I am beyond delighted to announce that From Unseen Fire has won this year’s Webster Award, bestowed by RavenCon in recognition of “outstanding achievement in genre writing by a Virginia author”! Thank you to everyone who has supported this book and shared the love!
And if you haven’t read From Unseen Fire yet — you’re in luck! My publisher is currently running a sweepstakes!
Click through here to enter! There’s plenty of time to get caught up on the world of Aven before Give Way to Night comes out on December 29th. And if you have already read From Unseen Fire? Enter the sweepstakes and maybe you’ll win a copy to give to a friend! ;D
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a Tumblr thread that made me incandescent with rage; I remain tweaked enough about it to make this worth posting. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my initial rant on the topic. It involved a new trend among fanfiction writers to charge commissions for writing fic.
I went down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have, because all it did was make me livid. Some of the arguments were so staggeringly entitled. Just breathtaking.
Y-Yes? Fanfiction should remain free. It has to.
It’s wild to me that one type of entitlement seems to be responding to another. If people are really bitching and moaning because they can’t find fics specifically catered to them — Well, they’ve misunderstood what’s going on. Fanfiction is such a gorgeous thing precisely because it’s born out of a writer’s relationship with the original work. You as a reader don’t get to demand that their relationship be what you want it to be. You go looking for what’s there and hopefully find something to delight you. You are accepting gifts that the writers have put out there for anyone who wants to enjoy them.
Now, there have always been fic exchanges and such where requests may be filled, but that’s still happening in the spirit of sharing mutually in excitement over the source material. Outside of that, if you can’t find exactly the fic that tickles your fancy, the answer has always been: Write it yourself!
The solution is not to decide people should accept commissions for derivative work!
I feel like these are the same people who defend piracy with the “all knowledge should be free, I’m just sticking it to The Man” arguments — which are equally ill-informed, ignorant, and just a cover for selfishness. (I’m restraining the impulse to delve into that tangent for the moment, but just know, given the current shape of how writers are compensated and in lieu of a currency-free society a la Star Trek, there is absolutely no ethical justification for book piracy). Apart from the illegality, your actions are not going to hurt the people you think you’re hurting. Accepting commissions for fanfic jeopardizes sites like AO3 and undermines the entire foundation that allows fanfic to exist for public consumption in the first place.
And then there’s nonsense like this:
Sugarplum, d’you know why we don’t have a platform like that? Why we cannot, should not, must not have a platform like that?
Fair Use is the legal defense against accusations of copyright infringement that protects, among other things, satire and educational use of materials. Whether or not it applies to fanfiction is, honestly, murky at best. To my knowledge, no statute has yet added fanfiction to the list of things explicitly protected by Fair Use. It’s just the best defense we currently have.
Here’s what the Organization for Transformative Works, the company that runs AO3, has to say about it:
What exactly is fair use?
Fair use is the right to make some use of copyrighted material without getting permission or paying. It is a basic limit on copyright law that protects free expression. “Fair use” is an American phrase, although all copyright laws have some limits that keep copyright from being private censorship.
Fair use favors uses that (1) are noncommercial and not sold for a profit; (2) are transformative, adding new meaning and messages to the original; (3) are limited, not copying the entirety of the original; and (4) do not substitute for the original work.
It’s worth noting that I’m largely talking about US law here, though I believe the UK has similar statutes and understanding of derivative works. Fanlore has a lot more in-depth information, but at the base of it all is this: the current Fair Use defense depends upon not profiting from the derivative work.
Case law has seen mixed results, and when the authors of derivative works have prevailed, that has usually hinged on the critical or parodic nature of the derivative work. While the OTW argues that fanfiction is sufficiently transformative by nature, providing a commentary on the original works, that has by no means been settled into law. Copyright holders and publishing houses simply have not chosen, in most cases, to press the point. But if you start profiting off of your derivative works? If that becomes a common trend? If you have the utter gall to try and build a website based on that concept? You will be baiting them to come after you — or decide to use your infringement as a reason to screw over a content creator.
Here is my authorial understanding of the issue with copyright law and fanfiction (with the caveat that I am not a lawyer): The reason many authors still won’t take a public stance condoning fanfiction and why almost no author will read fanfiction of their own works? Is because of the legal jeopardy it can put them in. If an author is considered to have abandoned their copyright, their intellectual property can be redistributed. Not defending against infringements — like fanfiction that violates Fair Use! — can be grounds for being considered to have abandoned copyright.
It is not impossible to imagine a situation where an author, “failing” to defend against copyright infringement perpetuated by someone taking commissions for fic based on their work, has their IP taken off of them and handed to another writer. Now imagine a publishing house doing that to an author who is a member of a marginalized community and handing their characters and ideas off to a more popular author (who is likely not of that marginalized community). It’s not impossible. It might not even be improbable. A lot of publishing “wisdom” already purports that there’s more value to be found in piling all your eggs into a basket of proven ROI. You see it in how it’s the already-successful authors who receive the largest advances and the heftiest marketing budgets. Fanfic commissions, like piracy, could directly jeopardize the original content creators — but they’re not going to hurt The Man a bit. If anything, they just hand the Powers That Be more tools they can use to control who gets to produce what kinds of content.
“But Cass?” some people may be thinking. “You’re a professional writer. Surely you agree that writers deserve to be paid for their work?”
