Writer Wednesday | Read This, Write That: A Personal Approach

I go through reading phases where I find myself obsessed with a particular genre. I just keep reading books until I’m burnt out and have to switch to something else. After discovering the below infographic, I wondered if perhaps my reading habits overlapped with writing focus.

medium_Improve_Writing_Skills_By_Genre

[Image Source]

My favorite genres are mysteries/thrillers, fantasy, historical, and horror – in that order, for the most part. I’m not a huge fan of sci fi, but I guess it creeps in a lot with the über depressing post-apocalyptic/dystopian things I read (and write!). According to the above infographic, those genres are associated with:

  • Plot (clues, avoiding monologues, “story logic”)
  • Page-turning (cliffhangers, escalation, tension)
  • Atmosphere (immersion, details, avoiding anachronisms)
  • Evil (antihero, villain motivation, suspension of disbelief)
  • World-building (invented worlds, magic, avoiding info dumps)

Since my current work-in-progress is part of the fantasy genre, that world-building element is there – and I like to stay on top of trends to make sure I’m crafting a compelling, engaging, unique story.

Writing with the 1:1000 team has helped me learn a lot of things about my style. My last piece earned a positive comment about my approach to characters. I’ve never considered myself a character-driven writer, but I reevaluated some of my pieces. While I need some call to action/MacGuffin/plot point, the characters are front and center for me. It’s important in a manuscript, and its important in 1,000 words. While horror teaches us a lot of evil, it also offers that character element in terms of crafting your anti-hero, villain, and a “worthy protagonist.”

Cliffhanger-type endings have always been a strong point for me – if a piece has a really solid ending, I don’t think I was true to my own writing.

I’ve been trying to read more historical fiction, but this is the genre that I burn out reading the fastest – precisely because of those pesky details and descriptions. I get sensory overload and feel inundated by the setting. Would it surprise anyone that this is the one area I always supplement when I’m revising? I usually capture conflict, plot points, and character dynamics, but there’s no sense of time or place.

Looks like I may need to reevaluate my TBR pile.

What genres do you read to augment your writing?

Writer Wednesday | Gender and the Narrative

A Facebook friend shared “I hate Strong Female Characters,” a great piece about gender equality and entertainment. Sophia McDougall writes,

When I talk about this, people offer synonyms; better, less limiting ways of saying the same thing. What about “effective female characters”, for instance? But it is not enough to redefine the term. It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal. We need an entirely new approach to the problem, which means remembering that the problem is far more than just a tendency to show female characters as kind of drippy. We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

McDougall draws on film and television to expose the problem with strong female characters, but literature has its own issues – as Kameron Hurley identifies in “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative“:

…the moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, “women and cattle and slaves” but active players in their own stories.

And ours.

Because when we choose to write stories, it’s not just an individual story we’re telling. It’s theirs. And yours. And ours. We all exist together. It all happens here. It’s muddy and complex and often tragic and terrifying. But ignoring half of it, and pretending there’s only one way a woman lives or has ever lived – in relation to the men that surround her – is not a single act of erasure, but a political erasure.

Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.

As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make.

In my opinion, there are counterexamples out there. Shows like Firefly, Scandal, and Once Upon a Time come to mind, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is rife with “strong female characters” who are as complex as their male counterparts. However, I see what McDougall and Hurley mean, because I see it in my own writing.

Catelyn-Sansa-Arya-Stark-house-stark-31818076-500-500

Yes, I was a Gender Studies major. Yes, at some point I considered pursuing my PhD in Gender Studies. And yes, I am a feminist. Yet I still perpetuate gender inequality with my manuscript.

My protagonist is a female. Cassandra is driven, intelligent, and witty. She’s a strategist. Cassandra compels others to action. In every way she can, Cassandra fights with conviction and skill.

With my primary character grouping, she currently makes up half of the women. The male-to-female ratio among my primary characters is 4:1.

The other major female character? Well, she’s meant to deconstruct the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, so female sexuality is front and center with that one.

