Metawriting: City of Bears

I haven’t done one of these in quite a while, and I know some of what I will write below has been said in asks off and on, but this would be a very good time to address it. Most likely, the number one question I get from readers is about City of Bears–or more precisely, when City of Bears is coming back. It turns out I finally have a short answer for all of you! The answer is tomorrow!

Just in time for Christmas, right?

I have a long answer too, however, and it has a lot of important caveats to it, before you all get carried away. Really, I just want to soften the blow a bit–if you were looking for a continuation of the story I was telling before, from “Big Bears on Campus” through “Rising Powers”, I’m sorry to say that this isn’t what you will be getting, and I want to take a moment to talk about why, and why “City of Bears” means so much to me, and why it has taken me so long to get back to it–after all, it’s been five years now since that November where I hammered out 60,000 words as quickly as I could, but when I stopped and looked at what I was doing, and where the story seemed to be heading, I couldn’t help but feel a creeping dissatisfaction, and one I couldn’t quite explain, even to myself. So I sat on it, planned on continuing it later, and then eventually shelved it along with many other unfinished stories of mine. I knew that there was more to tell, and more to write, but what I had written then wasn’t what I needed it to be.

There were a few false restarts along the way. I tried on occasion to pick up where I’d left off, but I’d lost the thread of the story–or rather, the way I had initially planned the story developing was no longer the direction that I wanted to see it go. Tristan’s magical hold on the world was always intended to be temporary, in one sense or another. I never really could imagine a scenario, when I started plotting things out, where he won–it just didn’t seem to make sense any other way. It didn’t necessarily mean that the world was put back the way it had been, but the entire notion seemed too outlandish to really be sustainable. As I’ve written before, in various replies to asks on the topic, the question of what a queer future looks like is one which is very difficult to try and answer, especially within a hetero framework, because the future, for heteroculture, is always defined within generations of progeny–but as queers, that framework crumbles to bits very quickly, for obvious reasons.

My original plotting tried to address this conundrum in a few different ways, but none of them really felt satisfying or thought through. It seemed to me that City of Bears might actually be a dystopia of sorts, a society predicated on its own end, or one which required a parasitic relationship with a society outside of itself in order to bring in new bodies to sustain it. I tried various ways of conceiving it as a world that I might want to use, but none of them felt authentic–in part because I didn’t want to try and explain how something like the City of Bears could exist. But an origin story is, by necessity, the creation of a world. By rooting the narrative in our own world, I had necessitated, in some ways, the need to explain how it could function as one.

So I sat on it. I considered the possibility that it might just be a dead story, and that I’d never continue it. I considered the possibility that I was overthinking everything a bit too much, as an excuse to foster writer’s block. But I kept writing other stories, and as I did, a few other building blocks fell into place. I managed to separate out and distinguish between setting and world, and decided, firmly, that I much preferred to use the former. Pigtown, as I’ve written before, is a setting. The same with Louisiana Acres. These settings recur, but they are never the same. Pigtown isn’t one bar, in one city–it exists anywhere, potentially. It can be anywhere, and confront anyone–as a dive bar in the country, as a seedy sex club, as your friendly neighborhood pub with a suspicious curtain in the back, as a corruptive neighborhood spreading through the city. Pigtown is all of those things and none of them, because it is just the set piece to the actual story itself. It took me a while, but I realized, at last, that City of Bears didn’t need to be some world I had to build. It too, could be a setting of sorts–and when I had that realization, I felt like I was awash in possibility.

Still, it took me a while to work up the nerve to actually sit down and write something using it, in part because I wasn’t quite sure how to translate all of my ideas from before into a different framework, but a few important qualities stood out to me. City of Bears is, fundamentally, about identity and change–especially in the later entries. What would it be like to exist in a place where, from day to day, you might not even be the same person, with the same memories and desires, as you were the day before? If identity was rendered so fragile, then what would it even be like to exist as an agent in those sorts of circumstances, where a puff of the wrong cigar, or wrong turn around a corner could send you spiralling into some entirely new life? Those were the stories I found exciting. But beyond that, City of Bears has always been, to me, about imagining the possibilities, and the hope, of a queer community utterly divorced from the cishet social structure we all find ourselves in. It wouldn’t be a utopia by any means, but it would be radically different–and that is something I have always longed to see.

And so, last week, the kernel of a story came to me, and I wrote it, and here it is. I’m really fond of it–it feels new to me in a way a lot of my writing doesn’t. It might be a bit confusing, and for that I apologize–I’m not a fan of explaining the rules of a world in story–I’d rather just show them in action, and this story is as much about introducing the mechanics of the setting, to you, the readers, and as a way for me to test out some ideas. In any case, this is just a short story, meant to be self-contained, and next year I hope to write more using the setting. There are some characters and conflicts and stories from the first run of the series that I definitely want to revisit–but what those stories might look like I don’t know, as of yet. Like everything else, I’ll figure it out as I go along.

In any case, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed all the stories this year, and thanks again to everyone who supported me on Patreon–especially through the tumult of the last month. As I wrote earlier, given that Patreon isn’t rolling out the fee changes after all, I won’t be changing the cost of any of my reward tiers–that said, as of right now, I’m just about $20 shy of the seven hundred dollar mark, which would mean content seven days a week for all of you! If that’s something you’d like to see, and you don’t already support me, you can find more details here.

Metawriting – Chronological Focus

This post was precipitated by a conversation I was having with @mcbaer about some of the differences in our two styles of writing. In particular, I told him that I appreciated his stories and the style of his writing because the choices he makes about where (and more importantly when) he focuses lead to quite different stories than I would have written, given the overarching narrative and plot. He wanted me to elaborate on that, but I was heading to bed, and now that it’s a new day, I realized it was going to take a bit of extra space to explain what exactly I was talking about, so I thought I would expound a bit on the concept of chronological focus, and it’s role in determining what sorts of stories we tell.

