Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gatekeepers - you're one, too.

There are always gatekeepers.

I think when we writers most commonly use the term we're thinking of editors, because editors are he most famous. We think of the magazine slushpiles and those assigned to read them, whether they be designated first readers or head editors. We think also, of course, of the agents and editors in the novel-publishing world. Gatekeepers are the ones who get to say to you,


or to put it less gracefully,


Here's the thing, though. The editors and agents aren't the only gatekeepers here. Every one of us who participates in this enterprise is a gatekeeper. It's just that the job of gatekeeping without an official title is far more complex, and more likely to go unnoticed.

Say I'm online and I get approached by someone I don't know, asking to connect or even to have a live hangout with me. How do I know that person is for real, and not some sort of spammer/scammer?


Say I'm at a convention and someone wants to come up and talk to me about my writing, or their writing, or writing, or science fiction and fantasy in general. And I have somewhere to go, or I feel uncomfortable, or I've been deluged by fans (not that this happens to me!) and have had enough, etc. etc. I say no or back out of the conversation. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons to do this. Some of them have to do with mental bandwidth and exhaustion rather than anything else.

However, this is also where inclusiveness succeeds or fails.

Let me tell you about an experience I had early on in my writing career. I found my way to the local convention because I had started writing, and absolutely loved it, and figured that was a way to meet people in this business (guess what? It was a great one).

At my first visit, I had a three-month-old baby and was just trying to figure out which end was up, and I approached an author after a panel and asked how to get involved, and he very kindly directed me to apply to the convention's writer's workshop. It was a super-brief interaction, but just what I needed. So I went off and a year later showed back up with a story for the writer's workshop, joined the workshop and really enjoyed it... At that point, when I approached the same author to thank him and attempt to have a conversation, he didn't want to talk to me.

This is a hard one, of course. Why should he feel obligated to talk to me? Nobody is obligated to talk to anyone, are they? People have demands on their time. The better known they are, the more likely they are to be deluged with people. They might just be having a bad day. It's not all about me in this world! But the thing that bothered me was that after several consecutive years of attempting to approach him, I showed up with a copy of Analog with my story in it, and his attitude changed instantly. Suddenly he was back to being willing to have a conversation.

That's gatekeeping. Every time we are agreeing or not agreeing to have a conversation, we could be opening a gate or shutting one for someone who needs it. It's a tough responsibility - and involves tough decisions. It would be so easy to lose every moment of our time to people who won't be able to have constructive interactions with us. We have to protect that time, or we can't function as professionals.

So we are always looking for reasons to say no.

Legitimate reasons.

I'll get back to that word "legitimate" in a second.

First off, what exactly is it that says to us at any given point, "This person can't be serious" or "This person is a waste of my time"?

I come out of academia, and in that context, the best way to be taken seriously on the most basic level is to engage with the texts. Of course it depends on whom you're dealing with, but if you can come in having read something, and not just say "I read this" but express an opinion that refers to a particular part of a scientific argument, or a contentious quote, etc. then you are more likely to be taken seriously (this is obviously not foolproof!).

When I approach an author whom I want to interact with as a fellow author and not simply as a fan, I make sure to have read something and thought through an opinion about something very specific. Worldbuilding, most often, since that's my geeky thing. "I liked what you did in X book when you created Y in Z way" is something I like to be able to say. It's sort of a statement of good faith - not foolproof, but at least has a better chance of receiving attention because it's my way of saying I care.

It's important to realize the person just may not have time for you at that moment. And that's okay. They don't owe you, just like you wouldn't want to feel like you owed anyone else.

On the other hand, so many people have helped me that I always feel inspired to some degree to help people out. This is why I find my way to workshops, which are structurally designed to give me a forum for interacting with people and discovering their work. That makes it much easier than just chatting in a hall!

There's something else going on here, though, that comes back to the question of legitimate reasons to say no.

