Editors, Influence, and You

Originally posted at JeffVanderMeer.com. For information about the ReaderCon incident discussed below, see this collection of links.

SF Signal just posted a podcast dealing with the aftermath of the writer Genevieve Valentine being harrassed at ReaderCon, which included the fall-out from ReaderCon not following its own zero tolerance policy. The panel consisted of Stina Leicht, Mur Lafferty, Jaym Gates, and Carrie Cuinn with Patrick Hester asking the questions. Hester didn’t do the best job in the world this time around, in my opinion, but the input from the interviewees is excellent.

One thing that came up during the podcast discussion was a report from a prior World Fantasy Con about an editor trading off of his influence to hit on women writers, especially up-and-coming writers where the power imbalance is very severe. The suggestion being, put up with this because I can help your career.

I mention this because I think it’s important that every writer, beginning or otherwise, know that this is absolutely, terribly, awfully wrong and no one ever should have to put up with this kind of behavior. Or any lesser variant of it. And also that no one editor out there has enough influence to have a dampening affect on your career if you have to tell them where to go. And that most all editors out there will be horrified and pissed off to hear of such behavior by a colleague and want to punch their teeth through the back of their face.

Another thing that disturbed me in the account Genevieve Valentine gave concerned panels, and in particular one in which she was heavily condescended to by the male moderator. This is also not okay, should never be okay, and I don’t think it’s entirely out of bounds for audience members to address such an issue as it comes up—or other panelists to do so. The other general issue being men talking over women panelists, not listening to them, etc. Also not okay. Which should be obvious. (For my part, I tend to get into manic modes that sometimes coincide with being on a panel, and I will happily shut the fuck up if told to shut the fuck up, should I forget to stop going on and on. Although I also do try my best to self-regulate and be a responsible member of all panels I’m on – a good moderator is always appreciated in this regard, too.)

The Town: The Importance of Respecting Your Characters

Very real issues of craft and narrative mean it’s important to think carefully about all of your major and minor characters: it results in further complication and believability. Sometimes, too, the inability to imagine a character as fully human can derail everything–in addition to alienating your audience.

I don’t like to use movies as examples, but what the heck. I’ll make an exception because it’s such a good example: the script for The Town, a movie by Ben Affleck (script by him and Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), fails miserably to flesh out the character of Claire Kessey, played by Rebecca Hall. The movie is supposed to be about long-time friends who are part of a bank robbing gang. Claire Kessey is a bank employee taken as a hostage and later let go. Affleck’s character (Doug MacRay), who Claire never saw, then falls for her, while his fellow bank robbers want her killed so she can’t identify them.

You could say the main thrust of the movie is on the bank robbers, their relationships, and what happens to them. But the crux of the film is Doug’s relationship with Claire, in part because it makes him do things that undermine his relationship with his friends and thus creates one of the central conflicts in the movie.

The problem is, Claire’s a cipher.

1–We don’t know anything about her friends.
2–We don’t know anything about her family.
3–We know very little about her past.
4–We have very little evidence about her personality, likes and dislikes, etc.

Even worse, Affleck et al have decided that Claire is so unimportant to the story that, after her kidnapping and release, she’s largely moved around the board simply to advance the plot. Several unlikely things happen, including…

1–Claire, despite being frightened out of her mind by the experience, seems to behave much as she did before being kidnapped, in terms of her day-to-day movements and activities.
2–Worse, she has no problem talking to a man she does not know, in a public laundromat.
3–And she has no problem going out on a date with said stranger.

Now, most reasonable people, myself included, if they’d been kidnapped recently, might feel the need to be more cautious. In such a context, I might not even want to go to the laundromat for awhile (except, Claire has no friends to speak of, and thus no one to ask for help). I sure as heck wouldn’t be fond of talking to strangers.

