Post Traumatic Forum Memories, Informed Ignoramuses and Dialogue Guidelines

Everyone has a moment in their lives that they just can’t forget. For me, it’s about grammar. Now I am not talking about first kisses or umbilical cords here, but the little things that keep us awake at night, things we wish we could have said to defend our egos. We can all remember a cruel joke made at our expense, or a rude comment, or some awful truth someone pointed out about us that sticks like a thorn in our hearts, like the time my brother snidely pointed out I misspelled karatie (I spent the next 30 years correcting his tortured spelling). Internet forums are breeding grounds for these kinds of memories. It’s no wonder kids are killing themselves left and right. The anonymity of social media gives the jerks of the world free reign to be jerks. As a child, I was bullied a lot. Between fourth and eighth grade, humiliation was a daily routine, and without any friends, and extremely negligent parents, it’s a wonder I didn’t jump into the dough mixer at my father’s restaurant. Maybe if we had had Facebook, I would not be here today. But what really got me through those tough days was a sense of personal worth, rooted entirely in the belief that I was destined for greatness. No matter what the kids said about me, it didn’t matter, because I could create worlds. This is why I fell apart in 2004. The bullying I endured, on a fantasy fiction forum, was not directed at me per se, but at my writing, and my book, The Dark Age of Enya. This wasn’t any honest criticism, either, because none of the people involved had the book to read. Only one copy was sent out to one reviewer. The rest focused on the prologue which I had posted on my website. I was compared to “guy who copies Lord of the Rings” which is ridiculous, considering I am not much of a Tolkien fan, and my book had a lot more in common with the works of Homer and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The other thing that sticks in my mind has to do with grammar and dialogue. After giving my prologue a cursory glance, someone informed me that,

The problem with your writing is that nobody “says” anything. When writing dialogue, the only word you should ever use is “said”.

I call these types of people informed ignorant* (coined phrase) and there is nothing more insidious or infuriating on Internet forums. Worse than complete ignoramuses, which you can at least ignore, informed ignoramuses are people with a kernel of knowledge, people who, after reading a book about writing or history or science, delude themselves into believing that they have become experts in the field. That I had a BA degree in English and read a dozen books on grammar and style was irrelevant, this guy had read a book and was qualified to school me. He even went so far as to offer this example,

“Hello,” said Bob.

“Hello,” said Jane.

Don’t use words like replied, answered, questioned, remarked, murmured, etc., those are all incorrect, he said. Good writers should only use the word said. Of course, this is total bullshit, and any writer with an ounce of experience could have told him so. Hell, you don’t even have to be an English major, just pick up any random book and flip to any page.

From a Storm of Swords:

page 217:
“Say it,” Ygritte urged.
” . . . me?” finished Mance Rayder.

page 288:
“Evenfall!” she shouted as her plow horse thundered by.
“Was,” Jaime agreed.

page 480:
“Not for long,” her son promised.
“Battles,” muttered Robb . . .

These took only minutes to find, and if the great George R.R. Martin can use words like urged, finished, shouted, agreed, promised and muttered, so can I. The thing is, I know where this critic was coming from. What he had read as a guideline, he took as an absolute rule, but there are no absolutes in writing. Good style is all about nuance. It is true that the best word to use for dialogue is said, because it is the least distracting, but the same goes for any word. If you are constantly digging out your thesaurus looking for the most obscure synonyms, you’re going to alienate your readers and pull them away from your story. Sometimes the best word is the most common.

But even if this is what he had meant to say, “Hey, buddy, you should really just stick to said most of the time,” he’d still be wrong, and an informed ignoramus. Why? Well, for all you aspiring writers out there, I am going to let you in on a little secret. When writing dialogue, it’s better to avoid “to say” verbs altogether. The only thing the reader has to know is who is speaking, and this can easily be accomplished by starting a new paragraph every time you switch speakers. Example:

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

If it’s unclear who is speaking to whom, or if you want to add vividness to the scene, consider this,

Bob watched as night spread over the sky. Orion’s belt was beginning to emerge like a string of diamonds overhead. The last bit of sunlight dipped below the horizon when Jane came through the front door. He waved her over. “Hello.”