Well. Yes. They deserve to be paid for their work. Derivative works are not the same. And I say this as someone who’s written derivative works for a very, very long time. Longer than these commission-hungry ficcers have been alive. I know the difference between work I do as a hobby and work I do as a job — The same way that if you cook a meal for your family and friends, you don’t expect to be paid for it, but if a caterer prepares that meal, you’d damn well better pay them. Now, maybe your friends and family reward you in some other fashion — cooking for you at another time, bringing wine, bringing dessert, etc — but that’s not payment. You’re not doing it to get paid; you’re doing it to share joy.
Fanfiction is supposed to be an act of joy.
I mean, it might be rage-joy, as you reclaim what you believe the source material has irredeemably destroyed. As I’ve said before, sometimes fanfic is a love letter to canon, sometimes it’s a strongly worded letter of correction, and sometimes it’s 95 theses on what canon did wrong nailed to a door. But it has always been something done for the sake of doing it, born of attachment to the original material. It is, inherently, a leisure activity. If you view it as an income source, you have fundamentally misunderstood what it is. I mean, apart from the fact that you’re breaking copyright law, you have just absolutely missed the point of fanfiction.
“But some fanfic writers work really hard!”
Yes. I certainly did. Would you like to know how much research I did on pre-Norman England and Scotland in order to write historically accurate Hogwarts Founders fic? It was way more than JKR ever did into that period, I can tell you that. (She seems to think the 11th and 15th centuries were indistinguishable, to say nothing of metalworking and gem-cutting techniques that wouldn’t evolve for centuries but I digress). Or would you like to know how many schematics of Federation and Klingon starships I have saved to my hard drive? The extensive family trees I’ve drawn? The hours spent teaching myself details about the lead-up to the French Revolution that no teacher ever though essential enough to impart? The sheer total tonnage of trivia permanently lodged in my head about a galaxy far, far away?
Many hobbyists work very hard on their hobbies. They invest time and energy and money into their leisure activities. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be paid for that investment. You’ve chosen to do it.
I took fic writing very seriously. I still do! I don’t write a lot of fic these days, but when I do, I put as much of my heart into it as I do my original works. And back in the heyday of my fic-writing, on LJ, ohh, I took such pride in being known for what I did. It was within niche corners and small fandoms, but I won contests and cherished every comment and celebrated when my works appeared on rec lists. I sought recognition, even when the only tangible reward was a little graphic to post in my bio. I wanted people to acknowledge how hard I worked and, frankly, how good I was at it.
But I never, ever, ever sought to make a dime off of it. The very concept would have been absurd, and I knew full well that we all put those “not mine, just borrowing the characters!” disclaimers up precisely so there could be no doubt of that. (This is how I know I’d do well in a Star Trek style “prestige economy” as interpreted by Manu Saadia: I am very happy when striving to be acknowledged as the best at the thing I’ve chosen to do; I am unhappy that we live in a world where financial value is the only kind of acknowledgement society accepts as real).
Your hobby might be great training for a job. But it’s not a job. A hobby is leisure. That distinction is actually important, not only for your mental and emotional well-being, but as a way of pushing back against certain capitalistic pressures dominating our world. And that brings me to the thing I actually want to talk about. (Yes, all of that was just build-up).
Your hobbies do not need to be monetized.
When I had this rant on Twitter, a friend pointed out that the younger generation has been indoctrinated to believe that their hobbies only have worth if they are making money off of them. The pressure to “go viral”, the monetization of TikToks, affiliate marketing, IG influencers — It all sends the message that it’s not enough to enjoy something and share that joy. No, you have to make a Brand out of it. If you’re not getting paid, it’s not worth doing.
It honestly makes me so sad.
I mean, underneath the fury I’ve been wrangling since becoming aware of this whole commission debacle, I’m just heartbroken for all these people who are viewing fic as a commodity rather than a freely shared gift. It’s so cynical and so depressing and such a capitulation to the very worst aspects of how our society is constructed.
It ties into something else I’ve thought, which is that people who’ve been on the internet since, oh, 2007 or so had a fundamentally different experience than folk of my internet-generation. (I reference Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet for an explanation of internet-generations, which may overlap but are not synonymous with traditional societal generations). If you were on the internet in the late-90s and early-00s, especially if you are what we would now call Very Online, you sort of had to build your own experience. I started teaching myself html to build my AOL Hometown page and really refined those skills on LiveJournal. I learned how to link to an image and how to turn an image into a link. I learned about hex codes so that I could find just the right shade for my background.
That’s not the way it is now. Everything is pre-packaged for you. There’s no customization in Facebook or Twitter besides being able to upload a header banner (the dimensions of which you cannot control, and which will change without notice several times a year). In some ways, yes, that’s easier; it’s nice that most blogging sites now automatically include white space around an image without my having to set the h-space and v-space for them. But at the same time, I hate having sacrificed customization for convenience. It’s so frustrating to want to change something and not have these options available to me, because the Powers That Be have decided, nope, these margins are correct, this much white space is correct, this color palate is correct. Corporations have control of our online experience. And that feels inextricable from the urge people now feel to monetize what they do on the internet.
