by Mike Brotzman
©2004 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved
I am writing this piece in part as a reaction to various other articles and columns and posts on both the TSAT magazine and the TSA-Talk mailing list. It came to me suddenly one night that a lot of the advice circulated on both these forums, although written with the best of intentions, was exerting a strong negative influence on the genre of transformation fiction as presented by the Transformation Stories Archive as it stood and probably still stands today. Mind you, this is in no way a clear cut issue, and I hope you all will bear with me as I present my case, which will start out with a little background. I consider myself a real fan and connoisseur of transformations. I love transformations, I eat them up. I love other things as well, but when I say I enjoy transformations I enjoy them for the transformational aspects. I think about transformations, I discuss them with others, how they would work, how they could be plausible, how one would feel about them, what they would be like, I just get a kick out of transformations.
Anyway, back in 2000 I found the TSA archive. I read it through from end to end, and found myself enjoying nearly all of the stories there. A month or so later I joined the TSA-Talk mailing list and have been active in seeking out transformational content on the web ever since. However, as time went on it began to dawn on me that most of the stuff on the list just wasn't cutting it for me. I make it a point to at least skim everybody's work (barring specific circumstances) and for the most part it was just not fulfilling my thirst for transformation. Every so often I would come upon a really good story, but usually I would leave feeling like an empty desiccated husk. I am not staying that the stories on TSA-Talk were bad, most were very well written and some were clearly superior from a literary point of view, but they just didn't have the sort of zing as the TSA archive.
As time went on the basic problem became clear to me. Most of what is labeled a transformation story isn't really a transformation story at all but merely 'transformationally adjacent'. "So, what's 'transformationally adjacent'?" you're all asking. You know on Iron Chef where the special ingredient is strawberries and the iron chef like makes some roast pig on a spit and stuffs its mouth with strawberries instead of an apple? Well, if we were playing Iron Writer instead and the special ingredient was transformations, doing something similar to that pig would result in a story that is transformationally adjacent. There is definitely a transformation in there, it might be mentioned or have occurred in the past or have occurred to others, but it is not a focus of the story and it does not drive the story. The worst examples of this is where some character gets transformed in part 1 of whatever series and the in parts 2 through 83 goes about his/her/other life in a fashion completely independent of the transformation. Not to single anybody out, but this happens a lot with the furry transformations. In a way similar to how the commerce clause allows the US Federal government to do whatever the hell it wants, an opening throwaway transformation is how a lot of furry stories get posted as transformation fiction. Metamor Keep is perhaps the worst single offender, but this column is not here to rant and rave about furry fiction because it is not to blame for what I see as the current crisis in transformational fiction, or at least I don't see it that way.
So what is the problem you ask? The entire issue crystallized for me when I read an article in last month's TSAT by my good friend Michael Bard. Bard writes really excellent stories and I have always respected him for it, so I was a little surprised when he came out with a list of reasons about why people should write in The Blind Pig (TBP) universe. Personally, I can't stand TBP. It goes in my trash can as soon as it hits my in-box. Why do I despise TBP so greatly? Because like Metamor Keep, it is almost entirely transformationally adjacent. Granted, transformations play a much more central role in TBP than in MK, but, well, I think Bard had the best observation when he wrote:
Why should you want to write in TBP? Because, in my opinion anyway, a lot of the best writing on the TSA list has come about through TBP. It seems to bring out better writing as people are inspired by what has gone before. And, since the actual transformation is rapid and generally occurs whilst the victim is unconscious or incapacitated, it forces you to write about the consequences of the transformation, instead of just transporn.
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Did you see that?!? I think it bears repeating:
...since the actual transformation is rapid and generally occurs whilst the victim is unconscious or incapacitated, it forces you to write about the consequences of the transformation, instead of just transporn.
