|Plumblossom explains it all
Author: plumblossom PM
Chapter one: In which I kvetch about uncompelling writing. And introduce the words girliphobia and girliphilia. Chapter two: In which I give acgtually good advice about point of view and related issues.Rated: Fiction K - English - Chapters: 2 - Words: 11,372 - Reviews: 33 - Favs: 18 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 02-15-10 - Published: 08-28-09 - id: 2714885
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So this is a long time in coming. I don't come here to be annoyed and I don't pay anything for the amusement so I don't really feel I generally have a beef. But I can't in good conscience let this stuff go without a comment anymore. I'm probably doing nobody a favor by passively passing over the stuff that bugs me without comment. On the other hand, the writers concerned are most likely just amusing themselves and really don't need some faceless anonymous stranger in an old lady hat telling them off.
I'm going to do it anyway. It will make me feel better, and if you have any use for it, you'll find the way to use it. If it pisses you off, either use the irritation for your own purposes or ignore me, whatever is better for you.
The thing is, if your story has any of the things in it I'm about to speak about, and you find it here anyway, it's in spite of the things that bug me, not because of them. Your story's presence here isn't evidence that I don't know what I'm talking about. It's evidence that there was some more compelling reason for me to include it. Maybe it was an excellent story that used these story elements in some brilliant, possibly new, but especially wonderful way. Or not. The reason could be boredom: nothing I wanted to read had updated, and I don't want to read a chapter of a story and then wander off. That was my original reason for subscribing. I was tired of searching for stories I could not remember the names of, so I made an account and put up the community. I don't know why they're called communities. They're just reading lists.
The things that irritate me are generally cliches, but that's not why they irritate me. They're often unrealistic, but that's definely not why they're mentioned here. Cliches and unrealism are tools like any other, they're just blunter and need more attention to the sharpening process, more care in their use. No, the reason these things irritate me is that they get in the way of story telling. See below for more detail and discussion.
And look, I'm not going to name names, and I'm not going to respond if you ask me whether you're one of the writers who are bugging me with this stuff. If you don't have confidence that your story rises above these story shortcuts to actually tell a story, I can't give it to you. Maybe you better go look at the story again. Worry about it. Try removing them. You'd do me, yourself, and your story all immense favors by throwing out the elements I'm about to list and replacing them with almost anything else -- including Mickey Rooney in a bow tie. Or maybe you'll find you need them after all. But you shouldn't just plop them on to your keyboard without refining them.
These are in no particular order. I think of them, I add them. I think I'm heavy on adolescent-specific junk, but that's understandable, considering the context.
Head Cheerleader. You think that by labelling a girl a head cheerleader you've established that she is the most popular, blond, beautiful, and self-confident girl in the school. You think you've established her as the most (superficially, at least) normal girl in the school. What you've established is that you're too lazy to figure out what the main character's best friend or rival or sister or ex girlfriend or whoever is like, what she'll do, or whatever.
Nowadays, the cheerleaders are rarely the most popular kids in the school. What they do isn't admired by other girls (or boys), and nobody thinks they're normal. They practice an obscure and possibly dying folk art. They spend hours at it. They have their own language and they talk incessantly about their activities. Face it, they're geeks, in their way. They are unlikely to be the Queen Bee of their schools. And if they are, they paid some kind of price to get there, and they are more interesting than you're allowing them to be.
Honestly, I could do without any more cheerleaders whatever. Find something else for the girls to do. High school's full of stuff.
Head (insert favorite prominent sports) player. Everybody's a star. It's always the star quarterback, never a lineman or something. If you want to establish your character as a well-known and admired jock, work harder at it, okay? Yes, football players especially get special treatment at a lot of schools. Yes, they get away with (almost literally) murder. Yes, the system is stupid about them. And they tend to be large and healthy, and so therefore some are goodlooking. But for you to assume that using the codeword is going to tell me what this boy is like -- the stereotype or its hidden opposite -- and guarantee that any particular character is going to swoon over him, is, again, lazy. Not to mention unfair and unconvincing.
Making the guy a player of some other sport only helps if you actually cafre about the sport enough to make it feature. If you set a scene in the showers or in the locker room or on the field and you don't care enough to invest it with the sensory realities of the place, those settings are just words and I don't care. If the physical details of playing the sport don't matter to your character, why are you bothering to make them play it?
