Posts Tagged ‘Fanfic’

Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted a piece on his blog – I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers – which, as the title suggests, is a takedown of particular errors he feels newbie authors make. It’s been doing the rounds on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter feeds, because quite a lot of people I follow seem to share his sentiments; but as often as I’ve agreed with Wendig’s rants in this past, this isn’t one of those times. In fact, my abiding reaction to the early sections in particular has been one of teeth-grinding fury.

Before we get started, let me make two things clear up front: firstly, that I have an inherent dislike of writing advice that lays down specific mandates regardless of where it comes from; and secondly, that I have enormous respect for Wendig himself as a writer. His prose is punchy, sharp and bruisingly beautiful, quite like getting mugged by a street poet, and I have zero qualms about his ability to offer good advice otherwise. This isn’t me quibbling with Wendig’s technique, nor am I taking issue with the fact that he, specifically, is the one who’s spoken – it’s just that, on this occasion, he’s said a few things I think are fucking stupid, and I’d rather like to address them.

So.

Straight up, there’s a need to compare what Wendig says in his very first paragraph to what he says in the fourth (bolding mine):

I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work…

What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.

Oh my fucking GOD, I will flip a table. Where do I even begin with this bullshit? If someone is publishing their work free online, THEY AREN’T ASKING FOR CASH – and what’s more, no one is fucking asking you to read it. There are myriad online communities that exist precisely so that new writers can ‘publish’ their work and share it with each other, up to and including specific fandom and fanwriter sites, and I reject utterly the implication that there’s no point to those venues or those communities – that such new stories aren’t “worth putting out into the world” – just because they’re not up to Wendig’s standards. I’d take less issue with the sentiment of an established writer selflessly offering help to rookies if that’s what Wendig was actually doing; instead, his piece reads like a successful author castigating first-timers for daring to aspire to his level before he thinks they’re ready.

Listen: I am all for writers improving themselves, and in the event that I fork over money for a book, I am all in favour of that book not sucking! But look at the wording, here: “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” – don’t MAKE them, as though the author is standing behind the consumer with a loaded gun, forcing them to buy their latest Kindle release. The entire point of the goddamn marketplace is that consumers take risks on products and then share their opinions about what they bought, thereby potentially attracting or deterring others from purchasing likewise. Wanting to engage in this process in good faith is not a fucking crime, okay? This whole section reads like a form of literary class policing: know your place, and know that it isn’t good enough. 

I also think it’s telling – and grossly hypocritical, given that Wendig himself started as a self-published writer – that he explicitly mentions writers who self-publish, who are unpublished or who write for free, but not rookie authors published via traditional means. (The only nod to traditional publishing is when he talks about “tested authors,” though even then, he could just as easily mean writers who’ve released multiple stories in other formats.) Because, let me tell you: I have read my share of traditionally published works that were fucking shit, and I guarantee I paid more for each of them than I ever have for any self-published release. Never mind that “inferior efforts” is a monumental and incredibly subjective value judgement in the first place: what traditionally published authors have that their unpaid or self-supporting brethren don’t – or not usually, at any rate – is the help of professional editors. Which doesn’t mean that their first drafts are somehow magically lacking the same mistakes Wendig is so angry about here; just that they’ve got an extra pair of eyes to catch them on the first pass. Does Wendig recommend his non-traditional rookies use editors or beta readers, which is an unequivocally useful piece of advice? No, he does not – which means, in essence, that he’s holding such writers to a higher standard than their traditionally published counterparts: be so good the first time that you don’t need an editor.