When I read this about a month ago it hit me like a sack of bricks tied to a bolt of lightning. This is the underlying mindset that is sucking the heart and soul out of transformational fiction. I'm not blaming Bard here, because if you simply follow that link you will find these snippets of wisdom from everybody's favorite bunny, Phil Geusz:
However, it is a very different kind of art than the 'literary' transformation story, in which the transformation is utilized as a metaphor or to facilitate the personal growth of a character. In this kind of tale, in fact, the author who seeks to emphasize the physical sensations of change serves himself very poorly. When real stories in the traditional sense are the goal, I personally have found that it is usually most effective to perform the transformation 'off-stage', often months or years before the story itself even begins.
To me, a true 'literary' transformation story must, almost by definition, deal primarily or even exclusively with that part of the protagonist's life that occurs either before or after transformation.
This is the problem: There has developed the mindset that in order to be a 'good', 'quality' writer who is taken 'seriously', you need to live up to a certain set of literary values in your transformation fiction, where characters are developed and overcome adversity and grow emotionally and the story as well as everything in it has 'depth' as well as at least two other non-spatial dimensions. And if you don't do these things, well, shame on you because you're just writing ::echoey voice:: . We'll get back to that word later because I first want to address this whole literary concept put forth by the transformational cognoscenti. Almost every book in the modern history of human existence has embodied the literary concepts that you put forth. If I were inclined to read a work of 'literature', I sure as hell wouldn't go online to a transformational fiction writer's group to get it. Sorry, everybody, but no, I'd go read Catch-22 or any one of the other billions of books that have passed commercial muster and gone through some sort of professional editing and review process. I scour the web and join lists like TSA-Talk because what I am looking for is not what fits the standard definition of literature.
Now, I know that many of you out there are just about ready to label me a Transpornographer and hit Back on your browsers, but I have a very enlightening story about that word as well. A while ago Bard and I were discussing this same issue about how the stories on TSA-Talk didn't have enough TF content in them, and he said to me, "If you want transporn go to choseyourownchange.com, they have plenty." So I went. And I read the stuff there. And for about 10 minutes I was in heaven, at which point my eyeballs fell out of their sockets and my brain exploded due to the fact that 99% of everything on that site is drivel wrapped in tripe. I came back tail tucked between my legs and was very apologetic to Bard for advocating literarily bankrupt stories that would only result in stuff like what I saw at CYOC. For the next good part of a year I was completely convinced that stories that were based on and centered on a transformation would only result in brief pleasure followed by gray matter leaking from one's ears. What I did not realize was that I had been the victim of a very craftily deployed herring that the transformational cognoscenti use to win arguments. Whenever someone complains about the lack of transformational content the typical response by the established writers is to call the request 'transporn' and then point the person to CYOC where they will "learn their lesson" (think of how the father makes the son smoke the entire box of cigars). It took me a while, but I eventually figured out that the stories on CYOC were not bad because they were centered upon a transformation... but because they were just poorly written. That's the revelation, folks; it is possible to write a good story with transformation at its core. There is this magical middle ground between the transformation story with absolutely no literary value (transporn) and the literary story with absolutely no transformation value. Transformational literature is not literature that mentions a transformation, it is its own separate thing with its own separate values. For too long the transformational fiction community has been trapped in the cycle where a newcomer posts a story that is transformationally based, but is also poorly written. The list establishment tells the new writer that his story is bad in part because it is transformationally based. The new writer is assimilated and the list continues to be its same transformationally adjacent self. Well, I am not some crank who likes to stand on a soapbox and yell and bitch without providing any constructive comments. Therefore I am now going to set forth a new aesthetic for transformational literature that exists with one thing at its center... the transformation. My goal is that those who follow this guide can create works of substance for both the part of us that enjoy a good story and the part of us that enjoys a good transformation.
Before I begin here let me first state that the following guidelines are in no way commandments set in stone. I would never claim that there is one and only one "correct" way to write a transformation story and moreover I would never intend these guidelines to act as a checklist that needs to be robotically followed (unless you have happened to have been transformed into a robot, but that is another issue entirely). These guidelines are meant to enable a way to think about transformation stories and help new and existing writers avoid common pitfalls that result in either poor or transformationally adjacent stories.
