NovaScriber – an update

Once upon a time I simply tried to export my text from Scrivener to Word. And found (4 hours before my dealine) that too many things were uneccesary wrong. Text was not formatted by global styles, but inline formatting. Headings did not show up as hedings. Chapters, scenes and cutouts I thought I had “unpublished” were still there as I did not unpublish them.

So I wrote a simple Markdown to HTML to .doc-parser in februari 2018, using JavaScript and the code from an existing Word to Markdown Parser.

Then I took a day to write a simple “Scrivener Light” editor, using TinyMCE and some home-brew code to build and render the project/document tree. Then I took another day to write some code to parse Scrivener projects to that environment. Then I moved from Scrivener to my own editor. Which was then called “Mandarin Editor” as I already had some past and dead project called “Manderin” and I was too lazy to come up with something new.

Like the past items, each next item I would build, would be something I could build in a single day, as a Proof of Concept. And each next item I would build, would be something that would exite me, or that would help me in my writing: like matrix views of chapters and scenes (also known as a cork board) so that I would have overviews on what was happening where, with whom. And like search on several patterns. And like finding terms that might be names (so the software would do the hard work for me). And like the ability to link documents to other documents, with room for annotations so that I could write notes on “why that character would be doing that” in that chapter or scene. And I implemented a very basic form of spell check, based on Hunspell.

I changed “Mandarin Editor” to “NovaScriber” as my wife mentioned that the previous could be confused with “An editor, to write Mandarin Chinese”.

I wrote more scenes. I restructured my book. And last month (September) I rewrote the code that determined how feedback (like highlighting spelling errors and repetitive words) would be injected in the text so that my software could start doing spellchecking on the fly.

Because of that, and several other reasons NovaScriber moved one level up.

Then I fixed some bugs. And more bugs. And I updated the help-text you can find under functional blocks. And fixed more bugs. And intruduced some as I updated other stuff. And fixed those, until it was good enough for a new release. And then found more bugs as I wrote this post. And fixed those too.

As for users, views and downloads: there are on average 2 downloads per day on good days and 1 or 0 on quiet days. As my testing was superficual due to the ill assumption “that things work for others as thet work for me” several releases were botched. I learned to live with that. (These are still the pre-release days.) And just knowing that people are downloading the software stimulates me to do more than just sit on this piece of software and it stimulates me to put just a bit more effort to make it work in more elegant ways.

Now to the changes and additions in this release:

Improved help

As some things are less obvious than others, I added and improved context-specific help, hidden underneath a questionmark-icon at the bottom of the xreen. Its aim is mostly to guide you in the right directions.

Text analysis

I already implemented a word-count log per document end of last year and a simple breakdown of the text in paragraphs, sentences and average words per sentence. What I added September 2020 was a visualization of everything, and a simple “readability” indication labelled “reading weight“. Note: this is still has some quirks for imported text.

NovaScriber now highlights “words that might be terms or names” (blue-green) and I re-implemented the way “repetitive words” (dotted underline) was implemented, adding “intensity” based on their occurrence in a range of 200 words around them.

To support checks on readability, I added highlights on sentence level. Any green sentence counts 10 words or less (“easy read”). Yellow is anything between 10 and 30 words per sentence (“harder to read”). Orange is 30 words and more. Comma’s are not taken into account yet. (A long sentence without comma’s is a harder read than one with several.)

And since I was working on that, I also added a highlight of longer words, giving you their length on mouse over.

Text assistance

A right-click on any highlighted word, will open a side-panel showing you anything we know about that word. In this case “Nomi” is the name of a character that has several possible matches in my collection of documents classified as “character”. The top-find shows a checkmark, meaning it is already linked to this document. (When you take a closer look at the screenshot, you will notice a checkmark above some words including “Nomi”. This also tells you it’s matching with a linked document.)

Scrolling down in the side-panel, you’ll find all matches of that word in the document and the option to “Map ‘Nomi’ as …”. A click on the sentence, will navigate you to that part of the document. A selection from the dropdown will call for a popup where you can create a document for that person, that place or whatever you indicate it to be.

And you can choose to replace the word for something else.

Right-click on a repetitive word will highlight that specific word wherever it occurs, and will open the side-panel with an overview of all sentences that word occurs. Again “replace” is an option.

Each change per paragraph is automatically stored in a backup-document that will keep the most recent change. Each paragraph-version in your history is compared with your current version and all changes are highlighted. (Mouse over the previous versions will reveal what has been added since).

I also added “comments” to the side-panel, showing anything that is there and allowing you to add new comments to paragraphs where needed.

Focus mode

Another hidden feature I moved to the document footer is the switch to go into “focus mode“. In this mode, the text has a lower contrast, except for the paragraph that has focus. Interpunction is still high on contrast. Something I kept as a feature.

Text-analysis is also adapted to focus mode, showing anything that might require your attention in different colors and higher contrast.

Dictionaries and translations

I already implemented Hunspell for spellcheck, due to a lack of built-in support in earlier versions of Electron: the shell in which NovaScriber runs.

While I still need to expose a way to add your own dictonaries, the options to do so are alreay in place. NovaScriber will create a directory in your user-folder. In that directory, you can place several dictionaries which will be automatically included in your spell-check options.

When you switch to “Translation mode”, ALT-T on the active paragraph will start Google Translate. The target language is the language selected in the second panel. While the Google automated translations are still flawed, they are getting better each year. So embedding this function in NovaScriber was not only something that really got me exited, it also can be quite useful.

To keep relationships clear between the two text, I synchronized scrolling in both panels and I force the translated text to reflect the orginal in order and in content. In other words: when paragraphs are moved, added or deleted in the main document, they will be moved, added and removed in and from the transalation as well.

This is still work in progress and features like: “check if translated text is outdated” will be added at some time soon.

More color options

I already created a set of three theme-colors: light, eggshell and dark, but I was not satisfied with that solution. For one: it was too rigid.

So I implemented a color picker, created a generator for the CSS code, used calculated values for lighter and darker shades, and used the “distance” between the font-color and the background-color as an indicator for several shades in between.

Then I selected a basic palette using some subdued colors and some bright colors.

Thus giving you enough freedom to make it as crazy and colorful or as basic as you can imagine (within the limits of the given colors).

Fuck originality. Be fresh

There are many misconceptions on writing. One is about originality and “being original” or more specifically: “being unique”. And in this post I will reframe that entire concept of “originality” into something useful.

“Originality” itself is a nasty concept. Because: how can you be original when everything and anything you can think of, has been done before? A story about robots? Has been done before. Cowboys, space ships, eternal life, exploring the realm of heavens, hells, parallel worlds, mega-structures, underground worlds? All been done. Many, many, many times.

This stupid idea of originality blocked my writing for over 10 years. Until I reframed it somewhere in 2003:

The first writer to introduce any New Concept is original. The first one who follows is a copy-cat. But as soon as more than five (or ten) writers start following that specific trend, it’s becoming a genre.

Fuck “original”. Try to be fresh.

The goal is not to be original or unique by “trying to write something nobody has written before”. It really does not matter if the concepts you use (spaceships, wars in space, cloning, a love story between two, three, five, one hundred people, and so on) have been used “here” and “there” and “in that movie” and “that book”. That. Is. Not. The. Point.

You story becomes unique, fresh, the moment you find your own voice within those story universes, the moment you add something you find interesting. It’s not relevant that it might have started as a copy or as fan-fiction. And it’s irrelevant things have been done before. “Many is a genre”. So fuck: “I can’t use this because it has been done before”. And fuck that genre. And fuck the rules of that genre if you feel those “rules” hold you back. And fuck the criticasters that tell you: “I have read this before” because OMG!!! it has a love story or robots. Fuck those people that tell you: “this is not how that story should work” when it starts crushing genre-boundaries. (Listen, though. There is always a chance you indeed did overlook something. Then use that as fuel to dig even deeper and fly even higher and make it even more awesome. Because fuck it.) This is your story. Not theirs.

Embrace the fact that you are just one of many. Don’t be afraid to use and acknowledge your sources. Even if it is just for play: “This is Harry Potter meets Indiana Jones in a far future setting”. Or: “This is Sherlock Holmes with dinosaurs and Sherlock is a woman and the platonic duo is a platonic trio. And ‘Sherlock’ is as gay as I am”. See what freedom  and inspiration you find by not giving a fuck. Write. Find your voice. Write what makes you happy. Write what makes a story unique to you. And yes: shamelessly use other stories and existing story structures as your template. Be you. Give it a fresh twist. 

When you reach this point: giving the finger to genre-rules, giving the finger to any other constraints; mixing and mashing all the influences you love, adding your own experiences and spices, using your own voice, your own little twists on things, you are probably already there. Writing something that can be considered fresh, and by that freshness, something that is probably also new and “original”.

