Tag Archives: on writing

Word of the Day: Polysyndeton

One of my friends used the word “polysyndeton” today, and I said, “OOO NEW WORD” and looked it up.[1]  Wikipedia explains polysyndeton as:

the use of several conjunctions in close succession, especially where some could otherwise be omitted (as in “he ran and jumped and laughed for joy”)

There’s something utterly delightful about loving a writing device and using it all the time and then realizing there’s a word for it.  Yay!

Upon further reading, I discovered I also use asyndeton a lot, which is the omitting all the conjunctions — for instance, I could write the example in the quote above using asyndeton as, “he ran, jumped, laughed for joy.”

The thinky part for me here is that I have, in the past, thought I should without exception use semicolons when juxtaposing independent clauses without conjunctions.  For instance, it seems one of the oft-cited examples of asyndeton is, “Veni, vidi vici” — “I came, I saw, I conquered.”  These are three independent clauses, so were I writing something similar, I would have felt I should have more correctly punctuated it as, “I came; I saw; I conquered.”

But the semicolon gives a different “feel,” doesn’t it?  It reads like three separate sentences joined up because there’s a common idea or because these things happened in quick succession.  The commas, on the other hand, give the sentence a different rhythm; the clear omission of a conjunction makes the words tumble into inevitability, as if they are less a statement of three separate but related facts and more an unquestionable domino effect.

I’m a huge fan of the correct use of semicolons — but there have been times I would have preferred to use commas for effect but wasn’t quite aware enough of what I was doing.  Learning this is a known literary device and putting the name “asyndeton” to it helps a lot: now, rather than wallowing in edits with, “but is this punctuation correct?,” I can consider the sentence and decide whether I want to use semicolons or employ asyndeton with what otherwise would be compound sentences with a conjunction.

So for me, this is a rather delightful example of how better learning the rules can help one break them!

(Usual disclaimer: I’m an armchair linguist.  Corrections and further elucidations are always welcome!)

  1. OH LOOK I didn’t even realize I did that. Whee!

A Call to Stop Politicizing People’s Existence

There’s been this thing happening online the past few days.

First, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a column for Tor exhorting SFF authors to stop thinking of binary gender as the default.

Then this happened.

There’s been a lot of chatter all over the Internets since, of course.  Too much for me to address, even if I wanted to engage with it all.  But there’s one thing I do want to speak up about: I’m downright sick of people labeling the inclusion of PoC, women, genderqueer, or other QUILTBAG people as a political agenda.  As leftist.  As “liberal.”

People with non-binary genders aren’t an agenda. They exist. They’re reality. Same with people of nonwhite races and non-Western ethnicities and queer orientations. I don’t consider my existence to be part of some “liberal agenda”—in fact, my personal political ideology might be considered quite conservative in many respects, but my existence is neither conservative nor liberal.  And neither is anyone else’s.

(Goddammit, now I’m tempted to write some excessively message-heavy CONSERVATIVE science fiction in which all the characters are gun nut libertarians but also just happen to be non-binary gendered or PoC or women or queer, because, dammit, we exist.)

Like MacFarlane, I want an end to defaults. I want to read fiction where diversity is just part of the landscape, where there doesn’t have to be a “story reason,” where people just are different races/gender identities/orientations because people in the real world just are. We don’t have “plot reasons” in our lives that make us nonwhite or QUILTBAG or whatever—why is it somehow a “liberal agenda” if we argue that this reality should be reflected in fiction?

I don’t see why advocating a lack of default is so controversial.  After all, fiction doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality—come talk to me about “political agendas” when half of SFF main characters are women and we regularly get 60-percent-Asian casts in humanity-to-the-stars space operas.  Come talk to me when I see as many gay people in media as I interact with in daily life.

And yeah, I think it would be great if science fiction worldbuilding didn’t automatically assume two genders, if authors made the decision to invent binary-gender worlds rather than defaulting to them.  If authors regularly considered making characters genderqueer for no reason at all even if they ultimately decided against it, in the same way they might consider what hair color to choose.

