Category: Writing

Ned Kelly’s Head

The story of Ned Kelly is a pretty interesting and contentious one but the briefest summary of it is that a poor immigrant family got treated badly by the system for just long enough that one of its members renowned for being a badass got sick of it, acted out in an extremely severe way and culminated in his fighting his way through waves of cops wearing an actual literal suit of armour. Caught by the police he hated, he was tried for crimes he very much committed, said goodbye to his family, and was executed, and it’s generally held by the people who don’t like him that that was an entirely reasonable end considering all the bank-hurting and cop-killing he did.

There’s some contention about the character of a dude who broke into banks, held people hostage, then burned all the credit records after taking cash because he hated banks and debt, with a bunch of people pointing out all the wrongful arrests and power abuses in his life making him violent, versus the people, often families of cops, wanting to know why there’s no sympathy for the cops who did things like grab Ned’s dick in public.

It’s a weird story.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk to you about the dude who I think is kind of awesome even if I don’t actually personally think I’m cut out for a life of shooting cops in the face. I wanna talk about what happened after he died. More specifically, I want to tell you about Ned Kelly’s head.

Ned Kelly’s head was separated from his body after his execution. He wasn’t beheaded – no, he was hanged by the neck (until dead), and the removal was for medical research purposes. They wanted to phrenology his skull, to see if there was some sort of proof of criminality in the bumps of his bean. This study was, you might imagine, inconclusive, but not for the reason you’re thinking.

The study of Ned Kelly’s skull was inconclusive because it never got properly studied. And it never got properly studied, because the cops were busy playing with it.

I said playing with it.

I said, the cops took his head off and played catch and table football with it.

The head went through a whole arc of history and we’ve only just now recently – 2015 – interred Kelly’s bones in the place they were supposed to be interred, by his family’s wishes. But that body was interred without a head, and the thing that makes this even more weird is the detective work we had to do to prove whether or not the head was the right head. That meant tracking down a descendant of’s mother through matrilineal progent- you know what, there’s a full article here about it. Your tl;dr, though? The most famous bush ranger of a generation’s head went missing because cops were mucking around with it.

Now, one of the angles in the anti-Kelly story is that hey, Kelly wasn’t justified in hating cops, cops were just doing their jobs.

But if you were just doing your job, would you pull the head off a dead man and play catch with it?

Why?

“Prove Me Wrong!”

We don’t talk enough about falsifiability.

Specifically, we don’t talk too much about how importance it is to think of things that are important to you in terms of what can prove them wrong.

Falsifiability is a wonderful thing. It works in design, for a start. You think your design will lend players going this way, and all you need to do to see if your design does that is to see if the players don’t.

Falsifisability is great when you’re learning about science! What would prove this theory wrong? Well, then we keep an eye out for that. The Bible tells us that it’s true, but all we need to do to falsify that is to find a single place the Bible isn’t true – and with that, the whole proof collapses. Easy!

Falsifisiability is also good when you’re considering your own behaviour and if you’re being an unreasonable b-hole. Is there anything this other person could do that would change what you think of them? Is there anything that might indicate you weren’t 100% in the right? And if you can find that, how will you handle it?

The darker half of this thought is that the unfalsifiable is the sign of the conspiracy theory. The internet stranger whose every actions are always false and evil, no matter what she does, the political system that resists all negative examples, the personal belief that resists any proof to the contrary? Watch out for those. That is a mental space where some abusive earwigs live.

How To Write A Light Novel

Hey friends! There’s a Lite Novel Jam going on over on itch.io. Did I mention there’s a Lite Novel Jam going on? I only ask because I want to make sure that you’re aware of the Lite Novel Jam going on.

There are good odds you have never written a Lite Novel before. That’s great. Neither had most of the people who wrote their first Lite Novel and that’s exactly what this opportunity is for.

Why should you write one? Well, because you want to write one. But this is a particularly good opportunity because right now, you have a gathered audience of people who are at the very least, going to read your book title and maybe give it a shot.

What I want to present here, then is a super-duper crash course on a Lite Novel, as suggested by someone who has written, let’s say, comparable stories.

