Writing Process Blog Tour

A little back story: I met Margaret on the second night of AWP, in the Sheraton hotel bar in downtown Seattle. The entire bar was filled to the brim with writers and other literary-minded folks — a surreal yet dazzling experience. I “knew” Margaret through our mutual friend Lauren (via the internetz, naturally), and we spent a fun hour or so drinking and talking about writerly things (two activities that go together so well).

Last week, Margaret emailed and asked if I’d like to participate in a “Writing Process Blog Tour” — a set of questions that have been making the blog rounds. The idea is this: a writer gets “tagged,” and then “tags” other writers to answer the questions in turn. At the end of the day, we’re all talking about the creative process in one nerdy gabfest. Um, SIGN ME UP.

Margaret’s responses can be found over here (her talk about “non-process” is wonderfully honest). And mine? Well…

1) What are you working on?

In theory? Edits to my book (I finished the first draft in December). In reality? I haven’t touched it in several weeks. I’m rapidly realizing I’m not going to hit my self-imposed July 1 deadline, and that is… a bummer. BUT. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself. I got a new job a few months back, and it’s taken a lot of time and energy to get up to speed. Which means other things fall by the wayside. Including, in this case, book edits.

That isn’t to say I haven’t been writing — I just haven’t had the energy for that particular project. I wrapped up a short story a few weeks back, a wild little romp set in backwoods Louisiana. Short stories aren’t typically my forte, but I’m feeling good about this one. Besides, it’s good to write in different formats from time to time — strengthen ye ol’ writing muscles.

2) How does you work differ from others of its genre?

Oh boy. That’s a tough question, isn’t it? First I’d have to figure out what my “genre” is. Lately, I’ve been drawn to speculative fiction (I don’t really count my writing as science fiction, because the science is… well, nebulous at best). In the past, I’ve written historical fiction and dabbled in literary fiction (a genre I don’t think I’m particularly good at, and have since largely abandoned).

How does my work differ? Well, this is the obvious and cliché answer, but I’d like to think my voice. Every writer has a distinct, evolving voice, and I’m growing into mine. I also hope that my stories are easily accessible — you don’t need to be a speculative fiction fan to pick them up and enjoy them. But I guess that largely remains to be seen.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because it’s fun! Because I enjoy the stories I tell. Look, most of us are NOT doing this for fortune and fame, so we should damn well enjoy the writing itself.

Another way of saying it — these are the stories I have to tell, the ones that bore into my brain and refuse to move. When you have a story like that,  you can’t ignore it. Try if you want, but years later it’ll still be there, waiting to be put to paper.

4) How does your writing process work?

If I’m good about it (aka, consistently producing work), I have a strict writing schedule. When I was finishing up the first draft of my book, I got up at 5:30am every weekday morning to get in an hour+ of writing before work. For me, a set schedule is the only way to add up that word count.

Other than that — my process is not really all that consistent. A lot of times I prefer writing first drafts by hand; for me, handwriting unlocks different parts of my brain. Of course, this doesn’t work as well with longer pieces. For writing large chunks or revisions, I work on either my iPad or desktop (everything syncs up to Dropbox, so the files are always updated no matter which device I’m on). When I sit down to write, there’s a good 10-15 minute window where I sort of dawdle, re-read what I did the day before, get my brain back into the game. But once I’m in, I’m in. Poor Byron knows this well — it’s hard to get my attention once I’m in the middle of writing.

That’s a wrap! And now that my questions are answered, it’s my turn to play tag… and the torch is going to Tayler of The Awkward Olive. Tayler and I were in the same creative writing program in college, and I was lucky enough to go on two study-abroad trips with her (one where we studied expatriate writers, and the other where… well, essentially we wrote in pubs. It was glorious.). Tayler currently lives in Oregon, eating delectable local food and working in her envy-worthy garden. At her blog, she writes honestly and eloquently about everyday life — look for her answers to the Writing Process Blog Tour soon!

And if you are a nerd like me and really enjoy reading about writing processes… might I recommend some other folk who have played the game?

  • Lauren (yes, the Lauren who introduced me and Margaret) answered in regards to writing both creatively and professionally.
  • Brian Benson, who I do not know personally or even via the internetz, but I found his answer to the “How does your work differ” question quite intriguing (and now I totally want to pick up his book).

When the internet connects diverse and widely spread groups of people over one common interest — well, that’s clearly why it was invented, right? (I mean, aside from cat gifs. Obviously.)

Sharing Inspiration

Last week, I attended a workshop about staying creatively inspired when you do the same type of work over and over again, day in and day out (whether that be writing, design, architecture, whatever). If you work in a creative field, it’s a subject that pops up frequently — the relationship between inspiration and creativity, those two nebulous forces fated to be entwined. Inspiration is viewed as the force that drives creativity, something vague and elusive that can’t really be pinned down. When we say that “inspiration strikes,” it implies that it comes out of the blue, when we’re least expecting it.

Over the workshop, two themes emerged: in order to find inspiration and be our most creative, we must 1) seek out inspiration, and 2) create. Both are important (particularly #2, I’d argue — you literally can’t be creative if you don’t create), but #1 has been consuming more of my thoughts. People think that inspiration finds you — that the muse lands on your shoulder and sparks the next idea. That’s wrong. At its core, inspiration is pretty lazy; it’s not going to come and find you, you have to find it. You have to actively work to be inspired — you have to seek it out.

In Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon talks about sharing your inspirations, so that other people can also discover the awesomeness and be inspired. So I’m giving it a shot, this whole sharing thing. What’s been inspiring me this past week? A whole lot of random, including…

John Cleese quote via Austin Kleon and 99U

    • The words of Maya Angelou. Lots of people have been sharing her words this past week, which is rad (when was the last time you can think of a poet’s work being widely shared?). The poem particularly resonating with me? “Still I Rise“:

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

  • This old New York Times article about Police Officer Frank Chiafari, the officer who responded to the 911 phone call about a horrific chimp mauling. (Warning: this is a graphic and incredibly sad story. Highly likely to be upsetting.) Seem an odd thing to inspire creativity? Yeah, I agree, it IS totally weird. But — I just finished writing a short story, and this article was swirling around my head the whole time I worked on it. You never know where inspiration will come from.
  • This random quote from musician Kathleen Hanna, via Austin Kleon’s tumblr.

Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the Internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.

(“Would Beyoncé be reading this?” should become my new life mantra.)

What’s been inspiring you this week? Any goodies to share?

 

Trying New Things: Tarot Card Reading

Let this be a lesson: if you put something out in the universe enough, sometimes the universe will respond by tossing it in your lap.

In this particular instance, the universe took the form of good friends: Jenny and Adam. These two have heard me yammering on and on about how much I want to do a tarot card reading that they decided to do something about it. For my birthday, they got me a session with a local tarot card reader. Rad friends — I got ’em.

Now, I know that astrology, tarot cards, palm reading… some people argue that all of these things can be wrapped up under the umbrella of “a bunch of horse shit.” People argue that it’s a fraud, that astrologers and palm readers and tarot card readers are just attune to people’s emotions and mental state, and use that to give an “accurate” reading. Which… yeah, I mean, I get that. Maybe it’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. And besides, I tend to be a bit hippy-dippy myself. So I went into the reading with an open mind, not knowing what to expect but eager to see what this whole tarot card thing was about.

About 10 seconds after meeting me, the reader said, “Happy birthday! I do some astrology stuff, too, and since your birthday just happened, I’m guessing last month was a really hard month for you.” Which YES, YES IT WAS. Last month saw the introduction of a new job, new responsibilities, a new jam-packed work schedule — all in all, a trying month. But more than that, it’s had me wondering how I can possibly find time to write and edit a book  when life is so damn busy. When other obligations are so demanding, when I need to step up to the plate in other arenas. How can I do all that, and still have the energy to focus on my own pursuits?

The tarot card reader and I settled in. She sprinkled some salt (I’m not too sure what this was for? But I love salt, so I was down), she arranged a white napkin on the ground, and then she had me shuffle the tarot card deck. I drew My Cards. And then we started flippin’.

Six of Wands Tarot Card

What quickly became apparent — a WHOLE lot of fire and water was goin’ on in these here cards.

Tarot Card Reading

Tarot Card Reading

In fact, it was ALL fire and water cards — the Suit of Wands and the Suit of Cups. The Wands are apparently all about “movement, action and initiatives and the launching of new ideas”, while ye ol’ Cups deal with “displays of emotion, expression of feelings and the role of emotions in relation to others”, as well as being linked to “creativity, romanticism, fantasy and imagination” (according to the first website I found, Biddy Tarot). 

That dude on the far right? He represents the big ol’ grand vision — my future self, where this is all leading. He’s the Knight of Cups, with a sweet white horse and winged feet and a “cloak covered with images of fish, the symbol of the spirit, consciousness and creativity.” And what does this knight in shining armor instruct you to do?

Be open to exploring your passions and your grand ideas at this time. You may find that you have been drawn to a particular passion or hobby and now is the time to start turning into ‘something’. You do not need to go at a cracking pace but it is important to balance your ideas with action and ensure that you are taking proactive steps to achieve your goals and ambitions. — Biddy Tarot

You can probably tell where I’m going with this. How have I interpreted my tarot card reading? That I need to get cracking. That I need to get down to business, and stop with the excuses. Write, edit, create. Life has been crazy for the past month — but that doesn’t matter. Work will always be there — crazy life obligations will always be there. In five years, I’m not going to regret an hour less sleep every night. I’m going to regret the stories I didn’t finish, the publications I didn’t submit to, the runs I didn’t run to get my creative juices flowing. I’m not going to regret the minutes of hard work — I’m going to regret the words not written.

Sometimes we need an outside source to refocus and get our rears back in gear. Maybe tarot card reading is all baloney — maybe it’s not. At any rate, I’ve gotten what I needed out of it.

 

One Ideal Reader

So. We’re back to the first draft. After several months of ponderings and musings and “woe-is-me”-ings, we’re back.

I’ve been editing fairly consistently for the past week or so, working from my new writing set-up (iPad + folio keyboard = mobile writer go!). I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet — but that’s mostly because the first chapter needs a lot of work. Ultimately, it needs to do some serious heavy lifting. Introducing characters, establishing a mood, setting the scene. And it’s that LAST part — the scene — that’s been a sticking point.

Re-reading my first draft, a big thing that stuck out at me was the science. Or rather, the “science” — vague, elusive and inaccurate even to my untrained eye. I started out this book with a very specific setting in mind: a futuristic desert landscape that shapes the characters and their actions. I didn’t worry (or even think about) the science behind such a setting when I wrote the first draft. The story was tied up with the setting — I couldn’t untangle the two. So I just wrote it as I felt it needed to be told.

Kids, learn from your elders — this may have been a mistake. I wrote myself into a scientific quandary: a setting that is not actually possible here on earth. Which would be fine if the book were set somewhere else! But it’s not. It’s here, it’s earth, it is what it is. And I wanted to fix this — I wanted to make it “right.” After reviewing the first draft, I was determined to make the science believable, albeit possibly a bit of a stretch.

My friend Tara offered to help. A former college roommate, Tara has been a plant nerd for as long as I’ve known her (plant nerds are the best kind of people), and now she’s turning that plant nerdery into a career as a scientist. She and her husband offered to take a look at the premise behind the book, chat about the science, and get back to me.

And chat they did — along with several of their scientist friends. General consensus? Nope. Does not compute. Science presented not possible. In any way, shape or form.

Cue the tiny violin.

Now, if that sounds defeatist — well, I was feeling a bit defeatist. But Tara and Nick were not, bless their science-y hearts. They offered up a bunch of other possible scenarios, ways the setting could be changed, ways that I could correct the science. And I listened, I took notes, I pondered… and I questioned. “Well, what if this had happened? This? Ok, not that one, how about this?” I sought the one answer that would get it “right,” when I was missing the one big, important, obvious thing: I was unwilling to alter the setting.

It sounds so childish typing that out. “I DON’T CARE IF IT’S WRONG, IT’S HOW I WANT IT.” But that’s how I felt. Changing the setting just felt wrong — a different setting wasn’t part of the story I wanted to tell — but I so desperately wanted the science to be right. I worried about getting it wrong, I worried about readers saying, “No, this isn’t possible. This could never happen.” I didn’t want readers to call me out on it.

Feeling stuck and confused, I emailed Tara more follow-up questions… and she responded with something that gave me pause:

I feel like you can say anything you want to set up a situation that works for your book. As a reader, I feel like I generally accept whatever premise the author presents. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal right now and there’s all kinds of ridiculous things that exist and are happening. I’m more interested in relationships than in the setting that exists behind them. — Tara, lovely scientist and friend

Hello, light bulb. It feels silly to admit it… but I had never thought of it from that angle before. Stephen King talks about figuring out who your Ideal Reader is, and writing for that person. I had been fixated on ALL THE READERS — all the people who would say I was doing it wrong. But as King writes:

You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. — Stephen King, On Writing

Maybe the science didn’t HAVE to be 100% right. Maybe I could ask the reader to take a leap of faith with me. Yes, there will be readers who are distracted and annoyed by the lack of scientific accuracy, but… maybe at the end of the day I’m not writing for those readers (or CAN’T write for them). I have to decide what type of story I want to tell and run with it, committed and ready to roll.

So no — this book is not going to be scientifically accurate. Edits and revisions will hopefully get it closer to plausibility, but I’m not going to worry too much about getting it all “right.” The setting will work to further the overarching themes of the book — themes of survival and community and responsibility to one’s self versus the greater good. THAT’s what I want to talk about with this book. That’s what I want to focus on. So to the scientists of the world, I apologize — this book may not be for you. But I’m hoping for that one Ideal Reader, it will be.

The Anchor

The past couple months have been slightly odd ones for me. In December, I finished up the first step of a huge project. I took January “off”, watched a lot of good-bad TV, traveled to the other side of the world. In February, I jumped back in — re-reading through the first draft, attending the AWP Conference. All busy, all good, all worthwhile pursuits.

March, though? March, for the most part, has felt stagnant. I’ve been restless. Ennui-y (new word, claiming it, trademarked). Ambitious and eager and yet at the same time — nowhere to go. Frustrated and somehow stuck, or perhaps rather “unstuck,” a la Billy Pilgrim, just sort of floating along as the weeks pass by. A helium balloon cast adrift.

Then this past week, I realized — I haven’t been writing.

That is not to say I haven’t been working. I’ve been puzzling out kinks in the first draft, asking questions, receiving answers (more on that process next week). But I haven’t been looking at the project straight on. I’ve been giving it the side eye, circling it, trying to come at old problems from new angles lest I scare them back into hiding.

I’ve been working, but I haven’t been writing. And I realized, that’s what’s been missing. That’s why I’ve felt afloat, adrift. Without a consistent writing schedule in my life, I flounder — at work, at home, in relationships. For better or worse, writing is what anchors me — the act of transcribing imagination tethers me to reality.

A creative friend mentioned the other day how nice it would be to NOT have the creative drive — to be content to go to work, come home, make dinner and watch a couple TV shows. How nice it’d be to have that be enough. But for so many people (I’d argue most people), it’s not. We crave something more, and often times you don’t realize what that something is until it’s gone. Cliche, but true. Although I never truly forgot, I guess I needed a several-month hiatus to remember how important writing is to me; it affects my well-being.

Writing in many ways makes my life harder — it means getting up earlier, working later, trying to eek together any spare bits of the day in order to get shit done. But in the end, it’s worth it — and I can say that without a publishing contract, without ever having been paid for my creative work. In the end, the writing itself is worth it.

So I’m setting a new goal for myself — a new deadline. I am going to have the second draft of my book done by July 1. That’s three months. Totally doable. Writers gonna write — and I’m ready.

The Best Laid Plans

Ugh.

You know how I was ALL READY to start editing on February 1? I’d done my prep work, my research, I was excited and rarin’ to go? I woke up on Saturday morning, pulled the manuscript together, formatted it to download onto my Kindle so I could read the whole thing in one go. And then I headed off to get my hair cut, with a whole, wide-open evening laid out in front of me, set aside to read.

And then halfway through my hair cut, I got so dizzy and nauseous that I had to interrupt my stylist and tell her, Oh hey, I’m sorry, I know you’re cutting my hair but if I don’t lie down now I’m going to pass out.

Fun!

I managed to drag my ass home, climb into bed and proceed to shiver and sweat and be generally miserable for the next 12 hours. Well, let’s be honest — the next 12 hours were the worst, but it extended in to Sunday as well. And Monday! On Monday afternoon I told Byron, “I’m going to try to take a shower now… I feel like I’m starting to smell.”

“Yeah, you kind of are… what? I didn’t say anything until you mentioned it!”

