Running with Goats: Marly Youmans on Writing the Other

Marly Youmans has a way of opening up worlds for the reader, of throwing back the curtains and letting the sun shine into once private rooms.  Her novels and poems often feel like invitations to join her on a journey or sit by her side and listen.

Below, Youmans addresses a question posed by Nisi Shawl, author of Writing the Other and Filter House.  Shawl asked Youmans and a handful of other authors to talk about their experiences writing characters of a different race, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, or sex than their own.  Take special note of the second paragraph, in which Youmans talks about writing a book for her son.

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Marly Youmans: As a woman, I am in some danger when writing about a man who could be described as sensitive or reflective. I was raised in an era that tried to declare that men and women were the same, but it’s not at all so, “equal” being so very different from “same.” I’ve had to tweak several male characters in revision to make sure they weren’t women in disguise, and that happened even when the character in question was waging war or exerting himself in feats of redwood-climbing.

I’d say that the clearest I’ve ever been on writing about the opposite sex was in the book I’m polishing now. I’ve written a fantasy for each of my children, and the current one was for made for a sports-mad boy of 12 who came late to liking books and school (still hates homework) and who is extremely social. He is blessedly normal in all his boy-ways, and all I had to do was meditate on his likes and dislikes to have an imaginary boy rise up around me along with a pack of young associates who didn’t always want to follow his lead, a fair degree of silliness and nonsense, twists and puzzles, feelings conveyed through action and reaction, a bit of revelatory violence, a fairly quick pace, and a general male refusal on the part of the primary character to ponder about anything except what must be done next, now.  And football. We had to have football.  If I could have worked in track and wrestling, I would have done so.

I have long advocated tossing little boys out the door to run with goats and goatherds until they are ten or eleven years old–until they are ready to sit still in a classroom and crack open a book–although nobody ever pays attention to this modest proposal of mine. So what I have aimed to write for my son and any other young readers is a book that might serve as one of the first adventures a boy hears after coming in from the fields and joining what is called civilization–a story full of juice and sun and life. And a dash of football.

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

From All Directions at Once: Kenneth Hite on Cthulhu & Creativity

Kenneth Hite lives by curiosity, receptivity, and passion.  His imagination is boundless.  His discipline and endurance show in both his continued success and his seemingly limitless ability to blaze new trails for himself and for his readers.

(Turn to page 165 of BookLife.  Hite makes a perfect case-study for the “Pillars of Your Private BookLife”.)

Over the years, Hite has written non-fiction, fiction, and gaming supplements.  His essays on H. P. Lovecraft (HPL) in Weird Tales have the depth of analysis fitting a graduate of University of Chicago.  His gaming supplements pulse with exciting opportunities for play and his lighter non-fiction crackles with his dazzling sense of humor.

“Ken Hite is the expert’s expert,” says Matt Forbeck, a writer and game designer who has worked with Hite often over the years, “especially in the fields about which he’s passionate, which are many and varied, but all things about gaming and Lovecraft leap to the lead. When he combines the two, you get fanta-synthisized fireworks that inspire all privileged enough to witness them to kick back and enjoy them in awed wonder.”

Hite moves in and out of literary worlds—from game writing to literary criticism to whatever arises next—and all the while he blends humor, intensity, and depth of knowledge.  The keyword here is blends.

“Ken Hite is not a walking encyclopedia because encyclopedias can’t make decent jokes combining modern pop references and long-dead literary figures,” said Will Hindmarch, a writer who heads up the gaming curriculum at Shared Worlds. “Ken Hite is, instead, some sort of self-feeding intellectual machine that takes in books and puts out cunning analysis. He draws savvy new connections between your favorite things — especially if your favorite thing is H.P. Lovecraft — hitting you with the kind of psyche-rattling realizations that great and forbidden tomes are supposed to.  Intellectual discourse should be like Ken Hite: funny, insightful, passionate, and ridiculously well informed.”

Below, Kenneth Hite and I discuss scope, audience, playing mental switch-up, and, of course, Cthulhu… always Cthulhu.

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Jones: What inspired you to write Cthulhu 101? And I do think it is an inspired idea with inspiring results.

Hite: Cthulhu 101 actually was a “write-to-order” piece originally. The Source Comics & Games in St. Paul, Minnesota is a terrific store that has gone in for Lovecraftian content in a big way: plush toys, essay collections, Mythos fiction, games, bumper stickers, comics, DVDs, tchotchkes, you name it. The owner of The Source knows I’m a giant HPL fiend — and knew, of course, that I’d written the role-playing game [RPG] Trail of Cthulhu because he sold it in his Lovecraft section. So he asked me if I could write something he could keep by the cash register to sell to people who didn’t know what to buy on his Giant Wall of Lovecraft Stuff. So I understood it was going to be an introductory sort of project from the get-go, and once I came up with the name and the list-and-FAQ format, the rest was pretty simple.

