Redemption in Writing: How we pick who gets saved

I finally watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night. And it was really good. From characters to plot, it was both a great nostalgia flick and a neat addition to the canon. But it also reminded me what a huge role class and privilege play within movie universes when it comes to redemption storylines.

(This piece is going to include some mild spoilers, so watch out.)

One of the major subplots in the movie was whether the villainous Ren would reconcile with his parents and reject the dark side. Presumably, upon rejecting the dark side, he would return home, hug his mom, cry in the arms of his parents and then retreat to a Jedi monastery to think upon his misdeeds, or heroically join the battle against the dark side and his evil former mentor.

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Mind, this character’s screen time included :

  • ordering the wholesale slaughter of an entire village,
  • running guy through with his light saber,
  • torturing a resistance fighter off-screen,
  • and colluding in the destruction of three to five heavily inhabited planets.

And this is just what happened during the movie. But his parents love him and want him to come home. Continue reading

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Writing the impossible: Thoughts on immortal characters in fiction

Deities, vampires, demons, elves, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, genetically enhanced humans, sentient ships, aliens.

I love reading about inhuman aliens, about immortal characters, about the other that is, in some deep way, truly other. And so I am always more than deeply disappointed when the alien is merely a human with purple skin and the 400-year-old vampire prince has all the personality of a petulant teenager with pointy teeth. I am looking at you, urban fantasy. You, space opera. You, paranormal romance.

Immortality, like any story decision, deserves to be more than a cursory afterthought. What happens when immortality is granted to someone who would otherwise be human?

The questions are endless: What is it like to still be healthy and alive after a hundred years? In two hundred, how much has society changed and what is your role in it? In two thousand, how do you see time and the people around you? Does your perception of time continue speeding up, or do the days drag by? How has your religion changed, if it’s even still around? Is the passage of time oppressive or inspiring? Does living forever mean disengagement and bitterness, or compassion and patience? Do people still understand you when you talk? Which languages do you choose to learn and how often? What up with science? Have you upgraded your rotary phone yet?

Ever try talking to an older uncle about things you care about? Image your uncle grew up in ancient Mesopotamia. Or was a nomadic shepherd on the Asian continent. Or a British sailor on a whaling ship. Now he asks you what you’ve been up to. Probably in ancient Chinese.

Damn.

Immortals in romantic subplots

Is that a 475-year age gap I see? Is that a teen dating an octogenarian?

Immortal love interests are ubiquitous in the romance genres. They often come with troubled pasts – history is no cakewalk, after all. They demonstrate the weight of history through outbursts of anger, their iron-clad control, their impassive countenance, their pushy, alpha-male tendencies.

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Where are all the ancient alpha males who grew up in more egalitarian societies or encountered the hard, no-nonsense women running households and businesses?

I always feel vaguely cheated. Is that it? Is that all? You’ve lived for hundreds of years, and all I get is a foot-stamping romance-novel trope, muttering “mine” uneasily under its breath? Or else you are my immortal heroine acting with all the self-possession of a teen high on red bull and sugar. Continue reading

Today’s Book Blurb: Okay, I gotta read this one

For anyone at all familiar with Russian folklore, you get me. I need to get my canary mitts on this book. It sounds amazing.

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“A former Soviet rocket scientist, Elena Irinovna now cleans office buildings–until she crosses paths with Ilya Muromyets. A remnant of Russia’s glorious and fabled past, Ilya is an eight-hundred-year-old hero turned heroin addict, dreaming of a death that never comes.”

– Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams

Today’s Book Blurb: A unicorn and dinosaur walk into a plot

This one was submitted as a review request. We don’t do children’s books, but I couldn’t resist passing along the book description.

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“Azaria, a unicorn colt, is intrigued when the young, clairvoyant dinosaur, Darius, foresees a terrifying change to their world.”

– The Legacy (The Shadow of the Unicorn #1) by Suzanne de Montigny

[Pitch Slap] Readers read words, not minds

Another pitch slap article.

One of the best bits of fortune cookie-style writing advice I’ve ever gotten has been this: Readers read words, not minds. 

When a reader picks up a book, they’re reading the words, the paragraphs, the chapters. It no longer matters what the author meant, or wanted to imply, or included in the 50-page compendium of world-building notes. The words on the page are all.

Here’s the thing: Writers read with their minds, readers read with their eyes. The writer already knows what’s happening, what it all means, why the characters do what they do, all before ever sitting down to look through what they’ve written. It all makes sense, not because the words-on-the-page explain it, but because the writer’s brain knows all.

All this leads me to our latest 50-word story summary sent in earlier this month by author B Hughes-Millman for some feedback.

Title: Purgatory’s Angel
Genre: Paranormal Romance

Once a mighty archangel, Jaime is on earth hunting those who kill the innocent in their sleep. Then she meets the handsome demon in a dream she can’t remember. When she wakes, he’s still alive, but he must have died or she wouldn’t have woken.

I think you know where I’m going with this. Here are some off-the-cuff thoughts as I read:

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I suspect none of these oddball questions I asked even occurred to the author. But the reader doesn’t have the advantage of seeing around the corner. The reader doesn’t have the author’s mental footnotes and annotations. More clarity is needed.

Wait, don’t you want to get your readers curious? Make them ask questions? Continue reading

Defining Dystopia. Hint: It’s not about love triangles.

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I’m about halfway through reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with Tash from The Bookie Monster, and it has dawned with me that over the last few years, I’ve slowly lost sight of what the dystopian genre is all about.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes North Korean oppression, mixes in the gender-driven segregation of fundamental Islam, and frames it all in the language of Christianity. In no place in the text can you take a step back and scoff, this can never happen. It might. The story makes you believe it might.

This is the chilling power of the genre – it says, This could be the world. Our world. Tomorrow. The dystopian genre is a cautionary tale. It’s a warning. It’s the uneasiness of premonition. It is the Greek seer Cassandra, blessed by the gods to see the future and cursed to never be believed.

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, it occurred to me that the mushrooming teen dystopian genre has been selling oppression lite. To win itself a shiny “dystopian” label, the ubiquitous YA book checks the box  marked “oppressive society” and perform a token wave to its character’s rejection of the status quo. These worlds don’t need to be realistic or thoughtful or threatening (and perhaps that’s why Divergent’s world pissed me offSeveral times.) They just need to involve oppression. The weirder the better. Continue reading