And look. Okay. Wendig never mentions fanwriters by name, but speaking as someone who’s pretty heavily invested in fan culture at this point, applied in that context, his advice here is the exact fucking OPPOSITE of useful. I mean, I have my own issues with the idea in some fanwriting circles that unsolicited criticism of any kind, even concrit, is verboten, because at the end of the day, if you’re putting something online where people not your friends can read it, you’ve got to be prepared for some degree of feedback. The internet is not your perfect, criticism-free bubble, and there’s no rule saying you get to enjoy the advantages of having an audience minus that audience having its own opinions just because you’d rather not deal with them. But when people share their writing for pleasure ahead of profit – when the content you’re reading is produced for free – that rightly changes the nature of how any feedback should be offered, assuming you care about not being an asshole. A person writing for free is not necessarily interested in improvement, or in anything other than having fun as part of an online community – in which case, telling them to stop posting until they suck less is rather like running up to a bunch of kids playing ball at the park and yelling that they need to run more drills before they do that shit in public, otherwise they’re never going to get scouted. I know it’s hard for published writers to remember this, but some people do write for pleasure alone, and the internet makes that easier than ever.

More to the point, though: writing shouldn’t begin as a woodshed exercise for every single person who wants to try it for money, and part of what makes new authors better – especially if they’re the type of rookie who can’t afford an editor and has no access to reliable betas – is getting feedback on their work. I mean, let’s be real: Wendig is acting like charging money for crap books is a crime, instead of just part of the literary-commercial ecosystem. Crap books – and we won’t always agree on what they are, because it’s a judgement call – are always going to be published, and some people are always going to regret buying them, but that doesn’t mean they should never have been written or published in the first place.

Except 50 Shades of Gray, maybe. That is some abusive, rape-apologist bullshit right there.

But I digress.    

Here’s my point: so long as you continue to write, your writing style will change. Maybe you’ll get better, maybe you’ll get worse, and maybe you’ll just get different – write for long enough, and you’ll probably do all three. But if you really want to succeed as a writer, hesitating to publish through fear of your own inadequacies is going to get you vastly fewer places than publishing in confidence, but learning to accept criticism. That being so, I’m not angry that Wendig wants new writers to improve; that’s fair enough. I’m angry because a statement like “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” isn’t going stop an uncritical egotist who already thinks they’re the next John Green, but it’s sure as hell going to stop the kind of self-doubting beginner whose problem isn’t accepting criticism, but finding the necessary confidence to parse it intelligently.

Which brings me to the topic of Wendig’s actual advice, and the reason I’m always sceptical whenever I see anyone lay down hard rules about what to do, or not do, in the course of writing: it’s because, 90% of the time, that sort of advice doesn’t account for differences in individual style any more than it accounts for differences in individual taste, and therefore has the effect of teaching someone, not how to write well, where well is a universal, but how to write like the person giving the advice.

It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character.     

On the surface, this is a reasonable thing to say. The problem is that it’s only contextually reasonable, in that some people will be helped by taking this advice, and others hindered. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for instance -widely regarded as a genre classic – could never have been written if Peake wrote to Wendig’s specifications, and regardless of whether his work is your cup of tea, you can’t deny that many people are extremely fond of it, even though – or especially because, depending on your perspective – it contains passages like this:

The speed of the door as it swung on its hinges was extraordinary, but what was just as dramatic was the silence – a silence so complete that Bellgrove, with his head turned towards his staff and his hand still groping in the air for the bell-pull, could not grasp the reason for the peculiar behaviour of his colleagues. When a man is about to make a speech, however modest, he is glad to have the attention of his audience. To see on every face that stared in his direction an expression of intense interest, but an interest that obviously had nothing to do with him, was more than disturbing. What had happened to them? Why were all those eyes so out of focus – or if they were in focus why should they skim his own as though there were something absorbing about the woodwork of the high green door behind him? And why was Throd standing on tiptoe in order to look through him?

Bellgrove was about to turn – not because he thought there could be anything to see but because he was experiencing that sensation that causes men to turn their heads on deserted roads in order to make sure they are alone. But before he could turn of his own free will he received two sharp yet deferential knuckle-taps on his left shoulder-blade – and leaping about as though at the touch of a ghost he found himself face to face with the tall Christmas-cracker of a butler.

Intense, tight, detailed description of settings, people and actions is a valid stylistic choice. That doesn’t mean it can’t be executed badly – just that doing so is not synonymous with executing it at all.

Enter Wendig’s second objection:

We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.

