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Gollancz Lit Fest: Words of Wisdom

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Last weekend was Gollancz’s annual Literary Festival, celebrating all things SF&F. For the first time I splashed out on a ticket and went along to a couple of panels by such giants as Joanne Harris, Joe Hill, Alastair Reynolds, Aliette de Boudard, Adam Ross and Pat Cadigan. From them, I learned three important lessons:

  1. Joanne Harris is exactly as much of a geek as I always hoped she’d be.
  2. Pat Cadigan’s comic timing is absolutely perfect.
  3. They are people just like me, with the same writing challenges and struggles. If they can do it, so can I.

That said, there were a few pearls of more specific wisdom that came out of the panels. I’ll do my best to assemble them into a coherent post, but the conversations veered quite abruptly so there may be some jumping around.

Publishing & Medium

Harris: You have to be rejected. You have to be rubbish for a while before you’re good. None of your time spent writing is ever wasted. It’s all experience that gets you to the next level. Self publishing is a great option which I’m glad I didn’t have.

Hill: With self-publishing, the readers have become the gatekeepers. They will tell you if you’re any good in the Amazon reviews. But your crappy stuff will still be out there.

Cadigan: Editors are your best friends. They stop you going out with spinach between your teeth. I woke up one morning knowing how to turn my current project into a trilogy, and I had to take a tranquilliser.

Harris: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Lemony Snickett – they were all game changers in publishing trends. Before them, lots of rejections were based on the belief that such books were too adult for kids and too childish for adults.

Hill: In the 19th Century illustration was understood to be part of the publishing package. Illustrations perfectly captured the character on the page. When Modernism came along, illustrations became viewed as for kids, or very middle class and not high art with a plot. So illustration fell by the wayside. Now so much of our media is digital so it’s great to use it to enrich the analogue page. Illustrations are poised to come back.

Harris: As soon as you send the book out to the public, you’ve released control. That’s how it should be. Everyone will take out of a book what they need, and it’s not necessarily what you put in there but that’s good.

Even when all of us speak the same language, none of us speak the same language.

Harris: I write stories live on Twitter and see how the audience responds as we go. It forces you to think differently about structure, both overall and at a sentence level. Every sentence has to be formed in a different way. A story on the page is different to a story read aloud.

Writing Emotionally

Harris: ‘Write what you know’ is rubbish. There’d be no fantasy, and all crime writers would be in jail, if we did that. But it has to be emotionally true to you. Don’t write love if you’ve never been in love.

Hill: Find a writer you love and try writing them. Go through a page and work out why they did stuff. Can you do it differently? Can you do it better? Write dialogue trees – just dialogue alone, no descriptions or directions. It helps clarify the voices of different characters.

I want to know how a guy dresses from the way he talks. – Steinbeck

Harris: I give my characters D&D stats – Intelligence, Charisma and Constitution. It makes you think of them differently. How are they able to react to different situations, if they have low Cha or low Con? You need to know everything about them, even if you don’t put it on the page. How would they answer internet memes? Or choose from a menu? Go for a walk as your character – what would they notice? Stanislavski’s Method Acting books are my most valuable writing resource.

Planning & Plotting

Ross: If I plan in too much detail, it becomes a chore to write the book and boredom communicates to the reader. First you get it written, then you get it right.

Cadigan: You’re always a bit smarter than you think you are, and you know more about human behaviour than you think you do. Leave enough wiggle room to let that happen.

Reynolds: I always have a skeleton as a reference point, to navigate back from a tangent, but generally I like to be surprised. The downside is you end up throwing a lot of material away.

Cadigan: The dishes are in the sink but I’m too lazy to wash them, so I might as well write a book.

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Thank you, Pat, for that inspiring call to action!

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Writing Good Girls: The Princess Industrial Complex

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This week some friends and I have been posting about badass historical women on social media, because women are often overshadowed despite the fact there’s some seriously awesome role-models out there. So, on that theme, I am delighted to present a guest blog from Lorraine – one of my collaborators on the Read This First anthology – who has a few words to say about writing female role-models.


I spend a great deal of my time driving, which gives me quite a bit of time to think, sing tunelessly in the car and listen to audiobooks. I’m 36, intelligent but have been known to make bad life choices with respect to partners or potential partners. I have good levels of self-confidence and yet I don’t expect men to find me attractive. Last Sunday, I was driving down the A500 and had an epiphany which caused myself to question my life: Am I Cinderella?! I work outside and as a result I am often muddy and feel like I’ve been through a hedge backwards because I actually have been. This means I forego pretty clothes, my nails are a mess, and make-up is for special occasions. Cinderella is only noticed by the prince once she puts on the beautiful dress and the impractical shoes; once she has shed her grubby clothing. So perhaps it is not too far a reach for me to feel a little unattractive in my own practical clothing and to feel surprised when I am noticed by chaps with even one redeeming feature. The fairy tales I grew up with tell me that a beautiful woman won’t be noticed until she dresses and acts like a princess. Why should I be any different?

