The Fear Factor

Chris A. Jackson is the author of the multiple award-winning Scimitar Seas novels published by Dragon Moon Press, and the Pathfinder Tales, RPG tie-in novel, Pirate’s Honor, by Paizo Publishing.  His independently published novels have also won multiple awards, and his current series, the Weapon of Flesh trilogy, has earned a widening fan following in the US, UK and Germany.  His nautical fiction comes from 35 years of sea experience coupled with a vivid imagination of what lies beneath the waves, and his action scenes consistently earn high praise from readers and reviewers.  He is currently sailing and writing full time aboard his floating home, Mr. Mac, somewhere in the Caribbean.  For a look at his works of fiction, visit www.jaxbooks.com, and for a peek into his sailing lifestyle, have a look at www.sailmrmac.blogspot.com.


I’d like to talk about fear.

Not the fear you feel when you watch a scary movie, read a truly frightening book, or during a really good roller coaster ride, that healthy, thrilling fear, but a “Fear Culture” fear that is an oppressive, negative force.  Sometimes I feel that we (not just the SFF community but that’s what I see most) are working ourselves into a Fear Culture of our own.  For me, this is more than a “skin deep” fear, more than a “Maybe I shouldn’t have posted that on Twitter” fear, but a potentially career-paralyzing fear.

This came to the forefront of my mind when I recently participated in a panel discussion at Con Carolinas titled “Getting Over Yourself”, which should have been titled “Getting Over Your Fear.”  We dealt with a lot of fears on that panel.  Some people were so paralyzed by their fears of rejection or criticism that they could not force themselves to submit their work.  I think we helped some people to recognize and confront their fears, but, for me, the discussion brought out a whole new nest of them.  When I started considering my own work, coupled with the current feeling of the genre, and a number of reviews of other writers’ work that I had recently read, I started feeling a constriction, a new set of boundaries that restricted my work.

When I read a recent review that referred to a work (and I’m talking about a work of fiction, not an article, blog, or column) as sexist, and the review read as a condemnation not just of the characters or setting, but of the entire theme of the piece, and therefore the writer, it hit me like a freight train.  I know the author personally, and know that sexism isn’t even a part of that writer’s makeup, let alone part of his fiction.  It gave me nightmares.  With this and a few others reviews plaguing me, I started to second guess myself when it came to character and setting development, and it really began to impinge upon my creative process.  I started to worry that if I created a less than strong, capable, well-adjusted female character, or a villain who is of an ethnic group, or not heterosexual, or a setting in which sexism, misogyny, or bigotry are the norm, I’m opening myself up for a sucker punch from reviewers and critics.  You might think this is a silly fear, since not all people, and therefore not all characters, can be capable, strong, well-adjusted, or even “good”, but it in my own fledgling career, I did not want to get that label.

So, what did I do?  How did I face this fear?

I remembered that writers are not what, and especially who we write.  I am not my characters.  Good writers can, and should, create really bad people, and set them in really daunting environments.  If a character needs to be mal-adjusted, weak, paranoid, sexist, abusive, or downright evil, that is who that character must be.  If that character also happens to be female, male, black, white, Asian, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or not even human, that is what that character must be.  If the setting is one of bigotry, racism, and sexism, these are obstacles the protagonists need to overcome, either in society, in others, or in themselves.  In Pirate’s Honor, one of the point of view characters is not human, or even humanoid, and she and a human male character have an intimate relationship.  My fear on this one was to be accused of writing bestiality.  So far, no hits on the review boards, but there still could be.

My point is this: if I need to create a character who exhibits politically incorrect traits, I can without being labeled.  But one thing has to be clear in my mind when I’m creating characters: What can get you into trouble is not your characters, but how those characters’ qualities (good and bad) are portrayed.  The same premise goes for creating setting elements.  If the horrific prejudices of a slave-owning society are portrayed as obstacles, I’m okay.  If I portray slavery as “how things should be” I’m probably not.  If I create a bigoted character and portray them as “good” in their bigotry, I am making a statement.  If a character is a good guy (or girl) and happens to be bigoted in some way, and I portray that as a “bad” element of this “good” character, that can work.  We are, after all, none of us perfect, and creating faults, foibles, sins, and other dark elements to our “good” characters, makes them real.  I write real people in a fantasy world.  Real people are imperfect.  How I establish, portray, and deal with those imperfections, how the characters change and grow, is what makes them real.

So, be nice…but your characters needn’t be.  Don’t be afraid to make them real, dark and brooding, sinful and wicked, bigoted and sexist, but remember to portray those characteristics for what they are.

But I still have nightmares…

Maybe I shouldn’t have tweeted that…

Creating the Future with Language

Carrie Cuinn is a Author, editor, bibliophile, modernist, and geek. You can find her work online at carriecuinn.com and follow her on Twitter @carriecuinn.