We have confused hobbies with jobs. We have forgotten what hobbies are. We have forgotten leisure. The pressure to always be productive and performative has reached absolutely ludicrous force.
And the thing is, I am not innocent of falling into this mindset. I am deeply uncomfortable on days I feel like I’ve “done nothing”. I post to my Patreon three times a week, and I’m constantly trying to entice new members to join up. It’s part of my hustle. But I do try to maintain some barriers between my hobbies and what I do for cash. Someone once suggested that I sell my embroidery on Etsy, and I had to gently push back: No. Embroidery is something I do for myself, for the sheer pleasure of it, and something I give as a gift to people I love. I do not want that to become something I have to fret over because it’s not giving me good enough ROI.
I feel there’s another larger issue here, too, which is the loss of art for the sake of art. And leisure for the sake of leisure. I’m not enough of a theorist to go too deeply into that, but I suspect others have said clever things about it. It fits hand-in-glove with the increased corporatization of our world. Algorithms drive everything. Movies plots are influenced by focus groups. Everything is a Brand. And I do not believe that encourages the proliferation of good art. It makes art safe, predictable, palatable. Boring. It discourages invention and innovation.
Fanfiction has long been a push back against that corporatization. It’s a reclaiming of storytelling for and by the public. Fanfic commissions are playing into capitalism’s hands.
So that ties back to what I was saying before, about how, yes, you might work very hard on this hobby. But you should be doing it for the sake of the final product, for the pride you can take in that work, for the pleasure of sharing it with others. Not because you expect to get paid.
I don’t want to discourage fanfiction. That is the last thing in the world I want to do. I owe my career to my experience writing fanfic, and it would make me the happiest person on the planet to discover someone had decided to write Aven Cycle fanfic, even though I could never read it. But if I discovered someone was profiting off of that fanfic, I’d be furious — not least because it would be so galling, considering the various legal and financial eccentricities of how authors are currently rewarded for their efforts. Someone else making money off of my stories could very well impair my own compensation, and nothing in the world will convince me that would be fair.
What I want people to remember is the spirit fanfiction is supposed to come from — not the hustle, not the monetization of the internet, but the attachment to the original material. Fanfiction is supposed to be something you do for you, before anyone else! And that is liberating! You can do whatever you want! No one’s going to come tell you that you have to change something, tighten the pacing, get rid of that character, take out that scene, add a conversation about this topic. You are beholden to no one but yourself and your own pleasure — and how often is that true, in our modern world? Own that.
If you want to make money off of writing, I support you in that as well. Going from fanfic to pro is an increasingly common track in publishing! I’ve been on multiple convention panels about it. But you have to do it with your own characters and concepts, or with those already in the public domain. It’s a different sort of endeavor than writing fanfic — because it is work, it is a job, not a hobby. Writing professionally means doing a lot of the large and small hard things that you don’t have to worry about as a ficcer — and then you get compensated for that work. Now, the issues related to that compensation in current structures are many, but they are entirely separate from the issue of fanfiction.
And, of course, there are other options if you want to be paid to write — journalism, for instance, which is another place many well-established authors have started. I want more people to be able to make a living off of writing, I want opportunities to be open to more people and to people from more backgrounds than most traditional avenues currently support — but that does not mean opening avenues to profit off of fanfic.
tl;dr? Don’t flipping try to make money off fanfic. You’re breaking the law and missing the point.
I started writing this post about societal gendered assumptions after JK Rowling, yet again, showed her TERFy ass to the world on Twitter. (And then JKR did like six other things in the time it took me to compose and polish this). It’s something I want to address, because these are concepts I’ve engaged with in writing Give Way to Night and the Aven Cycle as a whole, and they’re things I look forward to being able to depict from another angle when I write something that isn’t historically-rooted.
To begin: Things like menstruation and giving birth can be powerful manifestations of womanhood. They also don’t have to be. There are many cis women who don’t find value in those manifestations for any number of reasons, there are women who don’t have uteruses and therefore don’t have those experiences, and there are people with uteruses who aren’t women who have their own feelings about the intersection of body and identity. If they are meaningful for you and your relationship to womanhood, great! But these things are complex, and they don’t carry the same meaning for everyone. Sex may be a biological reality, but it has so many more ways of expressing itself than dropping everyone into either a pink or a blue bucket, and gender is a societal construct. (And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Bill Nye and his “smoking-hot abacus of sex”).
There are two scenes in Give Way to Night that deal with prominent-but-not-universal aspects of uterus-having life: childbirth and menstruation. My challenge was that the historical setting means I’m writing in a world that does not have the language we do for concepts of gender (or sexuality, for that matter, but that’s its own large topic).
The barrier of conceptual availability is frustrating, in this as in so many other aspects of writing historically-rooted fiction. The cultures of the ancient Mediterranean were rigidly gender essentialist. That manifested differently in different areas (witness Athens versus Sparta), and certain aspects did wax and wane over time, but the dominant paradigm of patriarchy encouraged definition. To the best of my knowledge and research, it would not occur to people living within those cultures that a man could menstruate or that a woman might not have a uterus or that someone (who wasn’t a god) might be neither man nor woman. There are very, very few extant examples of people we would now recognize as nonbinary or transgender in the Roman world. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, of course! But it’s impossible to know how they conceived of themselves within the boundaries and the language of their world, because we have so little even written about such people and pretty much nothing in their own words. I say “pretty much nothing;” there is nothing that I’m aware of, but while I am well-researched, I have not read All The Things That Exist. If anyone knows of a first-person account of a transgender or non-binary person from the Roman world, I would love to read it. The language of self-definition is powerful, and it’s something I try to get as close as I can to in all my research — but the silencing of so many voices is one of the great tragedies of history.
