Words for Writers

Words for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid

On February 10th, 2017 I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to a group of students and faculty from Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, about Fan Fiction, Mary Sues, and #DiversityMatters.

Here is the audio (slightly cleaned up) and transcript of that talk.

Audio:

Transcript:

Mike Perschon:

So, our keynote speaker is J.M. Frey. And she is from the Toronto area. I can say the “Toronto-area,” that’s a quick way of saying–

J.M. Frey

It’s a good way of saying it.

Mike Perschon:

–it and everything.

Uh, she is a science fiction and fantasy author. She’s a pop culture scholar.  She’s going to be talking to us about some of that stuff tonight. She often appears as a guest on podcasts, television, and radio programs. Okay, she’s got a book coming out later this year, the third in the series – the fantasy series – she’s has been writing for the past few years and, uh, she’s got a whole bunch of other creative projects on the go.

Tonight she’s going to be talking to us about how “Your Voice is Valid” and the idea of the “Mary Sue”.

So if you’ve seen that term in pop culture, and was confused what it was or, perhaps, gotten misinformation, you’ll find out exactly what that is.

[Applause truncated]

J.M. Frey:

Thank you very much for inviting me, everybody.

Thank you to the student organizers. Thank you to the faculty organizers. I really appreciate it.

I—ah-ah! First off, I’m gonna say: I’m going to have my notes with me, and I apologize, ‘cause talking for forty-five minutes is—a half hour! I promise, it’s a half hour!—without notes is a little much.

Um, so I just wanted to say thank you to Grant MacEwan for inviting me. Um, this is the first time in Edmonton, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I think I was maybe promised roller coasters? I don’t know…

I do want to, in particular, thank you Mike for inviting me and for being my designated buddy while I’m here in Edmonton.  It is an honor to sleep in the same guest bed that Gail Carriger once slept in.

And secondly, I do want to say thank you to everyone else for being here. I do in my brain still think of myself in my brain think of myself as your age, even though I have been out of academia for… oh… a little bit over a decade. But I loved being you guys, I loved this moment of my life. Ah, this weekend is going to be so awesome, you have no idea.

But of course before the awesome happens, you’ve have to listen to a keynote and you’re probably wondering who this hobbit in the front of the room is, getting between you and these amazing burgers that I’ve heard about?

We don’t have “Red Robin”s in Ontario? So apparently I’m in for a treat. I’m very excited about it.

So, my name is J.M. Frey. I’m a science-fiction and fantasy author, a screenwriter, and a fanthropologist. And I have a declaration to make. A promise. A vow, if you will.

And it is this:

If I hear one more basement-dwelling troll call the lead female protagonist of a genre film a “Mary Sue” one more time, I’m going to scream.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this all before. A major science fiction, fantasy, video game, novel, or comic franchise or publisher announces a new title. Said new title features a lead protagonist who is female, or a person of color, or is not able-bodied, or is non-neurotypical, or is LGBTQA+.

It might be the new Iron Man or Spider-man, who are both young black teenagers now. The new Ms. Marvel, a Muslim girl. It could be Jyn Erso, the female lead of the latest Star Wars film, the deaf Daphne Vasquez from Switched at Birth, or Alex in Supergirl, who was just recently revealed to be a lesbian still coming to terms with her sexuality in her mid-thirties, or Dorian in Dragon Age, who is both a person of color and flamboyantly queer.

And generally, the audience cheers. Yay for diversity! Yay for representation! Yay for working to make the worlds we consume look more like the world we live in! Yaaaaay!

But there’s a certain segment of the fan population that does not celebrate.

I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.

This certain brand of fan-person gets all up in arms on social media. They whine. They complain. They say that it’s not appropriate to change the gender, race, orientation, or physical abilities of a fictional creation, or just protest their inclusion to begin with. They decry the erosion of creativity in service of neo-liberalism, overreaching political-correctness, and femi-nazis. (Sorry, sorry – the femi-“alt-right”).

It’s not realistic – women can’t survive in space, they say, it’s just a fact. That is a direct quote, by the way. Superheroes can’t be black, they say. Video game characters shouldn’t have a sexual orientation, (unless that sexual orientation is straight and the game serves to support a male gaze ogling at half-dressed pixilated prostitutes).

And strong female characters have to wear boob armor. It’s just natural, they say.

They predict the end of civilization because things are no longer being done the way they’ve always been done. There’s nothing wrong with the system, they say. So don’t you dare change it.

And to enforce this opinion, to ensure that it’s really, really clear just how much contempt this certain segment of the fan population holds for any lead protagonist that isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, cismale, they do everything they can to tear down them down.

They do this by calling that a “Mary Sue.”

