On Twitter awhile back, I quote-tweeted a “tell us about your failures/struggles as a writer,” post talking about how I was currently on the third attempt at a novel. My exact words, for clarity:
I am attempting to write the same SF novel for the third freaking time. The first time I wrote a complete 120k draft before realizing it supported colonialism and was also impenetrable. The second time got to 30k before I threw it out. This time feels good-ish…?
(Side note: that was one tweet? I miss the 140-character limit.)
(Side side note: that does not mean that I will be following a 140-character limit myself.)
I got a number of sympathetic responses (thank you!), and I also got some responses that I wanted to address — the people who replied with some version of:
- “You don’t have to throw out the novel just because it included a controversial topic.”
- “Including it in a novel doesn’t mean you support it.”
- “It’s just a story.”
So I wanted to talk about this a little, because I have opinions.
First, let’s talk about the SF novel’s first attempt. Was it terrible? No. I did a decent first draft and then cleaned up some stuff in the second draft before getting the feedback I got. So to be clear, when I’m talking about the feedback, this is in the context of people also saying that they liked this character or such and such was funny. But the two sticky points were:
- It was impenetrable.
- The main storyline supported colonialism.
Impenetrable is not a great thing to hear about your SF novel. There are authors who are deliberately trying to write something difficult to engage with, something complicated and challenging. I am not those authors. My tagline to myself for this novel was “Three Musketeers-style swashbuckling in a cyberpunk-styled future with aliens as the nobles.” And unfortunately for Past Patrick, Past-er Patrick really loved this setting, had been noodling on it since university, and had a wealth of worldbuilding to inflict upon the reader.
So you got aliens whose names all had their own syntax, and you had species-specific slang, and you had the praying mantis aliens with their incredibly complex concept of self, and you had humans augmented by one alien group or another in different ways, and here’s how those worked, as opposed to the abilities of the aliens themselves, and like… this is not necessarily bad! But also, it was me attempting to dump way too much of that universe on the reader in that first book.
At work, we often talk about how much new lore we’re hitting the player with in any one period of time. In the Prologue of Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, a player hitting the series fresh would be learning about (off the top of my head and without going back to it, so bear with me) the Chantry, the mage rebellion against the templars (and possibly the treatment of mages that led to that rebellion), the Breach (and also by extension the Fade, as well as the Veil between the mortal world and the Fade through which the Breach has torn a hole, along with smaller rifts), demons, the mark on your hand that can close rifts, Chantry hierarchy and politics, and finally the Inquisition. (And that’s if you’re playing a human — you’d be picking up stuff about elves, dwarves, or Qunari if you played one of them.) Now, do you need to know all of it exhaustively to play the game? No. Honestly, if you just hammer through the dialogue as best you can, ignore what everyone is talking about, and focus on going toward waypoint markers and killing anything with a health bar, you will be confused in some places, but you will survive. (Oh, and also: gameplay! The buttons for your attacks and special abilities and how to use potions and equip armor! You’ve gotta pick up all of that, too!) But it is a little bit dense in terms of how much we expected the player to pick up, and that was after several iterations that blew up and simplified more complex versions of that same plot.
On one hand, novels are easier than games, because if you don’t understand part of a novel, you can always just keep reading. You don’t have to look at a walkthrough for a novel because you’re confused about what you’re supposed to do next.
On the other hand, novels don’t have the “I can mash buttons and whomp these demon guys with my sword, and that’s fun even if I’ve lost the thread on exactly what I’m doing for whom right now,” factor. They don’t have gameplay. They have plot, character, setting, and line-by-line writing, and if one of those four isn’t working, that’s a) pretty bad on its own and b) almost definitely going to hurt a reader’s enjoyment of the other three.
And the overall plot of the SF novel hinged upon all these moving pieces. It was a murder mystery of one alien group, with the plot tying into how those aliens work, with double-crosses and betrayals from other alien groups, with the plot also tying into them. So any fix that involved simplifying the details beyond simple spackling over the easy stuff (like renaming the Iths’k!a into the Ticks so that people who weren’t me could parse the name) would involve a fairly hefty rework of the plot.
A fair amount of work, but not impossible! Had that been the only major negative feedback I got, I might have gone into a big revision to try to get this thing working.
But that brings us to the second big piece of feedback: Supporting Colonialism.
Let’s go back to my tagline again: “Three Musketeers-style swashbuckling in a cyberpunk-styled future with aliens as the nobles.”
With aliens as the nobles is the tricky bit here. The aliens had landed on Earth and established a benign colony attitude, with plans of gently uplifting humanity. Yes, some of the aliens were jerks, and wanted the humans to be slaves or possibly a food source, but the main alien group was basically good people, and just wanted to help humanity integrate into the greater galactic society! Good nobles and bad nobles, basically!
And it turns out that what I had in my head was Musketeers fighting Richelieu for the king, but what more than one reader had in their head after reading this was “indigenous people colonized by settlers, but it’s okay, they’re good settlers!”
So this was why I didn’t put in the work to rewrite the novel and fix the impenetrability.
Because it’s not just a story. It’s never just a story.
I have said on writing panels that if you don’t believe that words have power — if you don’t believe that words mean things and have the ability to affect the people who read them — then you have no business writing. And if you do believe that words have power, then it is your responsibility to use that power wisely.
That means being aware of when you’re using language that you grew up with but which you have learned as an adult hurts other people when you use it. It means thinking about how your inclusion, or lack thereof, of underrepresented groups in your writing is going to affect people. And it means, ultimately, being willing to stand by what you write.
If the SF novel had been about an alien invasion of superior smug aliens promising to civilize humanity, and humanity fighting back, that would have been writing about colonialism with a message that was simple but one I could stand by. If it had been two alien groups, both of them evil in different ways, politicking over Earth, with humanity stuck between two different groups of assholes and trying to do the best it could, that would be telling a story about a controversial topic, but with a viewpoint that was against colonialism, a viewpoint that I could stand by if asked about it.
But that wasn’t the story I wrote. I just wanted fight scenes with cyberpunk stuff and praying mantis aliens, y’all.
But I didn’t want it enough to write a story I’d be ashamed of — or angrily defensive about — later.
This wasn’t just a question of “Can I simplify my novel enough to make it easier to understand?” It was “Can I do that while also changing the plot and characters enough to say something about colonialism that I actually agree with?”
And for me, the answer was no. I couldn’t. Changing the novel that much wasn’t a revision. It was a ground-up rewrite of the entire concept.
So that’s why I threw that novel out. It is awkward and unpleasant to write 120,000 words of something and then realize that you showed your whole entire white ass, but that was what it boiled down to. And I am so, so, so grateful that I heard the feedback from a couple of readers in time to go, “Oh, crap, wait, can I fix this? Hmm. I don’t think I can,” and toss it, rather than hearing that feedback from hundreds of readers after it got published. (Assuming I also fixed the part where it was impenetrable, remember.)
Because words mean things, and if you want people to pay you for the privilege of reading them, you’d better make them words you’re willing to stand by later.
(Edit: Removed paragraph that somehow duplicated due to the magic of WordPress!)