Too, the few written records about individuals who may have been outside the gender binary are… not complimentary. The language is that of aberration and transgression, particularly where male bodies adopting feminine traits are concerned. It was a patriarchal world; being seen as “giving up” manhood to adopt the subjugated state of femininity was considered disgraceful and worthy of a punitive response — an attitude our modern world has not entirely escaped, considering the treatment of and frequent violence towards trans women. The Emperor Elagabulus, who expressed the desire to live as a woman, is one of the most vilified, denigrated, and ridiculed figures in Roman history. Wearing the clothing of the opposite gender was permissible as part of Saturnalian revels at least in some periods, but the rest of the time, it was both punishable and punishment. There were some religious rituals, which migrated over from Greece, that involved gender-blurring up to and including self-castration, but those were considered well outside the bounds of everyday life, and the cults involved were not always favorably received. The writer Lucian posits the idea of someone “born a woman” but with “the mind and the desires and everything else of a man” — but Lucian is a satirist, and so it’s difficult to map his joke about the concept onto how people were actually living. Again, we have the dual barriers of conceptual availability in the time and the lack of first-person records.
Mythology doesn’t do any better; the gender-swapping of the prophet Tiresias is a punishment upon him and thus inextricable from misogyny. The tale of Iphis and Ianthe, where the gods transform a girl to a boy so she can marry another girl, might be read as transgender, and some modern interpretations have claimed it as such. Its point within its cultural context, however, is to reinforce heteronormativity and eliminate any transgressive element. (See Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which definitely reads like an anti-lesbian tract; I love Ovid’s way with words, but when it came to gender and sex the man was an absolute nightmare).
While the historical cultures informing the Aven Cycle were gender essentialist, I didn’t want the narrative to be. So I have tried to choose my language carefully, to illustrate that just because a character’s worldview has certain boundaries, that does not mean the boundaries are factual reality. In the opening scene, a female character is giving birth (okay, this isn’t a spoiler since she’s hugely pregnant in From Unseen Fire; it’s Neitin), and I initially informed the reader that, for the Lusetani, “this was the time of a woman’s greatest power”. Even with the Lusetani-specific disclaimer, though, upon reflection I still wanted to put a little more distance between those concepts. I changed the phrasing to “this was a time of great power”. Not the only time, perhaps not even a superlative time for everyone experiencing it, and — though the Lusetani themselves might not recognize it — not something necessarily belonging only to women. Later on, a male character refers to menstruation as a women’s issue, because those are the lines of the world as he knows them — and another character points out, explicitly, that the world is not always so neatly-boxed-up as he may prefer.
I’m anxious about those scenes. I should be anxious about them! This is important stuff, and I need to be mindful. It was important to me to include those aspects of uterus-having life and to frame them as powerful, because they are so often ignored, denigrated, or treated as a weakness, in reality and in fiction. That they are ignored, denigrated, and treated as weakness is inextricably interwoven with misogyny and with cultural perceptions of them as “women’s issues” — but that does not mean they are all women’s issues or women’s issues only.
I may well have gotten something wrong in trying to thread that needle, not least because no group is a monolith and not everyone will respond the same words the same way. I’m still learning how to be a better ally (to say nothing of a better writer), and I will keep trying to do better.
The WIP I’m working on now is in an invented secondworld, and that gives me a lot more freedom. I’m still figuring out exactly how I want that world to conceive gender and sexuality, along with the language they’ll have to express such concepts, but I know it won’t be strictly tied to a binary. It’s going to be a queernorm society, and while that’s so freeing in some ways, it also prompts me to do a lot more work thinking about the implications for everything from domestic life to the economy. Removing the patriarchy removes a lot of assumptions about how the world works. It’s the sort of thing we explore on Worldbuilding for Masochists, and a lot of what I’m trying in that manuscript was informed by topics brought up on the podcast. I’m really looking forward to writing a fantasy story that, while it has a historical aesthetic, will reflect modern understandings and be capable of celebrating more life experiences.
In short: uterus does not necessarily equal woman, trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary people, and no one gets to invalidate how someone else negotiates their relationship with their own damn body.
You may be noticing that the lady on the cover is very not-blonde. Give Way to Night brings Vibia — prickly, focused, suspicious Vibia — into sharper focus. While Latona and Sempronius are still the primary POV characters, Vibia claims the next slot. Much of this book is from her perspective, and I so greatly enjoyed getting into her headspace as a counterpoint to Latona’s. They are polar opposites in personality, but they share common goals, and much of the story of Give Way to Night is in how they learn to work together to protect the people around them.
Artist Micah Epstein did wonderful work in bringing Vibia to life. She’s much sharper than Latona, and I think her personality really shines in her face. She’s standing in a threshold, a place of power for Fracture mages. In From Unseen Fire, Latona had to learn how to embrace the power she had always been afraid of, because she’d been told she had more than was appropriate. Vibia’s sort of fighting the opposite battle; she’s always considered that she only has a touch of divine blessing — but she’s also had to keep tight-reined control over it, because Fracture can so easily lead to chaos. In Give Way to Night, Vibia comes to realize she’s capable of more than she’d previously considered.
