JM Frey

thewriterjess

JM holds a Masters of Communications Culture from Ryerson and York Universities, as well as a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts from Brock University and a minor in Classical Mythology. She specializes in fanthropology: the study of media audiences and fans. She also appears in several documentaries and radio shows speaking on this topic. JM is also a professionally trained actor, voice actor, an award-winning vocalist, and a published poet and science fiction author.

WORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?

The one and only creative writing class I took was in third year of my undergrad studies. I was taking play/screenwriting from the Drama department at the same time, but I wanted a rounder view of storytelling to accompany learning how to construct a script. I signed up for a short story writing course – where, let’s be honest, I handed in a lot of thinly-disguised fanfic – and looked forward to finding the deep, intellectual, creative camaraderie that one sees in films about groups of writers.

There were eleven of us, and I remember four other people from the class distinctly. Two, because they were fanficcers like me (and friends to this day), who also like me learned some things from the class but mostly had been taught all the basics of storytelling and grammar from the online fanfic community.

There was an older woman who really should have been in a memoire writing class over a short story class. I always got partnered with her because I seemed to be the only one who bothered to take the time to explain to her that just because “that’s how it happened in real life” doesn’t mean that’s exactly how it should happen on the page, especially when you only have 5 000 words and no space to waste them.

And then there was him.

You know who I mean.

That Guy.

The self-important, ego-centric, hipster (though we didn’t have that word yet) cis straight white guy who idolizes Hemingway and reads Mein Kampf in public as a deliberate act of protest and discusses Hitler’s wordcrafting as if his politics were never the problem, and doesn’t believe that Writing is a skill you have to practice and improve upon. Someone who doesn’t use an editor because “every word out of my pen is perfect the moment I set it down” and who thinks the publishing industry is just a sad money-grab for hack writers getting suckered by greedy agents, but still not-so-secretly desperately wants to be an Oprah Selection, a New York Times best seller, and Nobel Prize winner.

At the end of the semester, we had to write a short story using some set of elements, which we would all then spend the last few classes critiquing for one another. I left That Guy’s for last because I know I would enjoy it least.

When I finally got to it – printed out, typeset in courier new and bound with a brass brat –  looked like this:

Onceuponatimetherewasacircusclownwho jumped all day upand down ona trampolinemadeoutof thehair of a beautifulgray mare whoneverletanyone brusherhairbuttheclownHelloOldGirlthe clownsaidto heronedayas he pushedbacktehdustyredflap of the circustentinwhichthe oldgraymarelikedto spendhertimebetween herperformances

But it looked like that for five goddamn pages.

When it came time to discuss That Guy’s story, everyone looked around the table, not wanting to go first. Someone said something about the metaphor of the clown, someone else said something tentatively about the color of the prose, and then everyone looked at me.

It was awful, their eyes said. You do it.

(I had, at that point, garnered a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a Stone Cold Bitch when people were Trying To Be Clever in class. At that point I was writing, reading, and critiquing for two creative writing courses, as well as somehow writing a play for the theatre department and maintaining a mildly successful fanfiction series on Fanfiction.net, and providing Beta Reads for other folks in the fanfic community, keeping up with homework for three other courses, and working part-time at McD’s and another job postering for the Centre for the Arts. I think this was also the Year of LARP. I had No Time For Shenanigans.)

I hesitated, and then I finally said, “To be frank, I never read the damn thing.”  There were gasps around the table, and the professor murmured something about it being part of the course. I held up the page – more black than white – and said, “It’s unreadable. It might be a great story, but I will never know because he has intentionally made it a frustrating, difficult experience. I got eye strain trying to figure out the sentences and fatigue from the mental work of understanding. I was so caught up in translating the text that I missed what the story is completely.”

There was some bluff and bluster about the story maybe just being too clever for me from That Guy, and the professor smirked and then looked away quickly.