When fan fiction author Paula Smith first used the term “Mary Sue” in her 1973 story A Trekkie’s Tale, she was making a commentary on the frequent appearance of original characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Now, most of these characters existed as a masturbatory avatar – wanna bone Spock? (And, um, you know, let’s face it who didn’t?) They you write a story where a character representing you gets to bone Spock.

And if they weren’t a sexual fantasy, then they were an adventure fantasy – wanna be an officer on the Enterprise? Well, it’s the flagship of the Starfleet, so you better be good enough to get there. Chekov was the youngest navigator in Starfleet history, Uhura is the most tonally sensitive officer in linguistics, and Jim Kirk’s genius burned like a magnesium flare – you would have to keep up to earn your place on that bridge.

So this led to a slew of hyper sexualized, physically idealized, and unrealistically competent author-based characters populating the fan fiction of the time.

But inserting a trumped-up version of yourself into a narrative wasn’t invented in the 1970s. I mean, Aeneas was totally Virgil’s Mary Sue in his Iliad knock off, Dante was such a fanboy of the The Bible that he wrote himself into an adventure exploring it. Uh, Robin Hood’s merry men and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table kept growing in number, and characteristics with each retelling; and even painters have inserted themselves into commissioned pictures for centuries.

This isn’t new. This is not a recent human impulse.

But what Paula Smith and the Mary Sue-writing fan ficcers didn’t know at the time, was that they were crystallizing what it means to be an engaged consumer of media texts, instead of just a passive one. What it means to be so affected by a story, to love it so much that this same love bubbles up out of you and you have to do something about it.

Either in play, or in art. So for example, in pretending to be a ninja turtle on the play ground, or in trying to recreate the perfect version of a star fleet uniform to wear, or in creating art and making comics depicting your favorite moments or further adventures of the characters you love, or writing stories that encompass missing moments from the narratives.

“Mary Sues” are, at their center, a celebration of putting oneself and one’s own heart, and one’s own enjoyment of a media text, first.

So, heh, before I talk about why this certain segment of the population deploys the term “Mary Sue” the way it does, let’s take a closer look at this impulse for participatory play.

Here’s the sixty four thousand dollar question: where do “Mary Sues” come from?

I’d like you all to close your eyes, please.

Think back. Picture yourself outside, playing with your siblings, or the neighbour’s kids or you cousins…. and You’re probably around seven, or eight, or nine years old… and…

Think about the kind of games you’re playing. Ball games, chase games, and probably something with a narrative? Are you Power Rangers? Are you flying to Neverland with Peter Pan? Are you fighting Dementors and Death Eaters at Hogwarts? Are you the newest members of One Direction, are you Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits? Are you running around collecting Pokémon back before running around and collecting Pokémon was a thing?

Open your eyes.

That, guys, gals and non-binary pals, is where Mary Sues come from. That’s it. It’s as easy as that.

As a child you didn’t know that modern literary tradition pooh-poohs self-analogous characters, or that realism was required for depth of character. All you knew was that you wanted to be a part of that story, right.  If you wanted to be a train with Thomas and Friends, then you were a train. If you wanted to be a  magic pony from Equestria, you were a pony.  Or, you know, if you had brothers like me, then you were a pony-train.

Self-insert in childhood games teach kids the concept of elastic play, and this essential ability to imagine oneself in skins that are not one’s own, and to stretch and reshape narratives, is what breeds creativity and storytelling.

Now, think of your early stories.

You can keep your eyes open for this one.

As a child we all told and wrote stories about doing what, to us, were mundane everyday things like getting ice cream with the fictional characters we know and love.

So for example, my friend’s three year old tells his father bed time stories about going on walks through Home Hardware with his friends, the anthropomorphized versions of the local taco food truck and the commuter train his dad takes to work every morning. He doesn’t recognize the difference between real and fictional people (or for him, in this case, the stand ins that are the figures that loom large in his life right now as a three year old obsessed with massive machines). When you ask him to tell you a story, he talks about these fictions as if they’re real.

As we grow up, we do learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality. But, I posit that we never truly loose that “me too!” mentality. We see something amazing happening on the screen, or on the page, or on a playing field, and we want to be there, a part of it.

We sort ourselves into Hogwarts Houses. We choose hockey teams to love, and we wear their jerseys.    We buy ball caps from our favorite breweries, line up for hours to be the first to watch a new release or to buy a certain smartphone. We collect stamps and baseball cards and first editions of Jane Austen and Dan Brown. We want to be a part of it. And our capitalist, consumer society tells us to prove our love with our dollars, and do it. 

And for fan creators, we want to be a part of it so badly that we’re willing to make it. Not for profit, but for sheer love.

And for the early writers, the newbies, the blossoming beginners, Mary Sues are where they generally start. Because those are the sorts of stories they’ve been telling yourselves for years already, right?

