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One month – so far so good

It’s been a month since I left my job and started trying to write full time. Seems like another good point for some self-reflection on what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Overall, so far so good. Working on something I love has left me far more relaxed and happy than I would otherwise have been. I’d be happier if I’d sold more of the stuff I’ve been working on this month, but hey, I always knew I wouldn’t see those benefits straight away. Hopefully that’ll pick up before I start getting really anxious about it.

I’ve hit nearly all my goals for the first month. I’ve written a new story every week, blogged more here, done some blogging for other websites, and reviewed my old draft novel for edits (turns out it’s much better than I feared, which is a big relief). The only target I haven’t hit is tendering for freelance writing work. I’m a little annoyed at myself for putting this off, but not surprised. It was always the most daunting objective, and my confidence isn’t not notch at the moment. But I’ve signed up to a couple of freelance websites, so it should go smoothly this coming month.

I’m also learning to pace myself – to get more done while I feel enthusiastic and take things easier when my brain screams no. Being able to do this is one of the great advantages of working for myself, and over time I’ll get better at making the most of it.

Overall? So far so good. I’m not exactly rolling in heaps of money, but I’ve made a little, I’ve improved my peace of mind, and I’ve laid the groundwork for future months. So far so good.

Of idioms and elephants

Language can be a wonderful thing, as demonstrated for the gazillionth time in this article on the BBC news website. The article explores ten forms of endearment from around the world, from ‘fruit of my heart’ to ‘my flea’.

One of the wonderful things this highlights is the poetic role of idiom in language. I was recently watching an episode of Archer in which a character struggled again and again with translation because the speeches he was translating used American English idioms. Because idioms are culturally specific, their meaning rooted in their native culture and often lost in the depths of history, direct translation turns them into gibberish. But because of those cultural and historical roots, they are highly evocative in the native language.

They also reveal something about the culture they come from. The use of ‘gazelle’ as a term of endearment is rooted in Arabic history and taboos against direct depiction of certain subjects. The use of ‘little elephant’ in Thai connects to religion, history and even national pride. The Chinese ‘diving fish swooping geese’ evokes for me the precision and poetry of the land of Confucius, and is a reminder of the vast cultural differences between China and Europe.

Idioms speak powerfully of their native cultures. If as genre writers we can create idioms for our invented cultures then they can add depth through their poetry and all they imply about their origins, as long as the audience still understands our meaning. We need our idioms to translate.

And now, my little pirate robots, I’m off to write.

500 words

Yesterday I finally had one of those experiences I knew I should be having as a writer, but have so far missed – realising that a character I’d created was completely redundant.

This is something I’ve heard mentioned in a few places. You put a character in because you like them, but actually they don’t add anything to the story. The role they fill duplicates things done by other characters. In this case they were the local detective in a murder investigation. I already had an out of town detective, who’s a stronger character, raises questions the reader will have about the setting, and shows one side of the story’s theme (living with military occupation). I have local characters who act as witnesses and suspects, answer the detective’s questions, and show the other side of my theme. Given what the other characters do for the story, the local detective, who I’d based on someone I know and admire, is redundant.

I spotted this because of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s advice in the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary’s said a few times that every character and setting in a short story usually adds at least 500 words to its length. Specifics aside, there’s an undeniable truth in this – writing about more characters and places makes for more words. And it you’re trying to fit within the word limit for a specific market that doesn’t leave space for excess characters. Once I counted important witnesses and locations, I looked down my story plan and knew I had too much.

So goodbye second detective. I’ll miss you. Heck, you’re an interesting character, I’ll probably just recycle you in a future story. But hard as it is to cut you out, I won’t weigh this story down with you.

Lesson’s learned – Schmidt’s 45 master characters

I recently read Victoria Lynn Schmidt‘s 45 Master Characters, a book which provides templates for archetypal characters that can be adapted to any story setting. I found it interesting, and this week I applied it for the first time.

Schmidt’s book contains what it says on the tin – 45 character archetypes. Those for heroes and villains are described in some depth, showing how they connect to a mythological figure, describing their fears, motivations and things they care about. For example the mystic – characters such as Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Phoebe in Friends – cares about simplicity and taking her time and is sensitive to others’ emotions. Shmidt isn’t trying to say that all characters fit these templates, but instead providing strong foundations from which to build characters.

I used it backwards.

I had a story I was working on, based on Jonathan Taylor’s comments on my diversity in steampunk post. But when I gave it to Mrs K to read, she found that the characters were weak and didn’t draw her in. Looking for a way to fix this, I looked at how they compared with Schmidt’s archetypes. I re-planned the characters around a couple of archetypes, then rewrote their dialogue and behaviour. And you know what? They’re a lot better.

I’m not saying it’s the solution to all the shallow characters in the world, or even in my writing. But it’s helped me create more nuanced characters for a couple of stories since that one, and I’m now waiting on readers to see whether they like the results.

Speaking of which, I should go write a story.