Well, of course you are, Chuck: you write SFF, and are therefore highly likely to prefer ninjas to the minutiae of daily office life. But this doesn’t change the fact that there’s an entire literary tradition based around slice-of-life realism: stories where the big emotional tension really does hinge on the fact that someone was fired after struggling with their boss, and what this means for their family. Hell, you basically just described the first third of American Beauty. What you’re really railing at here is the idea that domesticity is fundamentally uninteresting – which, don’t even get me started on the gendered implications of that logic when applied in wider contexts, aka The Reason Why So Many Goddamn Fantasy Stories Focus On Big Dudes With Swords Because What Women Do In The Castle Is Girly And Unimportant – in conjunction with a dislike of stories that privilege a character’s emotions and internality above external conflict. Which is to say: this paragraph tells us a great deal about what Chuck Wendig looks for in a novel, but conflates this preference with what good novels look like, period.

Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know –

Not if I’m describing something that’s purely fictional, you don’t. Which is to say: the fact that I don’t need to tell you what everything looks like doesn’t mean I shouldn’t tell you what anything looks like.

– and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling.

AUGH. Look: I get that this is meant to be a random example illustrating why we shouldn’t include information that’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a really shitty example, because even ignoring the fact that sometimes, it’s just nice to set the scene, I can think of a dozen reasons off the top of my head why detailing leaves specifically might be relevant. A ranger describes a particular plant which, in addition to its historical significance, can be used as life-saving medicine. The king’s poisoner tends their herb garden, teaching their protégé the various uses of each. A paleobotanist suddenly encounters plants she thought extinct, and promptly goes into raptures. But Foz! I hear you cry, Aren’t you being unfairly specific? When would that ever happen, really?

Reader, I just described to you actual canonically important scenes from The Lord of the Rings, Robin Hobb’s Assassin series and Jurassic Park. The devil is in the motherfucking details, dudes. Sometimes you can do without them, but sometimes you really can’t.

Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!…

Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.

Merciful fucking Christ, if I never see another piece of writing advice that involves the phrase “pare it all down” it’ll be too soon. I mean, look: I love a stylistically wham, bam, thank-you ma’am novel as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to indulge myself. Really settle in with the slow-burn detail, rolling around in lush descriptions of bright new worlds. Sometimes you want a bit of junk in the literary trunk, you know? Every single novel does not have to whip its metaphorical dick out on the first page and then spend the next thirty chapters furiously jacking itself to climax like a pornstar trying to hit his mark for a neatly-timed cumshot. Your novel won’t implicitly suck if you slow down and take your time teasing the reader.

Plus and also? I know we have a cultural stereotype that says rookie writers consistently produce pages and pages of unnecessary drivel, but a lot of newbies underwrite, too – in which case, telling them to pare back an already barren story isn’t going to help. There’s a reason why so many early creative writing exercises teach students how to describe, how to build: you need to get to the point of creating excess before you can learn how to cut it back, such that assuming the presence of excess as a default is a bad way to go.

The story begins on page one.

Repeat: the story begins on page one.

It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.

It starts on page one.

Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.

This is one way to tell a story, certainly. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not always a good one. I have had my absolute fill of – to pick a single example – first-person YA fantasy novels that start with the character in the middle of a battle for precisely this reason, but which never slow down sufficiently to explain why the fight unfolded that way in the first place, because the author never bothered to figure it out. Listen: I’m aware that there’s a debate about the utility of prologues in SFF, and some people hate them for exactly the reasons Wendig has outlined above. The story should start when it starts; if you can’t communicate that earlier information in the first chapter, then it doesn’t deserve a prologue. And in some cases, that’s correct.

But prologues also constitute an important stylistic break. In a story that’s otherwise written entirely in the first person, for instance, having a prologue in the third, containing information the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know, but which is materially relevant to interpreting their actions, can be an extremely clever move. Think about every film you’ve ever seen that starts in one place before the opening credits roll, then cuts to the protagonist once they’ve finished. That, right there? That’s setting the scene, and even though it’s not always obvious how that first scene relates to the subsequent ones, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever have been there in the first place.