SFF has always identified itself as a genre where anything is possible.  Yet as a genre, we so often automatically fall into assuming narrow representations of humanity before we even begin writing.  I would like to see SFF be a proper superset: to encompass all of humanity, and go beyond.

But first, for the love of God, can we stop calling the existence of actual, real-life people a political agenda?

Why I Chose an “Ethnic” Pen Name

I work under two different professional names that are not my own (one for film, and SL Huang for writing).  In both cases I chose surnames closely linked to my heritage, despite having, in both cases, extremely sound marketing reasons not to.

Institutional racism is a thing that exists.  I was making up my own name, my own brand.  Why wouldn’t I choose a name to be more . . . generic?  Less ethnic?

It’s a good question.  After all, I’ve deliberately chosen a genderless pen name for writing, and I like having my gender not immediately and obviously available.  Because of what I write about and what issues I care about, I’m misgendered online just about half the time, and it amuses me.

So why was it extremely important for me to choose professional names that tell people where I’m from and that I’m a person of color?  Why did choosing a name contrary to my heritage, or a name I felt belied my race, or even a made-up combination of syllables feel so wrong to me when I considered it?[1]

Revisiting my thought processes, I think I know the answer:

Because just like choosing to make a character white is a choice, whatever name I chose would be a choice.  There is no generic.  There is no default.  If I chose an Anglo-Saxon surname, that wouldn’t be saying nothing about me; it would be saying something about me.  It would be choosing to identify myself with a heritage I don’t identify with.  One that doesn’t feel like me.

Even if I made up a name, I’d be choosing phonemes that come out of language.  There would be an origin.  The sounds I chose would say something about my linguistic identity.  And I don’t think I can express even my linguistic identity without referencing the tongues of my ancestors, the tongues that I’ve lost.  The holes in that identity feel as much a part of me as my love for the English language and its Germanic and Latin roots.

So, why did I choose an “ethnic” pen name?  The answer: Because all pen names are ethnic.

There is no name that says nothing, no blank space I can put on a book to leave a question mark as to my identity.  I might be fine with leaving a mystery that people might make mistaken assumptions about, but I’m not fine with supporting the idea of a certain default kind of person.  I’m not fine with being someone else’s idea of that default.  Why is Huang any less of a generic blank of a name than Johnson or Williams or Miller?  Why should it be?  It makes me angry that it isn’t, and when I’m angry I get stubborn.  Maybe my choice of pen name is more about my own contrariness than anything else.

So, what about institutional racism?  People do judge based on names, and may pre-judge my books.  But there’s another side of that: maybe, just maybe, if my books are good enough and fun enough and enough people like them, I can be one tiny drop in the pushback against stereotyping Huangs and Wangs and Chens everywhere.[2]  For me personally, that possibility makes up for whatever initial handicap the name might give me.

Because after all, my main reason for choosing the pen name I did wasn’t a political reason in the first place: it was that I had to feel my pen name matched my identity.  And since whatever name I chose would be some ethnic choice, I chose one that fit.

(As I said in the footnotes, this blog post is about how I feel personally with regard to my own feelings on my identity only, and I completely understand why others would make a different decision.  I’d love to hear other thoughts in comments from people who have made these choices.)

  1. I want to make it clear that I’m only talking personally in this post, about my own feelings about my identity and what felt right to me.  I make no judgments against people who do choose pen names that sound less “ethnic” to American ears or ones that outright reverse gender for marketing reasons.  As I said, I did consider it myself . . . it’s a personal decision, and it’s complicated, and I’d never look down on anyone else for their choices.  This blog post is just about my own personal feelings about my pen name only. :)
  2. Yes, yes, I KNOW I’m writing a book with lots of math in it.  Cue the Asian stereotype joke here . . . (It also has lots of guns, though!)

It’s Okay, He Wasn’t a Main Character. (Or White.)

So I watched the pilot episode of Killer Women, and I’ll probably start watching the show.  (This doesn’t say much, as I have a very low bar for cop and lawyer shows, but yeah, it’s a fun show so far.)

Buuuuuut there’s one thing about the pilot that really annoyed me . . .

