Archive for the ‘writing’ category

Doing Feminism Wrong

April 24, 2014

Lately I have been haunted by the feeling that I am doing feminism wrong.Dismantling the Patriarchy

As readers of this blog assuredly already know, I’m writing a fantasy series. In the early books, there is only one female point-of-view character out of four—and she’s a weak person. Not a weak character, I hope, but definitely a person who doesn’t measure up to the current feminist ideal. If this character of mine, who is the ruler of a country (however inept she may be at that job) were male, there would be no need to discuss issues of feminism, internalized misogyny, etc. She—he—would simply have been a character with a particular set of flaws and challenges.

Not all male characters, even PoVs, are expected to be heroic. To write a weak man is not a crime against the male race. Why should it be a crime against feminism for a female character to be real?

Did you see what I did there? It is still a transgression for a woman to be real; to be anything less than the embodiment of the current ideal. I believe this set of limitations hampers us as writers—and it diminishes the experience of readers. It should be a question, not a foregone conclusion, my female PoV’s somehow rising into heroism. It should not be unacceptable if she does not: because as writers we tell stories about humans, even when our characters are of other species.

This is one example of the ongoing problems of feminism. By defining and enforcing rules regarding what constitutes acceptable femininity, we again confine ourselves within expectations. I think it’s time to recognize and reject those limitations, and for those of us who write women to do those characters—and our readers—the honor of reflecting them as fully human, in all humanity’s wonderful and awful variation.

You can click this link to my contribution to Fantasy Book Café’s Women in SFF Month, where I expand on these thoughts. While you’re there, you might do yourself the favor of reading some of the other posts in this month-long feature: a true reflection of the diversity of thoughts and activities and contributions of women in SFF. I’m inexpressibly proud to be a part of it.

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What I’m Doing in the Study

January 22, 2014

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Take one tightly-coupled plot with four interwoven PoVs.
  2. Decide, after two of those threads are completely done and a third is coming up on the Act 3 break, to rearrange the plot so the threads end at the same time.
  3. Realize that the two completed threads are the ones that need to be rearranged, because they are the ones that require less calendar time.
  4. Break several subplots into tiny pieces and rearrange them, adjusting on the fly for new developments that arise in the rewriting.

I never solved Rubik’s Cube, but for some reason I feel confident I can handle this. The first 100K words of this operation have gone surprisingly well.

More anon.

Talking with Barbara, Part Two

September 27, 2013

Part 2 of my delightful (well, for me at least) chat with Amy at Just Book Reading is live today. This time we’re talking mostly about the business of writing. I almost went off on a rant with this:

Barbara: Writing is a business—but first it’s an art. I think showing up in the study every day is an important practice because it keeps the creative juices flowing, but to expect to hold an artist to production schedules is destructive, and results in lousy art.

But all I will say on that topic today is Expect more on this topic. And meanwhile, stop by Just Book Reading for some terrific questions from someone who understands the business well enough to field truly penetrating queries.

Just Book Reading

Today is part two of my interview with Barbara Friend Ish, author of The Way of the Gods series and publisher over at Mercury Retrograde Press. Today, we’ll be talking about her books. Part one of this interview where we talked about the writing process, is here.

Amy:  I enjoyed The Shadow of the Sun immensely and I’m looking forward to the second book in The Way of the Gods series. Can you tell us a bit about The Heart of Darkness? Anything interesting we have to look forward to? What’s Ellion up to, or should I say, what kind of trouble is he in now?

Barbara: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the ride, and it’s truly kind of you to say. The Heart of Darkness picks up roughly an hour after the end of The Shadow of the Sun, and all hell breaks loose…

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What the Hell Are You Doing In There? My Writing Process

September 25, 2013

This week over on Just Book Reading, I’m having a stimulating conversation with Amy that’s all about me. And who wouldn’t like to get together with a friend for the purpose of talking about oneself in a sustained fashion? I’m flattered that she thinks I’m interesting enough to inflict such an interaction on her readers, and (of course!) I’ve been enjoying the conversation.