Head anything. Yes, high school has hierarchies. But really. "Head goth?" "Head emo?" Don't. It doesn't tell me anything. I want you to tell me things and show me things. What the hell do you mean by head goth or emo anyway? The one the others gravitate to? Describe this. Show other kids approaching this one, or hanging with him, or following him around, or something. Or do you mean the most extreme example? and if you do, why? I don't care about most extreme example: I want a thick, rich, detailed, nuanced and flavorful character.
Eyeliner, barettes, "girl pants"etc.: I know, boys with eyeliner can be hot. But some of you are putting eyeliner on boys that would never, by the rest of their personality, ever wear it. And some of you are using eyeliner, hair dye, barettes, and the color pink as a shorthand for "gay" and that's not only dumb, it's insulting all around. It insults gay boys, it insults boys who wear eyeliner, it insults the color pink, it insults straight boys who wear barettes . . . you get the drift. But you know what the real crime here is? It stops a story dead in its tracks. It makes the reader go "huh?" and not in a good way. Don't do this. Don't ever, ever do this. Especially don't take a plain t-shirt and boardies guy and throw eyeliner on him to express the fact that he's suddenly questioning his sexuality.
I'm going to reveal my age now and reveal that when I was a teenager in San Francisco back in the ice ages, I actually hung out with a couple of the Cockettes and their boyfriends for a while. I had a couple guy friends who used makeup and all that. It mattered to their personality, but it wasn't what made them gay. It was what made them Cockettes. Actually, my favorite Cockette had this whole James-Dean-if-he-grew-his-hair-to-his-shoulder-blades thing going for him. Made me wish I was a boy. Revealed some more, but you already knew that, didn't you?
While we're at it: stop quoting song lyrics. Seriously. They don't read well. The italics messes up the page. They don't express what you think they do. Especially stop putting twenty lines of song lyrics on every page. It doesn't tell me a thing except you don't have any ideas for your story. Now, that's obviously untrue, or why would you be writing it?
So write the story. Save the time searching the lyrics and figure out what really happened instead.
And back to the subject of this heading: seriously, you don't express anything helpful if you conflate crossdressing with same-sex orientation. It's a leaden balloon on your story.
By all means, if you want to write a crossdressing story, go ahead. But write a story about crossdressing. Don't put a cardboard sign on your character that says "crossdressing!" and expect that to mean a lot of stuff to me.
People crossdress for a lot of reasons and with a lot of different effects. And why, when a person crossdresses in a story, do they always have to wear the same clothes as every other crossdressing boy in every other story? How about a boy who likes to dress like an Amish girl? A boy who tries to look like Jeanine Garofolo? -- A straight boy who did that would be a really interesting guy, and if I were young and met one, I'd want to have a nice conversation with him . . .
Remember, not just because it's true: crossdressers tend to be straight. Remember, not just because it's true, but because it's interesting.
While we're on the subject of sexual stereotypes:
Just forget you ever heard the words uke and seme, please. They're useless terms and the concepts are beyond useless. They don't illuminate the motivations or tastes or habits of anybody except for a small number of badly-drawn cartoon characters from an obscure and highly inbred corner of a peculiar and largely irrelevant literary subculture. Observe the behaviors of some actual humans, or make up your own behaviors, whatever, but don't keep referring blindly to a tenth-generation shadow of a stereotype.
I'm also increasingly annoyed at every possible combination of "top-bottom" crap. I know there are men who embrace those divisions and have strong preferences, but your story is not well served by throwing out these two words and thinking you've invoked a whole raft of personality characteristics and interpersonal dynamics. Most importantly, these words don't even always mean the same thing. And definitely they don't mean the same things to different people. One person might be thinking in terms of what is inserted where, another person might be thinking of who is in what relationship to gravity, another person might be thinking in terms of stage direction, or hierarchy, or some peculiar role playing or other. Any of these dynamics might be healthy for a story, but only if they are in fact operating in the story and not a token someone decided to insert somewhere.
I read in something John Money wrote once about how we could turn every word we use for sexual roles around and apply them the other way. He was talking about classical heterosexual acts in that paragraph. He said, as I recall, that we could just as easily say that the penis "accepts" the vagina as that the vagina accepts the penis: and he was right. You could apply this to anybody's sex anywhere. You may think that the fellow who's putting a piece of him inside another fellow is a "top," but maybe in his mind he isn't. Maybe in his mind he's doing someone a courtesy, or following directions, or playing one-fly-up, or engaging in an act of devotion . . . it could be all sorts of things I'm not going to bother thinking of at the moment but maybe you should, right, especially if you're one of the people I'm talking about.
Including, of course, that he could be totally immersed in one or another of the classic top-and-bottom complexes.
