Public Shaming in the Writing Community

Earlier this week on his show, comedian John Oliver spoke about public shaming, particularly on the Internet. At the time I’m posting this, the YouTube video of the segment, which features an interview with Monica Lewinsky, has nearly five million views. Take a look below:

Now, if you don’t have time to watch the twenty-six minute video, let me reiterate the main points: while public shaming may be needed when someone in the public eye does something truly awful, sometimes the shaming is taken out of context, becomes too harsh, or goes on for far too long, leaving those affected by it psychologically scarred and sometimes affecting their careers and prospects for years afterwards. And unfortunately, this unwarranted shaming happens far too often for all the wrong reasons.*

Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens quite a bit in the writing community. Sometimes this has been necessary: in 2017, Lani Sarem tried to scam her novel to the top of the New York Times bestseller list to get a film deal. In 2018, Faleena Hopkins tried to trademark the word “cocky” in book titles so no one else could use the word without fear of legal action. In both cases, the reaction from the greater author community, especially from the genres these writers wrote in, was instrumental in keeping these injustices from going unpunished.

However, there has been a number of authors who’ve been the target of online attacks that frankly don’t deserve it. In the past couple of months, there have been articles about writers who had to withdraw their books from publication–sometimes for huge amounts of money–just because they were targeted by their genre’s online community.

In the case of one author, she withdrew her book after people objected to one of the characters, a slave in that fictional universe’s version of post-Imperial Russia, was described as having “tawny” skin, and took that to mean African-American, meaning a horrible depiction of African-Americans in bondage. I believe the author, who is Asian, was actually going for a commentary on modern slavery and human trafficking in Asia.

In the case of another author, the objection was of the leads being two gay, African-American teens during the Kosovo War and one villain being an Albanian Muslim. And while I have my own reservations on including a Muslim villain, given my past published works, Americans did experience the Kosovo War firsthand, and no side of that conflict had clean hands.**

The fact of the matter is, these attacks are causing more harm than good. Yes, there are times when anger is needed, but in some of these communities the instinct to lash out has gotten so bad that people keep screenshots of things said online by their friends to use against them later if they ever have to. In other words, yesterday’s crusader has to prepare in case they or their friend is today’s victim. Or to put it simply, this is literary auto-cannibalism.

And at the rate it’s going, soon there will be no one left to go after. There will be only those who are too scared to write lest they be targeted, those who have been targeted and don’t dare to write anymore, those who walk a tightrope lest they be targeted, and those who would attack and grumble that nothing new and mold-breaking comes out anymore.

So how do we stop it? Well, I think part of the solution has already come about by identifying the issue. But there’s much to do. It starts with awareness. And then it improves by resolving to not be part of mobs like this. Before striking out at anyone, look up to see if articles from reliable sources exist. Read more than one, if possible, from multiple sides. Read the work in question, or excerpts if that’s not available. Then try to understand what the author was going for. And then ask if what people are saying is worth getting angry about.

Also remember that publishers are usually great gatekeepers for this kind of thing. They wouldn’t dare publish something if they thought it was offensive and would cost them more to publish than they could earn. If the publishers deem it fine, shouldn’t that at least factor into our reasoning over whether to get upset over a book’s content?

And if others are upset and you think it’s not worth it, don’t engage. Anger like this is fueled by attention, and refusing to give mobs like this the attention it craves is like depriving a fire of oxygen. Don’t be part of the mob.

Obviously this might not be enough  Any social problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and this may only turn out to be one or two prongs. But it’s a start. And without that, we can only expect more of the same, until the writing community at large becomes too toxic to survive. I don’t want to see that. Do you?

And if you’ve been the target of this sort of behavior, know this: you are not the problem. You don’t deserve what happened or what is happening to you. But there are people on your side. More than you realize. And you can get through this. And you will emerge stronger from this. I believe in you, and so do the rest of us.

Have you witnessed this sort of behavior before? Have you any strategies for dealing with this sort of behavior?

*And I’m well aware that even talking about this subject may upset someone and get me targeted for public shaming. However, I’m a Jewish bisexual man with a couple of disabilities and even more eccentricities. My very existence and interests probably offend somebody for stupid reasons. Not to mention I write horror, which always finds a way to offend somebody just by trying to scare people. I won’t let any of that keep me from putting myself out there, so I won’t let this do it either.

And if anyone does try to go after me, they should know: I BITE.

**Also, if one book gets this sort of reaction from these communities for a Muslim villain, I hope television shows like NCIS and Homeland or authors like James Patterson, Dan Brown or Daniel Levin, get the same sort of attention from them. Oh, they don’t? Interesting. Maybe they’re too big for them.

Does Comic Sans Font Make Writing Easier?

(We’re soliciting reader feedback for a special upcoming article, so please read through to the end if you’d like to participate.)

