(With thanks to the Hamilton musical for being so quotable!)
Gather ’round, my peeps, for today we are talking about narrative choice and authorial intent! [I’m specifically going to focus on written/sole-created narratives. Just for ease of this post.]
Everything You Choose Is Deliberate
In fiction, the author is all-powerful. Each choice the author makes–in particular, conscious decisions–reflects on the author. Power carries responsibility. So. When you have complete and total power over the story you choose to tell, what are the responsibilities that come with that?
Equally important: what are an author’s responsibilities when it comes to choosing not to make specific decisions, include specific elements, and otherwise wield their power in a exclusionary way?
When I talk about exclusion, an authorial choice not to include specific elements in a story, this can be literally anything. It can be choosing not to include rape culture or scenes of sexual or domestic violence. It can be choosing not to have any swearing in the story. It can be choosing not to include potatoes.
Exclusionary choices are not inherently bad. They are, like inclusionary choices [what you DO put in a story], simply a spectrum of authorial deliberation. However, as an author, what you do not include is just as important as what you do include. An author must own the responsibility of their choices.
(We’re not going into external meddling–such as editors, executives, elder gods, etc. This focuses specifically on what the author created, and assumes that there is no external pressure to add/subtract/change specific elements.)
Sometimes these choices can arise from unexamined or unknown bias. Sometimes they arise from ignorance–whether to include or exclude specific elements or people from a narrative–and sometimes not.
Does the story include dragons? Fantastical elements? FTL drives? Superpowers? Does the story feature any queer, trans, disabled, POC, elderly people, minorities, women, or other demographics found everywhere in the world?
If you have dragons but no People of Color, what does that say about your choices? “Historical accuracy” is a false claim when it’s not actually historically accurate. Does a spacefaring worldship harbor only cishet white people? What does that say about your perspective?
Look at it this way. You choose a POV (point of view) character(s) for your story, just like you choose whether it’s written in first-, second-, or third-person (or maybe all of them!), and just like you choose which tense to use for the narrative. Those are deliberate decisions made in order to shape the story.
The content of that story is no less deliberate.
You have the power to choose what you write about, who you write about, and for whom you write. Your responsibility is in how you use that power.
Making Choices: Who Lives and Who Dies
The novel has very strong thematic questions about power, responsibility, and what we owe each other and ourselves with our actions.
It’s also got a lot of action and drama. The plot focuses on authoritative powers who want to destroy things, and the protagonists are caught in this fight and must decide how it ends.
It would be so easy to make this book tragic. It would be so easy to kill everyone off for ‘dramatic effect’ in the ending; to have the characters die in order to succeed. Maybe that would be “edgy.” There is set-up that could allow for the resolution to go either way (victory and life, or victory and death). All I can say is: FUCK THAT NOISE.
There will be no queer tragedy in this book. Damaveil and his husband live and are happy; Rajosja and her wife live and are happy; Bane lives and is… getting there; it just takes a little longer before he is happy again. The non-binary characters live and are happy.
Do people die? Sure. Lots of them. Past and present. This is a dark book; a lot of terrible things happen. That does not mean it must end badly for all the queer and trans characters who exist within.
Death is not the default ending.
Making Choices: Who Tells the Story
So, when I wrote the first draft of this book (*cough*timeago*cough*) I did not actually know I was ace/aro. (Ace = asexual, which means I do not feel sexual attraction to other people. Aro = aromantic, which means I am not interested in romantic relationships with other people.) I had inklings about being a somewhat outlier circle on a Venn diagram mapping out human axises of sexuality, but it would be nearly two years after this draft was written before I encountered vocabulary for defining myself.
Bane is asexual. When I picked up this draft in order to revise, that jumped out at me like a neon sign. (He’s also neuroatypical, which is also something I did not have words for, or consciously realize about myself, when I was writing.)
When I realized this, it made me so happy. And I knew him being ace was an element I would not change. Not for any reason.