First, let me explain what I mean by the term chronological focus. To help explain what I mean, we’re going to use some diagrams of a possible narrative, let’s all it Narrative X. We might represent this narrative like so:

Narrative X involves a few plot points we’re all familiar with. There are two characters at the start. At point A, the two characters encounter a MacGuffin with some power to change or control the two characters. At point B, the two characters interact with the MacGuffin and become new, sexier, men. And finally, at point C, the two characters are in a new, sexual relationship of some kind–a new status quo different from the start.

Narrative X is very generalized–a good chunk of my stories, as well as the ones written by a fair number of other authors, can be said to be various versions of Narrative X. Often, what differentiates these stories from one another is content–in one version, the two characters might become a muscle bears thanks to magic gym equipment. In another, a magic cigar might turn one character into a leather bear dom, and the other into his submissive fat pig. I want to set these various content differences aside for the moment, however, and instead discuss the ways in which we can get different stories out of Narrative X not by applying different content, but by varying structure instead.

Before getting into the meat of this, however, I want to clarify one more distinction which will be important here. I’m going to be using the words “narrative” and “story” distinctly here, such that “stories” are defined as different versions of a more general “narrative”. The former are more specific than the latter. If you don’t keep this in mind, what I’m about to discuss will seem very confusing, and I will do my very best to be precise.

We have established already that two stories of the same narrative can look very different because of content–but structure plays just as important a role, and generally, this structure has to do with what point of the narrative we focus on within the story. That is, not every story is going to traverse the narrative from “start” to “end”. Instead, we can imagine, say, three different stories–Red, Green, and Blue–which all traverse different portions of the narrative–that is, each of these stories will possess a different chronological focus. Those three distinct stories might look something like this, when laid over our previous diagram of narrative X:

All three of those stories focus on different chunks of the narrative timeline. Let’s say, for a moment, that all three stories draw from the same narrative content–the characters are two friends in college, and one friend finds a smoking pipe in a thrift store–this would be point A to point B. He smokes the pipe, and becomes a older daddy bear, and when his friend arrives, he becomes his younger cub son–this would be the space from B to C. Lastly, reality shifts around them giving them new lives as a wealthy gentleman, and his obedient, horny cub slave–From C to the end. Now, given how the three story bars are structured, each story is going to end up omitting some of this content. The green bar, in the middle, would cover most of it–say, from the point of discovering the pipe, and ends around the point of reality changing for them both. The red story, on the other hand, spends more time developing the characters at the beginning, and stops right after the changes have begun, leaving everything which is to come up to the reader’s imagination, with help from the author by way of foreshadowing. The blue story is the opposite–it focuses after the change, as the two characters adjust to their new reality and forget their old lives. It’s all the same *narrative* but each *story* would be wildly different, with their own distinct climaxes and conflicts.

The choices an author makes, about where to start and where to finish their story–within the broader context of the narrative–is one of the more important things we need to consider. Do I want to focus mostly on the transformation? Then I’m going to go with something like the green story, but perhaps shrink it at each end even further. Do I like the idea of watching these two students find their minds overwritten by personalities which aren’t their own? That would be more along the lines of the blue story. Do I want to tease the reader a bit, setting up conflict and characters and then providing them something which stimulates their imagination? Then I’d go closer to the red story.

Of course, not every story is linear, either! You can imagine a completely different story in the narrative being told backward, in chunks. You begin with the older gentleman and his slave cub for a while, examining their life. You back up to the midst of their change, looking at them struggle. And then back up once more, showing how they arrived at such a predicament. The length of time you’re covering in the narrative also has no bearing on length of story. In the diagram above, it’s perfectly conceivable that the green story could be covered in fewer than a 1000 words, while the blue story span the length of a short novel. There are an infinite number of ways to cut up and tell a narrative structurally, and each one yields a unique story. The challenge as an author, is in figuring out what you want the story to *do* and then selecting a chronological focus which best accomplishes your goal.

Metawriting – On Sketches

This post was inspired by this question.


I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before here, if I did, it was years ago at this point, back when I was doing more metawriting posts. I think a lot of people who want to write (note, I did not just use the term “writers” to refer to this class of people) have a rather flawed understanding of how writing works, as a skill, and as a form of art. I’ve seen this reflected most often in people who are just beginning to explore writing, and it was a notion I myself had for years, before I finally got rid of it, and the notion is this: that stories just spring from writers fully formed, that the path from beginning to end is a straight line, that the secret to writing something is to just press onward. This idea? It’s bad. Super bad, not helpful, it’s a terrible way of trying to write, though like all lies that do the most damage, it does have a kernel of truth at the rotten core.

The kernel of truth is this–yeah, if you want to be a writer, you do have to get from that beginning to that end, and fill in all the stuff in between. That’s true. But that’s just not quite how it works–for me, and anyone else I’ve met who writes regularly. And to try and explain why, it helps to pull in some examples from other art forms where this misconception is a bit weaker, or easier to defeat. Think of, for example, a visual artist. A painter doesn’t just sit down at an computer and just create an image out of thin air. They have to sketch it first. Usually they have to sketch it more than once. Usually they have to scrap things and start over. Sometimes the process by which they get to the finished product doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, as they layer colors over and over. The actual process of art isn’t necessarily the same as the consumption of art. The same goes for music. Someone playing a composition, when they perform it, they go from the beginning to the end, linearly–but to think that is all it takes for music to happen is to ignore the hours of practice of the performer, the creation of the piece by the composer. That is to say, overall, the misconception is that people wrongly assume that the creation of art is analogous to the way that people consume art, when that simply isn’t the case. Ever. Not at all.

Here’s the reality of my process. I am usually writing anywhere from ten to fifteen stories at any one time. About a third of those are rolling commissions for Patreon. Another third are massive stories I work on when I have free time, usually all of them novel or novella length. The final third are all tumblr stories, usually intended to be posted episodically over one to two weeks, aiming for a bit of a “sweet spot” between three and six entries, or three to six thousand words. That’s often the best length to allow for a good amount of development without readers losing interest over time. This number, the ten to fifteen stories, doesn’t even include the sizable backlog of incomplete stories which I would like to finish at some point, but which all stalled for one reason or another. That doesn’t even include essays like this one, or writing I might be doing under my real name at the time. This tumblr is like an iceberg–I only end up posting a small chunk of what I might be writing at the moment, and in this mess, there are always bits of writing that end up being unusable, or lead to dead ends, or which I don’t care to develop for one reason or another. These, I call sketches.