Despite his presumptuous use of the royal ‘we’, Chuck Wendig is not speaking for everyone when he says that readers aren’t interested in stories that take longer than a fucking page to establish worldbuilding or character. Good novels can be slow. Not to bring up Tolkien again, because I get hives when people hold him up as the be-all, end-all of the genre, but Christ: do you even remember how The Fellowship of the Ring starts? It’s with a prologue entitled Concerning Hobbits that goes on for pages before Frodo Baggins is ever even mentioned by name, and that doesn’t stop people loving it. Writing books is not a goddamn race, is my point, and I’m sick and tired of seeing brevity held up as an unequivocal literary virtue when it’s just as liable to produce dross as gold when used inexpertly.

Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked.

On this point, I agree with Wendig. But then, he’s not discussing style here so much as the basic rules of grammar – and even then, if you’re doing it intelligently, with purpose, as opposed to because you’re unaware of the conventions, even these can be fluid. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet eschews all quotation marks, and it’s a gorgeous novel: yes, it’s an exception to the norm, but I mention it because Wendig’s decision to situate adherence to actual grammatical/formatting rules as identical to meeting his personal narrative preferences makes me bristle. Generally speaking, electing to fuck with the standard protocols is not something you’d do with a first novel, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been done successfully. Returning to an earlier point, it’s the kind of problem that, for a traditionally published author, would (one hopes) be caught in editing – so if you’re not too sharp on the basic conventions and you care about getting them right, you can either look them up, ask a knowledgeable friend to beta your work, or hire an editor. This is line-edit drama, not a problem with poorly-executed style, and there’s a goddamn difference, please and thank you.

You need to let your characters talk.

Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.

And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.

Generally speaking, I agree with this, too. Unless your character is giving a speech, monologuing to a captive audience or engaging in a soliloquy, they’re probably not going to speak uninterrupted for any length of time. The conversation will go back and forth, and eventually, it’s going to end, and you don’t always need to show every single exchange in order to get the point across. I will, however, take issue with the idea that dialogue must always be “trim and vital, concise and powerful” – because many people aren’t. Naturalistic dialogue can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal, letting you establish voice, dialect, setting and any manner of other things. That doesn’t mean letting the characters talk about anything under the sun with no reference to plotting; it means that not every single exchange has to be geared towards the narrative end-game in order to make a positive contribution to the story.

Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them.

This, I agree with: absolutely, 1000%.

Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.

Who are they?

If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.

Aaaand we’re back to disagreeing again. Because, look, Chuck – I don’t know what your fucking deal with speed is, here, but I’m going to say it again: storytelling isn’t a race. There are times when I want to know quickly what a character’s motivation is, and times where I can stand to wait a little. Sometimes, the best characters slowly emerge from the background, insinuating themselves into the story in ways you didn’t expect at the outset. A great recent example of this was Csevet in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. A courier who initially brings the protagonist, Maia, the news of his ascension to the throne, Csevet seems at first to be a background character, someone who’ll disappear once he’s fulfilled his immediate purpose. This isn’t because Addison fails to make him a distinct individual, but is rather a consequence of the story being told with a tight focus on Maia’s perspective: Csevet’s needs aren’t as important in the first chapters as Maia’s are, and as Csevet initially appears to deliver a specific piece of news, we’re not expecting Maia to keep him around. But he does, and so the character expands, steadily revealing more and more of himself as the narrative progresses.

You don’t need to give a physical description of every single character the second they first appear in the story, because that information might not be immediately relevant. A character can move in the background as a seeming bit player before ever coming to the fore, and even once you can see them, their motives won’t always be transparent. I don’t just mean this in the facetiously obvious sense, that some characters have hidden agendas: I mean that if you’ve got six characters in a scene, the fact that the primary focus is on two of them doesn’t mean the other four won’t come into their own later. This is even more important to remember if you’re writing in first person, where describing a character or making an observation is synonymous with the character doing those things – and while the author might want to give certain details, the character might not even pick up on them for another three chapters.

