Archive for April, 2023


Dressing the Characters

Reading my manuscript as an e-book is an interesting experience. At times I get caught up in it, but then I find myself reading critically and spotting things I want to fix. I’m getting more into it as I progress, probably because I’m past the spot where I rewrote it over and over again so the words are less familiar.

I got sidetracked yesterday, though, by designing “costumes” for my characters. I realized I have almost no description of what anyone’s wearing. I have a mental image, but I haven’t conveyed that very well. I don’t necessarily feel the need to describe everything everyone wears, but I do think I need to convey the overall sense of what people are wearing in this world.

This is “secondary world” fantasy, so I don’t have to be accurate to any particular time period, but that in a way makes things more difficult because it’s harder to find reference images to help me have a more solid mental image for me to describe. So far, I’d describe the overall look in this place to be medieval meets Old West. Of course, I can’t use those terms in the book because these people wouldn’t know what either of those things are.

When I first started writing down the stories in my head when I was 12, I tended to get sidetracked designing costumes for my characters. My notebooks of story notes have as many (very rough) drawings of dresses as they do real story notes. That meant I didn’t get very far in the writing part. Now, though I seem to have swung the other way and my characters seem to be walking around in generic, bland clothing that doesn’t get described. They’re wearing pants and shirts and dresses, but there’s no hint at what they look like.

And that meant some searching online to find examples of things to help me create an overall look. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. I’m not trying to draw things now, just finding images so I can think “these pants plus this kind of shirt and this kind of jacket, but without that trim.”

I’ve also found a few dresses and blouses I’d love to have, but I wouldn’t have anywhere to wear them. Maybe when I make a profit on this book, I’ll celebrate by buying something.


The Next Round Begins

I must like that last book I was working on because I found myself eager to get back to work on it. I like to let a manuscript rest at least two weeks after I finish a first draft so that I can look at it with fresh eyes and be less tied to the process of writing it. I didn’t quite make it two full weeks before I wanted to jump back in. I figure it’s been months since I wrote the beginning, so it’s been far more than two weeks on that part.

Right now, I’m trying to read it like a reader would and see how it works for me in the big picture. That’s hard to do because my impulse is to start editing. On the last book I wrote before this one, I got the idea to read the manuscript on my tablet, which makes it a lot harder to edit as I go (so I just don’t). But it still looks like a manuscript, so I read it that way. With this book, I got the bright idea to format the manuscript as an e-book so it’s just like reading any other book on my tablet. I still find things I want to fix, which is okay, since that’s the purpose of this exercise. When I find something that doesn’t work for me or that needs to be changed, I write it down in my notebook, but otherwise, I keep reading. I literally can’t make changes in the document I’m reading. It also helps to get away from my desk. I’m mostly reading this while sitting on the patio, exactly the way I’d read for pleasure. It’s interesting how reading this way changes my mindset about how I’m looking at the story.

I need to rework the beginning — I may not need most of the first chapter — and there are some decisions I made late in the book that mean I need to adjust some things early in the book, but I’m enjoying the story and like the characters. This is a good sign. I like being in this world. I don’t think I’m going to have to do major surgery on the next draft, just the beginning. It’ll be mostly about consistency and fine-tuning

After I have all my notes on what needs to be fixed I can get to work on fixing it. After that draft, I think I’m going to brainstorm and draft the second book in the series. I want to have two ready to go before I launch, and it makes sense to draft the second book before finalizing the first book. There may be things I need to change and set up, and there’s no point in finessing the words until the story is locked down.


Is Rey a Mary Sue?

In my previous post, I discussed the definition of a Mary Sue character — an author’s self-insert character who’s too good to be true and with whom the author identifies too closely to be able to write her objectively. Now, for the question about Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Is she a Mary Sue? I’m not so much addressing this out of any desire to defend Rey but to demonstrate how this term is misused and how the misuse often comes down to sexism.

My verdict is that she’s no more a Mary Sue than Luke was in the original trilogy and less than Anakin was in the prequels. I will explain.

To start with, Rey is to a large extent Luke in drag, since her first movie is largely a remake of Luke’s first movie. They’re both orphans with mysterious pasts and Force and piloting talents living on desert planets who get involved in a resistance/rebel movement when they come across a droid carrying critical information. They both end up having to come to terms with their shadowy heritage and save the day by turning the big bad’s key henchman. If Rey is a Mary Sue, then Luke has to be a Gary Stu. Or maybe they’re both just heroes.