Thanks, dear.

Tuesday thank goodness I was finally feeling well enough to head back to work. Which I did. And then Wednesday I woke up with pink eye.

PINK EYE.

I AM NOT AMUSED BY THE PRACTICAL JOKE, UNIVERSE.

(The really annoying thing about all this? I was pretty sick two weeks ago, too. And Byron was really sick last week. And now apparently it’s my turn again? I told a co-worker that our house must be infested with the plague, and he said, “Just burn it down.”)

So. Needless to stay I was back on the couch Wednesday, and my sorry ass is here at home today as well.

Maybe also needless to say? I haven’t started editing the book yet. Which makes me feel like a huge failure. I know, I know, I set an arbitrary deadline for myself — a deadline not based on any agent or publisher or job — but it was still my deadline. And I missed that deadline because I could barely lift my head off the couch, let alone read a book or sit at the computer.

I know that “real life” sometimes gets in the way of writing, but… I never let real life get in the way of writing. When I set myself a goal, I get it done. In fact, I specifically set personal deadlines so I do get the work done. I hold myself accountable. “Real life” to me is always just an excuse for not writing. And now here I am, kicking and screaming because life’s drug me down to its level.

So, I don’t know. Do I just re-set the goal? Tell myself that I’ll start revisions this Saturday, that it’s ok, shit happens? I mean, that’s what I HAVE to do at this point. But it still pisses me off. I failed myself, and that’s the worse offense.

Now excuse me while I return myself to the couch.

The Inner Monologue

Sweet. No plans for the evening. You know what that means? WRITING NIGHT. Hot damn I’m gonna get so much done. I’m gonna write 500 words in the book, edit that short story, get a blog post drafted. I’ll get home, eat a quick dinner, and get writing. No distractions. I won’t even turn the TV on. I’ll unplug the internet. I will just write. It’ll be great. I’m awesome and this is gonna be awesome.

Ok, work day over. Time to catch the bus. I’m gonna get home, feed the cats, make myself some — oh my god why is it so hot on this bus I am LITERALLY dying. Literally. And why am I suddenly starving? I ate an apple right before leaving work. I do that specifically so I won’t die of starvation and heat stroke on the bus. Forget it, this is it. I’m nauseous. I will never make it. I WILL DIE ON THIS —

Oh thank god it’s my stop. Ok, we made it. To the writing!

Argh. There’s no food in this house. What am I supposed to eat?? I mean, I have to work, I have to be creative, I can’t be expected to feed myself. Maybe I should order pizza. Maybe I should eat out. Sweet baby Jesus tacos sound good. I should go to the Mexican place and get tacos and maybe a margarita and —

Pull it together, woman. You can make a quesadilla. You have the technology. That’ll work. Great thinking, boss.

… I probably need a beer with this quesadilla. I mean, that’s the right thing to do. It’s the patriotic thing to do. And I need to do something while I eat… You know, I’ll just watch one episode of Game of Thrones. No, not even one full episode. Just a half hour. Plenty of time for my brain to chillax, and still plenty of time to write afterwards. I mean, I did go to work today. I worked a full 8 hours. My brain needs to relax and unwind. I deserve it.

Wow. Cersei is such a badass. I mean, she’s also kind of evil? Is it wrong that I like her character so much? I mean, undeniably a badass. And she was kind of dealt a rough card, what with her father and Robert and that shit of a son —

Oh my god. I just sat in front of the TV for an hour. And am pressing play for a second episode. NO! Turn OFF, evil Xbox! You have no power over me! TO THE WRITING. To the computer! There’s still plenty of time to…

Oh shit. I forgot about this bill sitting on the desk. Ok, I’ll just pay this bill and then… ok, that’s done. Now really! To the writing!

… I should probably check my email first. I haven’t checked it in several hours. Something important could have come through. Something urgent.

… Nope. Nothing urgent. Well, that’s good! That means I can start writing! ONWARD!

Shoot. I forgot to Google “burnt leaf edges on maples” earlier today. I need to do that. I mean, if I don’t check now, the maple in the front yard could die. I’d be really sad if it died, especially since we planted the damn thing and nursed it and YOU WILL NOT DIE ON ME! TO THE GOOGLES!

… Huh, ok. Apparently we’re doing exactly what we should be doing with the maple. That’s good. Great.