The other day on Twitter, a friend of mine posted that she had switched the font on her WIP to Comic Sans font, and found herself frustrated by it. Curious, I asked her why she did that, and she pointed me in the direction of an article on the website Lifehacker by A.A. Newton. According to the article, titled Get Over Yourself and Start Writing in Comic Sans, the unique nature of the font, where every letter is different from the other twenty-five, keeps writers from losing focus, becoming super-nitpicky of their work, and in the case of people with dyslexia, easily tell the letters and words apart.

After reading the article, I thought I’d try it myself to see if it would help my own writing, and as I was starting a new story, I switched the font from my normal Times New Roman (yeah, I know, but I like that font) to Comic Sans and went to work. Last night I finished said story and surveyed my work.

What did I think?

Well, I did feel like I was filling out pages out much faster than I normally do. This was probably because, while I changed the font, I didn’t change the font size, and 12-point Comic Sans is slightly bigger than 12-point Times New Roman. so it did actually fill the page faster.

However, I’m not sure it made that significant an impact on my writing. I still got out words at my normal pace, and I still found myself pausing to think about how best to say what I wanted to say. The only difference was that there was a bigger font.

Which, by the way, I switched back to Times New Roman after the story was finished. What can I say? I like that font, it looks professional, and working in Times New Roman, especially during the editing phase, is just easier overall for me.

Overall, I don’t think I’d switch to writing in Comic Sans. It’s just not helpful to me in the way I need it to be.

Of course, I’m just one writer. At the time I’m writing this article, this site has 3,752 subscribed followers. A single person reporting their results is a case study. An entire group of people? Now that’s a real experiment.

So for the next three months, I’m asking our lovely readers here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors to try writing in Comic Sans. Try writing a short story (or if you’re in the middle of a novel, a section or chapter) in Comic Sans, and let me know the following by May 1st:

  • Name
  • Fiction/Poetry/Non-fiction
  • Genre/Subject
  • Short story or novel chapter/section
  • Page/word count
  • How did it go for you?

For that last part, if you could tell me in 150-250 words, I’d appreciate it.

Please send your submissions to my author email address: ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com, with the subject line Self-Pub Authors – Comic Sans. Depending on how many submissions we get, yours could end up being showcased here on the site. And if we get A LOT of submissions–like, more than we can fit in a single blog post–I’ll work something out.

And if you already write in Comic Sans, we’d also like to hear from you. Please tell us all about it and how it helps you write.

Remember folks, this is entirely voluntary, but we would really like to hear from you. When we did something like this a while back, we got some great responses, so I hope to see if we can get that same magic again.

Happy writing, everyone. And….GO!

Does Your Story Need a Deeper Meaning?

There’s this scene in the early parts of Stephen King’s IT that has nothing to do with the titular entity or anything scary at all, but which I love nonetheless. When the novel is going over protagonist Bill Denbrough’s college career and how it lead to him becoming a famous author, it shows one of his creative writing classes. Which is less of a creative writing class and more of a creative writing about revolution class. The weed-smoking teacher and most of the students all believe that writing should only be written to make a deeper statement about society.

In one class, Bill finally has enough and says to the class, “Sociopolitical, socioeconomic, sociocultural, socio-sexual, socio-everything. Why can’t a story just be a story?”

The professor says in disbelief, “Do you think Hemingway just wrote stories to write stories? Did Shakespeare write plays just to make a buck?”

Bill: “Yes, I think they did.”

The professor: “Clearly, you have a lot to learn.”

This is by no means an exact quote or even a very good paraphrase, so I hope this doesn’t bring me the ire of any King fans or King’s legal team. Also, while I can’t speak to Hemingway or whichever author the professor actually pointed out in the book, I do have enough knowledge of history and Shakespeare’s works under my belt to say that yes, Shakespeare probably did write to make a quick buck. Sad, but true.

But I bring up this minor exchange in one of King’s greatest novels for a reason: in the course of writing, you are going to meet authors who insist that when you write something, you have to be saying something or trying to change something about society. Not just themes woven into the story’s fabric, but when the story’s deeper meaning and the story itself can’t be distinguished from one or the other. Folks like this exist in just about every artistic medium, though in this case we’re talking about the literary types. Not knocking another artist’s perspective on the craft, just giving an arguably very simple definition of a viewpoint.

The question is, do the stories we write need to have some deeper statement? Are the themes we weave into our works not enough? Many of these “impact stories” have become famous and influential. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain often sought to instigate social examination and change in their work. Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening was probably written just to remind the world that women do desire more than marriage and motherhood.  Those and other novels are taught in classrooms around the world to this day. Maybe we should try to give our work deeper meaning.

Well, from King’s novel, you can tell his view on the matter. But in my humble opinion?