One criticism I’ve seen is that Rey is good at everything. She’s an expert mechanic, expert pilot, a quick study in the Force, and instant lightsaber champion. I have to challenge this assertion because it doesn’t fit what we see. She is a good mechanic, but adequate explanation is given for this, since it’s essentially her job even before the story starts. She makes a living by scavenging equipment and fixing it up to sell. She knows the parts that make up a spaceship and what they do. She also lives near a shipyard, and she’s clearly familiar with the ships parked there. Not that she even does anything all that spectacular. She repairs BB-8’s antenna by removing it, straightening it, and putting it back. I could do that much. Then she fixes things on the Falcon, but she’s clearly familiar with the ship and the modifications done to it. It’s not as though she builds a sophisticated droid from spare parts as a child.

She’s also not presented as an expert pilot. She can fly to get to a destination, and she seems to have some familiarity with a variety of craft, but she really has only one big flying sequence in the whole trilogy, when she evades the TIE fighters in the Falcon, and she’s not that great a pilot there. She bumps into things and is wobbly. She nearly crashes immediately upon takeoff. She survives and escapes because she’s more familiar with the local terrain than the other pilots are, not because she’s such a brilliant pilot. It’s not as though she wins a space battle the first time she gets in an X-wing or wins a space battle the first time she gets in a spaceship and accidentally pushes buttons.

She does learn to do Force stuff quickly, though I have to question the assertion by one of the commenters that people are usually only able to use the Force after extensive training. There’s plenty of evidence throughout the saga of people with strong native Force abilities using it instinctively. That was the whole point of them discovering Anakin. He was using the Force without knowing that’s what he was doing. In Rey’s case, she got slammed by the Force when she picked up Luke’s lightsaber, which gave her other people’s memories using the Force, and she had voices of past Jedi in her head. Then Kylo Ren opened the channel to her, so to speak. All she really did was push into his head through the channel he’d opened. When she tried the Jedi mind trick on Stormtrooper 007 (it was an uncredited cameo by Daniel Craig), she failed entirely the first time, and it took multiple tries for her to get it to work. That and shoving Kylo Ren out of her head was the only big Force stuff she did. I don’t see that as any bigger than Luke using the Force to guide the torpedoes after one Force 101 lesson so that he made the impossible shot the more experienced pilots had failed at.

As for the fighting, they established early in the first movie that she knew how to fight with a staff. She’s been on her own since childhood in a rough place, and she’s learned how to take care of herself. When she fights with the lightsaber, she’s using more or less the same techniques she uses with the staff. She’s not doing any kind of elegant fencing. She’s staff fighting using different technology. She’s also fighting someone who’s been badly injured and is dripping blood on the ground who has been ordered to catch her alive, so he’s not fighting to kill, while she’s going all-in. Kylo Ren is much bigger and stronger than she is, but I wouldn’t say he’s a great lightsaber fighter, either. He’s all hacking and slashing, working with force rather than skill). I don’t think either of them would be able to hold up against someone like Obi-Wan or Anakin, for instance. So, someone who has skills in fighting transferring that to a different weapon and holding out long enough for the planet breaking up to allow her to escape doesn’t seem like a Mary Sue stretch to me.

Another criticism of the commenters who call her a Mary Sue is that she has no flaws and is therefore boring, but she’s got a bigger flaw than Luke right from the start. Luke at least wants to do bigger and better things. He has ambitions. Rey is in a rut and doesn’t want to leave. She knows she’s in a place where she’ll never fulfill her potential, but she’s holding out for her family to return and refuses to leave the terrible place where she’s stuck. Even when offered the opportunity at something better and getting a new family in the bargain when Han and Chewbacca offer her a job, she just wants to get back to the place where she was stuck. She actually runs away from the very idea of the Force, which is what gets her captured. If we compare to Luke in his first movie, I’m not sure what his flaw was supposed to be. Really, he was just lacking information. His flaw he had to overcome was not knowing how awesome he really was. Luke got the flaw of being impatient in his second movie, and he was shown as being in danger of being tempted by the Dark Side, but he never actually appeared to be tempted. He resisted Vader and then was willing to die rather than give in to the Emperor. Rey went straight to the Dark Side in her first Jedi lesson and sought out the Dark Side cave. She kept connecting with Kylo Ren even after being warned it was dangerous, and she was on the verge of giving in to the Emperor when Ben showed up at the end of the trilogy. Luke didn’t get any meaningful flaws until the sequel trilogy, and that really made a lot of fans angry. Anakin had plenty of flaws, but weirdly they weren’t treated like problems. Padme fell in love with him after she heard him talking about wanting to be a dictator and learned that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children. He was never treated like a hotheaded, arrogant borderline psychopath but rather was this great guy everyone loved.