Jones: How’d you settle on the tone of the book, which I’d call loving and playful and just a teensy bit snarky.

Hite: Well, part of it just comes with my Generation X territory. And part of it comes from reading the truly great humor essayists — Robert Benchley, Will Cuppy, those guys — and trying to capture their tone for the 21st century. Nowadays you can’t be too earnest about stuff, especially in pop culture, or people will savage you for showing your underbelly, but the old guard have a human core to them that I think makes their masterful snark more palatable than sheer irony for irony’s sake.

Jones: I’m moderately familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos, neither a complete newcomer nor a fanatic, and the book had me laughing my head off in parts, and learning new stuff throughout. Has 101 been successful with neophytes? With hardcore Cthulhu fans?

Hite: Well, I don’t know how successful it is with any given group, although it’s selling well enough that I’m working on another “101 Book.” But I do know that people seem to like it. I’ve gotten good responses and good reviews from both longtime Lovecraftians and new fans alike. Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey gave it a great shout-out on the “H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast” and told me that it helped them explain to friends and significant others just what they kept going on about.

Jones: How does 101 compare to Tour de Lovecraft? Your approach to HPL’s fiction is a little different there, no?

Hite: It is and it isn’t. They’re both relatively informal, but aimed at different audiences: 101 is a light-hearted introduction to the whole Cthulhu phenomenon, while Tour de Lovecraft began as a bunch of blog posts on my Livejournal and turned slowly into a book project. So it began aiming at an “assumed Lovecraftian” fan, and rather than primarily being a guide to further study, it’s a collection of my initial responses to Lovecraft’s stories, and to some of the critics’ responses to them as well. Further up the seriousness ladder, my “Lost in Lovecraft” column for Weird Tales magazine is a real exercise in literary criticism, looking at Lovecraft’s work through the lens of the settings he chose. And coming out the other side, my Lovecraftian game writing lets me analyze Lovecraft from a participant’s viewpoint: what tropes and tendencies show up in Lovecraft’s worlds, and how can we use them to play narratives? I’ve looked at Lovecraftian elements in 1930s horror films (and vice versa) in Shadows Over Filmland, worked out the common principles of Lovecraftian magic in Rough Magicks, examined Golden Age superheroics in a Lovecraftian light (and Lovecraft in comic-book terms) in Adventures into Darkness, and teased out the common threads between Lovecraft and the Western in Dubious Shards. I guess the two points I’d make are the obvious one that you approach any topic by aiming at the audience, and the slightly less obvious one that there’s a whole lot of different things you can write about Lovecraft without ever getting close to the bottom of the barrel.

Jones: Why does Cthulhu inspire so many folks to create new games and stories and art and plush toys?

Well, first of all, Cthulhu sells. He’s no glittery vampire, but he does all right. Cthulhu is also a kind of tribal marker — he’s something us geeks know about and can use to establish our connection to other geeks. If you’ve got a Cthulhu fish on your car, you have a connection to someone reading Fall of Cthulhu or listening to The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. Almost everything we buy any more is informed (or even driven) by this kind of tribal allegiance, geeks perhaps most of all.

But more significantly, and I think more permanently, Cthulhu is a very, very important monster for the modern age. He symbolizes the kinds of vast, impersonal, inevitable, unknowable fears we have now: global warming, terrorism, ecocide, future shock, and so forth. Lovecraft invented Cthulhu (at least in part) as a response to Einstein and Shapley and Hale demonstrating that the universe could not be known or mapped. It was too big, and our view was too limited. That still scares us today; we want to believe that we matter, and Cthulhu is there to say that we really don’t. That’s why he’s still calling to writers and artists even after 80-plus years.

As for the plush toys: Our turning Cthulhu into a plush toy is like the Victorians turning faeries into cute children: we’re trying to domesticate the very real fears of our culture. It didn’t stick with the Victorians, and it won’t with us.

Jones: What is it about Cthulhu that attracts you as a reader and as a writer? What can writers who aren’t familiar with the Mythos learn from reading Lovecraft?