What I’m saying is this: Wendig is completely correct in saying that your characters, even the minor ones, should be real, distinct individuals. But that doesn’t mean you have to give their quest away up front, or make it immediately obvious that a seemingly minor character is going to come into greater prominence later. I dislike working from the assumption that your audience is impatient, easily bored and allergic to surprises – especially as I’m not that sort of reader myself.

It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.

I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time.

Which is kind of what I’m getting at, but from the opposite perspective: it’s okay to empty your bag of apples, provided you subsequently gather them all back up again. Otherwise, you’re permanently restricting yourself to writing early scenes where only one or two characters are present, which… personally? I find that boring; or at least, I wouldn’t want it as a staple. I like stories that challenge me by throwing me in the deep end, asking that I figure out a bunch of characters and navigate their relationships on the fly by way of teaching me the setting. Elizabeth Bear does this wonderfully, as do Kate Elliott and Alaya Dawn Johnson, which is a big part of why I love their books. Particularly in SFF, the social roles the characters inhabit can tell you as much about them – and the world – as their personalities and motives, and the fact that there might be a tension between how a character behaves in an official capacity and who they are otherwise can lead to some extremely satisfying characterisation. Thus: you might first show me the faceless Executioner in Chapter 1, letting them appear as a background authority in Chapter 2, so that when I finally learn their name and their hatred of the Emperor they purport to serve in Chapter 3, I feel the contradiction far more strongly than if you’d simply said as much to begin with.

…if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s whatyou write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces. 

Exactly.

Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out… Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.

You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.

On the surface, this is good advice: it’s just that, given the emphasis on speed in the rest of this piece, I’m inclined to think that Wendig thinks of clarity as a synonym for simplicity, as per the injunction against “trick moves”. Which, yes: if you’re a very new writer, you need to make sure you’re being understood before you can play with expression. But natively, not everyone is going to have the same style or be interested in writing the same sort of book. It’s not a “trick move” to want to have a big cast, or to tell a slow-burn story, or to be interested in description. In fact, I’d argue that writing in a sparse, clean style takes just as much skill as writing more lavishly: there’s an art to economy, and I’ve never liked the idea that it’s somehow a better, easier choice for beginners just because it uses fewer words. Ask any artist: understanding negative space and its impact on the picture takes skill and practice, just like drawing does.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Chuck Wendig has written a piece that’s enormously helpful if you want to learn to write like Chuck Wendig and/or have a natural inclination towards his style, but which is vastly less helpful if you want to learn to write like anyone else; like you, for instance. There’s some good advice there, to be sure, but the parts that aren’t – which conflate his personal preferences with universal truths; which tell new writers they’re not good enough to be worth the cost of admission, no matter how cheap – those parts can fuck right off. Not everybody needs to write books the exact same way, just as everyone doesn’t need to read and love the exact same things, and I’m sick of writing advice that’s really just one person’s taste masquerading as objective truth.

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing quite a bit of fanfiction, and enjoying myself immensely in the process. Prior to getting sucked into the Supernatural fandom, it’s something I hadn’t done since high school, when I and my friends would collaboratively build elaborate Zelda fics and I’d make myself blush by writing Final Fantasy VIII stories where Squall and Quistis kissed. As such, and while I’d incorporated the occasional sex scene into my original fiction – first as a teen, and then as an adult – I didn’t have much experience with literary smut beyond the little I’d read. Given the regularity with which both fanfiction and romance are denigrated, therefore – and despite the fact that I think such denigration is bullshit – I fell into the trap of thinking that graphic sex would be easy to write. I mean, how hard could it be?

Very, is the answer, and now that I’ve produced some 350,000 words of smut and smut-adjacent prose, I can state quite categorically that doing so has made me a much better writer.

Here’s why:

As anyone who’s ever attempted one can attest, action sequences are among the trickiest types of writing to do well. Especially when it comes to a close-combat fight scene, there’s a real art to getting it right. At the level of raw bodily mechanics, you have to properly choreograph what’s happening such that both you and the audience can imagine it clearly, but without the prose style becoming either so detached or clinical that you lose momentum. By the same token, you’re essentially describing a series of related or identical actions taking place in quick succession, which impacts on your language choices. Ideally, you want to walk a fine line between repetition and simile, switching focus between intimate detail, like how it feels to land a blow, and the bigger picture of what’s going on – the setting, the time, the context. And then, of course, there’s the emotional component: why are the characters fighting? What are the stakes? How does everything that’s happened before this point influence their actions? What’s the dynamic of the exchange? Are the combatants evenly matched, or is there a disparity? How is it going to end?