Well, I’ve written both kinds of stories in my time. Rose, my upcoming novel, has had several different themes over the course of writing and editing it (I can’t tell you how many changes this book’s gone through since I started writing it in 2014). But while the themes have changed over time, there’s never been a moment where the novel was trying to say anything. Why would there be? It was primarily a supernatural horror novel involving an obsessed young man and a young woman in an impossible situation. I didn’t need to put any big statement or meaning into the story, because it didn’t need it and I couldn’t say anything trying to do so.

Another recent novel I wrote, River of Wrath, on the other hand, has a statement that can’t be cut away from the story. That’s because the novel is about the effect of racism and prejudice, as well as what it leads to, on your soul, and it takes place in the 1960s Mississippi. You can probably guess the rest from there.

However, I don’t think I could make every story I write have a deeper meaning. I enjoy writing too many stories that, while they may have themes woven in, wouldn’t do well trying to make a statement with. I mean, it’s kind of difficult to initiate social change when your story focuses on a ballerina and several cannibalistic murders. Not impossible, but difficult.

I think it’s a rare author who can make every story they write have this deeper message of social examination or social change. I think they have to seek to tell stories like that. As for the rest, I think as long as we’re enjoying the stories we write, that’s what really matters. And if a story has to have this deeper side to it, then it will arise organically at some point during the writing process.

Either way though, what’s important is that the writing is genuine, and that you, the author, love and are proud of the story you’ve created. That, in the end, is all that truly matters.

 

And while I still have your attention, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for spending so much time with us. We aim to help authors of all stripes, and seeing so many of you come to check out our articles time and time again, as well as becoming subscribers, makes it all worth it. So from us to you, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. I hope we continue to see you and help you in 2019. Cheers!

Writing a Sex Scene

The bedroom, a common setting for a sex scene.

: This post is a serious discussion about writing a common feature in literature and how to do it. It is not meant to be humorous, titillating, or controversial. That being said, this post will go into a topic that many people find uncomfortable, so please use your own discretion before proceeding further. Thank you for your understanding.

Sex scenes show up quite a bit in fiction, and seem to have increased with the passage of time as society has become much more tolerant of (or maybe obsessed with) the subject of sex and sexuality. That being said, many writers aren’t sure how to write these sort of scenes into their stories, let alone if they should have one to begin with. I recently wrote one into my WIP, and I figured now might be a good time to talk about this subject.

Now, I don’t write sex scenes often. However, I’ve written a few in my career, as well as read too many to count, including some in erotica novels and short stories (though not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). I’ve gained some insights over the years into this type of scene, so I think the ones I share here with you should be helpful.

This brings us to our first question:

Should I have a sex scene in my story? The obvious answer is, it depends. And it depends on two factors: the story’s need for one and the author’s level of comfort. Some stories just don’t require a sex scene. My upcoming novel Rose didn’t require one and adding one would’ve felt gratuitous, so I didn’t include one. For my WIP River of Wrath however, I could see where a sex scene might actually add something to the story, so I included it.

Should I have a sex scene in my story?

How do you tell which stories should have a sex scene? Well, some are more obvious than others. However, if you’re not sure, go back in later drafts and see if the scene feels weirdly inserted upon a second reading. And if you’re still not sure, ask your beta readers. That’s what they’re there for.

And if you as the writer don’t feel comfortable writing sex scenes, no problem. Everyone’s comfort levels with these things should be taken into account, and we’re all comfortable with different things. If you don’t like the idea of casually broaching the subject of sex, let alone writing about it, don’t. No one will send you to prison for it, let alone prevent you from ever getting published.

So if the story could use a sex scene and you feel comfortable enough to write it, what’s next?

Have the scene evolve like sex normally does. Sex doesn’t just happen: there’s a progression. Sometimes it starts with a kiss and involves foreplay. Sometimes it involves a look and goes straight to doing the deed. It depends on the people involved and what they’re up for. Likewise, how it happens in your story should have a natural evolution. Just having characters talk or meet and then go straight to sex doesn’t usually work, so show how it happens.

Pay attention to language. I’ve received some feedback on this from my own sex scenes, so I’m passing it on to you. First off, don’t be afraid to actually talk about certain body parts or their nicknames (apparently women are okay using the word c**k or d**k in literature. I was very surprised to learn that). You don’t have to get super-technical about it, using words like “vulva” or “vas deferens.” Just don’t be afraid to talk about them or what’s being done to them.

The second point is that the language should match the mood of the scene. Going for something risque? The language should reflect the adventurous nature of the scene. Kinky, maybe even involving BDSM? Rougher words would work better. Romantic, like the one in my WIP? Words emphasizing sensuality, connection, touch and love work the best.

What language you use in your scene matter quite a bit.

Just don’t use phrases like “Holy cow” to describe one participant’s reaction to the other’s penis being unveiled. Sorry EL James, but that’s more laughable than erotic.