As I wrote in the discussion that followed on facebook:

“laat dingen los. Accepteer dat wat je doet mogelijk al minstens één keer gedaan is (en waarschiinlijk al 1000 keer en meer). Geniet daarvan.

My entire point is this:

Let go. Accept that anything you create already has been done before. Enjoy it, because it can be extremely liberating to understand that you do not have to be unique, that your work also have a right to exist when it is ‘nothing more but’ an addition to what already exists. So feel free to throw stuff in the blender, remix, revise and make mashups of existing works. Use anything you like in any way you like to tell your story. And make it the most beautiful story you can make of it.

Will it be good?

That depends on many other factors. Like “are you consistent? Are your characters consistent? Did you do your research where necessary? Is it engaging? Coherent?” And for that you have (hopefully experienced) proof-readers. And feedback. And the editing / revision process. And workshops and books to deepen your understanding of the craft of writing.

And if this story failed: use the lessons learned to build a new one. Everyone stumbles before they learn to dance.

Will people like it?

For sure it helps when you are honest in your writing, or faking it so good that your story has this glow of “realness” over it. The rest depends on your readers and what you did. For instance: “Sherlock Holmes with Dinosaurs” will probably sell much easier to a publisher and a much wider audience than: “Sherlock Holmes with dinosaurs where Sherlock is a homosexual woman and the platonic duo is a platonic trio”, as long as LGBTQ+ stories are not mega-selling mainstream yet.

 

 

My thoughts around the open letter “by J.K. Rowling and others”

Let’s start with the link to the Harpers magazine-page.

And let me start by summarizing the issue:

It is not callout-culture that poses a “danger”, but trolls, hijacking callout-culture, creating enough traction to cancel someone or something (like a book or a movie). And trolls using “social justice” to destroy other peoples reputations, because they can.

Then again: companies have the duty to protect what they stand for and the people that work for them. If the attack is on something that is justified under the rules and the vision of the company, there is no reason to cancel.

Let’s also start with the notion that I think this open letter is extremely poorly written. (You might argue the same goes for this article, but mine is not signed by 130+ famous people with a reputation.) Take the first three sentences:

(1) Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. (2) Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. (3) But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.

What is your focus, dear writer?

1: Things are getting tough for our cultural institutions?

2: Because the justified call for racial and social justice also seems to fuel an unjust movement towards censorship?

Probably.

That poor writing does not stop there. For instance (bold added by me):

More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

We can try to deconstruct this. But that will just blur what I feel is the real issue here: fear.

On getting cancelled

To keep it simple: “Three reasons your product/project/book/movie might get cancelled”:

  1. It does not deliver. You do not deliver. You suck. The product sucks.
  2. There is clear evidence that the project, product, movie, person violates one or more principles the company holds high. It might deliver, you might be awesome in several ways, but the result (or the actions of the person that delivers the result) is in clear conflict with the public image of the institute or company.
  3. There is no evidence of whatever, but a raging mob and the possibility that that outrage leads to loss of revenue and/or damage to the the public image

When there is no evidence, and the allegations are serious enough, what should follow is an investigation to get to point 2, or to confirm point 3: “there is no evidence, even after investigation”.

If there is no investigation AND the person or product gets cancelled, we have a new issue: the company has given control to the raging mob. Which is stupid. Because why the fuck do you have upper management and a board of advisors and directors if any random mob can determine your artistic or moral direction?

(So probably there is an issue. And people within companies are learning that you wont get away with rape, sexism, racism, anti-trans sentiments and so on. More on that later. I think.)

On trolls organizing mobs

One thing you see, is the call for public scolding where friends and friends of friends are called by sometimes very influential trolls, to start firebombing the “perpetrator”. Whether this person really “deserves” this, or not. (Sometimes they do –kind of– sometimes it is for the sake of bullying alone, due to a deliberate callout-strategy where the callout is more like a trap, or because that person stands in the way of the troll itself.)

In the end, firebombing someone online, is no longer “payback” when you repay a slap in the face with doxxing or burning someones house down. It becomes abuse. Like beating up someone in the street is, or calling someone names when he or she passes by. In cases of “fighting fire with fire” (abusing a proven abuser) I withhold my opinion. Where it is simply “because of fun” I think you should fuck off with this kind of abuse, after you made your point.

On having no vision

To understand where you stand as a company or institute, you will define your vision and your mission at some point.

Both vision and mission usually have some kind of social aspect. “To improve the quality of live for people who suffer from health issues” is one, for instance. “To make shitloads of money” is not. Neither is: “To do whatever anyone tells us”.

Companies without a social aspect in their vision will usually not make an effort to protect employees who do have a social vision.

On taking points from right-wing gas-lighting

In the past decade, there has been a clear rise of right-wing gas-lighting related to universities and newspapers who “bend over for social justice warriors”. Stating — as also happens in this “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” — that “the changes these institutes go through, are based on social pressure and panic, not evidence” and that “all other voices who do not submit to that view, are silenced”.

In most cases: where people and projects are cancelled, there is smoke, there was an investigation AND there is a fire: like the expression of sexist, racist or rapy-rape stuff in emails and on the workfloor; a book with a suspect depiction of slavery that the publisher does not wish to link to its public image on hind sight; and sexist and racist views “supported” by a sharing of “peer reviewed scientific articles” “confirming” those sexist or racist views as “true”.

So yeah: people will lie to you, to convince you the world is on fire when others try to point out things like racism, sexism, homophobia and so on are not always good for everyone.

On fear

The fear to be fired the moment you are true to your own principles, true to your own message is a sign of: something is really wrong between you and your workspace.

I have been working time and time again with people who “joke” compulsively about things related to rape or tell “jokes” based on sexist, racist or nationalist bullshit. And when they understand that their corporate culture is changing away from all these lovely privileges to be uncorrectedly present their bigoted self, they seldom get to the kind of self-reflection like: “maybe I am wrong joking about raping the secretary in the copy room”. Usually the prime response of the “joker” is fear. And anger. And denial. And resistance. And sabotage. More on that later.

On equality

Funny enough “callout culture” and “cancel culture” has not yet lead to our doom in Mad Max-like worlds where we scrounge the dying earth in search of fuel. Instead it has lead to several incredibly wonderful changes in our culture. For instance: to rape someone from the work floor, or in some random place –because you have the power to do so– is less and less rewarding; as the crime of rape itself is more and more clearly defined in culture, and because society and the police make less and less effort to convince the victim that the rapist is not the one to blame.

Racism and sexism on the work floor are already going the same way. And homophobia is following. As well will anti-trans sentiments. (If we don’t revert.)

On corporations not taking a social stand

It is easy to overlook that there is a social responsibility from any company to society itself. In short: a company needs to contribute to the well-being of a society, as it can not thrive (on sales) when the population it’s trying to sell to, is poisoned, poor, dying or dead due to the way their products are produced.

Whether you -as a company or institution- take that responsibility, is a second. Usually being socially responsible is considered to be a drain on profit. And carefully avoided by bribing governments and outsourcing their production to countries where the people in power don’t give a shit.

When an institute or company has no real social stand, it has no real opinion on what society might become by its own contributions. It will just go any direction the money goes.

On the fear of censorship

When a company or institution simply follows the wind of any social outrage, your own job security is no longer in the hands of your employer, but in the hands of any random group of people outraged enough to cause a stir. As a consequence: you, as a contributor will never be safe. Whatever you will produce will be dictated by that random, unnamed, outside group. And this is a situation no company and no institution should place itself in. Because, in the end, it makes you too vulnerable to unfriendly forces.

On taking a stand

When you –as a company or an institution– take a stand for- or against issues like sexism, racism, anti-trans sentiments, class differences, social oppression, the game changes.

The people working for you, understand what their boundaries are, what will cause their fall, whether they should stay, or leave. They know when they will be ejected and when they will be protected.

For instance: a right-wing racist, sexist news site will not fire their people for the outrage created by articles with racist content. It is their chosen duty to present racist, sexist shit. Regardless of the public outrage.

Publishers who consider issues on race, sex and oppression important enough to cancel all publications violating certain principles, will do so. And if they go one step further, they will also protect anyone presenting certain “controversial ideas” by either an apology in their own behalf (“we should have more careful, we were not aware at the time and we will take the following steps to…”), or by taking a stand in behalf of the author (“we have looked into the issues and we found that some crucial parts were overlooked by … and that the following points do not conflict with our corporate position for the following reasons …”)

On who should be addressed

I think (instead of gaslighting callout-culture) we need to address how clear a company and institution will take a stand in our current social landscape and whether a company that does not want to take a position (and probably will push anyone in front of any bus when that is convenient) is worth caring or fighting for by the people that work there.

When a publisher (in this case) supports certain “controversial” issues, they should be clear in that. If they are not, they should be clear in that as well.