Yet as we get older, we begin to notice a dearth of representation – you’re not pony trains in our minds any more, and we have a better idea of what we look like. And we don’t see it. The glorious fantasy diversity of our childhoods is stripped away, narratives are codified by the mainstream media texts we consume, and people stop looking like us.

I’m reminded of a story I read on Tumblr, of a young black author living in Africa – who, I’m going to admit, whose name, I’m afraid, I wasn’t able to find when I went back to look for it, so my apologies to her –  and the story is about the first time she tried to write a fairytale in elementary school. She made her protagonist a little white girl, and when she was asked why she hadn’t chosen to make the protagonist back, this author realized that it hadn’t even occurred to her that she was allowed make her lead black. Even though she was surrounded by black faces, the adventures, and romance, and magic in everything she consumed only happened to the white.

This is not natural. This is nurture, not nature. This is learned behavior. And this is hegemony.

No child grows up believing they don’t have place in the story. This is something were are taught. And this is something that we are taught by the media texts weconsume.

Now, okay. I do want to pause and make a point here.

There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with writing a narrative from the heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical, white cismale POV in and of itself. I think we all have stories that we know and love and like to tell that are like that.

And people from community deserve to tell their stories as much as folks from other communities.

The problem comes when it’s the only narrative. The default narrative. The factory setting. When people who don’t see themselves reflected in the narrative nonetheless feel obligated to write such stories, instead of their own. When they are told and taught that it is the only story worth telling. ‎

There’s this really great essay by Ika Willis, and it’s called “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Room for Mary Sue At Hogwarts“. And I think it’s the one – one of the most important pieces of writing not only on Mary Sues, but on the dire need for representation in general.

In the essay, Willis talks about Mary Sues – beyond being masturbatory adventure avatars for young people just coming into their own sexuality, or, um, avatars to go on adventures with – but as voice avatars. Mary Sues, when wielded with self-awareness, deliberateness, and precision, can force a wedge into the narrative, crack it open, and provide a space for marginalized identities and voices in a narrative that otherwise silences and ignores them.

This is done one of two ways. First: by jamming in a diverse Mary Sue. And making the characters and the world acknowledge and work with that diversity.

Or, second: by co-opting a pre-existing character and overlaying a new identity on them while retaining their essential characterization. Like making Bilbo Baggins non-binary, but still thinking that adventures are messy, dirty things. Or making Sherlock Holmes deaf, but still perfectly capable of solving all the crimes. Um… making James Potter Indian, so that the Dursleys prejudiced against Harry not only for his magic, but also for his skin color. Making Ariel the mermaid deal with severe body dysphoria, or giving Jane Foster PTSD after the events of Thor.

I like to call this voice avatar Mary Sue a Meta-Sue, because when authors have evolved enough in their storytelling abilities to consciously deploy Mary Sues as a deliberate trope, they’re doing so on a self-aware, meta-textual level.

So that is where Mary Sues comes from. But what is a Mary Sue? How can you point at a character and say, “Yes, that is – definitively – a Mary Sue”.

Well, Mary Sues can generally be characterized as:

-Too perfect, or unrealistically skilled. They shouldn’t be able to do all the things they do, or know all the things they know, as easily as they do or know them. For reasons of the plot expedience, they learn too fast, and are able to perform feats that other characters in their world who have studied or trained longer and harder find difficult. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

-They are the black hole of every plot – every major quest or goal of the pre-existing characters warps to include or be about them; every character wants to befriend them, or romance them, or sleep with them, and every villain wants to possess them, or kill them, or sleep with them. Makes sense, as why write a character into the world if you’re not going to have something very important happen to them. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

-A Mary Sue, because it’s usually written by a neophyte author who’s been taught that characters need flaws, has some sort of melodramatic, angsty tragic back-story that, while on the surface seems to motivate them into action, because of lack of experience in creating a follow-through of emotional motivation, doesn’t actually affect their mental health or ability to trust or be happy or in love. So, Like the emotional arc of, I dunno… Neo in The Matrix.

– A Mary Sue saves the day. This goes back to that impulse to be the center of the story. Like, Neo in The Matrix.

-And lastly, Mary Sues come from outside the group. They’re from the ‘real world’, like you and I, or have somehow discovered the hero’s secret identity and must be folded into the team, or are a new recruit, or are a sort of previously undiscovered stand-alone Chosen One. Like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

Now, as I’ve said, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue. Neo is a Mary Sue, but The Matrix is still really good. So there’s nothing really wrong with it.

 

The first impulse of storytelling is to talk about oneself. All authors do it. We write about ourselves, only the more we write, the more skilled we become at disguising the sliver of us-ness in a character, folding it into something different and unique.