I finished writing my manuscript almost a year ago. I’ve been revising it since, trying to get it to a point where it’s “ready” (I’ll know it when it happens, okay?). In that time, I’ve realized that some things just don’t work. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, but I think know now.

Internal and external conflicts center on elements of equality and identity; when your female perspectives are drowned out by a variety of male perspectives, it’s hard to present an equitable story. There are a range of male identities, in a slew of occupations. But the female voice, despite its dominance page-wise, is still weak and one-sided.

There’s a great story here, and clearly it’s still emerging. So as I’m revising, what else can I do? I can’t just put in extra women; I can’t add unnecessary characters just so the reader hears more female voices. I can’t see throwing random women on the page as anything other than a disservice.

I decided to continue revising, paying attention to close attention to gender and sexuality. Until I figured something out, I could at least make sure my existing characters were complex and well-written. I noticed some flaws right away. Rebecca had always been written as a delicate, gentle woman – but that didn’t mesh with her background. I expanded her history (within appropriate limits for the story) and modified her appearance. She’s more than just a wife and mother; she is a dynamic, bold woman.

Then I came up with the “Orlando Option.”

I’m not going to find literary interstices and squeeze female characters in. But if I’m going to deepen my characters, why shouldn’t I consider gender changes as part of that process? There are men in my manuscript who aren’t as layered and nuanced as I’d like them to be. What if I’m tapped out writing them because they’re men?

Look, I get it – I don’t want to “add women and stir,” and I can see how this might seem to be the same thing. To me, it isn’t. I’m dealing with a handful of characters that I’ve written and can’t take any farther except to Mandyville. “Maleness” doesn’t add anything to their story, or the story as a whole. They don’t have to be male to be interesting or compelling; making them female offers them previously unavailable opportunities.

I’m dealing with identity here – and relationships change dramatically and for the better when gender dynamics shift.

So far, it’s working. This manuscript is getting closer to “ready.”  And the active players in my narrative have plenty to say.

How do gender perspectives inform your narrative? How might they shift to tell a different story?

Writer Wednesday | I Was a Teenaged Mary Sue-Wielding Writer (and I Didn’t Write Fanfic)

Ah, yes. The “Mary Sue.” One of my favorite tropes, despite the fact that its definition varies. I do think this description from TVTropes suffices:

Since there’s no consensus on a precise definition, the best way to describe the phenomenon is by example of the kind of character pretty much everyone could agree to be a Mary Sue. These traits usually reference the character’s perceived importance in the story, their physical design and an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

Looking for a great example? Cleolinda’s Mary Sue meme entry (“Cleo Sue”).

This is the outfit I was wearing when Professor Lupin asked me out. I'm not sure what Professor Tonks was so mad about, though. Probably just jellus that she can't transmogrify her hair as good as I can. And then Gwen Stefani apparated out of nowhere and told me that I must join her tour, as my style is totally B-A-N-A-O-M-G-W-T-F.

This is the outfit I was wearing when Professor Lupin asked me out. I’m not sure what Professor Tonks was so mad about, though. Probably just jellus that she can’t transmogrify her hair as good as I can. And then Gwen Stefani apparated out of nowhere and told me that I must join her tour, as my style is totally B-A-N-A-O-M-G-W-T-F.

Go read it all. I’ll wait.

Finished? Cool.

So here’s the thing. I started writing my manuscript when I was fifteen. When I revisited my manuscript, I made some interesting discoveries about fifteen-year-old me. Namely, I was a terrible writer. I had a great story and some really cool ideas about/for characters. What was on the page wasn’t cool. It was shallow and contrived and illogical.

It was a lot of work. There was a ton of overhaul. It’s still getting there, but it’s a lot closer than it was.

One of the biggest changes comes from my protagonist Cassandra’s characterization. See, Cassandra was a Mary Sue back in the day. She had it all:

  1. Perceived importance in the story: Protagonist! Hero! The world revolves around her! No, really, I think at one point in my draft the world literally revolved around her.
  2. Physical design: Cassandra was a Mobius Mary Sue; she didn’t know she was beautiful, that’s what made her beautiful.
  3. Irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature: Perfect! Could do no wrong! I have a crush on every boy! Every boy has a crush on her!

