Tag Archives: guest

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…

spanish_inquisition

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.

Who Said? Anatomy of a Hit Show

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Anatomy of a Hit

I have a very special guest for you this week. This is rather exciting. This blog post has largely been written by Stephen ‘what the hell are you doing to my favourite characters’ Moffat. Oh yes.

Sadly, Mr. Moffat is not actually writing for my blog. But I did go to a lecture / Q&A session with him and his team on Tuesday night, hosted by the Royal Television Society. The subject was how Doctor Who is written and produced, and I took notes. I’m a researcher by day and a writer by night. Of course I took notes.

So here, for your delectation and delight, are words of wisdom from the writing and production team of the world’s longest running sci-fi series.

On Doctor Who

“On paper – in the script – the Doctor is always the same. Remarkably the same. It’s the actor’s performance that pushes it in seemingly different directions.”

“There’s long scenes in Doctor Who because frankly the budget runs out and everyone has to get involved in some urgent standing around.”

“The Doctor’s always surprised he has to say the nice things. He says the nasty things but he rarely thinks to say the nice ones. He takes so much understanding for granted – he assumes the people he loves know how much he loves them.”

“Big secrets that the dialogue gives away whilst filming on location are whispered or mimed. The line is then recorded and added later.”

“…And the Master will be a woman. So what? What does that mean? You cast a person, not a gender. Otherwise it’s just a gimmick, and I swore never to do those.”

“If you fight the Weeping Angels and the Silence, what would your nightmares be like?”

That last one is a really interesting point. Given what your characters get up to in their waking hours, what would their nightmares be like? How would that affect them? Also, what does your character take for granted? What don’t they think to say?

Note the creepy positioning of the Weeping Angel

Note the creepy positioning of the Weeping Angel

On Storytelling

“You cling onto the maddest, boldest part of a story and you make it work, no matter the restrictions. Because that’s what excited you about the story in the first place.”

“Always try to think how you grab people in the first few minutes. Otherwise they’ll go off and make a cup of tea.”

“If you tell the truth all the time there’s no variety. Keep secrets. Keep surprises up your sleeve.”

“People don’t want stories that are safe or reassuring. They want exciting and dangerous stories that can take them to new places.”

everwalker fails to be stealthy whilst attempting to hijack the TARDIS

everwalker fails to be stealthy whilst attempting to hijack the TARDIS

“You don’t know what other people want. Trying to imagine you’re clever enough to guess, when you can’t even think what to get the sods for their birthday, is impossible. Write what you want. You can only ever write the joke that makes you laugh.”

Now, I know that none of those particular pieces of advice are stunningly original. That’s sort of the point, actually. This man – whether you agree with his creative choices or not – has been hugely successful in his involvement with both Doctor Who and Sherlock. A huge number of people clearly like his storytelling (including me). If these are his top tips for writing successful stories, then it suggests he doesn’t have some kind of secret technique or gold-plated muse locked up in his cupboard. He knows the same pieces of advice as everybody else, and makes the most of them. And it’s a lot of most. Watching him talk about Doctor Who, it’s obvious that no one is a bigger fan of the show or the character than he is. He loves the stories he tells, and that passion draws in the rest of us.

So go write your stories, and love them. Love every mad, bold, exciting, dangerous part of them. And maybe, one day, millions of other people will love them too.

Writing for Theatre: the Importance of Minimalism

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This weekend I’m heading off for Green Ink’s sponsored writing session to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Research (and if you fancy donating, please click here). Next weekend a selection of the pieces written during the session will be performed on stage. In light of that, I have invited a friend of mine to do a guest post about writing for the theatre as it’s a medium I’ve never tackled before.

The important thing to note is that Mr. Carrington is not a writer. Oh no. He’s more interesting than that – he’s the man who has to translate the writer’s vision into reality. He’s the one in charge of the practical bits. Listen, now, to the wisdom of the stage manager…


For the novel writer, the sky is the limit. An unlimited budget for cast, costume, set, lights, sound and special effects are available. In writing for stage however, all writers go through (or should go through a more rigorous) process of rationalisation. This process is similar to Stephen King’s advice to ‘cut out everything that is not the story’ but slightly more pragmatic.

In small scale theatre, writers of stage scripts should keep in mind what is reasonable. For example, do we need to see the characters eating takeaway chips in scene 4? If it is required for the drama of the story then by all means keep them but if they serve no purpose in the story all they do is balloon a budget.

Stage Managers are a practical bunch who tend to focus on the essential items in a script and an audience can be similar. If specific things are in a play, they are assumed to be there for a purpose. As Anton Chekov said;

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I say this not just because my job is made more difficult and my producers’ wallets have suffered as a result of extraneous props and set in fringe theatre but because such things can be:

  • cut if they have no justification for being on stage
  • a detriment to the production if they serve no dramatic purpose
  • a reason not to stage the play at all

Juxtapose two huge stage productions and their librettos. Wagner’s Ring Cycle proves extremely challenging for opera makers with its flying chariots pulled by goats, rainbow bridges and mighty dragons. Wagner had difficulties staging it during the 1860s and 1870s, it is rarely performed in full and modern productions have to re-interpret these fantastical elements. Contrast that with the much maligned Lord of the Rings musical that was a technical triumph but a crude parody of Tolkein’s work. Both of these struggled with the gulf between the writing and the execution, the Ring Cycle because of Wagner’s imagination and Lord of the Rings because no matter how good the cast and technicians, they cannot save a bad script. I am not saying these works should not be staged (hang on, I AM specifically saying that about Lord of the Rings) but I am illustrating a point regarding the rationalisation process.

Wagner's Ring Cycle staged in NYC

What is it with magic rings and pyrotechnics?

Then look at the very specific details in say Schaffer or Beckett’s work regarding staging, costumes, props, stage directions. These writers understand that all aspects of a production tell the story. Schaffer’s Equus is told in the round, in a paddock of a sort, with the horse costumes described in the stage directions. Sound and lighting design can also have its own language; everyone is aware of how Wagner used motif’s in the score for the Ring Cycle as an example. Theatre allows the writer to tell a story in a very different way from other writing so I ask the writers who read this blog to consider this when they re-draft their scripts. Not only so my hair doesn’t go grey when I’m trying to track down a WWII era telephone but also because if you want to tell a story on stage you should consider the staging in order to get the best production at the end.

As a stage manager, lighting operator, writer and theatre reviewer my perspective is perhaps more analytical than others and I hope you will notice that I have focused on the initial writer and not the designers in this blog, this is not to downplay the role of designers at all.

Thank you to Everwalker for allowing me to express some of my thoughts here.


PJCarrington is a stage manager, lighting programmer, theatre technician and writer living in London. Find his blog here and a profile of his stage work here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.