Friday, September 15, 2023

Careful with the Cringe

Current 'panther' friend
Three stories. First, the everything-but-dinosaurs-and-aliens story. It had it all: a castle, a princess fighting to save the kingdom, pirates, and a black Jaguar named Scott. Oh, and sword fights. Did I mention the sword fights? Lots of sword fights. I don't know that it had terrific narrative flow. Or even a plot. But I was 12. So that book covered ALL the cringe. That young Princess was a fencing prodigy, a horseback riding prodigy, and the black Jaguar was, naturally, her best friend. Of course, her father's Kingdom is under threat from within and from without as the pirates are raiding the town below the castle. Our heroine can't immediately address the internal threats, but she can keep the pirates from harming her friends in town. In the course of trying and failing to fight the pirates, she makes things worse by getting kidnapped by them and held for ransom. This is ransom no one is going to pay. See the aforementioned internal threat. It's all fine, because naturally, the pirate captain falls for her. I mean why wouldn't he? So now, insert redemption arc for pirates who are going to help her bedevil the internal threat and reclaim the Kingdom. Much swashbuckling, big Goonies energy, tons of fun. Totally reads like I was 12. This one is buried deep and so it will stay.

Second, fanfic. ALL the fanfic. Scads of it. All tucked safely into archives where it can’t get me into trouble for writing inside someone else’s IP. Was it cringe? Maybe. It was 100% self-insert into worlds that fascinated me, but at the time I was writing fanfic, AO3 didn’t exist. I could write whatever I wanted with the knowledge that none of it could be published, ever.


It finally occurred to me one day that one could pub fanfic if no one knew it was fanfic. If I could change names and alter the world enough to be its own thing, I might have a viable product. And that’s how I found out it was far easier (and just as much fun) to build your own world and your own characters.

Third, the contemporary romance novel that lacked a single shred of internal conflict. I had a great time writing it. It was my attempt to prove that you could in fact write a rock star romance and make it work. Except, you know, for the fact that I didn't. It was supposed to have one of those 'annoying big brother' books. Curmudgeon and ray of sunshine things. The heroine is there out of necessity, in a position the hero doesn't want her in, but his meddling sister is intent on setting the two of them up. It was big on bickering, low on actual conflict, and it was a hoot to write. It still lives in a box under the bed. It is likely to remain in that box under the bed. I look back at it now recognize a slew of problematic tropes. There's nothing wrong with the heroine trying to prove herself. This story took it wicked too far. This heroine ends up a martyr. The power dynamic between hero and heroine was super dysfunctional. Granted, at the time I wrote it, I had some crappy relationship templates and what was ‘normal’ for me at that point wasn’t, in fact, normal. So yeah. I credit this book with being the one that started me on the journey of actually learning and understanding what makes a romance a romance. The story is okay. But reading it now, I flinch at all the stuff I see that’s wrong. I’m careful not to judge past me by what current me knows. But still. This book, while it holds together, won’t likely see the light of day, ever.

While I can freely admit that my early efforts at fiction might not meet the bar for publication, I want to say that when I use the word ‘cringe’ in this blog, it’s with a fond smile. Cringe is one of those words that has been swept up by society to judge and make fun of something. I don’t want to judge or make fun of someone learning how story works. Not even – or maybe especially not even – when it’s me. We’re allowed to be bad at something we love or are fascinated by. We’re allowed a visible learning curve. There’s art and grace in developing as an artist. The thing that gets lost when we talk about the lack of skill in our early efforts is just how vital and necessary those early efforts were to our survival. These stories I talked about will never be thrown away or deleted. They got me through times I didn’t think I could get through. If our early story efforts are called cringe because we get sexist BS terms tossed at us like ‘Mary Sue’, as if every action movie ever made isn’t some dude’s 14-year-old self-insert fantasy. There’s a fine line between acknowledging that our early works weren’t ready for prime-time and disparaging ourselves as creatives. I bet that if someone could find the first painting Picasso ever did as a child, it could reasonably be called cringe. It would also likely fetch millions on auction.