If this manuscript had ever been published with Cassandra’s original characterization, she would have been the Bella Swan of heroic fantasy.

CassSue had to go. For one, she was boring. When all the parts are completely special and the sum of those parts is perfection, there’s really nothing interesting about that character. Sure, I can say CassSue is interesting until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t show you how CassSue is interesting because there’s nothing to show.

footage_not_found

How did I save my hero from crippling perfection? I decided that a perfect character made things too happy and unrealistic. There’s no conflict there. I started asking some questions:

  1. What does my character want?
  2. Why does she want that?
  3. Who and what stands in her way?
  4. What does she have in her arsenal that can help her remove that obstacle?
  5. What does she still need?
  6. What does she value?
  7. Where does she find motivation to keep her going?

With each read, she’s different: a little more complex, a little more nuanced. she’s still important, but she is no longer universally desired. She has flaws and weaknesses.

CassSue is gone; Cassandra’s here to stay.

Next week: a semi-companion piece about strong female characters, gender and narrative, and how I turned men into women.

How do you add complexity to your characters?

Writer Wednesday | Controversial Writing Advice, Part II

Last week, I discussed the concept that some of the advice you hear or read may be wrong. I asked you to instead consider elements within your genre. Sometimes what doesn’t work in one novel may work quite well in another. Consider the following examples:

  • Don’t start with a prologue.
    • Well, not to geek out or another, but GRRM’s prologues are phenomenal. They’re just different enough to start each book on a high note and really set the tone for what’s to come. 
    • From being a fairly avid reader, I’ve rarely encountered a good non-genre prologue. I tend to see more small vignettes in media res (Erin Kelly’s books do these quite well, actually, and she is more of a genre writer IMO).
  • Never have your character alone reading a letter (or email, or text message, or whatever).
    • Oof. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, anyone? It’s literally a classic.
    • Bella and her mom email back and forth every so often. Snore.
  • Read only your genre so you know the trends.
    • This is a mistake! Other genres can help you write stronger, more layered scenes – my big go-to is mystery, because it tunes me into crafting a page-turning plot and building suspense…when well-written, of course.
    • Okay, but yes – you should be reading your genre and knowing the trends. Also, this really helps with book titles which I totally suck at creating.

From personal experience, I hear the prologue one a fair amount. I’ve done a lot of work on my prologue – it’s the first few pages, and people do tend to stop reading if their interest isn’t piqued. It’s the first thing I bring out in writing groups and sessions. It’s been retooled quite a bit over the years, but I refuse to cut it from the manuscript. It works in my genre, and I’m repeatedly told by my readers that it draws them in.

On the other side, I initially had a very long “Hey, here I am reading a book! I’m so…literary!” scene that was really just about how cool it is to sit alone and read books without anyone bothering you.

(Sometimes I find some pretty meta references in my manuscript and it’s kind of fun to try and figure out how they a) made it in and b) how they stayed in despite ruthless revisions.)

Anyway, that reading scene? The one all about…reading? It was the first protagonist scene and it was just so boring. It just didn’t work because as awesome as reading is, reading about reading being awesome is actually boring reading. And while there’s plenty of “reading” happening in books, there’s other stuff happening – back story reveals and info dumps, self-reflection, espionage and spying under the guise of reading…you name it. It starts with a book, it ends with a book, but there’s a deeper layer in the middle. That’s what I had to find, and that’s what makes the scene “work” now.

What controversial writing advice have you encountered? Why did you find it controversial?

Writer Wednesday | …and what am I going to do about it?

I mention “fear” as part of the writing process on occasion. I seem to come back to that a lot when I think about writing. There was a recent Reddit thread about your writing process and weird quirks. I failed to mention something in my post, only because I’ve recently noticed it: whenever I sit down to write, edit, revise, or approach my manuscript and its components in any kind of creative way, I ask myself one question.

What am I afraid of today, and what am I going to do about it?