Like so many people who read and write deeply, Amy asks questions that beg for huge answers. I’m trying not to completely swamp her blog, so I’m doing the Reader’s Digest version of one of my answers in the interview on her blog and a fleshed-in version here. For readers who came here from Just Book Reading, you’ll find the first three paragraphs here are the same as the first three paragraphs there. After that comes all the lunacy I spared the tender readers of that blog. 🙂

In the interview, Amy asks,

1. Let’s start with the writing. Every author has a different approach to the writing process. Can you tell us how you prepare to write and a bit about your process, if there is one? Is it different for each book or do you have a system you try to follow?

To call how I proceed a system would be to over-glorify it. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature; as I’ve developed my craft, I’ve leaned to do more with planning, but I will never be the sort of writer who outlines before writing and then sticks with the outline. I’ll never be at all efficient.

I generally start a project with a question. These questions aren’t always intended as story fodder; sometimes they’re just mysteries that intrigue me which eventually find their ways into story. The series I’m working on now, The Way of the Gods, began with questions about the nature of godhood: If gods (note the plural) exist, where would they come from? What would be the source of their power? Once I’ve got a question knocking around in my head, I start reading sources that I hope will provide answers. I begin to work on theories. I suppose you might consider this activity worldbuilding, in the sense that I’m working out the rules and frameworks within which my story will play out.

Meanwhile, the things I’m reading and thinking about begin to suggest characters to me. As writers we know that the protagonist of any story is the one who suffers the most at the hands of the story problem; so the characters and the story problem, which may or may not be the same issue as the question that began this mess, evolve simultaneously. Bits of plot and conflict erupt like popcorn thunderstorms in my fevered little head. Finally I reach the point where I’ve got so much half-formed idea in my head, so much sketched-in plot, that I conclude I know what the story is about and where it’s going to end up, and I start thinking about the place to begin. Once I’ve got that, I jump in and start writing.

I am never, ever writing the story I think I am. But I don’t know what the story will turn out to be until I write it, and none of the work I do before I begin typing is wasted. Some of it will wind up on the page; some won’t. But it’s all part of the cloud of possibilities in my imagination.

In some ways this is the most delightful part of the process for me: I just follow the characters through the problem every day, dying to find out what they will do and discover, who they will turn out to be. I’m telling myself the story. Only when I get to the other end, complete this first draft, do I know what story I’m writing.

This is where the craft portion of the process begins. At this point I’ll do plot and character analyses, chart the overall plot as well as character arcs against the models that fit the story types I’m working with. I am likely to wander off and read literary criticism during this phase, because it helps me think. I’ll also take the time to do a better job of fleshing in my world—especially if it’s an alternate-world setting, but even with stories set on present-day Earth, there are details we can choose to bring in or emphasize that make the story work better. This, too, is likely to necessitate more research. I’m a knowledge junkie.

All these exercises help me see where Writer Brain got it right on the first try and where the story could be stronger. I’ll sketch out a very detailed plot plan, down to the beat and scene level, and plug it into a project file in Scrivener (www.literatureandlatte.com). I set up all those chapters and story nodes, those beats and scenes, as individual components in the project file. I use colors to track point-of-view threads and important subplots; I subdivide the whole thing into acts. I’m sure all this activity looks crazy from the outside, but I find it really helpful not only for plot development but for times when I start rearranging on the fly in the middle of the second draft.

Tired yet? We’re not even getting started. At this point I write the second draft in Scrivener. I don’t mean that I plug in stuff I wrote earlier and write glue; I write an entirely new second draft. I find that I write a much better second (or subsequent!) draft if I go back to zero and type new words into the file. Sometimes, when I feel I really nailed a scene on the first draft, I’ll have that file open on another screen for reference. Sometimes I’ll use entire sentences or even paragraphs. But mostly it’s new material—because this time I know what story I’m telling (or so I think) and my Muse, my Writer Brain, won’t turn on, dig in, show up for work, whatever you like to call it, unless he knows he gets to play again. And if I don’t get out of his way and let him re-tell the story, he’ll just phone it in.

I write sequentially again this time. That’s because I know what story I’m telling now, but characters are still developing, and they will continue to surprise me. The farther I go into the draft, the farther away from the plot I’d planned and the scene notes I’ve made I find the story wandering. It’s very common for me to get to a point, during the second half of this draft, where I’m writing all the plot points I’d planned but they mean completely different things than I expected. All of this means I must follow the characters from scene to scene, because the way they’re developing will continue to influence the story.