Ok, to the writing! Word doc — open. Check. Now to just re-read what I last wrote, get re-acquainted… oh my God, I wrote that? That’s… that’s not good. That just doesn’t seem in line at all with that character. I should probably rework that…

NO! NO EDITING! WRITE NOW! ONWARDS!

Here we go. Typing words… oh hey! Byron just got home! I should go say hi to Byron… NO I’M SORRY I CANNOT TALK TO YOU, I AM WRITING!

Back to it. Here we… shit. It’s 9 o’clock. How did it get to be 9 o’clock? I have to get ready for bed soon. I have to wake up at 5 to go running. If I don’t go to bed soon I won’t get 8 hours of sleep and then I’ll be a miserable wreck at work tomorrow and no, it won’t be the end of the world but it’ll be awful and…

Ok. Calm down. There’s still time. Just write…

Sweet! I got a paragraph written! You know, that looks like a pretty damn good paragraph. I am pleased with this paragraph. And it’s 9:30 now, so you know, I should probably shut it down for the night. But I’m pleased with this. We did alright. A good night’s work, self. A good night’s work.

Writing Across the Gender Divide

Earlier this week I stumbled upon an article in Publishers Weekly by Adelle Waldman: “8 Authors Who Crossed the Gender Line.” Waldman’s debut novel (woo hoo, congrats!), The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., features a male protagonist. Seems straightforward enough. But… apparently not?

The first question I’m usually asked about my novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” is whether it was difficult for me, as a woman, to write from the male point of view.

That’s just… an odd question. I mean, maybe it’s a fair enough question to start an interview with — get the ball rolling. But I guess I just don’t understand why.

Why should it be difficult, as a woman, to write from the male point of view? And vice versa — why should it be difficult, as a man, to write from the female point of view? Two of my previous “books” (I use that term loosely, as they’re still in draft form) feature male protagonists. And let me tell you, my current female protagonist is NO easier to write than those two gents were. It never occurred to me when writing those guys that it should be difficult — they’re what the story called for. They’re characters. They’re human. I guess I just assume as a fellow human I can get into their brains.

As Waldman points out — a LOT of authors “cross the gender line.” Off the top of my head, I can think of Chuck Wendig, Cherie Priest, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham. That’s barely scratching the tip of the iceberg — so many authors write from the opposite gender’s point of view. So why is this even brought up as an interview question?

Now, to play devil’s advocate with myself — I suppose it is possible that authors write from the opposite gender’s POV, and it is STILL a difficult thing to do. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But speaking for myself… I dunno. I just don’t see it. Every character is different, which means every character has his or her own set of challenges. I don’t think it has much to do with gender, though — the challenges come from personality, history, situation, environment. Not all men think like other men; not all women think like other women. The same is true of their character counterparts. We’re each our own little unique snowflake, or however you want to look at it.

Fellow writers, do you tend to stick to a particular gender when you’re writing? Do you ever “switch over”? Am I wrong in thinking it’s not really an issue? Let’s pile up the anecdotal evidence.

Writing Strong Female Characters

Earlier this week I wrote about women writers — today, let’s look at the yin to that yang. Let’s talk female characters.

You’ll thank me later — go read the brilliant article on A Dribble of Ink called “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative“. It’s a fascinating, wide-reaching post that tackles how women are treated in fiction — how they often just serve as the catalyst or motive for male characters. The author, Kameron Hurley, writes:

I actually watched a TV show recently that was supposedly about this traumatic experience a young girl went through, but was, in fact, simply tossed in so that the two male characters in the show could fight over it, and argue about which of them was at fault  …. She’s literally in the room with them while they fight about it, revealing all these character things about them while she sort of fades into the background.

In the end, Hurley challenges authors to… well, do better. To go beyond the stereotypes and clichés and write well-rounded female characters who don’t exist solely as foils to the men around them.

And you know? I’d like to think I do a decent job at this. But Hurley’s article made me think long and hard about a female character I’m currently writing, and whether the romantic liaison I have planned for her is necessary. Maybe it is — maybe it furthers the story. But I’m trying to take a step back and really think about it.

Of course, there are a lot of authors out there who do a great job writing female characters. They deserve praise — not only for a job well done, but to encourage other authors to do so as well. And so, I give you 3 women who stand out in my mind as particularly well-written characters — and hope you’ll share yours.

Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Unabashedly nerdy, logical, proud of her intelligence — what’s not up love? I’ve always thought Hermione Granger was an amazing role model for young readers, and a beautifully written character. And the reason she’s so beautifully written is that — well, at the end of the day, Hermione is still a young girl growing up. She makes mistakes. She gets angry at stupid things. She even, at times, toys with boys’ emotions to get back at other boys. In short, she seems like a real human being, which is why it’s so easy to relate to her.

Miriam Black, Blackbirds and Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
Miriam is… well, the opposite of Hermione. The protagonist of her own series, Miriam is brash and crude and drinks way too much cheap whisky for her own good. So why am I so intrigued by her? Because she’s no one’s foil. She doesn’t take any shit from any man — or any woman, for that matter. Her motivations are 100% her own, and if you don’t like them? Miriam doesn’t care. She’s gonna do her own thing.

Mary Stassos, Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
This was a book I read recently, and although it follows many character arcs, Mary Stassos stood out. She marries young, has three children, divorces her philandering husband… and then, almost against her own accord, starts doing things that surprise her. She quietly but firmly embraces her gay son. She forms a friendship with a New York drag queen. She cares for her wild daughter’s illegitimate son. She is constantly pushed outside her comfort zone — and for the most part, becomes a better person for it. She’s not a loud character, Mary Stassos, but she’s a very real one.

Who are your favorite female characters? Which authors do you think do a particularly good job of writing “real” women?

Women Writers: What’s In a Name?

I want to start off by saying — this is nothing new. What I’m writing about has been goin’ on FOR-EV-ER. BUT. It’s recently been gaining momentum in the news. Which means people are talking about it — and by “it”, I mean women. Specifically, women writers. More specifically, women writers and society’s preconceptions about women writers.

So what are these news tidbits? First up — we have “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” by Deborah Copaken Kogan, talking about her experiences as a woman in the publishing industry. She titled her first book Shuttergirl — the publisher insisted on Shutterbabe, a title that (duh) negatively impacted how many saw the book.

There’s, of course, Wikipedia’s now infamous decision to create an American Women Novelists sub-category. Rather than, you know, just putting them with the rest of the (male) American Novelists.

And last but not least, there is the fascinating “Coverflip” by Maureen Johnson, challenging people to swap the “gender” of book covers:

I asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like. Because we have these expectations in our heads already.

Coverflip made painfully clear that we DO judge a book by its cover. Some covers look more “manly” (or at least gender neutral), while others look decidedly “girly”. And women writers — no matter the actual content of their books — often get stuck with a “girly” cover (or in the case of Deborah Copaken Kogan, a sexy title). And those girly covers turn off a lot of readers — aka, men. And hell, some women, too; I admit to being put off by pink covers with cursive titles.

But another thing about Coverflip caught my attention. Many of the redesigned covers don’t just feature different artwork and fonts — they have different names. Stephen King becomes “S. King”. Sarah J. Maas transforms into “S.J. Maas”. Which indicates that many readers aren’t only put off by cover artwork — they’re put off by the name on that cover.

This all, to me, brings up a very big question. I hope to publish a book someday, and when I do — should I publish under my real name? Or use an androgynous pseudonym, a la J.K. Rowling? Rowling’s publisher suggested she use a pseudonym, as a woman writer might be off-putting to boys. Which — ARGH, right? But those are the facts of the matter. That’s the world we’re operating in. If you’re a woman writer, there’s a high chance that your potential readership is going to drastically drop just because, to quote Margaret Atwood, you’re part of the “Writers Who Are Also Women” group.

So do you play the system to your advantage? Write under a pseudonym, knowing you’re likely to fare better, and then shock all the haters when it turns out that *gasp* you have boobs? Or do you write under your own name to “fight the good fight”? Prove that, yes, in fact, women CAN write.

I don’t have any answers to this. It’s a complicated issue and something I ponder. A lot. But I’m always curious to hear others’ take on the matter, particularly other women writers.

So tell me — if you’re a woman. Who happens to be a writer. What do you do? And guys, we don’t want to exclude you — do you tend to ignore books with “girly” covers?

(Edited to add — you may also want to check out the yin to this post’s  yang: Strong Female Characters.)