It’s a bit like an artist and a sketchbook, I suppose, though the analogy is nowhere near perfect. In the same way an artist sketches ideas over and over in preparation for taking on a “final” version of that piece of art (I use quotes because, quite simply, no piece of art is ever final in a meaningful sense) I begin a massive number of stories at the same time, develop the ones that seem the most promising, and end up posting the ones that end up bearing reasonably decent fruit. But a lot of those stories are false starts. Usually, the false starts don’t even get out of my head–I have an idea, and I don’t even bother writing it down, either because I can see it’s a dead end, or stupid, or something I’ve already written too much of lately, or all of the above. Other times, they get farther, usually to the size of a tumblr entry. I take a second look and see nowhere for it to go, and so sketches are born.

I firmly believe that every author has sketches like this–at the very least, every writer I’ve met has something similar. It might be a side blog, where they post ideas and short posts. It might be a private journal where they simply talk about their day. Sometimes these sketches don’t even make it to paper or screen, they just remain daydreams. The important part is that writers write and tell stories–constantly. We have to. It’s the only way we can practice, it’s the only way we can develop new ideas and pieces of writing. There’s no shortcut. Goodness, I wish there was, it would make the entire process so much easier, to simply be able to invest every single word into a final story, to be completely efficient in the act of writing, in the same way artists might wish they never made a line they have to erase, and musicians wish they could never miss a note. But it simply isn’t possible.

The issue with writing is that our sketches aren’t a) as visible as other forms of art, often because they aren’t made public or are erased and thrown away, and b) when they are made public, people often tend to simple think of them as finished pieces of writing, even though they’re nothing of the sort. People know what a visual sketch looks like. They know what a musician practicing sounds like. But can you tell, by looking at a piece of writing, if it’s a sketch as I’ve described it? As the asker mentioned above, the post that set off this essay, “Coach Ray Gets Trained”, looked, for all intents and purposes, like a finished story, or rather, looked like a story that should be continued; it appeared to be a “finished” product. If I hadn’t added the word sketch there, no one would have known. The only reason I add that designation at all is in the interest of transparency–to signal that something cut this story short, for whatever reason that might be.

There’s nothing wrong with the question asked, of course. But this is important to keep in mind, when you’re reading stories–the vast amount of effort, which brought that bit of writing to life, is usually utterly invisible, like layers of paint hidden on a canvas. That’s just how art works–the constant practice of a useless skill, in the attempt to turn a moment into a bit of magic.

Metawriting/Rant – The Closing of the Queer Imagination

It may sound a bit ridiculous to some, but I have always found my writing in the MC/TF genre to be as much about politics and philosophy as it is about sex and the erotic. In many ways, this is because sex and the erotic can’t help but be political–the determination of what kinds of bodies are beautiful, what kinds of bodies are normal, what kinds of relationships and forms of intercourse are allowed, who gets to have power in relationships and in sexual acts–these are all political questions. The stories I write, then, contain within them their own political visions and imaginations. They are not  idyllic visions. The outcomes are almost universally dystopic and horrific. At times, as I have mentioned off and on in various asks, I’ve found it difficult to try and square the fact that I find these horrors intensely erotic with my more sober politics of radical liberation. How can I argue for self-determination (for example) when my stories revolve around controlling the minds and bodies of others?

There are a few answers I’ve considered and rejected. One is to accept the fact that the erotic and an individual’s erotic fantasies simply cannot be grounded in any sort of political fact. After all, fantasies and politics exist on different planes–the former are necessarily impossible to bring forth in reality, while the latter is necessarily pragmatic and grounded in reality. However, I don’t feel this boundary viable. Politics and fantasies may exist in different realms, but they certainly do inform one another. Politics, after all, is the attempt to render our fantasies real, as best we can. Just because they don’t share a type with one another doesn’t mean that they aren’t related in other ways. A second defense I considered was that these stories, as horror stories, are meant to be terrible and shunned and avoided as satire. However, given the fact that they are also erotic the satire argument doesn’t feel sincere. In the thick of these fantasies, I generally want for these things to be happening; the satire claim is largely rational revisionism after shooting. I began to think that there was no reconciling these two ideas; that I’d have to accept at least some level of cognitive dissonance.

Along with this, I have always insisted on keeping a rather large divide between Wesley Bracken and my real name–while quite a few people in my real life know about the fiction I write, very few know *who* I am when I write it. It is, perhaps, a trivial barrier, but one I keep up regardless in order to protect my livelihood, but I’ve never been particularly happy about needing it. The secret has always felt as though it were driven largely by shame and a desire to keep these fantasies hidden within myself, as a way to keep them from emerging into my other life, but that felt deeply troubling in its own way. To me, part of a radical politics is about defeating and overcoming sexual shame. Shame is one of the key methods of social oppression–a system convincing the individual to oppress and internalize their desires against themselves.

These thoughts on politics and shame coincided with other thinking I’ve been doing on the nature of power exchange relationships. The more I have been on tumblr, the better I have understood what a real power exchange looks like. Contrary to what my writing might imply, I am a largely vanilla character in real life. The few times I ventured into anything remotely like BDSM in prior relationships I have learned were very contrary to safe power exchange–committed without communication or consent, without a safe word, without any sort of preparation of solid aftercare. I came to realize that fantasies can be brought forth into reality–even deeply unequal fantasies–without great harm being committed against either party. That in turn helped me feel better about my own fantasies, once I placed them in that context. I realized that much of the conflict I’d been feeling was the result of an internalized mainstream depiction of sadomasochism and other sexual deviance as something inherently immoral, shameful, the people who desire it broken and mentally faulty. I had bought into that idea, internalized it. After all, having a fantasy is one thing–a thought. A politics of that fantasy is a further step–an action based on that thought. Admitting to the thought is not at all the same as committing the action. Furthermore, there is a distinction to be made between a controlled instance of a fantasy committed with consent, and one forced on another without consent. My shame wasn’t worth it, and I decided to try and root it out as best I could.

One of those means of dispelling that shame has been an attempt to embrace what I might call the queer imagination. As queers outside mainstream sexuality, gender and relationships, we have largely been left to our own devices to decide what sorts of relationships and communities we craft. Make no mistake, crafting those communities have never been easy, because they have always been under constant attack from social authorities, but craft them we have. For queers, it was alright to be single or serially monogamous. It has been acceptable to participate in a triad, a quad, or a community of lovers, friends and found family. It has been ok to be committed and monogamous as well. All of these ways of living, by being equally ostracized, were all imagined and realized by queers outside of mainstream respectability. In a similar way, that imagination is responsible for pushing the boundaries of acceptable sex and intercourse. None of the fantasies I put down are new or unique–I still think most of my writing is less shocking than Marquis de Sade’s stories over three centuries ago. The queer imagination is one of the few spaces of liberation beyond the mainstream, beyond acceptability and respectability. It is, I have realized, the root of stories like “City of Bears”, which is at the core a radical re-imagining of what a society can look like–a society without women and children, without the certainty of physical and mental identity, without any sort of mainstream future. The queer imagination is perhaps our greatest weapon in liberation–without the ability to imagine and fantasize about alternative societies and politics, the status quo becomes inescapable. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen for any queer radical politics (to borrow rather cheekily from Alan Bloom’s mainstream culture war manifesto of the 90’s) is a closing of the queer imagination.

And so I pivot to Friday’s supreme court ruling in favor of nationwide same sex marriage. It is, of course, a positive step for queer rights, and yet, as I see the various celebrations unfolding across social networks, my mood moves from sweet, to bittersweet, to mostly bitter. On facebook, everyone is literally pinkwashing themselves with a rainbow overlay–people who I have never seen a single post from regarding queer rights are suddenly proud on my behalf. Now that we are a trend, now that we are on the right side of history, now that it isn’t 2004 with George W. Bush using us as a wedge issue, we can have their support. I see every corporate brand and logo suddenly displaying the six color rainbow flag (which, it bears mentioning, isn’t even the original rainbow flag–the original had eight colors, all with a particular meaning which have been all but forgotten in the modern queer movement) and by and large, it is companies with rather questionable political practices. Uber has a six lane rainbow highway, but is still trying to illegally classify its drivers as independent contractors. Levis has turned it’s logo into a rainbow, but never mind their sweatshops, abhorrent labor standards, and outsourcing. Everyone is celebrating, but the celebration is politically meaningless. Everyone wants to be the good ally, but no one seems to care about what being an ally means.

All of this stands in the shadow of pride month, as well. Sunday was the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which were begun and fought by trans women of color. Those women fought the police because they could imagine an alternative to prosecution and tyranny by the police, because they could imagine a world where their lives weren’t regulated and criminalized by the state. Even before that was the Compton Cafeteria riot in San Francisco, fought for the same reasons. Queer liberation has always been and will always continue to be an act of the queer imagination–but there has also always been a queer mainstream interesting in silencing that imagination in the name of assimilation.  Earlier this week Jennicet Gutiérrez, a trans latina activist, heckled Obama in a room full of LGBT activists, all of whom helped boo her from the room. The plight of undocumented trans women is apparently less pressing than respectability politics. This, of course, echos what occurred in San Francisco over 40 years ago, when Sylvia Rivera–also a latina trans activist, also fighting for trans liberation from prisons–fought her way to the stage, only to be similarly heckled during pride “"celebrations”“. Pride. I have been to various prides, and rarely see anything to be proud of. I see consumerism and pinkwashing and celebrations of false progress narratives, the same sorts of meaningless celebrations I have seen across social media these last few days. It seems we have forgotten who we should be celebrating, what exactly we should be proud of, and that any celebration without imagination is no celebration at all.

Marriage can never liberate us. Marriage is not about love; it is about legitimacy. I am a married queer, but I am not married because that marriage makes the relationship to my partner real or stronger–I am married for pragmatic protection. I am married so that we can have easy access to health care through employer coverage. I am married so that should something happen to one of us, we are able to make decisions on the other’s behalf without contest. I am married so we can share a more privileged tax status. I shouldn’t have to be married to gain access to these benefits–no one should have to. I have been married for five years, but I have been in love for seven, and my relationship in those two earlier years was never less important to me. Queers have been falling in love forever without marriage. Marriage is about control and regulation, not love. It is about the dulling and dimming of sexual and romantic imaginations. Friday’s decision was, and always will be, a fundamentally conservative victory–it will just take conservatives a few more years to figure that out. I find it amazing, in fact, that it is in the conservative imagination that queer fantasies have manifested as horrors! "All of our marriages have been cheapened!” they despair. Imagine! Why, what if we cheapened and de-valued marriage itself for everyone? What if we abolished the legitimacy of this coercive institution, instead of enshrining it further? “Polygamy is next!” they cry. Why not? Why shouldn’t we be able to recognize relationships with more than two people as valuable to society? Why not embrace triads and quads or larger communities of relationships? “How will we possibly procreate!” they moan. Indeed! What might happen if we dispel the cult of the child? What might happen if we stop breeding, and instead stem overpopulation, caring for those in the present rather than the hypothetical future?