She sat beside him on the porch swing, staring into the heavens. “Hello.”

Of course, this is only a guideline, a suggestion, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an informed ignoramus. I only wish I had, at the time, told him as much.

Hideo Kojima’s Quiet, meet Thelana . . .

Sexist or just silly?

Internet land exploded recently when a Bungie employee (makers of Halo) in an interview described the design for a new Metal Gear Solid character as “disgusting”. I remember being a huge fan of Hideo Kojima’s work after I played his first game on the original Playstation. I was especially enamored by the many philosophical concepts he tackles in his series, things you don’t typically find in a stealth/action game. While Kojima’s name will likely never be brought up in any Philosophy 101 course, it’s nice to know that games can deal with more grown-up fare from time to time. Now it seems Kojima’s name has become synonymous with sexism and everything wrong with our male-dominated society. While I consider myself a feminist to some degree, I do get defensive when certain women go into rage mode regarding scantily clad characters. With regards to income inequalities, intrusive medical mandates and our overall beauty obsessed magazine culture, sexism is a continuing problem in our society, and yes, popular media tends to fuel this problem. But any discussion regarding depictions of women in the media should be focused on “objectification” meaning “to make an object” or to “dehumanize”. While sexy images, particularly those in smut magazines like Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler do objectify women (Penthouse is particularly bad, calling their centerfolds “pets”) it isn’t the nudity itself that is the problem, otherwise, feminists would also have to complain about the Venus de Milo or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 

Conversely, a female character can be fully dressed and be objectified. I sometimes finds things sexist that most people do not even notice. Am I the only one, for instance, who felt that the real hero in Harry Potter was Hermione? The author is a woman, oddly enough, so you cannot blame her for intentional sexism, not consciously anyway, but still, Hermione is the real hero of that franchise; Harry just bumbles along and everyone calls him the “chosen one”. Being the father of two daughters, I encounter sexism in video games all the time. Whenever I pick up a Wii title for my 9 year old, the first question she asks is, “Is there a girl in it? Can I play a girl?” It saddens me when I have to say, “Sorry.” It’s also frustrating having to explain why in Super Mario Bros. Wii and Wii U, you can play as Mario, Luigi, and two male Toads (count them, two) but no Princess Peach or even Toadette. There is a very subtle message here: girls are helpless victims and must wait to be rescued by a male figure. Super Princess Peach aside (and even in that Gameboy exclusive, her chief ability is crying), I’ll take a bikini clad warrior who kicks butt any day.

Point is, a scantily clad or nude female character is not inherently sexist and a fully dressed character certainly can be. Naturally, sex sells, and feminists can cry foul for a million years and never change the fact that men enjoy looking at women, more so sans apparel. This is design by evolution. But desire for sex does not fall exclusively into the male or female domain (see Fifty Shades of Grey). Rather, lust is just one of many emotional facets that makes us human. The problem derives when eliciting desire becomes a female character’s only quality (I am looking at you, Red Sonja). In this case, the character does become, in the eyes of male viewers, an object, which is admittedly disgusting and degrading. So is Hideo Kojima’s character, Quiet, unrealistic? You bet! Ridiculous? Definitely! Representative of an unfair double-standard? Probably. Sexist? Not so fast . . .

Take Thelana. This girl could be deemed the very epitome of sexism, and yet, she is anything but an object in Ages of Aenya. In this character we have the whole gamut of human emotion, from fear, sorrow and pride to love, jealousy and compassion. She is courageous, intelligent, and every bit as capable as any male hero. She is a farmer, a warrior and a thief. Incidentally, she never uses sex as a tool, and beauty is not her “primary virtue” as feminist Susan J. Douglas might argue, but rather, climbing and archery. We even get to know Thelana’s father, mother, and eleven siblings by name. The only thing that really sets her apart from most female characters: she’s nude most of the time, as in no clothes whatsoever. Why? Why couldn’t she be all those things and keep her clothes on for heaven’s sake? Two reasons  1) Nudity is beautiful and the heroic nude is a tradition that dates back to Ancient Greece, and  2) More importantly, Thelana is a naturist (as is the author) and if you’ve never experienced the joy and connectedness that comes from experiencing nature in the buff, you cannot really comment on it, which is why many of my female naturist friends identify with Thelana, because they are neither whores, strippers, or objects of male desire. And before any feminist gets all up in arms about double standards, Xandr, the male hero, is just as naked just as often, because there really is a double standard when it comes to male vs. female nudity.