The scene doesn’t have to be super-long. I’ve encountered sex scenes that have gone for a whole chapter comprising of several thousand words, and I’ve encountered some that were as short as a page. The one I wrote in my WIP was a little over a thousand words, or about four or five pages. So if you write one that’s maybe three pages, don’t feel bad that it isn’t longer. As I said, they come in all different lengths.

Pay attention to all body parts and surroundings. As much as we think of sex as involving only a few select body parts, it involves the entire body of each participant. As much as the scene may emphasize what the lower parts are doing, pay attention to what the arms and legs are doing. What is the back doing? Is the hair doing anything worth noting (yes, it can be worth mentioning)? Keep all that in mind while writing the scene.

Also, pay attention to surroundings. Is the scene taking place in a bed? Does it creak during the scene? Are items on the wall affected? Perhaps it’s taking place in a more public setting, like the back of a car. The participants may worry about being spotted by passerby. In a club? Are they noticing music playing or other people passing by?

These are important things to keep in mind, so don’t lose track of them while writing your scene.

 

And finally, there’s one more piece of advice on this subject I’d like to impart:

Read plenty of other examples and practice. Writing is often learned by intuition, example, trial and error. That being said, only so much can be imparted by reading this article. If you’re truly interested in writing a sex scene, read plenty of scenes from other authors from many different genres. See what works and what doesn’t, and incorporate it into your own style.

Always learn from the examples of others if you can.

And it couldn’t hurt to practice writing these sorts of scenes. It hasn’t have to be part of a story you’re working on, or something you’d ever consider publishing. Just try it to see if you can write a scene that you’d consider halfway decent. Like anything in our field, getting good takes practice, and that includes sex scenes. So consider practicing them as well when you have a moment. It can’t hurt, can it?

Whether or not you’ve ever considered writing these scenes or whether or not they’re necessary, it’s always a good idea to have some idea on how to write a sex scene. A lot goes into writing them, so it’s always a good idea to have some idea of what to do when working on them. I hope this article helped in some capacity with your own sex scenes.

How often do you write sex scenes? What tips do you have for writing them?

Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

How to Write an Interlude

Have you ever been in the middle of a novel, and it’s been told almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, and then in one chapter it’s suddenly told from the POV of a character who may work in an office dealing with the fallout of the events of the novel, or of a love interest left at home waiting for the protagonist to come home, or from the villain who is slowly losing their mind as they see the price they are paying for their power? If you have, then you have come across an interlude, a break from the main narrative of a fictional story in order to receive the viewpoint of another character or characters, often to further the story or to give us an expanded perception of the story.

Interludes occur a lot in fiction. The Harry Potter novels had quite a few of them (the very first chapter of the series was an interlude, focusing on the lives of the Dursleys and the effect of Voldemort’s death on the Wizarding World rather than on Harry himself). The Help had one in the novel, written like a news article reporting on the events of the Christmas charity ball and the attendees’ individual thoughts. And my own work features interludes, including in my WIP Rose.

But how do you write a good interlude? I have some tips in this article that might prove useful in answering that very question.

But first, let’s ask ourselves this: why write an interlude at all? Don’t we want to stay focused on the main story? Well, not always. Sometimes changing POVs can help fill in information the reader may need without being expository or awkward as it might be in the main narrative. For example, in the first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister,” explains to the reader, from both the Muggle and the Wizarding point of view, how much Britain has been affected since Voldemort’s return. Now I’m sure JK Rowling could have told us that very well from Harry’s POV, but seeing it from both the Muggle Prime Minister and from the Ministry’s upper echelons’ POV adds a new dimension to the story that we might not have gotten from just Harry’s POV.

The interlude in The Help does something similar: in its interlude chapter, which isn’t told from the POVs of any of the main characters, we get the interactions between several characters at once, major and minor, as well as their thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t get that if the author had stayed in the POV of one of the protagonists.

So an interlude gives us, the reader, important information that we can’t get through the normal narrative.

But how do we write an interlude? Well, we should be careful about how we do it. If a reader is used to one particular POV, the sudden shift to another with just a turn of the page could be very jarring and ruin the illusion of the story. Thus the author must alert the reader immediately that an interlude has begun. This should be done in the very first sentence. Let’s take our Half-Blood Prince example:

It was nearing midnight, and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

See how Harry’s not mentioned at all? See how it sets up who we’re focusing on, what their location is, and what they’re doing? That’s a great way to start an interlude and alert a reader to the change of POV so they’re not thrown off course.

Another way to alert readers in the first sentence is by changing more than just the POV. In my WIP Rose, there’s a chapter in the latter half of the book where the POV changes from the protagonist to the father of one of the other characters. At the same time as this change, the narration changes from a narrow, first-person POV to a semi-omniscient,  third-person POV.  A change like that is a very good way to alert the reader of the change, though it does have its risks, and can cause readers to do a double or even a triple take.