And about that Fracture magic… I’m so delighted that we were able to keep the crackled-fresco look that we had in From Unseen Fire, and I love the added detail of that light bleeding through. What might that prefigure? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out, won’t you?
Also, green is my favorite color, so on a purely childish level, I’m very happy to have a green book.
I’ve been a guest on this podcast twice ere now, and I am absolutely delighted to be joining Marshall Ryan Maresca and Rowenna Miller on a regular basis. Twice-monthly, we’ll be exploring the bones of fantasy worlds — historical, cultural, geological, grammatical, all of the things a writer can use to give life and veracity to their world. We have some wonderful topics lined up for the show’s second season, and I cannot wait to delve into them with my fabulous co-hosts and some amazing guests.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably gleaned that this is the sort of stuff I absolutely live for. Sometimes I feel like I should’ve gone into RPG design, because I so adore exactly this sort of work. I’ve certainly done plenty of it for the Aven Cycle! (And members of my Patreon get to see that on a weekly basis, since all the microfiction I release draws from the paratextual material that doesn’t fit into the books). What I’ve loved about WfM as a listener, and what I can’t wait to probe more as a co-host, is the challenge to presumptions: really interrogating why things are the way they are, and not just taking our current lived reality or our perceptions of historical reality and lumping them into an invented world without due consideration. It’s already affected the way I’m thinking about my secondworld WIPs, and I’m eager to keep pushing myself to think harder and deeper about the constructs I’m creating.
So! Whether you’re a writer looking for some prompts to help you flesh out your world or a reader hungry for insights into how we wild authorial folk do the things we do, hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform!
So y’all know how much I love rhetoric. I’ve decided to come back to the World of Figures series, which I’d sort of abandoned in favor of the Hamilblog on Patreon, so that I can explore some rhetorical concepts in more depth.
All memes work because of repetition. That’s their very nature. Memes can also be seen as a type of metonymy, a type of metaphor in which a symbolic token stands in for a person, place, or idea. Think of a crown representing the power of monarchy, or the ways that emoji represent your mood or your response to something.
A simple example of metonymy in memeage would be the use of popular reaction gifs in many situations. It’s a repeated image that takes on cultural context of its own over time. If it achieves great enough saturation, you don’t even need to include the image itself to reap its benefits. Say there’s some drama going down on twitter. I could insert an image as a reply — or, I could type “[MichaelJacksonpopcorn.gif]” — and a meme-literate audience will know exactly what I mean. It works because of repetition — an image that has been seen enough times by enough people to be recognized even without the image itself — and it works because the image stands in for the idea “I am vicariously enjoying this while staying out of the mess”. That’s the metonymy.
Other popcorn gifs carry slightly different connotations — different exercises of metonymy. [DuleHillpopcorn.gif] is a little more active, implying a more engaged spectator, its connotation less petty but perhaps more visceral; [gazellepopcorn.gif] is by contrast a bit more passive, implying a spectator at a greater state of remove from the drama. [popcorn.gif] on its own might invoke any of these, inviting the reader to draw their own particular out of the abstract.
(Okay, if you aren’t familiar with those gifs, I bestow them upon you now.)
Many memes, however, flourish not through repetition alone, but through the transmutation of the original material. This phenomenon often occurs in what Know Your Meme calls “Object Labeling” memes, where words are imposed on an image to make a point.
I would argue that these memes become a form of antanaclasis. In verbal rhetoric, antanaclasis is the repetition of a word with a different meaning in the second usage. An example from 2 Henry IV‘s Falstaff: “O, give me the spare men and spare me the great ones.” In the first case, “spare” means “extra”; in the second, “save me from” or “let me do without”. Our brains appreciate that the shape and sound of the word is the same, but its underlying meaning has changed. Similarly, in the visual rhetoric of memes, there are instances where the shape of the meme is the same — the basic format, the image, and so forth — but the details create a different meaning grounded in the same context.
Some memes also function, in and of themselves, on a rhetorical basis. That is, they work on our brains in the same way that a particular rhetorical figure does. Take “Distracted Boyfriend“:
The meme usually works by imposing something you should be giving your time/attention onto Blue Shirt and the distraction/temptation onto Red Shirt, like so:
This meme works on the basis of hysteron proteron: the disorder of time, when what should be first comes last. In this meme, it works like this: For those of us in cultures which traditionally read left-to-right, we tend to first register the words imposed on Red Shirt first, then on Boyfriend, then on Blue Shirt. (Font choices and positioning can alter this somewhat; sometimes it’s easier to notice Boyfriend first, but if our brains are used to reading left-to-right, they’re still going to try to go to Red Shirt). This is something of a temporal inversion. Logically, the first thing of relevance is Blue Shirt. That is the status quo, the origin point, the reference. Neither Boyfriend nor Red Shirt have any relevance without it. And yet it’s the last thing we see! Our brains work in reverse — and that’s part of why it’s funny. It also enhances the visuals: in finding out Blue Shirt’s importance last, we also get to share/appreciate the expression on the model’s face.