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Be honest, how often do you properly look at the cleaner?

Last February, I was listening to the audiobook Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. She touched upon the phrase “Princess Industrial Complex”, a concept that I had been previously aware of but hadn’t ever put words to. The Princess Industrial Complex most often refers to Disney’s lucrative business of selling all things princess. It started in 2000 after a Disney executive went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls wearing home-made outfits. He saw a money-making opportunity and, with very little market research, Disney began selling princess outfits along with whatever else a little princess could hope to have: princess bedding, princess toothpaste, princess lunchboxes. The works. Over 26,000 items that are princess, all pristine and all perfect – and all objects for attainment.

But there’s the rub. Princesses are just that to the princes in their stories: objects of attainment. The core Disney Princesses are Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, with Jasmine and Snow White trailing. “Ah!” I hear you say. “But what about Mulan?” Sure. Mulan is definitely a Disney princess but her dolls are sold dressed in the clothes of the femininity that she hated. Each of these iconic princesses are portrayed commercially as being wholly feminine and, once their stories are taken into account, sometimes they are also portrayed as being extremely vulnerable. In this context, the beautiful dresses, the impractical shoes and the immaculate make-up become symbols of vulnerability and weakness. The princess’ own hyper-femininity is used against her and, from her point of view, she needs to be rescued. From the prince’s point of view, she can’t rescue herself so he must go and acquire her.

Of course, the word “princess” comes with its own negative connotations. In a modern context, it means a high-maintenance woman who expects to be saved by a man who foots the bill for her princess beauty products. Not that this type of consumer fetishism has ever been pushed as a good thing from a young age. Nope. Not at all. *cough cough* PrincessIndustrialComplex *cough*

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Little Miss Vanity Case, sold by French toy maker Janod to girls of 3+ years old

But I digress.

In storytelling, a princess can be a character that is locked away and requires rescue. This is where storytellers, game writers, and even GMs should attempt awareness. If that story is about the rescue of a princess, does that princess have to be female and utterly useless? I find myself often wondering why the princess hasn’t damn well rescued herself; sometimes it’s not possible, but shouldn’t she at least try? Even if that means suffering consequences or doing something terrible? Little rebellions go a long way and when these are not present it’s frustrating and, frankly, a little unbelievable. It removes the princess character from being just a quest item maguffin. It gives her personality and it grants a level of strength to the character.

For all that console games tend to be aimed at a more male audience, some of the best examples I can think of where princessified characters are strong and femininity does not equate to weakness are from the game Borderlands 2. The first princessified character to be saved is male, for a start. Roland is never treated as an object for attainment, is demonstrably badass, and removes himself from being a useless princess by fighting back against his former captors. This sets the tone for equality within the game. There are no princesses here. Characters may need rescue, but they are in no way princesses.

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Borderlands 2: no princesses, just pirates

The next character requiring rescue in the story is Angel. Angel may easily be read as a princess as she is helpless against her father, who all but puts her in a tower, and yet she is one of the most powerful characters in the game. This is the perfect princess set-up and it is completely nullified by the gameplay. She continually rebels against her father and she has no save/acquisition option. The players must kill her in order to remove the threat she poses to the planet of Pandora. She is removed from being a princess by the storyteller because princesses are to be saved, not destroyed because they are too powerful. Princesses are weak, after all.

After Angel is killed by the players, Roland is shot by Jack – Angel’s father and all-round baddie. Lilith flies into a physical fury at him but Jack slaps a control collar on her. Even whilst she is collared, she rebels. At the end of the story arc Jack is dying and Lilith gives the players a choice: “You kill him, or I will.” If the players allow her to kill him, she does so using her special abilities, stating “That’s for Roland.” Princesses do not seek revenge. They don’t kill. And they don’t give ultimatums. In this story, the writers rescued the audience from princesses.

The various female characters in Borderlands 2 are written as the equals of any male character in this gameworld. Some may be alluring or play with fluffy bunnies, but under that allure is dangerous wit and business acumen; under those fluffy bunnies lie rigged explosives. Femininity isn’t being weak or helpless. It’s part of being badass.

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Tell me she’s not badass. I dare you.