But the biggest “not a Mary Sue” clue to me is that Rey isn’t really the hero until the third movie. Luke saved the day in his first movie by blowing up the Death Star. Anakin won the podrace that allowed the Jedi to get away from Tatooine and played a decisive role in the final battle. Rey didn’t really play a key role in her first movie. You could have removed her from the movie entirely after Kylo Ren captured her without changing events too much, aside from her being the reason Finn wanted to lead the mission to the base. The only thing she contributed to blowing up the base was hotwiring a door open so Han and Chewie could plant the explosives. In the second movie, her contribution was persuading Luke to get involved and providing the getaway vehicle. She doesn’t get to be the hero until the last movie. Even though Anakin’s trilogy was a tragic, downward arc, he still got to be the hero and save the day up until the point when he turned evil. I find it hard to take seriously a claim that a character who doesn’t get to be the hero is a Mary Sue.

Incidentally, people have argued with me about Anakin being a Gary Stu since he turned evil and didn’t get to be a Jedi master, but come on, the guy was immaculately conceived by the Force, built his own protocol droid at 10, built his own podracer and was not only the only human to be able to race but also won against more experienced racers, won a space battle accidentally the first time he got in a fighter, was the most powerful Jedi, the queen fell in love with him in spite of him having gone on a murder spree. The not being a master was pure Victim Sue. There was some serious “no one appreciates my genius” energy to that part of the story, which makes it even more obvious that Lucas was overidentifying with this character.

Where I think some fans were seeing Rey as a Mary Sue might have been going back to the original definition. When more Star Wars movies were finally made, these fans wanted to see more movies about Luke, Han, and Leia, not movies about this new character. A lot of people wanted to see movies based on the books that are now considered the “Legends” continuity. I would have loved to see the original Timothy Zahn trilogy made into films. Mara Jade is one of my favorite Star Wars universe characters. But that was never going to happen. The actors were already getting too old for the roles at the ages they were supposed to be in those stories at the time the books were published. By the time they were making the sequels, it just couldn’t have worked, and I don’t think the deepfake technology they use for young Luke in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett would hold up for him being a main character in an entire movie on the big screen. So, I suspect some fans would have been unhappy no matter who the new main character was because this wasn’t the person they wanted to see. Her being a woman only made it worse.

You don’t have to like the character, but at least be honest in your criticism. Crying “Mary Sue” is a copout. As far as I can see, she’s just a hero, no different from the other heroes in the other Star Wars films. If you didn’t have a problem with a farmboy who won a big space battle the first time he got in an X-Wing and the first time he really had to use the Force, you don’t have a lot of ground to complain about Rey. I happen to love the character, and I’m in good company. John Williams has said she’s his favorite, and when they asked him to score episode 9, he said his first question was whether Rey was in it. I wonder if this means they’ll lure him out of Star Wars retirement to do the Rey movie (though he’ll be about 95 by then, so I hope he’s still with us, even if only just to get to watch the movie).

What’s a Mary Sue?

While I was doing my Star Wars rewatch, I was watching some of the YouTube videos about Easter eggs and hidden references, which got more related videos recommended to me, and a lot of these guys (but just the guys) kept saying that Rey in the sequel trilogy is a Mary Sue. It all came up again with the recent announcement of an upcoming additional movie about her and whether this new movie will “redeem” her and make her a character instead of a Mary Sue. But is she a Mary Sue?

First, as you always should in any debate, we need to define our terms. What is a Mary Sue?

