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Writing the Universal Human Exprience August 14, 2021

The ultimate goal of many writers is to capture "the universal human experience." Literary authors strive to capture the minute details of the human experience, SFF authors use elves and aliens as metaphors for difficult parts of the human experience, romance and thriller writers use the most dramatic parts of the human experience to generate strong emotions in readers, etc.

This is a fine goal, but there's a common pitfall. Writers tend to assume their own personal human experience is the universal one.

To be fair, we each get only one human experience. We can't swap bodies, and we can't try out different timelines. We love to pretend we can in popular movies about literally walking in another person's shoes (Freaky Friday, Wish Upon a Star) or getting a second chance in life to make different choices (It's a Wonderful Life, Family Man, Thirteen Going on Thirty). But we can do that only in our imaginations. In reality, we get what we get.

So people judge what is "universal" from their own experiences and the stories of the people they encounter. If a person grows up in a bubble in which everyone they know lives the same way, and everyone they see on their preferred TV channels and websites also seems to live the same way, they'll naturally assume the rest of the universe is the same.

Have you ever been in a social situation where everyone present had something in common, except for you? Like everyone at your in-laws' Thanksgiving dinner grew up together, and they refer to old stories in vague terms and crack up while you quietly eat your turkey with no idea what's going on. Or everyone in a work-related group is many years older or younger than you, and they refer to some trend you're not familiar with and then say, "Everyone here remembers that, right?" And the others chime in, "Of course, we all do!" Except for you, obviously, but you don't matter.

That's how writers can accidentally make readers feel when they presume their own personal experiences are universal. In the attempt to create "relateable" worlds and characters, they can make readers feel excluded instead.

Assuming Collective Privilege

As I wrote in February, writers tend to be highly educated middle- and upper-class people with cushy lives. The fictional characters we read about also tend to be middle- or upper-class. Since the invention of the modern novel, innumerable obscenely wealthy families with beautiful daughters have fallen on mildly uncomfortable times. Countless gentleman detectives with nothing pressing to do have traveled to country mansions to solve murders at their leisure. Laborers and maids in romance novels don't remain laborers and maids—they turn out to be secret dukes and princesses, or they marry one.

When writers assume everyone lives as comfortably as they do, their attempts to create sympathetic characters can fall flat. For example, I often see the archetype of the free- spirited teenage girl who goes to the palace as a potential bride for the handsome prince or as the long-lost daughter of the king. She wreaks havoc by breaking all the rules while a frazzled maid or stuffy butler scuttles behind, comically begging her to stop. The audience is supposed to adore the heroine for being a "breath of fresh air," but many are more likely to identify with the poor maid whose job is on the line, and whose distress the author seems to think is funny.

Similarly, I've read many novels in which the author's idea of a life-ending tragedy is (a) breaking up with a romantic partner and/or (b) facing the horrific prospect of getting a job.

I couldn't get through one bestselling contemporary fiction novel because secondary characters gushed that the heroine was a "superhero" for going back to work in a library after her divorce. As a librarian, I'm chagrined to admit nothing we do approaches superheroic levels of self-sacrifice. It's a fun and comparatively low-stress white-collar career I struggled to launch for five years after graduate school. In fact, landing my first full-time librarian job was the high point of my twenties, when I felt like my bad luck was finally turning around and my future would be filled with sunshine and roses. But these characters were acting like getting a library job was the most lamentable of misfortunes, and this woman was Tess of the d'Urbevilles toiling to exhaustion to send money to her starving family.

Assuming a Shared Cultural Context

Last week I saw praise on Twitter for a craft book by an author of successful thriller novels. I found the eBook through my public library and checked it out.

Within the first few chapters, though, I knew this book wouldn't be helpful to me. The book was published in 2020, but the references in it were decades old. The popular movies cited as models of good storytelling were from the 20th century. A section about how to write natural dialogue suggested idioms and speech patterns I've never heard anyone use in my life. Reading the samples felt like looking at photos of 1980s fashion trends—at the time those clothes and hairstyles were so common, nobody thought they were weird, but if I were to dress the same way now, I'd look ridiculous.

Ironically, the author described an encounter with a young reader who complained that one of his heroines was unbelievable because her favorite ice cream flavor is butter brickle. "That's an old-man flavor," she scoffed. Even that anecdote must be dated, because I live in the author's home state and I've never seen an ice cream called "butter brickle" in any grocery store freezer. A young reader today is more likely to think, "That's a made-up flavor!"

