Being a Better Writer: The Non-Gender of “They”

Welcome back, readers! Were your weekends interesting for you? In a good way? I hope so. Mine went pretty well, myself. Got a little more done on Stranded, and then watched as a truly amazing amount of book sales (by my standard) rolled in for Axtara! I’m not sure if it was the acknowledgement that you can find it on store shelves in Germany or what, but this weekend Axtara shipped quite a few copies.

Which was good to go with the bad. For a minor life update, the place I’ve been renting for the last few years is being sold. This is … less than desirable. The state I live in has a reputation when it comes to realtors that’s even above and beyond that of a normal state for being unscrupulous and dirty. So for example, the last time a landlord tried to sell a place I was renting, their relator tried to get everyone in the house evicted because they wouldn’t show it for her. That’s right: She wanted those living there to do her job for her. She got extremely upset when they wouldn’t.

Side note: This tangent got a little long. I do recommend reading through it (as it concerns not just me), but if you’re here for Being a Better Writer, jump down to the next break, then come back and finish this.

This relator also didn’t care at all for things like state laws requiring 24-hour advance notice of showings. I woke up to people in my rented house … and not just in there, but going through my stuff. The agent actually encouraged the kids of the people she’d been showing the house to start playing with my Wii console.

So yes, I have a distrust of realtors already, and today our landlord called us out of the blue and said ‘Hey, someone’s coming over today, and I’ve been told that by contract they don’t have to honor the 24-hour state notice. My hands are tied. I’m trying to get them to postpone it, but I signed that contract.’

Yeah … My distrust grows. Worse, if they’re willing to violate that part of the contract, the chance of the common practice in this state of bullying residents out to sell the unit “clean” goes way up. Our contracts are year to year, and this year extend through July. But I have a worrying suspicion that like so many other happenings in this state, our realtor will attempt to bully us out ASAP regardless of contract, either by looking for any sort of loophole that can get us evicted, or just simply by claiming that the new owner isn’t bound by any pre-existing contracts (imagine how life would be if that worked).

Worst of all, even if we manage to hold that off, such activity does not tend to enthuse new owners for the current tenants, even if the tenants aren’t the ones violating all the laws.

Sands, that’s a lot of text. Sorry to dump that on you guys. Just … bleh. If things get “dicey” in the upcoming months, this would be your forewarning as to why.

But tenant protections in the United States are awful. Well, not awful, just … not enforced very well.

Oh, and before I get a million comments saying “document everything” I learned that the last time. You can bet that if this showing happens today, I will not only be on hand but with a phone to record everything.

Also, I understand that while my current situation might suck, I’ve got it a lot better than most people in the US right now. Evictions are a historical high, housing and rental corporations are consolidating at a terrifying rate, using their new monopoly powers over whole cities and even states to send rental rates through the roof or even just hold empty buildings for the property value. I read an interview near end-2020 with a real skag-licker of a housing CEO who was giddy with how many people he was kicking out around Christmas because it was making him several hundred million dollars. This same skag also bragged that he (his company) now owned over a third of all American rental units. Meanwhile, homelessness, already climbing every year since 2016 (prior to which it had been trending downward … huh) is set to pass already historic highs. As much as nearly nine percent of the entire United States is at high risk becoming homeless in the coming year thanks to the effects of Covid-19 and the actions (read: greed) of rental companies.

So yes, I know my situation, while not great, is far from the grimness shared by almost ten percent of the United States. My rent hasn’t doubled in the last year. I still have a unit to pay rent on. My utilities weren’t cut off as a “cost saving measure.” Or any of the other horrible questionably legal junk that plagued the lives of many people in the US last year who were merely trying to have the bare basics to survive.

My point being with all of this: My situation isn’t as grim as a lot of other people’s in this country, but that’s … really setting a low bar. Would that my situation was the worst of it, with a realtor ignoring state laws to try and push a sale. But unfortunately, for a lot of people in the US, especially some of those nine percent barely hanging on, their situation is far worse.

We as a nation really need to clean up our act. Because I’m certain that when the founding fathers (yeah, invoking that) set out to found a nation, objectives like “At least ten percent of them should be homeless” and “the majority of all housing should be controlled by one or two individuals,” if found at all in their goals, were only there as “never let this sort of tyranny happen again.”

Because, you know, numbers-wise it really does look a lot like serfdom, which they wanted to get away from.


Okay, we’re done talking about that for the moment (though please, do go back and read through it later if you didn’t now, as it’s something that needs to change for the better). Now it’s time to dive into Being a Better Writer and the first posted topic from list #17!

