Monday, February 23, 2015

Writing women

This is something of a pet peeve of mine; female characters in genre. It seems to be a great mystery for quite a few people just where these "strong female characters come from. At least Joss Whedon gets asked that question over and over. I've heard the same complaint from many other creators as well.

Lately there's been a lot of talk lately surrounding the trope of strong female character, mostly along the lines of how faulty the premise is. I think it may have started with The Trinity Syndrome. Actually, no. It goes a lot further back than that. There are Damsels in Distress and Women in Refrigerators hidden all through our modern mythology. That is when the fiction deigns to admit that women exist at all. Yes, I'm looking at you Tolkien.

Well, for one, dear author reading this; you should. There is a huge, untapped marketshare in women of the world and every one of us should be taking note. The romance genre for example, whose readers are almost solely women, raked in just over $1 billion in 2013. It may be that women just naturally like romance more, but somehow I doubt it. I don't think that's the whole truth anyway.

I have a theory about this; I think part of why we read fiction is to find ourselves in other people. Sure, there is an element of escape there, and stress relief and excitement (David Farland also has theories about this which he discusses at length in Million Dollar Outlines). But I also think that we are always looking for human connection and that doesn't change when we turn to fiction. And I think that a lot of especially speculative fiction is either knowingly or unknowingly trying to turn women away from it.

Here's what you do: write humans. Have your women want something. And that something can not be your male protagonist. If you have a love interest for example, be sure you know what they want. Have them pursue it even if it may come at the cost of the relationship. Let them be heroic. I know that the instinct is to come up with ways to put the loved one in danger but you should try to at least curb that urge. Let your female characters fight for good alongside your hero if that's what they want. And for goodness' sake, let them talk to each other.

Endeavor to make about half your characters female because, after all, about half of the world's population is female. And if you don't, at least have a reason for it and realize that your lack of women will have consequences to your characters. You will have swaths of men who will never be able to have a family. Historically, that kind of situation has lead to unrest and wars. And while it might be interesting to write an epic fantasy exploring the social ramifications of the scarcity of women so common to the genre (oo that does sound interesting, memo to me, write this story), that might not be what you're looking for.

That witness your character is interviewing, is there any reason they need to be male? Or the traffic cop who pulls your MC over? Women have been a part of all wars and revolutions throughout history. As spies, warriors, leaders and all sorts of other roles often considered to be less important. Pirates, smiths, kings, gods, there are very few roles that women historically have not occupied. I hear that argument a lot so allow me to reiterate: by removing women from your narrative of epic fantasy, you are not making your world more real, but less so.

For that matter, let's talk about monsters. This is something I think the Alien series got really right: the eponymous alien is female. If there is only one of whatever species of monster you've come up with, that one had better be female or intersex. Because while, to quote Granny Weatherwax one of anything is no good, the basis of the species seems to most likely be in the female of the species. There are, for example species of lizards that are only ever female. See for example whiptail lizards. I at least have never heard of a species of males reproducing through parthenogenesis in reality, yet we do it all the time in fiction.

I know there is a great urge to follow the narrative we've been reading all our lives. Believe me, I keep falling for the same narrative over and over. But here's the thing; we can all write much more realistic and interesting narratives if we push past the lazy options and search for the hidden gem inside.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Karen's Secret Weapons

We're writing in February about Secret Weapons in writing. Shh. They're Seeeeeecrit. Actually, not really. Here's some of my fellow Prosers' posts about their secret weapons in writing:

(yes, in case you were wondering, Melanie and I do have a complex about the fact that our names don't end in an "a.")

I have to admit, I'm suffering from Where-I-Am-Right-Now tunnel vision, something that often afflicts writers, I think. I also suffer from it in reading, wherein the *last book I read* is my favorite book and the one I recommend to everyone. Unless we're talking Code Name Verity, in which case I might strap you down and use a Clockwork Orange-style device to keep your eyeballs on the page. Theoretically. Because it's that good.

But ANYWAY - where I am right now as a writer is knee-deep in revisions on my novel, ABNORMALS, which I haven't written the blurb for but is basically about teens with superpowers.

I have a few things I do to make revisions easier, since I really truly hate editing with a burning fiery passion. I thought I'd share them as secret weapons, because they're part of how I motivate myself to do the editing.

First, I edit on dead-tree paper. I do! I'm a tree-hugger environmentalist most of the time, but for my primary editing runs on novels I print the buggers out.

Next, I put the dead-tree paper into a binder. Cool binders are helpful, as I look nifty carrying around this read faux leather number, don't you think? (Sidenote: Office Depot or Max, I don't remember which, and it was only about $7-8! And reusable for the next novel!)