Scope

A Lite Novel at its litest weighs in at around 8,000 words, quite short. For comparison, this blog post is 1231 words, and you’ve read around 200 of them. When you have only a small number of words, you don’t have a lot of room for what we call world building. You don’t have room for a huge cast or a glossary of every character and their relatives. You need to focus on a small group of characters, maybe as few as two or three, and how they get through their story. You don’t need to isolate them – just like, remember, if you’re doing a story set in school, you don’t need to flesh out every single other student. Focus on what you can.

This scope also means you don’t have tons of room for complex explanations. You may have a reason or an explanation for how your hacker exploited McDonalds’ code for their registers, but you don’t need to put that there.

Part of why we give these Lite Novels such silly, ostentatious names is because that title becomes part of how you set the scope for the story. Substitute Familiar pretty much straight up tells you that hey, familiars exist in this world, and there’s probably, like substitutes for them like substitute teachers or other temp work. It’s a load-bearing title but that load bearing does a lot to frame what you read.

It’s also typically a genre full of what’s known as magical realism. That is to say, there is an assumption that things are, pretty much, like reality, and occasionally, magical things will happen, but it will go uncommented on and unexplained. This can help you with the scope. If your story wants to have a character turn into a talking tree that’s got va-va-voom hips, you don’t have to give the backstory for how that happens, you can just have characters reacting to the thing itself.

You know what does this? Gremlins. Yeah, I know, weird, but in Gremlins, there’s no point where grown adults, encountering Gizmo, go ‘that’s a totally weird thing, and a new animal, and why can it talk? That’s extremely weird.’ Nobody notices or remarks on Gizmo, Gizmo is just there to set up the next bit of the story, and be adorable.

Structure

Okay, so there’s some temptation when you get diving into a lite novel to rip off the standard hero’s journey, or if you don’t know it that way, the star wars plot structure. You know, you start with some sign of a problem, you introduce a character, then you explain their world, etc etc – that’s fine for a sprawling epic, but you don’t have that kind of time or space.

What I want to suggest for you, in Lite Novels, is the Pixar plot.

The Pixar plot structure is something you can reduce by watching any given Pixar movie, and it doesn’t matter if they’re big and epic like Wall-E or small and personal like Ratatouille or Toy Story. They’re stories that follow the same basic pattern:

“Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”

The important thing about this structure is that it often doesn’t need a villain or an antagonist as much as it needs a disruption, an interruption. Now, most Pixar films feature some form of opposition or enemy, but you’ll notice how they’re kind of just… there, often only there to compete for something at the end or in the mid-point. Consider the evil Chef in Ratatouille or the rival driver in Cars. They’re not there to enact a grand plan. They’re just there to provide some contest at the end, because you’re at the second Until Finally.

These Pixar movies start out with a pretty good status quo. Life is okay, and people are pretty happy though there’s some small thing, one single thing, that’s… flawed. Then something changes them, and the protagonist is not happy about it, and then something happens and they resolve it, and return to that status quo without the flaw. That really is it. Woody has a nice life as a toy except he has to be paranoid about new toys arriving, then Buzz arrives and he gets mad about it, the Buzz plot is resolved and Woody is happy again with the paranoia removed because now he recognises new additions to his life are potential friends.

This is the formula I recommend for your Lite Novel and I recommend it in part because it’s kind of how Cat Wishes works. In Cat Wishes, everyone at the start of the story is pretty okay with their lives but all have something going on that they keep hidden. Then a cat grants a series of wishes and they’re left trying to adjust to their new life, and when it resolves, they more or less go back to their former life. They’re still friends, except now, you know, they’re catgirls and one of them is making out with someone they really wanted to make out with.

That’s all you need! Think of the end point for the status quo you think would be cool, then you can work backwards to think of the way those events might have looked before.

No Need For Bummers

Finally, you don’t need to make your story sad or miserable or anything like that for it to be fun or worth reading! If you want your story to be as simple as characters going to the store and negotiating around some fun quandrary that happens there, that is totally fine. You don’t need to make your characters miserable to have your story taken seriously. Let me repeat that: You don’t need to make your characters miserable to have your story taken seriously.