Gender in genre

Everwalker recently wrote a blog post about gender equality in genre literature. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and touched on slightly in discussing The Hunger Games, so I decided to throw in my two pence worth.

There’s an issue of cultural bias here. Men tend to be shown in particular roles, which sets a norm which becomes self-perpetuating. When we see warriors we usually see men, so when we depict warriors we usually depict men, which means when we see warriors we still see men, and hey presto, self-perpetuating cycle. Men tend to be shown in roles which are more outward-facing and empowered. And though those of a more conservative disposition might not agree, I think that this is harmful because it has a limiting effect on what women achieve (this is a big topic so sorry, I’m not going to justify myself here).

There are two aspects of genre fiction which particularly tend to bring out this bias. Firstly, it’s often action oriented. And because of the bias already mentioned, we tend to default to men in action roles. Secondly, much fantasy is based on taking elements from history, and we tend to think of men as the influential players in history, with women limited by the norms of their society. But there are two big problems with this. Firstly, it’s not half as true as you might think. And secondly, so what? If you’ve put in dragons or magic or crazy steam machines then you can certainly change gender roles.

Now comes the confession. I’m terrible at writing gender equality. When I’m not thinking about it, I default to gender clichés as much as the next person. Until I started making a conscious effort to change, nearly all my characters were men, especially the lead ones. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying.

Oh, and if you’re interested in more analysis of gender representations in popular culture I recommend Feminist Frequency – well argued and presented videos connecting in with recent hot topics.

Be gentle with the dragons

I’ve written a bit before about my nieces. They often give me pause for thought on how we interact with books and story, and have sometimes provided inspiration for my own stories.

Recently, my brother has been reading The Hobbit to The Princess, who is four years old. The version he’s reading is a comic book adaptation that he’s owned for twenty years, nicely illustrated and falling apart through cheap glue and years of obsessive reading. They’re already on their third time through the story together, and they’ve reached the part that she most struggles with – Smaug.

And in case by some weird happenstance you’re reading this and don’t know the plot of The Hobbit, there are spoilers ahead.

Anyway, the meaning of dragons is different for The Princess from what it was for me at that age. Despite her tender years, she’s already enjoyed a lot of revisionist culture, in which creators play around with roles and expectations. The dragons she knows are Donaldson and Scheffler’s Zog, and Dragon from Jane and the Dragon (both of which I love, but not half as much as The Princess does). These are dragons as heroes, often clumsy but always sympathetic. So the idea of a dragon as villain didn’t fit into her head the first time around, and Smaug’s death was a cause of great distress.

The Princess is over this now. She withstood this astonishing blow to her world view, and still loves The Hobbit. But it was a reminder to me to beware assumptions. Even a timeless monster like a dragon means different things to different audiences.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 4: the road less travelled

This is my last post on The Hunger Games, for now at least. It’s spoilerific again, so, you know, read the books first then come back and read this. They’re really worth it.

Despite its title, this post covers the most well-worn territory in terms of the lessons I’ve learned from these books. Because ‘don’t do the obvious thing’ is old advice for writers, but Collins does it particularly well.

It would be easy for this trilogy to become triumphalist. The main character is a skilled, wilful young woman, pressed into danger by dark forces and her own desire to do good. Over the course of the trilogy, it turns into a story of defiance and rebellion against an oppressive establishment. The temptation to turn it into a gung-ho action story of good against evil must have been huge.

But that isn’t where the story goes. Everybody in it has their flaws, and the people who stand out against the darkness aren’t always good themselves. Shallow, unpleasant institutions can be turned to good ends, and good intentions can lead to terrible consequences, as shown by the deaths that follow Peeta’s act of generosity in District 11.

The romantic arc doesn’t pan out in an obvious way either. The love triangle isn’t neatly tied off with one party nobly sacrificing himself or finding another love. Feelings are complicated and difficult, love can be a challenge, and in the end Katniss doesn’t fall into a burning well of passion, but into the hard work of building a life together. I was happy with who she finally chose, but couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t a healthy situation for him. The story didn’t show pure, romanticised Hollywood love. It showed a more complicated truth.

Collins’s choices about plot and character arcs often make for an uncomfortable read. But that makes the books all the more satisfying. They feel real. They feel raw. And if I can make such courageous choices, it’ll make my own writing a lot better.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 3: agency

I’m on the Hunger Games again today. Again, spoilers for the trilogy – please go read the books first, then come back.

When the Hunger Games film was released, much was made of Katniss as a female lead. Some people praised this strong female role model, drawing comparisons with the way Hollywood normally treats women. Others were more critical, challenging whether she actually has any control over her life, or is just a victim with more action. These are interesting points, but for me they point at something deeper, highlighting how Suzanne Collins treats individual agency in these books.

First, a point of terminology. Agency, a term I first came across in an undergrad social science module, refers to a person’s level of free will and control over their own life. It’s contrasted with structure, where our actions are defined by the existing forms of society and the world. So, when a criminal burgles a house you could ask how far this was his choice (agency) and how far it was the result of his limited learning opportunities and poverty (structure).

