Reflecting In A Mirror (Writing Advice Stuff)

There’s a nonzero chance that this one is going to be really, really self-indulgent and kind of maudlin and maybe even preachy, in that particular way of a boy who turned forty yelling at young people when he hits a point and feels like he failed at something nobody was ever grading him on. I got a bad grade at being Talen Lee, a thing that’s possible to have and yet, somehow, I always expected.

This has been kicked off in part by reading The Locked Tomb books, and should therefore be seen as an absolute mark in their favour, even if I don’t think you’d ever be able to get out of them what I got out of them.

Here are the lessons in summary form, so you don’t have to read the rest of this mess:

  • Characterisation is story. The way characters approach things, what they look at and how they care about them is part of how you tell the story.
  • Embrace community. Building friendships with people who are interested in your work, and whose work you are interested in, will help you get better at making things.
  • Buy My Book (Don’t Buy My Book). You need to convince people to engage with what you’ve made and that means being willing to share it with them and even ask them to look at it.
  • You Have To Love your Work. The biggest failing all my work has is that I’m embarrassed of it, and horrified by the idea of putting stuff in it that I care about for fear of revolting people around me. Don’t do that, centre the things you care about.

Characterisation Is Story Machinery

In The Locked Tomb there’s multiple sets of information you get depending on who and how you’re getting presented with the information. The first book you’re almost exclusively in the shoes of Gideon Nav – there’s some diegetic poetry and the like and things like a dramatis personae – and that means you look at things in the terms and positions of how Gideon Nav cares about things. There’s a whole mystery that’s sealed away from you because Gideon doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t care about it. Instead of looking at the complex mystery of lyctorhood, she’s starting from a much harder mystery of ‘what the fuck is going on here?’

This means that the story gets to play out like a locked room (hah) murder mystery, with a dwindling cast and increasing stakes and all that good stuff, all while keeping the focus ever tighter. There’s a bunch of stuff that Gideon doesn’t bother inspecting – she doesn’t look at the paintings of God in any detail for example – that give the story room to do that later, with a different perspective – like how we learn what God looks like from Harrow looking him in the face – and therefore any mysteries attached to that are left for other people’s revelations – third example that’s spoilery goes here.

This means that machinery of the story – getting the reader to progress from point to point – is enabled and inhibited in different ways by the reader’s experiencing of that characterisation. Three characters bickering at length about an assumed topic create an impression to the reader (and a perspective character, if you’re using them) that it’s about Thing A instead of Thing B.

In One Stone, one part of the plot turns on the assumption of a character’s name as being significant in the context of heraldry and therefore, legitimacy of its relationship to the claim for the authority of the throne and the empire. It is a big deal and it is wrong, every single time it comes up. The story only once explains what about it is wrong, and it’s explained after the fact, because whether or not it’s true isn’t important, but it is also important that it’s not even true. Throughout the story, I wrote Aderyn — a polyglot one of her many autistic girl swag traits — correcting people on their assumptions of common language traits like what Du, De, and Deux mean.

This is something I loved doing in One Stone. It’s something that I think I can point to, unequivocally and say: Hey, I like doing this, I like the effect of it, and I bet you can make better stories if you bear it in mind. If you’re thinking about who is saying what and why they say the things they are saying and how you get to add more information to a story that reinforces the ideas your story wants to focus on. Being told you’re late by your boss is different to being told you’re late by your mother which is different to being told you’re late by your uterus. Who delivers a message is part of that message.

Embrace Community

I think it was around the age of sixteen or so that I stopped making and sharing fanfiction. I don’t make and share fanfiction now. I mean I did make and share fanfiction, by the smart, academic definition. One Stone is a full retelling of Julius Caesar, just changed up to be more like the kind of story I like. The dialogue isn’t told in iambic pentameter, violence is actually a good thing when applied well to the people who are causing problems, and an empty throne is the best throne. Doesn’t stop the basics of the story being templated directly off the Shakespeare play.