Hite: I think the fundamental thing that attracts me about Cthulhu and the Mythos at large is its scope. It’s vast; the entire canvas of time and space, illuminated by a dozen or more A-list writers (and yes, scores of B-listers and on down) in just enough detail to inspire but never too much to restrict. Cthulhu seemingly explains everything from evolution to religion, but when you look closer at the stories, things are less explained than ever. Cthulhu also dwells at the intersection of fantasy, horror, and science fiction: he’s a magic monster alien. In proper non-Euclidean style, you can come at him from all directions at once.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a Cthulhu fan or a Mythos buff, you can learn a lot from Lovecraft. I maintain you can learn a huge amount about horror and about fiction from his plots, his story structure, and — yes — his style. It’s just not true that Lovecraft — especially after, say, 1926 or so — is a bad writer. He can be a challenging writer, for those of us who grew up on Asimov and Heinlein and the post-Hemingway plain-glass style of American fiction. But he is a truly great writer, and any writer can learn from his or her betters. If you think otherwise, try rewriting “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Colour Out of Space” in a style you prefer, and see how many of Lovecraft’s decisions you wind up repeating anyway.

To that end, I’d start any look at Lovecraft with the real great stories: “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness, “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and “The Haunter of the Dark,” say. (There’s about ten more great stories in HPL’s lineup, but those will get you started.) Every one of those stories has a sympathetic — even tragic — character, a complex narrative structure, and passages of sheer wonder and terror that will knock your socks off.

Jones: You do a lot of different kinds of writing. How do you maneuver the constant switching back and forth?

Hite: Every project has periods where you’d rather work on it than do anything else, and periods where you’d rather do anything else than work on it. The trick is to keep at least one project at the burn stage at all times. And play mental switch-up; I’m reading espionage novels for an upcoming vampire spy thriller game (Night’s Black Agents), watching Elizabeth R on Netflix while developing an Elizabethan Cthulhu game project (This Scepter’d Isle), and who knows what my subconscious is working on while I’m listening to music or cooking. For a while, I’ve had the good fortune to be working on Lovecraftian games (Trail of Cthulhu and its sourcebooks) at the same time as I’ve been writing a pulp mash-up of a more Robert E. Howardian vein (Day After Ragnarok and its sourcebooks). So I can swap out Providence, RI for Cross Plains, TX whenever one or the other seems too confining. You can’t always have that luxury — I spent every waking moment for about six weeks writing the script for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to U.S. History, Graphic Illustrated — but it’s a goal to shoot for.

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

Write What You Know… or Don’t Know… Or Want to Know… Know What I Mean?

A week or so ago, I asked a bunch of writers to share some of the best advice they’ve received and how they’ve used it.  At the same time I asked them to share some of the worst, the weirdest, or the least helpful advice they’ve encountered over the years.

I got a range of responses, as you can imagine.

“Write What You Know,” however, appeared more often than any other piece of “worst” advice.  It’s the sort of advice that has been around long enough to pick up some baggage.  Folks arguing for it tend to cite a need for authenticity and folks arguing against it tend to point toward the limitations of what a single person knows.

Below, a writer of fantasy, a writer of historical fiction, and a writer of anthropological science fiction each discuss whether writers ought to “write what you know” or “write what you don’t know” or somewhere in between….  That is to say, these three writers talk about how they’ve navigated the advice: “Write What You Know.”

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Don Bassingthwaite is the author of The Doom of Kings and The Killing Song, among other fantasy novels.

Bassingthwaite: A high school English teacher wrote on a journal entry (which I’d written as a fantasy story) “Show me the magic of the real world.” There’s also the oft-cited advice “Write what you know.” No to both counts! Why write the real world if you don’t want? How do you write what you know when you write science fiction or fantasy? I say learn to write what you don’t know.

Johnny D. Boggs is the author of Killstraight and Northfield, among other western and historical novels.

Boggs: It’s kind of the cliche: Write what you know. OK, but I write historical fiction. If I write what I know, you’re going to have a really boring novel. I write about what intrigues me, what interests me, stories I want to tell. Now, I may not know a whole lot about that subject when I start researching, but I try to learn as much as I can to tell a compelling story. But when I’m done with that book and have moved on to the next project, don’t ask me anything about that earlier book. Chances are, I’ve forgotten most of it. Know it? I don’t think so.

Michael Bishop is the author of Brittle Innings and the editor of A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales about the Christ, among other works of science fiction.

Bishop: The worst advice I’ve ever received about writing is a little harder to pinpoint, but “Write what you know” has to come near the top. You see, the answer to writing about stuff you don’t know about does not lie in giving up trying to do so but instead in learning about what you don’t know either through direct personal experience or focused research.

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

Richard Nash on the future of books and publishing

Book industry veteran Richard Nash recently delivered what some – like WIRED magazine’s Chris Anderson – are calling the best speech they’ve seen on the future of books and publishing.

Nash has uploaded the video, which I’ve embedded here. See what you think: