About Me

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

We've Stereotyped Ourselves!

Having been introduced to the online writing world several years ago, I've had time to observe what goes on amongst authors and what they say about themselves. Being the only author that I know personally was rather difficult, or would have been if I had realized that there was a whole world on the internet where authors are encouraged, prodded, and helped by other authors. It's been fun and very informative, and I would never want to put down those people who are sincere and trying to help each other out. However, there are a few things that really do annoy me about authors. There are a lot of stereotypes that they've placed on themselves, for what reason I can't imagine, because generally stereotyping is frowned upon. So here are a few things that authors say about themselves that just don't make sense.

1. Because I write, I'm insane!
I see this one all the time. Even authors that I admire and like say this. Constantly on their blogs they are proclaiming their... lack of sanity? As if writing were something that somehow automatically makes you a good candidate for a mental institution, yet also simultaneously one of the few awesome people in the world. But I've never understood this. How am I insane simply for writing a story? Writing seems to me a much more tame thing than, say, going over Niagara Falls in a barrel or climbing a treacherous mountain. Of course writing can be exciting to the author, but crazy isn't an epithet I would apply to myself or any other normal human being who happens to write. It also seems to me to be a mark of arrogance to act as though we are some special sect of people simply because we write.
As a side note, people are always calling NaNoWriMo crazy and insane. Generally, if I realize that I am doing something only a madman would do, I don't do it. So when NaNoWriMo took a story that originally had something of a plot and turned it into a fifty-thousand-word plotless disaster, I stopped doing it. You might find me on NaNoWriMo, but you won't find me doing it.
But anyways, as a general rule I don't think authors are particularly strange or crazy. At least those of my online acquaintance. I realize that there are a lot of authors out there who probably, in real life, are actually weird, insane, crazy, and should be institutionalized. The kinds who write pathetic, stupid, or wicked books. But I'm not talking about them; I'm talking about a mostly-Christian, moral, normal group of people that includes myself. And you know what? In spite of all the talk of craziness, I haven't really seen it yet.

2. Sadistic and proud of it!
How many times have I seen authors (Christian ones) bragging about the fact that they love to put their protagonists through the most horrible, awful things imaginable? They act as though putting them through the wringer is something that they enjoy, rather than something they do to further the plot or character development. Even the mildest thing that a character goes through is something that I sure wouldn't want to go through ever in my whole life, and yet authors treat it flippantly. "Yeah, I'm sure not nice to my characters! My MMC's little daughter was killed, his wife was captured by lecherous soldiers, he just found out his brother is a traitor, and to top it all off he's about to have his hand cut off. Poor guy." Um, yeah, poor guy. Understatement of the century, anyone? I don't know about anyone else, but I cringe when I'm reading about horrible things that have happened to characters in books, and I cringe when my own characters have horrible things happen to them. Is it necessary? Yes. Is it fun? Definitely not! Remember, you are in a sense the god of your story. You know everything that will happen and why it happens. God doesn't get a sadistic kick when His people go through trials; the trials are not the end, but the means to the end of sanctifying them and bringing them closer to Him. Similarly, we should be using whatever hardships our characters face for the ultimate purpose of bringing them farther along in their character development and their closeness to God, and we should not, EVER, make light of what they go through. Are they fictional? Yes. Does that somehow make it permissible to enjoy their distress and sorrow? I don't think so. So the next time you're tempted to sound sadistic on your blog concerning one of your characters, think again.

3. My characters are hijacking my story!
This is one of the most ridiculous claims that authors make. Their characters speak to them? Their characters won't stop arguing with them? Their protagonist has his own ideas about the direction the plot should take?
'Scuse me?
Am I alone in being one who has never heard even a whisper from any of my characters in the thirteen years that I've been writing?
Of course it can be difficult to keep a plot on track. Of course characters can be difficult to 'get right' and all that. But I find it extremely absurd to be always talking about our characters as though they were like the imaginary friends some of us had in childhood. I don't talk to my characters; they don't talk to me. Sort of like Tolkien's Entwives. I also think that if we gave up this talk of imaginary friends we might get along more quickly in our writing. I don't have to know what my character's favorite flower is, what his first word was, what her reaction to being suddenly surrounded by purple aliens would be (unless, of course, I'm writing a science fiction where purple aliens are a distinct possibility).
Here is an interesting thing I found out a few years ago: you can control your characters (without promising them chocolate). You can make the plot go where you want it to, if the plot makes sense. Your characters won't rebel, and if your plot takes an unexpected turn it's because YOU turned the plot. If you have a flash of inspiration, then it was from the brain that God gave you, not because you and your characters communicate telepathicaly. You have power over your own writing! How liberating is that? I know, I know, it's more fun to blame writing difficulties on characters, but it lost its humor a long time ago.

4. Forget unsocialized homeschoolers. We're the unsociable authors!
Well, really, here I can only speak for myself. I don't know most of the internet authors. But it seems to me that they do have lives that they live and families that they generally speak to. Their pictures seem to indicate that baths, meals, and rest are not foreign unto them. But if you simply read ninety percent of authors' blogs, you might get the idea that we go to an attic, lock the door, chain ourselves to a desk, throw the key out of our reach, drink coffee or tea exclusively, and subsist on chocolate. Again, I'm talking for myself (mostly), but when I write I find at least a little background noise to be helpful (growing up with a lot of younger siblings may account for this), and I'm usually in an area frequented by members of my family. Not only that, but if I had a cup of tea (I don't drink coffee) beside me, I might take one sip and by the time I remembered to take another sip it would be stone cold. I'm not talented enough to drink and type at the same time, and I have a strange feeling that most authors (for all that they are insane and special) are similarly lacking that talent. Also, it takes me about fifteen to twenty seconds to consume a cookie or part of a chocolate bar. I shudder to think of the state of my health if I had enough chocolate beside me to fill up my writing time (because, believe me, I would not neglect my chocolate!). Another thing is how sticky my computer keyboard would be by the end of half an hour.
I also consider myself to be a fair enough companion for human beings, even while I'm writing. Writing, like social media, should never take precedence over our relationships. It may be fun to joke about ourselves as being unsociable, but I hope that none of us truly is.

