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

I’d been thinking about quitting

I didn’t want to write this post.

I’m sure some of that came from the societal stigma about showing vulnerability and my extreme reluctance to share personal aspects of my life. I think the greater issue, however, was the fear that such an admission would transform thought into reality if it reached the written page.

I wrote a draft of this post in mid-September after a rough couple weeks, when stressors and disappointments had piled upon another. I’d found myself angering easily or venting frustration in situations where it wasn’t warranted. My novel always appeared to be the catalyst: not having time, not being inspired, delivering garbage when I did sit down.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had similar feelings, but these were more acute and my defenses were down.

My writing time was precious and I was wasting it, and this realization was eating me alive.

There’s a betraying voice in your head that suggests the simplest solution: Quit doing the thing that’s causing pain. Just walk away.

Because writing is the primary way I express emotion, my head started drafting a post along those lines. The admission hurt, and that feeling intensified as I fleshed it out, because it reflected the abandonment of something I’ve wanted my whole life.

I sat at the computer that morning with little optimism and a negligibly more determination. I didn’t want to write this post…and I told myself over and again that I was pretty sure I wasn’t quitting.

Then I happened to read the following passage I’d copied from a book, and my perspective changed.

“You have to understand his motivation,” Michael said. “A writer can spend years working on a book he isn’t sure will ever sell. What makes him do it?”

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

No joke, it was like a switch flipped. A flood of positive memories surged through my brain, washing away the dark thoughts that had taken root. I decided that, yes, I was going to write this post, but I wasn’t going to take the “woe is me, writing is hard” approach (if there’s one kind of writing I’m certain people don’t want to read – aside from advertising – it’s that).

And so, I used the Delete key many, many times to get the post you’re reading now.

Writing and telling compelling stories is hard, make no mistake about that, and with any difficult task, there are highs and lows. There will be a few black days, and sometimes you will feel crushed or trapped. There will be days where the lying voices are very convincing, but quitting does not bring the bliss they promise.

Writing this post was cathartic, though perhaps not at the intellectual level a person might assume. No – and apologies in advance – it was more analogous to vomiting up the thing that made you sick. You can wallow in misery, which I’d been doing for a couple weeks, or you can stick your finger in your throat and get it out. Our bodies are miraculous things. They know when something doesn’t belong, and it’s unnatural to fight that. Our heads are the same way. Intellectually, we recognize the blackest thoughts, even when there is little illumination for us to see that.

In closing, here’s another admission, though an easier one to share. I stopped writing this post at the last paragraph and set it aside for months. My purpose for writing it, a desire to lift my spirits, had been achieved. Rejuvenated, I immediately went back to writing and the following weeks were happier. I’ve completed it for your sake and mine. We might not need reassurance or a kick in the pants today, but on another day we will. And this post will be waiting for us.

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, March 2022

The Nonverbal Kid’s influence on my writing

My younger son, Benji, is nonverbal and autistic. I don’t share it much because one of my primary responsibilities is protecting his dignity and privacy. And it’s usually not relevant to this site. But like any person important to you, his influence is always there in my writing, nevertheless. In this post I’ll share one of the ways my craft has changed because of him.

Ben has a limited vocabulary, though his communication includes expressive gestures and sounds, not just words. In talking to us (people who clearly are too dim to understand), he’s practically speaking three languages, and often, more than one at a time. It’s not his problem when we can’t figure out the translation; it’s ours.

To an outsider, however, it might create an uncomfortable situation. Not because that person is a bigot who despises neurodiversity, but because they are walking in unfamiliar territory. I liken it to me meeting a Black man for the first time (in my memory, he looks like actor Brock Peters in his Star Trek days). I was just a little kid, terribly shy around strangers, and before me stood a person so completely unlike every person I’d known in my secluded little rural town. At least, that’s the lie your brain tells you. In every aspect that I could see except skin color, he was like my neighbors.

I hadn’t been taught to hate or even dislike Black people; I just had some unintended bias to push past because my world was filled with people who looked like me and had basically the same beliefs and ancestry.

It’s one thing to know there are a variety of people in the world. Seeing them is another. Further still, interacting with them changes your perspective in significant ways. Watching Black people on TV wasn’t the same as meeting them. And meeting one certainly wasn’t the same as having people like him in my daily life.

I choose to believe the same lack of experience is true for people who aren’t sure how to react around Ben. It could be uncomfortable at first, but the smallest effort by them can overcome that. I don’t think they can do it alone, however. As Ben’s father, I believe one of my responsibilities is to help people with this, which also helps him.

Now, I grew up as a Boy Scout and I’ve always cheered for the underdog. I’m predisposed to helping others and recognizing those who are disadvantaged. But there’s a distinction between that and being an advocate. Believe it or not (sarcasm), there’s a difference between adding a rainbow frame to my Facebook picture and standing up to LGBTQ bigotry when people post it. Advocacy requires deliberate action, and I can help by leading through example, by sharing posts like this, and by injecting it into my books.

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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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If a book falls in the forest

If a person writes a book and no one reads it, is it still a book? Depending on your reason for writing, your answer will vary.

I write for a variety of reasons – relaxation, brain exercise, practice my craft, gottagetthatdamnideaoutofmyhead – but I primarily write because I want to entertain people. It’s a need written in DNA, and a novel is the current medium in which I choose to satisfy it (I’ve also dabbled in flash fiction, a novella, pitched a comic series, and currently have two tabletop game ideas I’m exploring).

Looking at it from that perspective, I won’t find success until my writing is in someone’s hands, whether physically, digitally, or in the not-too-distant future, displayed via holographic projection. Said another way, what I’ve written is not really a book until someone reads it. It’s simply a interesting story, perhaps an exercise, occupying a similar paradoxical state as Schrödinger’s cat.

I imagine people protesting on my behalf: Don’t sell yourself short! There’s value in the experience! Simply finishing is a major accomplishment! All these things and more are true. They have value, and I appreciate the sentiment.

But they’re not the things that bring me to the keyboard. However…

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Look at that writing: Elmore Leonard

Sometimes a piece of writing just hits me the right way, and I sit back, amazed. It makes me want to hold up the book and exclaim, “Look! Look at this right here. Now this is writing!”

I usually don’t literally do that, but I did this week.

I’m reading Get Shorty for, I dunno, maybe the tenth time. That puts it up there amongst my most-read books. It’s the first and only Elmore Leonard book I’ve read, a mistake I’ve been meaning to correct for something like fifteen years. My reward for finishing this post is checking out Rum Punch from the library.

I’ll be honest: I picked up the book because I adore the movie and the character Chili Palmer. I apologize to book purists in advance, but there are are some parts of the movie I prefer. However, there’s one thing it didn’t capture.

That Elmore Leonard frickin’ dialogue, man.

John Travolta is nice and smooth in the movie, Chil you might say, but his portrayal has that Hollywood polish. Chili Palmer in the book is tougher, rough around the edges. He thinks and talks like a person, which is to say, not like a written character obeying the rules of writing and language. He also doesn’t think much of the things people say.

Despite having read this book several times, it always takes me a few pages to regain my comfort with Leonard’s natural, if unusual style. I say that with all possible affection. As much as I appreciate grammar and the mechanics of writing, there are times when you break all the rules, and he is a master.

I’m coming to the end of the book and this passage knocks me out:

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