There’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying, and if you get it wrong, you run the risk of throwing your audience out of the story.

And every single one of those factors applies to sex scenes, too.

Bad or mediocre sex scenes, like bad or mediocre action scenes, are ubiquitous precisely because there’s so much involved in doing them well. Even – or especially, rather – when you’re writing from the focussed point of view of a single character, it’s important to remember that the other participant/s have their own motivations: that they aren’t just passive sexual objects. Sex is communication, connection, negotiation, and how and why your characters go about having it will say a lot about them. Though I often find the slashfic obsession with who tops vs. who bottoms to be needlessly reductive and objectifying, given that women – who are the genre’s predominant writers and readers – are so frequently assumed to be sexually passive and uncritically portrayed as such, it’s easy to see the appeal of a setting where the sexual roles of familiar characters are instead argued on a case by case basis. It’s a lesson to bear in mind regardless of the gender/s involved in any sexual scene you’re writing: how someone behaves out of the bedroom doesn’t necessarily dictate their preferences within it, and in terms of furthering emotional characterisation, that’s a rich vein seldom tapped in other genres.

By the same token, and as I’ve angrily noted before, it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Not only does this completely elide the possibility that the details of good sex might be similarly relevant, but as an approach, it tends overwhelmingly to have sexist consequences: that is, if women are assumed to be the primary victims and men the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, and if this is the only type of sex we think is worth describing, then we end up reinforcing exactly the same toxic gender dynamics such scenes might ostensibly mean to criticise.

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: if you feel comfortable including rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite. Which isn’t to say that every book that includes assault needs to include consensual sex, too: that’s far too restrictive a mandate. Rather, I mean it as a general writing principle: to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

Learning to write sex scenes has involved a steep but deeply beneficial learning curve. Unlike in the case of action sequences, there’s a level of self-consciousness that has to be shed in order to write them, and a unique level of cringeworthy ridiculousness that’s risked by getting them wrong. But I’d far rather read more books across all genres that at least attempt to write a variety of positive, communicative sex scenes that sometimes miss the mark than continue to live in a world where sexual pleasure – and especially female pleasure – is considered more taboo and less narratively relevant than graphic torture and rape.

In the past few days, Zoe Marriott, Sarah Rees-BrennanHolly Black and Cora Buhlert have all written awesome posts about the problem of reviewers dismissing female characters who aren’t to their tastes as being Mary Sues, with added discussion of what the term actually means, why male characters and/or authors aren’t held to similar standards, and the awesomeness of ladies. All of them have made excellent points. Zoe Marriott begins by saying:

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1. A female character who is too perfect
2. A female character who kicks too much butt
3. A female character who gets her way too easily
4. A female character who is too powerful
5. A female character who has too many flaws
6. A female character who has the wrong flaws
7. A female character who has no flaws
8. A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9. A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10. A female character who is too passive or boring

This is, quite obviously, a contradictory list, as Marriott is at pains to point out:

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

‘A female character.’

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around actually mean when they say ‘Mary-Sue’ is: ‘Female character I don’t like’.

That’s it. That’s all.

Following on from this, Holly Black expands on the dangers of using the phrase beyond outside its original context:

The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He’s also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because she’s the protagonist. It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Sarah Rees-Brennan makes a hugely important distinction between female characters who are realistically self-deprecating and those who aren’t allowed to like themselves, saying:

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times…

I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who can’t think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters are irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Finally, Cora Buhlert makes an important point about the hugely exclusionary tests designed to expose the flaws of Mary Sue characters:

The term “Mary Sue” has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various Mary Sue litmus tests that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That’s not to say that such tests aren’t useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don’t all occur at once.