When writing a story set in the present or the past, you already know what your options for language
are. You can write in the language of your expected readers, ignoring historical dialects so we can
clearly understand your meaning, or you can use words common to your characters’ time period to help
create a realistic atmosphere. Whether your story features an Old West gunfighter, a medieval farmer,
or a Roman poet, you can research the names of popular objects or slang terms the people might have
used.

When you’re writing the future, you have to make more choices. You need to balance realistically
portraying the time period with showing its difference from our time as well as making sure that the
story is still coherent to people reading it now. You need to think about who your speaker is, not just the people talking in the story but the person telling the story to your readers. You need to decide if you’re going to mix languages, create new words, adapt words we’re already using to make them sound futuristic… but how do you decide any of that?

The simplest solution to writing the future is to not do anything special at all. If you assume that your story is translated for modern readers, somehow taken from the your character’s language (whatever that may be) and put into 21st century English* then you don’t need to fake up your language. But there is a reason you may not want to take the simplest path: language can add to the setting of your story in a variety of ways, giving you a richer, more complex look at your invented future.

You can show the merger of two large cultures by including words from a non-English language mixed
in with your dialogue or even description, but – and I mean BUT – you have to be cautious. It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.

Firefly mixed Mandarin into the otherwise English dialogue. Joss Whedon didn’t give us subtitles, and didn’t explain what was said, for the simple reason that the characters should have understood what was being said. There was no “outsider” to explain it to. It worked because they largely used Mandarin for swearing. So you didn’t need to know the exact translation, you just knew someone was angry. On the other hand, the first American version of Gojira, 1956′s Godzilla, King of the Monsters, mixed dubbed dialogue with the original Japanese, and added in a new character played by Raymond Burr, whose job was to be the outsider. He would yell, “What did he say?” and someone would repeat what had originally been said in Japanese.***

Firefly worked. Godzilla, King of the Monsters was a bit silly.

Another way to influence the setting with language is to create new brand names. We use brand names
as generic terms all of the time, once the object has become so common and has so many imitators that
the trademark can no longer be protected. We call that a generic trademark or a proprietary eponym.

It’s the reason you can ask someone to hand you a Kleenex or Band-Aid or a Thermos and they’ll know
what you’re talking about, even if what you’re asking for is actually produced by another company.

Inventing a proprietary eponym can be a way to show that changes have been made to technology
or commerce long enough ago that they were generalized into popular speech. Be careful that you’re
not creating a phrase you don’t need – I recently read a novel that used “Reefmail” instead of “email” because they lived on an artificial island. It was still mail, delivered electronically. The author described it as a fish swimming onto the computer screen, opening its mouth, and an envelope popping out. An envelope. So you know what it is. Then why call it something else?

Explore your options. Read over your work again. Out loud. Take out anything that feels unnecessary
or was inserted to sound exotic. Ask yourself, as many times as you need to, “why did I say it that
way?”

This is a just a beginning to the conversation about the possibilities of language in fiction. I hope that it gives you something to think about when you’re sitting down to write, or edit, your next great futuristic story.

* English is used as an example because that’s the language this post is written in. Of course, you
should use the language of your expected readers.

** If you’re hoping to create “exotic” characters you need to take a step back and consider a lot more than language. Simply put, something is only exotic because it is different than you, and different isn’t negative. A person isn’t more interesting or more sexual or more attractive or less anything just because they come from a different culture or the color of their skin is different. But you knew that already, right?

** While technically not set in the future, it is an alternate-Earth science fiction story, and illustrates
the example well.

Carrie Cuinn has written a follow up post here.

How Not to Pursue Sense of Wonder

Tracie Welser is a Clarion West grad, a teacher and a writer. Her first professional sale, “A Body Without Fur,” appears in May/June issue of Interzone.


Excellent fiction is an art we’re all working to capture on the page. Blogs and how-to books are full of advice on how to achieve excellence through structure, prose, plot, setting, character and dialogue. But when it works, why does it, really? Is excellence a convergence of these factors, these skills, like a formula of some kind? If we’re honest, the possibility is a little thrilling to contemplate. A magic formula! I’ve seen how-to-write texts which promise this very idea.

We could speculate on tastes of various readers and writers and the styles that appeal to them (the sentimental, the romantic, the horrific, the scientific and so on). As Michael Chabon points out in his artful collection Maps and Legends, we read and write “for entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure.” And entertainment comes in different flavors. But I want to know how and why story works, why the rhythm and syntax of a sentence gives it power, how the structure of a narrative draws in or discomfits the reader, and to what ultimate effect. I’m going to assert that the real deal, the aspect of fiction that keeps people reading is Sense of Wonder. This is true whether the genre is horror, epic fantasy, mystery, “hard” sci-fi, or cowboy stories. Or even that other genre that doesn’t recognize itself as such, literary fiction. Or the weird. Especially the weird.

How is wonder accomplished, if that’s what we’re chasing? I mean, really, deep down, cognitively? What kinds of narrative make this experience possible for the reader?

