Monday, November 19, 2007

When Ignorance Is More Than Annoying

It's always annoying to be reading a book, even a work of fiction, and come across places where the writer is pretty clearly faking it and doing a horrible job. When there are things you know are false being blithely tossed about, with no apparent plot-related reason for stretching the truth or twisting a fact, it's hard not to think some scornful thoughts about the writer who couldn't be bothered.

I majored in history, emphasis on the Middle Ages in Europe, and whenever I see a character in 12th century France eating turkey, or a 10th century English castle with enough bedrooms to open a modern-style hotel, or any medieval characters anywhere speaking and acting as though it were perfectly normal for everyone they know to be born, live until about age thirty and then drop dead, I start talking to the book and what I have to say probably wouldn't please the book's author even a tiny bit. These kinds of problems are easily fixable with minimal research and thought, and the incorrect information is rarely vital to the plot. But even I have to admit that the particular flavor of ignorance being spread here is only annoying, and not actually harmful to anything but the general level of knowledge and intelligence among the populace.

There are some topics, though, where false information in fiction can be actively harmful. One of them is BDSM.

I've unfortunately become accustomed to writers of BDSM fiction who don't know what they're talking about. Despite the many who are knowledgeable about the subject (and just damn good writers), there are unfortunately a few others who think that the whole BDSM thing is "cool" to write and who just sort of dive in with the most rudimentary knowledge, most of it false. That's bad enough, and whenever I see people commenting on these twisted, full-of-crap stories to say that they never knew anything about BDSM before but they're learning So Much from this story!! I start swearing and feel a strong urge to throttle the writer.

Up until now, most of the writers I'd entertained thoughts of killing were amateurs -- people who write stories for fun and post them online for anyone to read for free. This is still bad but at least their audience is pretty limited. Right now, though, I'm up visiting my mom and I was browsing through her bookcases. I found an anthology of BDSM stories (yes, I have an incredibly cool and open-minded mom) and sat down to read. There are four stories in this book and I'm a few pages into the second one, and so far we're two-for-two on writers who don't know what the hell they're talking about. These are professional writers, who were paid money for their stories and whose books are being sold in bookstores all over the country and for all I know all over the world. That's a huge potential audience, and I find this horrifying.

So how is this different from the historical errors? It's different because people who believe this crap can actually get hurt. It's different because the BDSM community is already grossly misunderstood by the more conservative end of the population, and having people end up in the hospital -- or dead -- because they tried some dangerous practice without understanding it and without knowing what precautions to take and with no clear step-by-step instructions is the sort of thing which could hit the news and convince that many more people that there should be laws against all this "perverted" stuff. And the fact that the people who were hurt or killed got their information from some ignoramus who wasn't even a member of the BDSM community isn't going to matter one bit.

And in the case of the amateur fiction, or possibly even electronically published professional fiction, depending on how some reporter or politician decides to slant the story, the outrage could spill over onto the internet in general. There again, there are plenty of people already who think the internet is dangerous and should be regulated and censored. If someone ends up hurt or maimed or killed because of bad information they got off the internet, whether from a web site or a blog post or an e-book, that could easily sway public opinion that much farther to the regulation and censorship side, which would affect all of us who hang out here, whether we're into BDSM specifically or not.

Some of the ignorance is perfectly harmless. One of my favoite writers wrote a story a while back where the female protag needed to go undercover as a prostitute, to try to get close to a villain with a strong streak of kink who was known to regularly patronize a certain BDSM house. The protag and her boyfriend (who was also an agent and had Issues with her doing this in the first place) hired a professional dominatrix to teach our heroine the basics, in hope that she could pull off her masquerade as a pro herself and fool the villain. The supposed professional trainer gave them a "flogger" made of velvet ribbons tipped with feathers, saying that after all, it was supposed to be pleasurable. [facepalm]

This was incredibly stupid, but it wasn't actually harmful. Anyone who read this book and then decided to try a velvet-and-feathers flogging session with their significant other probably wouldn't find it terribly exciting, or even very stimulating, but they'd have a hard time actually getting hurt, unless they had a strong feather allergy or something.

[And to this day I truly hope that the writer originally had this scene written as a realistic training session, but had it vetoed by an uptight publisher. I really hope that. Because otherwise my respect for this writer would have to take a huge nosedive.]

But when I read a story where a sub is branded against her will, and then goes into agonies of guilt for thinking negative thoughts about the "Dom" who did it to her, because a True Sub never ever thinks things like that about a Dom, I really need to slap someone. When I read about a sub who's incapable of allowing herself to take pleasure in sex unless there's pain involved as well, because she doesn't feel she deserves to enjoy sex unless she's being punished at the same time, and her Dom thinks this is normal, that's another slap I owe someone. When I read about a large BDSM community where a sub has to "prove" to the group at large that he's worthy to serve a Dom (any Dom) by demonstrating that he can take a certain amount of pain by being whipped long and hard in public, I just have to headdesk and then wish I could slap the writer. When I read about a Dom who binds and gags his sub, then leaves him alone in the house for an extended period, I want to get out the baseball bat.

