Friday, January 25, 2013

Breadth v. Depth

Yesterday in calc, instead of finishing a review worksheet, I listened to my sophomore friend explain complex numbers and rotation and all sorts of fascinating math. This same friend made up a (likewise fascinating) problem involving reflections and parabolas and vectors for fun. By the way, my friend is male.

I've meant to write a post about some gender differences which Justine Musk first brought to my attention. Namely:

Boys tend to narrow and focus their interests while still in high school, often to math, science and technical fields. By the time they are in their mid-twenties, they might already be close to achieving those ten thousand hours [of deliberate practice needed for mastery].

Gifted young women, on the other hand, are likely to major in psychology or anthropology or sociology or political science. They might work for a few years before deciding to go to graduate school. They might take some time out to have children. They might go to work for an agency, institution or foundation, and as they develop skills and lean into strengths they discover the niche in which they want to specialize.

Gross generalization here, but in sum: boys go for depth, girls for breadth of interest.

I am guilty (might be worthwhile exploring why I used the word 'guilty') of spreading myself too thin, of having more interests than I have time. Blame the universe for being so fascinating.

Note that interests are fractal. On the macro level I (and Anna Ho, MIT blogger, and probably plenty others) face the stereotypical left-v-right brain battle: loving science/math so much that everything I've done in non-STEM fields seems irrelevant, while appreciating the lower prerequisites for being considered good at writing than at, say, engineering.

One order of magnitude down, there's a problem with which many writers can empathize: how can you choose which story idea to pursue, when you have about 8.4E48 other ideas that might turn out better? This is the problem that prompted me finally to write this post, because I've wrestled with it this week.

I've been plotting out Orsolya (of the Unwise Ones timeline, in the GW world) for about a month, and earlier this week began to write in the story proper. The first night I got down 1,600 words, which is three times my average. Then I suffered a crisis of confidence: over winter break I was plotting for another story (Matt of the Lekron) and I wondered if I should do all my story synopses first and then choose from the frameworks, or go one story at a time, synopsis-writing-revising. (Research should be somewhere in that timeline.)

Since finishing the second draft of the Utopia Project, I haven't written anything that has passed the 100-page mark. I was uncertain about starting another long project when I know that this summer I plan to take a third look at TUP. And all those suburban fantasy details I've been collecting on long walks through the neighborhood - surely I need to put those in a story. What to go for, lots of short pieces or a few long ones?

Last night, as I looked up topics in BC calculus, I reached my decision. I've been floating on the surface of things too long, and to progress I need to go deep, into the dark waters of the mind.

I realize that I'm putting off the discussion of gender that this post initially seemed to favor, and rest assured that I have thoughts on that subject. (Why do guys specialize earlier? What are the advantages and disadvantages?) But for now, it suffices to recognize that my broad/shallow interests are hindering me (at this point - I know it will come in useful someday), and that I need to sink in.


One last quote:

Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Now again, emotional commitment is not enough...Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, "creativity comes out of your subconscious." Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

-"You and Your Research", Richard Hamming

Friday, January 18, 2013

Politics and the English Language, George Orwell

People who know me IRL know that I dislike English class because for some reason or another I don't get along with the teacher. The actual material is often quite interesting, and thus I present:

"Politics and the English Language", by George Orwell. Go ahead, take a gander.

Most salient points that I found were a series of questions Orwell posed that I will list here:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
5. Could I put it more shortly?
6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Some rules from the end of the essay:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


I suspect that Orwell's imperatives apply better to nonfiction than to fantasy; still, he reminds me that a couple of weeks ago I was thinking about style.

My sister had just shown me a story she'd written, an evocative atmospheric incursion-of-the-supernatural-into-the-ordinary (I'll write about suburban fantasy anon) kind of story, and while I enjoyed it I realized that my style is vastly different.

The ideal I hold for my writing/general deportment: vigorous, precise, imaginative, unobtrusive. Of course I want my prose to be beautiful as well - but the writing should serve the story, not the other way around.

As Orwell says:

"What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them."

Friday, January 11, 2013

How to Get Out of Your Head?

Warning: this post is extraordinarily self-indulgent, by which I mean I talk a lot about myself and the problems I face with writing.


I'd like to quote the indomitable Justine Musk:
...many of us never really identified with girl culture in the first place.

I never did. I grew up thinking I had a strong masculine streak – even though I wasn’t a tomboy, even though I was very comfortable in my girlskin, even though, as I got older, I developed a rich, deep, sensual sense of being female that happened to be steeped in books instead of Barbies, black instead of pink, jeans and boots and leather jackets instead of dresses, writing fiction instead of socializing, ambition instead of caretaking, wanderlust instead of baby hunger (the baby hunger came later), hard dance music instead of sensitive singer-songwriters, thrillers instead of chick flicks.

I learned to take a certain pride in this. I learned to distance myself from anything that smacked of the girly-girl, to speak mockingly of mani-pedis and gossip magazines and Lifetime movies and butterfly tattoos and, yes, pink, because these things were weak. To be disdainful of them was to be not weak.

Only when I woke up to what I was doing – buying into a misogynistic contempt for the feminine that remains at the heart of our culture – did I start to look at things differently.

There are so many different ways to express the feminine; the struggle is to not get locked into the limited range of options with which we’re presented.

-the perils of pink

So yeah. Second paragraph, first sentence and first clause of second sentence: that's me. Books, black, jeans (dresses are uncomfortable), writing fiction, ambition...add to that math, euphonium, cats, physics, green tea, and -

Wait, no, that's not anything about my "sense of being female", that's just my sense of being myself. I happen not to have lived as long nor done as much soul-searching as Musk, particularly not with what it means to be a woman. (Re: common gender issues/girl culture - I'll return to this anon.) After all, I'm sixteen, I'm essentially insular, self-absorbed (and -centered); I know only about being myself, and I can hardly generalize from what I feel to other people because to the kind of sixteen-year-old who thinks she can take over the world, no one is like you.

