Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Third Draft Struggles

So you may, if you've been following this blog for any length of time, be wondering what happened to The Unravelling, formerly known as Resilience, the novel I finished the first draft of in May 2011, and workshopped the second draft of at Wiscon in May 2012 (after rashly remarking to an agent or two, in my whirlwind tour of NYC en route to that Wiscon, that I'd most likely have it done by this fall...)

Well, the spring round of feedback (at Wiscon and by email) was mixed. Happily, while mixed in degree (from "even if published as is it would be my favorite book of the year" to "I'm sorry, I just honestly couldn't get through it"), it was actually remarkably consistent in direction: a clear consensus picture emerged. The first seventy pages were a slog, infodumpy and contrived; after that, the plot got going and was exciting and involving for a few hundred pages, before falling apart into flail at the end. Much of the general worldbuilding was daring and fun and almost-worked... with a few glaring errors of consistency. The main character and secondary-romantic-interest were pretty relatable. The primary-romantic-interest suffered from a serious case of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. Some of the extrapolative sfnal tweaks I was going for -- the panoptic social control, the many-parent family structures, the social centrality of birth order, the polysomatic thing -- delivered. Others -- the economic system in general -- were vague and handwavy. And one, upon which I had loaded much of the thematic energy of the book -- the handling of gender -- was, while intriguing in places, ultimately a faily mess (as was, separately, the evocation of transgender experience).

To paraphrase one particularly perceptive, insightful and ruthless critiquer1: "you've basically taken all the things you don't like about being a man and moved them to the female gender."

I left this process with a mix of feelings: profoundly grateful for the kind of allies who would let me fall on my face with them, instead of in front of the world, and tell me so. Excited about the new depth that would be available to the book if I followed the paths that the critique opened up. Exhausted. Demoralized. Fascinated by what I'd learned about the book and myself. Petulant that it wasn't just freaking done already.

I spent our summer in America somewhat in shock (and not just about the book; a high school friend I loved a lot, and didn't always keep as close as I wanted to, died in June) -- and mostly nestling in with old friends. But I also did, I think -- as regards the book -- two smart things. First, I gave myself a short remedial survey course in trans* issues by reading Bornstein, Califia, Kennedy, and Serano. Second, I had a series of story conferences with my friend Jamey, who combines a) a great deal of native talent as a writer and editor, b) a similar esthetic groove to mine, c) an abundance of possibly unwarranted confidence in me, and d) a distance from, and indifference to, the fiction publishing industry, which allows him an enviable unjadedness none of us beaten-down pros and almost-pros can approach. Just what I needed, in other words.

When I got back to Switzerland, Civ IV ate, to be completely honest, another month; I guess that was healing?

Now the new year has begun, and since we welcomed in 5773, I am more or less back on the horse, clocking words-per-day.

The first practical thing I did, revision-wise, was flip the pronouns.

See, I figured I'd created wholly new genders for this future society. Bail and Pale; extravert and introvert; a Kirk gender and a Spock gender, if you will. I'd divided up the pie of gender anew, replaced our gender ideology of "hard" and "soft" with a different one of "fast" and "slow".

I made the Bails "she" and the Pales "he" (mostly because invented pronouns are hard to pull off, on a line level, at novel length) -- but this was, I thought, a relatively arbitrary assignment. It could be inverted just as easily. The point was partly to destabilize the reader, to make them aware of their assumptions, of how they inevitably read "she" and "he" through a certain filter -- and then to keep upending that. And this part of the experiment did, I think, have some moderate success.

But. As noted -- there was also a good deal of fail.

When I began revisions for the third draft, I tried flipping the genders, making Pales "she" and Bails "he". (It's actually not as trivial to implement this as you might think; it's not just a search-and-replace. This is because, annoyingly, "her" maps to both "him" and "his" -- you have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, which one you mean. Similarly, "his" maps to both "her" and "hers". It took a day of fiddling, but finally I had everyone's gender swapped).