I, as a reader and consumer of media, want to see more representation (positive!) on various axises; ace, aro, neuroatypical, queer, trans, non-binary… to name but a few. So I feel it my duty, as a writer, to do what I can to include characters that reflect the vast, amazing, kickass aspects of humanity. I will not always succeed, and not every story will contain every multitude of people. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. ^_^
A protagonist is one of the many lenses through which we experience story. A protagonist, often, has a large amount of page/screen time. Who you give this time, energy, and presence to in your work says something. You, as the author, choose what it is you’re saying.
Bane has flaws, and also a lot of goodness. He’s empathetic, compassionate, and strives to help people. He has strong friendships without needing romance or sexual relationships. He can save the world when others would ask him only to destroy it.
And he can have a happy ending.
So, creators, keep in mind your power and your responsibility. When you mess up, you will be called on it, and how you respond is equally a choice. You can do better if you want. You can try harder. Work better.
(I actually have an unfinished post that examines authorial power/responsibility in more detail, and will aim to finish that up and post–it might be more useful to people as a stand-alone article.)
I’d love to hear from you folks, too: what decisions do you make in your creative work? What do you choose to include or exclude?
Coming up next… Merc has no idea, because they need to get back to the ‘fill in all the gaps from the revision outline’ drafting phase! xD So stay tuned…
Got the contract finalized today, and I also have permission to share, so! I am beyond excited to be writing an interactive novel (game) for Choice of Games!
IT’S SPACE OPERA SNARK. Plant monsters and spaceships and evil corporations and aliens and romance and explosions and tough choices!
(And for those interested, I’ll be blogging about the process–everything from pitching to planning to planting words all over (aka writing/coding). THERE WILL BE SCREENCAPS.)
Curious what it’s about? This is how I conceptualized the idea:
It’s like Mass Effect meets The Witcher with a liberal dose of Deadpool.
A more official pitch:
You’re a bounty hunter short on work in and deep in debt. You get offered a job by a company called Epsilon Express Enterprises: Hunt down some monsters terrorizing a mining colony. Problem is, all the colonists want the monsters to stay, because they’re the only thing keeping the people alive. What’re gonna do about it?
You decide in Galactic Bounty Hunter, an interactive SF novel by Merc Rustad.
I’m so thrilled to be writing an interactive novel! Set in space! Where you play a bounty hunter! COULD IT BE MORE PERFECT FOR A MERC PROJECT? So, stay tuned. ^_^ I’ll definitely be posting updates!
I love creating playlists for different projects. It’s not procrastination if it helps me focus, and music* is really good for stimulating my brain cells when I’m creating things.
*By this I mean carefully selected music that I like and have picked out and am familiar with. I can’t listen to the radio or most streaming services because there’s too much unpredictability.
What goes into the process of selecting music? Ahahahaha, I wish I had a scientific and logical answer, but it’s really “what sounds good, mood-wise” which is as subjective as words themselves.
I’ve chosen a mix of songs that vary in mood, theme, sound–generally nothing super fast-paced; instrumental or solo vocals with some choral; lower down in the playlist there is a lot of Two Steps From Hell tracks (from the album Batlecry), because they make epic music that is highly cinematic without being specifically linked to individual movies. So, because I am also a very visual writer, I like music that sounds like it’d be from a epic fantasy soundtrack, but without being associated with a movie I like/have seen.
For the tracks from albums or soundtracks that I’m familiar with (you will notice music from Hero and Dragon Age Inquisition: Tresspasser, as well as musicals and other films), the music is usually tied to a specific emotion or association–for example, songs by Rammstein (shown here are “Ohne Dich” and “Spring“) evokes tragedy and creepiness (respectively).
And then, after all that careful work to arrange them in an order I’m pleased with, I still tend to hit shuffle and go with it. >.>
PROCESS IN ACTION, guys.
FLOWCHARTS FOR THE FLOWCHART GOD! STICK FIGURES UNTO THE STICK FIGURE THRONE
A couple days ago, I had one of those ‘OH GOD EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE AND EVERYONE WILL JUDGE ME’ moments when thinking about the gender breakdown of characters in the book.