We, as storytellers, as humans, empathize with protagonists and fictional characters constantly – we love putting our feet into other people’s shoes. It’s how we understand and engage with the world.

And we as writers tap into our own emotions in order to describe them on the page. We take slices of our lives – our experiences, our memories, our friend’s verbal tics or hand gestures, aunt Brenda’s way of making tea, Uncle Rudy’s way having a pipe after dinner, that time Grannie got lost at the zoo (mouths: wasn’t my fault!) – and we weave them together into a golem that we call a character, which comes to life with a bit of literary magic.

I mean, allow me to be sparklingly reductionist for a second, but in the most basic sense, every character is a Mary Sue.

It’s just a matter of whether the writer has evolved to the point  in their craft that they’ve learned to animate that golem with the sliver of self-ness hidden deep enough that it is unrecognizable as self-ness, but still recognizable as human-ness.

That certain segment of the fan population has been telling us for years that if we don’t like what we see on TV or in video games, or in books, or comics, or on the stage, that we should just go make our own stuff. And now we are. And they are losing their goddamn minds! “Make your own stuff,” they say, and then follow it up with “What’s with all this political correctness gone wild? Uhg. This stuff is all just Mary Sue garbage.”

Well, yes. Of course it is. That’s the point. But why are they saying it like that?

Because they mean it in a derogatory sense.

They don’t mean it in the way that Paula Smith meant it – a little bit belittling but mostly fun; a bemused celebration of why we love putting ourselves into the stories and worlds we enjoy. They don’t mean it the way that Willis means it – a deliberate and knowing way to shove the previously marginalized into the center. They don’t even mean it the way that I mean it. And for those of you unfortunate enough to be in Dr. Perschon’s class, and have read The Untold Tale you’ll know: as a tool for carefully deconstructing and discussing character and narrative with a character and from within a narrative.

When a certain segment of the fan population talks about “Mary Sue”, they mean to weaponize it. To make it a stand-in for the worse thing that a character can be: bland, predictable, and too-perfect. Which, granted, many Mary Sues are. But not all of them. And a character doesn’t have to be a Mary Sue to be done badly, either.

When this certain segment of the fan population says “Mary Sue”, they’re trying to shame the creators for deviating from the norm - the white, the heterosexual, the able bodied, the neurotypical, the straight cismale.

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t believe people like this are interesting enough to be the lead character in a story.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t think there’s any need to listen to that voice. They’re not interesting enough.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “This character is not what I am used to a.k.a. not like me, and I’m gonna whine about it.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Even though kids from all over the world, from many different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds have had to grow up learning to identify with characters who don’t look or think like them, identifying with characters who don’t look or think like me is hard and I don’t wanna.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: ”Even though I’ve grown up in a position of privilege and power, and even though publishing and producing diverse stories with diverse casts doesn’t actually cut into the proportionate representation that I receive, and never will, I am nonetheless scared that I’ll never see people like me in media texts ever again.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Considering my fellow human beings as fellow human beings worthy of having stories about them and their own experiences, in their own voices, is hard and I don’t wanna do it.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I only want stories about me.”

 

They call leads “Mary Sues” so people will stop writing them and instead write… well, their version of a “Mary Sue.” The character that is representative of their lived experiences, their power and masturbatory fantasies, their physical appearance, their sexual awakenings, their cultural identity, their voice, their kind of narratives.

Missing, of course, that the point of revisionist and inclusive narratives aren’t to shove out previous incarnations, but to coexist alongside them. It’s not taking away one entrée and offering only another – it’s building a buffet.

Okay, so who actually cares if these trolls call these diverse characters Mary Sues?

Well, unfortunately, because this certain segment of the population have traditionally been the group most listened-to by the mainstream media creators and the big money, their opinions have power. (Never mind that they’re not actually the biggest group of consumers anymore, nor no longer the most vocal.)

So, this is where you come in.

You have the power to take the Mary Sue from the edge of the narrative and into the centre. And you do can do this by normalizing it. Think back to that author who didn’t think little black girls were allowed to be the heroes of fairy tales. Now imagine how much different her inner world, her imagination might have been at the stage when she was first learning to understand her own self-worth, if she had seen faces like hers on the television, in comics, in games, and on the written page every day of her life.

And not just one or two heroes, but a broad spectrum of characters that run the gamut from hero to villain, from fragile to powerful, from straight to gay, and every other kind of intersectional identity.

You have the power to give children the ability to see themselves.

Multi-faceted representation normalizes the marginalized.

And if you have the privilege to be part of the passing member of the mainstream, then weaponize your privilege. Refuse to work with publishers, or websites, or conventions that don’t also support diverse creators. Put diverse characters in your work, and do so thoughtfully and with the input of the people from the community you are portraying. And if you’re given the opportunity to submit or speak at an event, offer to share the microphone.