This actually extends to more than just what person the narration is in: in The Help‘s interlude, the shift to a reporting style changes not just the POV and how the story is told, but in the book the margins are increased to make it seem like you’re actually reading a column in a newspaper. That is a very effective tool in alerting readers to how different that chapter is.

A third way to alert the reader to an interlude is to alert them before the chapter even begins. In Rose, I start my interlude chapter by naming it An Aside. Because that’s what it is, an aside to see things from this other character’s POV, as well as to further the story.  It’s as simple as that.

And after you alert the reader to the change in perspective, it’s as simple as writing a regular chapter. Tell the part of the story that needs to be told in this chapter, and as long as you tell it well, then you’ve written a good interlude. At least, that’s always been my experience.

Even if you don’t ever find yourself writing an interlude (plenty of authors simply don’t), it’s always handy to know how to do it. And knowing what an interlude is meant to do, as well as how to alert the reader to the interlude, is essential to knowing how to do it. And if you can master those, you can make any interlude part of a great story.

Do you write interludes in your fiction or find them in the books you read? What tips do you have to writing them?

 

Just a quick note: as 2017 is winding down, and this may be our last post for the year, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for reading our posts. You are the reason we do what we do, and we always appreciate you coming back over and over and letting us know that what we put out there is helpful to you in your careers.

From all of us to you, Happy Holidays and a good New Year. We look forward to sharing wisdom back and forth between ourselves again in 2018.

What is the Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character

The original Mary Sue illustration, not just making fun of the character, but the stereotypical girl who might write Mary Sue stories. *shiver*

If you’ve been around the fiction or Internet scenes awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue,” and wondered what it is. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about what the term actually means. Some people think it’s a super-powered, almost perfect character. Others think it’s a character meant to be an avatar for the author to go be heroic in their own story. Others think it’s a female character who’s a badass and has amazing skills. And a few people thought it was the name of a steamboat featured in a popular song (that’s the Proud Mary).

Except for the boat, all of those definitions are technically both right and wrong. Not only that, but the term Mary Sue actually carries some negative connotations, and the application of the term to a character, particularly a protagonist, can be seriously detrimental to a character and the story they feature in.

So what is a Mary Sue? Well, the term dates back to 1973, when author and editor Paula Smith wrote the satirical short story “A Trekkie’s Tale” for her sci-fi fan fiction magazine Menagerie. The story centered around a character named Mary Sue, a fifteen-and-a-half year old girl who says stuff like, “Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” and is the youngest lieutenant in the fleet. In the course of the four-paragraph story, both Kirk and Spock fall in love with her, the whole crew gets captured by androids, she tells Spock she’s half-Vulcan before freeing them, they all come down with a disease that Mary Sue is only slightly less-affected by, she nurses them back to health at the cost of her own life, and becomes an intergalactic heroine who is given all sorts of posthumous awards and tributes for “her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”

As I said, the story was satirical, and was a parody of most fan fiction at the time, which was mainly the authors inserting themselves into their stories and having adventures that elevated them to the status of being more amazing than any other character or even the world itself. But that’s the essential issue with this sort of character: the entire story serves to show how awesome these characters are. The character just waltzes through life, universally admired by all and able to easily overcome any obstacle. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and if something does happen to them–usually death–they are immediately celebrated for being an awesome hero.

The problem with this sort of character is that it’s boring. The story isn’t about immersing the reader in an interesting world or taking them on an incredible journey. The author has decided this character is the most important character of all, so they write the story to highlight their greatness at the expense of their actual story. Imagine if Harry Potter wasn’t about a likable boy–one who wishes he grew up in a loving household, is happy to be in a world full of magic and friends, struggles through homework like the rest of us, and is clearly uncomfortable with his destiny and his fame–but instead was a perfect wizard whose past is only touched upon, and breezes through everything, from classes to fighting Voldemort, with nary a bad thought or a frown to trouble him. Important features like the cool magical world, Horcruxes, or the messages of love and tolerance that define the story would be downgraded in importance or thrown away to focus on Harry, how cool he is, how smart he is, how adept at magic he is.

Sounds boring, right? There’s absolutely nothing about the character to identify with or any exciting conflicts to overcome. And the vast majority of people agree. In fact, after “A Trekkie’s Tale” came out, the story went the 70’s version of viral, making “Mary Sue” a term applied to characters who exist only to show off off how amazing they are at the sacrifice of great character development or world-building, and forever marking the trope as a sign of bad storytelling. Menagerie even put out a statement in 1976 stating they hated Mary Sues (as well as their male counterparts, Marty or Gary Sues). And the hate continues today, with the Sues being rejected by all literature lovers, whether familiar with the term or not.