Meanwhile, of course, the fellow who's taking a bit of another fellow somewhere within him, might be doing any of those things, or anything else -- and, what's really interesting for stories, what they're doing might or might not mesh "properly," and it might or might not be a problem. Or a resolution to a problem. Or flavor text, as they say in the games industry.
("And another thing. I'm tired of you being so domineering all the time in bed!" "What? Domineering? I swear I do everything you tell me to do! It's always all about you!")
And, honestly, if I never see "sub" and "dom" again I will be quite, quite pleased. No matter what you think they mean -- even if you are in fact a practitioner of some variation of the many many different sorts of behavior that people describe this way -- the words do not mean what you think they mean. I mean: the reader comes across those words and lump, lump, lump, there's an undistinguishable block of cliche, unworkable, right in the middle of the character and plot and who knows what the author really meant to convey?
Especially -- see above -- if you want to use the word "sub" as a verb to mean "take a bit of another fellow inside oneself." At this point you've made so many unwarranted assumptions that you could never manage to get enough warrants to go around. Start over. And if your setting is a place or time other than late 20th-early 21st century North America-and-Europe, you've got a huge potential for cultural untruthiness.
People are always telling you to do your research. I'm not sure that doing the research isn't what's caused a lot of these miswritten bits. You read some guy telling you "it's like this . . ." and you think that's all there is. You go against your better instincts because obviously, J. Random Gay Guy on the Net knows everything and you know nothing. Right?
Some other stuff I can do without. And in fact I'm begging you, right now, to not put them in your stories unless you have a story fiend gnawing your hand and threatening to take it off unless the story goes its way. These next things actually hurt my head and I think they hurt your sould to write them thoughtlessly. I don't mean they don't belong in stories. I mean they're being used for hammers when in fact they are teensy little delicate scalpels.
Cutting, multiple personality disorder, anorexia, bulimia,cigarette smoking, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
So here we have the most favourite modern mental disorders, reduced to hey-nonny-no in terms of story mechanics. Of course cutting has a place in stories. Et cetera. And again, it's not the cliche-ness of these elements that I'm objecting to. It's using the cliches as cliches, as a means to keep from having to understand and communicate what's really going on with the characters. And the sloppy application of mental illness regardless of whether it seems to really fit the character at hand. No, I don't mean all cutters are one way, all smokers are another way, etc. I mean all these conditions have implications. And you'd better have a sense of what you're doing with these disorders, or you won't convince me and I won't like your story. Also, even though we know people who do a jillion untoward things and are miserable in a jillion ways and all that, if you just pile them all on it's not necessarily a good story.
Multiple personality disorder is not what you think it is. It is make-believe that the pretender gets caught up in. There are not literally different people inhabiting the dissociating person's head: it just seems like it. The person who does this is generally a victim of very hard times, usually overt abuse, but they are not a nice person themselves: they are manipulative, coy, lying, and frequently abusive themselves. Although at least one persona can be really charming. Don't think you can throw up a cute, innocent, inoffensive dissociative and make a sensible story about them. Also, like all other mental illnesses, it has a strong cultural component. People outside the North American continent just don't develop this personality adaptation nearly as much. They respond to the same kinds of misery in other ways.
Okay, somebody's going to take offense to my depiction of the person with what they're calling dissociative disorder now. They're going to say I'm displaying prejudice and that they actually know somebody who is a really nice person who has the problem. Think about it, though. When they go into a made-up personailty with enough force that they beieve themselves, that's some high quality lying and pretending. When they get people to respond to them in certain ways when they're in one personality and another when they're in another, that's some high-quality manipulation. And so on. Can you write a person like that and make me sympathize? Okay, show me.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is too easy to write. It tends to keep you from actually writing a person in there. There are exceptions. The exceptions are the stories where the writer has actually thought out the implications of the things, and has used the thing to develop and drive the story, not just decorate it. Remember: cliche doesn't matter, unrealistic doesn't matter, good story writing matters. Story truth. Story realism.
And smoking. What the hell?
Fifty some years after the Surgeon General's report, and you're glorifying smoking? Notice I put it with the mental disorders. It's not sexy. If your character thinks it's sexy, you cannot expect me to be convinced without some really clever writing. No, I don't mean you have to overtly explain why it's okay for your character to think smoking's all that, but you have to have done as much backround work as if you intended to do that. Other wise, ew. And if you yourself are smoking: I've got a present for you if you want it. A scarcely-used embolism, handed down from my late husband, who had quit almost ten years before. You can have it, too, if you keep smoking for thirty years. Go ahead: let your family find out what it means when you die short of pension age with a mortgage and a couple of kids in school.