It’s fanfic!

It’s fanfic, and it’s the first piece of fanfic I really released anywhere and I treated seriously, in something like at the time fifteen years. And I didn’t share it or even try at it because I think for the whole of that block of time I was spending my time thinking fanfiction is stupid. Fanfiction is bad. Fanfiction is something that I did when haha I was a stupid kid but you’d never want to read it.

This was a stupid mindset. Poisonous. Terrible!

Instead of spending fifteen years – years!! – writing stories and sharing them with a community that was willing to approach stories as stories, and getting better at them, I spent that time shrinking my world. And yes, okay, I know, it sucks to look at practice writing and building communities and like, having friends as being instrumental to the purpose of getting better at writing. It’s not a nice way to think about it. It’s just a really, really obvious example of the way that my path moved away from Muir’s, where she continued actively making fanfiction and friends in the fanfiction spaces and partook of social fun through creative work.

I’m not trying to claim ‘oh sure I’d be that good if I had fifteen years more work’ that’s not the point. The point is that there’s a narrative here, for me. A story I told myself, I think. The story was about how unfair it was that if you were popular on The Penny Arcade forums, you could make a Homestuck. If you were popular on a Homestuck you could make an Undertale, or, indeed, a The Locked Tomb. I sting, I burn inside at this moment, thinking about how… how afraid I was of making friends who would partake in the writing I made, who would read my stories and play my games and listen to my podcasts. How even now I keep reluctant distance from people who might like what I do.

How even now, the thought that of course, my family, my friends, my closest people don’t and won’t read this, because who would. Who could?The point of putting these words out here like this is to desperately open my heart and let these words drip out into a river where I might find the few freaks and weirdos who want to see them.

And they have! But like

isn’t it kind of fucked up the way that I think the people who love me the most don’t care about what I have to say or think?

And why?

Buy My Book (Don’t Buy My Book)

There’s an element of history at work here for me. Shortly after I was born, when I was four years old, my dad wrote a book. It’s honestly a marvel, it’s self-publishing before self-publishing was a meaningful thing. It’s a book about the size of an Animorphs book, and it’s about the way that modern translations of the Bible erode Biblical Doctrine. The book also credits Allen Roberts, the man I understand is technically my godfather, and who became internationally famous for being captured by Turkish separatists while trying to prove that a mound on a mountain is the actual Ark.

I’m not joking, he was on the news.

It’s… it’s absurd. Neither my father nor this man are in any way experts on the subject about which they write. Like, I mean this completely honestly, if there was a youtube around in 1992, there would be dudes who had made very thorough debunking videos of this book if it got any attention. Allen Roberts’ work is still brought up on the creation science circuit, by the same circle of assholes you might see Professor Dave humiliate.

But I didn’t know that. Honestly, I didn’t know that twenty minutes ago.

I knew, growing up, that there was a crate of this book in my house. A full crate of an entire book. Nobody ever got a copy. Nobody ever bought one that I knew. Dad didn’t bring it out or show it to anyone. He didn’t share it or advocate for it. I don’t remember seeing it even in the church bookstores of the churches we were in, which was a collection of shelves with church-approved materials.

It was essentially, a project that consumed my dad enough that he made a physical investment in a giant pile of material effort and that effort sat in an ammunition crate in every house I lived in until I moved out and not once did I ever see anyone want a copy. Nobody I know ever referenced it with him. And on the one hand I admire my dad for not pushing his book – for not wanting to be that guy, that pushy, horrible preacher we’d seen, who wanted you to buy his book buy his book buy his book, because that guy… well we could always tell there was something subtly evil about that guy, right? Like, the fact that a preacher sells things doesn’t set off your warning bells if you’re an American is a sign to me that you’re either spiritually sick or a fucking rube. I can appreciate the discipline to not ask people please, love me, I did something that’s really difficult.