Everything continues to evolve. I’ll rearrange the order of scenes on the fly, particularly for continuity among points of view or because the way a character is developing changes how a subplot unfolds; I’ll add chapters or scenes I hadn’t planned or remove things that no longer seem important. Frequently I’ll remove plot points I had planned to use to present an idea or piece of information–because Writer Brain has already handled it much more efficiently than I’d planned. I’ll go back into earlier sections when something I figure out in later chapters ripples backwards in the plot. Sometimes, when I’m working with an alternate world, I’ll rearrange timelines because of mechanical issues unique to that world, such as complications in getting from Point A to Point B.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the process of developing this draft, I’ll start slipping my first readers (I have two, because I won the First Reader Lottery) chapters. Sometimes it’s beginning-to-end; sometimes, when I’m writing threads that don’t come together for a long time, I’ll develop and hand off a thread for a sanity check. Notes I get from my first readers may cause further redevelopment. Sometimes a novel in progress looks like the Scarecrow after the Flying Monkeys, and the only place it exists in any recognizable form is inside my head.

Finally I reach the end again. I don’t type THE END or -30- the way we’re supposed to. I’m too neurotic for that. “Works of art are never finished, only abandoned.” That was Warhol, I think. Now I have to go look it up.

(Hah! It was the poet Paul Valéry. All hail Wikiquote…)

People who have written far more novels than I will tell you that it is compulsory at this point to go over the whole mess yet again. To let it sit fallow for at least a month. By the time I get to this point I’ve been over each scene and subplot so many times that I know I’ve gotten the whole thing into the best shape I can achieve alone. So my first readers will review the complete mess, I’ll address whatever notes they give me (they tend to be light at this stage, because the first readers have typically seen big chunks of the novel already)—and then the novel goes to beta readers.

A hundred years ago, in a different lifetime, I worked in both software and advertising. I spent years laboring under the delusion that this beta reading phase was analogous to user testing and focus group research, and every objection from every reader constituted an error on the writer’s part. Later I began to realize that every reader reads a different story, because each reader brings her own past and imagination and baggage to the experience. That all I can really take away from beta reading is a collection of reactions and suggestions, some of which will trigger eureka moments for me and others which I must set aside as peculiar to that particular reader. Knowing which is which is the hard part, and it requires me to work through my own baggage to do it.

With notes from beta readers in hand, I sit down and decide what changes should be made to the novel. Sometimes it’s little stuff: word choices, a sentence that confused people. Sometimes new material, scene length or longer, is required. I’m likely to jump around on the light stuff, because it feels as if I’m knocking stuff off the list; but for big chunks and stuff that will ripple through the plot, I work sequentially again. If there are a lot of changes, I will dig back into the whole thing at the sentence level again to ensure continuity.

Finally the novel is ready for editorial. I’ve had the privilege of working with editors who are friends on both my novels. Brett Shanley, who was the editor for The Shadow of the Sun, used to come over and sit in my kitchen with me, and we’d go over notes and argue about punctuation for a few chapters, and then get together a few days later and do it all again for the next set. When we lost him two years ago, it was a huge blow to me: not only as a friend, but in my creative life. I still work with him sitting on my shoulder, still think about how he would address a problem in the work.

Anna Branscome, who is my editor for the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, is even more hands-on: she’s already read a draft of about half the novel, and she plans to come in and start working at the sentence level with me during the beta phase. She spends just as much time looking askance at my punctuation hooptydoodle as Brett did, but I am intractable in this regard. Well, mostly intractable. Sometimes they win those arguments. But otherwise I am a very cooperative editorial subject.

I know, from life on both sides of the desk, that every author-editor pairing is different. I’ve had the privilege of some terrific relationships with authors I’ve edited, but I am most grateful for the relationships I’ve had and have with my editors.

After editorial, of course, the book goes to design, to print, to the world. There’s creativity in those jobs, too; but it’s creativity of a different sort. A topic for another day.

The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action

April 15, 2013

Today, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

My editor for The Shadow of the Sun was my dear friend Brett Shanley. We’d worked together on a number of projects by the time we came around to this one, though this was the first time he had edited me. One of his first observations, made in his usual quietly introspective fashion, was,

“Um, Ellion’s kind of a whore, isn’t he?”