When you're writing about a character who is exactly like you—same age, same race, same gender and hometown—casually throwing in details specific to your experience is fine. Great, even. No reader would take issue with a sixty-year-old man reminiscing about butter brickle ice cream and using slang that was hip when Cheers was the best show on TV.

The problem is when you accidentally impose these things on a character from a different background. The results can range from a little cringey, like a young woman eating old-man desserts, to grossly inaccurate, like a girl in 14th-century China showing how "strong" she's become by cutting her selfish mother out of her life in a rousing feminist speech. That happened in one YA novel I read in the early 2010s, which was written by a white American who explained in interviews that she visited Beijing once and really wanted to set a book there. If you want to teach teenage readers 21st-century American lessons, you can write about a 21st-century American protagonist. It's not cool to use a whole country as set dressing while overwriting its traditional culture with values you consider "better."

Evaluating Assumptions

In Stephen King's memoir On Writing, he describes writing as "telepathy" or "a meeting of the minds." He uses this example to demonstrate.

Look – here's a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Then he explains why he wrote the description with sparse detail, but readers will all see more or less the same scene in their heads:

It's easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, "on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high?" That's not prose, that's an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn't tell us what sort of material the cage is made of—wire mesh? steel rods? glass?—but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don't care. The most interesting thing here isn't even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It's an eight. This is what we're looking at, and we all see it.

There's an unspoken assumption behind the telepathy that allows us all to see the same thing: that the reader and the writer have shared experiences and a shared vocabulary to describe them. If they don't, the "magic" falls apart.

The assumptions King makes in this particular passage are safe. Most people have seen pet cages and rabbits, and both are common enough to be uninteresting compared to the unusual feature of a number inked on the rabbit's back. We have to make assumptions like this, or we couldn't write anything.

Other assumptions that are pretty safe to make about the human experience:

  • We've all found joy and delight in beautiful things, tasty foods, and novel experiences.
  • We've all loved and depended on other people: family members, friends, mentors, partners.
  • We've all been devastated by the loss of a personal treasure, a beloved pet, a loved one, etc.
  • We've all been disrespected by someone and felt angry and threatened.
  • And so on.

But there are other types of assumptions that deserve closer scrutiny:

  • We've all had middle-class experiences like staying at summer camp, taking a road trip to a national park, going shopping with friends just for fun, and checking in to a nice hotel.
  • We all had the luxury of partying it up and taking risks in college.
  • We all think nakedness is shameful, body hair is gross, fat people are lazy, drinkers are fun and teetotalers are uptight, men should earn more than their women, and other learned cultural values.
  • We will all identify with the white and Christian main character, even if he commits a teeny bit of genocide.

Twitter Isn't Real Life August 7, 2021

As an introvert who adores working from home, I weathered the 2020 pandemic shutdowns with my mental health mostly intact. But also as a California flower that thrives in warm sunshine, I struggle during winter in the Pacific Northwest. And this January was particularly tough, what with the never-ending precautions to avoid a horrific disease, and transitioning to a fantastic but very busy new day job, and wondering whether our country's anti-monarchial constitution would go up in flames less than 250 years after it was written.

Marian Keyes's free writing classes were a soothing antidote to the toxicity of January 2021. Her videos encouraged me to break through my fears and restart work on Our Little White Lie (which I still privately call Kagemusha.)

Watching one video, though, I disagreed with Marian's advice. She said she created the voice of a Millennial character in her last novel by reading a lot of Twitter. Marian said she's fascinated by the way younger women today express themselves, so she learns a lot from social media and emulates it.

A common meme on Twitter is, "Twitter isn't real life." Usually it means the population of Twitter isn't representative of the wider world. Twitter is a progressive bubble, so we shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking that because everyone on "this bird site" supports universal healthcare, Palestinian independence, and trans rights, the rest of society will follow.

But the meme can have other meanings, like reminding people that Twitter drama is less important than it feels, or that putting the Black Lives Matter hashtag in a bio isn't effective activism. Because this is a writing blog, I'll discuss another one: the way people speak and behave on the internet is not the way they speak and behave in real life.

I started lurking on Twitter a couple of years ago for the sake of Our Little White Lie. In the novel, the shy half-Chinese protagonist Rachel invents the social media persona of a confident white romance novelist to sell books written by her crush, an eccentric Persian man with an "unsellable" name. Twitter becomes an enormous part of Rachel's life and affects the way she thinks, so I needed to experience that too.