Take a moment to click through to the test in question and eye a few of the questions. What quickly becomes apparent is that, as per Marriott’s list, correlation and causation have been deeply confused in the issue of Sueness to such a degree that many people now mistake – well, I was going to say the symptoms for the cause, but given the scope of the test, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Calling a character Mary Sue in the current climate on the basis of their having a traumatic background, an interesting name and an affinity with animals is equivalent to calling an old woman with a wart on her nose, a knowledge of herbs and a black cat a witch in the context of actual witch-burning. By which I mean: people are so terrified of accidentally countenancing the presence of a Mary Sue that they’ve started trying to identify them by sight, with predictably bad results.

The term Mary Sue began in fanfic, which is all about personal participation in other people’s narratives. It’s an awesome way to learn the ropes, make friends, test ideas, participate in fandom and generally have a good time, but self-insertion is more or less the point: not because all original fanfic characters are avatars for their authors, but because the whole point of fanfic is using your own ideas in someone else’s world. Extending this argument to original fiction is therefore inherently problematic, not least when reviewers and Sue-tests alike start sneering that such-and-such an author only did X because they thought it was cool, so obviously it’s a case of self-insertion. And it’s like, what? Did you honestly expect me to sit down and pour my heart into something I didn’t think was awesome? Writing stories we think are cool is sort of what authors do. We think, ‘Time-travelling lady space pirates? Hell yes!’ –  and then we go and do it. You might have different tastes, which is fine! But let’s be very clear on the matter: writers don’t insert themselves into stories. Stories insert themselves into us.

But the most damaging aspect of reviewers calling original characters Mary Sues is the fact that, precisely because of this lingering self-insertion argument, it only ever happens to female writers. By way of example, compare the description of George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen –  a silver-haired, purple-eyed, impossibly beautiful teenage queen born in exile with three dragon companions, legions of suitors, an abusive childhood and a prophetic destiny – with the contents of any Mary Sue checklist you care to name, and she’ll probably register at close to 100%. But what sort of critic is going to imply that George R. R. Martin, a straight man in his sixties, must secretly want to be a thirteen-year-old girl? A fairy unhinged one, is the answer, and even though Google can probably turn up a couple of examples to prove me wrong, the point is that all this dialogue about Sues tends to center on YA and UF novels – stories which, as Buhlert notes, are written predominantly by women.

But wait, I hear you cry, that’s not a fair comparison! Daenerys isn’t Martin’s only character. She’s one protagonist among many. Well, and I suppose that female authors only write about women? That they feel no connection to their male characters, and that no matter how large the cast, it’s only ever the leading lady who matters? (Anyone who answered yes, go to your room.) This is the other problem with calling Mary Sue on original works: it’s a scenario in which the author has created every single character. This is wildly distinct from the traditional fanfic setup which birthed the term, in which a single, original protagonist would be catapulted into an existing narrative. In those instances, that single character literally becomes the extension and embodiment of the writer’s will – a whole different kettle of fish to creating a cast from scratch. To quote Holly Black again:

The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Which means that, if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing. Regardless of the genre trappings – because neither do I want to assume that Stues are solely the products of SFF – they are, contextually, so beautiful or desirable that everyone falls in love with them at the slightest provocation; a description which, as Cora Buhlert points out, is textbook James Bond. Their skillsets are deeply convenient to the plot, which by itself makes perfect sense, but are distinguished in this regard by being either so broad as to verge on the ridiculous, acquired with an ease that’s wildly disproportionate to their difficulty, or unreasonably inexplicable given the character’s origins.

They are, in short, badly written – but bad writing is a manifold thing, expressible in near-infinite variations. Tropes employed badly by one author might prove successful for another; the same is true of literary styles. And while I appreciate the tendency for particular characters to drive us up the wall, particularly when we detect similar themes emerging across multiple stories, pinning a label on just the women – let alone one that’s been hastily appropriated from a different context – does not constitute intelligent critical analysis. If you feel justified in disliking a certain story, then show your working. Don’t just say that someone is a Stue – tell us why.

It really is that simple.