What I see is a possible closing of the queer imagination. It is a closing that I see stemming from the horrors of HIV and AIDS through the 80’s and 90’s. I am young, born in 1988. I do not know what it was like to live through the Plague. My husband, who is twice my age, has told me his own stories of friends dying, of terror, of loneliness. I have read other accounts, and they make me weep, universally. I find I must come to the conclusion that AIDS succeeded where dominant mainstream culture couldn’t, by literally murdering queers with any sort of sexual or romantic imagination. Those who survived the plague often did so through abstinence, through fear and loathing, by closing off their desires and living in the closet. All I can do is mourn for everyone we lost, for an entire generation of imaginative queers decimated. For me personally, I can only talk about growing up in the aftermath. How my middle school health classes were full of fear-mongering and threats and lies about the disease and how it was spread. How, when I realized I was gay, my first feeling was one of terror, that I too might become little more than a plague body. That when I came out to my father, one of his comments to me was akin to: “You know you’ve chosen a difficult lifestyle. What if you get AIDS?” Looking back, I realize that all of this was working to stifle and shame any sort of queer imagination in myself, by associating anything outside of mainstream heterosexual coupling with sickness and death. This is the terrible foundation on which the gay marriage movement was built. It is a movement of fearful, unimaginative white cis queers knocking at the door of social hetero legitimacy, begging to be let in–that they’ll be good, boring, mainstream couples as long as they can be safe. That as long as they aren’t left out to die, they’ll behave. And now they have been let in. They’re in–myself included–but there are still so many people left out.

The HIV crisis isn’t anywhere near over for African Americans, who make up 44% of new infections, more than eight times the rate of whites overall, according to the CDC. Of all groups, the greatest at risk population are African American adolescents. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the questions of police brutality and right wing extremism and their threat to the black community. Our trans siblings are still being murdered and locked up at astronomical rates. No amount of marriage can protect them, no amount of marriage can protect any of us. Instead, we have given over control of our relationships to the very society which has shown at every turn to despise us, to hate us, to view as perverts, as walking corpses, as death. These are the people we are now asking to save us. This is the altar at which we have chosen to sacrifice our imaginations. We can do better than marriage; we can imagine more than marriage.

Metawriting – Question Response

I got a couple of interesting questions over the last week, which I wanted to take some time to respond to in detail: 


anonymous asked:

How can an online community give the kind of constructive criticism that writers give writers? It’s too late after the story has been posted.

Hold on, slow this down a bit, you’ve got a whole bunch of assumptions rolled up in this question that I don’t necessarily agree with, that I want to parse out before we go any further. Here are the big ones:

1. I assume that when you use the term “online communities” here, you’re talking about story collections like the NCMC, CYOC, and the like, but here’s the thing–I’m not necessarily convinced that these sorts of communities are the best place for writers to receive “““““Constructive Criticism””””” (see number two) at all. These sorts of collections ought to be designed to deliver stories to readers first and foremost. This isn’t to say that writers don’t need a place to get feedback; merely that sites which are focused primarily on readers’ needs are never going to be able to prioritize writer feedback in the first place.
2. Ugh…. “““““Constructive Criticism””””” is a pair of words I’ve given up using. I too, in the past was an avid defender of constructive feedback, but the last writing group I was a member of demonstrated to me that what we tend to think of as constructive is actually some of the least helpful criticism writers can receive. But first, what is constructive criticism, for those who aren’t familiar with the term? In general, it means that critics in a writing group ought to focus on ways the story could have been better, and minimize feedback about what the story does badly. This sounds nice, sure, but the reasons we want to focus on “““““constructive””””” comments are not because they are inherently better feedback, but because so called negative or destructive feedback tends to “hurt peoples’ feelings.” It’s true that no writer wants to be told that their story is a piece of shit. But the fact is, sometimes you write stories that are pieces of shit (fuck knows I have entire folders of them). Part of becoming a better writer is about taste. Its about knowing when the core of a story works and when it doesn’t. If one has to treat every story as though it is inherently redeemable, then suddenly nothing a writer produces can actually be bad by necessity. What good does that serve? If I write something bad, the most important feedback I could receive from someone would be telling me to scrap it and start over. This, however, isn’t at all  “““““constructive””””” and I know many, many critics who would go through all sorts of contortions to avoid saying anything like that to a writer, and that’s just a shame.
3. Leapfrogging off of that, writer’s don’t give very good criticism for the reasons above. Critics give good criticism (or rather, good critics give good criticism). I am not someone who thinks that, in order to critique something, you have to be versed in that particular art–that is, I hate hearing someone say, “What do you even know? Have you even written a story before?” Criticism is an art in and of itself. You don’t have to be a writer in order to know what a good story is–think about it, if that were true, then literally *every* story would be critically successful, because they would all be crafted by writers, who necessarily know what good stories are by virtue of being writers. It’s nothing but a circular defense of ego. The best criticism I’ve gotten has come from readers who have never written anything. Often, the most useless feedback comes from writers hoping I will turn around and compliment their work in return. Of course, this isn’t to say someone can’t be both a good writer *and also* a good critic, simply that such a creature is relatively rare, and even then, their skill as a critic has little to do with their skill as a writer.
4. Is it really too late after a story is posted? When is a story ever finished, anyway? I’ve written the same story numerous times, all in different forms, whether it be City of Bears or Pigtown, and I doubt I will ever actually be finished, and the criticism I received after each attempt generally fueled the direction for future versions. It is true that criticism can only ever be received and given after a work is “posted”, “published” or “finished”, but if the assumption above is correct, that would mean that all criticism necessarily arrives too late to be of any use, which wouldn’t make much sense unless you think of criticism as some sort of intervention–as the attempt to guide a writer’s fingers as they are in the process of writing, as some kind of divine guidance. If that’s your conception of criticism, I’d suggest you turn to religion. Criticism is hindsight, “should have done,” and “will do in the future.” It isn’t something that, if applied like a balm, will make a story magically better if applied at the right time. But even then, stories are never finished–though writers at some point have to be finished with the stories they write. We give up on them–they never force us to stop.

So, with those four assumptions interrogated, why should I bother answering this question? Because, at the heart of it, it is a really, really good question. Dispensing with the problems above, we’re essentially left with, “How can we form an online community which is designed to encourage and nurture writing?” I don’t really have an answer to this question, as good as it is, but I can point to some things it would have to have. For one thing, it would have to have a system for giving feedback, though not necessarily ratings (which are only really useful for an audience) and also not necessarily open ended comment fields (which are prime feeding for trolls). It would have to allow for stories to be edited, extended, rewritten, erased, and co-authored. It would have to attract people who are less interested in passive consuption of content, and more interested in giving criticism. Perhaps most important, it would have to have a place for people to post pieces of criticism (i.e. reviews, commentary, etc.) and give that sort of content prominence along with stories themselves. In fact, the sort of site which might be most helpful for writers might not be designed for writers themselves–it will actually be designed for critics. That, of course, is only a broad sketch, but does demonstrate the problems involved, and the amount of work and thought that would have to go into such a design. It also should show that no existing website (that I know of) is up to the task.


anonymous asked:

If cyoc, ncmc and mcstories added ratings for a) quality of writing and b) quality of story wouldn’t that be adding more restrictions to the type of stories posted?

A few points of clarification. First, when I offered up the suggestion of those two categories, that was referring only to the NCMC, not to those other two sites. Second, I was advocating for a replacement of categories, rather than an addition. That is, instead of all eight or something dominant categories (those across the top of the page) which are in some cases vague and overlapping (what, exactly, is the difference between ‘hypnosis’ and ‘mind control’?) or under used (when’s the last time there was a ‘statue/robot’ story written anyway?) it would make more sense to streamline the number and type of categories. I suggested those two you mentioned because those are, I think, what a lot of the audience at the NCMC cares about, that is, “is the story well constructed?” and “is it written well enough that the story can be enjoyed without grammar/spelling getting in the way?” This is not to say that these are things I myself necessarily care about, of course, but given the audience of the NCMC, I think it would be appreciated.

Alright, now onto the bigger issue, the question of restrictions. I don’t think restrictions are bad things. If someone wants to make a site where the only stories allowed are those featuring father/son incest, or those involving revenge fantasies, or any other possible restrictions you might imagine, then that’s all fine and good. That said, restrictions are simply one component of a larger topic we might call “community design,” that is, the various tools the architect of a site provides to users that control what content people can create for the site and what sorts of communication is allowed between individuals. No site or community can avoid this question of what sorts of interactions it wants to enable and what sorts it wants to hinder

(and keep in mind much of what I say here applies not only to online communities by real life ones as well). For example, by hindering any sort of communication with the moderator, the NCMC effectively structures itself in a dictatorial fashion (again, not necessarily a “bad” choice, but it is what it is). Enabling the audience to give ratings and comments allows that audience to select out and discourage the kinds of stories it wants to see as well, which means that we can even have two different kinds of restrictions on content–explicit and emergent. Explicit restrictions are those built into the site by the architect, like the “ban” on copyrighted characters. Emergent restrictions are enforced through social standards–if something is downvoted, that means the audience doesn’t want to see that anymore. Neither of these restrictions can really be avoided, in the grand scheme of things, because in order to generate a particular kind of content, a community must necessarily try and exclude the kinds of content it doesn’t want to see.

All that said, my general stance is that sites like this ought to try to restrict content less, and curate content more. That is, rather than trying to keep out content the community doesn’t want, it should instead create good design which helps readers find the content they want and avoid content they don’t want to see without the site having to ban the content in question. The CYOC does a better job at this, in my opinion, especially with their new search engine and the recent upgrades to the interactive system, which allow readers to find content they want, while avoiding the content they don’t want to see. It isn’t perfect of course, but no community ever will be. You either have to over-restrict and cut away content you don’t want to see from the community entirely, or you have to under restrict and live with the fact that you’ll be seeing stuff you don’t want to see. Good curation can ease the issues of under restriction, but takes more work. I hope that clarifies things somewhat.

Metawriting – Newness

At the end of the day, the MC/TF genre is very, very small, and lacks any sort of foothold in any sort of broader publishing industry. As such, I want to state, first, how thankful I am for the various people who run sites like the NCMC, CYOC, and all the rest of the sites I mentioned, because without them, there most certainly wouldn’t be any of these stories on this here blog of mine at all. That said, these various sites also exert tremendous influence on the kinds of stories that tend to proliferate in the genre, because of how they are structured. I spent a moment talking about various ways these sites might be “improved”, but because I don’t necessarily value the sorts of stories and approaches some of these sites use, it’s difficult for me to be very objective here. More than anything, I’m a relativist, which puts me in a contradiction. On one hand, I think it’s vital to this genre that we be open to as many kinds and forms of story as we possibly can, which puts me directly at odds with a site like the NCMC, which is structurally designed to inhibit certain kinds of work. But at the same time, the moderator of the NCMC ought to be able to do with their site what they want–if they want to focus the stories towards a certain format, that should be their prerogative. More than anything, what I wish for is a larger, more neutral archive of the size of something like MCStories, but with a better system of curation and organization like some of the features of the NCMC. But as always, if wishes were horses, etc. etc. etc. I might have a bit of a radical solution, however, but first, onto the main topic–newness.

In this sea of repetition superficial and thematic, purposeful and accidental, between authors and within one’s own work, how is anything new possible? Certainly one easy way of thinking about newness is simply a new story, but it seems that the main problem we have is that not every new addition to a collection is necessarily “new”. After all, if a story simply retreads the same themes and superficial features of hundreds of stories that have come before, what is really new about it? For lack of a better term I’m going to term this a “conservative story”, a story which fits neatly within the themes and features of stories that have come before it. It treads no particularly innovative ground, it doesn’t stretch the genre in a different direction, all it does is reinforce the themes and superficial features which are already prominent within a genre. Conservative writing isn’t necessarily politically conservative of course, but I merely mean that it sits comfortably within the confines of a space already defined. There’s also nothing necessarily wrong with writing and enjoying a conservative story–I would say the vast majority of stories put out, especially by new authors, are conservative in form and substance. If we don’t bother cutting our teeth on the writing that’s come before us, then we’ll never understand the genre well enough to produce anything original at all. I would also say that people who complain about the fact that these types of stories are prominent aren’t really complaining about the fact that they are conservative in nature–they’re complaining that the current conservative form doesn’t cater to their particular desires, both thematic and superficial, in the same way that people who ask for more of the same want more of the same precisely because all of their boxes are being sufficiently ticked.

So then what exactly is newness? Obviously it stands in opposition to conservatism, but I think it’s more complicated than an either-or. After all, a story which might be radically new in superficial qualities might be perfectly conservative in terms of its thematic undertones, like, say, someone like Pericedskin writing a story not about skinheads but perhaps twinks, but with the same fundamental story structure as his other work. Would that story really be new? New to Peircedskin’s work, certainly, but new to the NCMC, where stories like that are posted on a daily basis? How new would it be then? It could also occur in the reverse–a story might appear to be, on the surface, very similar to previous stories, and yet on a thematic level diverge wildly, which is the best description I can give of my own anti-porn posts. So how do we go about trying to define the new at all? The best definition I can give is a story which bucks the conservative norms of the canon that it is placed within, but this creates a few kinks.

First, it means that a whether or not something is “new” relies on the context of the other stories it is being placed with. This might seem a bit odd–shouldn’t newness be rather objective?–but it actually helps explain how some stories can be received wildly differently in different communities. For example, “Daddy’s Little Man”, in the context of my own work, was not particularly new–perhaps in the extremeness of it, but nothing that I hadn’t tread before in previous work. But as soon as I placed that story in the context of the canon at the NCMC, it was deemed radical–too radical, in fact–and it was removed. If we tried to understand newness as an objective fact, this response would be impossible to understand. Second, it means that newness isn’t a static feature, but rather a sliding scale, depending on how much the story pushes back against the established norms of a context. A story can be just a little new, say, if it just introduces a new wrinkle or variation in an established trope, or it can be extremely new, it it bears no resemblance to anything in the canon that came before it. Similarly, this means that no story can be entirely new–there will always lie at least some conservatism within any story, or else it would simply be incomprehensible. Third, it means that newness is necessarily disruptive. No story can be new without upsetting expectations and the status quo, and it is this disruption which I find most fascinating of all.

Because stories are always judged against a prior context, “newness” is really outside of the author’s control. Once they make the choice to insert their work into a given context through the act of publishing, what sort of reception it receives depends entirely on its audience, and it is here that the structure of communities as I discussed before becomes so important. Communities built like the NCMC can’t tolerate newness in the same way a site like CYOC can. This isn’t necessarily because the audience doesn’t have an open mind, because the audience at the NCMC is so larger I doubt any broad statement like that could ever apply. Rather, what it means is that the vocal minority who use the rating systems and leave comments have an outsized influence on what sorts of stories and authors are encouraged to keep contributing or not, and it is much more likely that these sorts of active users are going to prefer more conservative stories. CYOC has a different structural problem–while the new is able to proliferate easily, this is largely because these stories don’t receive enough of an audience to spread widely and gain momentum. As such, it falls victim to what might be called enclaves–small groups of devotees to a certain kind of story who exist in their own interactive universes. These universes possess the same weakness at the NCMC—stories that don’t fit their conservative vision are squashed and ignored.

The original question then, that began all of this was, “Why aren’t there more ‘new’ stories?” Here we have a bit of an answer–most of our communities have no real support system for new authors or new ideas, meaning they are either crushed by conservative trolls, or buried underneath a steady stream of conservative fiction. This is the core problem–not that there aren’t people who want to produce new stories, both radical and conservative, but that the communities we rely on as publishing platforms provide no real support for new authors or their visions. So, what’s the radical change I mentioned at the beginning? If we could find a way to use these platforms to better encourage and highlight new authors and new ideas, in order to counteract the natural advantage conservative repetition holds over the genre. I don’t have any particular ideas how to do this, unfortunately. I doubt a site like the NCMC could ever change itself to prioritize this, nor do I think the moderator would have much interest in doing so. CYOC might be more capable, by finding a better way to highlight and encourage the growth of younger story branches written by new authors. Until then, newness is simply going to rely on the courage of new and established authors to challenge the conventions and conservatism latent in these communities, and on those communities to be open minded to other sorts of themes and ideas which might not cater to their established desires.

Metawriting – Repetition 2

Over the years, I have been a member of any number of writing communities, and by and large, I have always been struck by how all of them are generally unhealthy environments for encouraging writers to produce good writing and improve their craft. My concerns have roots beyond erotica, and are perhaps more inspired by various writing groups I have led and attended during college and the years after. Generally, I have been disappointed in these sorts of groups for any number of reasons, although by far the greatest reason is that spectre of “constructive criticism”, which tends to force everyone in the room to praise pieces of writing which are exceedingly poor, leading to what essentially becomes a system of providing critical blowjobs for every writer present, whether they want to or not. Generally, the greatest sin someone can commit is being too critical–all writing is redeemable, any act of writing is fundamentally good. Online communities, on the other hand, have a distinctly different problem. The ease and pleasure of trolling allows online communities to effectively police, discourage, and even outright censor stories and writing which they deem offensive to their particular desires. I am convinced that there must be some needle hole to thread in the middle, but it eludes me, and I doubt such a perfect middle-ground actually exists anyway. Still, it presents a problem–what exactly is the role of these sorts of online communities and collections? Is it to help authors improve and encourage them to write more? Is it to provide an audience with a particular kind of story? What exactly are they designed to accomplish? I believe the phenomenon of inter-authorial thematic repetition I presented before can shed a bit of light on these questions.

Of course, there aren’t exactly a bevy of collections to discuss in this genre, so some of these conclusions will by necessity be based on a rather small sample size. In particular, I will be discussing the NCMC, CYOC, MCStories, the Nifty Archive, and both of Maelstrom’s now defunct archives focused on TF fiction and tobacco fetish fiction respectively. This, I think, is a large enough base to draw a few broad conclusions about the various techniques these communities are based on, and how they affect the sorts of stories and themes these collections accumulate.