The term comes from the world of Star Trek fan fiction, from the pre-Internet days. There was a story written as a parody of the kind of story in which the author inserts a new character who’s basically an avatar of herself into the existing story world. Ensign Mary Sue joins the crew of the Enterprise. She’s beautiful, has a lovely singing voice, everyone likes her, she’s good at everything, whichever crew member the author has a crush on falls madly in love with her, and she ends up saving the day. “Mary Sue” came to be used as a general term for an obvious author self-insert character in fan fiction. Later, the use got expanded to describe a character in original/professional fiction who had traits of a Mary Sue and seemed like she might be a thinly veiled version of the author. And then it got overused to mean a female (almost always female) character who was at all skilled or liked.

Although there are occasional mentions of a “Gary Stu” or “Marty Stu,” the concept is pretty heavily gendered. One reason is that the vast majority of fan fiction is written by women, so the vast majority of author self-insert characters are female, and that means most of the “Mary Sue” examples are female, which makes it easier to compare female original characters in professional fiction to their fanfic counterparts. The other reason is that until very recently (and often still), female characters in action-oriented fiction didn’t get to do much. They existed to scream and get rescued. The male characters were the ones with mad skills who got to save the day. That meant that a female character who acted like the usual male hero looked more like a Mary Sue than like the kind of female characters we were used to seeing. And it’s entirely possible that this lack of female characters who got to do anything is one reason most fan fiction is written by women — you have to write original characters if you want to have a female character who gets to do anything.

Not that men are immune from the tendency to write wish-fulfillment characters. Take James Bond. While Ian Fleming did work in intelligence during the war, he was an administrator, not a field agent. It’s fairly obvious that Bond was his Gary Stu, getting to do all the dashing spy stuff he thought would have been exciting. He’s highly skilled, has all sorts of cool gizmos, saves the day and gets the girl(s). Or take just about any superhero. How can the wealthy playboy who fights crime with the help of all his high-tech gadgets be anything other than wish fulfillment? Or there’s the noble weakling with asthma who becomes a powerful supersoldier. But people just accept hyper-competent male characters as normal heroic characters. It’s the women who get called Mary Sues. A couple of years ago, I watched all the Marvel movies. I’d heard complaints about Captain Marvel and what a Mary Sue that character was, so I was looking for those traits when I watched her movie — and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between her and any other superhero in the series.

There are two key things I think often get forgotten in any discussion of the Mary Sue concept. One is that the main complaint about the Mary Sue character initially was not so much about her perfection, but because she took over from the regular characters in that story world. Back in that day, pre-Internet, it took work to find fan fiction. You had to know the right people to get your hands on fan-produced fiction magazines, or you had to go to conventions. So imagine you’ve gone to all that effort to find some stories set in your favorite fictional universe about your favorite fictional characters, and instead of getting a story about the characters you love, you get a story about some random chick who takes over the story and leaves the regulars on the sideline. That’s the annoying part. If the author had filed off the serial numbers and presented it as an original story in which that character was supposed to be the main character, readers might even have liked and cheered for that character because the character would just look like any other hero (remember, the original Mary Sue was a parody, exaggerating traits).

And that’s the other thing that gets forgotten: Just about all heroes are Mary/Marty Sues/Stus to some extent. It’s hard to write a character you don’t identify with in some way, since you’re the only person you know from the inside out. Heroes also tend to be better, smarter, stronger, etc., than the average person, even when those heroes are supposed to be the “ordinary Joe” type. I have a little game I play when I’m reading or watching something. I try to imagine myself in that situation and consider how long I’d survive. It’s not long. It would be a pretty boring story if we didn’t let the heroes be at all idealized, if we stuck to what ordinary people really could do. I can walk for hours, but probably not for days or weeks. I can’t run for more than a few minutes (bad knees), and I’m toast if I have to hang from my fingers off the side of a building for more than about 30 seconds.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as an egregious Mary Sue, but I think they’re rarer than critics seem to believe. Not every woman who’s at all competent, or, as one author put it, capable of getting home in the rain without drowning, is a Mary Sue. It’s come to mean “a female character I don’t like.” Or even “a female character in a role that should be a male.” Whether or not a character is a Mary Sue is often in the eye of the beholder. If you identify with that character, you’ll love the character. If you don’t, you’ll call her a Mary Sue.