I know, theoretically, that a lot of people feel the same as I do. But since I live completely in my own head, I run into two big problems when writing:

1. "I can only write people who think exactly like I do."
2. "I can write people who aren't like me...but it won't be real."

You'd think that after having written the Utopia Project, which has a roulette of viewpoint characters, I'd be better at this. I don't know. Maybe I've undergone atrophy (I haven't looked at TUP in a while, letting it rest before diving in for the third draft).

The "write what you know" piece of advice is, I feel, dangerous, because for people like me who really don't have a lot of life experience, it either limits our writing by confining us to certain characters (option 1) or by telling us that it's okay not to spend a lot of effort trying to put ourselves in others' shoes (option 2).

When you have a definite sense of being yourself, being a person who thinks like you do, and when you don't have much sense of being connected to your external attributes (gender and race), you - okay, fine, I have problems where I write characters who look diverse on the surface but who all are, under the skin, variations on me.

I have relatively little trouble, as a straight Asian girl, writing from the perspective of people of different races/sexuality/gender, so long as the character and I have similar personalities. My typical protagonist: introverted, intelligent, cat- and math-loving, violent, dark-haired, occasionally misanthropic. I'll introduce you to my Doppelgangers properly some other time; this list is just to express my problem.

How to get out of your head?

I don't mean "how to write about what it's like to be a female/Asian". (The post about gender is forthcoming; I think I mentioned last week that my race is not a commodity.) I mean, when you have spent so long being yourself and only yourself, and in your daydreams you are only a cooler version of yourself*, how do you think from the point of view of someone who does not think like you?

*Whether I imagine myself as a dragon, a wizard, or a professional rescuer, I am still me.

Another way to phrase the titular question: how to put empathy in writing?

Today I finished reading Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground", and found that while I understand why the narrator wallows in his own moral filth, when I tried to imagine doing as he did (writing a character like him, that is), I couldn't. When I try to imagine being someone who follows different principles from me, my mind offers resistance.

Imagine hating math - can't do it. Imagine truly believing that your parents' wishes overrule yours - can't do it. I'd go on but I get distressed even thinking about it, which I know is a great failing in a writer.

I've raised my own personal problems without offering any solutions thus far; I cannot leave it like this. Here are things I am trying to integrate into my mindset:

1. Most people are interesting if you listen hard enough.
2. Extraverts aren't all bad.
3. You aren't really that special. You're too full of yourself, so get out of your head.

Take a look around. I have faith that it will be interesting.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Diversity in Fantasy: Initial Forays + Settings

Happy new year, everyone! Toward the end of last year I was striving mightily against junior year (and since school starts next week, I may find myself in the same situation...) and didn't find time to sit down and write about something I've been thinking about a lot: diversity in writing.

Clarification: I'm not talking about the underrepresentation of nonwhites in writing, I'm talking about diversity in subject matter. To keep this discussion on manageable ground, let's specify the relative dearth of non-European settings in fantasy.

For today, I want to start with the one belief I know I hold, for sure:

Because we are all human, the breadth of human culture is open to anyone who will treat it respectfully.

In other words, an author's cultural background should not bar him/her from writing stories in other settings, so long as the research is sound. For fantasy, it might be easy to handwave research, and I actually think I'm okay with a certain amount of fudging as long as the story is the kind of fantasy that doesn't claim to represent a specific time period/location.

(Example of that kind of fantasy (though not an example of shoddy research): the excellent Bayern books by Shannon Hale. Her research lists indicate that pre-Christian Germany and Zoroastrianism exist in the same series, which is kind of what I'm doing with GW. If you throw in the whole world and fantasize everything to the same degree, vale as far as I'm concerned.)

(On a mostly unrelated note, "oriental" makes me cringe when used to describe a book's setting. Eastern is kind of okay. Asian is better, and better still is a specific region that acknowledges that the largest continent in the world is more than one culture.)

--> But back to my main argument.

Anyone can write in any setting. I think it's safe to assume that most writers in fantasy today are of European descent, and perhaps out of a fear of being accused of cultural appropriation many choose to step carefully around non-European settings. Imperialism was just a century ago, and I can see the rationale behind hesitation even though I don't think it's necessary.

I realize that I'm probably less liable than a white writer to get accused of perpetuating imperalistic views, and that is not a good thing. A double standard is wrong.

If I can write a story about England (and if someone says that I can't, then I am almost certain we can reach for the "racist" labels), then a writer of English extraction can write a story about China, no matter what kind of history there was between the two nations (*Hong Kong*).

Too often it feels as though non-European settings are not fair game. Perhaps, if enough of us travel outside of the lines of Europe/generic fantasyland, we can overwhelm the border guards. If any person feels an inclination to write a story in a different setting, they should be able to follow that inclination. I'm going to stop making metaphors. Next slide.

Writers (including me) also fear misrepresenting a country or a region's mindset/worldview, and again, the simplest way out of that probably is to make a fantasy setting that borrows inspiration from a certain culture without wholesale adoption of the ethos. But a strict historical setting should reflect the prevailing views.

(Example: in Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing, set in Romania under Ottoman control, the main character Jena has a lot of issues because her male cousin doesn't think that five girls can manage the household finances.)

The solution is probably more research - more research, an open mind, and remembering that no matter how far removed a setting may seem from contemporary [insert country here], people are still people are still people, no matter how they look or from where they come.