Thelana is completely naked. Is she a sexist character?

As ridiculous as Hideo Kojima’s new heroine appears, let’s not rush to judgment here. Let’s play the game and see what this character is all about, while keeping in mind that the most insidious form of sexism is more often found in places where it has the most damaging influence, in the minds of young girls, particularly with the dearth of role-models for young girls in video games.

Aenya News Update: 9/10/2013

I must apologize for the lack of content. My efforts are being directed toward my novel, The Princess of Aenya, about which I am feeling very positive. With each new book (PoA is my fourth), the writing process becomes less laborious, so I can focus more on story and character. To commemorate the start of this new project, I picked up an Apple Macbook Air (my first time using Apple) which is great, but not without downsides. It’s lightweight, the keyboard is quick and responsive, and it boots up in seconds. The bad: no ‘delete’ key (yeah, you read that right) and MS Word is a bit glitchy, so I am learning to use Scrivener, a word processor made specifically for writers.

My wife (god bless her) is still working as my agent-agent, querying weekly. Unfortunately, Ages of Aenya is a hard sell. It’s just too damn brilliant to be pigeonholed into one sentence or paragraph, nor does it fall easily into genre types like “vampire romance” or “billionaire sadomasochism fantasy”. The very best books defy categorization. Think Frank Herbert’s Dune; how do you describe that to an agent? Oh, it’s a book about giant worms, a desert planet, and a drug that makes you see into the future! Ages of Aenya is like that. Yes, it’s about naked heroes on another planet, fighting to save the world from a cyborg; but really, such a description is an injustice. I am sometimes discouraged by agent apathy, but whenever someone actually reads the thing—and I mean really reads it—the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. This is why I have been brainstorming ways to promote Aenya besides the traditional route:

1.) deviantArt is a great place to start. As of this posting, the most recent image of ‘Xandr and Thelana‘ by Frans Mensink garnered 9922 views, 163 comments and 548 favorites. Each and every comment has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of my favorites: Adam and Eve are BACK…and THIS time, they’re NOT taking any apples!!! / This one is so *** awesome!!! I’m in love! / THIS IS SO EPIC! / They both look badder than hell. / Doesn’t get any tougher than this. Gotta be hardcore to do battle completely in the buff. / I love the fact that they don’t use the classic thong designed to cover the minimum. Those guys are more honest and more logical. / I personally think there’s nothing much more badass than a dude/lady that kick your ass while wearing nothing. It takes real valor and guts. Awesome, huh? It just goes to prove that nudephobia/homophobia is becoming a thing of the past. Ironically, images of Xandr and Thelana have overcome prejudice, just as the characters in the novel. The times, they are a changin’. A free book giveway, linked to more great art, might be a way to get attention. And be sure to hit the link above to add your comments!

2.) Ads on popular / related sites, like Facebook, He-Man.org, and any and all Sci-Fi/Fantasy sites.

3.) I have been thinking a lot about YouTube. Popular videos are seen by millions. A video showcasing work by Frans Mensink and Alexey Lipatov, combined with flashy text and the right music, might be a great way to reach out to more people. After all, I already have a rough cut illustrated story which you can read here: The Ages of Aenya: Illustrated Adventure.

4.) If agents feel uncertain about Ages of Aenya because I am an unknown author, they may feel more inclined after The Princess of Aenya gets picked up, which is a bit more mainstream, especially in the clothing department.

Finally, Alexey has agreed to work on the first portrait of Princess Radia Noora of Tyrnael, which I will be posting soon, so stay tuned!