And I said: “Listen, you ever wanna make money on this? You never will. Not if you pull stupid stunts like this. It feels like you’re condescending to your audience, you’re trying to trick them, and it’s too hard to read. Nobody will pay for you to laugh at them.”

“But the story is good!” someone else in the class protested. (I was perhaps being a bit too harsh, and I think they were trying to soften the blow.)

“I never found a story,” I replied. “The text wouldn’t let me into it. I was locked out by the style. I’m sure there’s a story on the other side of this brick wall of words, but I couldn’t get access to it. And if it’s that hard for me, and I am paying for the privilege of being in this class and reading these stories, imagine how much less inclined a paying audience will be to spend the time to understand it.”

The Guy huffed and crossed his arms and slumped and said, “So, I should dumb down my work?”

And I said, “No, you should work on your work. Standardized punctuation and grammar exist for a reason. They exist so the words don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell. Not knowing the rules and not even trying to learn them is not the same as making a deliberate stylistic choice to break them.” (I might have had a chip on my shoulder from earlier in the semester when I had to teach the fool what a bloody hard return was actually for in dialogue.)

That Guy starting pouting and everyone looked to the Professor. He shrugged and said: “She’s not wrong.”

I don’t know what mark he got on the story, but I do know that he was made to rewrite and hand it in again.

So what does this anecdote illustrate? Why did I bring this up?

Because when I think back to that story, when I think back to what happened, I still get angry and frustrated. I feel like a child trying to express the way-to-big-emotions that are filling up my still-so-tiny body and just crying and screaming because that’s my only tool of communication. I hate the story, and I hate that writer, and I hate the fact that he was trying to trick me in some way and it was all just so weakly obvious and condescending.

Now do I really hate his story? No, I never read it so I don’t actually have an opinion of it. Do I really hate That Guy? No, of course not. Do I really think that he was trying to deliberately trick me? No.

But it feels like it.

I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember his story. I don’t even really remember what he looked like. But I remember how he made me feel.

And for readers, how a book makes them feel is so much more a part of the experience of reading than the wordcrafting. People talk about how stories make them feel all the time – in reviews, in blurbs, to friends and neighbors. Writing sells because of how it makes people feel.

But a story can’t make anyone feel anything if they can’t figure out how to read it.

Now, I’m not advocating for ‘lowest possible denominator dumb it down’ writing. I’m advocating for clear, easily understandable communication.

“Style” is word choice, and imagery choice, and how long your sentences are and where you break up paragraphs. It’s about how you write out dialogue and accents, and what parts of the story you choose to tell, and whose POV you tell it from. It’s about how you play with the musicality of the rhythm of the words. Its about which rules you decide to break, and how, and how consistently you do so in order to convey something extra and beyond in the prose. (Breaking a rule should always be a consistently-applied deliberate choice that adds something to the reader’s understanding of the story, rather than taking away).

I’m not saying don’t have style.

I’m saying that the moment style gets in the way of story, then it’s gone too far.

Style should always add, and not detract.

Think of a story like a set of stairs. Style should be the escalator going up, helping readers get to the destination smoothly. It shouldn’t be an escalator going down, so your reader has to huff and puff and fight against it to get to the end of the book.

When figuring out a style for your tale, build an uppy escalator. Not a downy one.

*

Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?
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I Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away

I Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away

I wrote an article about the #Steampunk #TARDISGown for the #SiliconWebCostumersGuild newsletter “The Virtual Costumer” for this month!

Click here to read the full article.

This is a members-only newsletter until the Patreon readers have got their advanced copies, but as a special treat editor Philip Gust has agreed that the public can get a crack at my pages. I had a lovely time meeting the Gusts at  #ConVolution2017 in San Jose this past October, and I encourage every #cosplayer I know to check out the magazine.

Happy Reading!

JM FreyI Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: What’s the difference between YA and NA?

WORDS FOR WRITERS:  What’s the difference between YA and NA?


Board Books, Picture Books, Chap Books, Middle Grade Young Adult, New Adult, Adult, Erotica.