I suggest you do the experiment sometime, with something you've written. It's mind-blowing. Maybe particularly because I'd set myself up for a fall, by imagining I'd written Pale and Bail outside our associations of gender.

The same characters, with the same in-world genders, taking the same in-world actions, read totally differently in terms of reader sympathy. I'm hard put to say more without spoilers, but actions which, when Fift was a "he", seemed rash but self-evidently necessary, somehow suddenly, now that Fift is a "she", seem bizarre and selfish. Shria's Bailish sexual forwardness, when she was a "she", seemed provocative but also stimulating, attractive; how that he's a "he", it seems predatory and gross2. Switch the pronouns on "proud, rebellious teenage male" and you get "mentally ill teenage girl"; switch the pronouns on "manic pixie dreamgirl" and you get "asshole".

What's distinct about this experiment -- compared to, say, running a different story through the filter at -- is that in this case, nothing at all changed in-world. The Bails are still Bails, the Pales are still Pales3, and the expressed gender norms of their society, and their own conformance or non-conformance therewith, remain identical. The hypothetical manuscript in its "original language" -- the story were it written in the language of the world it takes place in -- is unchanged; all that I've done is changed the rules for translating it into English.

The immediate pull I felt, when beginning to revise on the line level, was to deal with these sudden problems of sympathy and identification by subtly shaping the characters back into different stereotypical modes of their new (pronomial) genders. Line edits to Shria's dialogue suddenly conspire to shift him from "asshole" into "Bad Boy" -- to put him into the traditional dangerous-but-redeemable-and-secretly-vulnerable, Heathcliff/Darcy/Rochester/sparkly-vampire territory. I have to yank my fingers back from the keyboard just in time, because that's not who Shria ever was.

To correct for this, I am now, honest to Moses, writing the book in "pxe/pxir/pxim/pxims" and "bxe/bxir/bxim/bxims"; I have set up Scrivener filters to compile it into she/he and he/she versions, and am reading each scene each way with each step of revision.

The result of this whole literary experiment may end up being a complete mess, but at least it has given me this sharp and disturbing glimpse of the Patriarchy, dybbuk-like, controlling my fingers at the keyboard.

1. Okay, it was Meghan McCarron.

2. This is because we read sex -- at least sex between women and men, and I expect the reading distorts our understanding of same-sex sex too? -- as something of value which is either given by woman to a man, or taken by a man from a woman.

3. Though I think I'm actually going to rename the "Pale" gender, as readers had trouble telling the words "Bail" and "Pale" apart -- they are too similar phonetically. I tried a made-up word ("Evvail") but I hated it; it needs to be a real, simple, basic, Anglo-Saxon word in English, in order to feel like such a core part of linguistic experience as gender. Current front-runner is "Staid".

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Gervais, "Science", and "Religion"

This tweet by Ricky Gervais showed up in my Facebook friendslist a bunch:

Dear Religion,

This week I safely dropped a man from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school.

Yours, Science

This moved me to a nice rant, which follows in two versions. Short version for the Tl;dr Brigade:

Dear Polemic,

This week I was actually investigating phenomena while you were spinning false dichotomies.

Love, Reason.

Longer version after the cut...

Click here to continue reading "On Gervais, "Science", and "Religion""
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Monday, October 8, 2012

Clichés vs. allusions

Over in that tidily walled private enclosure, Facebook, Dora writes that "If you are a writer, you should ruthlessly excise clichés from your language. Not just from your writing, but from all language. You should avoid the expected, the comfortable, that which others will automatically agree with and you can say without truly thinking about... The good writers, the ones I respect, are authentic and original. They do not speak in clichés, even when describing what they had for breakfast."

I don't disagree with this. I am going however to disagree with something that I think lurks behind it, in its shadow, something it potentially tangentially evokes or implies, which Dora did not say (in some circles this practice of disagreeing-with-what-you-did-not-say is now officially known as "commiting Rosenbaum"... and you probably can't follow that link, thanks to Facebook).