The majority of secondary, minor, and referenced characters are women or non-binary, aside from some token characters whose only purpose is to die, in which case, all those are men.
The POV characters are Bane (demi-male), Rajosja (female), and Winterblade (male-coded). The principle antagonists are the human queen (a woman) and the fae Winter Lord (coded male).
So where I hit a mental snag and flaily panic-state (brains are useful like that /sarcasm) was realizing that Bane, for a good third of the book, has almost an exclusively male support circle: his mentor, his mentor’s husband, and then Winterblade. Which is not to say only boys show up–like I noted above, the majority of secondary and minor characters are women. The most powerful mage in the country is a non-binary person. Most of people in power are women. There are definitely lots of ladies present, talking to each other, having their own lives that are completely unrelated to the males on scene.
But, even with Bane having two excellent gay men as his mentors/father figures (and a psychotic fae prince as a BFF), the fact that it takes over a third of the wordcount to give him prominent women allies/friends, made my brain panic that UR DOIN IT WRONG ZOMG.
So then I made a flowchart! (It’s actually very soothing; I got a pad of easel paper–25in x 30in– so I had lots of space to work with, and just plopped it on my kitchen table and broke out the markers.)
Did it help? Actually it did calm me down (as well as talking it out with friends). I’m still not sure if the doubtroaches are valid or if this is just another tactic to derail me from working. What I count as a win is the conscious awareness of what I’m doing–I can see how the patterns work, and will choose what to do about them going forward.
(That’ll be the focus ot the next post–narrative choices in action.)
Plus, I mean, I did get some adoable stick figures out of this exercise…
Coming up next: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
ALSO HAPPY NEW YEAR, I AM BACK AFTER FALLING INTO A BLACK HOLE OF AVOIDANCE.
Where were we?
I wrote awhile back that I needed to pause in drafting Winterblade’s POV in order to write a scene where he and Bane meet. I wanted to break that down and illustrate it as an example of how I visualize things akin to comics or video games.
So, uh. I FINALLY GOT TO WORKING ON THAT. Behold, my craft skills as I use drawing models and felt (and some props) for illustration purposes.
Or, as I said on twitter:
The scene where Winterblade meets Bane is pivotal to the entire plot. It’s basically attraction at first sight, in which they both fall hard for each other (in a non-romantic sense) and the plot functions because of the characters’ actions. If they never meet? None of the novel would exist, because nothing would go wrong, and the world would not be in danger.
When I was writing this scene, I first had to decide in which order the POVs (point of views) should operate. I needed both Bane and Winterblade’s reactions and attractions loud and clear on the page, and because this novel has three alternating POVs, I also wanted to balance out this key scene from each character’s perspective.
It technically begins with Winterblade, who is chained up in a glass cage in the magical university’s library. (He is, unsurprisingly, perfectly okay with this arrangement.) The end of chapter two has him see Bane for the first time, when Bane comes to investigate.
The third chapter begins in Bane’s POV, with a slight time overlap so we can see his first impression of Winterblade as well.
When I visualized this, the scene took shape in a lot of medium shots, close-ups, reverse over the shoulder(s), and some Dutch angled shots to suggest how much Bane’s world is being upset.
OTS (over the shoulder) is a nifty way to show two (or sometimes more) people talking, by reversing the camera so it focuses on Subject 1 from over Subject 2’s shoulder (roughly speaking), and then reversed (viewing Subject 2 from over Subject 1’s shoulder).
In writing, I end up alternating description and internal commentary–if Character A has dialogue and an action, a “reverse shot” might be Character B reacting to that or doing something of their own.
It depends entirely on the scene and what I need to accomplish, but when I think about framing and blocking in terms of shots, it helps me balance out how it “looks” in my head. That way it’s not one long stream of Character A doing a bunch of stuff, then sudden switch to Character B and recapping everything to catch up to the timeline. Balancing them (switching shots) makes a scene flow smoother, and can also tighten up pacing. (I don’t want to completely repeat everything I just wrote from a different POV, unless–such as in the first face-to-face meeting–it is essential to the story. It’s always a judgement call, because each story is different, and each scene needs different things. No one says this is easy.)