[Note: Is anyone else perpetually worried about accidentally typing “abou tit” in correspondence? I use Communicator at work and very much obsess over that typo. One time it happened and my internal monologue went as follows: “OH MY GOD. YOU DID IT. YOU CRAZY SON OF A BITCH, YOU ACTUALLY DID IT. TYPE SOMETHING FAST. ANYTHING. JUST. TYPE. SOME. WORDS. ‘LOL’ IS OKAY. OH SHIT, NO IT ISN’T.”]

Now, when I ask myself what I’m afraid of, I don’t necessarily mean “that creepy clown from It” (seriously you guys, this book is freaking me out!) or “something happening to my family.” I’m talking about what am I afraid of putting to the page in my manuscript. What am I afraid about unearthing?

  • Am I afraid that X female character is a Mary Sue? Well, get that bitch some conflict. Bitches love conflict.
  • Am I afraid that this one character makes no sense in context and there is no logical explanation for him to pop up for that scene because really, what is the deal with this guy? Well, kill that dude off! He is useless and serves no purpose and if it confuses you, then it will confuse readers.
  • Am I afraid that I use too many adverbs because they are my new writing crutch (replacing my hatred of “say” verbs)? Well, grab a highlighter and highlight every. single. adverb. You’re doing the final edit, you may as well make yourself useful.
  • Am I afraid that the transition from dramatic explanation by X to acceptance by Y is too jarring and unnatural? Well, throw something in there – internal conflict, additional dialog – something that makes that conversation flow less like “Hey, someone killed my dad and it really, really sucks and I’m struggling, yo.”/”Okay.” [Note: No lie, I am actually dealing with a scene where the emotional and social interaction plays out like that. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before, but it reads terribly and actually made me do an editing double-take, as though I lost a page or something.]

The challenge I pose to myself is to be completely honest and introspective. I have to identify what isn’t working in the reading and fix it in the writing. It may be a character flaw, logical plot point, technique, or craft. Sometimes it is even an intuitive quirk, a need to address a perfectly serviceable component that for whatever reason just doesn’t feel right.

That need for honesty works, though. The writing improves. The story flows. The characters exist. Things begin to fall into place and feel true. It’s hard going, but I know it is the best thing for my manuscript.

If I can’t be honest with and challenge myself, I won’t be able to handle that from an agent (and hopefully: an editor, a publisher, a reader…). If I can’t do that, then I am not ready – and what’s worse, the manuscript isn’t ready.

So I push the envelope and force the question.

What are you afraid today, and what are you going to do about it? 

Conference Chat | Brave New World

This post has been percolating for the last few days. As the writing high from WDCE wears off, I’m left with lasting impressions of the following:

Pitch Slam is easily the most nerve-wracking writing experience. I went to WDCW and had a moderately successful experience, but ultimately it taught me that my manuscript just wasn’t ready for submission. Much like a crush, I’ve been oscillating between intense scrutiny and complete disregard for my manuscript since. For those unfamiliar with the event, Pitch Slam is speed-dating for writers and agents: one ninety minute session, three minutes per agent (ninety seconds to pitch and ninety seconds to converse), approximately fifty agents. Pick and choose and dive right in. After a very helpful session on Friday night, I had a couple of areas to tweak. I’ve written out my pitch, and thanks to my residual debate skills I can memorize talking points and key phrases but not sound like a robot (and I still want to connect with the woman who said she would pitch in a robot voice – seriously, someone find her!). Saturday’s session was really successful for me. I pitched to eight agents and got requests from six, a referral from one, and a soft reject from another.

Can someone say “pics or it didn’t happen?” The agent who “rejected” me (she gave my pitch props but felt she wouldn’t be the best to adequately rep my manuscript) did so while there was a photographer “capturing the magic.” It was all awkward but funny, and she and I had this great moment where we both saw the guy out of the corner of our eyes and kind of exchanged a “This is happening; just go with it and keep your shit together” look. And really, if I’m going to get rejected I do want it partially captured on film, especially if that rejection involves an agent telling me that I should have plenty of success with my pitch with others. So can someone tell me where those photos are? I seriously have to see that, and so far my persistent stalking of the website has yet to produce results.