These are the age-range/maturity range book categories that I’m aware of, starting from least to most mature. These aren’t genres, like science fiction, or romance, or crime thriller, but the assumed reading level of the audience.

Most books have both a genre and an age market, which are two different things. You can have a Middle Grade Western and an Erotica Science Fiction, or a Board Book Psychological Drama if you really wanted to.

Young Adult and New Adult, however, are the two categories where the age market also comes freighted with assumed themes and plot styles. It’s not saying they have to explore those themes and plots, but that they usually do.

And because the age range is so similar (teenagers & early ‘adults’) I’ve seen this question floating around Tumblr a lot recently: What is the difference between YA and NA?

While there’s no real hard-and-fast rule, there is a difference between Young Adult market books, and New Adult market books, from conversations I’ve with authors, publishers, and agents, I think at it’s most basic and simple it can be broken down as:

Young Adult

  • YA protags are one or two years older than the intended audience (so 15 to 18)
  • YA is about the protags’ firsts (first kiss, first time being responsible for themselves, first time they realized what’s really happening around them, first time they killed someone, etc)
  • YA is about the protag figuring out who they are and what their morals are (internal growth)
  • There can be romance, kissing, and even sex, though the latter is usually not too explicit and often “fades to black”.

New Adult

  • The protag is the same age as the intended audience (19 to 30 or so)
  • NA is about seconds, or what happens after, and the emotional impact of that. It answers the question “so now what?”
  • NA is about the protag figuring out their place in the world and their relevance to their school/employer/loved ones/dystopian regimes/fantasy rulers (external struggle).
  • There can be romance, kissing, and sex, which is generally more explicit, but may not be a central plot point like it is in erotica.

Basically, YA is Bilbo in The Hobbit coming into his own as an adventurer and hero. NA is Bilbo in those “Everybody Lives” fics  on AO3 where he stays in Erebor and becomes the Prince Consort and has to figure out how to help and not harm the ruling of The Lonely Mountain. That’s not to say that all NA is domestic and about setting up house – you can still have mystery, action, tension, etc. it just happens at the same time and pushes the protag into figuring out their place in their world.

Have more questions that you’d like me to answer for my Words for WRiters series? Shoot me an email.

Want to read more Words for Writers? You can find the full list of articles here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: What’s the difference between YA and NA?
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Granny Le Guin

Granny Le Guin

Image result for ursula k le guin

I know I’ve said it before, but I didn’t really grow up in a family of readers. Mom is constantly reading books passed to her by relatives and neighbors, and she passes them on after that –  mostly thrillers and dramas, though, not the sort of thing that interested me at an impressionable age.

At no point that I recall did someone hand me a book and say “Here, I want to share this with you.” Aside from some minimal librarian guidance when women manning the school counters saw me gravitating to this or that genre, I mostly found my favorite reads and authors by devouring everything on a shelf or through online fan forums.

This means I somehow utterly missed Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t know how, or why. You’d think schools would have a thousand copies of The Left Hand of Darkness on the shelf. Or that at some point I’d be forced to read it for class. (The only sci-fi books I directly recall reading for class was The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughs for a grade seven project on worldbuilding, where I deliberately chose the one book no one else did so I wouldn’t have to be in a group.)

It wasn’t until the after-school programing block on YTV introduced me to anime (Sailor Moon! Inu Yasha! Escaflowne! Gundam Wing! Dragonball Z!) that I ever heard of Le Guin, and that was only because in 2006 Ghibli Studios announced “Tales from Earthsea.”  I was living in Japan at the time, and the English section of the local bookstore was quite slim. But they did have the Earthsea series in an omnibus volume, and I took that home and consumed it in a weekend to prepare for the release of the film.

(I was disappointed, of course. I don’t know why Ghibli has a habit of taking a great story and turning it incomprehensible. They did the same to Howl’s Moving Castle, too, another series and author I discovered because they announced the adaptation).