Is it possible Claire might be the kind of person who would deal with the situation differently than I would? The kind of person who would decide that a kind of confrontation with life, a dogged sticking to her normal routine, was the key to recovery? Absolutely! But to know that, we would have to have a much better idea of:

1–Her friends.
2–Her family.
3–Her past.
4–Her personality.

But we get none of that, apparently because Affleck thinks that the crux of the story lies elsewhere.

But the entire time I was watching the last two-thirds of the film, I could not get out of my head the fact that the foundation, the groundwork, had been so thoroughly botched that if the film had been re-contextualized as a house, it would’ve been leaning heavily to one side, with the bricks falling to the ground and the roof sliding half-off.

I was also getting angry, because in robbing Claire of her individuality, Affleck had trivialized the trauma that occurs when one’s personal space and freedom are violated in the way Claire’s were in the movie. Even worse, Claire’s actions at the end of the film betray any vestiges of self-respect the script has left her with…but that’s okay, the script seems to be telling us, because Claire’s mostly there so MacRay will seem somewhat noble and tragic…unless, like me, you’re by this point finding MacRay utterly unbearable because of his interactions with Claire. (The power dynamics of that relationship don’t bear scrutiny.)

The point here is that getting characters right is also about doing what’s right for the story, and when you get that backwards or you ignore a character or rob them of the normal human reactions that occur in the real world, you run the risk of having someone like me think what you wrote sucked.

Consider Booklife for the Holidays!

Dear Reader:

It’s now been a year since my writing strategy book Booklife came out, and it’s received lots of praise, leading to an interview on National NPR, among other opportunities like speaking at MIT and the Library of Congress. I’ve even had artists and musicians tell me they picked it up and found that the advice in it worked for them as well.

I know there are more of you out there, so if you’ve enjoyed Booklife and/or reading new content on this website, it would be wonderful if you’d be willing to blog about it this week, recommending the book as a holiday gift. (Or tweet or facebook if that’s more your style. Or even re-post something you wrote when the book came out.) Monies from sales will be directly reflected in my next couple of royalty statements and help off-set the cost of a couple of important projects my wife Ann and I are taking on gratis.

If you do decide to blog, here are a few possible links to include:

Booklife at Amazon

Booklife Kindle edition

Booklife at Indiebound

Booklife at Indiebound (ebook)

Booklife at Powells

Direct from the publisher, Tachyon

As importantly, I’m interested to know how Booklife was of use to you (or, even, where you wished it would’ve been of more help), and will write a follow-up post here and on Booklifenow that links your post. If you tweet or facebook post, consider echoing into the comments thread here.

Finally, thanks for considering Booklife as a holiday gift for the creatives in your life!

Nick Mamatas on Approaches to Reading

Nick Mamatas, who always does a good job talking about creative writing, has an excellent blog post that boils down, in part, to a discussion of ways of reading in workshops.

That is, my workshops I’ve been in and in workshops I’ve taught, the “conservative” objections against “incendiary, sexual, and/or disturbing pieces of work” come not most often from political conservatives, but from people who just can’t read well enough to tell the difference between portrayal and advocacy, and in the case actual (or close seeming) espousing-of-the-disturbing lack the sophistication to approach a text as text. Basically, the struggle in the classroom is the cosmopolitans versus the conventionals. There are right-wing cosmopolitans—Celine and Gene Wolfe aren’t exceptions to some broad and otherwise universal rule, and there are many left-wing conventionals. Plenty of people who identify themselves as some species of “left” involve themselves in linguistic activism—my own first workshop experience in my MFA program involved a good Hillary Clinton-supporting liberal denouncing a story I workshopped and soon after published, even going so far as to suggest that no woman should read the story. (The several women in the class didn’t object to this man declaring my story off-limits to them, interestingly enough.)

Many on the left worry about being “offensive” and indeed worry even more when other people are being “offensive.” Many on the right—conservatism being a sort of machismo these days—are pleased to offend, of course. This doesn’t make them any good as readers or writers.

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