Which made me laugh, and which I had to admit was true–but which I found an intriguing reaction to a male character, particularly from a male reader. Brett’s response was a valid one, and shared in prticular by women–but it stood in opposition to our cultural norms. That sort of deep thought and ability to look past our assumptions were among the things that gave Brett power as an editor, of course.

I find writing the sexual life of a male character surprisingly easy. It’s true that I am and always have been female (at least within the confines of this particular incarnation*), but I’ve got plenty to work from when it comes to the inner sexual lives of male characters. I believe, rightly or wrongly (and research does tend to bear this out, for what that’s worth) that the internal lives of men and women are largely the same: that where we differ stems partly from inborn traits but mostly from socialization. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in the area of sex that the most data about the inner lives of the male of the species is most available. We need only look at 99% of what we receive through popular culture for clues.

Entire volumes and thousands of blog posts have been written on the male gaze and its effect on the way women perceive themselves; it’s not my intent to recapitulate that here. But if you want a broad sampling of what arouses men and how they process sex and female beauty, you need only watch movies, particularly those made to appeal to the male demographic. I don’t mean to assert that all men see women the same way, think the same things, etc.–but movies written and filmed by men for other men, which is most movies that are not romantic comedies, give us a good window into the areas of general agreement among that half of the species in Western culture.

Further, as a woman who has absorbed those images, I have absorbed, whether consciously or not, the same set of ideas about what is arousing. All women, whether conscious of it or not, who participate in popular culture have learned to see other women as sexual. Most heterosexual women map those images onto their psyches as things to be achievedthings we want to look at rather than people we want to touch, but we still know what is considered sexy: i.e., what men as a demographic want to look at and experience in their sexual lives. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to those things. That, of course, is a somewhat different topic.

So, to drag this back around to the original question, I find it surprisingly easy to write a male character, even when it comes to his sex life, because I have access to an entire cultural heritage, have absorbed it as fully as any man. It’s actually far more difficult for me to stretch my brain around the rest of the experience of being male, because the clues popular culture gives us for those things are harder to access. Those are the areas where I must do the most research and extrapolation.

As usual, nrlymrtl has tossed me a question worth intense unpacking, because I still haven’t touched on how I write another person’s sexual experience. And that trick (no pun intended) is one of endless interest to writers (and readers, it seems!)–so I’ll roll that question over to another post tomorrow.

* I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t disbelieve in reincarnation. Neither truth would surprise me. As Alice said to Dorothy, “I’ve seen some weird shit.”

That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction

April 9, 2013

This week in the continuing (and penetrating) discussion of The Shadow of the Sun on her Week Two readalong post, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

You have used language throughout the book as a way to sew culture clash, create bonding, and swear creatively. How did you go about building the various languages into your story?

The master of the invented language, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not fit to dust his dictionaries. But even for those of us whose artistic talent & impulses don’t run towards inventing languages, the development of language is a useful tool for fantasy & SF. Languages both arise from and reflect cultures: words and phrases so commonplace we don’t even hear them are profound indicators of our culture’s assumptions and norms. And the etymology and linguistic underpinnings of a language tell the story of where a culture comes from, what other cultures it has encountered, and what its problems and conflicts are.

You just made that up,
didn’t you?

Nope. A couple examples to get you started thinking about this:

Gender assumptions:

In English, we say “men and women”; where gender is mixed or uncertain, we use male words to cover all the unknowns. When we speak of both, we speak of males first–except when we’re being self-consciously courteous, as in “Ladies and gentlemen”, which embodies reasoning too convoluted to get into here. These habits reflect entrenched patriarchy. In The Heart of Darkness, the sequl to The Shadow of the Sun, some of the point-of-view characters I’m writing come from a matriarchal society. Maleness is not their linguistic default. The choices I make when my matriarchal characters speak about mixed or indefinite gender tell a story about their assumptions: right down to the fact that where my human characters say “priestess” to apply to a member of the Danaan clergy, the Danaan characters say “priest”. Because in their culture all priests are women, so there is no need to specify gender.

Swearing and Insults:

How we swear, what is considered profane or taboo, bespeaks our religious and moral norms. Americans, who as a group tend towards religious fundamentalism and puritanism to a much greater extent than some other cultures, find great shock value in blasphemy against Christian religions, sex, and bodily functions. How we insult others speaks to what our culture values and abhors. Because we tend to be very narrow-minded about sex lives that are in any way different from our own (see also: fundamentalism and puritanism), Americans can be heard using “gay” as an insult.