On the other hand, uh, you probably shouldn’t read my dad’s book. Not even to make fun of it. It’s almost certainly not very good, and I say that because it’s an attempt to address a problem that my dad sees as vitally important about which, academically, he probably doesn’t know anything. It’s kind of hard to say this aloud because I wouldn’t say it to his face, but I do not believe my father is qualified to talk about biblical translation and I know Allen Roberts isn’t. My case for why they can’t be experts in Biblical translation is because they both are Biblical Literalists, a thing that you kind of can’t be if you understand the Bible with any depth at all. The good news is, though, nobody reads that book because it doesn’t convince anyone to read it and it’s not work presented by people who would have reason to respect it. It’s a self-published book that a dude without much money made and now it’s a trivia entry on a theological book database page, as its only meaningful hit.

That book haunts me.

I do not want to be the boy who wrote that kind of book. I do not want to present myself as an expert and rely on talking to people who know a tiny bit less than me who trust me. I am mortified of the idea of putting academic work out there and hearing someone who knows better going ‘jesus christ, what the hell are you talking about?’ I do not want to write a book and have it sit in my house forever because nobody knows about it or loves it or wants it. I want my book to be read. I want my book to be loved. And the love..

… the love is where a problem comes in.

You Have To Love Your Work

Hey, what does Rafe look like?

What does Gideon Nav look like?

Now, the former, you might be able to manage but the latter is very, very clear if you’ve read The Locked Tomb. You’ve probably also seen fanart of Gideon Nav, and I swear I’m not just doing the unfair thing of comparing my blog-published afternoon hobby novel number 3 to the professionally produced work by a better writer than me, I really am not. What I want to illustrate here is that in The Locked Tomb characters are described. Characters have looks, characters have styles and presentations and presences and other characters react to them and engage with them and then fanartists can conceive in their own minds how these things look and interact. And then they want to present those ideas, they want to share them! Because they’re excited by them and they love them and they find them interesting!

By contrast, even the one person who’s drawn art of the characters in One Stone was given a description with a lot of ‘uhhh I dunno.’There’s a visual detail about Rafe that is meant to be fundamental to a hidden puzzle in the book that I never ever clarified to the point where it’s effectively a complete mystery.

It’s not like I don’t know how Rafe should look. Rafe looks like a way in my head but I am not willing to share that in case I describe an appearance that’s wrong. Or inadequate. Or … or bad.

When I think about writing One Stone with more detail, I keep seizing up. I keep having these moments of honestly, panic and sadness. I keep thinking that hey, no, that book is years old now, nobody cares about it (well, they and they and they do care about it but they might just be being nice to me), and nobody cared that much about it (well again except then). If I go back to this book, isn’t that just being self-indulgent? Aren’t I just putting forward what I like out of something I told them was complete? Aren’t I running the risk of somehow ruining something that is good that is already there when I go back in and clod over it!?

I am afraid of making it clear how Rafe looks, how Aderyn looks, because what if I do that, and you don’t like them.

What if I do and it doesn’t make anyone more interested.

What if I do this, and nobody cares.

What if I once again stand on a street corner and ask people to love what I did, love a little bit of me, and even people close to me go ‘ehhh, maybe another time?’ It’s not like they’re obligated. It’s not like they need to care or should care. Right now I’m reluctant to tag this post with the locked tomb because I feel like hey, what if someone wanted to search that tag and found this? Isn’t that rude of me, to make them see this?! That’s a messed up way to look at my own work! Like, ‘do what you do with sincerity and success will follow’ still irritates me a great deal, because it feels almost protestant in how it implies the reason other people failed is because they weren’t sincere enough. But am I sincere enough? Is it worth having the story show the way that the world of One Stone isn’t an alt-history but an alt-future created by a climate change apocalypse and who would care about that added detail?



it hurts me to try and imagine a scenario where people love what I do if I just show them what I like and care about

and I think that’s really fucked up