Third, LOTS of red pens. Lotsa. That's a word my kids invented when they were small, and we still use it even though they've long since learned proper diction. It conveys *so much.* How many M&Ms do you want? Lotsa. How many kids were on the bus? Lotsa. How many times should we ride the Harry Potter ride at Universal? Lotsa. See? Very useful word. I use lotsa red pens because it enables me to get the feel I want. One funny thing about working in paper is I can be fussy about the pen, the paper, etc. in a way you just can't be with typing. It's a great way to waste more time! And money if you're as addicted to office-supply shops as I am.

Speaking of paper - I really like grid paper or graph paper. I'm a visual-spatial person (do you know about visual-spatial learners? If not please go check out Linda Silverman's site and see her info about us weird folk) and found long ago that grid paper helps me orient myself on the right/left (east/west) axis of my page the way horizontal lines orient you on the top/bottom (north/south.) I feel better when I write on grid paper, so I have sought out good grid paper for years. This pad happens to be a Levenger (note, price is for a pack of 5. Still ridiculously expensive. I think I received these as a gift…) brand pad, they definitely make the best paper out there but it's the spendiest.

And so, there it is, my super secret writing weapons, a bunch of analog world items that help me survive the editing phase. To be honest, I do the same thing with planning/outlining (dead-tree planning) but without the red colored pens, I use black or blue or ticonderoga #2 pencils (black barrel/eraser preferred. I'm very fussy!) and some really nice paper or a new notebook. I love the smell of a new notebook, and the fresh feeling of possibility I get when opening a new one. Ah, if only that would actually write the words, eh?

What are your favorite meat-world writing tools?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Secret Writing Weapons - Sabrina

When we decided on the topic of our secret weapons as writers, my first instinct was to go for the Ten Things brainstorming tip. But I've blogged about that before, so I can hardly consider it a secret weapon at this point. And just last week I blogged about the magic of ordinary things, and unusual places. 

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons license, and user DarkDay on Flickr.

So the writing weapon I'm going to discuss today is... publishing. No, not getting my stories published (though that's pretty helpful all on its own!), but being on the other side of the writer/publisher fence. See, I'm one of those writers who has constant confidence issues. Rejections used to be crushing, because I felt like a rejection of my story was a rejection of me, because I'd put my whole heart into the story. I felt that the publisher had both hated the story like nothing they'd hated before, and that clearly they were just missing how wonderful it was.

What working for a magazine has given me oodles of perspective. I think we as writers do ourselves a disservice when we divide publishers and writers into us and them, because it lets us relax and become complacent rather than challenging our own writing and constantly improving. 

Another thing publishing has taught me is how to critically evaluate a story. Yeah, high school sort of did that too, but those classes were less about quality and more about metaphor and symbolism. The constant dissection of why a story works or doesn't - and why a story works for me and not someone else - has been extraordinarily edifying and useful for me. That's also helped soften the sting of my own stories being rejected. Sometimes, a story just really isn't right for a publication. It doesn't mean it's a bad story - not always, anyway. 

I'm not sure how helpful this tip will be for others; I know editing and slushing isn't right for everyone. It certainly has its soul-crushing moments. But it's taught me far more than it's taken away, and it's been invaluable to me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sheena's Secret Weapon

How I beat up writer's block!

This secret weapon works (nearly) every time! Whenever I'm having writer's block, I walk away from the computer and start cleaning. While I'm doing dishes and moping floors I am, of course, thinking about the story, because doing dishes and moping floors is the worst.

 I force myself to keep cleaning until the next sentence is burning a hole in my head, and by that time I abandon cleaning and turn my computer back on and get to writing. In really truly difficult story situations I have cleaned until my house was spotless, and still not discovered the route out of writer's block-topia, but at the very least I have a clean house, and a tired body, so I go to sleep, and then after a good long sleep, I try again. Usually a clean house is destressifying, and I have the energy I need to just put one word after another until one sticks.

Happy writing!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Melanie's Secret Weapon

Oh my gosh.

I don't HAVE a secret weapon.

I was sure I'd find one by the time we got to February.

I thought it would be one of those paradigm shifting secret weapons that would alter the space time continuum. But, nope...

Lucky for me, Sheldon's got one:

Actually, he stole the theory from Penny. Penny's theory states that you'll never do anything great if you're too comfortable. That theory is my life in a nutshell. No matter what's happening, I'm always trying to squirm my way back to the spot where I'm so comfortable that I don't have to be productive. I crave homeostasis. I'll do almost anything to get back to homeostasis. So if I get my life crazy enough, I am uber-productive, in an attempt to get back to where I don't have to do anything.

