Writing Matters

NaNoWriMo 2016

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Tomorrow November begins, and with it NaNoWriMo, the yearly celebration of writers getting together and vowing to hold each other accountable to one promise: write fifty thousand words in a month. I tried participating in NaNoWriMo once or twice in the past, about ten years ago. Although I had free time aplenty and I pushed hard on my novel idea, of which I was very fond, I didn’t win either time. Neither did I get a complete manuscript from it. In fact, I’ve never successfully completed a novel.

For a while, this was a source of great stress to me. When I envisioned my writerly future as a kid, it involved a shelf lined with books with my name on them, and the books were invariably fantasy novels. Novels were are are most of what I read. I didn’t adjust to regularly reading short fiction until quite recently, and I learned pretty quickly that it’s no use trying to write something that you don’t read. Every fiction magazine will quite rightly expect you to read a few of its issues before you even consider submitting.

Last year during NaNoWriMo I was unemployed and dedicating myself to writing more or less full-time. Ostensibly, that would have been the perfect time in which to make my next attempt. But I had determined that my mind was shaped for short fiction, and I was making my stand on a fictional universe built out of interconnected short stories. It was a fairly bold project in its scope, and ended up being less of a success than I’d hoped, creatively or otherwise. It did force me to stretch my muscles, though, and I learned a great deal about what was missing from my writing toolbox.

Now I have determined that it’s time to make a similar attempt, but more consciously. Going into November, I hope to put down fifty thousand words of continuous narrative, but I don’t fully expect to get a novel out of it. In fact, since I’m entering the race with almost no preparation, I expect the result to be rather an inelegant mess. My challenge right now is nothing more complicated than to start at the beginning and make it all the way to the end. It just so happens that this is one of my major vulnerabilities as a writer, and I’m beginning next month’s challenge partly in order to address this unacceptable gap in my toolbox.

Another challenge I’ve set myself is to write unselfconsciously, to turn off the inner editor, which is exactly what NaNoWriMo is designed to do. I like to produce polished material, of course, but as the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of done. Turning off the inner editor means you relegate her job to an outer editor, which is the person most qualified for the job to begin with. I hope this drive for unselfconsciousness will help me touch on some more sensitive issues, that I have been avoiding writing about for a long time.

Meet me back here in a month or so to see what sort of results this experiment produced.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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New Game: Wreath of Roses

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Wreath of Roses is a 16,000 word text game written in the Twine engine and playable through any JavaScript-supporting web browser.

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Wreath of Roses is a project from Zinc Alloy Games.

It is the story of Thalia, a princess on her way to an arranged marriage. The story follows Thalia as she arrives at the kingdom meant to be her future home and gets to know her future husband, tracking her responses to her environment, positive and negative. As the wedding nears Thalia can choose to explore the castle and get to know some of its inhabitants, and at the end of the game the player makes a decision based on Thalia’s overall impressions: to go through with the wedding, or cancel it.

This early version of the game is fully playable and features character customization and four different endings.

An excerpt from the game’s opening will be available on my Patreon later this month.

The Joy and Beauty of Accountability

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The software that interprets statistics creates beautiful (though unintentionally hilarious) charts.

It’s been a little over two years since I first signed up for 750words.com, a site based around the idea of morning writing exercises. One of the classic pieces of advice that professional writers give, is to start every morning by writing three pages, stream-of-consciousness style. This helps unclutter the mind and gets the writing brain into high gear. For people poor at planning it helps set an agenda for the day. For people prone to anxiety or rumination, it sets worries on paper and out of the mind. This exercise has many different uses. One page fits on average 250 words, hence the URL as given. 750Words.com.

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Own Your Own (or: Diversity Is Not a Trend)

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On Monday evening I returned home from a grueling evening class, intending to “just quickly” check my social media before turning in. Now, normally I am a lot less active on Twitter than I am on Tumblr, but I like to check in and make sure that my account has something on it other than links to my blog posts. It was on this occasion that I discovered the hashtag #OwnYourOwn.

Own Your Own was started by the YA lit blog Interrobang and championed by Kaye M., a Muslim American YA writer and intersectional feminist activist. The core concept of OYO is to further the discussion of diversity in publishing, highlighting the perspective of writers and creators from marginalized communities. To own your own is the ability to write your marginalized experience into your creative work, without fear and without apologies.

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New Twines and a Princess Party

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I have two new games out on my philome.la page!

  1. Escape to Princess is a light-hearted humorous adventure where you escape your dreary life… to become a princess. Just as advertised. This twine is built in the form of a story with multiple choices. Your previous choices are highlighted and you can scroll back up to see them at any time. Content note: the game is humorous but does contain some strong language, if that’s not your cup of tea.
  2. Why Aren’t You Happy? is a game where you play a dragon who is trying to keep its princess happy. Give gifts to improve her mood, but remember that the cost comes straight out of your hoard. The game has three settings that determine how many game days pass before your tenure as a princess-minder receives its judgment.

Tarot as a Tool for Characterization

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The Queen of Wands from the Rider-Waite deck art.

A few weeks ago, I posted to Tumblr a link to a game I wrote in Twine. Well, not exactly a game. This Twine story contains images of the Minor Arcana, the lesser-known component of the Tarot deck. The code allows you to select random cards and arrange them in one of three different ways, the better to exploit Tarot’s rich history of symbolism as an aid to characterization.