Surprising or shocking the reader with the unexpected creates cognitive dissonance that the reader feels as wonder. Just enough of the expected, subverted, does this in a sublime manner. A visual metaphor helps here: I once saw prints by an artist whose photos blend nature into urban landscapes such as train stations. The size, scope and juxtaposition of flowing water and growing things against the urban and mechanical are beautiful and startling, initially. Once you’ve seen it, the spectacle isn’t as compelling, but that first glance creates a “wow” moment.

The much-touted startling story hook, or violence embedded in narrative as spectacle, or sensual pleasures presented as extraordinary and enticing, all play on the cognitive dissonance and wonder of the reader. Something unexpected is happening! For simplicity’s sake, I’m talking about sex and violence, but there are plenty of other ways to accomplish the translation of the visual into text.

But there’s a how-not-to. We have to tread carefully in order to bring readers moments of wonder without relying on tropes or harmful stereotypes or easy fixes that insult their intelligence or worse.

How not to: othering characters based on gender or race or exoticizing the foreign or relying on stereotypes for horrific/bizarre effect. Pulpy fiction like Lovecraft’s is infamous for this. Witness the perils of darkest Africa! Behold the evil Eskimo, the uncivilized swamp cultist! Included in this category are the inbred hillbilly, the small-town sheriff, the psychotic man with dwarfism, the mentally unbalanced and/or tragic queer, the one-dimensional woman. I’m guilty of this in my own way. My fascination with Le Guin’s anthropological style led to me create a recently published story that teeters on the edge of the noble savage trope. I have to ask myself hard questions about that choice. Did I find that compelling? Why? Did I do enough to transcend the stereotype while pursuing a sense of wonder?

Violence is compelling, and it can be used to awe the reader. I’m not saying that violence is “wonderful” in a delightful sense, but it is a spectacle for the senses, psychologically interesting. It’s the effect to which violence is used that makes the difference.

I know I am not immune to this impulse, either. I have a graduate degree in the study of gender theory, but both of my recently published works begin with a story hook in which violence is directed at a female character. What does that say about me, about my own demons or narrative aesthetic? Am I perpetuating a harmful trope when I compel the reader to see the startling beauty of blood splattered on snow, a sense of wonder inspired by the visual I saw in my mind’s eye?

What hooks you into narrative as a reader? How do you create “wow” moments in your writing, and what, if anything, can be problematic?

Cynthia Ward on “Watching Avatar While White”

A huge thanks to Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward for guest blogging here at Booklifenow the past two weeks. This is Ward’s last post, and the last post from either writer, who together are responsible for Writing the Other, a book I recommend in Booklife. The following post I find particularly fascinating because of the “what-if’s” Ward explores below. Fiction tends to gain part of its power from complication and complexity—the ways in which events or character interactions lead to unexpected places. Character diversity, if not just window dressing, is one way to introduce further complexity to narrative. This is part of writing individuals rather than types. (I have to say that both Nisi and Cynthia are a lot more patient with Avatar than I am—I thought it was just flat-out awful.) – Jeff

[SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie Avatar, you may want to skip this post.]

I went into Avatar knowing little about it, beyond a few accusations that it was “a ripoff of FernGully: The Last Rainforest” or “a ripoff of Dances With Wolves” or “a ripoff of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The World for World Is Forest,” and a lot of descriptions of Avatar as “so awesome, you should see it in 3D.”

Having seen Avatar, I would agree with Nisi Shawl’s take that Avatar is beautifully immersive. I haven’t been that stoned on a movie since 1982’s Blade Runner (although, when I was leaving the theatre in ’82, I didn’t trip over the stairs and reel into the walls. If someone re-releases Blade Runner in modern 3D, I suspect my head will literally burst).

I haven’t seen FernGully nor, unfortunately, have I read The World for World Is Forest, but I did see Dances with Wolves. And, yes, Avatar is an uncredited, SFX-drenched reissue of that old story (which we’ll get back to in a moment).

I also thought that writer/director James Cameron was borrowing heavily from other sources—palpably obvious inspirations I’ve rarely (if ever) heard others mention: the Dragonriders of Pern (clearly, Hollywood has finally developed the technology to bring Anne McCaffrey’s intelligent, human-bonding dragons convincingly to ‘life’) and the three major series created by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Carson of Venus, John Carter of Mars, and Tarzan of the Apes.

Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) series came to my mind initially because of all those multi-legged alien animals. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia description of Amtor (Burroughs’s imaginary version of Venus) might as well be a description of Cameron’s fictional planet, Pandora: “Amtorian vegetation, particularly on Vepaja, tends to be gigantic. Vepaja is notable for the enormous forests…with trees reaching into the inner cloud envelope.” If I recall correctly from my childhood reading, Amtorian forests are even the same color as Avatar’s.

However, the main reason Avatar reminded me of Burroughs’ most popular series, and the movie Dances with Wolves, was because of the way they made me feel.

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