This is a place where bias creeps in. Right there, in that split second when you're turning around to see someone and decide whether to interact with them. When you're looking for a reason why you need to be off to that lunch you have, or why you are too tired to deal with anyone right now, etc. etc. Something about the person can make you say no without you fully making the connection as to why. These are little tiny moments. They pass by us so quickly, but they can be terribly important.

And they are also the places where we can make a big difference for inclusiveness. If we try to think consciously. If we give it a second or two, a word or two of encouragement.

I won't claim this is supposed to be easy. Everybody has a different balance of introversion and extroversion, a different threshold of safety - and maintaining that safety is vitally important. But I also think it's important for people to realize that we are all gatekeepers. We are all constantly re-creating the inclusive or exclusive environment of our social milieu, whenever we say yes or no.

It's something to think about.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Where is the best place to put worldbuilding exposition in my story?

One useful definition of "worldbuilding" is the construction of a sense of world on the page. I like to use this definition because I feel that the word "setting" fails to capture the active process that authors engage in. In order to build a sense of world, we have to use several tools - implying world in the actions and judgments of characters, for example, or in their dialogue. Of course, the most obvious and straightforward (if not complete) way to accomplish worldbuilding is through descriptive exposition in the story text.

I am going to call this descriptive exposition rather than "infodumping" because in my view, the latter is simply the former done badly. We definitely want to avoid "infodumping," yet descriptive exposition is quite critical to the success of our worldbuilding.

I've written before about how to get this exposition done with as much finesse as possible, but this summer I had a different aspect of exposition brought to my attention:

When is the best time to include worldbuilding information?

As finely wrought as any verbal carrier of worldbuilding information is, it won't work well if it's stuck in the wrong place. As a general rule, the beginning of a story is better for exposition than the end, and high action or high tension spots are not good for it. There are possible exceptions, of course, such as whenever a new environment is introduced, and the author must take some time to establish the parameters of that environment.

But the general principle is quite a strong one. I'll give you an example. I was working on revisions of my novel, For Love, For Power, and my agent suggested that I should put in a bit more explanation of the Varin pantheon. I therefore had to go back and try to figure out what might be the best place to add in this information. Two possibilities suggested themselves: one in Chapter 3, where my MC Tagaret went to visit a chapel that had been converted into a concert hall, and another in Chapter 15, where Tagaret went to visit someone's home for the first time. I was intrigued by the idea of putting the description in Chapter 15, using statues of deities in the home both to elaborate the pantheon and to demonstrate the host's desire to hide his affiliations with musicians by publicly displaying an icon of a non-musical deity.


Though the idea of using statues for multiple story purposes was more interesting than simply sticking them in the converted church, it really didn't fit. By that time in the story, there was just way too much going on. My protagonist had just come under threat, and had no room in his thinking for noticing anything like a statue. It would have been irrelevant to him, and therefore he would not notice it at all. Making him do so would have been entirely unnatural.

So I went back to Chapter 3, and sprinkled the information in carefully. I started by establishing an overall paradigm for the deities by referring to them as the Holy Celestial Family (which gives readers a sort of filing cabinet to store forthcoming information on the pantheon's members). Then I had Tagaret discover one deity on the way in, and once he was there, explore different areas of the chapel as the action progressed, so he could encounter different deities in each place but eventually cover all the critical pantheon members.

The whole experience got me to thinking about information distribution through a story. I think of it a bit like a river (this one is from Wikipedia):
 At the start of the story, the pace is the most relaxed. This does not mean the pace is slow! However, this means that there is more room to examine the environments that surround your characters. As the story goes along, the river narrows and its pace quickens. This allows much less room for exposition, and even new environments are best confined to only the most optimally relevant information. Action, and escalation of stakes, act like a block put into the river (as in the picture below of a wall contributing to the creation of a surfable wave in a Czech river).

So this means that you should avoid putting exposition in anywhere that action must occur. Keep it to a minimum in critical set pieces where the reader's attention needs to be on events and how they are occurring. If there is some piece of information about the environment which readers must critically receive in order for the set piece to work, put it in earlier: have them discover the environment in some way before the set piece fully takes off, or seed the information into the narrative even earlier.

It's something to think about.