Transformations aren't very real, of course, but when writing a transformation story it helps to make the transformation appear to be real, and the appearance of realism is exactly what 'verisimilitude' is. People don't just transform for no reason. People aren't usually just okay with things when they do suffer an unexpected transformation. Often in transformation fiction, writers take shortcuts to get to the parts they want to write about. Transformations lack side-effects so the character can get right to using his cool new powers. Magic or technology that emulates magic simply exists with out question or explanation so that the story can cut right to the changes. Characters are stamped out from cookie sheets so that emotions and/or feelings don't get in the way of either the changes or utilization of new found powers. This all comes down to the traditional 'who, what, how and why' mantra of storytelling. What exactly is the transformation involved? Who is being transformed? Why are they being transformed and how are they being transformed? The elements of your transformation story need to be well motivated and logically consistent. You need to resist the urge to skip over elements of verisimilitude either for the desire of skipping to the parts of the story that interest you more, or for any difficulty you have determining exactly what those elements might consist of. Nobody said writing was a walk in the park.
I mentioned before that the great problem with transformation fiction today is that of transformational adjacency, which is where the transformation is merely adjacent to the main thrust of the plot. If you want people interested in transformations to read your story, you need to make sure that transformation is a key part of the story from beginning to end. If your story looses transformational intensity, those who enjoy transformational content are often just going to roll their eyes and go off to find something else. This is in no way implying that your characters have to be gelatinous blobs in a constant state of flux, it only means that throughout the story some sort of transformational content is actively driving what is going on. What is transformational content? Well it can either be an actual transformation, something directly dealing with some actual transformation (a pointer if you will) or a direct effect of some transformation. For example if throughout a story you work up to some final TF that maintains intensity. If some character gets changed and works throughout the story to change back, that maintains intensity and if someone gets changed and spends the story dealing with the direct effects of that change that maintains intensity as well. One of the most prevalent pitfalls is people who carry their stories on secondary or indirect TF effects and not direct TF effects. A direct effect is what the TF does to you. A secondary effect is what you do or is done to you as a result of the TF. If I got turned into a she-wolf and my girlfriend dumped me, the transformation did not cause my girlfriend to dump me, SHE caused herself to dump me. When a transformation story carries itself on secondary interactions the transformation risks being reduced to a mere plug-in module. [SCABS victims] face horrible social discrimination and cope by congregating at The Blind Pig. [Black people] face horrible social discrimination and cope by congregating at The Blind Pig. [Jews] face horrible social discrimination and cope by congregating at The Blind Pig. My girlfriend left me because [I developed an interest in porn]. Now, in no way am I presenting this guideline as something exclusive. Secondary consequences are very important story elements and often necessary for the appropriate verisimilitude mentioned above. You can add all the secondary consequences you want as long as you include enough transformational content to keep up the intensity. Just because the bus will explode when it drops below 50, doesn't require one to keep his foot to the floor. However, if your story has a distinct lack of transformational content (as defined above) maybe you should ask yourself if what you are writing is really transformation fiction and not perhaps fur fiction, or social commentary or straight Sci-Fi. I often have a strong urge to write dragon fiction and because dragons can generally shape shift I could probably bootstrap them onto a TF story venue. However the point usually comes where I realize that the story is not transformational, but just dragon fiction and I realize that foisting it off as TF fiction would be inappropriate.
At the core of transformation fiction is some event that converts some object from its initial state of being to another. It follows that if the people reading the story are in part reading it because they enjoy these events then it might be a good idea to flesh out your transformation like you would any other character in the story. If it generally not considered good writing to have a main character that you never describe, or that has no personality or that is nothing more than a cardboard prop, so why do some feel that treating the transformation this way somehow makes the Transformation story better? Moreover, just because not everyone considers the transformation to be of primary importance, why go out of your way to alienate the demographic that does? Many of the elders consider explicit descriptions of transformations to be "Transporn" and feel that it should be relegated to the back alleys, dark closets and dusty places under the bed. First, this is a horrible generalization. If used properly both Transporn and real porn can add significantly to the creative substance of a story and be more than just a cheap empty thrill. Second, giving proper character to a TF in no way means a real time play-by-play accounting of the morphing flesh, cracking bones, fluffing fur and expanding sheaths, but encompasses a wide variety of writing techniques. Transformations can be brought to life by going into what and how the characters feel during, before or after it, events immediately preceding or following the transformation, characters discussing it, flash-forwards, flashbacks, even flash sideways! You need to help your reader empathize with your poor changed character. Help the reader to really feel what the change is like. Another tactic to accomplish this that doesn't involve the physical transformation itself is to focus on the changes that your transformation brought about, contrast them with what your character was like before and explore your character's thoughts on the subject. In standard fiction you would like your reader to identity with and get to know/understand your characters, in Transformation fiction you also should help your reader do the same with your transformations.