And in that statement right there comes the issue that has grown from the identification of the Sue trope: the baseless accusation. A lot of people, whether through ignorance or maliciousness, have accused characters from all sorts of works of being Sues. Usually these characters are front and center in their stories, highly adept at a number of skills suited for their environment, and, because the trope was first defined with a female character, female. For example, Rey from The Force Awakens was accused by some of being a Mary Sue,  as she is a protagonist, skilled in scavenging and fighting, and is apparently a Force prodigy. However, as defined above, Rey does not fit the mold of the Sue: the story does not become a tool to highlight her greatness. Rey is a flawed character, with skills that make sense given her environment and a need for someplace to call home. And while she is Force-powerful, she’s not using it to easily defeat her enemies with a flip of her wrist like a Sue would. Clearly the shoe doesn’t fit.*

But that there’s the issue: the Sue label can be applied so easily to characters possessing certain traits, and because of that, some writers are afraid to write certain characters or even to write at all due to the stigma of the Sue label, which can turn away audiences if too many people start believing a character isa Sue. And this is especially bad for female leads. Paula Smith, the woman who first named the trope, once led a panel of women writers who all said they never write female leads, because every time they’ve tried the characters have been labeled Sues. And in researching this article, I found a Mary Sue “test” where, if you answered the first question as “Yes, the main character is female,” it’s automatically a Sue.

But this is not the Sue, and there’s only one test to define one: is the story written simply to show off how “amazing” a character is, rather than tell a story involving a likable character with an arc? If the answer is yes, that’s the sign of a Sue. That’s all you need to identify one, and that’s all you need to avoid writing one. Stick with telling a story about a character who isn’t perfect, but has room to grow through the events of the story. You can still insert yourself as a character (God knows I did it with my novel Snake), but treat your insert as you would any other protagonist, someone who has to struggle both inwardly and outwardly in order to accomplish their goal. The Sue label may still get hurled, regardless of the gender of the character, but at least you’ll know that the accusation has less sticking power than if you actually wrote a Sue into your story.

What’s your take on the Mary Sue trope? Did I miss anything in discussing it? How do you avoid the trope?

*Plus no one accuses Luke of being a Gary Sue, despite Mark Hamill himself stating the character is an author insert (Lucas = Luke S.), he’s great at piloting any sort of ship, and he’s proficient enough in the Force to blow up the Death Star barely two days after learning it exists.

Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

Recently I wrote a post on “Handbook for Mortals,” which covered the controversy about a first-time author and former band manager whose YA novel made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, and how the Twitter YA community uncovered that the author got there by making bulk orders from bookstores. All in order to apparently get a movie deal with the author as the main character. Yeah, that happened.

Well on Monday the author of that very book, Lani Sarem, wrote an article for the Huffington Post defending herself. She pointed out that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and that she ordered the books for conventions and book signings, going through the bookstores rather than her distributor so that sales counted towards the NYT Bestseller List. She also said that plenty of people had bought books at these signings/conventions, and that she’d already locked down the rights for the movie so she could have more control over the five movies (seriously? Five?) based off the series she was writing, and to star in the film.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the wake of this article. Some is sympathetic, and others not so much. And Sarem does make some points. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the years, authors do order in bulk for events like conventions and book signings. And authors do show up in adaptations of their works from time to time. Could all the media coverage of this book and its author, including the coverage from two weeks ago, have actually been detrimental to something positive?* Did one Twitter community accomplish something that another failed to do with the Ghostbusters reboot?

Well, I did some research, and slept on it, and I thought about it. And while there are some interesting points, there’s still some stuff with this situation that doesn’t ring right. Not least that movie thing (five? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! Let’s get to even one and see how that goes! And you as the lead? Really? I don’t know if that’s a sign of a control freak or a narcissist or both).

First off, the buying in bulk thing. Yeah, authors do buy in bulk for events. However, most of the time they buy through their distributors, as it comes with a discount, and it still counts as sales. It’s also considered more honest than what Sarem did. She literally says in her defense she bought through bookstores simply to get on the NYT Bestseller List, which would get her the movie deal. And while she’s technically right that there are no “rules” against doing something like this, there’s a subversiveness about it that doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that, as I mentioned in the previous article, behavior like this got her fired from a band she managed. Heck, tactics like this was used in an episode of Lucifer, and it felt just as subversive there as it does here. It actually reminds me of the time I played an online game and used a cheat code to get to maximize my stats just so I didn’t have to do the hard work of building them in the first place.

And that’s the major problem here: Sarem was looking for ways to immediately reach the top and get her movie deal, rather than get their through hard work and talent. Even if she wasn’t doing technically anything “wrong,” it was still dishonest and meant to be a shortcut to fame and success. That’s why people are upset, and made such a big deal about this. Sarem used a cheat code, all for a film deal, and it got exposed. That’s why she was taken off the NYT Bestseller List.