That's my secret weapon.  I hope it helps.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Find your tribe part 2: Writing groups

February is secret weapons month here at The Prosers. At first I was going to write about weapons development for fiction because I'd revealed all of my secret weapons, hadn't I? But then I realized that no one had written about writing groups on the blog before, including me. So I'm going to raise the hem again and show you the last little bit.

Why groups?

If you want to develop as a writer it's not enough to just write until your fingers bleed. You must strive to do better with each story. But Nina, you say, how do I know what I need to work on? Well this is where other people come in. Preferably other people who also read a lot in your genre. And while your family and friends may be a source of great joy they most likely won't be able to give you the sort of hard feedback you need. A good group will have writers at around the same level of proficiency with slight variance. That way everyone can benefit from each other and really know what the others are going through craft and career wise.

Groups can also form around a similar agenda. Right now I'm in two writing groups; one that meets twice a week to chat and write and another that formed around the idea that all of us have novels that we want to workshop. Since one of my goals in writing and in life is to win the Writers of the Future competition and this will hopefully be my final year of eligibility, I'm looking to start a third group with people trying to accomplish the same goal. A group can console you when you're down, celebrate your victories with you as well as spur you on to greater achievements.

All writing groups were not created equal

Not all writing groups will work for all people. If you need the critique you get to be mostly encouraging and you end up in a group that is all about the straight talk with zero pussyfooting, you'll end up miserable and vice versa. If your group consists of literary types and you're all about the purple unicorns? Back away slowly. You love urban fantasy and your group is filled with people who vehemently dislike the first person POV. Not your implementation of it, just the very concept of someone writing in a first person point of view? That is probably not the group for you. The same goes the other way of course. A gorup of YA and urban fantasy writers is probably not the place for you if you consider the very idea of first person to be unprofessional.

All of this is basically to say that if you've tried being in a group before and found the experience frustrating, it may just be a factor of you being in the wrong group. So try, try again.

How can I get one?

So right now, I'm in two writing groups both of them a direct result of having taken Mary Robinette Kowal's class Writing on the Fast Track. I was in the class my friend Andy has dubbed "the human trials" which is to say the second time Mary ran the class. The first class had formed a writing group and kindly took us under their wings. The second happened after Mary thought to bring all her alumni to one Facebook group. 

You can find writing groups on social media, bars, coffeeshops, colleges, libraries. Pretty much anywhere that writers congregate. Or you can form one of your own! Anything can happen. Go into the light.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Magic of the Ordinary - Redux

This is a post from a couple years back, but I've been thinking about the magic of the ordinary ever since starting A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge. The first fifty pages are almost all about a cheesemaker's... factory in a fantasy land. Except the factory is really just a network of tunnels, and the cheeses are made with moss and dove feathers and teardrops, along with the more ordinary milk and cream. Each has a magical property of its own, and only some will try to kill you if you turn your back.

I'm only 50 pages in, but I already love it. Anyway, here's the original post.

* * * * *

Fantasy is, all in all, about the unreal, the unusual. In a way, one basic definition of fantasy could be thought of as, “Anything that is not possible becomes possible.”

But in some ways, I think that fantasy can be at its most memorable when it goes a little bit in the other direction. When the stories aren’t just about dragons and wizards and enchanted swords, but about ordinary, mundane things.

Think about it. How many people have had their picture taken by a certain wall between platforms 9 and 10 in London’s King Cross Station?  Or paused an extra moment at the zoo to admire the owls? 

Junior postmen in training! 
(Photo taken by Artur Mikołajewski (Own work) [GFDL (, 
CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons)

How many people, after reading Alice Through the Looking Glass, peered extra hard into their mirrors, looking for that other world? And how many children have poked around at the back of wardrobes, looking for other worlds? 

You could argue that urban fantasy does this a lot. And yet, I don't find myself checking around street corners for vampires (though one time, there was a zombie walk in San Diego that I hadn't heard about, and I was a bit surprised for a moment to see some blood-covered people shambling down the street...). I think there needs to be a balance. The ordinary objects need to be something that stands out among all the magic, so that they are the exception rather than the rule.

And when that balance is right, I think it can get at the most powerful potential of fantasy, of any story: to take us out of our regular lives, and for one moment, put us somewhere magical.

What objects have books made magical for you? 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Finding Emotional Resonance

I've been studying emotional resonance lately. I've noticed in my own writing that sometimes I write something that I felt was emotionally powerful, but then I come back to it a few weeks later, and it just falls flat. Which is, of course, sucksville.