Support young writers! Seriously, I was impressed with the number of young folks I encountered. Now, I think technically I could be categorized as a young writer, so I should clarify that I’m talking about folks who can’t buy their own drinks legally. Kudos to you artistic, creative, bold young whippersnappers. I feel old but proud. And word to the wise, you can totally pick up some life experience (if you feel you need it) and get back into writing.

Chuck Wendig is the Joss Whedon of WDCE. Discuss.

I’m struggling with how to best phrase this, but here goes: mental health got a necessary mention in WDCE. It was appropriate and relevant to note that writer’s block can sometimes be depression, and that tips for fighting writer’s block won’t work in those scenarios. I think too easily we categorize the oddness of creative types as quirks; vocalizing mental health brings it back to the forefront.

I am socially awkward, and that at times borders on anxiety and I don’t want to get too detailed…so all I will say is this: I learned that I can, in fact, network and be genuine doing it because the people with whom I’m networking are people I’m genuinely interested in getting to know. I initiated conversation with others in a completely foreign environment in which I knew no one, and I did not have a panic attack or nervous breakdown.

Not conference-related per se, but did you guys know NYC is totally freaking awesome? You can buy a cheese danish on the street! The library is gorgeous and sneaks up on you if you’re directionally challenged! You don’t have to pay for psychics! Screw the manuscript, I should write travelogues.

In RDJ-style humility: I am Iron Man well, I guess I’m doing something right. This was my first conference where I didn’t have an earth-shattering, life-altering, manuscript-overhauling aha! moment. A lot of the writing process sessions reaffirmed things I’m already doing or gave me new strategies to try. I feel like my manuscript is in that “final coat” stage of the car wash.

Because it bears repeating: we’re weird.

Because it’s hilarious and everyone should know this: we dress against type:

There’s no way that guy is writing hard sci-fi. His neckbeard is like six degrees of grime shy.

And that woman is pitching a memoir? About what? The trying and toilsome journey of waiting for her pink-painted rhinestone-studded fingernails to dry this afternoon?PHAW!

How ‘bout that gal with the tattoos, ripped jeans, and undeniable air of brooding self importance. Can’t wait to find out in what city her urban fantasy is set! What’s that you say? She writes literary fiction? No shit…

I call myself Fox Shirt & Blazer because I am wholly unoriginal at naming and get all of my character names from like, babynames.com. Those who know me are surprised by my genre, which I’ve mentioned once here on the blog (if you were paying attention).

Writer Wednesday | Approaching the Artful Edit, Part One

Last week I wrote about my struggles with over-editing; I promised to return to the topic of the “artful edit,” something I learned from its eponymous guide The Artful Edit by Susan Bell.

body5

I read Bell’s guide last year and it helped me put a stop to one bad habit: don’t write a scene and then immediately set to editing it! Bell recommends a happy medium: “edit before too much time passes,” but “take the longest break possible” in the meantime. This will help you gain perspective on your work without losing your place in the manuscript.

Bell also recommends changing up some of your tactics – don’t edit where you wrote; edit with a different method than writing (longhand vs. computer, for example); read it out; and use visuals.

The visuals part is what I’ve been experimenting with the most lately. I’ve been highlighting sections in the text and focusing on those during the editing process. This has helped me identify areas I know I want to revisit and dive into a little deeper than other areas that have been fine-tuned or polished already.

I’m also editing longhand and using different colors of pen to keep track of needed changes, and different colors of highlighter to identify recurring themes, motifs, and imagery. I employ marginalia in all texts; my own manuscript is no exception.

Thanks to Bell’s method, I found some places lacking that extra oomph – they fell flat mostly in terms of characters’ motivations. I’m now going back and adding a few much-needed connecting scenes and development arcs. I never realized they were missing until I took Bell’s approach and did a holistic edit (longhand!) of my manuscript; when it was over, it seemed so obvious – and I knew exactly what needed to be added and where.