I can honestly tell you that the Earthsea books – aside from the multitude of Stargate: Atlantis fan fiction I was consuming at the time – was the only story to directly influence my debut novel Triptych.  I began writing the original incarnation of the novel, a novella titled (Back), in January 2006, or thereabouts.

Reading the Earthsea books made me think a lot about the standard Fantasy Narrative, Hero, & Land that I’d consumed via Piers Anthony and Anne Rice novels up until then. It was the first time I had been confronted by my own inherent racism – why was I surprised to realize that Ged wasn’t white? – and by the privileges I had enjoyed as a reader until now.

It made me think a lot about what kinds of stories weren’t being told, by which kinds of characters, from which kinds of POVs. While I didn’t go as far as retroactively would have liked in making the cast and locations more diverse, or the discussions and displays of sexuality more complicated, I certainly would not have been thinking about these things at all were it not for Earthsea.

Many people have compared Triptych to Stranger in a Strange Land, or Canticle for Leibowitz, or The Left Hand of Darkness. None of which I read before I wrote the book (the first two of which I still haven’t read since), for which I’m glad. Because I might not have dared to write Triptych if I had read The Left Hand of Darkness first.

When Dr. Mike Perschon invited me to speak at the Grant MacEwan English Student Conference in February 2017 to speak in his English course “Topics in Race and Gender” – where he was teaching my sophomore novel The Untold Tale he mentioned the names of some of the other books on the syllabus. And I realized that I was about to step in front of a classroom filled with people who were expecting me to know at least one of the other authors I was being taught alongside and panicked.

Oh crap.

I read it on the plane to Edmonton and whoa nelly was I glad I did. Those students were way more prepared for my weekend than I was. And again, I was so, so happy that I had not read Left Hand before Triptych, because there were choices that Le Guin had made in the novel that would have made me want to veer opposite in response. Because I would have wanted to explore the areas her narrative hadn’t. In being unaware, I got to explore some of the same fees, but in a different, parallel light.

I always thought Ursula Le Guin would get a kick out of that. Though, of course, I don’t think my work was as thoughtful as hers, so I would have been terrified to even consider to put it into her hands. She was, by all accounts, the kind of woman to call out cowardice and shallowness when she saw it. And in reading Left Hand, she made me wish I had been a braver storyteller when I’d put Triptych on the page.

Luckily, I had not yet finished edits on The Silenced Tale when I read Left Hand. And I think I did make the harder, bolder choices with that novel. And I know for a fact that I went back into some of my notes for future novels and changed up the ideas in there, too.

Ursula K. Le Guin made me a stronger writer, not once, but twice.  I wanted to one day thank her for that. This is the closest I’ll ever get, now.

 

*

 

On the day Anne McCaffrey passed away, her son Todd emailed a group of people, me among them, and told us that the announcement was going to go out that day and to prepare ourselves. I’d only met Todd the once, when he decided to crash the launch party for Triptych, and he’d given me a beautiful blurb for my debut novel as a result.

Todd barely knew me from Eve, but I appreciated the heads-up all the same.  Because it gave me time to excuse myself from my dayjob desk and go have a private sob in the ladies’. I took an extralong lunch that day, and went to the book store, and purchased myself a copy of the very first Dragonriders of Pern book. I’d read McCaffrey before, but never the Pern books. I don’t know what I had been waiting for.

I only knew that now was finally the time, to connect to McCaffrey through her most famous work by buy a book that I would never be able to get her to sign for me. In reading the novel  I was reminded that she was one of the great founders of not only modern fantasy and science fiction, but one of the pantheon of women who I have nicknamed “Gran” in my head, because they were the ones whose work were a direct influence on my own, the way they have directly or indirectly influenced so many writers who have come after them.

Grannie McCaffrey was gone.

In the last few years, I’ve lost another of my Grans – Diana Wynne Jones, author of the Howl’s Moving Castle books. That left Gran Lois Lowry, Gran Jennifer Roberson, and Gran Ursula K. Le Guin

And now I’ve lost another of the great beloved women of my literary genesis and the dreams of my childhood heart.