All of these are actual examples from stories I've read. All of them show a serious ignorance of the basic philosophy and mindset of someone who's into BDSM, and do it in a way which could get an ignorant newbie badly hurt or even killed, either because of a specific practice which is incredibly unsafe, or a more general mindset held up as an ideal which in actual fact could lead someone into a dangerous situation with either a predator masquerading as a Dom or just some other ignorant idiot who doesn't know any better. With any luck, a reader who's curious about kink will find someone knowledgeable to play with, or at least to use as an info resource. Or as a last resort, there are plenty of good information sources (non-fictional ones) online, for someone who prefers to do their research in private, although someone starting all the way back from square one might have some trouble sorting out the good ones from the iffy ones, especially if they're not willing to take the time and trouble to cross-check information with multiple sources.

But if the reader goes up to their boyfriend or wife or whomever, who's just as ignorant as they are, and says, "Hey, this sounds like fun -- let's try it!" then the results could be dire.

Normally I'm willing to assume that adults are adults and capable of taking responsibility for their own decisions. And likewise, I think people who depend on any "facts" they've gleaned from a piece of fiction, without double-checking them with a non-fictional source, are kind of stupid and deserve whatever results.

On this subject, though, and in the current social and political climate, a sufficiently harmful outcome could conceivably end up splattered all over not only the dummy who took a piece of fiction as fact, but also all over other people who were minding their own business and doing nothing wrong. Whether it makes it that much harder for legitimate members of the BDSM community to go about their lives without being sneered at or scorned, or whether it provides that last bit of ammunition some technophobic politician needs to convince a voting majority that Something Must Be Done about the internet, the consequences of this particular flavor of ignorance could spread a lot farther and cause much more damage than out-of-period turkeys.

I have no idea what to do about this, except perhaps to issue an open plea for publishers of BDSM fiction to make sure their editors who handle these books know enough about the practice to weed out the ignorant and clueless stories. That won't do anything about the amateur end of the problem, but at least the professional end -- the one with the much larger audience and international reach -- could police itself and make sure it doesn't spread any horrifically bad information. Which would, incidentally, also make the stories much more enjoyable to read.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My First Column

As I mentioned a while back, I was invited to be a regular columnist over at Romancing the Blog (which was incredibly flattering :D ) and my first column went up this morning. A bit earlier than I was expecting -- I set it for 6am as per instructions and just assumed that'd be Eastern time, but whatever. :) It's up here if you want to read it; it's about jealousy in romance novels.

Oh, and the butterfly in my icon over at RtB is a pic I took at a butterfly farm on St. Martin. I have no clue what species it is, but it's very pretty and I'm delighted that it came out, since my camera skills are rudimentary at best. :)


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Creativity and Communication

Or maybe I should have titled this one "Conventions -- Breaking and Following." Or something like that. Because I've been thinking about walking the line between wanting to be new and fresh and different -- creative -- and wanting people to read my work and actually get what I'm saying. And not just word by word or line by line, but at a higher level in the story.

Recently, both Bernita and Stacia have blogged about expectations and conventions (whether they knew it or not :) ) and it got me to thinking. As writers, we always want to do something new and fresh, something unique and creative, something that'll make people sit up and notice us and wonder where we get our awesome ideas, 'cause damn! People who come up with something new and different are praised and remembered, and we're encouraged to be fresh and innovative with our writing, to avoid the standard and the common whenever we can manage it.

So it's easy to think that being new and different is always a good thing, and that following the long-blazed (and paved and marked and mapped) trail is always bad. Or at least, that following that trail is doing things the lazy way.

That's not always the case, though, and that's because art is communication and in order to communicate effectively, we need to speak the same language as our readers. That means more than just using English (or whatever) effectively; it means also being aware of the conventions of our literary form and genre because those conventions are part of the language. They're ways of communicating with the reader, and if we abandon those conventions without thinking carefully, we can end up alone in the wilderness with no one who even cares enough to try to pick up our trail.

Bernita was talking about characters, about types and stereotypes, and it got me thinking about the standard wisdom regarding fully-fleshed, three-dimensional characters always being Good and two-dimensional, placeholder characters always being Bad, or at least lazy. That might be true for major characters in the story -- protagonists, antagonists, major supporting characters -- but it's really not true for the bit parts. I commented at the time:

"But the bit players can be off-the-shelf types and usually should be. Making them three dimensional and fully rounded and quirky and interesting would give them too much importance. It'd set up expectations in the reader's mind that the writer has no intention of fulfilling, which would leave the reader feeling dissatisfied and maybe even cheated. It'd be rather like the old theater saw -- having a gun hanging over the fireplace in Act One and not ever firing it."

That's because readers are used to gauging a character's importance based on how much time is spent with the character and how much information is given about it. Inserting "the blond barista" into your story and saying nothing else about him is a signal to the reader that this character isn't important. He's a piece of furniture and is meant to be a piece of furniture. The reader can feel comfortable letting him do his job and then forgetting him, focusing her attention on other characters, on plot points and setting details which might actually be relevant later.