The lurky-behind thing I'm going to disagree with -- which my hero Samuel R. Delany comes closer to suggesting outright in a wonderful post over at the Clarion Foundation -- is that one should eschew received language in general, and that originality of sequences of words is, specifically, a goal.

Is a given stereotyped pattern of speech -- the same words found together in the same sequence, spoken (or written) by many language users -- a cliché, an idiom, a term of art, an instance of jargon, an allusion?

The answer depends a lot on context. The centrality of the notion of "cliché" in our thinking about language, about writing, has everything to do with the post-Enlightenment, Modern enshrinement of originality as the cardinal virtue of art and thought, which is part of Modernism's whiggish neophilia in general.

If your primary model of the Artist is of that lone thinker who rises above that unthinking mass of men enslaved to the conformity of industrial society, pursuing the utterly original dream-vision consigned to her by the Muse, the very attention to which is an act of radical nonconformism and self-owned, self-originating, self-sovereign self-authorship... then saying anything that anyone else has said seems like a betrayal.

But of course, not all cultures have looked at art or thought like that. Classical and medieval discourse and art are densely allusive. If you're hanging out with Talmudic sages in 3rd century Babylon, or educated philosopher-merchants of 12th century Cairo, or qat-chewing intellectual shepherds in the Yemeni highlands today, the deal is that they are going to drop just a few words from the Bible or the Mishnah or the Quran or the Hadith, and those few words, because you're educated in the same deep textual culture as they are, combined with the nuances of your relationship and current situation, are going to carry huge rafts of meaning. Or a medieval painter can stick in the corner of a painting some image from Catholic hagiographic iconography -- a particular bird, or a pair of shoes -- and invoke an entire layered set of narratives, from the original life of the saint, to every political, social, artistic and cultural usage of that original narrative since.

In a context like that, it's the words that have been used before that are the most richly dense with information, the most evocative and powerful. By contrast, to use a totally new sequence of words, that no one has ever thought before, is to say something bare, plain, sterile, empty of nuance, and most likely banal. Of course, it's not that originality has no place in an allusive culture, but it's not a modernist originality of utter newness -- it's the emergent originality that arises from richly evocative standardized expressions in new juxtapositions and a new context.

One thing that's fascinated me about discourse over my lifetime, is that I have the feeling we are entering a new age of allusion. Internet memery, and other cultural productions which zoom through subcultures aided by the world's new flatness, seem increasingly to dominate discourse, especially online. And I (as a postmodern, not a modernist) tend to think that they enrich that discourse. And it honestly seems like this was less true thirty years ago, when we lived in a broadcast culture, rather than a web culture.

Then, the allusions tended to be restricted to Saturday Night Live skits ("schwing!", "could it be... SATAN"?) and they were reenactments. When you called someone the [noun]ster, you were evoking that particular skit on SNL, and that was about as far as it went. What we do the equivalent thing today -- when we say "X is the new Y" for some (original to us) X and Y, when we say "all your base are belong to us" or use that particular form of "really?" that has only been around for the last 5 years, it feels to me like we are doing something more equivalent to the way Colonial-era gentlemen used Homer and Cicero, or 9th-century Geonim used the Talmud. We are using stock phrases, not out of laziness, but because of the layered context they carry with them, and the joy of juxtaposing them in new contexts. It feels very different to follow up someone's odd sequence of words by adding "dot tumblr dot com", thereby turning it into a fictional Tumblr site devoted to that sequence of words now transformed into a reified concept with its own fandom, and also alluding to the xkcd comic that created the meme, than it does to say "don't put the cart before the horse." The latter is safe and complacent, it closes things off; the former is playful and hungry and about aperture.

So yes, you should avoid the lazy and the tame -- at least, you should avoid it when your goal is to awaken and encourage thinking and connection, which it is when you wear your writer hat (I reserve the right to use business and IT jargon and buzzwords when my goal is to lull people in a meeting into a friendly stupor, or to defuse tension). But "authentic and original" should not be defined too narrowly, and "cliché" is often a matter of perspective. Sometimes saying what has been said before is more potent and alive and rich than saying what has never been said before.

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