(spoilers follow)

Tricia Helfer, aka Molly Parker (whom I’ll hereafter refer to as Six) is talking to her DEA love interest and trying to convince him to go into Mexico after a mother and child who were kidnapped by a drug cartel.  DEA love interest at first says no, then, after Six’s intense, er, persuasion, he says okay, but it’ll just be the two of them, and he’ll only use one of his Mexican contacts.  “We’ll probably die,” he warns her as he walks off.

(We know already that they’re not gonna die.  Right?  Right.)

So they infiltrate Mexico along with DEA LI’s one Mexican contact, who gets them in.  Naturally, there’s a shootout as they try to get the mother and little girl out.

Naturally, LI’s Mexican contact gets shot and killed in the shootout and our two main characters get away.

(And by the way, both our main characters are attractive and white.  Just to add to the picturesque contrast here.)

Six and her LI get out of Mexico with the female plot devices kidnap victims and have heroically saved the day.  In the final scene, they’re all smiling and relieved and all is wonderful because the daring and break-the-rules Texas Ranger Six has brazenly rescued her plot devices and she and the LI have emerged unscathed as heroes.  There’s a palpable sense of relief and heroism and all-American patriotism and the good guys winning the day.

Nothing is ever said of the poor Mexican dude whose bullet-riddled body was left in the drug cartel’s compound.

Which.  Okay.  Seriously?

They got LI’s contact killed—they got someone killed—and the narrative’s going to play that as an Awesomesauce Win, no second thoughts, not even a drunken toast in his name in the bar afterwards?  Unless the writers are trying to frame their MCs as having some level of sociopathy or dissociation from other people’s deaths, there’s something seriously wrong with that in a narrative.  If you want your heroes to be, y’know, heroic, playing off the death of someone who helps them as unimportant, as something that does not impinge an unsullied victory, is a rather poor writing decision.

2013, a Year In Review

Because everyone else is doing it!  And I’m nothing if not easily swayed.

Of course, when I look back on this year it’s dominated by the shadow of le cancer. Which makes sense.  Even though my diagnosis came in September, I first went in for it in May, and that notwithstanding, the 1/3 of the year from September to December is still a pretty big chunk of year.

(It’s funny; at the end of 2012 I felt the same way about my three-month-long bout with typhus, and thought, “Well, 2013 has to be better!” Don’t ever say that, kids. It’s like saying, “It could be worse” in a horror movie.)

Illness aside, I had a pretty killer year in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of writing. Here’s what I did in 2013:

  • Got my first book edited and through two rounds of beta, and from the feedback I got in the second round, it looks like I won’t need a third. Woohoo! I’m procrastinating on finishing the final tweaks, after which it will go off to my pro editor and then hit an Amazon.com near you. I’m aiming for a pub date somewhere around March.
  • Got the sequel written. The rough draft is a hot mess right now, but it’s THERE.
  • And about 1/3 of the third book is written. Also a hot mess. Also there!
  • Was prolifically active on Absolute Write, and have made some incredible, incredible friends on there, including five (five!!!) people I’ve now met in meatspace, and three people who have sent me marvelous gifts through the Actual Postal Mail (mail!!!). I bug them for their manuscripts, they bug me for mine, and we generally support each others’ writing endeavors and in between make asinine sexual jokes and otherwise have a good time. It’s excellent. I have to say, having a writing community also saved me when I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed. In any case, I definitely count this as a writerly win!
  • Joined Twitter, blogged a lot (excepting the past couple months), and generally engaged in the greater SFF community. That also feels pretty great. I’ve met some spectacular writers and reviewers and other SFF peeps whom I have a boatload of respect for, and it makes me quite excited to be publishing into that community. (Yeah, as anyone who’s been around for 2013 knows, there are also some shitty people. But there are so, so many awesome ones.)
  • Beta read six books this year. I’m pretty picky about whom I beta for, so these were all excellent experiences, and everyone was lovely and appreciative. Beta’ing makes my writing better, too, so it’s win-win all around! The breakdown was two speculative fiction, two contemporary thriller, one literary fiction, and one historical fiction.