–Sorry, I always get emotional at this part. Ah-heh!

The first thing I did when actor Burn Gorman got a Twitter account was to Tweet him  my thanks for saving the world in Pacific Rim while on a cane. As someone who isn’t as mobile as the heroes I see in action films - who knows for a fact that when the zombie apocalypse comes I will not be a-able to outrun the monsters – it meant so much to me that his character was not only an integral and vital member of the team who cancelled the apocalypse, but also that not once did someone call him a cripple, or tell him he couldn’t participate because of his disability, or leave him behind.

Diversity matters.

Not because it’s a trendy hashtag, or a way to sell media texts to a locked-down niche market, but because every single human being deserves to be told that they have a voice worth listening to; a life worth celebrating and showcasing in a narrative; a reality worth acknowledging and accepting and protecting; emotions that are worth exploring and validating; intelligence that is worth investing in and listening to; and a capacity to love that is worth adoring.

White, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied cismales are not the only people on the planet who are human.

And you have a right to tell your story your way.

Okay, so I’ve basically spent thirty minutes basically cribbing my own MA thesis, and for what? Why? Well, you’re here for a conference focused on Narrative and Identity, right?

Calling something a “Mary Sue” in order to dismiss it out of hand, as an excuse to hate something before even seeing it, is how the trolls bury your Narrative and your Identity.  We are storytellers, all of us. Every person in this room.

Whether your wheel house is in fiction, or academia, or narrative non-fiction, we impart knowledge and offer experience through the written word, through the telling of tales, through leading a reader from one thought to another.

The root of the word “Essay” is the French “Essayer”. A verb meaning, “to try”. To try to convince the reader of a truth in an academic paper is no different than trying to convince a reader of an emotional truth in a fictional piece. Tout le monde doit essayer.

And we none of deserve to be shouted down, talked over, or dismissed. No one can tell you that your story isn’t worth telling. Of course it is. It’s yours.

And don’t let anyone call your characters, or your work, or you a ”Mary Sue” in the derogatory sense. Ever again.  Ever.

Or I am going to scream.

Thank you.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid
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Words for Writers: Characters and Tropes

I opened my Askbox today and received this question from Chris Player:

What gave you the idea to write these characters [in The Accidental Turn Series]? A modern day character in feudal-esc world? Brilliant! Makes me wonder how a modern person would do in Salvator, Tolkien or even Pratchett’s worlds. About half way done the book and loving it!

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(art by @anotherwellkeptsecret​)

Heya! Thanks for the question, and I hope you are still loving the book when you get to the end of it!

This novel really came out of my study of Mary Sues, and my own fantasies about what it would be like walking fully-informed and well-read into worlds like Tolkien and Prachett’s. I wanted to write a story where something like that happens, but I knew that I would get my pants sued off if I tried to use their worlds. So, I had to come up with one of my own.

To do that, I spent a lot of time compiling what I knew about fantasy worlds and their staples – what kinds of environments and landscapes they usually encompassed, what kinds of civilizations and the level of their technology, and what sorts of characters inhabit them and/or star in these tales.

And so lot of my characters started as amalgamations of tropes. And, in this case, because you need to start characters in a place that gives them room to grow, sometimes negative or harmful tropes.

Kintyre Turn, as the hero of The Tales of Kintyre Turn, is stereotypically masculine – big, buff, and brawny, he only sees value in strength, virility, and power. He is cocky and arrogant, the typical sword-swinging Conan-the-Barbarian male-power fantasy that is meant to stand in for the nebbish white cismale heterosexual reader. Women throw themselves at his feet, and he has perfect teeth in a medieval-era world void of dentistry.

Bevel Dom is the stereotypical sidekick – feisty, sassy, short and spunky. He’s clever, but the hero always seems more clever (even when he’s not). He worships the hero, even though he does most of the work. He has no concept of how valuable he is because the hero doesn’t value him as much as he should. He is the wife-stand-in (in more ways than one, in this story), and the brother-stand-in.

Forsyth is what J.K. Rowling has recently called “The Hufflepuff Hero”, and it takes him a long time to find value in his own compassion, kindness and thoughtfulness. He considers those negatives, when we first meet him, because his brother Kintyre is the ideal and he is nothing like Kintyre. This translates in Forsyth into a severe lack of self-esteem and a dismissal of the soft and virtuous.

But even Pip, my “real person”, is still a collection of Mary Sue tropes. Pip is the feminine-rejecting online acafan feminist. She is so sure of her own right-ness that she offends and blunders without realizing it. She insults without meaning to. But she also finds joy and virtue in things that others don’t, because she over thinks and over analyses. Pip herself is not meant to be a paragon of womanly virtue, nor the “perfect feminist”; she’s flawed, she has a lot to learn, and she thinks she is so much more clever than the writer Elgar Reed, and so falls into her own traps sometimes.

Elgar Reed, the author of The Tales of Kintyre Turn, is an amalgam of stereotypes, as well. He’s white, male, has a beard and a belly, and doesn’t understanding women. He is the proverbial socially awkward geek who makes good and has never had to develop social skills because his fame and money makes him friends instead.

With the tropes established and stitched together to create Creatures, then I got to work turning them into Characters.

It wasn’t until I needed them to start walking or talking that they became “real people” – I had to decide on their wants, their verbal tics, their backgrounds and upbringings. And of course, the more I wrote about them, and the more time I spent with them, then the more they needed fleshing out and became less like walking avatars and more like people with their own personalities.

And the best part about that is once I’d established their tropes, I had the flip-side of the tropes to play with. This helped the characters grow. They don’t completely change to the mirror-verse of themselves, but, though the use of both sets of tropes, I was able to give the characters challenges, moments of growth, and help them find a balance in the middle.

Forsyth finds his self worth, and some of his own internal flint; he finds value in himself through what he gives to others. His failings become his strengths, like his disdain for violence transforming into an ability to defeat a villain with Words rather than Swords. Kintyre finds humility, and struggles to find worth in things that are not traditionally “masculine”, like being a good Lord and admitting that he loves to draw. Bevel learns to speak up for what he wants, and accepts the part of him that desperately wants to be a father and part of a loving family, to see himself and carve out a position for himself as Kintyre’s equal and partner. Pip is still struggling with her own narrow-minded feminism and academic narcissism, but is learning to listen more. Elgar is trying to deconstruct his own ingrained misogyny and racism, to value his fans more and fear that people are trying to use him or tear him down less.

I hope this answers your question!

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

You can find out more about The Accidental Turn series here.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Characters and Tropes
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Unboxing – The Black Tears of the Serpent

Back when I was a baby writer, I was researching how to protect your work. One of the methods that was suggested to me was mailing your manuscript to yourself in a sealed box via registered mail, and then not opening the box. That way, if someone accused you of fraud or plagiarism, all you had to do was open the box in court, and prove that you had written the manuscript before the date on the registered mail label.

Of course, this is one way to do it, but I’ve since learned that keeping digital drafts with the proper time stamps on them is just as good and takes up less shelf space.

In cleaning out a closet today, I found the one and only manuscript I ever printed out and mailed to myself for safe-keeping. It was mailed December 4th 2006 from Hakata city, Fukuoka-ken, Kyushu, Japan, where I was stationed as an English teacher for a time. I mailed it back to Canada, where my parents put it in the closet with my stuff, and was forgotten about.

  

Today, I unboxed it, because I was curious, and because there is no real reason to keep the book sealed any more. After all, I’ve already self-published a version of it on Wattpad under the new (and way less emo) title DSRT as Peggy Barnett, and I still have all of my digital drafts (and a double-sided spiral-bound version with editing marks all over it).

As a baby writer, I imagined a whole closet filled with these brown cardboard packages (instead all my working manuscripts are in a filing cabinet, spiral-bound and double sided, and covered with red pen correction marks). It’s a good thing I didn’t do more, because it looks like I paid an arm and a leg to send it to myself from overseas!

This monster is 588 pages, and if I remember correctly, around 300,000 words long. It’s just under 2 1/4 inches thick, single spaced, single sided, and written in Times New Roman 12pt font and tied together with a shoelace. I wrote it between 2002-2007 (the unboxed version didn’t end up being the final draft), and it was the first novel-length work that I had completed that was not fanfiction.

 

I never shopped this book. At first, it was because I realized it was too long, and that no agent/publisher would take it. I thought I could save it for a second or third book, and offer it to publishers/agents after I had established myself with a debut. After actually writing/editing a second novel in 2007-2009 and publishing said debut book in 2011, however, I realised that my book was too long, too derivative, and a little too… “first book” to shop. Even though I did actually build a pitch package for it.  I never seriously offered it to my first agent, and I’ve never actually mentioned it to my current agent, I believe.

However, for the fun of it I posted it to Wattpad in it’s entirety last year.  Wattpad is the perfect platform for serialization. For meandering but engaging stories. For strange tales, and a young woman’s fantasies made realized, and for the pure imagination of an author’s first fumbling attempt at a book. For something that doesn’t quite fit traditional publishing’s frame of what a good horror-fantasy-historical book ought to be. For something that wasn’t perhaps polished enough for my primary pen name, but something that I had loved intensely for a very long time, and still wanted to share.

Unboxing this book today has been very emotional, and filled me with fond, golden memories of the places and times I wrote this book – in my dorm the first time I had moved away from home; in my room in a shared house with three other girls, where my friends had to sometimes bodily lift me away from my computer so I would go out and have fun with them; in the “fishbowl” computer lab at Brock University; in my shared apartment with my good friend (who later became the famous Eyeless Max); on the plane on my way to Japan; at my desk in the staff office of Kasuga High School; sitting on the tatami floor in my apartment in Tofuro-minami; and with my Writer’s Circle in Fukuoka.

It reminded me of the dreams I had about publishing a historical gothic romance series, about being the next Anne Rice and J.R.R. Tolkien and Diana Gabaldon. It reminded me about how hard I worked on this, writing and rewriting, tweaking. About all the friends I spoke to about it, all the friends I made over it (*coughRuthanneReidcough*), all the doodles and illustrations I made and commissioned for it.

It reminded me of where this all began, my first keen inkling to be a real writer, to be published and read all over the world. And it helped me be grateful and thoughtful about where I am now, showed me how far I’ve come and how much blood, sweat, and tears I’ve poured onto pages.

What a lovely thing to do on the close of 2016. Nearly ten years ago to this day, I mailed this emotional time-capsule to myself.

And I’m so glad that I did.

JM FreyUnboxing – The Black Tears of the Serpent
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TRIPTYCH – Hiatus

triptychcoverwattpad

Hey, everyone! So, if you’ve been paying attention to my Books Page, you’ll have noticed that the cover and the purchasing links for my award-winning 2011 science fiction novel TRIPTYCH have vanished. Slowly, over the next few weeks, TRIPTYCH will also be de-listed on sales sites like Amazon, etc. though I do hope that the GoodReads page for the book will remain intact.

Why is TRIPTYCH vanishing?

Well, for a number of reasons that basically boil down to: I didn’t like how the book was being handled. The publisher with which I published the book and I have never agreed on the marketing, the direction, and on important aspects like the cover, and how the book was being described and promoted.

Let me make it clear that publishing with them originally was a delightful experience. I adored working with Gabrielle Harbowy, the editor, and have sought her out for other projects since, will continue to recommend her, and will continue to say yes to anything she invites me to submit to.

The publisher Gwen Gaddes is also a good woman. But our visions and views don’t match at all, and after several years of trying to convince her to change the cover and marketing direction for TRIPTYCH, it was decided that it would be best for all involved if we simply parted ways.

I thank DMP, Gwen, and Gabrielle for offering me my first publishing contract and being there with me for my debut novel, and the rollercoaster of all the award ceremonies, incredibly bogglingly stellar reviews and accolades, as well as the epic flaming troll reviews.

But it’s time to for TRIPTYCH to get a fresh start elsewhere.

Stay tuned for news on where and when the novel will be available again.

JM FreyTRIPTYCH – Hiatus
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Words for Writers: Why Is Fandom Important?

In honour of INTERNATIONAL FANWORKS DAY, I am reposting my article on why I love fandom!

This was originally posted at RuthanneReid.com, now AmongTheMythos.com.

Photo by Francis Baker

Photo by Francis Baker

Authors need fans, right? Sure we do – we need people who like our books, our writing, who recommend them to other people, who spread buzz and vote for them, who defend them and squee over them, who recommend them to their librarian and give them as gifts. We need fans, at the most basic, to buy and read our books or we couldn’t afford (financially or emotionally) to write more.

But what about fans? I’m talking the come-to-every-event-you-do, attend-every-signing, write-fanfic, build cosplay, analyze-the-crap-out-of-your-work kind of fans. Do we need those?

Yes. YES WE DO.

And I love you, too. I love you guys a lot.

Let me tell you why I love you – and why many authors love you too.

I was Once One Of You

  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Fanfiction was my novelling training wheels.
  • You encourage new creatives to take chances with their work, to stretch and grow, to learn, to explore. More than that, you encourage us toshare, which is sometimes the hardest part of writing a novel or making a piece of art.
  • You teach writers how to take praise, how to take critique, how to edit and how to build character and worlds and narratives every time you leave feedback.
  • You provide a safe community in which to explore creativity.

…And I Still Am.

  • I read fanfic constantly. I call it my “comfort food” because I already know I love the worlds I’m about to spend time in, already know I love the characters. It’s a safe, wonderful, happy, glowy kind of coming home but I get a brand new story/idea/AU/world.
  • I still cosplay, when I can get away with being a professional guest in costume at Cons.
  • I still roam Artists’ Alley and drool and buy way too many prints and bookmarks and buttons and cool things, because they are innovative, and beautiful, and fun, and for just a moment creates a thread of mutual understanding, respect, love of the media text, and a tingle of creativity passes between me and the artist/vendor.
  • I still think like a fan – every story I create I approach with a fanficcer’s mindset: “How can I tell this from a new angle? How can I use the traditions, the clichés, the assumptions to push against the envelope of the narrative? Whose voices are missing and how can I give them the center?”