What you want to do with a Lite Novel is put forward characters you (and a hypothetical reader) can care about, doing something that lets you show how they’re the different or the same, and then give them a resolution that means the situation at the start of the story is not exactly the same as the situation at the end.

Is this the only way to do this? Of course not. That’s silly. This is a toolkit – something you can grab to get a hold of your story and get it underway. And I recommend you do it, because hey, writing is fun, and a Lite Novel is a great way to get started!

The Traits Of Objects

You may have heard about the idea of ‘objectification.’ When I wrote about Daredevil, I trotted out a list – Instrumentality, Agency, Ownership, Fungibility, Violability, and Subjectivity. Where’d that list come from? Is it a tool you can use for your own writing?

One of the things I like with critical tools is that you can turn them on work that exists, and illuminate traits of the work you wouldn’t otherwise notice, but also, like an inverted puzzle piece, you can turn the tool on a work you’re developing yourself, and in the process, see spaces you can use to fill things out to achieve what you want. In this case, the tool is useful for avoiding the objectification of a character, which is to say, you can use this checklist to imbue a character with character.

As for the list’s origin, it’s from the work of Martha Nussbaum, and her writing was about people, not about media. It was also expanded by Rae Langton – whose work primarily focuses on sex and pornography. I don’t have a strong grounding in either of these creators, and I have the nagging feeling that digging into the views of a pair of 50+ year old Feminist Philosophers will find something nasty and TERFy. So don’t take my appreciation of this tool as an endorsement of them.

The full list, including both Nussbaum and Langton’s categories, and the questions they ask, is as follows:

  • Instrumentality: Does this character exist to only enact the purpose of another? Are they a tool? Could you replace them with a vending machine?
  • Agency: Is the character ever demonstrated as having their own purpose, their own ability to make decisions for themselves?
  • Ownership: Is the character ever depicted as being literally the property of another? And if they are, is that depiction ever showing that as being reasonable? Parents, for example, are often depicted as owning their children. How do you think of that relationship?
  • Fungibility: Can the character be swapped for another character of a similar type? Is the character replaceable? How would the actions of the character differ if another character was called upon to do the same thing?
  • Violability: Can people act on the character without consequence? Can you punch them with no followup?
  • Subjectivity: Does the character’s individual experience and personal opinion ever matter? When they disagree with someone is it because of a personal interpretation of events? What fuels that thought?
  • Reduction To Body: Can the character be thought of as just a particular component of their body? Are they a fist to attack someone with, a foot to step on someone? This is very common in pornography – is a character, for lack of a less crude term ‘Tits The Girl?’
  • Reduction To Appearance: Does a character matter primarily in terms of how appealing they are to the senses? A good test of this again, is to check how these characters could be organised in terms of being ‘the hottest’ or ranked for appearance.
  • Silencing: Is the character voiceless? Are they treated as if they are voiceless? Does it ever matter if they say anything? Do other people react to what they have to say?

Sometimes there are some really weird things you can get by applying this toolset. For example, lots of the characters in Joss Whedon’s work are fungible – they almost all can say the same lines of dialogue. Zack Snyder’s Perry White in Batman V Superman hasn’t really got Subjectivity – he exists to oppose Lois Lane’s efforts, without a justifiable rationale for doing so. But you wouldn’t necessarily assume that Perry White is objectified as much, in this case, as he is just an object.

Not every character in a story needs to be a non-object. There will always be room for goons and audiences and randoms. Stories thrive on having objects in them. The thing to look out for in your own work is if all the objects you’re using have common traits – if all the black people in your story, for example, are fungible, you probably have a problem. If when you need a random character to dismiss as being meaningless, you reach to make it a woman, you’ve got to wonder why you keep doing that.

And also knock that off.

This list also makes a valuable way to examine your characters and see if there are new ways you can add dimensions to them. Make them more real. Just recognise that sometimes, a messenger can just be a messenger, they don’t need a backstory and a family and seven layers of motivation if they’re going to turn up and tell you that Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are dead.

Choices In Narrative

A little writing advice, for those who struggle with the idea of larger works which are themselves composed of many smaller works. It’s easy to imagine sequences of action and reaction, but it’s harder to render cause and effect. Here is a simple thesis about how to view goals in storytelling; the beginnings and endings of acts, things that determine the consequences that shape each stage of the plot.