Nothing I say on Twitter is my natural voice. With a limit of 280 characters, tweets must be pithy and carefully constructed. I can never compose a tweet and simply hit "Tweet." I write what I want to say, and it's too long, so I have to make modifications: shortening sentences with contractions I don't usually use, swapping in the word "folks" for "people," employing ALL CAPS for EMPHASIS. A tweet has a lot of hyperbolic emotion stuffed into it simply because proper words won't fit.

The "brands" people present on social media are also extremely cultivated. Imagine it's high school, and you want to get in with the cool kids, but everything you say is recorded. When total strangers look at you, they see the complete transcript floating over your head. Naturally, you start sharing only the parts of you that will be "liked" by the people around you. You contort yourself to fit expectations of being fun and modern, or witty and cynical, but above all, absolutely flawless and beyond reproach at all times. If you slip up when you're tired and utter one sentence that's a little under-informed, a little selfish, a little unwise...best of luck to you.

Reading popular novels published in recent years has often felt like reading Twitter. Twitter may be made up of millions of users, but it has a collective voice. A certain type of content gets liked, spread around, and emulated: cutesy, edgy moral indignation.

As a former college employee, I spent quite a bit of time around young adults, and I never heard a single one of them talk the same way in real life. But as a somewhat regular reader, I see fictional young adults talk like they're tweeting all the time.

Cutesy, Edgy Jokes

The brand of humor that succeeds on social media is mean. Twitter loves witty cracks that cut others down to size. They applaud snappy "burns" and tart comebacks that eviscerate a perceived enemy's intelligence, integrity, or physical traits.

In real life, people who often make cruel jokes at the expense of others are not well liked. People may tolerate them, and smile at them politely, but in private they condemn them. They certainly don't fall instantly in love with them because their insults are irresistibly alluring.

In a popular romance novel published last year, the heroine meets the hero while she's having a loud phone conversation with a friend. Unaware that the hero is within earshot, the heroine jokes that her friend owes her boss specific sexual favors. Then she notices the hero, who dresses her down for holding a private conversation in public and sarcastically offers directions to a sex shop, where she can air her deviance in comfort. The heroine snaps that there's no need for directions—she'll just follow him the next time he goes out. The hero laughs incredulously, and from then on he acts as if the heroine's retort was an arrow from Cupid's bow.

Imagine meeting a new neighbor, and the first words they say to you are snide digs about your sexuality. Would you think that person is cute? Or would you find them nasty and even threatening? The actions of both of these characters are unnatural. A well-adjusted man who overhears the embarrassing conversation of a woman he doesn't know would probably pretend he heard nothing or gently remind her how far sound can carry. A woman who's offered directions to a sex shop by a man she doesn't know would probably flee into her home, make sure all the doors and windows are locked, and call her loved ones to complain there's a crazy pervert next door.

Though people say all kinds of things to strangers on the internet, in person we filter our words and moderate our behavior to protect our reputations and personal safety. If writers emulate the kind of "banter" they see on Twitter, the resulting dialogue will be artificial.

Indignant Speeches

Twitter is full of angry proclamations condemning sexism, racism, ableism, and any other kind of -ism in existence.

But when the topic of -isms comes up in real life, the contents and tone of the conversations are different. People discuss specific controversial incidents or institutional policies that affect them. They share their personal stories and feelings. They don't simply launch into spontaneous break-room lectures about pronouns and the oppression of marginalized peoples.

Fictional characters, however, seem to be doing so with increasing frequency, and we end up with very preachy books.

Here's a piece of dialogue from a big emotional moment in another romance that was popular a couple of years ago. The speaker is a young prince whose family disapproves of his boyfriend because they're afraid of public criticism.

"What are we even defending here, Philip? What kind of legacy? What kind of family, that says, we'll take the murder, we'll take the raping and pillaging and the colonizing, we'll scrub it up nice and neat in a museum, but oh no, you're a bloody poof?"

Now I admit I don't know any princes, but I know that when young people feel hurt and wronged by their families, they don't deliver eloquent speeches about the harmful effects of imperialism. A boy in this situation might blurt out that he knew his family was backwards, but he didn't know they were this bad; that they're hypocrites who are obsessed with looking like good people who care about the country, but they really only care about themselves; etc. The leap from the natural feeling of "you all suck" to an enlightened rant about "raping and pillaging and colonizing" is too great to be believable.

Conclusions

Writers can learn many things from social media. You can learn about the experiences and concerns of people you wouldn't ordinarily meet, and even if you did they wouldn't feel comfortable talking about such things in person. You can learn about what kinds of trends and stories capture people's interest. Sometimes you can learn about useful things like resources for writers and recommended books on craft you hadn't seen before.