Because in the end, there is no defense for trying to skip hard work and make things easy. Especially when it comes to literature.

So while Sarem may have a good defense, there’s plenty here that just doesn’t sit right. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize there are ways to get a great novel on top of NYT Bestseller Lists, and this isn’t one of them.

Also, Sarem’s cover art may have been stolen from another artist. I’m not kidding you, the cover of the book apparently bears a striking resemblance to an art print called The Knife Thrower by Australian artist Gill Del Mace. And if you look at them, they’re very similar (can’t post it here because of possible copyright issues, but here’s a link to the creator’s website if you want to check it out). Where does it end?

But what do you guys think? This seems like it  might become an ongoing issue or story, one I may revisit on this site in the future, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Was Sarem being dishonest or innovative? Did Twitter go insane again, or was it a cross between Spotlight-style reporting and grassroots activism? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

*As for the quality of the book, I’ve looked at reviews from both before and after the initial wave of articles about Sarem’s unique methods. Some like it, but a lot more find it a mess that seems to have been written by a junior high schooler. Of those who’ve written reviews after the controversy broke, they admit they know of the controversy, but they try to focus on the book itself, which I’ve done myself with different movies and films. If they’re definitely trying to stay unbiased, then the reviews don’t bode well for Sarem regardless of the efficacy of her tactics.

Dragon Speech-to-Text Software: A Review

Back in December 2016, my boss recommended that I try Dragon, or some other speech-to-text software. I don’t remember how the subject came up (I do remember it was during the office Christmas party, so it probably had something to do with vacation plans and plans for life), but he said that as a writer (something that becomes common knowledge for anyone who gets to know me) it could be helpful with how quickly I write.

Now, I admit at the time I was a little skeptical. I’d heard of programs like that, but I didn’t know much about them, and I can be a little wary when it comes to new technologies. But over the next month or so, I heard from several writer friends who had used Dragon, either because they wanted to try it and see if it works, or because various medical conditions or health issues prevented them from actually typing their stories and blog posts. So, with a lot of gift card money, I ordered Dragon from Amazon and decided to see if it could help.

After a few hiccups in getting set up (turns out my laptop needed to upgrade its audio equipment, and I kind of forgot to register my copy of the software on Dragon’s website before starting out), I started testing it out. And it actually works very well.

The way Dragon works is that once you download the program onto whatever computer you use to write, you boot up the program and turn the microphone settings on, signaling to Dragon that you want to record what you’re saying. Dragon picks up what you’re saying either through the computer’s built in microphone or through a microphone headset that comes with the software (I prefer using my computer’s microphone, but that’s just me). Dragon will then record what you are saying to it into a Dictation Box (usually pops up when I’m using Dragon to write a blog post, like this one), into a tool known as the DragonPad, which functions similar to Notepad programs, or onto Microsoft Word, whichever you prefer.

Dragon also takes commands. For example, if you usually use italics to emphasize a character’s thoughts, you merely have to say, “Italicize this word through that word,” and those words will be italicized. Dragon comes with tutorial programs to teach you the basic commands and how to use them when writing, and there are plenty of videos online showing you how to use the program if you need more help.

I spent the first couple of sessions with Dragon just learning how to use it. It takes a few sessions for the program to get used to your voice, which is why I highly recommend you use it in a space where the only noise will be from you. Background music from a stereo, noisy kids, or any other distractions may confuse Dragon, especially during the first couple of sessions. But Dragon does get used to your voice eventually, and with more practice, it has an easier time transcribing your words as you want them to be transcribed.

Not only that, but you can actually teach the program new words. Usually when you boot up the program, it will ask if there are documents or emails they can use to learn your speech patterns or any particular words you use a lot that aren’t in a standard dictionary. This is very handy if you tend to write fantasy or science fiction. I was able to take the outline for the final book of my science fiction trilogy, and use this option to teach the program certain words in the story, including a few character names that probably won’t make the list of popular baby names in the United States. It’s a very handy feature.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with Dragon. It will still mishear words and commands you’re telling it. I often find myself having to go back and make some corrections, like when Dragon hears the word “them” as “him” and vice versa. It also sometimes lists numbers as numbers instead of words, and unless you configure it so that it always does numbers as words, it can get a little annoying.

Still, I find Dragon very helpful. I still type some parts, especially with words that Dragon doesn’t know or when I make corrections. But for the most part, I’m now speaking my stories, and my stories are being written faster. What used to take a couple of hours to write can now take as little as half an hour to an hour. A chapter that took two to three weeks to write now takes three to four days. I speak my story, making corrections as I go, and it unfolds before me. All in all, I would recommend at least trying it out.

Now I know that this isn’t for everybody. Some of us just love to type or write in spiral-bound notebooks. But for those of you who are interested, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from using Dragon. Please be aware that I’m still new to all this is well, so if you have a tip and you don’t see it here, please leave it in a comment below.