In other cultures, notably pagan cultures in which magic is mixed in with the religion, there is frequently a strong taboo against speaking the nmes of gods aloud, particularly in the presence of nonbelievers: because the names of the gods confer power. It may also be considered inappropriate to use the names of gods outside the context of prayer and magic, whether in the presence of nonbelievers or not. (That’s a tradition that carries over in modern Christianity as well, at least in the U.S.) I’ve made some use of both of those taboos in The Shadow of the Sun: my Beallan (human) characters, both of whom are deeply religious, rarely speak the names of their gods outside the context of religion, and certainly never in front of the Danaan, who have their own gods; and the Danaan, who believe themselves to be in a collective state of disgrace before their great goddess, no longer invoke her name outside the context of prayer. It’s the lesser goddesses and the great goddess’s consort with whom they feel themselves sufficiently close to swear by their names.

But as nrlymrtl notes, swearing is a bonding activity. People love swearing, and in swearing together we relieve the tension both of whatever made us want to mouth off and of the transgression of swearing itself. Learning one another’s swear words is a moment of cross-cultural bonding, a means of building bridges between our cultures. Kumbaya, baby. We see that in The Shadow of the Sun, too, in the moment when the Danaan mock Ellion because he is unable to pronounce one of the sounds common to their language and he turns around and challenges them to swear in his–and then they all laugh at the results.

So where did you get
those crazy words?

If you’ve been reading along lately, you will be unsurprised to learn that I stole. A lot. To reinforce the cohesiveness of the cultures I had built on a basis of ancient Irish myth as history, I drew heavily on ancient Irish and Gaelic languages and naming traditions, with a bit of Iberian thrown in for development of the Essuvian names and words. Where I could, I lifted words whole; where the word I wanted either didn’t exist or was too hard for someone with my VERY meager command of those languages to track down, I started with the etymological roots of those words in that end of the human language genome and built new ones. I also drew on ancient Greek and Egyptian sources for words that are, in the context of my tale, of yet more ancient vintage. In the course of developing the traders’ culture in The Heart of Darkness I stole from Basque and Romani language and naming traditions. And the ubiquitous profanity fouzh, which Ellion can’t get through an entire page without, was invented out of whole cloth: I wanted something evocative of the “f-bomb”, as it is delicately styled, which would be satisfying in the English-speaking mouth but wouldn’t require me to litter the pages with something that makes a significant percentage of readers flinch, not to mention bringing our cultural norms into an entirely different culture.

I love playing with language, maybe even more than I enjoy playing with the rest of reality. And I adore taking apart the components of our culture, looking at them, and putting them back together in entertaining/disturbing ways. It helps me think, and I hope it gives readers the opportunity to think some thoughts they would not have otherwise. It was probably inevitable that I write speculative fiction.

Writer’s Block Isn’t Really What You Think, Version #73

November 18, 2012

Recently I’ve been nervous about the scene I’m going to start writing today. I didn’t know what I was going to write, and I thought the reason I didn’t know was that a significant chunk of the discussion was going to center around some RL warfare technologies with which I have only a glancing acquaintance. But then I got there yesterday, and tried to write the lead-in, so I’d have something to come back to after I’d boned up on the technical stuff…and discovered the Real Problem.

The war I’m writing about is erupting like popcorn thunderstorms in a variety of locations, which is how rebellions typically will. In each eruption, the motivations of the people who rebel are different. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hm, I’ve had enough, I think it’s time for a rebellion”: not unless they’re well-fed intellectuals with too much time on their hands. When the peasants revolt, it’s because they believe they’re out of other options.

I knew why the other locus of rebellion I’m writing about had gone over the cliff. I finally realized, yesterday, I couldn’t answer that question for the present rebellion.

Once I finally began addressing that question, I found a huge reservoir of thematic deliciousness waiting for me. Now I’m SO EXCITED to write this scene, this chapter, this thread–and the technical brushing-up I need to do is no more than a minor detour in my head.

Same old story: the thing I think is the problem is just the thing my left brain can identify. The reason my right brain is really holding me up is that I haven’t done the deep plotting work.