My personal definition of an original fiction Mary Sue is a character the author has a blind spot about, to the point that the treatment of the character defies story logic. The author treats the character as though she’s a real person she loves and wants the best for rather than like a fictional character in a story. It’s not about whether the character is good at things or well-liked or saves the day — all things you expect of just about any hero. It’s whether there’s a good reason for all those things. If someone’s an expert pilot because she went to flight school and spent years training, she’s not a Mary Sue. If the first time she gets in a fighter she manages to outfly trained and experienced pilots and wins the battle, we’re getting into Mary Sue territory. Someone who’s nice to people and is well-liked just makes sense. Someone who’s mean and snarky and selfish but also the most beloved person in town might be a Mary Sue.

There are variations on the usual Mary Sue tropes, since this is about authors inserting their personal fantasies into stories and those fantasies may vary. It’s not always about being popular and winning. You may get the Victim Sue, which usually boils down to “no one appreciates me.” This is the character who’s not accepted or liked and the story paints this as terribly unfair. This character may still save the day, forcing everyone to acknowledge how great they are, or may turn to evil, with it being the fault of those people who didn’t accept him/her. Still, it comes down to warping story logic because the author has a blind spot.

Often, it all comes down to a clash between showing and telling. Because the author relates so closely to the character, she may forget that not everyone feels the same way and doesn’t have the same info she has, so all the reasons why we should love the character don’t actually make it into the story

Next: But is Rey a Mary Sue?

Rest Day

This week, I not only finished the first draft of my book, but I also finished and filed my taxes (I don’t normally leave it this late, but I didn’t have the spare brainpower while I was finishing the book. I apply any refund to my Q1 estimated taxes, so it’s not as though I’m missing out on anything by not filing early. The bookkeeping was already done so it was just a case of plugging numbers into forms) and took care of a big admin task that’s been on the to-do list for a long time.

So, today I’m taking a day off and trying not to think about work. A new garden center opened nearby, and I’m going to go get my summer herbs and see what they recommend for the bare spot that gets little sun.

I may do a little other shopping and pick up something nice to drink. Then I’m going to plant my new purchases, then sit on the patio and read.

Next week, back to writing and attempting to do some marketing.

The Draft is Done!

On Monday I finally finished The Book That Would Not Die — the first draft of it. It came in at about 123,500 words. I’m not sure what will happen with the next draft. I’m sure there are some things that can be tightened up, and there are a couple of things I set up but ended up not using, so they can be cut, but I also know that I need to flesh some things out and add stuff like description and emotion, so we’ll see what happens in the next round.

But that probably won’t start until next month. It needs to rest a bit while I deal with other things. I have a lot of administrative work to catch up on. I need to take a slight break. I have some short pieces I want to play with.

I’ve been working on this book for so long that if feels weird not to be working on it. At night, after I’ve turned out the lights but before I fall asleep, I generally think about the book, going over what I wrote that day and imagining the next scene. It feels weird to not have a next scene to think of. I’ve caught myself imagining what the characters are doing after the book ends. It’s not scenes that will end up in a sequel, just the immediate next steps. I have some ideas for what could happen in the next book and I know the character arc, but I don’t have a specific plot. I’m sure it’ll come to me once I start working on revisions.

First, though, I need to reboot the brain. I took a little time off on Tuesday, doing my grocery shopping and then going to the park that has a nice field of bluebonnets to take a walk and have a picnic lunch. Today and tomorrow are admin days, and then I’m planning to give myself a long weekend before I dive into some short stories.


The Book That Won’t Die

I had grand plans to take today off, since I surely would have finished the book. It’s a cool, gray day, perfect for curling up with a book. But I seem to be writing The Book That Won’t Die, so the book I’m curling up with is the one I’m writing.

I’m at nearly 120,000 words on this draft, which is the longest I’ve written. I think I hit about 110,000 words on the first drafts of a few of the early Enchanted, Inc. books. And I probably have at least 5,000 words to go. I suppose that’s not out of the norm for a fantasy novel. It’s even short by some fantasy standards. But it’s throwing off my mental pacing, both of where the various story elements should fall and of how long it should take me to write. I’d worried because the event that should have been the midpoint was falling at around 60,000 words, and it turns out that’s just about right.

