Section of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Ellesmere manuscript)

Grammar, politics, and sexism – how do you choose a generic pronoun?

If other writers are anything like me, I’m sure they get frustrated by prescriptive articles on grammatical “rules” and “mistakes” (never use adverbs/second person/passive voice!). In general, I will argue passionately for any writer’s right to experiment with and use whatever grammatical structures best suit their voice and the voices of their characters (within the bounds of readability and not promoting racist stereotypes).

But at the same time, language is a powerful tool. As storytellers, we help inform how other people see the world. So when questions of grammar intersect with deeper issues (such as the aforementioned problem of writing dialogue that promotes stereotypes), then it’s time to think harder about the grammatical choices we make.

And that’s why I find myself writing a blog post about generic pronouns (that is, what do you use to describe a person of unknown or irrelevant gender?). Hang on to your hats – it may be grammar, but it’s also a ride through history, politics, and sexism that’s likely to upturn a few things you thought you knew about the English language.

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Colourful space-scape

Taking inspiration from Continuum 14

Something a little bit different this week. The weekend just gone was Continuum 14: Conjugation – the 14th iteration of Melbourne’s annual fan-run speculative fiction convention. I attend Continuum for many reasons – to see friends, to dance the night away at the Maskobalo, to sing bad karaoke… but most especially for the program of talks and panels.

Like all of Australia’s fan-run conventions (and probably those of other countries, but I can’t speak for them), many of Continuum’s attendees are in the literary way – whether as writers or aspiring writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, or any combination of the above, not to mention readers who think deeply and critically about the fiction they consume.

Listening to them examine the structures and tropes of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror introduces me to new concepts or new aspects of concepts I thought I understood; it challenges me to think beyond my assumptions and explore new ways to write, and new subjects to explore in my writing. There is nothing in my life that broadens my writerly horizons the way a convention like Continuum does.

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Scene from Steven Universe: Steven and Lapis Lazuli sit contemplating the stars Lapis wants to reach

How much realism should you demand from your writing?

I have developed a bad habit of getting too hung up on the realism of the fiction I consume.

I don’t mean that it has to portray the real world – I’m a fantasy and sci-fi fan, after all – but I find myself nitpicking anything that looks like a logical flaw in a story.

“That’s stupid,” I say of some character choice or plot point. “Why did this character pal around with that one for half the plot if she was planning to turn on him all along? Why not just kill him at the start and get on with her evil scheme?”

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Alien landscape with two suns

Set-up and pay-off – focusing on what is relevant

Today I read an amateur science-fiction short story that opened by describing at length the twin-sunned planet the protagonist’s ship was orbiting. It then moved on to several paragraphs about the mega-corporation whose employees worked on planets like this, the unfortunate circumstances of said employees, and why they needed the protagonist’s services.

And then the action started with the protagonist arriving at a completely different planet to engage in work that had nothing to do with the corporation or its employees. None of these things was ever mentioned again.

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Book cover: Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Book review: Ted Chiang’s ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ pt. 2

This is the sequel to last week’s post about all the ways Ted Chiang’s book blows my mind and makes me want to be a better writer.

I’m aware that what follows may come across as overly critical, so let me start by reiterating that I really enjoyed these stories. They intrigued and surprised me, and made me feel like I was wrestling with some incredible intellectual notions.

If I’ve written more about what didn’t work for me than what did, it’s only because those were the aspects I felt best able to get a grip on when it comes to analysing why they affected me the way I did and applying those lessons to my own writing.

Again, this review contains very minor and non-specific spoilers – unless you’re reading the book right now, you should be fine.

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Book cover: Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Book review: Ted Chiang’s ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ pt. 1

I said at the start of this blog that I might try the odd book review-type thing, so this is me trying one. It’s really about what I took away from this book as a writer, rather than a reader, but hopefully it will be helpful (or at least interesting) to readers and writers both.

Edited: Looking at this just post publication, I’ve realised what a wall of text it turned into. So I’m going to take a load off you (and *cough* off future me) and split it into two posts. Tune in next week for part two.

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Man with a bow and arrow

Why “show, don’t tell” is nonsense – and why it’s important anyway

It has to be the single most common piece of writing advice there is: “Show, don’t tell.” And yet so many of the unpublished stories I read demonstrate that their authors don’t understand it. And honestly, that’s not surprising, because taken literally it’s utter nonsense.

Writing is, by definition, telling. You’re speaking to your reader through words, not pictures. So how the heck are you supposed to do anything but tell them things?

Here’s the secret: yes, all writing is telling. But by choosing what it is you tell your reader, and how you tell it, you can create a vastly more enjoyable reading experience.

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Box of coloured crayons

Colouring books and creative anxiety

A couple of years ago, at the height of the craze for such things, a couple of people gave me adult colouring books for Christmas. They were beautiful things, full of intricate spirals and minutely detailed images, each one a blank canvas open to a thousand possibilities for filling it with glorious colour.

And my first thought was, What if I get it wrong?

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