Month: August 2016

Writing Advice: Sensitivity in Writing

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I had a recent Twitter debate that started with the idea of authors using racial slurs in their books and how POC (People of Color) don’t want to see any of this, even if the writer is well-intentioned. At first, I didn’t understand, and I thought it was an attempt to censor other writers. But as I continued on in the debate, I came to understand that it’s not about censorship. It’s about respect. It’s about listening. It’s about understanding that POC have experienced life in a very different way.

This conversation was the first time it dawned on me just how different life can be based simply on the color of your skin and where you live. I’ve always felt a little angry at the idea of White Privilege. I’ve never been all that well-off. I’ve felt I’ve earned everything I’ve fought for in life. But that’s because there are many forms of privilege (and lack thereof), and it’s not always easy to see the way you benefit from privilege if you’re struggling through life in general.

Privilege is about the idea of “all else equal.” All else equal, a black person will face many more disadvantages in life than a white person simply because of the color of their skin. It’s an entirely different experience. Sure, there are racial slurs against whites, but whites have always been in power in this country. It’s easy to laugh that off. When there’s such a long history of outright hatred and systematic discrimination tied to racial slurs that describe POC, it’s an entirely different experience.

I can try to understand this intellectually, using the sense of empathy I’ve developed as a reader and writer. But I can never truly understand how it feels emotionally to see these words in print: words that have always been used to dehumanize people who look like you. The closest I could come is society’s attitude toward mental health (since I have bipolar disorder). But even that is not nearly as pervasive. It’s simply the closest I can come to understanding emotionally what POC go through, and that shows just how big a gulf there is between my understanding and the lives POC live every single day.

 

Now you might be asking: But what if it’s true to your characters to use racial slurs?

This is where I ran into trouble in this debate, where I got a little angry and therefore failed to listen as well as I should have. I thought it was stupid to say you couldn’t ever use racial slurs. Now I’ve never had any intention of using them in my own writing. I don’t believe racial slurs have any place in civilized society. Plus, I tend to write in secondary fantasy worlds, which do not have the same racial histories as our own. But I did argue that writers should be free to use whatever words they’d like. In one sense, I still believe this is true. Writers are free to use racial slurs, but readers are also free to denounce them for doing so. Publishers are free to refuse to publish them. That’s the nature of free speech. You’re free to say whatever you want, within reason, but you also have to suffer the consequences for your words.

Now you might be asking: Then how do I portray a racist character?

That’s where it comes back to the old advice: Show/Don’t Tell. Or, more accurately, you could say the difference between lazy characterization and stronger characterization. It’s easy to have a character throw around racial slurs. It’s like a giant signpost saying, “Look! This character is racist!”

Instead of using a slur, you could show how that person treats POC. In the end, this would be richer characterization. It’s harder, yes, but it makes a better story, and it shows more sensitivity to marginalized groups. In my Twitter debate, it became very clear to me that many POC don’t want to see these words. At all.

As writers, we want to bring out emotion in the reader, but it has to be the right kind of emotion. Reminding them of injustice and privilege is not the way to do this. Especially in the fantasy genre, many people read to escape the harsh realities of our world. Or they’d like to see a story in which people who look like them are the heroes. I’ll admit that I haven’t been great on this front. I have a few darker-skinned characters in Empire of Chains. The God War is much better in this regard, as most of the important characters are POC in a secondary world. But I could still stand to do better in this regard.

 

You might also ask: Does this mean I can’t write stories about racism at all?

The short answer is that I wouldn’t recommend it. As I said above, it’s difficult to understand exactly what POC have been through. As a white writer, am I really in the best position to write a story about a black person’s experiences of racism? Even if I do extensive research, even if I consult with all kinds of black beta readers to make sure I get it right, it’s still not the best way to go about tackling the issue of racism.

Instead, what we can do is support POC writers who are writing these experiences. We need to read their books to come closer to understanding the struggles they’ve been through. And even if it’s in a secondary fantasy world, we can still read their fresh perspectives on things.

N.K. Jemisin is a great example of this. I’ve only read three of her novels, but I have really enjoyed the different perspective she’s brought to the genre. The Fifth Season was especially good. Jemisin’s stories don’t explore racism in our real world, but they do depict fantasy worlds in which POC serve very important roles.

There is a lot to be gained from reading more diverse perspectives. It opens our minds to experiences other than our own. Most importantly, if we support POC writers, we will get more of these important stories. And it’s not like supporting POC writers is going to take anything away from other writers. Reading is not a zero sum game. You can still be successful as a white writer even if more POC writers are in the genre.

 

In conclusion, it goes back to the idea of “Write what you know.” When it comes to fantasy, this advice becomes more nebulous. How can I know what it’s like to ride on a dragon? But that’s not really what this advice means. It’s more the idea of “Don’t write things you’d get wrong, things that would actually hurt people when you get them wrong.” It doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or not. Sure, it changes your value as a person, but it doesn’t change the hurt that people experience.

Again, it’s about respect, and it’s about listening. I may not always listen as well as I should, but I’m trying to grow as a person and a writer.

How I’m writing more words per writing session (and general updates).

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I’ve had a very productive last two days. I’ve written about 5,000 words each day, and now I think I’m really hitting the good part of book 4 (not that the other parts aren’t good, of course). There have been doubts about my writing plans, but I’m pushing through them for the moment.
 
It’s strange. Usually, the middle of the book is tough to write, but I’m actually having a lot of fun with it.
 
I’ve also adopted a new method. Recently, I’ve been more of a “seat of my pants” kind of writer. However, I read some great writing advice from Rachel Aaron. She was able to write more by outlining a scene shortly before writing it.
 
I always feel stifled by a rigid outline, but this method has worked wonders for me over the last two days. I usually think about my whole chapter in a big picture sense. Then the actual writing is filling in the details and possibly throwing in a few things I didn’t think of while outlining the chapter. This approach gives me both structure and flexibility, and I hope it continues to work so successfully. With the other demands on my time, I will take anything that can make my writing time more productive.

Finished an Editing Pass (and other updates)

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Sorry haven’t updated recently. Things have been a bit up and down for me on the writing front (and in my life in general). When I sink into a depressive mood, I tend to devalue my writing and think that I’ll never find any success in self-publishing.

Today, the mood I’ve been in recently seems to have lifted a bit. I was able to finish an editing pass of Empire of Chains. It isn’t quite ready yet, but it keeps getting closer.

Once again, I’m feeling good about the book. I think my next editing pass will focus on adding in necessary description and cutting down on some excess internal thoughts, especially during fast-paced scenes.

I’m excited to see how people react to Empire of Chains. I’m also excited that I’ve written first drafts of the next two books. At the moment, there’s still a lot going on in life. I’m not always able to get words written every day, but editing is often easier because there are already words to work with.

That being said, I do plan on getting back to writing Book 4 soon. I hit a block in the last couple of weeks, but I’m still excited about concluding the series.

After that, I have my Sunweaver series and God War series to work on. The first book of Sunweaver is in about the same shape as Empire of Chains (that is, it’s almost ready). The first book of the God War series doesn’t have a definite title yet, and it still needs more editing work before it will be ready. I anticipate both of those series being trilogies, though that could be subject to change.

I also have quite a few more books waiting to be written. Not sure what I’ll get working on next.