Consider this reversal, which (I suspect unawares) calls out the nature of the rhetorical form — and isn’t as funny!
There’s no surprise there! It makes logical sense and progresses, but our brains don’t get to enjoy the inversion of expectations. The meme relies (at least in part) upon the Incongruity Theory of humor: something that rubs contrary to our expectations and established mental patterns is more likely to be funny. Cicero talks about this in On the Orator: “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (For more on that topic and humor in general, I’m going to shout out my W&M professor John Morreall, whose scholarship I still think about all the time in so many contexts).
Now, this meme also allows me to offer an example of another type of visual rhetoric: when the composition of the meme is re-created but with different figures.
Appreciating this one takes a little Star Wars context: “Red Shirt” becomes Princess Leia, “Boyfriend” is Han Solo, and “Blue Shirt” is Qi’Ra, whom we learn in Solo was his first love. The cosplayers have taken the meme in a different direction, altering the image rather than imposing new text. It feels, to me, like a visual kind of isocolon, parallel structure. In written language, that’s the repetition of syntax. Take Brutus in 3.2 of Julius Caesar: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” But in memeage, the pattern is visual rather than verbal.
I feel like this topic, the visual rhetoric of memes, could be a whole interdisciplinary dissertation. I’ve found myself thinking about it more and more, and since memes don’t appear to be going anywhere, it’s likely well-worth the study on the similarities and differences of their effect on our brains as visual language.
Or, I’m just This Much of a dork. 😉
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This article from The Guardian crossed my eyes the other day: A survey of authors reported that 63% said they could “hear” their characters talking, and 61% felt their characters had their own agency (although what, precisely, that means has a lot of variance).
“I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,” said one anonymous writer. “They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,” said another.
It links to something I read a few months ago that fascinated me — the idea that some people have no inner voice. No internal monologue? No ability to narrate everything you do? I literally can’t imagine it. My brain often has more than one audio channel running at the same time. I wonder if those people are better at meditation and yoga, because I’ve often thought the reason I’m so bad at them is because my brain is utterly incapable of being quiet. The internal monologue never ceases.
I am absolutely one of those who can hear my characters. Some have stronger voices than others — usually the characters who popped up without my having to craft them. If I’ve needed to build a character to fill a specific story need, the voice often isn’t quite as strong. But the ones who come naturally, those are the characters whose voices come through loud and clear.
In the Aven Cycle, it’s Aula who first occurs to me when I think about this. From the very beginning, her voice was so strong: I can hear its tone, its cadence, its tics and quirks. I almost never have to wonder about the words I write for her; the dialogue flows entirely naturally. Latona takes a little more finesse — not least because she is more likely to weigh her words and decide what she can or can’t say based on who she’s talking to, whereas Aula has fewer filters. Alhena, though, shy and reticent, has even more. I can also “see” most characters, as the article mentions — how they move, what their gestures are, how they interact with the environment. I’ve wondered how much of this is due to theatrical experience. I’m always thinking of what the “stage business” would be. All of these things add up to more than the sum of their parts: they help inform a reader about who the character is, what’s important to them, how they process the world.
I don’t experience what some of the authors in the article say, though, in terms of a character “talking back”. They don’t address me. They aren’t aware they’re being written; they exist in their world, and it’s one I can manipulate. When something feels off and isn’t working, it’s because I haven’t fit the pieces together properly. I operate more like what Val McDermid describes:
“I do not think they act independently,” McDermid said. “They have the life I give them and no more. … I don’t think I’m possessed by the characters; I just think my subconscious is good at processing data.”
I love that idea, because it ties in to what the article says about how people interact with each other in real life: our brains are constantly trying to make predictions, and they update their predictions based on newly-input data, all the time. Some writers’ brains, it seems, do the same thing, just with the people we’ve invented. Our brains collate and process that data, and just like we can tell if a well-known friend or family member is behaving oddly, we can tell if something isn’t working for a character when we play out an imaginary scenario for them.
This is yet another place where fanfic can be, truly, such amazing training for a writer — because what we’re talking about, really, when we talk about a character having their own agency or “talking back” or “refusing” to do something — is the idea of being OOC: Out Of Character.
With fanfic, when you’re writing established characters, you’ve got existing data to rely on: the characters’ words and actions in canon. If you’re writing fanfic for a movie or TV series, you get the added bonus of the actor’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms. Your brain can process all of that data much like it would a real person. It makes it much simpler to test the dialogue and actions you write against “what they would really do”. There’s a sort of answer key you can check your work against. It operates on a lot of levels — choices they make, actions, love interests, all sorts of things. But in terms of “hearing a character’s voice”, specifically, canon provides a basis for dialogue (or internal monologues) in fanfic. If you write something that goes against the grain of established vocal patterns, it’s going to feel wrong.
(That wrongness can also be used within canon for comedic effect: One of my favorite things in the MCU is any time Loki impersonates someone, because you get this wonderful tangle of another actor pretending to be Tom Hiddleston pretending to be Loki pretending to be someone else. Or in Harry Potter, there was the great joy of watching Helena Bonham Carter play Emma Watson’s Hermione pretending to be Bellatrix. Body-swapping scenes like that present a challenge for both writer and actor, but when done well, they are so good — I suspect in large part because of the mental jungle gym they give our brains to exercise on. And oftentimes the real actor for the character will play out the scene in rehearsal for the other actor’s benefit, giving them something to check against in much the same way that canon gives fanfic that mark).
Picking apart why dialogue feels OOC is great training for a writer, because that drills down into the nitty-gritty of how words work and why.What about these words is wrong? Is it about word choice — words that are either too complex or too simple for a character, or slang they would or wouldn’t use? Are you using too many filler words and verbal pauses (um, ah, look, well, etc), or not enough, or the wrong type? Is it the cadence — are the thoughts too long or too short, do they rise and fall in the wrong places? Is it more emotionally-based — something a character wouldn’t admit out loud, or at least wouldn’t in these circumstances? Is it too blunt, or too circumspect? How about the tone — is it too snarky, too earnest, too casual, too formal? Would this character use profane language or minced oaths? Do they think before they speak, weighing their words carefully, or do they speak without a filter?
And then, if you’re the sort of writer inclined towards original work as well as fanfic, you can apply these lessons even when you don’t have a canon outside of your own brain to check against.
In From Unseen Fire, I remember a scene that changed from a conversation between Latona and Rubellia to one between Latona and Aula. The information conveyed was the same, but I had to tweak the dialogue in a big way, because Rubellia’s speech patterns are not the same as Aula’s. Because I’ve spent so much time thinking about how words work (and rhetoric plays a big role in this), I can break that general sense of wrongness down further into granular parts: Aula uses more parentheticals, more terms of address; her flow is both faster and choppier, while Rubellia’s is more evenly-paced, with longer thoughts; Aula exclaims, while Rubellia does not. I had a similar experience working on Give Way to Night, in a group scene that involves all three Vitelliae, Rubellia, and Vibia. The original version of the scene was missing Rubellia and Alhena; adding them in changed the balance of conversation. I had to think more critically about who would say what when, who conveyed which information, and what words they used to do so. Alhena offers information more timidly than the others in the room; Vibia doesn’t waste words by cushioning what she says with platitudes or endearments. Small details, but they’re what can really sell a character — and help a reader to understand them, without having to spell every aspect of their personality out in the narration.
How about you? Are you someone who hears voices when you’re writing or reading? Does your brain process interpersonal data that way?
Big news! And it’s gone live on Goodreads and the buy links, so I am as safe as I can be in announcing that Give Way to Night: Book Two of the Aven Cycle will be released on November 10th, 2020!
This is all gods willing and the creek don’t rise, of course; the pandemic is already leading to a lot of shake-ups in spring and summer releases. It’s far too early to know if it will affect the fall — but right now, this is the plan!
Where to pre-order:
Your local indie store! Find ’em through IndieBound.
Barnes & Noble — which, at the moment, seems to have the hardcover on a discount!
Pre-orders are hugely important for authors, because they tell the sales people how much interest there is in a book, how many to order, what kind of placement to give it — and that can, in turn, affect publishers’ interest in an author’s next books. So give future!you a treat and make sure you’ll have Give Way to Night on its release day!
Book Two officially has a title! I’m delighted to announce that Latona, Sempronius, Vibia, Neitin, Aula, and all the rest will be back in…
Give Way to Night
I’m really pleased with it. Unlike From Unseen Fire, where it took ages to arrive at something that made everyone happy, this had immediate unanimity. It was on my list of ideas, and it was the favorite pick of both my agent and editor. It’s poetic, it reflects the darkening world of the second book, and it reaches out a bit in theme to Sempronius and Vibia.
Because I truly am useless with titles, I did steal this one (with sight grammatical adaptation) from Latin poetry as well. Where From Unseen Fire comes from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, this is a phrase out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
“It would take too long to tell what wickedness I found everywhere. Those rumours were even milder than the truth. I had crossed Maenala, those mountains bristling with wild beasts’ lairs, Cyllene, and the pinewoods of chill Lycaeus. Then, as the last shadows gave way to night, I entered the inhospitable house of the Arcadian king.”
The context has no relevance, really, but I do like the sense of descending into eerie darkness that the passage has. Although, now that I think of it, the pinewoods and the house might both be seen as hints to the action… but, I say too much. 😉
Go listen. Listen to the episode I’m in, then go back and listen to the other eleven, then listen to the one I’m on again, then keep listening to new episodes as they come out.
The podcast as a whole discusses the process of worldbuilding for fantasy novels. So far they’ve covered basics like geography and deep-dives into things like fiber arts. I’m in the episode “The Play’s the Thing”, focusing on the arts and popular entertainment. A natural fit for a Shakespeare scholar, really, and I do spend a lot of time in the episode nattering on about early modern theatrical culture. We talk about the socioeconomic conditions surrounding art, how technology affects art, and the role that art and entertainment play in society and politics. Honestly, I could’ve gone on for another six hours. Recording the podcast was an absolute blast, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it.
While I mention a few things to do with ancient Rome in the episode, I thought I’d expand a little bit here and talk about some of the pop culture that shows up in From Unseen Fire, and some of the things I’m building into Books Two and Three as well.
A lot of the arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle show up at the patrician dinner parties. Socioeconomics, after all! The people with lots of disposable income are the ones who can burn a lot of cash amusing themselves.