Normally when I use Tarot cards, they serve primarily as a handy go-to source of writing prompts, perfect for little warm-up exercises when I’m having difficulty revving up the writer’s engine. I don’t really put much stock in cartomancy and I don’t use the cards to divine the future, although I read a lot of Tarot sites and gather different, contrasting interpretations of the cards and their meanings. Symbolism, particularly that of mythological origin, is incredibly useful to me as a writer. The Major Arcana are an excellent writing tool because the twenty-two trump cards are arranged such that they deliberately draw from the Hero’s Journey.

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Writing Disability: Be Specific, Be Thorough, Do Your Research

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Diversity and representation have been climbing up the public agenda of late. When it comes to writing disabled characters, there are a few recurring pitfalls that I’d like to address.

Be Specific

You want to write a disabled character. First, you need to know what their disability is. “In a wheelchair” is not a disability. A wheelchair is a mobility aid, one of several different kinds available to the mobility-impaired. That’s your character, by the way. Did you mean, perhaps, that your character is paraplegic? Paralysis due to traumatic spinal injury is, again, one of many conditions that require or warrant the use of a wheelchair. Are you certain that you want your character to be paraplegic? True, this is the thing that most abled people think about (or avoid thinking about) when conjuring the mental image of a wheelchair. However, it is far from the only reason for someone to use a wheelchair.

Using a wheelchair does not necessarily mean the user has no use of their legs at all. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters (more on that later) are of use to people with a variety of conditions, such as neural or muscular illnesses, chronic pain conditions, or fatigue. Consider a character with a genetic condition like muscular dystrophy. How does their experience differ from that of someone who lost their mobility abruptly, such as through traumatic injury? Consider what their condition says about your character’s age or background, for example polio. Consider the many possible causes of limb amputation, from shrapnel to cancer to gangrene.

Be Thorough

Pay some mind to how your character’s condition affects aspects of their lives other than mobility. A syndromic illness will usually affect multiple systems, something which also bears remembering when writing about impaired senses like Deafness (for discussion of whether Deafness is considered a disability, see elsewhere). It may also affect the character cognitively, mentally and emotionally. A traumatic injury can cause damage to internal organs, or visible scarring, both of which will affect your character in ways impossible to ignore.

If you intend to write about a character who’s paraplegic, stop and take a minute to be honest with yourself. Are you willing to address all parts of your character’s life? Or are you too squeamish to consider that what affects the legs’ mobility might also affect functions like bladder control and erections? Your story might never address details like a character getting their catheter changed, but as a writer you need to know at least twice as much about your story as what is written on the page. Characters have relationships, some of them romantic or sexual. Are you going to think about how your character’s sexual expression is affected by their body, or will you be content to leave sex to be the elephant in the room?

Do Your Research

Disability also has social aspects. If your character’s disability is physical and visible, it affects the way they are treated by literally everyone they meet. This is where, once more, research is a writer’s best friend. Don’t expect to be able to write an authentic personal experience based on a series of dry medical or technological details. Once you’ve done your research into the physical symptomatology and the technical functions of whatever devices you character relies on, it’s time to get personal. If you need to know what it’s like to live as a veteran who lost both legs to an IED, you should probably be asking an actual veteran about it.

People read and people write and people can speak for themselves. The internet, aside from being full of porn, also has literally thousands of articles by disabled writers, blog festivals on disability, online magazines and organizational newsletters dedicated to specific conditions or constellations of conditions. You might gain important technical information from medical sites written by doctors and other practitioners (including, for example, psychotherapists, counselors and social workers), but there’s no substitute for reading the personal experience of a disabled writer, in their own words. Learn to differentiate between what’s written from an internal perspective versus the external point-of-view, for example that of a parent or caretaker.

An important note: if you are yourself abled, and not closely connected to a disabled friend or relative, you may still maintain an impression that society on the whole tends to people with disabilities because of their weakness. Depending on how far your research ranges, you may be surprised to learn of the micro-aggressions that PWD experience on a daily basis, or horrified to discover how common an occurrence caretaker abuse is, and how high the attendant murder statistics are. I’d say prepare yourself in advance, but you really can’t. Deal with it as best you can and remember to take your coping needs outwards, in accordance with the circle of support (comfort in, dump out).

Notes

A word on mobility scooters: they are just as useful and just as necessary as wheelchairs are. Generally they get a bad rap. For some reason they are considered less legitimate as a means of ambulation for people with mobility impairments. Some people seem to consider them as indulgences for people too fat and lazy to walk on their own. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Necessary disclaimers: I am far from an expert on all things disability (if there is such a thing). I’m not a doctor or a health-care professional, and I am not truly a disability rights activists. Though I’m not abled, I’m also not myself a wheelchair-user. I am, however, a writer, and I rely on what I observe around me in terms of writing trends. This is just a small taste of what I’ve noticed. I could have written thousands of words more, and I might yet write some of those.

The reason I focused so much on paralysis and mobility impairment is because wheelchairs are the visible face of disability, so to speak. They are within our line of sight, and that makes them sticky to misconceptions and shallow ideas stemming from lazy writing and lack of research. This is not meant to discourage people from writing disabled characters into their stories, quite the opposite. Considering the ideas I presented here is meant to encourage you to create whole, organic characters who incorporate disability as part of, but not their entire, identity.

This essay is not an encyclopedia; it’s barely an introduction. I hope, however, that it has given its readers some food for thought, for engaging with their own writing as well as the media they consume.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth