One of my most popular posts shares tips for writing heavy emotional scenes. I think that post is popular because we often struggle with including emotions in our stories, especially when those emotions are intense.
In my own writing journey, capturing emotions in words (and in a way readers could experience) was one of the trickiest steps of my learning curve. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus helped me with that struggle immensely. However, I’m far from perfect and still need to tweak those emotional scenes many, many times.
Australian Photoset #5
A big and very gracious thank-you to the SFRB for letting me guest-post once again today. Today’s post has been inspired by a bugbear I’ve been dealing with lately: continuity.
Those of you who are fans and bloggers might shrug when I mention continuity. Writers, on the other hand, are probably feeling a shiver down their spines that has nothing to do with the ice-bucket challenge. To explain why this induces muttering dreams and sleepless nights, it wouldn’t hurt to have a definition.
Source. Pictured: a reader unhappy with continuity errors.
Continuity: what is it, and why does it matter?
“Continuity” refers to self-consistency through descriptions, action, storylines, and development in a creative work. In a nutshell, good continuity means adhering to your own rules. A work should be congruent and not vary too much throughout its existence. “Discontinuity” happens when errors are made or the lore is changed; “retroactive continuity”, or “retcons”, are made to reconcile early errors with later events, details, or changes. You can also manipulate continuity in order to make the narrator unreliable. Inception, American Psycho, Memento, and other films and books have made use of this. An unreliable narrator is great when it’s done on purpose, but inconsistent details can also make a writer look sloppy.
For instance, your distraught loner character might develop into a compassionate and friendly, even optimistic person through a series, but she probably shouldn’t too perky and resilient right away if she’s recently lost her entire family, dog, boyfriend, and ship in a single fell swoop. This usually happens when a series has been left alone for too long and the author’s forgotten how to write for a character, or when the author is getting bored of a character’s traits.
Character continuity is important, and the same goes for plot details. Something that one character says happened two years ago should not suddenly have happened ten years ago when it’s mentioned again. We’ll go deeper in a second.
Why is this important for sci fi?
Everyone knows about the fan outcry that happened when George Lucas created the first Star Wars movies, but retroactive continuity issues also played a role in the first trilogy. Entire blogs have been written and based on examining errors in the series, so let’s talk about a different example—Doctor Who. With so many writers, the story of the Time War has been bent and twisted and changed in ways that can seem self-contradictory. This also affects the characters and their journey, of course, because the plot never functions in isolation. (If it does, get an editor to look over your book, stat, because something is broken.)
As writers of fiction, it’s important to learn from failures and make sure that our worlds are consistent. A tiny detail that was mentioned and thrown away earlier can be mined for plot purposes later, or, conversely, can break the plot. Farscape had a wonderful episode called “The Locket”, but the mechanism their ship Moya used to escape a time-freezing zone, a “reverse starburst”, unfortunately was never mentioned again. The eagles in The Lord of the Rings or the many, many plot devices used in the Harry Potter series are examples of dropped plot devices and throwaway details that accumulated to create some improbable and silly situations for the characters. The worst case I’ve seen was probably in The Sword of Truth—there were so many throwaway plot devices in this series that the author had to go nuclear on the ending for the last book in order to reconcile them all.
When plot devices are forgotten or tossed aside from continuity, characters’ situations can end seem silly to the audience. Just because the author has forgotten something doesn’t mean our readers will, unfortunately!
How do we fix it?
It wouldn’t be a SciFiMagpie post without a solution. In this case, it’s simple, but a lot of work: KNOW THY WORLD. Chuck Wendig has a particularly wonderful affirmation card (posted above). The way I’m coping with continuity in The Meaning Wars is by re-reading And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories. Unfortunately, it’s also brought a few flaws and typos in the books to my attention, but that’s part of the process. You can’t be a better writer unless you know your flaws.
“How can I smooth over that exposition? How can I change things so I can avoid that head-jump—can I imply things, perhaps? Maybe do a short scene from the other character’s perspective? Did I just change the location of this world by accident? How can a luxurious Southern California/Ireland-like region exist in a warzone? Should I move it?” These are just a few of the questions I’ve been asking myself, and while painful, it’s also really satisfying to know when I’ve gotten something right. After all, readers love to niggle, but even the ones who miss continuity errors appreciate smooth, consistent stories. This is also the reason why editors are very, very useful people to know.
And the better you do at maintaining continuity, the less sleep you’ll lose at night after you accidentally change a character’s name, make them three inches taller than they were in the first book, and give them a peanut allergy that would have killed them in the first scene in the second book.
So, this article came out not long ago. And more recently, we saw this one. And this one. And this one. Now, it’s well-known that I technically participate in several of these cultures to a certain extent. Hippie and bohemian styles influence my wardrobe heavily, and writing from the romantic era of the 19th century is some of my favorite. And, yes, I’ve even been known to listen to a lot of ‘indie’ music and drink microbrews, and yes, there’s a lot more black velvet and Victorian trappings and lace in my wardrobe than statistically average. So take that for what it’s worth: I could be lumped into some of ‘these people’ and these tribes (in the Doctorow sense of the word).
Also, I haven’t included the geek culture in this discussion because it’s actually a departure from the trend, but there are some similarities. However, I don’t want to get sidelined into some sort of ‘geeks and nerds are morally superior’ crapsack of an endless debate, so let’s set that to the side. Why hipsters? Well, I got started with this post, so here’s the rest of it—the how and the why, the rhyme and the reason.
Source. Even Victor Hugo liked to make fun of those damn bohemians.
How did this whole thing happen, anyway? When did being poor and dressing strangely become cool?
I got started on it last week, but let’s go deeper.
There’s an element of classism here that cuts both ways in these aesthetics. Rich or middle-class kids pretending to be poor, poor kids pretending to be rich—British ‘Chav’ kids, for instance—and a tendency for the movements to be centred on white (Euro/American) kids while borrowing from other cultures to be cool, without providing context for them. The rapper kids are another glaring example of this trend, borrowing the aesthetic and struggles of African-Americans to provide a cool factor. Obviously, my knowledge here is limited to North America’s trends, but I know quite a few of these actually originated in Europe, and that Europe partook in the phenomena, so that’s something. (If anyone has more cultural context they want to share in the comments, awesome.)
Another thing about the rich-people-pretending-to-be-poor element common to all of these is that it lends a sort of false dignity and nobility to the kids who practice the lifestyles. I’ve read On the Road by Kerouac a couple of times, and The Great Gatsby as well, and they both exemplify this nicely. People love to slum it, partaking in what’s perceived to be a ‘more difficult’ lifestyle to make them feel that their own wheel-spinning has context and meaning. After all, if you’re poor, you must be doing something hard, right? And if you’re suffering, life has meaning. Oh, sure, it may suck, but life without resistance and struggle is the most boring thing imaginable. “We droids are made to suffer, it’s our lot in life”, but if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be human.
Less philosophically, there’s also the whole nasty ‘noble poverty’ culture we’ve been bequeathed from Regency and Victorian-era philosophers. Telling oneself that one’s serfs are ‘better people’ for their suffering and that a reward awaits in the Great (Theoretical) Hereafter, and that everything will be better, is a great way to shut your conscience up. But the Victorian Calvinists weren’t the only ones at it—there’s certainly some traces of that line of thought in the Feudal era. Though admittedly, Victorian fascination for the Middle Ages has kind of messed up our understanding of what they were actually like, so this might just be another one of those industrial-era-guilt-and-inequality things.
So…isn’t this still a cultural cancer?
Are hipsters the polo and hair-gelled vanguard of the apocalypse? Nah. The movements above are definitely products of inequality, but realistically speaking, we’re not going to stop having obnoxious rich/middle-class people pretending to be poor until we fix widespread economic inequality. And even then, that could worsen the problem—given the current exploitative structure of our economic system, there’s a chance that hipsters/poverty fetishization would worsen as it became rarer. Seems like a small price to pay, frankly.
With life being easier for those in the middle and upper classes than it ever was before, and a large (though apparently shrinking) middle class, the fake struggle in hipsterdom certainly has a weird kind of appeal. Consider the flannels and Pabst Blue Ribbon and keffiahs—all of them were symbols of the lower class and of oppressed people. Ironically, by appropriating these symbols, they’ve lost their original meaning.
However, wailing and gnashing our teeth over fashion isn’t the answer. People make new symbols. The old ones endure in spite of fashion trends, and even if ubiquity has deleterious effects on sacredness, it can’t erase that sacredness completely. Irony, too, is probably safe as a form of expression. At worst, it’s going to fall out of favour, but that just means it’ll be cool again in twenty years. We can slag the fashion industry for borrowing and recycling and basically doing a one-man Human Centipede with trends, but that’s been going on for several hundred years. We borrow, we steal, we modify, we file off serial numbers—this is human nature.
I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate hipsters, because by the very nature of cultural cycles, something else will rise up to replace them. Again, geek culture is kind of doing this right now, but the poor-is-cool aspect isn’t as predominant. It has its own issues, such as racism and misogyny, but it’s kind of a step forward in the whole trend cycle.
Do we need to fix it?
I’d like to end with a non-ironic Kurt Vonnegut quote that sticks in my head on a regular basis:
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Anonymous asked: Aaaaugh I’m really sorry to ask this and I know you answer questions like this all the time but I haven’t been able to find a straight answer anywhere else. Is there any possibility that you might know whether it’s considered offensive to describe people as having wood-colored…
Xiang Fei in European Armour
China, Italy (1760)
National Palace Museum, Taipei
Portrait Week on medievalpoc is drawing to a close, and I wanted to share what is possibly the most fascinating piece of art I have come across during my exhaustive research. The images of this painting are ones I lifted from embedded PDF documents, and only low-quality photos and reproductions exist online. Some version appear to have been somewhat altered, with lightened skin and different angles to the swaggering pose:
This is a portrait of the semi-legendary Fragrant Concubine, (unreciprocated) beloved of the Qianlong Emperor circa 1759, painted by Jesuit Missionary Painter at the Chinese Imperial Court, Giuseppe Castiglione, also called Lang Shining. Although art historians like to claim the origin and authorship of this portrait is “shrouded in mystery”, many sources are discounted because they are not white or Western enough.
The Fragrant Concubine is is a figure who blends history with legend in a way that has yet to be unraveled. She is said to have been an Uighur. The Uighurs are a Muslim Ethnic group concentrated in the Northwestern Chinese Province of Xinjiang (“New Territories”), an area that reaches into Central Asia and that was not incorporated into Qing China until the eighteenth century. According to legend, after the glorious defeat of the Uighurs in Altishahr in 1759, the triumphant Manchu general Zhahui returned to Beijing with war booty, including the remarkable consort […] said to emit a natural fragrance and became known as the Fragrant Concubine.
Although given to the Quinlong Emperor as a concubine, she resisted any intimate contact with him and carried small knives in the sleeves of her clothing in order to revenge the loss of her homeland. But he emperor was so entrances with her that he is said to have built a Muslim mosque and bazaar just beyond the southwest corner of the Beijing Palace…and a tower just inside the walls from which she could supposedly ease her homesickness by watching her fellow Muslims conducting business and going to the mosque.
Although Mungello casts aspersions on whether or not Fragrant Concubine’s story is verifiable [because legends romanticize her death], he readily admits that records prove a woman named Rong Fei entered the imperial harem in 1760, died a natural death in 1788, and her tomb was found an excavated in 1979. In additional commentary on the painting itself, he asserts
The portrait of the Fragrant Concubine in Western Armor presents a masquerade of a strutting male pose characteristic of numerous portraits of European monarchs. This probably reflects the European origins of the painter. However, why this military pose should be applied to the Fragrant Concubine…is a question that art historians have yet to answer.
Despite Mungello’s assertions that “feminists” made overmuch of Rong Fei’s story, historical documents prove these aspersions to be false; Rong Fei did in fact receive special favors aver other concubines; the Muslim enclave outside the Palace was real.
Mungello’s determination that Xiang Fei’s resistance to the emperor’s sexual advances are fictional due to records of the daughter she bore flied in the face of Uighur sources that demonstrate proscription in their faith of marriage to non-Muslims, and how that played a role in her resistance.
As for this portrait, according to some sources it is Rong Fei who commissioned this portrait (and possibly another), she herself dictating the armor and the military pose. This painting was displayed in a bathhouse among ten legendary beauties painted by Guiseppe Castiglione in 1914, causing a popular sensation.
According to James A. Millward, there is a second portrait painted by Castiglione of Xiang Fei in European armor riding with the Emperor.Through exhaustive research, I was able to find a poor reproduction embedded in a PDF, which I lifted and attempted to restore a bit:
Unfortunately, according to Kwangmin Kim, the only extensive writing on Rong Fei/Xiang Fei and the origin of these portraits remains untranslated into English.
Evidence is suggestive that this was an accustomed mode of dress for Xiang Fei, and allusions to the untranslated documents make it clear that this woman was a focal point and mediator between the Han Chinese and the newly conquered Muslim territories. Her contributions to China and specifically the Uighur are also recounted in Uighur oral traditions as well as historical documents and the untranslated texts by Yu and Dong (1985).
Welcome to Night Vale minimalist photoshoot