Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

The Dogs Project: Where do you get your ideas?

by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs project?

So the standard question that writers always get asked is “Where do you get your ideas?”  And a lot of times it’s said in this tone of voice that is just loaded with impression that getting ideas is the impressive thing that we do.  This confuses and frustrates writers — by which I mean me — for several reasons.  First off, the part that I struggle with isn’t the having ideas part, it’s the making the ideas not suck in practice.  Having ideas is the easy part, figuring out how to deliver them is more than a lifetime’s work.  But the second part is that the question isn’t usually answerable in any satisfying way.  “Oh well, you know, I read a lot and things just kind of come together in my head and then I get excited about them.”  That’s exactly true, and sort of anticlimactic, right?

So anyway, I spend a certain amount of time hanging out on the Westeros forum, and there was this long-running sturm-und-drang conversation that spilled out over two threads about depictions of rape in fiction.  I came into it late, and a lot of it fel into the tl;dr category for me, but I was grazing it some.  For long-time blog readers, I’ve built my own opinions about sexual violence in fiction, which mostly comes down to two general guidelines:

1) The Curry Rule

When you put a little curry in the recipe, you’re now making a curry dish.  The flavor overpowers whatever else you were up to.  When you include rape in your story or novel, it overpowers whatever else you were doing, and you’re now writing a story about rape.

2) Working on the Slant

I respect the existence of things like Irreversible, but — for me — writing about sexual violence in a straightforward, realistic way is too hard.  Part of my job it to get the folks reading my stuff to have more or less the experience I wanted them to have, and when I’m taking on a subject that’s that powerful and personal and — frankly — idiosyncratic, I’m going to trigger powerful reactions that the text itself can’t channel.   Plus which, any realistic depiction of an act of sexual violence — especially when written by a man — is suspect.  There are too many “condemning” depictions out there that are also inviting the reader (or viewer) to get a little excited by what the villain is doing.  Plus which, I don’t like it, which makes it hard to do well.  So instead, when I’m dealing with issues that touch on rape — like fer example ownership of one’s own body — I reach for literalized metaphors.  If I wanted to talk about someone feeling trapped in the past by some kind of trauma, I write stuff where I can have someone trapped in the past by some kind of trauma.  Ta daa!

But anyway, I’d grazed on some of the Westeros forum conversation, so the issues were kind of on my mind.  That reminded me of a study I’d read about — and now can’t find a link to — that was talking about rape on college campuses.  Always a difficult subject.  So this particular study gave a questionnaire to what I assume was a statistically significant population of college guys, and asked about ther sexual history in a way that didn’t include things like “Ever raped anyone?” but did have stuff like “have you ever had sex with a partner who was too intoxicated to respond to you” and “have you ever continued with a sexual act after your partner has indicated they would like to stop”.  The results in the report I read was that about twenty percent of the guys answering the questions copped to having committed some form of rape.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m one of the eighty percent on this issue.  I’m pleased to consider myself a feminist.  My best friends for most of my life have been women.  Ask any nice guy you know, and my bet is you’ll find the same thing.  There’s a kind of guilt that comes from getting lumped in with the twenty percent, and there’s also a resentment at being made to feel guilty for it.  Now we can talk all day about whether that’s justified or whether all men are tacitly complicit in a rape culture, and maybe someday we will, but the thing that struck me about that study was that it seemed to me that it justified both sides of the argument.  Assuming the stats are right, a room of a hundred men has around twenty predators in it, and most men are good men.  Eighty percent, more or less.  Four in five.

That paradox seems really important, and not particularly obvious.  I am neither a straight woman nor a gay man, so I’m not really in a position of trying to find love and companionship and sexual gratification from a pool of folks where two out of ten possible lovers is a predator, and good luck telling which ones.  I’m one of the nice guys who spent a lot of time wondering why girls seemed so skittish.  After all, I’d never do anything bad, right?  In fairness, this isn’t the first time I’d had an insight like this, but putting some numbers to it made it seem a little more concrete.  Anyway…

Now about the same time all this was bouncing around the ol’ noggin, the Darling Child and I watched a PBS special called Dogs Decoded.  I will now pause to thank PBS, and encourage all y’all to give generously to your local PBS station.  Folk do some good work.  And one of the things that came out of that documentary was how long-standing and deep the connection between humans and dogs is.  They’re literally the animal best able to communicate with us.  They’re not much for sexual gratification (if your experience if different on this, please I don’t want to know) but if you wanted to pick a way to find love and companionship, that and a little fur is pretty much what dogs are made of.  Unless they’re bad dogs and they maul your kid to death.

The image came to me — I can still see it — of a man sitting in a subway car.  The only other thing in the car is a massive dog sitting on the seat across from him.  The dog had blank brown eyes, and it isn’t doing anything threatening.  The man is repeating the words “good doggie” over and over, hoping that it’s true.

And that’s where I got my idea.

Come on back tomorrow, I’ll tell you what I’m planning to do with it.  And just a reminder, until the project’s done, I’m not going to be reading or responding to any of the comments.  If you have an opinion or judgment you’d like to share, feel free.  Ty’s still moderating things.  When I don’t answer, I’m not blowing you off any more than I am everybody else.


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3 Responses »

  1. I’m ashamed to admit that when I was five or ten years younger, I would ask authors that kind of question. In fact, I think I may have asked that exact question in an interview I did with Brandon Sanderson back in 2005.

    What changed? Well, I started writing. Only took me one try at completing a novel before I learned that it’s easy to get the ideas, harder to get the ideas to stir emotions and make connections with a reader.

  2. Disclaimer: I too, would consider myself a moderate feminist.

    I think that the belief that representing something (in this case, rape) in art is the same thing as encouraging it, is a very problematic one. In some cases it is surely the case, but not always. I mean, if a text is clearly inviting you to be excited about it, then yes, it is morally reprehensible, sure. But that’s not always the case. And also, what about depictions of war/mass killings, for example? Does epic fantasy encourage war? (Hey! Maybe it does…)

    I’m sorry if this question automatically offends anyone, but I’m just curious to know why does “The Curry Rule” apply only to rape (and sexual violence) but not to, say, murder and/or non-sexual torture in general, for example. I find this slightly unfair (in a weird, philosophical ethics kind of way.) and possibly even sexist. Either a ‘realistic depiction of sexual violence’ is suspect, period. Or it isn’t suspect, regardless of whether the author is female of male…

    But it’s an interesting problem. Are there are other taboos and/or topics where the curry rule applies as well? Are still taboos that are a) completely off limits to represent/depict or b) can’t be mentioned without delving into them fully? Because, let’s face it, surely, this immersing isn’t always the same as endorsing? Or do readers automatically assume it is? I mean, readers can assume that a character written in first-person is the author, but that doesn’t make it so. I mean, in the context of writing horror fiction, for example, this surely warrants discussion. Why is it possible to depict morally reprehensible and disgusting UNREAL things, but the depiction of disgusting REAL things somehow makes us complicit in them?

    I believe that this way of thinking is a very concrete way of putting a political limitation on your writing. And If it’s a deliberately crafted filter, then that’s absolutely fine. (See also: Joss Whedon) But like it or not, that’s ideology. Those can end up enriching/ a work of art instead of limiting it, yes. But not always.

    P. S. Irreversible is indeed a very good, thought/cringe provoking film… I would say it’s about (the pointlessness of) revenge, though. Not about the rape. Although a perfect date movie, it is not.

  3. Okay, I’m definitely intrigued! When is this antho coming out? 🙂