5. In conclusion.
So, to sum up: Insanity isn't something that most people are proud of, and in and of itself writing is one of the quieter talents. Unless you dictate your work to a scribe, writing is done by putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard. One of your characters may be insane, but that doesn't make you crazy. If you are insane, then I would expect that your writing would be unintelligible gibberish and your profile picture to be of someone in a straight-jacket.
Sadism in regards to protagonists (or any character, really) is, frankly, disturbing and probably isn't the best testimony for a Christian to be putting out there. Put your character through whatever you (don't) like, but don't like it!
Your characters and plot, just like a Disney Princess's destiny, are yours to control. You make the rules (within the bounds of God's Word, of course), you set the boundaries, you create the characters and the world and you think up the plot. If you are having trouble, don't bribe or cajole your characters, take a step back, ask God to help you, and think about how to solve the problem. I've done it before, it's worked, it can. be. done.
If you are unsociable with your family, don't be! God gave us a desire to write, but He also gave us family and friends. Real people. Don't neglect them, and don't joke about neglecting them either (especially if you really are). It's fine to set time aside to write alone by yourself. It's not fine to shut yourself away from everyone for ever.
Finally, writing doesn't make you special. God has given you a certain talent, just like He's given other people other talents. Writing is one among many, and it isn't necessarily better than being an artist, an engineer, or a doctor. The way to set yourself apart is not to be an author, but to be a good author to the glory of God. And even then, pride should never factor into our attitudes about ourselves.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Four Feathers -- A Book Review

Well, hello everyone! It's been a really, really long time since I posted. But I'm here today with a review of a book by A. E. W. Mason: The Four Feathers. No, it's not a play on The Forefathers or anything. It is set in the late 19th century, when the British ruled much of the Soudan and Egypt. Harry Feversham comes from a long line of soldiers, stretching back to, apparently, the 1600s. Of course, Harry's father naturally expects that his son will follow in his footsteps and bring honor to the family name. But Harry is terrified of being a coward, and though he joins the army, when the call to arms comes he resigns his officer's commission, believing that no one will know the reason. Unfortunately, three men of his regiment find out and on the night of a ball to announce Harry's engagement to Ethne Eustace he receives three white feathers. When Ethne sees them, and he explains to her what has happened, she gives him back her engagement ring and adds a fourth feather from her fan. Harry leaves, determined not to come back to England until he has done one thing for each man that gave him a feather to prove himself and to atone for what everyone believes is his cowardice. In this way he hopes that Ethne, too, will take back her feather, though he tells her nothing about his plan.

I really loved this book. In fact, Mason's writing is several notches above the typical books you read written in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds. He's not worried about spoonfeeding his audience, and he is willing to make things complicated without immediately explaining what is going on. Not only that, but his characters actually have character. They are very well-rounded. Ethne is a strong and courageous girl, but she has her weaknesses too, as becomes apparent. Harry, though the book isn't written from his perspective, is very well done as well. Even Harry's father, who might be the closest to a caricature in the book, does not act in exactly the way you might expect such a man to act when Harry informs him of the feathers and his resignation. Another thing I liked about this book is the romance. Both Harry and Ethne are fairly undemonstrative people, reserved and quiet. They feel deeply for each other, but they never kiss or pour out gushing flatteries and declarations of undying love. I like that. I like it a lot.
But perhaps my favorite part in the whole book is the section where Harry tries to rescue Captain Trench (who sent him one of the feathers) from the House of Stone in Omdurman. I don't want to give spoilers away, but the descriptions of everything are just fantastic. I was drawn in completely from first to last. One thing is certain: Mason definitely had a gift not just for telling a story, but for writing one. And The Four Feathers is not the only book where he proves this, though it may be the best. I may post a review of The Courtship of Morrice Buckler sometime soon, as well as other books by Mason as I read them. However, I give this book five stars out of five (with a warning: there are some instances of the use of 'God' in a way which is not reverent; but these are fortunately not too numerous).

I found this book for free on the Amazon Kindle store, and I thought I recognized the title because my dad had watched a movie which I vaguely remembered being called The White Feather. However, he had watched an old 1939 version which was called The Four Feathers, which he had liked. So I watched it. Let me warn you, if you want to watch the movie, READ THE BOOK FIRST. I am serious. Otherwise the movie won't make a whole lot of sense to you. Not only is it very shallow on the character side (the characters don't talk much and when they do, they are completely different from those in the books) but many of the names have been changed. For instance, in the movie, Ethne Eustace becomes Ethne Burroughs, and her brother (she doesn't have a brother in the book) is one of those that sends Harry a feather. Not only that, but every single one of the elderly British gentlemen look exactly the same. They hardly have enough screen time to become distinguished one from the other, they all wear exactly the same clothes and exactly the same mustache, and they all have exactly the same voice. There are a lot of problems with the movie, which annoys me because the book wouldn't have been hard to transcribe semi-faithfully to the screen. And the ending? The ending is S.T.U.P.I.D. And the big battles between the British and the Dervishes? They are just there to take up time which should have been used to develop the characters, because not one single battle takes place in the book. Seriously.