But social media can't teach us about natural human behavior and speech. Those are things we can observe only by living and working with real people. If social media becomes the primary way writers interact with others, the patterns they pick up can hurt their work, not improve it.

Cut Agents and Editors Some Slack July 17, 2021

I make my fair share of complaints about the publishing industry: how innaccessible it is to people who are not neurotypical, tech-savvy, and financially comfortable Americans; how it's a purely profit-driven industry with a tenuous claim to supporting the arts; and how it discourages innovation by hewing to formulas that sell, and alienates potential readers as a result.

But I hope I've never belittled publishing professionals at a personal level. I might criticize their business practices, or the opinions they've expressed on the internet, but I try to make it clear the problems with publishing are systematic. Individual agents and editors don't deserve vulgar attacks on their intelligence or integrity.

Some writers have no qualms about attacking them anyway.

Earlier this week I saw a writer share an essay about "query hell." At first, it was humorous and relatable. Anyone who's queried before would agree the process is, in fact, a labyrinthine hell.

But then they segued from playful jabs to low blows. To paraphrase from memory, "Why do all literary agents seem to be Millennials? I don't think a single one of them is over thirty. Where are all the seasoned agents with experience and good taste? And they all spell their names in ridiculous ways, like 'Aimee' with an I and two Es. Maybe if I spelled my name in a ridiculous way too, I'd get more full requests. Maybe if they didn't spend so much time coming up with cute new ways to spell their names, they could respond to my queries in less than six months."

The writer was going for self-deprecation, but the result was cruelty.

Firstly, ageism is never funny, and the particular joke about agents under thirty is both very common and very old. Ten years ago I unsubscribed from one of my favorite blogs when the author stooped to a "witty" line about manuscripts being read by "twenty-something interns in New York who think novels about women over forty are like, totally gross." Any intern at a publishing company in New York fought hard and sacrificed a lot to get there, purely for their love of books. They're the young people who want to argue the merits of W. Somerset Maugham over coffee at the library, not Cher from Clueless.

Secondly, making fun of a person's name is one of those sneaky things that seems harmless, but is frankly white supremacist. No one mocks common Anglo-Saxon names like Margaret, or Jessica, or Brittany—they mock the foreign-looking ones. How pretentious, to have parents who spelled your name Aimee instead of Amy, like some hoity-toity French person. How un-American, to have a name with weird letter combinations I don't know how to pronounce. How trashy, to have a name that's just some random word, like Precious or Tiara. Lololol.

Finally, I don't think this writer—or any of the others who disparage agents and editors freely on the internet—have read enough blog posts to get a clear picture of what working in publishing is like. I have, and that picture is bleak.

Once I saw a shared spreadsheet of the anonymized salaries of people working for publishing houses, and I wish I had saved it to link every time someone talks about agents and editors as if they're snooty gatekeepers living the high life. Assistant editors working for Big 5 publishers in infamously expensive NYC listed salaries of $20K-$30K. Editors who'd clawed their way up to a senior position over a decade made $50K-$60K.

Articles about becoming a literary agent have figures that look about the same: hustling for $25K a year when starting out and building a client list, and earning $55K once you're wildly successful. I've seen too many social media posts by the people in publishing whose paychecks have the same numbers today as their parents' entry-level paychecks did in the 1980s. Countless contractors who do meticulous work aren't even salaried, like copyeditors and typesetters. Seriously, it's more lucrative and less stressful to be a public school teacher than it is to go into publishing in the 2020s.

Presumably all writers know agents work on commission, but I don't think they consider what that means. It means they spend many unpaid hours a week reading dozens of pitches and samples from hopeful writers, trying to give free feedback without hurting our squishy artist feelings, working with clients over months to prepare manuscripts for submission, constantly networking and building professional relationships...all on the hope that they can convince an editor to buy something for $5K, and they will earn $750 before the agency's cut and taxes.

Why does it appear that there are no agents or editors over thirty? Because if they make it that far, they have an established author list and have earned a respite from all those volunteer hours on the slush pile. But I imagine most don't make it that far. Few could afford to work in Manhattan on $20K a year for very long. Even if you paid me $100K, I personally couldn't survive working 10-hour days just to keep my unread emails in the double digits, plus spending every weekend reading a stack of full-length unpublished manuscripts.

When you feel the urge to complain about publishing, by all means, complain about capitalism, and the entertainment overload hastened by Netflix and Steam, and the depressing unfairness of it all. But let's lay off the "funny" tirades about 20-something interns in New York named Aimee.