I want to begin with the NCMC, which I’m sure surprises no one. There’s more reason to this than one might think, however. The NCMC is unique among the various sites I just mentioned for a number of, what I consider to be, very illustrative reasons. In particular because, more than any other collection still operating, it possesses a collection with a much more cohesive theme than any other. Now, as a bit of disclaimer, because the NCMC is a constantly evolving community and collection, the ideas and themes it tends to accumulate are always in a state of flux. Anything I say now could very well no longer be true six months from now, or even sooner. One particularly good story can spawn a bevy of imitators, old ruts which fell out of fashion years ago can suddenly reappear stronger than ever, so I hesitate to say say that the NCMC possesses a “defined” theme or set of ideas, but loosely examined, there are a few ideas which can be drawn from the kinds of stories the NCMC tends to attract. More often than not, the stories are driven by wish fulfillment rather than revenge. They are stories which are interested in making men more “typically desirable” (i.e. muscular, twinkish but not necessarily femme, sexually promiscuous bottoms, etc.) If a revenge fantasy is a plot point, it is less about punishing someone by turning them into what they hate, and more about turning them into something which will bring pleasure to the person correcting the injustice. When I say that the NCMC is generally not receptive to the kinds of stories I write, that’s because most of my story arcs tend to aim in the exact opposite directions. On the other hand, MaelstromX’s TF site possess themes more similar to mine, where revenge is more often about punishment than pleasure, where men become “atypically desirable,” though the site also possess a strong line of wish fulfillment as well. His old site focusing on smoke TF stories is different from the other two as well, with a stronger focus on cross generational nurturing relationships more than anything else. All of this might seem rather unimportant, or merely academic in nature, but what I want to point out is that the reason these sites possess any sort of specific focus in their themes is because of how these communities and collections are structured.

As a counterexample, let’s look at CYOC, the Nifty Archive and MCStories. All three of these are sizable archives, all of them possessing much more content than the NCMC, however none of these sites possesses anything like the strong thematic consistency the NCMC. Part of this is because these sites allow a much broader range of submissions, and thereby deal with a greater volume of stories in general. Themes then, multiply. This is especially obvious on CYOC, where this repetition is made even more direct through the continuation of another person’s story, or through the lengthening of your own work with the addition of further chapters. Thus, because there are so many threads, it makes more sense to start looking at subsections of these sites, where themes become clearer. the CYOC interactive “Ty’s Power”, for example, tends to be revenge focused, but also examines themes of puberty and becoming an adult, as well as what it means to be a part of family–especially in terms of siblings. The Nifty Archive possesses some themes once the site is divided into various genres, but these become harder to trace without the interactive structure of CYOC. MCStories is perhaps the most difficult, because stories are treated more as isolated chunks than as part of a larger system of categories. The site does possess fetish tags, but these are largely underutilized and deal more with superficial elements than anything else. As such, finding a story of a similar deep theme quickly becomes the task of finding needles in haystacks.

So what’s the difference? Why does the NCMC possess a clear set of themes, while CYOC, Nifty, and MCStories do not? The biggest difference between these two sets of sites is that the NCMC is the only one with any sort of numerical rating system, and it also possesses the most robust comment system. The NCMC is really the only website that provides an author with immediate feedback on their story, both quantitative and qualitative. I would argue this does little for the author–because these numbers and comments aren’t generally feedback an author can use to improve their work–but it does show that the audience possesses a great deal of power at the NCMC. The power to rate a story means that if an audience finds the themes, ideas, and content of a story distasteful, they can immediately communicate that with poor scores and trollish comments. This more than anything is what determines whether or not an author will keep contributing to the site. In this way, the NCMC doesn’t necessarily encourage authors to express a particular viewpoint, rather it’s structure allows the site’s audience to quickly discourage and downrate content which does not reflect the themes and ideas they want to see. It also possesses silent moderation, who can strip stories from the site without appeal. If anyone has the most power to shape the NCMC, it would be them.

Nifty and MCStories possess no such system at all. The stories are simply posted, with a link to an email if you’d like to send a comment (assuming the author allowed it to be accessible). Feedback is very inconsistent and not very meaningful; trolls are sparse and easily ignored. As such, no one is actively discouraged from posting, allowing the number of stories it hosts to grow rapidly. CYOC is somewhat different from the others, in that it does provide a means of giving feedback, but in a very different way than the NCMC. The most meaningful feedback that someone on CYOC can give a story is validation by continuing it. As such, rather than discouraging authors from contributing, CYOC’s structure encourages readers to become writers, to provide feedback on their favorite ideas and themes by adding to them and amplifying them. It does possess a rather robust forum, of course, but rarely is it used to discuss and rate particular chapters and threads. This, in my opinion, is what makes CYOC so fantastic as a collection–its design encourages both participation and proliferation, in a way the NCMC will never be able to do as it’s currently structured.

I’m sure that, at this point, it sounds like I detest the NCMC with all passion. In fact, the NCMC’s ability to hone down their thematic focus allows a range of stories there which are highly creative which no other site could produce, such as this odd postmodern work, “Too Meta”. While CYOC is capable of a wide range of stories with disparate themes, without any moderation it quickly can devolve in poorly written, overly short chapters with no development at all. Each tool has its place, and CYOC could use more moderation, while the NCMC, in my opinion, could use less (or simply moderation wielded equally). The question, I think, is who do we want these sites to serve? The readers and audience, or the authors themselves? The NCMC is firmly in the audience camp–everything about the site’s design is focused on providing its audience with the kinds of thematic content they desire, and making it easy for the reader to find stories similar one’s they’ve liked before. Whether or not this model helps writer’s improve or encourages more submissions is completely secondary. On the other hand, CYOC is much more author-focused. It urges readers to stop being passive consumers of content and instead generate their own. Feedback is less concerned with how well a story is written or whether it fits the desired theme of an audience, and more about whether it contains ideas and themes that inspire other people to continue the story further. Is one model better than the other? It depends on what you value more than anything else.  

There is one more aspect of this discussion I want to address in a third post (sorry, not sorry) which is what it means to say that we wish there were more “new” stories in the context of this repetition. An author’s constant foe is the threat of stagnation, of retreading the same old theme without any sort of development and nuance, and I want to talk about how I, as an author, do my best to avoid ruts. Further, when an author does do something “new”, how various communities deal with this newness is also something worth examining. Then I’ll be done with this for now.