An act concludes when a character the act pivots around makes a choice that cannot be undone.

This logically presents a challenge for time travel stories. The point is that these things represent necessary gates on a characters’ story, a point where the story has to accept and render permanent a new state.

I find this is a good way to think of stories and it can help to isolate why so many stories – especially those in heavily franchised works – don’t actually feel like they matter much. In any given Sweet Valley or Christian Ripoff Of The Same story, any individual misunderstanding will be solved by characters just explaining things and talking it out and maybe praying and talking to the pastor. It’s a useful rule of thumb for marking points where stakes reside: The way tomorrow is different from today.

 

Why We Laugh At Things

Humour is something that’s talked about plenty online but one thing I see rarely discussed when we’re mad about something is why things are funny. It’s understandable, because unless you’re me, you probably find this topic quite dull. Still, humour is a thing that, despite what you may want to think, does have some actual rules and conventions, and even a cause and effect. I, as someone who has done a single year of University am therefore in a perfect position to explain this enormous subject and I won’t mess it up at all, honest.

All humour derives from a subversion of expectation.

Your brain is a fairly sophisticated device that tries to keep track of the future, which it’s kind of bad at, but also pretty decent at, considering. When you see a ball thrown at you, your brain does all sorts of math to track where it’s going and can more or less work out where it’s going to end up and if it’s going to hit you in the face. You wake up each day with a general expectation of what’s going to happen in it, and your brain actually patterns behaviour based on that. Talking to people, you have the same thing; as they explain things to you, you will expect things. Want to see this in effect? Look at comedy shows from other countries, even subtitled. There will be social cues that you don’t understand, and therefore, when they are averted, you won’t understand why it’s funny – or even why it’s so funny. Even British comedy does this. Even surreal British comedy like Monty Python’s Flying Circus does this!

Of late I’m seeing people enraged by components of jokes, and the defense being it’s just a joke. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. What you have to look for is to find what, in the joke, you’re meant to laugh at. What’s the expectation? Why is it meant to be funny?

I don’t want to use any examples for this. The ones I can think of are – or have now become touchstones of outrage and anger and legitimate hurt. Too often though, I’ll see a joke where the point of the joke is to highlight someone being an asshole – you’re meant to laugh at the bad person, with the bad view. But then people become caught up in arguing that the view they forward is the point of the joke. That there is one interpretation and the one they wield is the correct and harmful one.

(There’s also a whole extra nest of ‘this media is enjoyed by people it affects, but not all of them’ which I don’t want to get into).

Instigatory Events and One Stone

As a matter of structure, stories are meant to happen in a world. They happen in the context of a place with some degree of homeostasis: There is a natural order, a way things are, and then this order is disrupted, leading to the events of the story. I feel that in a good story, there are as few of these disruptions as possible – that a good story is about how a minimal number of disruptions re-contextualise existing tensions and operating order into the path of what we call the narrative. The Netflix series Stranger Things is a good example where one major event happens and everything else is just reactions to that event, or reactions to reactions to that event. Everything is in a stable loop until the event, and then that event results in the greater narrative.

Now, I’m going to give you a chance to bail out on this reading because SPOILERS FOR ONE STONE. And I mean it, this is a pretty big spoiler, as in ‘you can read the whole book and not realise this is in there.’ I’m going to briefly outline something about One Stone I was thinking of in this vein: Continue reading

Success! And Not!

Yesterday I offered the incredibly nebulous and not at all satisfying off-handed comment that ‘success is complicated’ which can go into the pile along with my similar expressions like ‘success is random, basicallly,’ which I’d like to expand on now as a sort of signal of hope for the people around me and as a way to tangle with my own success, or rather, my own grotesque lack of it.  The challenge in addressing this is that when put to it I’ll wind up talking about things I do like and things I don’t like and wind up saying something rude about a piece of media you do like, and I know that tends to upset people so if you don’t want to hear me being mean to books or games or tv shows, maybe just head somewhere else and chill out for a bit. Anyway. Continue reading