How does this related to Katniss? She’s flung into a life-threatening struggle by a brutal society and historic circumstances (structure), combined with her own choice to protect her sister (agency). Within the game, she is severely constricted by the nature of the game (structure), and by the plottings of others (structure, or at least not her agency). But she deals with this using her own skills and force of will (agency). Her actions are seldom a matter just of free choice or constraint. The final act of defiance with the berries is one of desperation, a startling free choice that goes against all the norms (agency) but is still constricted by the circumstances of the game (structure). In the world of the Hunger Games, as in real life, structure and agency are not separate but intertwine in a complex fashion. Freedom is a matter of compromise and interpretation.

This exploration of agency goes further in the later books, as Katniss is drawn, sometimes without realising, into the politics of Panem. Agency becomes much more complicated, with people acting as groups. As the resistance led by District 13 make harsh decisions, it becomes harder to tell how far any of the characters are following a path they would choose, or how far they are being driven by circumstances. Even as they make collective decisions, does this give them agency as part of a powerful group, or restrict that agency through the structures of the group.

Looking inward, Katniss’s own agency becomes questionable. As she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, how far are her decisions really a matter of free will (agency), and how far are they defined by the disorders from which she suffers (structure)?

Many stories simplify these issues, presenting characters as in control of their lives, or breaking free of the structures that bind them. Much like The Prisoner, their tales cry out ‘I am a free man!’ The Hunger Games takes a much more nuanced approach, and it is this that makes it so difficult to define Katniss’s place as a female lead. This is a strength of the books, not a weakness.

So, if you’ve read this far, what do you think? Did you see the same things in the books as I have? What do you think of Katniss as a lead character?

Week one – so far, so good

I’m near the end of my first week writing full time, and I feel like I should sit back and reflect on how it’s gone. Self-awareness is one of the most important skills in achieving anything, and that starts with self-reflection.

Overall, the week’s been good. I’ve stuck with my full working days. I had to adjust some targets mid-week when a re-write proved more substantial than anticipated, but that’s part of learning to pace myself. I’ve managed to stay focused, hit my adjusted goals, and may even have time today for things that were dropped from the plan.

This week’s achievements include:
– blogging every day (sometimes here, sometimes for other sites)
– a big story re-write
– first draft of a new story
– reading three chapters of my novel for revisions
– my first tentative steps into networking via writing forums and other blogs

I’ve slept the best I have in weeks, and had the energy for the household chores, so there’s definitely some good side effects.

Downsides? Though I don’t feel like I miss the company yet, my behaviour says otherwise. I’m easily distracted by text conversations, facebook and checking my email. It’s not a problem yet, but I’ll need to keep an eye on that. I hit my first demotivated moment yesterday afternoon, struggling to re-engage with a story, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. It’s another good sign that considering the alternative – back to office work – was enough to focus me.

So far so good. Now to get down to some writing.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 2: like an onion

Before I start this post, I should say that there may be spoilers for The Hunger Games books. If you haven’t read them, you might want to come back to this later. You might also want to go out and read them right now – seriously, they’re brilliant.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I discussed how well Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy gets inside the head of Katniss, the story’s protagonist. That skill supports multiple layers of understanding of the story, which also enrich the reading experience. To steal Donkey’s metaphor from Shrek, the Hunger Games is like an onion, and today I want to peel back the layers.

Firstly, there is Katniss’s understanding of events. Katniss’s limited understanding of people, along with the emotional scars she aquires during her journey, allows her only a limited understanding of events. She sees only the surface of what’s happening around her, or reads her own specific interpretation into the motives of others. This adds depth to the character, as it reveals her flaws, her mental habits and her emotional state. It’s a skilful piece of show not tell that adds richness to the character.

Then there’s the level of understanding a first time reader can achieve. Collins’s deft portrayal of Katniss’s thoughts and feelings allows us to see past what Katniss understands, and gain a deeper understanding of events. We see the things that Katniss doesn’t, such as Peeta’s very real love for her. As the political plot unfolds in the second and third books, our understanding is usually ahead of Katniss. How far ahead depends on the reader, but any reader gets to feel smart at working out things that Katniss hasn’t. This also adds a pleasing layer of irony to reading Katniss’s thoughts, and incredible tension as we realise that something she’s going to do, for the best of reasons, is completely misguided. To go back to the example of Peeta, we know what emotional harm she’s doing to him long before Katniss does.

Lastly, there’s the layer of plot that provides big surprises, the things going on behind the scenes. The biggest example of this is the finale of the second book. There are hints throughout the book at something going on, not enough to allow the reader to gain a full understanding, but enough so that everything slots into place afterwards. It left me reacting with a satisfied ‘aha!’, rather than a disappointed ‘what the?’ when the twist came. It allows for surprises for the reader as well as Katniss, and adds extra pleasure to re-reading.

There’s a natural tendency when telling a story to want to put it all out in the open for the reader to see, if through the skewed perspective of your characters. But Collins’s approach makes her books far more satisfying, in both plot and character.