I Have Met Some Of My Best Friends Through Fandom

  • One of my best writing friends was my fanfic crossover co-author, and I’ve to date never met her in person, but I’ve known her for about 15 years. We have cheered on each other’s pro careers, edited each other’s books, and supported one another for literally half of my life.
  • Some of my very good friends IRL I met while at Cons and while cosplaying.
  • I met pretty much every other pro writer friend I have at conventions
  • I sold my first novel at a convention.
  • I made very good friends at university by introducing people I liked to cosplay and fanfiction and working with them on fics, art, and costumes; then I dragged them to cons where some of them are now professional creative, too.

You Are Unabashedly Passionate

  • You have the guts to wear the proof of your passion on your person: to cosplay, to wear tee-shirts, to attend cons, to get tattoos, to style your hair or your wardrobe as a tribute to your favorite characters.
  • You spend hours, years, and sometimes a significant amount of money creating things based on other creatives’ works
  • Really, Simon Pegg might have said it best.

You Are Smart As Heck

  • You build communities like those Archive of Our Own andFanfiction.net, Tumblr and Deviant Art.
  • You do good deeds in the name of the writers, actors, and shows that you love –David Hewlett’s Squirrel Army all donating to Medicines Sans Frontiers for his birthday, or the charitable deeds of the Browncoats, for instance
  • You parlay your love into degrees, courses, conferences, academic readers, and text books
  • You call out work that is problematic and encourage creators to grow, to learn, to take an interest, to get better.
  • You find things in my work that I might not have realized I put there and you play with them. It’s incredible.

You Are the #1 Best Form of Advertising

  • The best kind of advertising in the world is a friend or family member or teacher or librarian handing you a book and saying: Read this. Trust me.
  • Crossover fanfiction is what got me into like, 90% of my fandoms.
  • You tell the book stores about me, and demand that I be kept on the shelves.

You Are Hella Supportive

  • You buy everything I write.
  • You come to every signing, every reading, every pubnite.
  • You come talk to me and tell me what you loved (and didn’t love).
  • You ask questions. You force me to ask questions of myself.
  • You ask me to come be a guest, a guest of honour, a judge, a participant, a contestant, and interviewee, a guest star, etc.
  • You invite me to submit to newsletters, journals, magazines, anthologies, and blogs.
  • You interact with me on social media.

And You Are Vocal About It, Too

  • Fans send letters to magazines, to film executives, to bands, to playwrights, to graphic novel creators, to other creative and say Have you Read this? You should totally do something with this. You make other people pay attention to me and my work and you help forge connections.
  • You tell people on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Pinterest,everywhere what you love and why you love it.

You Keep Me Accountable

  • You make me think of things that I might have missed, critique what I’ve published in ways that helps me be more thoughtful and more compassionate with the next book and characters, and you point out flaws that I didn’t see before, and never know I had.
  • You ask me when my next book will come out, remind me that there are stories that I promised, and help me stay on track if I start playing around on social media too much.

You Keep my Worlds and My Characters Alive

  • You write fanfiction, fancomics, build cosplays, and make fanart and fanvids that breathe new and continued life into my work.
  • You write the scenes and/or plug the gaps that I had to leave off screen for logistics or narrative reasons (and usually with way more imagination that I would have!)
  • You psychoanalyze my work and find things in it that I hadn’t realized I put there. You make the characters realer, their reactions more human, and you teach me, in breaking apart my work like this, to do it for myself and to really craft my characters with the same care you take in studying them.
  • More importantly, when I hand in my novels for the last time for publishing, the world becomes closed to me. I can’t change anything, play with anything, push and pull and turn it on its head and play with dynamics. But you can and you do.
  • I love AUs. I LOVE AUs. I LOVE IT WHEN YOU TAKE MY WORLD AND REMAKE IT. LOVE IT.

You Tell Me How Much My Hard Work is Appreciated and Loved

  • You leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads that make my heart soar. Or make me think critically about the choices I made and consider how to do better next time.
  • You post your art or pics of your cosplays online and make sure I know how hard you worked on them. (And I know, oh, I know.)

And most importantly:

You Engage in A Dialogue With Me About My Work

  • Every fanwork you put up is your response to something that I said or did in my book. I have offered the opening and this is your reply. And the conversation is marvelous.

To close, a lovely quote on fanworks by Ruthanne Reid:

“When you create a new world, a new story, it’s like you’ve just built a brand-new playground. Other kids love it so much that they CHOOSE to come and play in that one with you. When you lock them out of fandom, you’re sitting in it all by yourself, wondering why the other kids don’t want to sit outside in the grass and watch you play.”

*

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Why Is Fandom Important?
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