Writing the Other

What would happen to your “willing suspension of disbelief” if you read a story in which every character was just like the author–same sex, same culture, same occupation, same ethnic background–in other words, clones of the writer?
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That might actually seem like an interesting idea for a story. But then, how could a civilization function if everyone had the same job and was the same sex? So, if that wasn’t a deliberate part of the plot line, I’d guess that you’d be mystified, to say the least.

We’re sometimes told to “write what you know,” but the story I’ve described shows how unrealistic this can be. Writing what you know doesn’t mean that’s all you can write about. It just means that you need to be very careful when you start writing about things that you don’t “know.”

In my story, “The Tartian Egg,” Pierre buys an ancient saxophone. He takes the instrument to his hotel room and plays it. Then a musician read the story and told me that such an instrument would not be playable until its old reed was replaced. Time for a revision.

Even if we do research to allow us to write about what we don’t know, how can we know when we’ve done enough? How can we know what to look for, especially when it comes to creating our characters? Critique groups can be wonderful.

“Writing the Other,” a little book by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward, attempts to provide you with some guides to the concepts involved in creating characters different from “what you know.” Here’s my take on some of what they have to offer. (I hope that I’ve not done too much plagiarism of their book.)

Dominant Paradigm: What the majority in our society considers “normal”

ROAARS: An acronym for Race, (sexual) Orientation, Age, Ability, Religion, Sex–the differences from the dominant paradigm that our culture emphasizes. I think that these are the differences most of the people would think important when they find that their son or daughter is selecting a spouse. According to Shawl & Ward, “Class” is not one of the differences that the majority of our society emphasizes.

The Unmarked State: Possessing those characteristics that are not remarkable. A character in the unmarked state fits the dominant paradigm and is often considered to be white, male, heterosexual, young, single, physically able, human. The story can be read without coloring it with the character’s peculiarity: A man falls into the river, crosses it, and climbs out the other side vs. the marked state character–“A pregnant woman falls into the river…”, “An elderly Martian…”, “A rapist…”, etc., in which cases we would probably have much different thoughts when reading the story.

Real people who fit the unmarked state often enjoy (probably unknowingly) some sort of “privilege” (white privilege, straight privilege, rich privilege…) They get away with things that individuals in the “marked state” do not.

In a story, characters in the unmarked state should rarely be aware of their privilege; those in the “marked state” should be aware of their lack of privilege and probably suffer the consequences of that lack. An author who is in the unmarked state may have to work harder to write a realistic story which involves characters in the marked state. It’s important to know who has privilege and who doesn’t in the time and place in which your story is set.

Being in the unmarked state defines how a character treats someone in the marked state. According to Cynthia Ward (who grew up in Maine,) being born outside of Maine “trumps any other ROAARS difference” and places you in a marked state. A Maine lobsterman would never be best friends with a shopkeeper who grew up in New York. If, in a story, this is not true, there must be a plausible explanation to account for the discrepancy.

The Generalization Fallacy: When we make a universal claim based on a limited number of examples–all metals are conductors, all lemons are sour, all Democrats are liberals. A generalization may or may not be true; we just assume that it must be true based on some real or imagined instances. Creating a character based on a generalization (stereotyping) can produce an unrealistic character that some folks will find offensive–especially if we have only one such character (the only blonde in the story is a ditzy female.)

Congruence: Establishing ties between the reader and a character that has different ROAARS characteristics. 1) Give a marked character some traits that have nothing to do with how she differs from the dominant paradigm but which the reader might share or at least be sympathetic toward. For instance, he might be a picky eater, be in love, or be a poet. 2) Give a character traits from a multitude of different groups. For instance, a rich, lesbian, black, Irish atheist who pilots a jet plane back and forth between Mexico and the Vatican for weekly conferences with the Pope.

Associations and Resonances: Association–a one-to-one connection of two ideas. For instance, an evil character with a German surname is likely to be labeled a Nazi or at least evoke thoughts of Nazism. A woman named Angelina or Kim might be assumed to be very attractive. Resonance: Involves a complex of ideas that reinforce and highlight one another because of their many connections. After WWII, especially in England, anyone from Germany was assumed to be responsible for the bombing and deaths of friends and relatives. Whether intended or unintended, associations and resonances can make a story unbelievable or offensive to a reader. Should all the gangsters in a story have Italian names? How likely is it that everybody in a novel has Anglo-Saxon names?

“Writing the Other” ends with a series of “Don’t Do This!” examples. I suggest that you pick up and read the book to familiarize yourself with what sorts of things to do and to avoid when you try to write the other.

Actually, “Writing the Other” is just a section of the publication of that name. The book contains two other essays related to this issue which you should find of interest as you try to introduce realistic diversity into your writing: “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.”