Closing

“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” is a lot of things.

“Cancel culture” will mostly happen where publishers have no guts, no spine, no vision. So that’s mostly an attitude issue on their side. Not ours. Not by social justice warriors. Not by other activists.

And to give (smart and effective) social media trolls this much power, is simply stupid when it conflicts with your mission and vision. Why the fuck do you (as said) have a board of directors and a board of advisers? What spineless shit are you to have your company be commandeered by some random people online?

And so I believe there is another narrative, more close to te truth: You change your ways when you see you are wrong.

Most academies have and had a right to kick out certain elements. Mostly when they turned out to be rapists or bigger bigots than such institutes could tolerate. And taken into account that it is mostly right-wing narcissist assholes crying about these issues, I have reasons to believe things are mostly gong to shit in fantasyland and the real issues are more likely to be “set your shit up for failure” things like “lack of funding” and “large schale mergers” and “treating schools like businesses”.

To me, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” –more than anything– represents a fear of change, by those who never had a reason to see a problem in the systems that tolerate verbal, psychological and physical violence based on sexism, racism, rape culture, anti-trans sentiments to mention some. And I am happy that that specific protection is slowly ripped away. Because: fuck you.

 

 

Exploring gender and sexuality

I stopped reading “Shadow man” by Melissa Scott, because something did not feel right. The basic premise is interesting: “humans live on several planets and 5 genders is the norm.”

The reason why I stopped reading was a strong sense of “no homo” in some of the interactions between characters. A bit too much is explained –by what I would expect to be an average person living in a pleasant, sexually complex future society– and considered from too much of a narrow point of view.

And simply put: unless you give me some clear clues that your own thinking is beyond the condemnation of certain groups and certain sexual preferences, I quit reading.

For example (bold and underline by me):

Whoever–she? it had been a long time since Tatian had seen an indigene who did not dress to demonstrate legal gender, but he had distinctly felt breasts beneath the thin silk of her tunic, in the moment they’d collided. Still, who-ever she was, she was rather nice looking. It was just a pity she–or 3e? 3e could be a herm, which would be too bad–was an indigene. Of course, working in the courts, she might be assimilated– He broke that train of thought sternly. She might also be a herm, which would mean he himself wouldn’t be interested. And, anyway, Masani was right: even the most assimilated indigenes were very different from off-worlders.

He? She? 3e? And all this focus on clothing from a very narrow gender-focused mindset. Why would this character give a fuck about all of this? How is this relevant? Unless sex in the dominant, star spanning culture of this book is still full of bullshit rules. And why would you — as a writer — limit your self-made fictional world to this kind of cramped space? Unless you want to make a statement by showing contrast to the opposite? But do you make a statement by presenting (and possibily converting) a tight ass person like this?

Remember that this is a post-binary society in the future.

And why all this othering in sentences like: ‘even the most assimilated indigenes were very different from off-worlders’?

What is  mostly exposed in these first parts of the book, is a “wrong genitals” fear-based world view, linked to sexuality and self image. It made me cringe. I wondered what to do. So I googled.

Reading this review on Tor made me happily quit the book. Specifically after reading things like:

… there are nine socially accepted sexualities and people who don’t fit into those, but no mention of people who don’t fit in their bodies or who use different pronouns—no trans and genderqueer (non-quinary?) people. Body defines gender once more.

And:

There is no suggestion that the Concord system of five rigid sexes (that determine five rigid genders) is also flawed.

So no.

I can’t judge whether “Shadow man” will really relax on those issues I disliked. I don’t know if the reviewer is right on everything. But I simply don’t have the patience anymore for a writer to take countless pages in a negative narrative before they show their true story and their true colors. (Are we indeed moving through a narrow funnel on sexuality, or is this just the beginning on an expanding view that will become more and more inclusive?)

There are just too many other books for me to read.

Why is this relevant for me?

I have been writing queer SF for a long time. And I am expanding my own narrative. (More about that below.)  “Getting things right” is not easy. Especially where it relates to areas like gender and sexuality and when you write about people “not you”.

To read “well meant stories” where specific issues and specific people are misrepresented or in which certain negative and damaging ideas, related to gender and sexuality are still (accidently) propagated can be painful.

Writing shit wrong is even more painful, when it’s published and the majority of the audience you you had in mind, hate it, because you –actually and indeed– did a really shitty job.

My personal journey until last year

I deliberately started gender-swapping around 2003, when I picked up writing again after a long hiatus. My default go-to was still ‘he’. And that default go-to started to bore me. It also started to feel empty. Something not part of me.

Heterocentric story lines with heterosexual protagonists still dominated almost everything available to me. And most queer SF I could find at that time, was written by men, presenting either heterosexual female characters, or gay males. So I decided to exclusively star homosexual women in my work for a while. No men. No heterosexuals. Because numbers. And fuck it.

The same was the case for stories about people in polyamorous relationships. Only a few SF novels and stories from a few writers visible or available. And the ones I knew were old: written in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anyway. Everyone in my stories is happily poly-amorous. Because that’s how the world should work, I think.

But where do I fit?

For several reasons I started to examine my own position this year. I write this stuff. But what am I? Where do I fit in this queer landscape?

While I register mostly as “monogamous, heterosexual male”, my sexuality is more complex than that.

I have felt romantic feelings for other men and I will feel romantic feelings for other men in the future. Exploring these feelings under the wing of a gay friend in a place where you were only socks and shoes, I found that — while I feel very much at ease to participate and be in an environment where men have sex with other men; and while I totally enjoy and enjoyed to flirt, excite and kiss with other men when the environment is safe for me — the male body leaves me mostly sexually indifferent. As for my personality: I would register myself more as female than male. And last: monogamy is stupid. I hate how shit everything is. But it’s a safe choice for me.

Change

For several reasons, (lazyness is one. And: “There is now a shitload of SF stories with gay female characters, while stories with gay males seem to lack” was number two) I waited until last year to move from mostly gay female protagonists to stories with gay males. And only a few months ago, in februari 2020, I got kind of bored by my own limiting choices on both sides.

Sure: exploring sex and love between gay men in a poly-amorous story world was one step further on my personal journey as a writer. While I created something else than the monogamous-heterocentric story, I was still using a limited type of narrative. Like playing a different tune, using only one single instrument.

I had to drop more self-defensive layers. To get over my own bullshit.

So I decided to deliberately drop all defaults and lift my game from gay male and gay female to full spectrum queer. Placing myself (as a writer and as characters in my story) into more diverse roles and sexualities.

Why? Babel 17

That is not all of the story.

From a commercial point of view, it is quite stupid to write science fiction. And it is double stupid to go gay or queer. So why do it?

This too is personal.

In brief: I write the stories I write, because I want to show a world where “weird” is actually normal and where “normal” is questioned the moment it becomes oppressive.

A queer kid like me grew up in a world where “oppressive normal” was the main narrative. And in most cases — when you don’t fit — this main narrative is quite fucking damaging.

When I read “Babel 17” by Samual Delany, something clicked.

I was 14. I was a smart kid, living in between several worlds. I was bullied because I was different. (I never took shit from my bullies, because that — and not submission — was the only way to stop the bullying and the only way for me to stay away from death by suicide.)

I was lonely.

Growing up with a mildly autistic brain, I was never able to connect to the people in my surroundings. Period. I did not develop the kind of emotional bonds that made my parents my parents. Instead, I was simply a kid that happened to live in the same house as some people who happened to be ‘my parents’. I was incredibly smart in some regions and incredibly handicapped in others. Sometimes bordering a learning disability. I was something in between male and female. I hated anything stupid and pointless like soccer and most competitive sports. I designed my own clothes where needed, loved to be in between sexes with my style, as the male clothing was simply too boring, too drab for what I wanted to wear.

I was anxious. I was an outsider. Half of myself was missing. Lost before birth. And deep inside of me, covered by my lack of understanding, was a heavy sadness that was not- but could have been a deep depression.

When I read “Babel 17” by Samual Delany, at age 14 or something, something clicked.

Love, sex and almost everything else related to human relationships in the heart of that story world was not restricted, but open. Free. Weirdness was normal. Sadness something respected. The compound and diverse image of “humanness” far beyond anything I had read in in any other novel until then. That world made sense.

I understood that my ‘abnormality’ might not be so ‘abnormal’.

There was something else in that novel, that I was able to recognize as a central theme, only recently. And it is probably one of the reasons I could identify so much with all the characters. “Bable 17” explores a feeling of deep loneliness coming from being cut off from your loved ones, from being too smart, from being seen, but being invisible at the same time and being misunderstood so many times that it hurts.

I came home. My self was not some freak accident, but actually something that could populate a universe.

I was no longer alone. And that is something very important at any age.