That’s what is galling about the Princess Industrial Complex. It encourages young girls to view their femininity as what makes them beautiful, and as a form of weakness since they can’t possibly save themselves, thereby implying that beauty is weakness. It encourages the thought that they are pretty objects of attainment that shouldn’t get grubby playing in the mud or they won’t be attractive to the opposite sex. And whilst a good flounce in a beautiful dress is fun, why should the wearing of the dress signal the need to be rescued?

There is hope, however. A friend’s daughter is fixated on princess dresses, but this three year old gets it. She is The Princess Jane. She dons her dress and then picks up her sword and runs off to fight the baddies. This is a girl who does not equate femininity with weakness, who recognises that it is more fun and more interesting to be the active player than the passive princess.

These are the women and girls that we need to write about, and now, before the doubt creeps in. Sadly, Princess Jane recently stated that she needed a prince to rescue her. She is learning via the social osmosis of her peers. She still dons that dress and picks up her sword, but with a bit more doubt these days.

Let’s remove that doubt, shall we? Let’s not write princesses. Let’s write people.

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Lorraine is an Anglo-American ex-lecturer in Multimedia Technologies who fell off a train platform one day, causing her to have an epiphany. She hated her job. This epiphany then caused her to run away to a field to be an ecologist and she now spends her time in and around sites of infrastructure and construction, looking for amphibians, mammals, noxious plants and interesting fungi, which she then writes technical reports about. When not bothering nature, she engages in playing and running Live Action Role Play events and has an unhealthy interest in folklore.

Nine Worlds: Barriers to Women in SFF Publishing

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Science fiction, fantasy and horror writing seem to still be very much a boys club. Men are consistently reviewed more often in genre-related publications while also dominating ‘best of’ and ‘most anticipated’ lists. Is this because there are fewer women writers? Are publishers publishing fewer women? What about the marketing? We know there are brilliant female genre writers out there, so why aren’t more people reading their books, talking about their work, and including them in lists of favourite writers?

Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond, Lucy Hounsom, Gillian Redfearn, Lydia Gittens, Alasdair Stuart

downloadRegular readers of this blog have already met Charlotte Bond, one of the hosts of podcast Breaking the Glass Slipper, thanks to her recent guest post. Well, I was lucky enough to get into a very select audience of a live recording of BtGS‘s tenth episode at Nine Worlds. True to the general theme of equality, both of the Con and the podcast, this episode looked at why there is an imbalance of gender in published SFF authors and how this might be addressed.

I’m not going to write up the session for the simple reason that you can listen to it yourself by clicking here. And if you listen really carefully, at 1:09:00 you can even hear me ask a question!

Next week: telling stories in an expanded setting.

Rolling For Metaphors: Lessons from Taylor Mali

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Taylor Mali, American poet and English teacher, has come up with this fun little exercise. I’m on a bit of a poetry bent at the moment, so this appealed to me. He goes into a little too much detail in his video (thanks, Mr. Mali, I know how to fold cardboard into a cube with sellotape), but it’s worth watching. Let me know what metaphors you guys come up with!

GUEST:Breaking The Glass Slipper

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I am very pleased to introduce my friend, and co-collaborater on the Moonlight is Third anthology, Charlotte Bond – author, podcaster and fellow geek. Charlotte is the one who first drew my attention to Chris Winkle’s article on the heroine’s journey, which I talked about last week, so I asked her back to share her views on the subject.


 

There are lots of books and articles out there about how to plot and write a good novel. They’re always worth reading because, even if you don’t subscribe to the same method as that particular author, it’s always interesting to see how other people work. In this vein, I was directed to an article entitled “Using the Heroine’s Journey”. Being a co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper (a podcast dedicated to discussing women in genre), I thought it was an interesting article for friends and fans to read so I re-posted it on my own Facebook page. I got a generally consistent response from my writer friends along the lines of: “Yeah, it’s okay, but I don’t agree.”

So what’s this theory or, more precisely, “mythic structure”, all about? What was good about it, and where did it fall down? Let’s start with a summary.

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThere is a plot device out there known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’. A description of it can be found here. Basically, it is a template for a storyline which is found in novels, myths and poetry everywhere. It follows a single male protagonist as he goes out to conquer the world. It’s a pretty good, solid structure and, if you’re looking to write your first novel, then considering this plot outline a good place to start.

However, it was put forward in a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell published in 1949. I think it’s fair to say that writing and attitudes have moved on a fair way since then. In fact, Maureen Murdock felt so strongly that this was the case that she decided to come up with a corresponding mythic structure entitled ‘The Heroine’s Journey’. The article by http://www.mythcreants.com examines this mythic structure and gives some fairly helpful working examples along the way.