Keep Reading/Keep Writing,


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Marco Pollo Crew Cabin

Bidido-300Most books on writing fiction mention the importance of knowing everything that you can about your characters and their environment. Not all of that information makes its way into your story or novel, but it helps you to know how your characters will react in any circumstances, and what will bring about those circumstances.

This information may seem of little importance if you write flash fiction, but the longer your story, the more important the information is. If you write a novel, this information can be very important. If you write short stories or novels set in the same “universe” (as I do), then the information can be even more important. Bidido wears an eye patch. Now I need to mention which eye it covers. Is it the left or the right? Was it mentioned earlier in the story or in a previous story? I wouldn’t want to say it’s over the right eye on page 5 of my first novel and over the left on page 280 of my second.

How this information is recorded and made available varies from writer to writer. My stellareco.com web site is my way of doing this for myself. It also lets my readers in on this same info. My interest in the 3D graphics program, Poser, is part of my desire to know my characters and their environments. Now I can know what Tom, Tahiti, or Trittcha look like (and which eye Bidido’s patch covers.)

As I was writing my novel, “Silver Threads,” I found that I needed to know where the bathroom (the “head”) was relative to the bridge of the Marco Pollo starship. Elsewhere, I need to know that the bridge was too small to be used by the saurians of the planet New Home. So I got out a sheet of graph paper and drew a scale model of the Crew Cabin of the Marco Pollo. The bridge at the “north” end was connected to a lounge at the “south” end by a hall. Along the hall was, first, the head and the galley, followed by the two crew quarters. The overall dimensions of the Crew Cabin was 19 feet wide by 34 feet long. If needed, extra passenger quarters could be constructed beyond the lounge in a multipurpose/cargo area whose size is not defined.

Now, when I write about events on the Marco Pollo, I know where everything is and I can be consistent from chapter to chapter or from one short story to another. To provide an even better view of the rooms and furnishings of the Crew Cabin, I fired up my Poser Pro 2014.

MP Crew Quarters 1 main 20mmI used Poser primitives to create the walls, floor, ceiling and doors. I populated the rooms with lights and props appropriate to each. For example, the head has a shower and bathtub, a commode and toilet paper dispenser, a vanity cabinet with sink, and a tile floor. In the Captain’s Quarters, I put a quilt that Janet made onto Tom’s bed.

Eventually, I had a Poser file of the Crew Cabin (all 7 rooms) and its contents that I could look at or utilize if I wanted to create an image onboard the Marco Pollo. Unfortunately, Poser has to consider all the “stuff” in the file even if only a single room is to be in the final render. This makes operations like moving the camera very slow.

I decided to create seven separate Poser files–one for each room. I deleted everything but the desired room, its lights, and its contents and saved the result as a separate file. Now all I had to do was to load CrewQuarters1.PZ3 if I wanted a scene in the Captain’s Quarters.

If necessary, I could make walls and doors invisible to get good views of the interior of a room. Unfortunately, if I wanted a shot from behind someone standing in a doorway looking into the Captain’s Quarters (or from the inside looking out), then the hallway around the character was missing. I could have the hallway in the scene, or the room, but not both unless I used my large Crew Cabin file. I’m not aware of a way to combine two different Poser files into one. What I needed were Library files for each room that could be loaded just like characters and props.

Here’s what I did:

First, I loaded the file of the room that I wanted to work with.

Next, I added a Poser Pro Left Hand Figure (any figure would do) to the scene to be my “Main Parent“. I posed the hand under the floor, out of sight. I changed the name from “Left Hand” to the name of the room. For instance, “Left Hand” >>> “Galley”. Then I “parented” every other figure in the room to the Main Parent (Galley) via the Figure drop-down menu and every prop in the scene to the Main Parent via the Object drop-down menu. I checked that I hadn’t missed anything by selecting the Main Parent and increasing or decreasing the scale. If everything rescaled, then I’d parented everything correctly. Now if I need to move the room to make the doorway fit the hall’s doorway, I select the Main Parent and change its x, y, and z coordinates. Other items in the scene can be selected and moved within the scene as desired.

Once everything had been correctly parented, I created a folder in the Library (in this case, Figures\Spacecraft\Marco Pollo Crew Cabin) with the Create New Folder button at the bottom of the Library window.

Next, I made sure that this folder and the Main Parent-Body were selected. Then I clicked the Add to Library button at the bottom of the Library window. I named the room (Galley, etc.) and clicked OK, then clicked select the Whole Group (if asked). The scene was saved, ready to use, into the Library.

Now maybe I can make some scenes to represent life on the Marco Pollo.

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack

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Don’t Think Twice

Good news! My short story, “Don’t Think Twice,” has been accTom and Trittchaepted by the online SF magazine, “Perihelion,” for their 12 April 2014 issue. Please check out their site and read their other stories, too.

As a writer, I like to play with words, and spoonerisms are something that I find interesting. My story about the Adondi girl, Tahiti, “The Winds of Spring,” came about when I rewrote a shaggy dog story based on the spoonerism, No wick for the rested.

At some point, I came up with another spoonerism: flutterby from butterfly. So when I wrote the story in which Tom inherits the starship Marco Pollo, I decided to use a beginning in parallel with “The Winds of Spring.” In “Winds,” Tahiti carefully captures a moth hovering around a flame and tosses it out the window. In “A Many Splendored Thing,” Tom does the same with a flutterby which he initially calls “Fido.”

After writing “Splendored,” I decided to provide Fido/Trittcha and her kind with some background, so I added a page about the Black Sapsuckers to my website and wrote “A Last Farewell.” This story was critiqued by my friends in the South Arkansas Writers and rewritten. It was one of the stories critiqued when I attended the Short Fiction Workshop at the University of Kansas. Again, it was rewritten, and eventually retitled, “Don’t Think Twice.”

The folks at “Perihelion” like the story enough to put it out for others to enjoy.

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack

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Posting Your Stories

Internet SpiderMy Stellar Economics Community website has a page where my short stories are listed along with a short synopsis of each. Until this week, readers could click on any title to open a PDF sample, the first few pages, of each story.

I recently received an email in response to a short story which I had submitted. The message was something like this:

As your story is currently available online at http://stellareco.com/Short%20Stories/ring16ss.pdf, we cannot accept it at this time – We only accept works that are not currently available in any form elsewhere. However if you remove it from that website (and anywhere else it may be), we’d be happy to consider it.

I was already aware that few venues want writing that has already appeared elsewhere. Posting a story to the web is usually considered as “publishing” the story.

While I was still teaching at South Arkansas Community College, the English faculty were considering some software that searched the internet for text similar to that submitted by a student. They hoped to detect plagiarism with this software. I presume that the magazine where I submitted my story also uses a similar program. Unfortunately, such a program does not distinguish between a story and a piece of a story.

My first action upon receiving the email was to temporarily change the file name of the sample so that it would not be available while the story was under consideration. Then it dawned on me – perhaps many prospective markets use software like this, and some might just reject my submission out of hand when their software reports an online match. So I’ve removed all samples from my web site.

Links to and short descriptions of my published stories are now on my  Short Stories page.

As they say, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack

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How Interesting

wheel barrow of moneyReaders sometimes ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” You may not see the connection in what follows, but that question popped into my head the other day.

Way back when I lived in northeastern Ohio and was in grade school, my folks decided that my brothers and I should learn about saving money. My dad explained the advantages of compound interest and my brothers and I decided to give this get-rich-quick scheme a try. Our folks took us to the nearest bank, over in Greentown, and we each started a savings account.

Back then, in the early 1950s, the bank paid 3% interest, compounded annually. According to the teller, at that rate our deposits should double in a little over 20 years. Although that sounded like a pretty good deal, we never got to take advantage of the scheme. My dad decided to move us to Oregon and we closed out our accounts before we took off for the Beaver State. Unfortunately, we didn’t move west. We just went out, came back, and settled down about 30 miles east of our original home. We never did open new savings accounts.

When we moved to Arkansas, my wife and I opened a savings account at BancorpSouth (or whatever it was called several owners ago) in order to qualify for a home loan. After all, as the loan officer said, where would they get money to loan us if nobody made deposits?

I was reminded of my childhood get-rich-quick scheme recently when our BancorpSouth savings account statement came. Interest is compounded monthly, so the principal in a savings account should grow even faster than when compounded annually. But – and this is a big But – the interest rate some 60 years later is no longer 3%. Unlike most everything else which has increased over the years, interest rates on savings accounts have gone south. Our rate is just 0.03%. According to an estimate provided by an online site, The Money Chimp, the time required for your principle to double is about equal to 72 divided by the interest rate. Back in our Greentown account, our principal would have doubled in about 72/3 = 24 years. For our BancorpSouth rate, 72/0.03 = 2400 years. Don’t hold your breath!

With that in mind, you might ask “Why does anyone deposit money into a savings account?” or, “Where does a bank get that money that it loans out?”

Our BancorpSouth statement also had another interesting feature. Our monthly interest comes to the princely sum of $0.09 – yes, that’s nine cents. The postage on the envelope that notified me of our account’s growth was $0.38. Adding in the cost of the envelope and the paper for statement, the bank spends almost five times as much to keep me up to date as it pays me in interest. How about adding that extra 40 cents to my account and letting me go online to check my interest and balance?

I’m sure that there must be some sort of story here. Going back to the reader’s question at the beginning of this post, here’s the answer: Ideas come from the most humble of places.

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack

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