The Sinister Conspiracy: Left-handedness in fiction.

A few weeks ago the internet announced it was left-hander’s day and, predictably, people came out with articles about how difficult it was being left-handed ‘Boo, scissors are wrong’ etc. There was very little about how left-handers are depicted (and not depicted) in fiction, which is a personal bugbear of mine. In a curious way, being left-handed gives you a glimpse into what being a minority is like and what being disabled is like. This is both trivial and non-trivial.

It is trivial in that being in the left-handed minority isn’t going to get you killed or arrested or treated to abuse or violence from strangers as is the case for many minorities in many parts of the world (although it wasn’t so long ago it lead to beatings in the British school system). Likewise, contrary to those articles being left-handed in a right-handed world is not a major adjustment – we do possess right hands as well and are often quite adept with them.

Where it is non-trivial is it gives a flavour of how the world reacts to difference and diversity. For many writers at the moment this is a big topic and writers of fantasy are by no means exempt from these concerns. The way difference is treated in fiction usually falls into three forms; representation, tokenism and diversity. Thus through the lens of left-handedness and the minor insights it gives, I shall attempt to approach the topic as a whole.

 

barack_obama_signs_emergency_declaration_for_arkansas_1-28-09Representation

At times, I’ve been sceptical about the notion of the need for representation. What is this narcissistic need readers and viewers are deemed to have that they need to see themselves in everything? American film producers are often the prime culprits of this and, I think, underestimate their audiences in doing so. They wanted to make Harry Potter American in the films. Fortunately, JK Rowling vetoed that and lo and behold American audiences still were able to enjoy it.

Similarly, I watch a lot of American TV and films and don’t spend the whole time waiting for a British person to turn up. When I read ‘The Famished Road’ I didn’t scour through the novel hoping that a white person would appear. I expect the people who populate a particular story to be consistent with that setting and don’t need to see ‘myself'(myself being someone who shares some identity position).

There’s an easy rejoinder to this point of view, however. That’s ok for you to say when you’re in the majority and have any number of representatives in fiction. There’s a measure of truth in that which only comes into focus when you’re not in the majority. Here’s where I return to left handers.

How many left-handed heroes are there in fantasy? Off the top of my head, Tolkien has one, Maedhros, who after having his right hand removed goes on to be better with a sword in his left hand. George RR Martin does a similar thing with Jaime Lannister only he is awful with his left hand. In fairness to Martin, I believe Ayra is mentioned as being left-handed making her the only example I can easily recall. I haven’t read the majority of fantasy fiction novels ever written so it is possible there are many others but I think my sample is large enough to be indicative.

Why so few? Here comes the explanation that is most often given for the absence of diversity – realism or, more properly, verisimilitude. Lets now create our fantasy world. I’m not going to say what is right and wrong for writers here (with one exception), rather pose the questions. And yes, left-handedness can obviously be substituted for other things.

First question? Is left-handedness as common in your fantasy world as ours? If it is then something like one in ten of your characters should be naturally lefty. Are they wielding their weapon left-handed? If not, why not? In many historical cultures there had been prejudice against left-handedness and lefties were forced to do things right-handed. The Romans were possibly the worst offenders for this. Putting aside the general cultural aspect of this intolerance for a moment, what function does this prejudice have? The Romans were keen on close formation fighting and had square shields for much of their Empire. Holding a spear left-handed and shield on the right arm would create a weak point in the line exposing the man on the left and shielding the shield of the man on the right. Getting rid of the lefty seems like a sensible course in this context.

Is this the only solution? Some hoplite shields from a similar time in history were notched on either side so the spear could be thrust through left or right-handed. Another option would be to put the lefty on the end of line (or block if fighting in squares). Does your culture care enough about the exceptions to make these adjustments?

If, on the other hand, your fantasy culture doesn’t fight in close formation like the Romans, for example forest skirmishers, the imperative for everyone to fight from the same direction disappears. In general, in a world where the majority fight right-handed, being left-handed is an advantage. Therefore, if it doesn’t undermine a formation, it would disadvantageous to force your fighters to suppress their natural preference. You may still wish to insist on this but then you need to bring in issues of intolerance rather than practicality to explain it.

I suspect lack of representation of left-handedness in fantasy broadly stems from two sources. One, the writer is themselves right-handed and has never given it any thought and two, their fantasy cultures are largely reminiscent of historical Earth cultures and transplant their attitudes to left-handedness into the bargain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this latter position but would it hurt to put in an occasional reference such as the character having a stronger shield hand than normal? Just as a note, if you do decide to make that reference don’t make it that the character is a liability or cack-handed. We get enough of that crap already (and it’s almost always untrue).

Tokenism

Tokenism is different from issues of representation in that in this example the writer/screenwriter has made an effort to include or make reference to the minority but has done so in a way that is shallow or unhelpful. If there’s one thing worse than being represented it’s being represented in a way that negatively stereotypes. Frankly, I’d rather there weren’t any more British characters on American TV than have another effete aristocrat speaking like they’ve walked out of the 1920s show up. Or football hooligans either. There are plenty (I dare say the overwhelming majority) of British people who are neither of these things.

Left-handers fare no better. When do we get a mention? In crime stories, of course. Left-handedness is used as a gimmick to help catch the killer, the killer almost always being left-handed in these cases. Dammit, my sinister plan ruined by my sinister hand. The only other example I can bring to mind is an episode of CSI where Grissom concludes that the victim’s work space has been interfered with because the mouse was on the right hand side. The episode then goes on to helpfully inform us of the many left-handed Amercians who die every year using equipment the wrong way round. Sorry, Grissom and your great detective skills but I don’t know any left-handed people who have the mouse on the left-hand side (see earlier point about being able to use our right hands). Another classic is which wrist the watch was on not matching handedness. It doesn’t? Maybe that’s because people don’t always follow that rule.

The problem with tokenism is that is rarely has a function beyond merely acknowledging the existence of a group. Little to no attempt is made to integrate that aspect of the person in a wider character or even to suggest they have a character beyond that particular aspect. In the case of lefties we are boiled down to murderers and being unable to adapt to a right-handed world, which ironically is actually something we’re generally pretty good at (the functioning not the murder although I’m sure we’d do a great job of that too if we put our lateral-thinking minds to it).

final_challenge_international_de_paris_2013-01-26_193155Diversity

How do you represent and get beyond tokenism? I think the major pointer here is about your motivation for including difference in your story. If you are including difference because you feel you ought to and it will make someone happy then it’s probably going to be a struggle to pass through tokenism because in essence that’s what you’re doing.

The most compelling reason I can think of to include difference and diversity in a story is that it is simply a better story and richer world for doing so. We don’t want to travel to a place that is the same as the one we left. We don’t want every new person to look and think exactly the same as the ones we already know. We wouldn’t survive as a species if everyone was attracted to one type of person.

In the case of left-handers, I think this works on an aesthetic and interest level. In sports, I always like the look of seeing a left-handed tennis player against a right-handed one or the field and tactics in cricket having to be readjusted for the left-handed batsman coming in. This can easily be transposed into fiction; the challenges of facing a left-hander in a duel or the particular advantage for a lefty fighting up a spiral staircase.

Left-handedness, like any difference, brings a new set of challenges and story-telling opportunities. As writers these are gifts that we should relish. Instead of contemplating how to bring diversity into our stories we should use diversity as a starting point and be grateful for the layers of complexity it provides.

 

 

New pages on fire magic coming soon

After a quiet summer on the Nexus front we are now settling down to a new run of activity. A new book is coming this season – Mars Fallen – where we will be taken into the classical world of the Senatian Empire where the element of fire is dominant. To tell us more we have the author JW Whitmarsh dragged back from exile by a pair of obedient centaurs.

Nexus Fiction: First of all, welcome back. It’s been a while. What have you been up to?

JW Whitmarsh: Yes. I’d love to say I’ve been working hard in my writing retreat reeling out chapter after chapter of new stories but alas the truth is more prosaic.Humdrum realities such as earning money and moving house have got in the way of creative endeavours of late.

NX: Normal life can be so inconsiderate. So what can we expect from the fire magic of the Imperium?

JW: As I think I might have said in a previous interview, magic is handled very differently in the Imperium. There it is believed that all magic comes from the Gods of the Pantheon and the magically-gifted are, on the whole, absorbed into the clergy.

NX: The classical world had many deities.How do you fit that into the way you have broken down magic before by the elements?

JW: I have restricted myself to 12 Gods (arguably the more prominent ones from classical mythology) and grouped them into four groups of three, four triads, if you will; Heliomantic, which includes Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, Geomantic – Vesta, Vulcan and Ceres, Astromantic – Mars, Mercury and Neptune, and Lunarmantic for Diana, Juno and Venus.

NX: You’ve decided to go with the Roman names rather than the Greek.

JW: Initially, the story starts in the equivalent of the Western Empire so that made sense. Also Vesta has a role not mirrored by Hestia and the Vestal Virgins are a pretty important element to the novel.

NX: Going back to the groupings, are the priesthoods of each triad linked in the same way that the three disciplines of Enchantment are?

JW: No. The devotion of different Gods is kept entirely separate. The traitor Empyrean who was the architect of how fire magic would be learned gave thought to what might follow if one who was magically gifted could learn all that he had learned and so deliberately propagated the idea that one could only be blessed by a single deity at a time.

NX: So the Imperium has no great wizards like Caerddyn?

JW: No. Indeed the concept of a wizard who was in control of their own magic is a foreign one. The clergy of the Imperium are taught that magic only goes through them by the will of the Gods.

NX: Moving sideways slightly and with due care for spoilers, can you tell us why the contemporary wizards can’t learn all spells from their element in the way that the traitors did? Does that mean the past can never be matched?

JW: It’s a mixture. You have to remember that the traitors were the greatest wizards of their day in an age where magic was at its zenith. They were the guys who were left standing from the fight with Xyraxis and his arch demons where all others mages (bar Loreliath) perished. So all things being equal they would be hard to emulate anyway. There’s also the matter of what happens when you specialise. To go deeper into certain Arts you need a way of thinking that may be mutually exclusive with learning others. The expert specialists of the world contemporary to the stories would definitely be able to do magic within their Arts that had never occurred to their originators.

NX: So in a sense the magic of the contemporary world is more advanced than that used by the traitors?

JW: I’m not sure about advanced because that implies improvement. It’s more involved. An analogy might be something like in classical times Latin was widely spoken across western Europe. Now instead we have Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. If you pulled someone from the ancient world and compared them, speakers of each of those languages would be better at them than the Latin-speaker but if those speakers had never had any training in each others’ languages it is quite possible that the Latin-speaker would have the best cross language understanding because his/her language is the basis for all of them. Does that make sense?

NX: Actually yes. Does it follow that the priests and priestesses of the Imperium would be better at their disciplines than their Western Lands counterparts because of their focus?

JW: No, because they have been beset by false limitations. I think overall if you were to look at the world of the Elemental Cycle the places with the most impressive mages, the ones who most fit our idea of wizards, would most likely be found either in the Western Lands or in one of the mage cultures of ancient world.

NX: By which you mean the pre-classical civilisations?

JW: Yes, the equivalents of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia.

NX: When will we get to see them?

JW: Not for a while yet. Not this year certainly.

NX: On which subject, can you share your progress with us?

JW: Mars Fallen is nearly finished. There’s maybe one or two chapters to go. After that it will have to go through editing. We will see it this season, I expect. I intend to write Venus Ascending and A Clash of Gods in parallel so there may be a long wait before we see anything more. This time next year we could be talking about what’s to come in book 6 or book 9, who knows? As I said at the beginning of this, for authors as much as anyone life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions.

Fallenstraightened

Interview with JW Whitmarsh – Author of The Book of Water

Book of watereditNexus Fiction: Here we are again in the interrogation chamber of the Nexus castle. As we write our author JW Whitmarsh is being chained down by a team of obedient fomorii and told no food will be brought until all our enquiries are satisfied. So, with no further ado let us begin.

NX: How are you doing?

JW: Fine. I’m not sure how secure these manacles are though.

NX: We got them on the cheap.

JW: You mean you went to the adult store instead of the hardware store?

NX: It’s so much closer. Anyway, trilogy edition is out next week and since we haven’t interviewed you about Enchantress Destiny it seems a good point to talk about the final part of Caleigh’s journey.

JW: Won’t that be spoiling for those who were waiting for the trilogy edition?

NX: Be circumspect. Let’s discuss the books generally. Do you see the story as three parts or as one long tale?

JW: When I wrote it I definitely wrote it as one tale. I have or had a certain blindness slash ignorance of how long it was until it came to publishing. I thought I’d written something like a 600 page book. Long yes but not so long it needed to be partitioned.

NX: And then we told it’s 1,000 pages. A trilogy seemed like the obvious thing.

JW: Knowing what I know now I would have written it differently. Nonetheless there are distinct phases and tones throughout the story. Awakening is a coming-of-age journey. Apprentice is a quest. By the time we get to Destiny it is more of an all-out war.

NX: Less discovery and more resolution.

Destiny serpent2JW: Yes. I spent a long time gathering all the pieces and putting them into place. In the last volume we see how that unfolds. I noticed this in particular writing the dramatis personae for each part. By Destiny there aren’t so many people to introduce any more and so it is subsequently much briefer than the others.

NX: We’ve talked before about how some characters are ‘meta’ and some are ‘organic’. Can you expand upon that?

JW: Meta characters in storytelling terms are the ones who are required to be there by the plot and at certain points they will do certain things that are necessary to advance the narrative. In Dr Who terms they are fixed points that cannot be altered.

Organic characters, by contrast, do not need to be anywhere or do anything in particular but are grown out of the logic of the story or setting and evolve and act according to their personality.

NX: Can an organic character end up changing these fixed events?

JW: Organic characters can certainly influence how things play out and can create story-lines that would not have existed otherwise. That said, some fixed points are hard to get around.

NX: Can an organic character become meta and vice versa?

JW: Short answer, yes. The overarching story has a number of fixed events; the rest is fluid. Some characters started off as organic in Enchantress Awakening and have later become meta.

NX: So someone who started off as incidental can later have an important fate?

JW: Exactly. And the reverse can be true. Once all their fixed events have passed a meta character becomes organic. Almost everyone who was meta in The Book of Water is now organic.

NX: What would be the breakdown generally? Do you start with a set number of meta characters and let the rest grow around them?

JW: It’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking ten years ago. I would say a handful of characters began their life as meta characters and others became so in the writing process.

NX: And all those who survived The Book of Water are now organic?

JW: No. A few remain or have become important to much later events. Without giving too much away I will say as an illustration one character who started off life as an organic character now has a key role in the end of the entire series.

NX: That’s quite a meta leap. Can you give an example of someone who is an organic character and how they came into life?

JW: I think the most non-spoilery example I can give is Ellie. She was not part of the overriding narrative but as soon as I created Caleigh it was natural for her to have a friend of the same age. I don’t think I intended for her to be as involved as she was in the end but her relationship to Caleigh kept bringing her back into the narrative. It kind of mirrors how she feels about her role in these great events. She’s surrounded by all these wizards and heroes yet time and again she finds herself being useful to them. Now I think about it there’s an argument to say she’s the real hero. Maybe one day I’ll write the story from her perspective.

NX: She’s quite popular with the readers so we’d be happy for you to write it. Do you ever find you have different reactions to things than your readers?

JW: Haha. Yes actually. One reader reached out to me to tell me they found the story really funny. It was not the reaction I was expecting.

NX: There’s a lot of irreverent humour in the books though. You must have realised that writing it.

JW: Yes, absolutely. It’s just it’s not something I made a point of inserting. Humour between friends seems like a natural form of interaction and life’s absurdities are impossible to avoid altogether, even if it were desirable to do so.

NX: Have you encountered any drastically different interpretations from readers so far?

JW: Not as yet. Obviously, everyone has their preferences. Some say there’s too much sex others say they want more. Some don’t like fantasy generally but like the characters, others would like it to be more fantastical.

NX: In what way?

JW: I think one reader asked if I would do a human-centaur relationship.

NX: I almost dread to ask but will we see that?

JW: You’ll get to see centaurs.

NX: Now, you’ve written The Book of Water as volumes 1,2,3. Will the rest of the elements follow suit?

VlakyriegoldJW: No. I always intended for the narratives to shift and merge. The Book of Earth and The Book of Fire run more or less parallel to each other and intersect at points.

NX: How do you decide which bits go where?

JW: It’s a matter of narrator mostly. If we are reading Valeria’s story it will be Earth, if it is Marcus and Junia’s it will be fire.

NX: Are there any characters who will intersect across the all the Elements?

JW: Two for definite, and I don’t think this is giving much away; Loreliath and the Beast.

NX: Of course. The Book of Water is now finished. What sort of timeline can we expect for the books to come?

JW: In terms of in-story events or release dates?

NX: Let’s start with the latter.

JW: Book 4 – Valkyrie Rising (Part One of The Book of Earth) is written. Book 5 – Mars Fallen (Part One of The Book of Fire) is maybe 85-90% finished. I expect Valkyrie Rising to come out in the summer and Mars Fallen somewhere between late summer to early autumn.

FallenstraightenedLike with 4 & 5, Books 6 & 7 (A Clash of Gods/Venus Ascending) take place more or less concurrently and I expect I’ll write them as such. I hope to bring both out next year.

NX: And beyond that?

JW: Let’s see. I don’t want to get into soothsaying or making unfulfillable promises. When is ‘Winds of Winter’ coming out, by the way?

NX: Nobody knows, least of all George RR Martin. You’ll just have to keep us well read in the meantime.

JW: A heavy responsibility. Just don’t expect too much twincest from me.

NX: Dragons?

JW: There is always a dragon eventually.

 

Writing: It’s not all about the word count.

writerWhen you tell people you’re a writer there are some questions that almost always get asked. The most annoying is ‘do you have a publisher?’, not because of the question in of itself but the reaction to anyone who says no. That ‘ohh’ with declining intonation and the subsequent changing of topic is well-known code for ‘so you’re not really a writer then?’ Musicians don’t get this reaction when they say they’re not signed to a major record label yet.

In any case, I digress. When people choose not to be annoying, there are two questions that are more common than all others. Number one is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. After that, the favourite interrogative is, and this one usually comes from the genuinely interested, ‘how many words do you write in a day?’.

I’ve had this discussion with other writers and read some things on the topic and I have to say I find a lot of it very curious. You see things like Somerset Maughan supposedly saying he wrote 600 words a day without fail. I find that somewhat implausible but it may have worked for him, I can’t say.

Now I’m not claiming to be a writing God or some such but I can fairly say that I’m well versed in putting words on a page. In one series of books, I worked out I’ve already written over a million words, so whatever other failings I may have, prolificity isn’t one of them. All the same, when writer friends of mine ask me how much I aim to write in a day I feel that it is in part the wrong way of looking at it.

I understand the need for a metric. We want definitive proof of progress and a word count provides that. Over a longer period of time, I too set myself word count targets as a way of making myself really get down to the discipline of putting in the hours. Likewise, word counts can give you a fair estimation of how far into a novel you are or even at what point you should finish it. Word counts can be useful; just not on a daily scale.

Why do I think this? For one, not all words are equal. Which words are easy and which are difficult may vary from writer to writer. Personally, I find dialogue reasonably easy to write. Therefore on a day when I’m writing dialogue I can probably get a high word count without much trouble. Other things take more work. Action scenes can be exhausting to write and often you can spend a lot of time on choreography to see if what you’re writing is actually physically possible or plausible. As a result, word flow can be choked.

typewriterEqually, some chapters are more difficult than others.I get chapter block far more often than full-on writer’s block. I can always write something just not always where I need to write it. Those 3oo words you bled to get out may be the ones that bring a breakthrough and get you to a part of the story where the flow becomes much easier again. They are the chiselling that produces cracks in the wall of inertia.

By the same token, not all days are equal and this is where arbitrary daily goals become most absurd. If I wrote 1,000 words a day, every day without fail that would mean there would be many days where I have to stop mid-flow and many where I have to exclude all other life just to get them done. Neither makes sense. Writers have to be human beings too.

I understand that daily goals are about discipline. I just think that there are better ways to employ that discipline. If word count is your sole measure of productivity what do you make of those days where you get a lot of research done? What about the days where you write a ton of notes and plan out chapters to come? Both of these can be the platform that launches you into another cycle of creative outpouring but they may very well be days where you increase the word count of your current chapter by a sum of zero.

None of this is to say that judging yourself by word count is without merit. Just as the person who has made the choice to eat less and do more exercise may well find their weight goes down, so too is there a correlation between word count and overall success. By the same token, weight loss is only one way of looking at progress and in of itself might not be that meaningful, so on an individual day it might be with your word count.

What then can you use to apply discipline to yourself if you accept that word counts might not be the thing? Where I think the aim of a daily word count is going right is that it recognises that writing a novel is a labour that you have to stick at and put into most days, certainly all the days you can. Instead of focussing on the number alone, it is equally useful to think about how much time you are putting in. Likewise, effort is harder to quantify but you know when you’ve expended it. Any day where you’ve dedicated yourself with all your energy to making what you’ve written better than it was yesterday is a day you’ve been a real writer.

In the end, the way to be a writer is by writing things. It can be a slog, it can be isolating and can often feel fruitless but if you persist you’ll get to the end of the story. How you get there each day is a matter of what works best for you.

Long-term, word count matters. Generally, if I’m working full-time on a novel I do average about 1,000 words a day, on average being the important point.That average will include crazy days of 9,000 words done and painful days of a few hundred. It will also include days where I went for a walk or watched TV instead.

It’s right to treat writing as a job but what kind of job never gives you days off? Of course, there is a flip side to this: few jobs give you more than two days off a week. So if you’re a writer and this is your third day on a break, stop worrying about the word count and get back to work.

writing field.jpg

The Elemental Cycle continues

Things have been a little quiet on the website front for a bit and we’re hoping to rectify that. The reason behind this is we’ve all been busy with our principle task of producing exciting new books.

While we hope to get back to producing web content soon, in the meantime we thought we’d provide an update on the writing front. In short we are well under way.

VlakyriegoldvrperValkyrie Rising: Valkyrie Rising is in the editing process now and we fully expect it to be ready for release in advance of the July release date. At around 100,000 words it is slightly longer than Enchantress Apprentice/Destiny and a bit shorter than Enchantress Awakening.

It is a new story with a new set of characters and requires no prior knowledge of other books to read, though those who’ve finished The Book of Water will get something extra from it.

FallenstraightenedMars Fallen: Mars Fallen is at present about 85% complete and we hope will be ready a long time in advance of the October release date. At this point, we’re not ruling out the possibility of an earlier release but we’ll wait on that last 15% before we decide anything.

Overall we’re very excited by the rate of progress. We had always hoped to have the first five books out by the end of the year and we’re on target for that.

Never fear that the Elemental Cycle will be be done too soon. When we started out we saw it as a 6-10 year project to bring the series in its fullness to life and we’re still in the beginning of month 2. There’s a long way to go yet.