Exploring gender and sexuality

The narrative I grew up with is roughly as follows:

The body you are born in, determines your sex, the type of clothing you wear, the way you are allowed to move and express yourself and your sexuality. If you do not feel that way, you are wrong, and you probably deserve some sort of punishment.

In reality, nothing is as rigidly linked as this. And this single minded narrative of: “the body you are born in…” is bullshit.

Genitals do not determine who you are, or what you feel or should feel. Our brain does. And our brain is not hard-wired for one sexual / romantic reality or the other. It is actually capable –in some cases– of being completely fluid.

This can make things much more “complex” as it goes for “what am I?”. So let’s chart some things out in the following matrix:

gendersexe

“Other” is anything not human and not male or female. As there is no real limit to what our brains can get aroused on, “other” is quite endless.

This is your regular straight male:

gendersexe3

And this could be me:

gendersexe2

Taking this further, below are four characters from my novel.

gender nomi-chuntao

The first character in the image (Nomi) is interested and aroused by almost anything and everything, has both male and female genitals, self-identifies as both male and female.

The second character (Chuntao) has a female body, feels dominantly female, is romantically interested in people with female bodies, and feels only a peripheral sexual attraction or sexual interest for people in female bodies.

gender omar-yajun

On the other hand, a character like Omar chooses to have (and keep) a male body as she mostly likes the genitals that come with a male body while she identifies fully as female.

Yajun is, in the current stage of the novel, more simple, identifying mostly as female, being sexually interested to mostly female bodies, and living in a female body.

If you would consider each box part of an “orientation”, with only this simple matrix there are 5 x 3 x 3 = 45 different combinations possible (if I get my math right).

And this matrix is limited to what I can come up with at this point in time.  Human reality is without a doubt much more varied that this. What about “attraction to M/F/O self image” for instance?

Diversity in writing

I’ve done another blogpost about this, many years ago. And that blogpost was both a failure and unfinished.

With the brutal murder on George Floyd, several things are happening right now: a rising awareness of systemic racism in the United States of America. A rising awareness of systemic racism in our own communities. Changes in stand points by political figures, and resistance to those changes by people who rather see those changes happening.

Is it an obligation for a writer to represent others?

No. If you do not intend to represent others, simply stop reading here. As you will waste your time with anything below here.

If you are curious, if you feel you want to do more, but do not know how, read on.

Do you need to fix the world with your story?

No. As I will address later in this post, any call for more inclusion and diversity in your work is merely an invitation to look further, to include more diverse characters in your stories and portrait ‘them’ as human. Not as caricatures.

There are several reasons to do and to not include a more diverse set of characters in your stories, which is given later in this post.

Can you only write what you experienced yourself?

“But what if you get it wrong?” (We handle “getting it right” later in the post.)

If you write fiction, you should have some nagging feeling that this question itself needs some further digging. Fiction is per definition writing about many, many things you never experienced yourself. Otherwise it is a semi-auto-biography. Not fiction.

So what is this “experienced yourself”? And why is it important?

Imagine sex. Have you experienced sex? being horny? falling in love? feeling an incredible wave of love for the other while having sex? Awesome! This means that when you write a sex-scene, you will be able to write much more richness and more depth into that scene. Don’t have a penis? Don’t have the combination of vagina, a vulva and a clitoris? Then it is harder for you to describe the exact experiences your character might experience there while having sex and while orgasming. But you can do research, reflect experiences written and shared by others. Or simply not write about it at all, if it is not relevant for your sex scene. And this is just an example.

In the end, you are not writing a scientific paper. Writing fiction is a play with the imagination. That of yours and that of your audience.

 

Your story is your story, not mine

There is a web-series on youtube called ‘Unnhhhh’ and the introduction contains a very simple and powerful message: “…in which we do whatever we like. Because this is our show. Not yours.”

Whatever other people tell you that you should do, in the end it is none of their business what you choose to write and what not. Unless they employ you.

Now having said all this: let’s start with two games of perception.

Game 1: What if everything was the same?

Take a moment and imagine a pristine, perfectly white canvas. Imagine this pristine white canvas presents the world to you. In all its orderly, soothing, clean fashion. And imagine this perfect white canvas has been protected from dust and dirt as long as you know. Hell: you might have even been scolded for coming too close to that canvas with your dirty hands when you were young, as you might have soiled that perfect white.

Now place a small red spot on it.

This red spot is disturbing. Why? Because it breaks all possible rules. And it is impossible not to see that red spot. And as far as you know in game 1, it does not belong there.

The relative importance of mono-culture

This white canvas is a direct representation of a mono-culture.

Disrupting any mono-culture is like soiling that canvas and what this disruption usually invokes is fear and anger. Fear of potential death: a death of identity, a death of self-image or a death of self-worth. Anger for threatening a fragile state of safety.

We see this emotions in different religious streams, where anything ‘not ours’ and ‘not according to our book and our norms’ is considered misguided, wrong, evil, something that should be expelled or erased. We see it in societies where the current status quo is challenged by something else.

Mono-cultures are usually like closed loops, designed to protect the idea that defines you and your community. Designed to keep the canvas as clean as humanly possible.

Someone being different might disturb that idea. Someone, publicly flaunting that difference with pride, might even be considered a direct threat to that pristine white canvas. So much even that violence might be considered the appropriate action against you. Because your dirty hands will (further) soil that pristine white.

Isms and phobias

Racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and the punishment for religious sins are all part of that very same system: to keep the canvas free from stains. To silence and erase those who deviate from the norm. To make sure that the very core of the mono-culture remains intact.

It is OK to disagree with this idea. Let’s continue.

Game 2: The filter

Imagine you are part of a special group. Anyone in this group is wearing a set of eye-lenses with a very specific filter. This filter will blur out anyone who is not part of your group. Some of the people in your group are a position of power, because their talents and backgrounds brought them at the head of banks and companies active in advertisement, trade, media and manufacturing. They have the power to hire other people, power to give out decent loans to buy houses, and so on.

Your group makes 30% of the population of your world.

As you can only work with the people you can really see, well-paying jobs will go mainly to the people within your own groups. Just as special favors and special  privileges.

As you can only really care for the things that are relevant and the things that exist, and since the only things that are existing and relevant are the things that are clear, the things done against those blurry others are almost invisible. And even when you do see things happening to those blurry blobs, you are mostly indifferent. Why? Because they are not part of you or your group.

Now imagine yourself on the other side of this filter. In this second part of the game you are part of the group that is invisible, blurred out.

But why are you blurred out?

On closer inspection, it turns out you are blurred, because you are either different; weird; homosexual; transsexual; because your skin tone is a few shades darker or lighter. Or because your face, your teeth, your ears or your body does not match the beauty standards of the group in power. Or maybe because you have an inconvenient handicap, or you come from a different ethnical- or religious background. Whatever reason might go.

Because you are a blur, you are invisible. And because you are invisible, the mainstream media –managed by people for whom you are a blur– will not see you, or will misrepresent you, because you are a blur and not relevant enough for closer study. Because you are a blur and because you do not really exist, movies and novels and short stories will not present you, or will mis-represent you. Employers, insurors, banks, mortgage providers will ignore you — unless you can be scammed or abused in some useful way, or because you are the very last resort.

Because you are a blur, nobody will make the effort to understand you, to listen to you, to hear your story.

Instead, they will make up their own stories about you, based on whatever seems convenient. And because you are a blur: unknown, unrepresented, mostly ignored, misrepresented and unseen, you might not even be considered human. So your death does not really have any emotional consequences for those who do not see you.

Representation is a first step towards visibility

Having characters in your story that are mainly invisible in mainstream media and mainstream works is a first step towards visibility. (A possible “how” will be covered later in this post.)

We move from: “they / I do not exist” to “I see that some / that I exist and this other looks like X” and the more we continue to represent something or something that was not represented before, or was misrepresented before, makes the potential understanding greater: “I see that they / I exist, that there is great variety and that there are many points of view I have never considered before”.

We move from: “not existing” to “there are some” to “there are many, and some might even be as awesome and great, or even greater as anything I knew before that”.

(This is also why it is so important to hear voices from the fringe. Consider feeling abandoned and alone because you think your are the only one with X. And then to discover you are not and that there might entire tribes of other people just like you!)

Is it a obligation for a writer to represent others?

You saw this question before. The simple answer is still: ‘No’. Because it is the wrong question.

Should you represent others, who might be invisible now? Maybe. It all depends on what you want to write and represent.

If your story takes place in a mono-culture with all people from the same background, it might be hard to understand what diversity might be found. And it probably does not make any real sense to introduce a person from another ethnical background “just to be diverse”. But what about people with a disability? Polio was quite common world wide until the introduction of the polio-vaccin. People died from tuberculosis, or survived with severe consequences on their lungs. And what about queer people in a self-proclared straight community?