My writing goals for 2014 are to release my book, start getting the sequels done, and STOP GETTING CANCER ALREADY. Also, get back to blogging. Personally, I think those are all very reasonable!

How did y’all’s years go?

The Mathematics of Walking and Running

So one of my betas gave me the feedback that she wants EVEN MORE MATH in my already-excessively-mathy book.

My reaction: “MORE math?  I CAN DO THAT!”

In particular, my beta (who is not a mathematician, by the way) wanted a few more technical specifics at some points.  I’d consciously tried to keep a balance between where I mentioned technical words and where I handwaved and basically said “because MATH,” and she thought some of the handwaving could stand a little more detail.  (Incidentally, I was quite chuffed the technical bits were interesting enough that she wanted more of them!)

Anyway, one of the bits my beta flagged was a spot where the MC is drawing conclusions about a person from the way he walks.  Here’s what’s in the book now by way of explanation:

It came to me in numbers, of course, the subtle angles and lines of stride and posture.

So, having been given the note of adding a touch of the specific to this part, I found myself researching the mathematics of walking.

OMG SO COOL.

This post is basically a ramp up to tell everyone to go to this website:

Modelling, Step by Step

which models walking and running mathematically, and can I say again, OMG SO COOL.  There’s mathematics behind the maximum speed we can walk (without breaking into a run), why running is more efficient, and why people who are trained to speed-walk can actually walk faster than people who aren’t.  HOLY CRAP THIS IS COOL.

On a side note, I’m constantly excited by how much I learn doing research for this book series.  I’m a theoretical mathematician, which basically means that the only mathy parts I’ve been able to write without research are the ones using high school-level math or physics (e.g. projectile motion) or when my MC was hallucinating.  I know very little applied math at all.  Writing this series has taught me all sorts of useful things, like whether a bullet can knock a grenade off course, and that blood spatter involves trigonometry, and now about the circular motion of walking!

Connotations When Genderswapping Characters

I’m in the midst of implementing beta feedback on my book, and as an experiment I am giving a secondary character who annoyed one of my betas a personality transplant.  Because it was hard to keep my mind from falling back into the well-worn tracks of the character’s previous personality, I also genderswapped him, which has been very effective in forcing my mind to think of the new character as entirely different.

And now there’s a line that’s bugging me.  A line that I thought was funny, when the character was a guy, but now seems . . . a bit skeevy, perhaps, now that I’m talking about a gal.  Here’s the bit, condensed slightly, back when I was talking about a male character:

I still had a valuable item stashed inside, and if I wanted to finish the job and get paid by my client, I had to get it out safely.

[…] I skidded up to a metal utility shed and slammed the sliding door back. My valuable item, also known as Leonard Polk, made a small whimpering sound and scrambled backward before he recognized me and relaxed.

“My valuable item, also known as Leonard Polk.”  Cute, right?

Only when I switched it to Courtney Polk, suddenly it wasn’t cute anymore.  Having my MC refer to a young woman as a “valuable item” who was of only financial worth feels kind of ugly and uncomfortable, feelings I didn’t get about the male version at all.  (For what it’s worth, my MC is a woman, but that doesn’t help.)

I think the reason is that so often, in the real world, women are treated as commodities.  Referring to a young woman as a “valuable item,” or with the pronoun “it,” pushes a button in my brain somewhere.  I start thinking of human trafficking, of women sold as unwilling prostitutes, as things to be bought and sold and traded.

I want to scream, because I really like that section of the text!  I like the wording of it, and the slick segue.  I think it’s clever and even a little funny.

But if I keep the genderswap, I think I have to change it.

Gah!

Visibility Matters: Why POC In Books Must Be *Described* As POC

There’s this thing some people say when folks complain about a lack of diversity in literature—they claim that if characters are not described, then any racism is in the mind of the reader.  That we shouldn’t complain, because it’s our own fault if we imagine the characters as white.