She was never mine, not really. Not in the way she was her family’s, or her publisher’s or her agents. But she was mine in my heart, in my imagination, in what she taught me as a feminist, as a storyteller, as a teacher. I looked to her and her work the way a child looks to their grandparent for advice, and a kind word, and good stories.

I hoped one day to shake her hand. To maybe even call her Gran to her face, though I would have to explain why. To thank her.

Part of the reason I started pushing my own work for Hugos and Nebulas was because I wanted to get the chance to sit beside her, to look her in the eye in the middle of the acceptance speech and say “This is yours, in part.”

 

*

 

There’s a joke, in The Accidental Turn series, that my character Elgar Reed is a literary magpie. He’s the author of  “The Tales of Kintyre Turn”, a 1980s style sword-and-sorcery epic of either novels about a lord’s son who rejects his pampered upbringing to go swing an enchanted sword on the front lines of an inter-racial magical war.  I imagined Reed as the kind of writer who figures the best way to get famous is to do exactly what everyone else before him did – his work is a Lord of the Rings knockoff, with elements he’s grabbed from everyone who came after the Professor. To the point where there are moments where

He’s the kind of self-important author who thinks that he’s cleverer than his readers, and that he can pull the wool over their eyes, instead of realizing that a reader and a writer are a team that tell the story together. See, he thinks we won’t notice.

And this sort of meta storytelling gave me the opportunity to use his selfish magpieshness to fill the my books with my own tributes to my Grans. A pub that Bevel and Kintyre frequent is called The Pern. And the land in which they venture is called Hain.

I so wanted to be able to share that little wink and nod with her. And the gratitude.

She reached through her prose and made me braver – not just as a writer, but as a feminist, as an activist, as a bi woman with a disability, as a human over all.  I’m sure I’m not the only one, too.

So I guess the only thing I can say now is:

Thanks, Gran. They’re all yours, in part.

 

JM FreyGranny Le Guin
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Cover Reveal – “The Silenced Tale”

Cover Reveal – “The Silenced Tale”

Well, it’s finally here! The third and final novel of The Accidental Turn series (but not the final book, oh no).  THE SILENCED TALE hits the shelves on December 12th!

But before the book can come out, we have to have a cover! So, without further adieu, here it is!

So, to be honest, I think what I love best about this book is that the first one had the lettering in copper, the second in silver, and this one in gold. That is some darn good design there. You’ll notice the book is much darker than it’s predecessors – well, it’s a darker story. And yes, there are hints of the Viceroy’s acid green in there too. What, you didn’t really think his contribution to the story was done, did you?

I adore that blurb from the ever-incredible Julie Czerneda, and just how real the jewels look.

What’s Next?

 

About the Book

Forsyth Turn never wanted to be a hero. And yet, even in the Overrealm, a hero is what he’ll be.

After their last adventure in Hain, Forsyth expected to return to the life he’d built with Pip and Alis, his days of magic and heroics behind him. But then Pip starts suffering night terrors laced with images of glowing ivy and Elgar Reed calls with fears of bizarre threats and a man garbed all in black.

But there is no magic in the Overrealm. Forsyth refuses to believe that anything other than mundane coincidence is at work—until Elgar’s stalker leaves him a message too eerie and specific to ignore. Now, he has to face the possibility that Pip’s dreams and Elgar’s fears are connected . . . and that maybe they weren’t the only ones to escape the pages of The Tales of Kintyre Turn.

And if that’s the case, it’s going to take more than a handful of heroes to save the day this time. It’s going to take an army. Luckily, Reed fans are legion.

A stunning conclusion to the series, The Silenced Tale is a genre-bending whirlwind that breathes life into the idea that the power of story lies not just with the creator, but with the fans who love it.

JM FreyCover Reveal – “The Silenced Tale”
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