The biggest positive of this particular mythic structure is the emphasis it puts on conflict. I attended a romance writing course and the plot structure we were given was pretty much the same as the hero’s journey, with the added emphasis that there must be conflict not only to drive the plot forward but to make the characters interesting to read. The fun of a romance novel is seeing two people at odds in character and personality gradually overcoming their differences to realise that they’re perfect for each other. Pride and Prejudice is a prime and well-known example of this. I’ve beta-read plenty of first draft stories (including my own!) where an absence of conflict has made it a general, lack-lustre affair. Adding or increasing this element can improve a weak story no end.

However, the mythic structure of the heroine’s journey places far more emphasis on internal conflict rather than external conflict. In the hero’s journey, the protagonist is basically influenced by outside events which convince him to go a quest to find something in particular; in the heroine’s journey, the focus is on more of an internal journey, leading her on a quest for identity rather than a magical object. The hero might be battling the physical forces of good and evil, but the heroine is battling the duality of her own self as well the contradictions present within those around her. So, like the article says, the heroine’s journey is a good template for a story which focuses on a character’s quest to find herself (or himself as the case may be).

Where does this structure fall down? For me, and for my friends it would seem, the huge downside was the general assumption that one journey is feminine and the other is masculine. Why can’t women go on a quest to find a magic sword while men go on a quest to find themselves? Admittedly, it says right at the very beginning of the article:

I will refer to the central character as the heroine… [h]owever, it applies to male characters just as well…

But that doesn’t really help much. After all, if it can be applied to men as well, why is it specifically referred to as ‘the heroine’s’ journey?

The risk with using a template like this to plot your story is that all your women will be the same, as will your men. You won’t be pushing the boundaries. For example, the story given in the article is one that I’d certainly like to pick up and read – but how different and equally fascinating would it be if the protagonist was male? Or, since we are a modern age, if it was a homosexual character? Such characters are great choices for examining duality, internal conflicts and themes of prejudice. Yes, the article says it is a structure that could be used for a man – but from the very title, even before we get to the detail of it, we’re already encouraged to think of it as a female’s journey. That’s not helpful.

You might assume from that the heroine’s journey would be empowering, but weirdly the first thing the protagonist does within this mythic structure is ‘reject’ her feminine side. Admittedly at the end she incorporates the masculine side into herself to become a better, more rounded person, but that’s just the end, which means that she spends pretty much all of the story trying to get away from her feminine side before she realises how useful it is. This can be an engaging story in some circumstances, but it shouldn’t be seen as the defining heroine’s story.

In summary, it’s the title of this mythic structure that is all wrong. ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ is as misnamed as the original ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Both of them are useful plotting tools, but in this modern age, no writer should come to a story with preconceived notions about how characters should act based on gender. If you’re going to use either of these structures, then try thinking of them as the ‘external quest’ structure and the ‘internal quest’ structure; decide what it is your character is looking for and then plot accordingly, with their gender being a mere side detail.

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You can find out more about Charlotte and her work at her website.

Creating Memorable Characters – Workshop with Peters Fraser Dunlop

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This is part 2 of last week’s post – the agent’s side of the workshop. The agent in question was Nelle Andrew from Peters Fraser Dunlop, and she had some very strong opinions about what makes her take on a book.

Basically, it’s all about memorable characters. Characters who transcend their own narrative – characters you recognize even if you haven’t read the book, such as Lizzie Bennett, Gandalf, Voldemort. Characters who are people, not vehicles for plot.

HOW TO BUILD A MEMORABLE CHARACTER

The first tip Andrew gave was to visualise the character. Good characters have a very strong visual, which should be described early. To not describe it at all, Andrew said, is lazy writing. Because humans work the way we do, visual images are the easiest and quickest form of communication. Convey the personality and characteristics through appearance, as much as possible. If the character is OCD, reflect it in how the pens are lined up in their top pocket, for example. Don’t stop at the aesthetic – use walking and talking, nervous tics, the whole physicality of the character to create a visual.

Secondly, leverage dialogue and inner monologue as much as possible. The reader inhabits the character – the act of reading is an act of empathy. Dia/monologue is vital to making that happen. Remember, too, that the reader should feel like they are in a privileged position with inner monologue – they are getting information that the other characters don’t have about the narrator. It also allows you to contrast how the character appears with how they actually feel. This provides internal conflict, which can drive plot.

Thirdly, how does the character affect their environment? How do other people react to them, how do they make other people feel? And how do they react to what other people do? This shows a lot about their personality without telling.