So, I’m not getting my holiday today. I don’t know if I’ll finish today or if I’ll need to do the wrap-up scenes later. If I have stuff to wrap up, I don’t know whether to knock off early today, take the weekend, and then take a fresh look at the last chapter or so before writing the wrap-up scenes. I guess it’ll depend on where I get today and whether I feel like I have momentum or feel like I need a break.

It’s not as gray and rainy as the initial forecast said it would be, so I suppose I might as well be working instead of having a “rain” day. This may be my last day that’s this cool until October, so I do want to take advantage of it. I’m trying to think of a good movie for tonight, something of the sort to watch while snuggled under a blanket with a mug of hot cocoa. I’m not sure what that looks like, though. I kind of want to watch something like Stardust, but I’ve memorized that one and don’t want to wear it out, and there’s not a lot like that, other than The Princess Bride, which I’ve also just about memorized. Any ideas for what movies say “cozy” to you? What do you watch on a cool, possibly rainy, evening when you want to snuggle under a blanket and drink cocoa?

writing life

Compulsive Storytelling

There’s been a lot of talk in the writing and fantasy world about a recent article on a popular author. The article was bad enough that I won’t dignify it by linking to it, but an interesting thing that came out of it was that the writer believed the author has graphomania. He’s utterly compelled to write and would happily spend every hour of the day writing if he could. His idea of a vacation is having fewer things to take away from his time to write rather than taking a break from writing.

I definitely don’t have that, but I seem to have a sort of compulsive storytelling thing going on. I’m constantly coming up with and thinking about stories. My mind is always spinning with some kind of story idea, whether it’s the book I’m currently working on or something new. When I watch a movie or TV show or read a book, I find myself dreaming up story ideas inspired by it. I come up with spinoffs of my own ideas. Even if I had graphomania and wrote non-stop, I could never write all the ideas I come up with. This is why I laugh at the people who do the “I have a great idea for a book, I’ll tell you, you write it, and we’ll split the profits” routine with me. I already have more ideas than I know what to do with. Writing is the hard part.

But I’m not at all compelled to write them down. I mostly do that because writing stories down and sharing them is the way I make a living. Having stories constantly spinning in my head pretty much makes me unemployable at anything else. My mind is always elsewhere, and it takes me a lot of effort to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.

Not all the ideas are worth writing down, and not all of them develop into books. Some are just mental amusements. Sometimes an idea develops for a long time and manages to become a book. Sometimes two ideas might collide and be enough to become a book. There are some ideas I’m more compelled to write than others, the ones I have to get out of my head or that I want to see in book form. Other ideas fizzle out and get forgotten. For instance, I had a story/characters in my brain for nearly twenty years, finally wrote it, couldn’t sell it, and have more or less forgotten it. Getting it written stopped it from playing out in my head anymore. Every so often, an old, forgotten idea will pop back up and demand attention. That’s what I’m working on now. I came up with the idea about 30 years ago, started working on it, then it fizzled. I wrote it ten years later, and it didn’t work. Then it popped up again and became something entirely different based on that setting/situation and characters.

I currently have stories for about five fictional universes at work in my brain. Just this week, I’m still figuring out the rest of the book I’m writing. I started thinking about a book I wrote a few years ago that didn’t quite work and that I’m thinking of revisiting for a different market. I figured out the book I’d want to write if I got a chance to pitch a book to the Star Wars universe. I’ve been pondering the book I started writing last year that didn’t quite work and have figured out what the problem was. I’ve also come up with several new characters and idea fragments in search of a home.

Maybe I need to develop graphomania so I can write all these stories, but there’s a huge gap between a mental story and a viable book, and figuring out what it takes to turn that mental story into a book can be incredibly difficult. Finding the words to convey the story is also hard work. I get exhausted from just spending a couple of hours a day actually writing. The rest of the day is spent thinking about what I’m writing and figuring out how the next scene should go.

If I didn’t have to make a living, I don’t know how much I’d end up writing. Like, if I won one of those billion-dollar lottery jackpots and no longer needed to earn money from writing, I might just spend my days doing stuff like gardening or hiking, with my brain happily dreaming up stories but without having to do the hard work of turning them into books. Or I might need to write some of them down just to clear out my head.