy writer? Good. The two most important rules of writing are: 1) write, and 2) read. Do lots and lots of both, as often as you can. The third rule is 3) join a writing group. Nowadays, anyone can be part of a writing group of some kind. The Internet has opened up whole new avenues of expression. There are a plethora of writing groups on the web; just do a search, and you’ll find lists of groups filled with fellow writers striving to improve their craft. Here’s one from the top of a google search: Critters.
The question, though, is which should you rely on? An on-line writing group? Or something off-line where you can meet face to face? There are advantages to either.
An on-line writing group opens you up to more potential criticism (this is actually an advantage). You can get lots of feedback from a great many knowledgeable people. In this day and age, every writer should be getting feedback from somebody; you don’t have an excuse to write alone, except maybe timidity (of course, that’s what I’ve been doing lately—so, I’m pretty much a raging hypocrite here). And if you want to be successful as a writer, you have to get over your timidity. Get your work out there and get some eyeballs on it. The more you do this, the more you accustom yourself to criticism, the better you will get at accepting and dealing with such criticism. Responding to constructive criticism is how a writer learns to grow. There is a disadvantage to an on-line writing group, though, or any writing group, for that matter. There is such a thing as too much criticism. Any piece of work can be criticized from some angle. And if you are striving to reach a point where your work can no longer be criticized because it is perfect… you will never get there. At some point, you have to decide the work is ready and you have to start submitting to editors.
On off-line writing group is a slightly different animal. There is a significant difference in receiving feedback face-to-face. There is more of an ebb and flow. You can respond to the criticism as its happening and you can learn to more effectively defend your work. For myself, I like the more personal touch of a face-to-face writing group (at the moment, I’m not in one, I’m getting all my criticism done via e-mail by my sister). But again, there are drawbacks. I get put off whenever the writing group gets too large. I prefer a group with maybe four or five other writers of comparable or superior skill; this gives you quality feedback from which you can learn a great deal. And not so much that you’ll be overwhelmed.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject.