Exclude your audience or include them?

I’m always reviewing my writing for exclusionary words. In this post, I’ll be taking a discriminating look at a few paragraphs from my book with the intent of removing discriminatory language. Don’t worry – this wasn’t some prejudicial diatribe I needed to cut. I’d found a trite, gender-centric passage, and I decided to shake it up to turn a trope on its head. Painless right? And kinda fun, kid.

Language is both simple and powerful in its ability to bring people together, but it’s also very easy to exclude broad swathes of people with specific words. For instance, using “men” to describe soldiers or “wife” or “husband” instead of “spouse”. If you’re always represented in the language like I am (i.e. a white guy), you’re less attuned to it and less exhausted by it. And even if you want to write differently, these things still unconsciously find their way into your writing because much of what you’ve read is rife with similar language.

The fixes aren’t difficult, but you have to look for them and be willing to change your way of thinking a smidge to include people.

BTW, if you want to complain about political correctness or wokeism, this probably isn’t the website – or book – for you. I’m sorry to see you go. We’ve got a heckuva a wild fantasy ahead of us and there’s room for humans of all kinds.

I’ll start by presenting the passage in its fixed state, hoping that you’ll appreciate how it reads like a perfectly normal piece of writing, not some screed trying to brainwash you.

She shook her head, clearing her thoughts like a dog shakes out waterlogged ears. “Listen, youths are idiots when it comes to impressing someone they like. They get all sorts of notions in their heads. Probably the storybooks they read,” she said with an eye on Tildy. She continued, determined to say her piece. “Some want to be knights, fighting to prove themselves worthy of marriage and titles and lands. It makes them do reckless things.”

Tildy stared, mind reeling. What in the world was she talking about? And like a smack to the head, she understood and laughed. “You think he’s going to fight for my honor or something?”

The witch looked unhappy. “I have seen many young people rushing to battle for honor or some chivalrous reward. Only some returned, and none were the same, regardless of the prize.”

See? Perfectly normal and not brainwashy at all.

Now, many of us are familiar with the “knight in shining armor” trope, and I’ve preserved some of it because it’s a kind of story that Tildy loves, but will grow out of. You likely know the trope well enough that you guessed where I made changes. Let’s see how many you caught! Below, I’ve highlighted the words in the original passage that excluded people.

She shook her head, clearing her thoughts like a dog shakes out waterlogged ears. “Listen, boys are idiots when it comes to girls. They get all sorts of notions in their heads. Probably the storybooks they read. Same could be said for certain girls, too,” she said with an eye on Tildy. She continued, determined to say her piece. “Boys want to be knights, fighting for the hands of fair maidens. It makes them do reckless things to impress girls.”

Tildy stared at her, mind reeling. What in the world was she talking about? And like a smack to the head, she understood and laughed. “You think he’s going to fight for my honor or something?”

The witch looked unhappy. “I have seen many a lad rushing to battle for the honor of a woman’s touch. Only some returned, and none were the same, regardless of her reward.”

If you’ve read a lot of the same kinds of books as I have, that likely feels very familiar, like a well-worn sweater. And that’s part of the problem, though not the key one I wanted to change. This passage wasn’t written to be deliberately discriminatory, yet it still perpetuated some stereotypes: only males can be knights, females are distressed damsels, only fair people are worth saving, and that there are only two genders. If you have a moment, go back and re-read the first passage again, now that you’re aware of how I modified it. I’m hoping it still reads naturally as it did the first time and that you’ll feel like I improved the writing instead of sacrificing something.

When I started seriously writing twenty years ago, I discontinued the use of masculine pronouns whenever gender was in doubt. Besides being deliberately exclusionary, the rule never made sense to me as a kid, anyway. Nowadays, I’m challenging other rules and stereotypes because I think the the world can be more inclusive, which results in better stories. It also helps me grow, and hopefully, my readers, too.

Good luck with your writing!

Mike (he/him)

PS: It’s funny these things still existed in the book because I’ve worked to eliminate them. I’ve even written about it here: Another Damned Damsel In Distress.


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© Michael Wallevand, August 2022

Writing Exercise: Memorial Day tribute

I planned to delve into writing this weekend, mixing those responsibilities with other chores around the house. I needed to regain momentum on Project Two, which had stalled during the pandemic; ironically, I was also fighting the lingering effects of my own bout with Covid. I knew I would have plenty of optimism when I finally sat at the keyboard, even if I had no idea where to begin.

That’s when Serendipity paid a visit.

Goodnight, Saigon by Billy Joel came up on my playlist, and his lyrics drew me in like I was watching a movie. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but your mind’s eye takes over, even as your body goes through the motions of dressing and pouring coffee. I’m not even sure of the sequence of events: my mind connected the song to Memorial Day and a scene where Samor rejoins his companions after they’ve lost someone. There was nothing; then there was something.

I grabbed the computer, put the song on repeat, and 30 minutes later, I had this.

Samor greeted his companions as they gathered to him. Their welcome was genuine, their words warm. But he read something else on their faces that he hadn’t seen before. Or rather, he realized he hadn’t had the skills to interpret the tragedies that lay there. The worry that creased Hochness’s brow; the crow’s feet that used to merrily step away from the corners of Oafsson’s eyes. Even the betrayer Chork, addled as his mind remained, seemed more sedate against the bonds that held him to the litter. A weight drug at them all, anchoring them to the battle where they’d lost their friend and compatriot. The look of survivors, a mix of gratitude and guilt, made worse by each condemning beat of their living hearts.

His past naiveté angered him, but mostly it saddened him. No words seemed important enough, nor considerate or meaningful enough to break the silence of the moment. And so, he took his cue from his friends, yes, that is what they were now, and he embraced them silently and exchanged knowing looks that would have been inscrutable to the person he used to be. In the strength he gave, he felt more returned. They knew he knew. They accepted him and were grateful that he offered to share the burden.

Samor recognized this understanding wouldn’t have come from a lifetime of study. Simple words upon the page were shallow, going no deeper than the ink that sank into the paper – practically lies for their misinterpretation of the awful reality. The knowledge was horrible, and he wished he’d never acquired it. A small voice between his ears reminded him it was a necessary experience for the future leader of Empyrelia, a land destined for war, but he could derive no comfort from that. He hoped he never would.

I’ve never been in a war, nor lost someone in combat. I will never be able to fully replicate those experiences on the written page, but that is not my intent. Long ago, I realized there were things expressed by my father’s face that I would never be able to read; there was context in his words I would never comprehend. One of my jobs as a writer is to help others understand that they cannot understand, and that is the goal of a piece like this, with Samor being the conduit. On this Memorial Day weekend, it seemed an important thing to share.

Thanks for indulging me and for remembering those who have fallen in defense of America. If you’re interested in the writing stuff, read on.

Alright, let’s pause a second to breathe and let go of some of that weight. Warm up your coffee and we’ll take a look at the other purpose of this post: what are my observations or comments as a writer?

It’s a first pass, lightly edited after a rewritten sentence or two. The organization is largely unchanged, though what I expected to be a simple paragraph grew into three. I’m pretty happy with the language and variety of words. I’m going to review this for overuse of know/understand/comprehend, which is a habit I recognized during the editing of Project One. Additionally, I would argue that “important enough” and “meaningful enough” in the same sentence is redundant, though I’m keeping it for now because I like the rhythm and flow of the sentence and its place in the paragraph.

It’s heavy, yeah, one of the heaviest things I’ve written. I wonder about its inclusion in a YA fantasy novel that includes lighter fare, such as dragons, threadwolves, and ice demons. It’s too fresh for me to be objective, but I don’t think I’ll tone it down. One of my writing principles is to be truthful to my characters’ situations. In books and movies, I feel that the weight of the grief and survivor’s guilt is often glossed over so we can get to the celebration of life, the raising of goblets, if you will. This pain is important for Samor and The Reader to recognize on this journey together. There will be time later to toast to their companion’s memory, and that’s a fun scene I also look forward to sharing.

As I mentioned above, it took about 30 minutes to write those three paragraphs. The writing is tighter and more polished than it often is after that short a time, so I’m pleased. I’m also grateful to have written something with personal meeting; it’s been a few years since Only Some Came Back, which I wrote for Veterans’ Day.

Some writing days are like that – everything just comes together. You sit back and go, “Huh. I like how that came out, even if it’s different than I anticipated.” It’s funny, as easy as that was, this post took about two additional hours to write. That’s just how it goes. Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 2022

Tighten Up Your Writing #8

I have a day off from the office and I’m trying to savage my final draft like a drunken barbarian. The Project One manuscript ended at nearly 190K words, and that’s an awful lot for many reasons. It’s a big investment for a reader, not to mention a publisher. It also sets a precedent for future books, and that’s a writing pace I’m uncertain I can maintain. It feels heavy, both literally and metaphorically.

Amidst the edits, cuts, and barbarically setting the countryside ablaze, I came upon this sentence:

  • Tildy also noted that it was still as quiet as she remembered.

It tripped me because my brain registered “still” as a synonym for “quiet”. Well, if that’s confusing, does the sentence work without that unnecessary word?

  • Tildy also noted that it was as quiet as she remembered.

It does!

I wonder if I’ll be able to make similar cuts, the way I did here and here? A quick Ctrl-F showed 192 instances. Some will likely remain, but others will have to go. And then there’s this:

Screencap of Tildy Silverleaf and the Starfall Omen, showing 5 instances of the word "still"

Well, that’s embarrassing, but a fine example of how difficult it is for a writer to be objective when editing their own work. If you’re curious, I deleted the first three, rewrote the fourth out, and kept the fifth. Only 187 left to go.

For more tips (and embarrassing admissions), we recommend these posts. Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 13, 2022

Learn about your writing by talking with people

At a recent happy hour for a departing colleague and friend (aka Trusted Reader #3), the subject of my writing came up several times. I’m at the point where I enjoy this more than I once did. Part of it is comfort, part is the practice of refining my synopsis, and part is knowing more about the story and what I’m doing as a writer.

I’ve written about the difficulties I’ve had here and here.

As stressful or scary as this might feel, it’s an important part of the writing process. Even if you never want a person to read your writing (which I consider a shame – share with us!), it will help you as a writer.

I’ve talked about the importance of developing this skill in the context of pitching your story. But there’s another benefit, and that’s to the story itself.

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Word Casualties #10 – For the love of all that’s holy

Sometimes….you might just plop gibberish upon the page.

When I’m in the zone, I type around 100 words per minute. That’s not elite status, but I’m definitely moving. My brain, however, is processing the story much faster. Passages aren’t necessarily being fed to the page in order, and oftentimes, sentences aren’t landing with the words in their intended sequence. It’s a bit of a wires-crossed thing that requires some adaptation, patience, and editing.

An unfortunate, though sometimes hilarious consequence, is some serious gibberish. Although it breaks my rhythm, I usually delete these things immediately because they’re too horrid to live on the page another moment. However, since I started this series of Casualties posts, I’ve decided to save some of the better ones as examples of just how wrong an experienced writer can go.

As always, I’ve created some definitions, and the correct words (if I’ve deciphered them) follow that.

CASUALTIES

Hiuefully – a well-saturated color

Initiatititive – making the first move on a sexy date

Tjamls – beasts of burden that tjaverse the djesert

Habyart – a question posed to the entrants of rural art shows: “Habyart?” “Yessaidoo!”

Consticuous – something stuck to the wall and definitely out of place

Priviledge – born with the right to stand upon the precipice

Viluminous – an evil glow

Predigestion – what happens to chewed food slathered in saliva

Predamentary – the basics for stalking prey

Harbordence – a thick fog hanging heavy upon the docks

Trhaventily – seriously, I got nothing here. A flower? A kind of fancy silk lace?

CORRECT SPELLINGS

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Writing Update: August 7, 2021

I started working on Samor’s new story in December 2019. It’s been a journey of considerable challenges and delights. Some things have gone very well. Others, hmm, not so much.

Part of my writing process is reflection. I regularly look back at what I’ve accomplished. I think it’s a critical step because writing a book is a difficult journey filled with self-doubt. When your energy is low or your mental defenses are down, abandoning a draft can feel like the only viable option. But take heart! Energy always returns. Defenses are rebuilt! Reminding yourself of your good work will replenish your creative tank.

Here’s a list of ten accomplishments and discoveries of the last twenty months.

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Difficult Story Choices #2

I knew it was coming.

I didn’t want to admit it. I figured if I kept these parts in the book, eventually I’d find a way to make the passages work.

But the writer knows. You know when it’s not going to work long before you concede the reality.

And then about a week ago, I wrote this note which sealed their fate: “Repurposing these words to the Elf would move the Dragon to Samor Book 2; at which point all the other Dragon stuff could be moved out. I’ve been struggling with their purpose for a while.”

Even then, it took a few more days before I started yanking stuff from the manuscript. I once again followed the advice of Stephen King, who was borrowing from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Murder your darlings
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Hey writer: What’s more important?

I wrote this just over a year ago, when many of us were still underestimating the impact of the pandemic upon our worlds. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” to borrow George R. R. Martin’s commentary on naiveite. I found the post waiting in my drafts folder, one of a number of writing projects that got shelved due to other priorities. I share it now because it touches on an important matter for writers. Please don’t mind the dust.

A friend (Trusted Reader #12), sent me this message:

So, I have a “what’s important about writing question” for you when you have a moment.

YES! There are two surefire ways to get my attention: 1) talk about Star Wars (my wife does this) and 2) ask a question about writing.

As you can imagine, I dropped what I was doing and emphatically replied. My brain raced. Was this philosophical? Perhaps this was related to me having a writing degree in the business world. Oooh, could it pertain to the importance of reading?

What’s more important, story or character?

Uh oh.

It’s a great question, and I’m glad he asked. I had an answer, of course, but part of me wondered if I was walking into something.

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Writing Exercise: Morning Routine

I have a new routine to start my work day. It’s a chance to center my mind, while doing a little mental stretching to prepare it. Sometimes, the exercise relates to the office job; others, my personal writing. On Monday, it was the latter.

It a last bit of preface, I’ll segue to a common question writers get: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, I haven’t a clue, but I know exactly where this piece originated. I looked at the window and the word “a’sliver” came to mind as a creative synonym for “ajar”. Mundane origin? Perhaps. Occasionally, the magic in writing is simply a curtained alcove in Emerald City with an old man hiding there*.

*Even then, when you look carefully, you might see the trailing remnants of real magic as they flee from prying eyes

Anyway, I challenged myself to work it into a little something, and as I sat in my office listening to the sounds of morning and watching the world through a window, the following flowed out. Less stream-of-consciousness writing….and more of a leak. (how’s that for a sales pitch?)

Window sits a’sliver just enough
For filtered birdcalls to enter the room
But perhaps not the heat

A whispered wind whistles in
Squeezing through a narrowed crack
It cannot force wider open

Sun chases behind them
Sending shadowed wings to dance upon my wall
Wafted air disturbing doldrum days

Trees glow in verdant hues
Awash with shadow and light
Dancing brightly fro and to

Asphalt rhythms drone in time
Rubbered wheels, frictioned warm
Click-kicking out stones

The staccato bark of greeting dogs
Heedless of rhyme or melody
A mixed meter only they measure

Stylistically, it’s a bit of a mess.

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Editing Exercise – Help that stumbling sentence

My various lives (personal, work, writing) have been busy for the last couple months, so blogging took a back seat for a bit. However, while doing some writing over lunch, I was struck by an idea that led to this post.

Many writers will tell you not to stop for proofreading or editing while you’re writing. I generally agree. It interrupts the momentum, and in many cases, drives that wonderful idea right out of your head. Anyways, a little separation from the act of writing and the act of editing is a good thing, especially when you’re looking to be more objective.

But sometimes, a clumsy sentence keeps stumbling through your brain until you put it out of its misery fix it. Today, I wrote such an example.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them forward at greater speed to the dining hall.

If that sentence were a person, it would be trying to keep its balance while blundering down a hill. Let’s take a closer look. “Forward” is redundant since in the greater context of the passage it’s clear they were going to the dining hall.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them at greater speed to the dining hall.

“Propel” indicates a force to the motion, so “at greater speed” is unnecessary.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them to the dining hall.

“Of” is unnecessary in this context. It reads the same without it, though changing “people” to “crowd” is more evocative.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling crowd propelled them to the dining hall.

Much smoother. I only eliminated 5 words, but I believe my sentence-person is now surefooted in their descent of the hill. Are there other ways to tighten up that sentence? Of course! Spending a few more minutes, I could probably rework it completely. There’s also a case to be made for the addition of words to add flourish or pizzazz! Either way, that’s what the editing process is for: get the idea out now; refine it later.

For now, I’m happy with the change and I’ll let it simmer. You can do the same. With a few simple cuts, a tortured sentence is no longer a tongue-tangled torment for your Readers. Good luck with your writing!

Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021