  1. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it. You don’t have to have the entire story in your head before sitting down to write (or speak), have a general idea. The more you plan, the less you find yourself stumbling over your words or taking long pauses to figure out what you should say.
  2. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t sound like an audiobook narrator. Audiobook narrators are generally paid actors who are provided a script ahead of time. They’ve read over and review the material and practice plenty of times before they go into the recording booth, and even then, they make mistakes which are corrected in future takes. When using Dragon, you’re basically putting down the first draft. So if you make a mistake, or you don’t sound like William Defoe narrating Stephen King, don’t be discouraged. It’s a first draft, so mistakes are okay.
  3. Find a quiet place to write. Like I said, noisy spaces interfere with Dragon picking up your words. I heard from one woman who said that when she played music on her radio while writing, Dragon sometimes picked up what the radio was saying instead of what she was saying.
    If you would still like to listen to something while you write, you can put in your headphones and narrate while iTunes or YouTube or whatever program you use place your favorite tunes. Dragon will actually quiet the music you’re listening to while you write so that it seems more like it’s in the background rather than blasting into your ears.
  4. Don’t expect to master Dragon all in a single session. Like I said, I’m still learning how to use it, and I’ve had it for about a month or two. Like any craft or any tool, it takes a lot of practice to get very good at it. Don’t sweat the mistakes.
  5. Have a glass of water nearby. This may just be my thing, but narrating my stories makes me thirsty. If it’s also your thing, then definitely have something to drink nearby.
  6. Use those learning tools. Even if you don’t write science fiction or fantasy, those tools are quite handy for any writer. Perhaps you write a story with a lot of Polish characters with those long Polish last names. Or the French language shows up a lot in a short stories set in Paris. Or use an expression or slang term particular to a certain area and it’s not well-known outside of that area. It’s times like these when the word-learning tools are helpful.
  7. When using Dragon for a blog post, go over it before publishing. Like I said, the program does make mistakes on occasion, so if you’re used to writing a blog post and then publishing it straight away, DON’T!!! Check over it first to make sure Dragon didn’t mishear “won’t make” as “don’t take” and then you can publish. Trust me, it’ll avoid all sorts of problems

If you are interested in trying Dragon, you can get it direct from the manufacturer, Nuance Communications, or from Amazon like I did. And it might also be available at Best Buy or other electronic retailers, though I don’t know that for sure. If you’re getting it for home, make sure you’re buying the home version when you check out. And please, make sure your audio software is up-to-date, and that you register your software on Dragon’s website before downloading the program.

If you have Dragon, what is been your experience with it?

What tips do you have for using Dragon?

P.J. Boox: A Bookstore for Indie Authors

Remember in May of last year, when I reported on Gulf Coast Bookstore, a bookstore in Fort Myers, Florida that showcased the works of independent authors in the Florida area? Well, recently I was contacted through my Facebook page by one of the co-owners of the store with some very interesting news about Gulf Coast. Apparently since the store opened, it’s done rather well. In fact, it’s done so well that it’s expanded. And it’s expanded into P.J. Boox.

Opening in October of last year, PJ Boox currently houses 260 authors from about 11 countries, and plans to grow that number to 500 by the time they hit full capacity, each author getting to display ten of their books in the store. The way the store displays the books allows for readers to get a full look at the books’ covers, which allows readers to make a more powerful connection with the books. And the most interesting and exciting part, at least in my humble opinion, is that authors can actually interact with readers, from anywhere in the world, via Skype or other video-chat options, all in the store’s reading room (so if your book is featured by a book club, you can actually hear what the readers say. Hopefully that’s a good thing).

According to store co-founder and co-owner Patti Brassard Jefferson, the idea of PJ Boox came to her soon after she opened Gulf Coast Bookstore. Within a couple of months, she was apparently “inundated” with messages from authors. This inspired the idea for a larger bookstore that could host more indie and small-press authors. Thus we have PJ Boox today. And while other bookstores for indie authors have since appeared in other cities around the US, PJ Boox and its owners still manage to be trendsetters among the group.

So now to answer the most important question: how does an author get their books in the store? According to PJ Boox’s website, it’s actually quite simple. What you do is rent out space in the store for four months and send them up to ten of your books. In exchange, the store will stock and sell the books. And you get a majority of the royalties back (98% for in-store sales, 80% for online sales). Top that, Amazon! And you can pay for certain upgrades on your rental that include special online options and even more shelf space in the store. It’s not a bad deal, especially since you get some great exposure in the store.

In fact, I might have to try this once my new book comes out later this year. It might expose people to my sci-fi series.

And if you want to learn more about PJ Boox, check out their website for rental rates, books by great indie authors, and information on upcoming events.