First off, read this. This article was super helpful to me. I love how she talks about the limbic system, where emotions come from and how to trigger them.

TIP #1-- Emotion isn't created, it's triggered.

The reader has to bring their own emotion to the words in order to feel emotion.

 "Flannery O’Connor once said that as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We have to provide it with a body; we have to create a world with weight and extension."

So the first step of creating emotional resonance is to think of what emotion you would like the readers to feel, and then pepper the world with clues and an underscoring of details that trigger that feeling. I tried to do that here in this passage from The Waxling.
A girl bit her chipped fingernails as she walked down the aisle, her bag catching on the vinyl bench in front of me before it let go. I flinched as it slammed into my shoulder. Her heavy bag dragged against the corner of my seat before it swung backward like a pendulum. The kid behind us grunted, but didn't say anything. Some kids in the front of the bus were fighting over something stupid, while the driver eyed them from the large mirror. The cloying smell of exhaust filtered in from under the rumbling bus as we waited for the bus to close its accordion doors and take us home.

At this point in the story, I want the reader to be feeling some dread, and anxiety, as I start to pick up the pace. So I chose a location where a teenager might feel anxiety. I.E. on the bus.

In movies, they use music to underscore the emotion. But we don't get a soundtrack to intensify a heartbreak, or speed up an action scene. But we have something better. The words we use act as music. We can write with short staccatto sentences, or long lyrical ones. We can use specific words that are tied to a feeling. In this example, I used details that put me a bit on edge (Chipped fingernails, grunts, rumbling bus, smell of exhaust, accordion). These small details are almost an underscore of what I'd like the reader to feel.

TIP #2-- The bigger the emotion, the smaller the detail you focus on.

Think Mulan.  Do you remember that scene where her troop arrive at a destroyed village? They were supposed to protect them, but they were too late. 

The music stops. And it never really starts again. It's a moment that changes the rest of the movie.

There's a huge emotional moment here, and they show this moment by having Mulan pick up a small dirty doll. Now the focus point of the tragedy is the loss of one little girl, which seems more manageable than hundreds of unnamed people.

So when you have a major emotional moment, focus on something small. A dapple of light. A freckle on someone's nose. The smoke from a gun recently shot. 

TIP #3-- Telling creates distance.

This is the tricky one. I think this is the difference between watching someone cry, and being the person who is crying. Obviously our goal as writers is to create as much emotional damage as possible, so in moments of severe emotion get in as close as writerly possible.

But also don't just circle in on your own emotion. It's not story telling if you are the only one who gets to feel it. Find the light, look downstage, and share it with your audience.

Michael Caine wrote a book on acting, and in it, he talks about whenever there's a big emotional moment, he gives a blank face. The story and the character motivation before the moment should clue the reader in on how the character is feeling. so when the zoom in comes, he freezes at full tilt. He holds still. He gives space for the moment, and the audience supplies the emotion.

This doesn't mean he steps away from the moment. He's still there, with energy, tense face muscles. and tears in his eyes, but he doesn't over shoot the emotion. He's British, but he's still human. The tears sparkle, but they don't fall.

I think this can apply to writing. 99% of the work that goes into an emotional moment happens long before the moment. It's the set up that will make the limbic system tingle.

TIP #4 -- Give objects meaning.

The first chapter of the Hunger Games we meet Butterball, the cat who hates Katniss, and loves Prim. It's just a cat, but his existence underscores one of the rules Katniss believes, that Prim is better than Katniss. There's no jealousy attached to this, it's simply a guiding truth of who she is. Katniss believes for the good of the world that she should die before Prim. That belief is the reason Katniss volunteers as tribute, it's tied to her overarching motivation as a character, and becomes a truth for her, that when she loves someone she has to die before they do.

And Butterball is the first clue to that motivation.

In the final book, when Katniss has to tell Butterball that Prim isn't coming back, it's so HUGELY powerful of an emotional moment. In reality, it is a girl talking to a cat, but because of all those truths and emotions tied to that object, it is a killer sob-your-eyes-out kind of a moment. It's her admitting that she failed. It's her acknowledged the loss to the world, and to her world, because Prim is gone. 

If you attach meaning and motivation and truth to an object, then it becomes more than just a cat, more than just a wardrobe, or a ring, or a book, or a song. The object could be anything, the important thing is the work you do before the moment attaching meaning, and utilizing that object for a big emotional moment.

Essentially, it's about giving us something to look at while we are sobbing.

TIP #5 -- When in doubt, make it rain.

Go forth and cause emotional damage, people!

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