So anyway, the scene continues where they talk and test each other, and eventually Bane decides to break Winterblade out of jail and they go on the run!
Well, until they get caught and all hell breaks loose (aka THE PLOT).
[Fun fact! I have a xenomorph ring that I used as a prop for Bane’s collar. Adds all kinds of…interesting subtext to the photo set…]
And then Inspector Rajosja gets involved for real and she’s pissed.
She really does not approve of these shenanigans.
And now I must be perfectly honest with you, dear readers: I have no fricking clue what else I intended to talk about when I left all this hanging in Part One. >.> Guess that will happen on a five month unintentional hiatus…
I do hope you enjoyed the illustrations, though! 😀 It was a fun excuse to pull out my crafting supplies.
COMING UP: Probably something about playlists and music, as well as finding momentum after *cough* falling into a black hole.
It’s free to read online at Uncanny Magazine, alongside a knock-out table of contents by other stupendous authors. There’s also an interview with me, conducted by Julia Rios!
So, a new year. Resolutions. Resistance. Renewal.
I started out building bookcases and organizing my books. It’s soothing, and it inspires me to tackle this year with fierce and unyielding passion and determination. I will read more. Write more. Support my friends and my communities. Stay strong. Live.
In 2017, we shine brighter than ever before. Our existence is, in itself, an act of defiance towards our oppressors. We will not be silent or stop. We go on, we fight on, we create and we live and we love and we stand together.
Write your stories, my friends. They will always matter; now more than ever, the world needs to hear our voices. Let us shake the foundations of stone and sky with our words and our breath. Live. Resist. Write.
After I sent out the second-to-last-original-submission of the year, I took to Twitter with some flail, because I realized: I have nearly worked through my inventory of finished short fiction. Or, basically: HOLY TACOS, I NEED TO WRITE MORE THINGS!
Let me try to break this down.
I’m pretty obsessive about my fiction organization patterns. I have folders-within-folders until it gets into Inception-like levels deep. Most often it looks like this:
FICTION -> current WIPs (short stories) | current revision projects | submissions
The WIPs folder is usually the messiest: drafts, snippets, notes, unfinished chaos. The submissions folder is pretty basic: pending, unsubbed, accepted. However, the folder I look at most often is the current revision projects because that houses stories that I’m actively working on and wish to submit to markets.
At the beginning of the year, the current revision projects folder had around eleven stories in it. Not a lot, but not a few, either. The average number of stories-to-revise/edit in that folder settled around 5-6. Some stories had been sitting in there for *mumble* long time, and some were brand new. The specific contents of the folder fluctuate a good deal, because I move things in and move things out. (A finished draft gets backed up and then a duplicate saved into the revisions folder, where it’s queued up for editing. A finalized revision gets copied into the submissions folder, and the original backed up and archived.)
However. On this, the 23rd day of December 2016, there is one story left in my current revision projects folder. And it will be edited and sent out into the big, bright world by the month’s end.
Guys. Everything in the queue has been submitted or sold. That’s…that’s kind of mind-boggling. Exciting, too!
Here’s some specific stats:
In 2016 I’ve sold 10 original stories and 1 debut short story collection.
Major life things happened. (Almost exclusively good things, such as name change and moving and new job and graduating college and new car and attending cons.) I have endured, and in some ways, prospered.
I will continue to write, to resist, to share stories of fierceness and hope and triumph. We need them. I won’t stop (or throw away my shot!) so… Bring on 2017.
The Nebula Awards nomination period is open and SFWA members can nominate until February 15th, 2017. I’m very proud of the work I had published this year, and would be honored if you were to consider any of my stories. So, I present to you my award-eligible works from 2016:
Published in Shimmer 33, September 2016. Eligible for the Nebulas (short story), the Hugos (short story), and World Fantasy (short story).
* If I were to pick one story to put forward as The One to consider this year, I have to go with “This Is Not A Wardrobe Door” because not only does it have dinosaurs, it is all about hope and friendship and building your own path through difficult times.