The last guideline is a fairly common sense one, but contains a few quirks common to transformation fiction. When people write out of some inherent love of transformations, it is not uncommon to have some particular transformation that they hold particularly dear. Typically this is the one that would turn the writer into the alternate form he enjoys most, but no matter what it is it is easy for the transformation writer to fall into the trap of writing the same transformation story over and over again. While in standard fiction mixing up the character and settings can go a long way in covering for a recycled plot line, a good deal of the fun of a transformation story is just not knowing what exactly is going to happen to Joe Blow TF victim. If you always write about the same kind of TF your readers are just going to yawn and move on. If you always write about people being turned into dragons by some magic red crystal, you are going to elicit yawns even if you move around different time periods, in different parts of the world involving different people. In TF fiction the transformation should play a central role in the plot and simply rearranging the deck chairs will not spare your readers from what is essentially the same story. The answer is to make a conscious effort to mix things up. Mix up the sorts of transformations you write about, like instead of writing about dustpans that turn into dragons write about frogs that turn into wolves. Mix up the sorts of transformation engines you use, like instead of a high-tech ray gun write about magical non-dairy creamer. Or you can go as far to mix up both at the same time. I would never declare people to be bad writers just because they have some favorite topic or interest they like to write about, just make an effort to include a modicum of variation in your work so that you don't end up getting the big yawn factor.
That's it, just four little guidelines. Once again let me make myself clear in saying that these are in no way exclusive in that you should feel free to include anything extra that is not set forth in the guidelines. Moreover, no creative process can ever be codified and then followed like some recipe in a cookbook. I have attempted to set forth something that is more a spirit or philosophy than some set of hard rules and all that I can hope for is that this philosophy speaks to you and encourages you to think about how you write transformation stories. I wrote these guidelines because as I see it there is an open question as to what exactly this genre of transformation writing should be about. Some seem to be of the mind that any good piece of traditional literature that mentions a transformation or possibly even just contains the word transformation is a good, quality, transformation story. I feel that the bar should be set a little higher, that the transformation genre contains demands that are both unique to it and go beyond the demands of ordinary writing. We can apply this logic to other well established genres. Could a book that takes place entirely in Chicago and only makes casual reference to the old west be called a good Western? Could a book centered on Sherlock Holmes entering and wining a famous horse race without ever foiling a criminal enterprise be considered a mystery? Is Spaceballs a science fiction movie? Well, if you apply the strict definition of Science Fiction yes it would count, but come on, would any of you out there take someone to see Spaceballs because it is an example of a good Science Fiction film? Heavens, no! It's a spoof, it's a comedy, it's wonderful, but its science fiction nature is completely tangential to what really makes Spaceballs what it is. Just like I don't go to a Chinese restaurant to order a cheeseburger or go to Boston to get a Philly cheese steak, I don't read transformation fiction for biting social commentary or heartwarming tales about relationships. If said transformation just happens to contain biting social commentary or heartwarming tales so much the better, more power to it, but when I am reading a transformation story I am reading it because it contains some sort of transformation! Is this some sort of radical viewpoint or something? I see it as a tautology, transformation stories are about transformations, plain and simple, but then again I am just a single person, I can't speak for everybody. This brings us back to that open question. Do we want transformation fiction to have something unique and special not found in ordinary literature or do we want it to be a bunch of fur stories some writer happened to CC: to the list because they probably wouldn't get outright rejected by the moderator? The choice is yours.