Which … actually isn’t one requested by a reader, because I populate these lists on my own too, and this one is one of those. It’ll also be a shorter one … but no less interesting. And it actually was inspired by a few personal encounters with it.

So to begin, I’ll start with a question: If a friend and I are discussing the sex of an unborn baby, and I use “they” to refer to said baby, and my friend uses “it,” is one of us using the wrong word?

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Being a Better Writer: The Strong Female Protagonist

Welcome back readers, to another Monday edition of Being a Better Writer! Today is … well, I’m sure you can see from the title that it’s going to be an auspicious post. Today’s topic is a rather popular one right now. In fact, I could easily say that it’s a current issue in a lot of story circles. For varying reasons depending on how you talk to.

But thankfully, I don’t plan on getting into any of the more social-political angles of this topic, because I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in one thing only with these posts: how to write, and write well.

Which—okay,  maybe a tiny bit into social-politics—is why this post has been requested and hotly anticipated by a lot of readers. Because right now there’s a whole—well, I’d call it rediscovery, really—of the strong female protagonist. But with that rediscovery comes a whole new crowd trying to figure out what a strong female protagonist is for the first time. And with a lot of different voices out there, it can become very easy for their to come with a healthy dollop of “confusion” as people try to determine exactly what “strong,” “female,” and “protagonist” mean in the same sentence.

And, if I’m honest, some of this confusion comes from the very root of the sentence “strong female protagonist” and its particular phrasing.

I can hear some of you sparking torches from here. Relax. You’ll see what I mean in a moment. Hit the jump and let’s get started.

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Being a Better Writer: Sex Appeal, Attractiveness, and Character Description

Could someone please get a fire extinguisher and have it standing by, please? Because this is one of those topics that, thrown before the wrong crowd, can have torches lit before the title has even finished appearing on screen.

Which, obviously, is not the goal of Being a Better Writer … but torch-lighting is the goal of others online, so there’s still a chance. Hopefully the comments on this one don’t devolve—or worse, dive—into a flame war.

Because, if I’m honest, this is a topic that I think needs to be discussed more among writers, if only to keep them from falling into what is, quite frankly, a bit of a trap-like pit that can drag multiple aspects of their story down if tackled poorly. And … let’s be fair here, a lot of works handle this poorly. Which is why I chose to write on this topic in the first place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. So let’s back up and start where these things ought to start—the beginning—and get some context out of the way. Such as “What do I mean when I say this post is about sex appeal and character description?”

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When Did Ethnicity and Sex Become the Most Important Thing?

Bear with me for a moment, and take a look at these few excerpts from a book review I read this morning, posted on a fantasy review blog (which you can find here, though I’m loathe to give them a link after perusing the site since it’s a little messed up). I’d been poking around the place since they are a participating member of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, a contest between 300 different self-published fantasy books, and Unusual Events is one of those titles. This site is the one that will be handling Unusual Events review.

I’m not sure how I feel about that now. In fact, I may request to have it passed to another site, since I’m pretty sure I can already see how its going to go. Because I’ve been reading their other reviews, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Let’s look at some quotes:

Otherbound is that last sort of book.

I’m fairly certain I discovered it on Tumblr, recommended by one of those blogs which include lists of books that are commendable for their diversity.

Okay, that’s … interesting. A little background on the title. I guess that’s important? Let’s see what happens if we go further.

… fantasy novels are written by and about (and quite possibly for) white men who like running around with swords saving the world.

Uh-oh. Okay. Sensing a theme here, but—

As I said, it’s an incredible story, and honestly, I’d probably have loved the book even if both of the leads were white and straight.

Wait, what?

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Being a Better Writer: Character Descriptions

This post was originally written and posted November 17th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic inspired was by a bit of a firestorm I saw with regards to a story that someone had written. And while the firestorm in question will definitely not be the subject of today’s post, nor do I wish to get into that as it is nearly an entirely separate topic, today’s topic will brush up against it for a brief moment.

Today, I’m going to talk about character descriptions.

Character descriptions are something that every new writer struggles with, and often many somewhat experienced writers as well. Because when we get right down to it, character descriptions fall into one of those writing areas where no one teaches you how to do it, and everyone assumes that it’s fairly straightforward and to the point. “You shouldn’t need to be taught about this,” the public mindset seems to say. “How hard can it be? You just describe your character!”

Well, as it turns out, and as most new writers discover when they put their pencil to paper for the first time, describing your characters is much more difficult than it appears. It’s hard. Many writers, in a fit of panic (or without realizing it), will simply throw out a narrated description of basic looks—eye color, hair, figure, etc—and then just jump right into the story, without realizing how jarring and unappealing to the reader such a description is. Only upon going back do most of them realize how truly unappealing it is for a story to start off with “Bob was Asian, five-foot-seven-inches, with brown hair and brown eyes … etc, etc.” Only when they do realize how unappealing it is does the real panic set in, when they realize that they have no idea how to do any differently.

Which is why I’m talking about this today. Because to many readers, how you describe a character can be a make-or-break point for the entire book. Young writers don’t quite realize how important something as simple as a character description can be to the reader’s acceptance of a work. Plenty a time has been the moment when a reader has picked up a book, read only a few paragraphs, run across a poor character description, and put the book back on the shelf. Why? Because even if they don’t consciously realize it, a poor character description is often an indicator of other problems with the book, be they weakness of story, poor attention to detail, or just in general a low-quality read.

Yikes. Suddenly the amount and care for detail you put into your character description takes on a whole new level of importance, doesn’t it? It might not just be something that’s a nice part of your work, it’s something that the very reading of your work may hinge upon.

Kind of makes it important to get right.

So, where do you start? How do you go about making sure that your character description is going to be something that keeps your reader flipping through your pages? Well, to start, you’re going to need to know a few things about your work.

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Ancillary Justice – “Being Literary” is Not a Free Pass for Being Poor

I fell asleep in the first forty pages of Ancillary Justice. It was not a good sign.

Now, to stave off the defenders who will undoubtedly make a case of “the best defense is a good offense,” I don’t fall asleep during books often. I’m no stranger to the great works of Science-Fiction (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc), nor more standard and traditional classics (getting a degree in English will do that to you). So it was not as if I was not prepared to step outside and try something new. In fact, I was reading Ancillary Justice partly for those reasons. Ancillary, for those who have not heard, became in 2014 the first book to win a number of awards for “Best Sci-Fi Novel,” including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award.

Yes, this book had a lot of backing.

But there was also a lot of disagreement. I saw Ancillary being brought up by critics of the Hugo Awards during this last year as a criticism that indeed something was wrong with the awards. This only made me want to read Ancillary more, and with the amount of awards it had won, I figured that whatever criticisms were being leveled at it were probably blown out of proportion.

I was wrong. After picking up my copy from the library and spending the next few weeks reading through it, I’m astounded that this was given any awards at all. Ancillary Justice is plagued with problems, many of them so up front and egregious that any halfway competent editor should have caught them immediately. Having finished Ancillary, I can’t help but wonder if its victory over so many awards was handed out in the same manner that seems to drive the Oscars these days: that of “Well, I didn’t watch it (read, in this case), but I heard it was really cool and I like the concept, so I’m voting for it.”

Simply put, Ancillary Justice should not have won any of those awards. Not with this level of poor writing.

And that’s what I want to talk about: The poor writing. Because in reading, I thought to myself “Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed these problems. Someone else had to have noticed them!” And it turned out I was right. A quick search of the internet proved that they were common complaints with the book, because they are in fact, crippling, weakening problems. But in almost every case, a vocal defender showed up to rebuttal the criticism, dropping a line that looked almost exactly like this one:

You just don’t get it. This is a literary book. You just don’t understand literary works.

Without fail, that was there. Criticism of Ancillary‘s many flaws? “Oh, you just don’t understand literary works.”

Well, I do. And to all those who would try and use that poor argument? I’d throw it right back at you. You don’t understand literary works. And do you know why?

Because literary is not an excuse for poor writing. Good writing is good writing. “Literary” has nothing to do with it (though claiming otherwise certainly highlights a problem with the current Sci-Fi establishment if they actually believe this excuse).

So, if good writing is good writing, and being “literary” is not a magical, get-out-of-jail-free card, then what is wrong with Ancillary Justice?

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Being a Better Writer: Writing the Opposite Gender

Today’s post is an interesting one. This is because if I had to venture a guess at some of the most common questions heard at writing conferences/panels and in writing classes, the question I’m going to discuss today would be one of the most, if not the most, frequently asked questions out there. And to be fair, it’s a valid question, with an associated valid fear and requisite request to those who’ve “succeeded” to help guide the way.

Ultimately, it’s also a tricky question, because there’s no one “right” answer, no matter what anyone says. Today’s topic is one of those that, based on what you’re writing and when, can come to a variety of different answers. There’s no one “perfect” fit or magic bullet. Thankfully enough, there is common sense.

Anyway, enough preamble. Let’s get to that question, asked by both women and men at every writing assemblage I’ve attended: how do you write characters of the opposite gender?

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