I’ll be making a second pass once I finish up, so check back for more of my insights. I barely scraped the surface on Bell’s work (there’s more to be said about the difference between macro- and micro-editing!).

For other writers out there, do you have any editing approaches you take? What works for you, and why?

Writer Wednesday | Write Drunk, Edit…When?

Many writers love to go to that standby Ernest Hemingway quotation:

url

It’s funny and sometimes relevant. Similar to discussing the environments in which we write, let’s focus on the timeline in which we edit (as opposed to the state of mind).

I am, admittedly, awful about editing and revising. Too frequently do I attempt an edit before I should. I find myself obsessed with perfection: making sure that turn of phrase is just right, determining if that word is exactly the one I want – you get the idea.

Here’s another phrase for you.

url-1

Did you get that? It’s “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The piece above is by Luke Stettner, and it’s a nice visual representation of how I see my manuscript when I’m over-editing. Over-editing tangles the process; I find myself trying to comb out snarls in the same chapter instead of strengthening themes, or, you know, writing. After reading The Artful Edit last year, I’ve found a new approach to editing – marrying my love for a close edit at the end of the writing cycle. Tune in next week to find out more!

Writer Wednesday | Write It Down!

My department has weekly meetings on Wednesday, and today I was inspired by the devotion…but not in the way one might think. I mean, the weekly devotions are always very philosophical and give me something to think about, but today I was struck by something that really came out of left field.

Tarshish.

What? The location to which Jonah was trying to flee?

Yes, that Tarshish. Is there any other?

Anyway, it made me think of something in ze manuscript, which in turn made me send the following frantic email to myself while we were transitioning from the devotion to meeting topics:

Subject: Ref to Tarshish
To: Me
C in HE

Yeah, I know. That kind of looks crazy. But it makes sense to me, and it’s the kind of fun stuff I like to jot down so I don’t lose great ideas when I have them. Other fun notes include (italicized texts refer to verbatim notes):

  • Six pages of shorthand on medieval Japan (I’m using this as inspiration and want a strong, solid foundation)
  • Ideas for new names of places and people (half my characters and locations have retained the same name since I started working on this sucker in high school — and yes, there’ve been a lot of content changes)
  • Fun references I want to work in that actually work within the context of ze manuscript, such as a Big 10 (but actually 11) shout-out
  • A rough conversation snippet that I would looooove to post but actually gives away some plot points
  • A map on a piece of graph paper that’s been snookered into staying in the pages of my writing journal
  • Feedback I received on a segment I sent to someone else
  • “Welfare queens” conservative texts imagery (Gender Studies majors: like, everything you ever read will work itself into your life somehow. I made friends at a baseball game by discussing Gloria Anzaldúa‘s work.)
  • Family trees, lots of them
  • Cast of characters for a later expansion?
  • Stages of grief, crossed out as I wrote a segment in which a character rapid cycles (think George from Dead Like Me)
  • Group discussion of spirituality –> C understanding of E + concludes to stop –> A approaches C –> C & G (full circle)
  • Another rough conversation snippet that I will post, with the note that I tend to write in skeletons – I write down what needs to be said and then each time I go back I add muscles, tendons, nerves, skin. Slightly modified to not give away names, etc.

“You lied to us!” – A
“I’m testing you.” – B
“With lies and deceit.” – A
“I’m testing you!” – B
“With hatred.” – A
“If that is how it manifests, you’ve failed the test.” – B
“My god.” – A
“Yes, I am.” – B

Why do these tidbits matter? Because they’re mine, and they represent a segment of what inspires me. Half of them might mean nothing to you, but they carry weight with me as they inform significant ideas for writing. I live by the “write it down” method these days; too many good ideas have fluttered away because I didn’t jot anything down. Now I keep a leather journal, a pen, or even my phone so I can note something and add it to the collection later. It’s essentially a paper napkin with the number to a plot line or allusion on it. It’s not pretty (I keep similar notes regardless of context, so sometimes I have to retranslate work notes for others because they make zero sense), but writing is a messy, torrid affair with your own internal voice; “ugly” is just part of it sometimes.

*Totally scholarly website link FTW!