A writer who fleshes out every character, makes every single person who appears in the story unique and three-dimensional and interesting, no matter how important or trivial they are, does the reader a disservice because not every character should catch the reader's interest. By developing all characters equally, the writer has eliminated an important channel of communication with the readers and unless they open up a new one which conveys the same information, the readers are going to end up confused and annoyed, whether or not they fully comprehend why.

There might be a reason for thoroughly developing a particularly minor character, and the most obvious example I can think of is a red-herring character in a mystery. This sort of character is deliberately developed in a misleading way, because the detective character is being misled along with the readers, and that misdirection is part of the fun for readers who like to solve the puzzle for themselves. If there's no particular purpose to making readers pay attention to a character and believe they should remember him, though, then it's best to let the blond barista be just the blond barista.

Stacia was talking about a book she's working on which might well end up having no sex in it, although the sequel certainly will. This is another kind of communication, having to do with reader expectations based on earlier experience.

There are a lot of romance readers who prefer to have explicit sex in their stories, and there are a lot of readers who prefer the "sweet" sort of story where the scene fades at the bedroom door, or never gets there in the first place. There's some overlap between the two groups, but there are quite a lot of readers who are firmly in one camp or the other.

So what's the likelihood that someone who firmly prefers their romances sweet will read the first book, like it in part because it has no explicit sex, then read the sequel and be disappointed and maybe even angry because suddenly there's boinking right there on camera? Or conversely, that someone who firmly prefers sexy romances will read the first book, dislike it because it has no explicit sex, and never bother to read the second book, which they would have enjoyed? Both problems are based on miscommunication -- readers assume that books in a series are going to be alike in certain ways, that there'll be a similarity of experience in reading all of them. So the characteristics of the first book tacitly communicate to the reader what subsequent books are going to be like. When that's not the case, it's as though the writer has sent the wrong message to the readers, meaning X but actually saying Q, at least so far as the readers understand.

Objectively, there's no reason why all the books in a series should be similar, and there are some well-known series which aren't. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series comes to mind -- the first book is an SF romance with a good adventure story, the next several are SF adventure, then one book takes a very dark turn and the protagonist's life changes radically. Then we have an SF mystery-adventure with some hints of romance, and the most recent book was a classic comedy of manners type of romance in an SF setting. Most of us aren't Bujold, though, and at any rate the overall story after the first two books was more about the protagonist's life than just "Yay, space adventure!" type books. (The first two were about his parents.) The protag, Miles, grows and changes and there's a very strong continuity from one book to the next. When the stories turn dark (in Mirror Dance) the reader is ready for it. Not expecting it, perhaps (or at least I wasn't) but the change in tone didn't feel out of place. Nor did the romance which came later -- Miles had been looking for a woman to love and who would love him back all along, and had had several lovers through the series, so when he finally found The One and focused on pursuing her, the story flowed smoothly into the romance mode.

And I think that shows how to handle this sort of change. A very episodic series, where little or nothing significant changes about the main character(s) or the setting, or the kinds of stories told from one book to the next, sets up an expectation with the readers that the sameness will continue. And that can be good -- a lot of readers like knowing what they're going to get and going back for a fun comfort read over and over. But if there are changes and developments all along, and the focus of the books is on some overall story arc -- the protagonist's pursuit of some overall goal, even if it's something nebulous like growing up or figuring out who she is or finding some kind of purpose -- then the readers will focus on that as the backbone of the series, rather than on the type of story being told over and over.

Even with the first book of a series, it can be made plain that the main characters have plans which extend beyond the end of that first book, that there are things undone and questions unanswered, that the characters and their world are different at the end of the book and will continue to change as the story arc progresses. (Which was basically what most of the commenters agreed was the thing to do -- make it very clear through the book that the couple was heading toward having sex. That lets the people who want to see it know that it's coming, and lets people who don't want to see it decide whether to go on. Or at least be ready to skim here and there. :) )

So for example, in a romance series with all the stories set in the same universe and each book about a new couple meeting and overcoming obstacles to form a stable relationship, while having some fun sex along the way, inserting a book where that book's couple doesn't have sex would be jarring to the reader. No matter how good a story it was, failing to meet established expectations is always a problem and promising a second book about that couple (which hadn't been done before in the series either) which contained sex probably wouldn't help much. If the series focuses on something else, though -- if the whole point is clearly the developing characters and relationships over a number of books -- then the readers will know what to expect from the beginning. If it's clear that this isn't an episodic series, but rather that there'll be change and development and strong continuity from one book to the next, then the readers will get the message that there's an overall story arc here and that reading the next book won't just give them more of same.

It can work either way, but you need to communicate with the reader and make sure that what they're catching is what you're pitching. Taking a hard left off the paved road and setting off in a new direction, machete in hand, is fine so long as you make sure you leave enough signs and tracks that the readers can follow you. If you're deviating from something which is standard or traditional or conventional, you need to think about what those abandoned conventions signal to the reader, and make sure that whatever new and creative form or style or gimmick you come up with, you have some way of clearly replacing any lost signals. If not, your readers won't be able to follow you and you'll end up out in the wilds all alone.