Or better yet, skip the embolism and stop smoking while you're young. Outlive the rest of them. You could also, while you're at it, ditch the chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, the yellow nails and teeth, the dull skin and hair, the cough, the ruined voice, and if any of this sounds romantic to you, I've got some nasty phlegm I'd like to introduce you to. Or you could have some nice yummy night sweats -- hey, did you know you can make the mattress mildew with those?
Feel free to paraphrase the preceding anywhere you find it relevant. No direct quotes though, because your own words will be better than anything you can quote from me.
In haven't talked about anorexia-bulimia. I'll just roll it into the next bit.
Extreme skinniness/ inability to eat.
Just do an exrercise for me. Replace all the references to extreme skinniness with chubby references in your story. Change only enough to keep things consistent.
There. How much did you have to change? Just those words? Did the story read exactly the same if the character is very thin or fat?
If so, you're doing it wrong. If there's no reason your character is so thin, there's no reason. And I don't necessarily mean historical reason ("I'm this thin because my mother is this thin" is a perfectly decent historical reason but it's not a story reason). I mean -- sure, every character has to look like something, and they can be thin as well as fat, but when you make the character painfully thin and emphasize it and make a big deal of it and -- nothing -- maybe you should wonder why you did that again. And again and again and again. It's like red hair and green eyes -- it's fine as a character detail but it's done so much as a shortcut to character building that it actually cuts your character building short, often enough.
Actually, I think a lot of thin characters are cheating on the authors' part. What's really in the back of their minds, often but not always, is a fat character, I think, but the author is squeamish about writing it that way because fat people are always the villains or the comic relief in popular literature, or they're just too sad and dull to work with, they think. And nobody wants to identify with the fat character: it's humiliating in the modern world. So you write a thin character instead because then you do get to deal with body issues but you don't have to face the really deeply shameful feelings that fat people get to experience in our culture. Hence there's this really heavy language about how ugly the thing character thinks he is but in actuality if you step back one step the character actually conforms exactly to the beauty standards of the day. Cake and eat it too, anybody?
But even so, that's not the problem. Stories are for all kinds of dreams, after all, including the wish fulfillment kind. What's wrong with it is, as I've been saying over and over, the laziness of the writing that often goes with it. It's okay to have a thin character, believe me.
I also think that we have a lot more stock descriptions of skinny angsting boys at our disposal, and people just don't want to go to the effort of describing a fat boy in misery in words that will gain sympathy.
"Girly much?" This is so offensive I can hardly talk straight about it. Again, the worst thing is that girliphobia and girliphilia are story negatives. That is, negative assets for the stories. But for you: if you are a female writer, the girliphobia is harming you. Really it is. You have to have more self-esteem than that. You can't put all that girl-hatred unquestioned into the mouths of the characters you're identifying with without it being something. And if you're a male writer -- though I can't recall seeing this in stories written by boys and men -- it's also harming you, but in a different way.
Every time I read somebody say or think, in a story, "Don't be such a girl," or "Am I turning into a girl?" or "That's a pretty girly thing to say," or . . . on and on, and it happens with disgusting frequency: I think "damn it, why do these people think that slash is synonymous with misogyny?"
It actually makes me sick when it gets too thick. Every other paragraph some kind of putdown of women. Not to mention that the qualities that are being attributed to women in these things are not exclusively feminine. Except when the author goes on a rant -- disguised as belonging to the character -- about how disgusting women's bodies are, how much more disgusting the personalities of girls are. Okay, yes, you have the right if not the duty to explore a lot of different attitudes and ideas and feelings in your fiction, but really, unexamined misogyny is icky. And not in the good way.
The other side of this is girliphilia. It's also misogynist, in my opinion. Actually, girliphilia is girliphobia, when it's shallow and thin and unthinking. This is where in order to express what a cool kid the character is, or how sexy, or sweet, or fun, or imaginative, he's depicted in feminine stereotypes. He's small. He has luxurious hair. He's weak, goddamn it. Or he's sassy and flirtatious. He has small hands.
This is not to diss all the sassy little flirtatious guys out there with small hands and luxurious hair. Or even to say you can't write about them. But, again, it's the unexamined, desultory, slapdash and downright disrespectful kneejerk character description without a real character that gets to me. And homogeneous. Whenever I read about some eyeliner-wearing guy with small hands who's a goalie or a mechanic as well, I breathe a sigh of relief. Small hands will get you into places in the engine compartment that large hands can't, you know.