WHY DID YOU DO THAT?

People do things for a reason. Choices and consequences make the plot, not the other way around. Beware of the red thread! You must make the reader believe your characters would naturally make the choices that you have them make on the page. There are a couple of things to consider which will help you achieve this.

1) Freedom vs determination: does the character have control, or does the environment enforce choices? Are they free to decide or are there constraints? Did the character need to do that or were there other options? If they make an extreme choice, it must be because there were no other options, or the reader will not find it credible.

2) Heredity vs environment: how much is in their nature and how much was formed by environment?

3) Active vs reactive: do they react or take the initiative? This can really drive plot. Active generally is more compelling, with more leadership qualities, but being unable to react (e.g. in prison, paralysed) can also be very powerful. See the Bone Collector for a superb example of this. Reactive doesn’t mean weak, and active doesn’t mean good! Also, remember that most people are a mix – active in some aspects of life and reactive in others. As a general rule, 1POV characters are more reactive – happy to watch what’s going on and narrate it. 3POV are more active.

4) Level of risk: the emotional journey only happens if the character is threatened or in peril. Risk makes us care about what happens to them and whether they’ll make it through. Risk is what keeps readers reading.

READABILITY

You need to decide what kind of author you want to be. Do you want to have critical success or do you want to sell books? Do you want to be Proust or EL James? According to Andrew, 60% of all book sales are from supermarkets, not bookstores or online, and they will stock the kinds of things their customers are likely to buy. That ain’t Proust.

You also need to ensure that you don’t jolt your reader. They should forget there’s an author involved in the story at all. That means thinking VERY carefully about changing POVs or tenses between chapters. Each time you do, there’s a jolt as the reader has to change mental gear. Probably best not to.

And Andrew’s final words of wisdom:

Talent is great but what authors really need is emotional resilience.

You will have agents take your story apart. Then editors. Then critics. Then the public. And almost every time, you need to roll with the punches and adapt. If you can’t do that, you aren’t going to make it as a writer. To be honest, I found that the most daunting piece of advice in the entire workshop and I’m pretty confident Andrew intended it that way. Fortunately I met up with Dr. Nick just after the workshop ended, and he gave me a look that said you doubt your emotional resilience? Seriously?’. And then I felt better.

So MY final words of wisdom are these: you don’t just need talent and emotional resilience. You also need faith in yourself, and support from others when that faith has a wobble. And surprise. And fear. And ruthless efficiency. And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…

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I’ll come in again.

GUEST: Stories as a Sense of Community

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In lieu of anything from me, my good friend and inspiration Andrew Knighton has very kindly provided a blog post for you today. I think that everyone who has an interest in the written word can relate to this:


It’s easy to get lost in a good book, TV show or film, to become cut off from the world around you. Some people see that as anti-social, but I don’t. Even as you’re immersing yourself in a story, you’re laying the foundations for relationships with other people.

Nerding It Up

I was recently at Nerd East, a convention in north east England for gaming, costuming and other forms of geekery. Coming back after a year off, the con felt really small, yet there was still a liveliness to it that I really enjoyed. Within minutes of entering the building I was having an excited, in depth conversation with a complete stranger about Attack on Titan. We weren’t strangers any more.

Stories gave us something to talk about, a way of understanding and connecting with each other. Later in the day, I ran a workshop on plotting stories. It was amazing to see the energy in the room as people talked about their own stories. Some of these people were old friends, some had never met each other before, but they were given a shared sense of excitement by inventing imaginary people and imaginary worlds.

Crafting Relationships

The next day I was in a café in Otley, and found myself sitting across a table from a man I’d never met before. It wasn’t like Nerd East, where everyone had shared hobbies. But somewhere in among the polite nods and quiet pleasantries of two Englishmen forced into close proximity, that process of making just enough conversation to not make the silence awkward, he mentioned something about poetry. Rather than just nod and get back to work, I asked about his favourite poets. Then he asked about mine. From there we got onto books, and low and behold, he was a fan of some of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Iain Banks. For half an hour we talked about books and literature. We weren’t just strangers sat near each other, but people sharing our enthusiasm, discussing deep and exciting issues.

You’re Never Alone With a Book

Without stories, I wouldn’t have had anything to talk about with any of these people. Despite our reputation, few English people can talk about the weather for longer than it takes to pass someone in the street. Politics, society, religion – these topics are as likely to cause awkwardness and acrimony as to bring people together. But stories, and a passion for stories, that’s something we can all share.

You’re never alone when you’re reading, watching or listening to a story. Not just because of the people you’re imagining in your head, but because of all the people you can share the experience with later.