Dancers are mentioned both at the Vitelliae dinner party early in the book and at the Autroniae Saturnalia revels towards the end. Dance was a spectator sport for most Romans by the end of the Republic. Earlier in their history it may have had religious purpose and been something citizens even of high status would have engaged in, but as the centuries went on, it became considered more vulgar. Country peasants might have danced for pleasure, but for Romans in the city, dancing was something to watch, not do. The dancers would have mostly been slaves or perhaps freedmen and women of very low social status, on a level with actors.
What sort of entertainment did the Romans (and, thus, my Aventans) actually engage in? Wordplay tops the list. Riddles were a common form of game at parties, as Marcia Tullia shows us during the hunting getaway at her country estate:
“Let’s have a game, instead. I heard an excellent riddle at Appia’s last party. Dear, would you be so kind as to share it?”
The Romans loved puzzles and paradoxes akin to the Two-Door Riddle made famous by Labyrinth. They also played with visual puzzles like rebuses, and even carved riddles on some tombs and funerary monuments. Thinking of them trading these things at parties and in taverns, I’m reminded of learning the Green Glass Door riddle as a Girl Scout; we played it for a ridiculously long time. (And if you don’t know that riddle, oh please allow someone to tell it to you in-person rather than googling it). We humans are clever monkeys, and we like things which test our wits.
Poetry for the Romans came in many forms — some of them regarded as high art, others as common vulgarities. Nor did the poets necessarily limit themselves to one side of that spectrum or the other. As I mention on the podcast, my favorite Latin poet, Catullus, certainly did both. One of my favorite scenes is the doggerel poetry game that Autronius Felix plays with Urbanus, a character who is designed as sort of a mix between Catullus and Ovid:
They then move on to skewering particular targets — political opponents of the Popularists. That’s also true-to-history. A ton of Latin poetry has either overt or implicit political purpose, and it’s often pretty crude. When we see Urbanus again a bit later, though, he’s reciting a more highly-regarded form of verse — which, I must confess, I pretty much straight-up stole out of Ovid’s Fasti.
But though we see a lot of artistry at the fancy dinner parties, entertainment is not limited to the upper crust of society. Music could be played and enjoyed by anyone. A musical education was part of patrician upbringing, though certain instruments like the pipe were considered improper for the highborn. Plenty of murals show highborn ladies, particularly, with lyres and similar instruments. Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned as popular legend would have it — because, for one thing, the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and also because he was nowhere near Rome at the time — but he was known to play the cithara, an instrument more like a lute.
Music served many functions in Roman life. It was used during religious rituals and during funerals, during festivals and in theatrical productions, but it also infused daily life. It’s from the ancients that we get the idea of shepherds playing upon pipes. In From Unseen Fire, as Latona walks with Sempronius through the markets after the Cantrinalia, she hears the flautists and other musicians hired by merchants to draw attention to their stalls. That’s historically-based — ancient merchants didn’t have commercials or mannequins to get the word or draw the eye, but they were plenty creative. Some would even have trained animals at their stalls — juggling monkeys and the like.
Music also played a role in war: horns and drums were used by the legions to keep time while marching and to give orders during battle.
Plays were also popular entertainment, though of a very different stripe from the early modern theatre that I spend a lot of time discussing on the podcast. The Romans had both tragedy and comedy, though no tragedies survive from the Republic era and few from the Imperial era. Seneca’s are the best well-known, while Plautus and Terence are the most famous of the comedic authors. Roman comedy tended to be quite bawdy and relied heavily on stock characters similar to those which would eventually develop in commedia dell’arte. Although playwrights could be well-regarded and plays themselves were entertainment for all classes, actors were of extremely low-status, on a level with criminals and sex workers.
In From Unseen Fire, as part of conversation at one dinner party, Old Crispinia asks Latona:
“Now, tell me what you thought of that play where I saw you last week. Damned frivolous piece of tripe, if you ask me—”
In the earlier draft, I actually named the playwright (Practus), but when my editor asked me to trim down on the total tonnage of the names I inserted into the manuscript, that was one it was easy to lose. I’m imagining Practus as a Plautus analog.
Gambling and board games were also popular with Romans of all classes. Gambling was technically illegal during the Republic and much of the Empire, but that was a law often honored more in the breach — and it was permitted during the Saturnalia, as when we see Aula dicing at the Autroniae’s party. The Romans also played non-gambling games with dice and markers; they had board games somewhat resembling checkers and chess, and in Aven Book 2 you’ll see (assuming it doesn’t change in edits) little Lucia playing tali, a game with knucklebones similar to the modern(-ish) game of jacks.
Now, you may have noticed that I’ve yet to discuss what’s probably the most famous form of ancient Roman entertainment: the games. Modern culture mostly focuses on the gladiatorial matches, but Roman games included many more exhibitions, including theatrical performances, staged animal hunts, and chariot races — which were the most popular part of the games in ancient times.
I’ve written a very large series of events for the Aven Cycle to take place at some games. Early on, they were in Book One, but as edits went on, they just didn’t fit there anymore. I briefly thought they might fit in Book Two, but, no, it looks like they’re going to be in Book Three. I do mention games in Book Two, though, and if all stays more or less as-is, you’ll get to see a little bit of Aventan tailgaiting!