Turning this around: does it make sense to not present a diverse community in an environment that is diverse by default? Place with a lot of international trade, for instance? Probably not. Unless you have a very clear reason for that.

The simple and easy thing to do is to sit back and take a broad look. Sit back and think what you want to do with your story, your theme within that story.

Does it make sense to not write about other people?

Let’s look at some reasons to indeed include ‘others’:

  1. You want to expose and explore some kind of racist, sexist, ableist or other blind spot in your own mind, or in your surrounding society
  2. Your story-world is diverse by default, for instance due to international trade and it is actually quite silly not to include some diversity, unless all your characters are racist and scared of queer people
  3. You understand there indeed there are people with other sexual organs and other sexual orientations than your own

Let’s look at some reasons to not include ‘others’:

  1. You might feel resistance writing anyone in your story, who is different from you in skin tone, beliefs or sexual orientation.
  2. Your characters are racists, sexists or whatever and deliberately exclude and erase anyone and anything from their existence that is not similar to their norms.
  3. You might be racist, sexist, homofobe. In which case it is indeed better not to use these characters at all, for now, and start doing some reading.
  4. You are deliberately keeping these ‘others’ out of your stories, because they don’t belong there and the might even not deserve to be seen (as normal people) by your audience.
  5. You feel that you are forced to, due to external pressure.

Let’s look at some reasons to include and misrepresent those ‘others’:

  1. Your story is intended to be funny, and you use the eternal wisdom of your peers to create ‘funny’ stereotypes of other people you only know by reference. Like: gay people, transsexuals, cross-dressers, people with some kind of handicap and people from a different ethnic background.
  2. You might be racist, sexist, homofobe and you misrepresent others deliberately, or because you don’t know any better.

How do you do it?

There is fear to represent those you don’t really know yourself. How do you present hem, without falling in the pitfalls of misrepresentation, caricature and unwanted insult by misrepresentation?

And what do you do with people who claim that you should not write about them, because you are you and not them?

Here are some starters:

  1. Consider every character in your story to be fully human and fully unique in his or her own story within your story world.

It is really that simple.

Then:

  1. Do your research. Read into what the ‘other’ is experiencing. How ‘they’ see ‘their’ lives. What obstacles ‘they’ experience due to being ‘different’. Find and refine your google search-words. Follow specific people from inside ‘those’ communities on social media. Find and read ‘their’ conversations online, from people inside ‘those’ communities. And so on.
  2. See how this relates to your story. When you write science fiction, fantasy, or fiction in a different country, things will probably be completely different, but probably also in several situations very much the same. As systemic oppression (as one example) is very much following the same or a very similar script anywhere.
  3. Never, ever, ever try to (pretend to) be ‘their’ representative. And never, ever, ever think you can fully understand ‘them’ from your point of view. Whatever you do, you did not live that life and you are and will remain the outsider who happens to not ignore others than themselves inside their own work.
  4. Make it individual. Avoid blanket-type characters and stereotypes. See: “consider every character in your story to be fully human”. Your one single character (whatever he, she or it is) mainly represents themselves. Not the group. And even the hardships and benefits in the life of that character is mostly part of that character and not necessarily of the group. Unless it is due to a structural issue. But even than, each individual character only represents a part of that structural issue and not all and every aspect.
  5. Understand that your best expected effort is to present and represent the ‘other’ as human, as a well rounded character, that offers fresh and positive perspectives on their life and actions.

This is quite simple as well.

Good luck.

Redaction, revision, layering, focus, and the deepening of your story

I probably already wrote a blogpost about this several years ago. I might have even used this same image (source), as it pops up on the first page of my Google search.

One way I look at writing, is with the analog of painting. And more concretely: where you layer the painting in several stages.

In the image above, only 4 stages are photographed. But you can imagine how – for instance between stage 3 and 4 – more basic detail is added to the eyes, or that after stage 4 in the picture above, even more detail is added to create glossy highlights in the eyes, the lips and the shoulder.

Each stage adds more detail, more depth, more definition, increasing the impact of what is to be conveyed to the observer of that image. Or – in our case – the reader.

Here is a simple breakdown of that process in 6 steps.

1: The sketch, in which – methaphorically speaking – you use charcoal to quickly setup shapes, forms and quickly define what should be where. This is mostly feeling, sensing (for me). What should be where? How do I want to present that? What works for me? What does not? Some technique – on composition and perspective, for instance, but not yet on lighting, color and other shit. This is not even the first draft, but some scenes, some notes, some sort of rough outline.

2: The first basic setup, in which simple tones are used to define highlights, shadows on a light brown base tone. This already helps to define and establish atmosphere, tone, focus. Shapes are still crude. You do this, once you are satisfied with phase 1: the sketch. This is more and more some sort of story: there are scenes. There are events that link to other events. You can see clear shapes coming out of the fog. It might even have an ending and a clear begin.

3: Refinement of basic setup, in which the basic setup is refined. Blobs representing human shapes will get a face, arms, hands, an neck, clothing – if relevant. Clothing will get some basic shadows and highlights representing the draping of the fabric. Trees will get patches of leaves and a trunk with shadows and highlights. Here the story really starts to get shape. The beginning is more clear. The ending more grounded, the scenes and the actions and the dialog more vivid. But this is still a phase of shaping and correcting, of “getting things right”.

4: Coloring and further refinement, in which all shapes will receive their first layers of color and details are more explicitly worked upon. Here, the story might really start to distinguish itself. Might really come to life. Might really become expressive. Still we are correcting. Shaping. Moving closer to “perfection”.

5: Layering and more refinement, in which transparant layers are used to create more depth, more subtlety in shading and things start to come alive. Here, the events, dialog, actions, reactions start to really flow and feel natural, as if this could be something that could really happen to someone, regardless of how insane the initial concept might have looked.

6: Finishing, in which the final – transparant – layers are applied to give that final feel, that final detail. Here, the last details are added: some final highlights on tiny details, some final shadows where they were not deep or big enough. Here, each sentence and each dialog and each action and reaction in the story is checked and corrected for its flow, for its possible final impact and impression on the reader.

This is not the only and exclusive way to write a story or make a full color painting. Not every painting is set up like this. Not all stories come to existence this way. But it provides you and me with a basic structure to discuss and think about.

 

Here is the core:

Each step is a further refinement of your process of story-shaping: in which more and more detail is added and revealed, in which awkward lines and shapes are corrected; making something that was once rough and conceptual more and more refined and concrete.

And there is a reason why this happens in steps.

When you start writing, your story is still rough. You kind of know where you might be going to, but the writing itself is the actual process where your creation starts taking shape. And that first shape is usually not what it can be.

By reworking each scene, your mind starts to see new shapes; new details; a new understanding of what you overlooked until that point; new options to make that rough first version even better.

You need to trust that proces, use it, lean into it.

Especially when you are more of a perfectionist, it can be dis-concerning when the first draft looks like shit. But it is only the first draft. A rough sketch that needs more work, more refining.

Looking at the 4 stages in the painting above, each image shows further corrections and further refinements to get to something that actually closely resembles Gil Gadot as Wonder Woman. The result in image 3 even looks worse on some accounts, than what is shown in image 2. But it is all part of the process.

In short: getting to awesome results is a progressive proces. Just as getting to mastery (where everything you produce is ‘spot on’ immediately) is a progressive process.

For stories, each new step is done via edits, revisions, rewrites. By adding scenes, adding detail, adding dialog. By removing fluff that has no real use in that moment of that story. By rewriting and upgrading fluff so that it does have (the intended) use, meaning and purpose in the story.

The idea that a story “is finished” and “should be finished” once you stop writing the first draft, is – in my opinion – not necessarily correct.

Put differently: a story continues to evolve and develop as you continue work on it. Parts will be vague and sketch-like after the first round of writing and pars will need several “layers” of working and editing and rewriting and reformulating before they really start to shine and create the “wow!” effect you might be going for.

And I think this part of writing is usually under-emphasized. Yes, we understand that editing and reworking your writing is “part of the process”. But usually only “to clean up the uglier parts”, not as a more fundamental part of the process of developing and pushing your story into the direction of something detailed, into something deep and more deeply engaging.

Most people usually stop after phase 1 or 2: when the sketch is “good enough”.

And it is absolutely without a doubt that you can achieve incredible results at that stage: using charcoal or pencil or browns and white only, if you know what you are doing. See the examples right below (unfortunately I have no credits due to my laziness while I randomly collected these images in the past):

Each new round of attention to your story, where you deepen the conflicts, deepen the dialog, deepen the interactions, deepen the contrast, deepen the detail (where that is truly relevant) will also deepen the impact of your writing. Whether that writing is pure fun and adventure, or a deep exploration of human emotions and drives. Or anything not mentioned here.