People have thrown this argument out during pretty much every sufficiently long discussion of race in fiction that I’ve had, from when I criticized the lack of diversity in Redshirts or The Dresden Files to when I’ve spoken about it more generally.  It’s almost a sure bet.  In fact, someone brought it up on Twitter today in one of the discussions sparked by the excellent #DiversityInSFF hashtag.

Whenever people use this argument, they treat it as clever, a slick turnaround—”it’s not the author who’s racist, it’s YOU!  You’re the one who’s imagining everyone as white!”  And I want to put my head through a wall, because there is so much wrong with this argument I can’t even.

First of all, let’s talk about why diversity in media is important.  Part of it is so that people, particularly young children, can see characters who look like them in heroic roles—but even supposing children in marginalized demographics haven’t been inculcated enough into the cult of our dominant media to imagine undescribed characters as looking like them (and I dare you to tell me it’s their fault if they don’t; I dare you), that is not the only reason for including POC in literature.

Media is important.  Books are important.  What we read, imagine, absorb—this is culture in its most potent form, and it affects us.  It shapes our perceptions, it pushes at our worldviews.  Can anyone honestly tell me the written word has no power?

When you put something out into the world, when you write a book and you offer it for people to read, you are impacting the culture.

If your book erases the existence of POC in favor of a white land of white heroes, what impact are you having?

If instead your book omits description and the vast majority of your audience defaults to imagining your characters as white anyway—which they will—the difference is academic.  The images in your readers’ minds are the same as if you specified your characters’ monochrome paleness.  Your impact on culture is the same.  And make no mistake, it is an impact.  White characters (or undescribed characters who default to white) are a choice, just as POC characters are a choice, and you are pushing the culture in one particular direction, just as a more colorful cast would push it in another.

But you know what?  There’s another very good reason the “it’s the reader’s fault!” argument is just ridiculously silly, and that’s that it DOESN’T WORK.

You know how I know?  I tried it. I thought, yeah, that argument is bunk, but there might be something to a tweaked version of it—that it might be be a Good Thing if I challenged my own default perceptions, if I made an additional conscious effort to imagine sparsely-described characters with more melanin in their skin, even in books that didn’t take place in strongly minority environments.[1]

And what happened?  I got smacked in the face for it, every single time.  Because somewhere along the way, two chapters or twenty chapters or whatever later, the author would make a reference to the character’s milky skin, to paleness, to a reaction to the appearance of a darker-skinned character . . . and it was so totally clear that this character was meant to be white all along.  That I had been meant to imagine the character as white.  That the author had assumed I had been doing so.[2]

The cognitive dissonance started ruining the reading experience.  Books forced me to white as the default perception.  And they’re doing it to everyone who isn’t trying such an experiment as well, even when we don’t realize it consciously, because any deviation from this happy equilibrium of white-as-the-default is so inevitably punished by the narratives when one so much as pokes one’s nose outside it.

I still try quite hard to imagine more characters of color where I can, because I’m stubborn, and I think it’s valuable for me to do it.  The result of this is that I’ve found myself more and more drawn to authors of color and books with minority milieux,[3] because then I can happily imagine every undescribed character as a POC and not be knocked down a few chapters later by the author’s assumption that I didn’t.

  1. When reading books with a dominant culture that’s nonwhite, this works out just fine, but that’s not what I’m addressing here.
  2. The most hilariously extreme example of this—though with sex rather than race—was when I was reading War of the Worlds, and, perhaps overly influenced by Warehouse 13, decided to imagine the first-person narrator as a woman.  I knew that wasn’t going to be what was intended, but I thought I’d see if I could read the text that way.  I remained undeterred when she spoke of her wife (and hey, Warehouse 13’s female H.G. Wells is bisexual anyway, so it fit!), or of men’s clothing, but was only a few chapters in when the narrator referred to himself as a man.  Shot down.  Now, before anyone jumps up and says, of course you can’t do that with H.G. Wells as he’s ancient!, the vast majority of the books I tried this experiment with were much more modern.  This was just the funniest example.
  3. Which I try to read more and more of anyway.

In Which I Rant for 1,600 Words on Cheating and Plagiarism

Sometimes it seems like not enough people care about plagiarism anymore.

I can’t describe the level of revulsion I feel when I hear about people talk glibly about putting their own names on others’ work.  It makes me feel sick, nauseated, as if I’m watching our society collapse into a dystopia and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

When I’m writing characters, I can pen protagonists who are all over the ethical map.  Some of my heroes have no problem killing.  Some disregard the law entirely, or will take any job for the right price, or will use unsavory methods to get information.  But I don’t think I could ever write a hero who was a plagiarist.  It’s too repulsive.

I’m not one of those Shiny White Knight people who never does anything wrong and judges anybody who puts a toe over the line.  I know people who are Lawful Good, and I am definitely not.  And in many cases, I know I cannot possibly understand people’s lives and backgrounds, so I’m pretty nonjudgmental in general.  He who is without sin, etcetera, etcetera.

So I don’t know why I react so strongly against plagiarism.  Is creativity, is doing one’s own work, such a holy grail that to put your name on someone else’s words becomes an unpardonable crime?

Maybe.

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Links and Such Like

Freedom of Information, Intellectual Property, and Such Like

What It’s Like to Get a National Security Letter, from one of the only people in the country able to talk about it: “Again, they advised me to not even ask my board whether or not I can do this. So this is, in some sense, really putting myself at risk personally. Here I am, trying to make a decision as to whether or not we should sue the United States government over a secret demand for information, on my own.”

Buffy vs. Edward Remix Unfairly Removed by Lionsgate: It’s fair use.  Everyone agrees it’s fair use.  Lionsgate even agreed it was fair use . . . initially.  But they’ve still managed to make this remix artist’s life an exhausting mash of court cases.  This is a very good example of how broken copyright law is in the United States.

Science, Math, and Such Like

Why the Internet should STOP saying dolphins rape each other.  It’s scientifically incorrect and trivializes rape.  Excellent read.

Crazy Living Rock.  Go home, Evolution, you’re drunk.

The caterpillar with a stack of heads.  Seriously, Evolution, go home.  And don’t drive.

A scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem.

What happens when the media and blogosphere start picking up an academic article. Fascinating.

The math on whether Superman could punch someone into space.

And Superman’s ability to inflict people with prosopagnosia.  Since I’m faceblind myself, I got a kick out of this.

A Category 5 Kaiju would only need to eat 18 humans per day.  The math on Kaiju biology!

More math on Pacific Rim: How can they helicopter-lift the GIANT ROBOTS?  I love math on popular media!

A researcher tastes one-billion-year-old water.  For science.

The fallacious ways people weigh medical risk.

HPV rates have dropped by more than half thanks to the vaccine.  FUCK YEAH SCIENCE.

Writing, Blogging, and Such Like

The stats on how much of an article people are likely to read online.  I am totally guilty of most of this, except for the inverse relationship between reading and sharing—generally the articles I share are the ones I was interested enough in to read all the way through!

Why typing two spaces after a period is WRONG.  (Unfortunately, I cannot break myself of the habit, though Twitter is having a good go at it.)

Don’t tell the audience what you’re about to tell them.  Just tell them.

 Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, and Such Like

A tumblr of medieval European art showing that POC, y’know, existed there.  So quit it with the “historical accuracy!” argument.

Fat Nutritionist on beauty as a mask.  Fascinating, thought-provoking, wonderful read.

Real Women Have Carbon-Based Molecules.  Strikes back at the idea that “real women” need to look any particular way.

The Bad Touch.  About the Kickstarter thing.

A 17-year-old girl started a feminist society at school.  What happened next will make you sick.  These girls are high schoolers.

Twitter Trolls Turn Anime Convention Into “Paranoid Nightmare.”  My god . . . the hashtag “#gropecrew” . . . TRIGGER WARNINGS LOTS AND LOTS OF TRIGGER WARNINGS.

Just Because He Breathes: Learning to Truly Love Our Gay Son.

 I Have Met George Zimmerman.  One of the many, many moving responses to the Zimmerman verdict.

Game On Ladies: A man discovers what female gamers face when he plays as his wife’s character.