 

 

Bringing focus into a story

I wrote earlier about “promise and delivery” and this is a follow up to that, from a different approach.

Here is my situation: I have written roughly 180.000 words of novel and three things are missing for at least one of the story lines:

  1. An engaging beginning – where you, the reader, get sucked into the story
  2. A clear focus – to where the story is going, leading to:
  3. A sense of relevance – so that whatever is happening feels urgent, worth reading.
  4. A satisfying ending – because alle relevant issues are wrapped up in one way or another.

There are many reasons why this story has these issues. Ant to figure out why, I will tackle a few in this blogpost, revolving specifically around focus.

Focus, beats and the inciting incident

My writing goals for this novel state, among other things, that it should engage the reader from page one; that it is to be written as a page turner.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure#Freytag’s_analysis

And to reach this goal:

  1. The inciting incident (or event) should happen within the first 500 words (google “inciting incident” for several takes on the topic).
  2. Every 500 words, there is a new beat, with a clear focus on the main story line; pushing the story further.

1: The inciting incident

One good description of an inciting incident is this (google and you will find it quoted in several places):

The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story.

This inciting incident can be anything and will be partially be defined by the type of story you write. In case of a murder mystery, it will probably be the discovery of a dead body. In case of a romance, it might be a breakup, or that very first moment of “Oh. My. God!”

Mine is a political thriller. And I overstretched my hand, as I never wrote something like that ever before.

So what makes an inciting incident more powerful?

  1. It describes a clear situation
  2. That defines a central conflict
  3. That defines or reveals a most relevant issue
  4. With clear stakes
  5. For the character or the story

A conflict in a story can be anything and between anyone and anything. It is anything that is standing in the way of the expected outcome and anything that creates an unwanted complication for the ones involved. An argument is a conflict. A flat tire is a conflict. Arriving late at work is a conflict.

A central conflict is a key conflict that focuses on a key aspect of the character or the story. It’s like a king pin of you want. When you pull it out, everything will fall apart.

I deliberately state ‘a central conflict’, as it is not necessarily the central conflict and the center itself can be moving as the story evolves and more and more is revealed about the real issue. For instance: the breakup reveals how important love is for the main character. The central conflict (the unwanted result) is the intense experience of ‘loss of love’ due to the breakup. It reveals the fear of loneliness, the fear ‘never to find love again’ and will give room for the next step: a resolution.

The more relevant this issue is for your character (or your story world), the bigger the sense of urgency will be for your reader. In other words: if things are not relevant for your character(s) or your story world, then why the fuck would your reader care?

Relevance itself is relative to the stakes involved. A clear situation like losing a key to a locker seems like nothing, but what if ‘not having that key’ means that your character can not deliver what is inside that locker and due to that will lose their job, their partner or even their live? And what if the key is not of a locker but the key to a car? Or their house?

And that is how we arrive at the stake of the situation. Stake is described in several places as: “the cost of quitting”. What is the cost of giving up? What is the cost of not taking action?

For James Bond and most super heroes, it is — in most cases — “the end of the world”. For someone in love (or after a breakup) it is — in most cases — “unhappiness” or even “depression”.

A clear stake is something that is universal, something many people have experienced. Something that does not need any further explanation. Something you can pinpoint in one single sentence and in one single situation.

For instance: “John is not able to deal with the loneliness. He will either start drinking, or start crappy relationships with crappy people just to full the gap; making the misery only greater.”

There are a million ways to convey this to the reader. Some of them are crap. Some of them just good enough. Some can be used as an easy starter, like this:

“You need to get out of the house John. Calm down. Get over this. And by all means, do not get drunk and do not hook up with some asshole in the pub. We both know where that will end. Crappy relationships with crappy people who will only kick you further down into a spiral of misery.”

It is just an example, but in less than 100 words we have a clear insight at what is at stake, what the central conflict is at that moment in the story (Johns tendency to make poor choices), what has to be avoided and why this is the biggest threat John has to face at this moment.

But is this issue relevant?

Not if we lose focus and not if we drop this direction the story can take. So let’s take a look at that next.

2: Keeping focus

Based on the rules I defined under ‘Inciting incident’, that incident relates to a most relevant issue for the character or story.

To keep focus in your story:

  1. Choose your structure. And do this as soon as possible. Is the story all about “A” or is “A” a setup to “B” and “B” a setup to “C”?
  2. Stick to the script. Your story is either all about “A”, or it follows a clear development where “A” is a setup to “B” which leads in a clear and logical way to “C”
  3. Decide on the spacing between beats. Do you intend to write a high-paced thriller? Than the space between each beat is short. Does your story focus on characters and situations more than a fast pace? Than the space between each beat can be longer.

There are probably many ways you can structure your story. I will give you two, where the inciting incident can be:

  1. A setup for the rest of the story
  2. The central conflict of the entire story

When it is the setup, it will lead to a new situation with a new dilemma. For instance:

  1. Based on an external force —  For example: John meets a new person who is not shit. But the fear of messing up (Am I sane? Will this lead to a new road of destruction? Am I good enough for this person?) will create a new central conflict, sprouting from a new event; taking the story into a new direction. For instance, John being forced to accept his own demons, to focus on personal healing, or whatever you choose.
  2. Based on a resolution — John decides to first find peace with his past, before falling into a new relationship. Which will lead to a new central conflict, centered around that new resolution. For instance: forcing himself to stay out of new relationships.

And there are many other possibilities and reasons for John to act and change course in the story.

If we made it important for John not to get involved in crappy relationships and boozing, we need to stick to that script, until John is ready to make a next step.

But how do you this?

  1. Think in story units – each story can be broken into smaller units: acts, chapters, scenes, sentences, paragraphs. And for each of these you can apply specific formula’s to get the best result possible. Each unit (or set of units) will cover a certain part of the story. For instance: “chapter 1 to 4 deal with Johns denial with the breakup and his selfdestructive patterns. Chapter 5 and 6 deal with Johns realization. Chapter 7, 8 and 9 with Johns transformation.” “Scene 1 of chapter 1 sets a clear situation in which John is confronted with the beginning of the end of his relationship. In scene 5 of chapter 1, the breakup is final.”
  2. Think in beats – any ‘impuls’ that pushes your story forward is a beat. By deliberately spacing these ‘pulses’ you can play with pace and assure that the reader keeps investing in your story, instead of getting bored ‘because nothing is happening’.

As said, most stories can be broken up in different units. For instance: One story can comprise of several acts. (While the 3-acter is widely promoted, this number can really be anything, from one to five and more.)

One story can be comprised of several chapters, where each chapter can be a singel act, or one single act can be comprised of several chapters.

Chapters and  acts can be comprised of one or more scenes.

Note that you decide and determine the rules here. Just like lego, chapters, scenes and acts are nothing more than building blocks that can be combined in any way that serves your purpose.

Now that we established this; for each chapter, each act and each scene, you can different formula’s to create a strcuture and setup. And in general the structure below is how scenes and chapters in many page-turners are deliberately set up.

  1. Set scope and goal – define how much space you want to use for your scene or chapter. Define what you want to expose in this scene, this act, this chapter, this part of the story and how this part should (roughly) end or conclude. Will it be a 1000 words? 3000 words? Shorter? Longer? Will it end in a cliffhanger? Will it naturally flow into the next chapter? Will the next chapter be another location? Another character? How much distance is there between each beat? 100 words? 300 words? 500 words? More? Less?
  2. Openingopen with setting, mood, characters and the inciting incident. Or, in other words: where are we? Who is there? What time of day is it? What are your characters doing the moment this part of the story begins? What kind of emotional charge would you like to convey? Tension? Ease? Excitement? Arousal? Fear? Anything that will give us a first and clear impression of time, place, the key players in that situation, the type of characters who are there, the type of story and scene you are writing. Anything that will hook us to the story; to the part we are about to read.
  3. Your interpretation – what is happening next? What can you expose in this part of the story to give us more insight in the urgency and/or relevance of the situation. What do you need to expose to make us feel the relevance of that inciting incident and the relevance of this chapter or scene in the bigger picture of the story that is to envelop? What can you expose to make us understand why your characters choose to go left where they could have gone right and up where they could have gone down?
  4. Exposition of plot points – make sure that you stick to your plot and that each scene and each dialog and each paragraph is exposing something that is relevant to the central conflicts of your story.
  5. Foreshadow – make clear that this is not it, not everyhing, that there is more, that something else is about to happen, that something more is at play.
  6. Conclusion – make clear that we reached the end of this part of the story, by ending all story lines relevant for this part.

To make this simpler, you can break your story, your chapters and your scenes up in beats. Beats are key moments in the story that help to push the story forward. A beat can be:

  1. A decision – For instance: John is tired of being tired and decides to take action.
  2. An event – caused by an outside source. For intstance: John receives a phone call. John is approached by someone else. John forgets to bring his keys.
  3. A discovery – John understands that it is useless to continue trying to repeat the same action.

Beats can:

  1. Drive the story and your characters: that what will create changes in scenery. That what will drive your character to make decisions. Anything leading to action, an event or exposure of information.
  2. Expose or influence the emotional state of your characters.
  3. Cause a reversal in a scene, for instance because it will completely change the mind of your character, or turn your story around. “A good friend turns out to be a backstabber and thief.” “What seemed to be the perfect solution is broken and useless.”

Your story gains focus when each beat focuses on the main story line of each character (Examples: John wants to become famous, Joe is tired of being the eternal underdog, Mary wants to spend all her money before she dies, Zoe is about to break through as a martial artist)

But how to imagine this?

See your story as a musical composition, like a pop song or whatever you prefer. Beats are drumbeats on a base drum. And you are the drummer. A regular beat is like a steady rhythm. And you can create and build tension by alternating the force of impact. Something like the three examples below.

Blue pulses are things that happen, with no clear relationship to your main story. “Someone opens a door. Another person gets in a car. Another person eats a meal. They smoke a sigaret” If nothing else happens, and nothing has any real consequence or connection or real relevance for the characters, the story becomes like 2: a boring story without clear focus.

The orange pulses are strongly related to your main story. (John receives a phone call, related to a murder. John arrives at the scene, where colleagues are; clearly in shock. John leans over the mutilated dead body. John finds traces of ink underneath the finger nails, leading to a possible clue.)

When there is a lot of space between each story related pulse, the general events (John takes a phone call. John ties his shoes. John goes home) will become dominant and the reader will get the feeling that “nothing (relevant) is happening” for a long while. (Example 1.)

If you can space your beats out evenly, if you can create a strong rhythm based on relevant events, however, your story becomes more engaging, can become a true page turner. (Example 3.)

Alternating spacing between beats will create changes in pace. For instance: action scenes usually have more beats per 1000 words than a contemplative scene in a living room.

Both are relevant. Your readers need those alternations in tempo, to energize them before the story slows down too much and to give them some room to breathe when the action threatens to wear them out.

 

In Memoriam: Jack Schlimazlnik

1970 – 2020

Jack of all trades

De meeste genreschrijvers kennen de naam Jack Schlimazlnik wel, is het niet als jurylid, dan wel als geducht medestrijder in wedstrijden of als nauwelijks-blad-voor-de-mond nemende criticus van verhalen en boeken.

Jack voelde zich zeer betrokken met het genre, was op zijn manier een voorvechter van kwaliteit op alle vlakken – of het nu ging om juryrapporten en de wijze van jureren, de kwaliteit van geschreven recensies, of de kwaliteit van geschreven verhalen – en was vanuit die passie duidelijk aanwezig op diverse fora en social media waar hij discussieerde, commentaar gaf, informeerde en adviezen verspreidde.

Zoals dat gaat bij mensen met een sterke aanwezigheid en een uitgesproken mening, was Jack bij sommigen geliefd en werd hij door anderen gevreesd, gemeden en soms zelfs (mild) gehaat.

Jack schreef en publiceerde verscheidene verhalen, gaf de steampunk-bundel ‘In de schaduw van het Keezending’ uit (die via deze pagina gedownload kan worden en waarvan hier een recensie gelezen kan worden) met werk van hemzelf en andere schrijvers en verscheen in verschillende bundels, waaronder die van Edge.Zero, Uitgeverij Verschijnsel (‘Echte liefde en andere verhalen’), Stichting Fantastische Vertellingen (Ganymedes 16) en in verschillende magazines, waaronder Wonderwaan en Pure Fantasy.

Een klein overzicht van Jacks werk kan gevonden worden op zijn webpagina: https://vanip.home.xs4all.nl/schlimazlnik/werk.htm

Ebooks met korte verhalen op Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/schlimazlnik

 

Korte verhalen op Sweek:

https://sweek.com/nl/profile/224787/74088

Op Edge.Zero:

http://www.edge-zero.com/?tag=jack-schlimazlnik

Blogposts en kritische artikelen van Jack op LiveJournal:

https://schlimazlnik.livejournal.com/

Jack Schlimazlnik is een pseudoniem. Jack was daar altijd helder in. De werelden waarin Jack verkeerde, bleven altijd strikt van elkaar gescheiden, hoewel de resultaten van die twee werelden elkaar regelmatig raakten en beïnvloedden, wat in de loop der jaren tot uiting kwam in stijl, thematiek en eigen-wijze schrijven. Een proces dat we hebben mogen volgen, tot het nu abrupt is beëindigd.

Uit de laatste berichten van Jack bleek al dat hij iets voelde aankomen en dat heeft geleid tot veel speculatie onder vriend en vijand. Nu is duidelijk dat dat einde inderdaad nabij was en op 9 mei is Jack helaas overleden. Hij is in aanwezigheid van vrienden en familie begraven op 15 mei.

We zijn bedroefd dat Jack is heengegaan. Hij was inderdaad een Jack of all trades. En in sommige gevallen meer meester dan hij zelf aangaf, zoals blijkt uit – onder andere – het behalen van elf top-10 posities in verschillende verhalenwedstrijden waaronder meerdere top-3 plaatsen in de Trek Sagae- en Fantastels wedstrijden en de eerste plaats in de tweede editie van EdgeZero Award.

In al je capaciteiten laat je een leegte achter, Jack. Je gaat gemist worden.

Vaarwel.

 

26 mei 2020,

Hilversum, Amsterdam

Edge.Zero,

Mike Jansen en Peter Kaptein

Engaging your reader into any story, through compelling characters

[Draft]

There are several theories about what makes a gripping, compelling character. ‘A character needs to be likable’ is one. ‘A character needs to be interesting’ is another. ‘A character becomes interesting when it faces challenges and conflicts’ is another. But I always felt this is not hitting the essence of it all.

Sympathy is not the key

When thinking about Saul Goodman in ‘Better call Saul’ or Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’, we do see a lot of adversity, but the characters are not likable. Tony Montana is — in the end — a selfish asshole, ending up as an isolated drug king. Saul Goodman is — from the very start — a liar and a fuckup who continues to make poor decisions and who continues to fuck up his own live.

So what makes them ‘likable’? That they are underdogs? The way they interact with others? Maybe.

I know what makes them interesting for me: they don’t give up. They stay true to the core of their selves. They continue to fight where we might give up. They refuse to accept defeat. They refuse to bend or be reshaped by others.

I know what makes characters boring: when there is no challenge. When they continue to give up on themselves and on others. When they avoid conflict with no other gains. When they continue to give up on themselves and when every choice they make is another step in the reduction of their lives, without any positive, personal reward in return.

In the end, any story I want to like, has to resonate with me, with my desires, has to resonate with my needs, my unresolved issues. And the characters moving through those stories have to resonate with me; with who I like to be, who I would want to be.

Why are role models so important?

We are forced to hide the things that make us ‘impopulair’ and ‘less attractive’ and we admit to this hiding, because it makes it easier to survive, because there is a clear reward for that behavior: job security, a certain level of popularity with certain groups and less attention from certain bullies.

And I think that due to this, the unfiltered children we once were, are slowly eroding and slowly dying inside. They are dying, because the masks we are forced to wear each day in public life continue to remove us from our genuine selves. Our true and genuine self is eroding, is dying as continue to keep to push it out of existence for the sake of others, for the sake of personal safety and personal security.

I think role models in fiction are important to help that core personality to survive in a world that is rejecting us as an individual. And that true self is being damaged each time we keep pushing it down for being ‘not good’ or ‘not good enough’ each time it comes up again from where it resides. It helps validating the existence of our true selves, by assuming their roles by proxy, via the characters we admire.

I think role models represent the parts of the self we feel we could be, the selves we dream of and each time we live.

The life and death of Tony Montana

Tony Montana is a positive role model. He represents the nobody who is able to burst through to immense succes. He captures your heart due to his honesty and his relationships with the people in his inner circles, the things he is willing to sacrifice while still taking care of the people around him; the vision he has for bigger and better things for all of the people around him. You know he has a good chance of achieving those goals, because he understands the world he is living in, because he is smart and his will is unwavering.

The world Tony Montana navigates through is extremely negative. Death, drugs, abuse. Negative as well is the direction his live takes due to the decisions he makes and greed takes over. In the end, Tony Montana is completely blinded by his ego and long before he dies he has already lost himself and everything he cared about. Still you root for him. And instead of pointless, his death is epic.

His death is glorious, because until the very last moment Tony Montana is still his true self.

Diving deeper into ‘writing what you know’

Just like ‘likable characters’, ‘writing what you know’ only gives you half of the puzzle.

‘Writing what you know’ is more that ‘limit yourself to only what you know from practical experience’. It is an invitation to dive deep. We all know moments of happiness, sadness, grief, anger, joy, love, hunger, lust, power, weakness, being overwhelmed, losing yourself into something awesome or bad. ‘Writing what you know’ is also diving deeper into those feelings as you write, to capture the experience, to transmit them to your readers in such a way that they feel genuine, real, instead of made-up, artificial, ‘serving the plot’ more than something the character is actually going through at that moment.

‘Writing what you know’ is asking you to place yourself into these situation you place your character in and ask yourself: would I feel this at that moment? Would anyone I know feel this at that moment? Would I feel this when I would be this person?

It asks you to reflect yourself in your characters, in those situations. It asks you to reflect those characters into yourself and experience their emotions (based on how you shaped them) and feel what they would feel in those situations.

Building memorable characters

Books and lessons about writing offer you several handles on what makes a memorable character and I think it is useful to cover several of them here, to get to the next step. So here we go:

  1. Relatability and representation – Somehow, your audience needs to be able to grasp and recognize the struggles and issues your characters go through. The more concrete and close to home the core dilemma’s are, the easier it is to relate to the issues the characters in your story are dealing with. More than relatability, representation zooms into specific aspects of specific groups, placing their challenges and traits as central elements in the story.
  2. Conflict – Without conflict no challenges and without challenges not much to expose the different – relatable – sides of your characters. How are they when they are angry, sad, happy? How can I relate to a character if they do not show anything relatable?
  3. Obstacles and challenges – Like conflict, obstacles and challenges help to expose different sides of your character. Each obstacle, each challenge will lead to some form of conflict, either with the goals, purpose and vision of the character; with other characters and with the powers of infuence that move your story and move around around in your story world.
  4. Personal drivers — Like goals, a personal mission, a personal vision, personal values and a personal purpose. Both size and intensity count. A goal can be tiny, but the intensity of the need can drive and feed an entire novel, play or movie. Goals, personal values and so on, can be hidden for your characters, but als conflicts arise, they might become exposed and with that exposure it might become clear to your characters how important those are in their personal life, leading – possibly to a major change.
  5. Versitality and depth – Characters become more and more interesting as they continue to be able to surprise the audience. So in how many ways can your character respond to similar situations? How many different tricks do they have in their pockets, to master their situation, while still staying true to their base personality as you shaped them? How deep are they (and you) willing to go in experiencing their own issues and emotions?
  6. Grit and personal achievement – Someone who gives up at the first sign of adversity usually does not get far and usually is not interesting material for a longer story, unless you find something he or she continues to hold on to and continues to achieve. (Anti-heroes who give up on anything and achieve nothing can still be heroes due to the rewards they get- or they give us through their failure. For instance: comic relief.)
  7. Traits, talents, privileges, limitations and shortcomings – We like stories about people who have something we don’t, whether it is a certain talent, a specific privilege or what have you, that allows them to move into places you would never visit, or doing things you would probably not be able to do. And to assure that those characters become unrelatable, to assure conflict and obstacles you add some relatable limitations and shortcomings.
  8. Archetypical elements – As we navigate through relatability, traits, talents, grit, goals and achievements, we will also touch archetypes. “The warrior”, “the caretaker”, “the mother”, “the child”; “the spy”, “the fixer”, “the funnyperson”, “the klutz”.

While each of these elements, out of many more, are relevant, we still only have the dressing of what might become an engaging and memorable character, that continues to live with your audience long after they finish your story, as someone relatable, tenacious, larger than life, versatile and driven can still be boring and superficial as shit.

In the end, the character has to resonate. They need to give you, need to give the audience something more than just action, interaction, dialog and conflict. Something that stays with your audience for a long time. But how do you get there? How do you translate a character that might be perfect on paper (or maybe not) in such a way to your audience that it sticks for a long, long time?

Building strong role models

We covered several aspects of a role model in the text above. Now let’s see if we can summarize this in such a way that it can be used as a checklist.

  1. Indestructibly true to self – Regardless of what happens, the role model stays true to their selves. Regardless of what seems to happen, the core-personality continues to return and self-betrayal is only for a short while. Their core-personality – whether a force of good or bad and whether they are aware of that core-personality themselves – can’t be destroyed because it is what and who they are.
  2. Only temporary self-betrayal – We all get to a point where we are forced to choose between self-betrayal and maintaining our core-beliefs. ‘Giving up’ creates a solid tension. A role model will – however – never give up, will always get back on track at some point.
  3. Not neccesarily a nice or good person – There are many reasons why we choose certain role models, several covered above. And it is possible that our biggest desires are reflected by the most vile person in the story. For instance, because being vile allows this character to be exactly who she or he is, giving a model (‘not giving a fuck about certain people’) to express that which otherwise would get no room for expression.
  4. A manifestation of possibility – Role models show that things are possible, that things can be done. This knowledge alone nurtures the inner self that has not given enough room for expression, the inner self that has been pushed away to a place where there is hardly any room for movement.
  5. A successful reflection of want – We all want something, dream for something, but it not always simple to succeed. What will you offer your audience in the characters you present? A showcase of success? Love? Domination over other people? Deep loyalty? Unwavering friendship? Domination over difficult situations? The ability to break through nearly impossible barriers? Unbreakable strength and optimism in difficult situations? Inner beauty? Outer beauty? Transcendence? Unbreakable solidness? The freedom to express oneself in ways not possible now? To achieve the impossible dream?
  6. Success by not giving up – Remember that success is not necessarily due to a clear victory. William Wallace dies at the end of “Braveheart” and the rebellion he started dies as well. What makes the character of Wallace a memorable character is that – even when he is tortured and offered a way out – he refuses to give up on his principles. Even in his loss there is victory when the last thing he screams is “Freedom”, which is an incredible powerful moment in the film.
  7. A way out of a prison – Some people feel they are in some sort of prison that seems hard or even impossible to escape. Some role models are able to show a way out of that prison, whether that is family, society, being mistreated or away from certain, damaging, belief systems.
  8. A confirmation of worth – Role models show that – whatever it is you resonate to – is worth pursuing, worth cherising, worth believing in, worth living for, worth fighting for.
  9. Mildly insane – You don’t get where you want and you don’t stay true to your core-self without making sacrifices. Sacrifices most sane people are not willing to take. Role models usually show that taking ‘insane’ risks can be rewarding, that people are able to burn their bridges and come out stronger on the other side. That the safety of sanity is not the only answer to life.

Bringing it all together

Take each of your characters and aks the following three questiions:

  1. What will he or she never give up on? – This can be anything. Family, a goal, a belief, a value. Friends, a dream, whatever you want to make it.
  2. How does this show in the story? – What happens to challenge the core belief of your character? What will he or she do? Will she or he give up on that belief for a moment? Or never? And if so, how do we get back to that core belief?
  3. Are you challenging that core belief enough? – Sure your character can have a core belief, something he or she ‘will never give up on’, but if you never challenge that, your story could be just about any other random person. Do you challenge and smash the foundations of the core beliefs of your character? What dirty deals do you offer them? Do you place them in conflicts of nearly impossible choices?

Getting to moments of great impact

I am not sure if you can plan “great moments of impact” for each of your characters. I surely believe you can create the setup, by creating the circumstances, adding obstacles, exposing the true nature of your characters by how they deal with the situations they encounter.

I do think that the most effective way to make any impact on your reader is to get to a point where the responses of your characters are as genuine as you can make them, by mentally placing yourself in the situations you place your characters and think: “If this would be a real situation with real people and real risks and real consequences, would I act like this? React like this? Choose that direction?”

To engage your audience, you need to be able to mesmerize them with your writing and I think your writing becomes stronger and more powerful when you really feel what you write. And I think this sense of connection with your characters becomes more powerful when it is clear to you what it is that drives their core beliefs and that the thing that drives them in this story is also relevant to you.

To start things moving, insert the adversity, the obstacles, the moments where your characters are challenged for their beliefs, where they are about to give up, forced to resort to their true self (whether that true self is despicable or admirable).

I think that your impact on your readers increases the more willing you are to take personal risks; by addressing your own doubts and fears on you and your own writing and by expressing those things you rather keep hidden about yourself.

I also believe that you should consider the controversy you can create by crossing certain borders. Society is not always friendly to people who expose certain things about themselves or about others. What risk are you willing to take? What risks are worth taking to you? Which are not? Can you package certain things in code? Would a pseudonym be sufficient or would your work require more than that, like complete anonimity?

First release / feedback

The first release of NovaWriter is online. You can find it here. This is still a beta-version.

Proces

I have tested thefunctionality by using it and fixing the bugs I found while using the application. I have been running the application in Chrome (use http://http://localhost:3031 once the application runs.)

Did you find bugs?

Use the comment-section below, so they are collected in a central place.