Free to do

Yesterday I picked up eight Wonder Woman comics, or at least eight comics that pertained to Wonder Woman, and the glorious glory of Gail Simone’s arcs is now wearing off a bit and I’m starting to look at the things that I don’t like about them. But for all that, none of the writers so far (Jodi Picoult, Greg Rucka, Allan Heinberg, Kurt Busiek, Christoph Moeller) have done as good of a job with the character of Wonder Woman, and I can forgive some missed plot opportunities and ‘off-screen’ resolutions to things I would have liked to see close-up if it means I get a story about Wonder Woman. (Greg Rucka seems pretty great though.)

Thus I spent, like, eleven hours reading superhero comics more or less non-stop, ending with the behemothic Trinity, which was like reading a movie. I really liked how long it was, even if it took me until past 3 a.m. to finish it.

And it got me going back to a time in my life when, instead of trying to think of how best I could capitalise on a storytelling convention or subvert it for political purposes, I’d just fantasise about awesome stuff that I wanted to happen and then … and then whatever. A story wouldn’t always come out of it, but sometimes it would fit into a story I’d already got, and I like that approach to storytelling: seeing what you find and running with it rather than trying to make up something as though it were already completed.

Particularly in regard to superpowers. It’s so easy to pick the ‘best’ ones that already exist, the Flying Brick template for instance, toss in some telepathy and magic and … it just feels so uninteresting. And I seem to have a hard time thinking outside the box, outside of the videogame rules I’ve come to associate with powers of any kind.

So for my creative health, I think I’ll go take a bus-ride – I need to submit my application thingy for a uni paper anyway – and just let myself think of Awesome Stuff as it comes to me, and see where I get.

And then finish the other 3 comics I haven’t read yet, and start reading Tallulah so that I can make it even more Cool Stuff than it already is.

What I learnt from books, whether I wanted to or not

Today, as part of my second ‘I am so totally not using social media for a little while now for serious world’ initiative in the past 6 months, I started reading The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin when I woke up this morning as opposed to my usual habit of heading straight to my laptop and checking how many facebook notifications or Tumblr likes/reblogs I had earned with which I could validate my existence. I’m still in denial over the failure of my first facebook hiatus, to the extent that I still don’t have facebook in my shortcuts bar even though I check it like ten times a day. But reading this morning felt right. Starting off the day with the pursuit of something new and unknown rather than the maintenance of something repetitive and basically predicted felt healthy.

It’s been a while since I read straight-up High Fantasy, and it took me back. I simultaneously like and dislike the exploration of social, political and cultural situations that we don’t, and perhaps can’t, encounter in real life – I like it because of the thought-provoking nature of such exercises, and I dislike it because it’s hard to relate to. We have an established system of checks and balances that we’re used to from growing up in X part of the world, though maybe that changes with travel. Seeing something so totally alien to that as a norm is at once fascinating and alienating, and I much prefer familiarity to the sense of an inherent separation from a story.

But despite that conceptual barrier, I found myself reading a part of the story that concerned the issue of dealing with corruption. There are magic-users in this story that gather magic from the souls of people designated by a Goddess – it kills them, basically – and the ideas is kind of like karma from what I gather: sending spirits into the afterlife peacefully, where they romp around in wonderful dream-bliss for all eternity, results in a blissful Goddess, and messing up the ritual and damning a victim to an eternity in nightmares makes for a not-so-blissful Goddess, and because magic is such a prevalent part of this society, the issue of keeping peace is paramount, and results in a zero-tolerance approach to corruption.

This young acolyte person is being tested to become an apprentice magic-user priest dude and reveals that he’s been hiding an ongoing tension with a teacher who kept soliciting him for sexual favours. He is called out by his evaluators for not bringing this corruption to light, as keeping peace means destroying corruption, not merely abating it for a while. They also bring up his background as a servant, basically class-shaming him for the fact that he’s used to covering things up instead of addressing them head-on as a by-product of wanting to avoid open conflict.

I have only read up to halfway through chapter four and by no means want to try and given an opinion on any of this right now; I’ll just say that it is very interesting and I want to know how all of this works out, so I’m definitely glad that I started reading it. But it was that bit about destroying justice rather than keeping things to yourself, the importance of getting things out in the open rather than keeping them covered up, that really got to me. It’s a situation I’ve come across time and time again in my life, as it has to everybody, and my response has been mostly the same as this character’s – to cover it up and ‘tough it out’. At least that’s how it feels; I have a very human (read: selective) memory.

And just reading that line made something click inside me, and I went: ‘Oh, okay, so the answer is to just get it out in the open. Cool. I guess I’ll do thahang on a minute …’

Whenever I read something about ‘what I learnt from [insert story here]’ – generally Harry Potter, as I’m of that generation, but it could also be Disney films or The Lord of the Rings – I sort of roll my eyes because, I mean, they’re books. They’re not primers on how to live your life in the real world, because they’re fiction. They don’t deal with the real world; they deal with metaphors for the real world. Compassion and courage and stuff – yes, we need those things if we want to form a just and moral society, and that’s exactly what we should be doing, but I can’t help but dismiss these proclamations of gratitude to fiction for teaching people important life-lessons, as though life had never given them any other lessons in this sort of thing, reeks of privilege and naivety to me. That may be incredibly ungenerous, not to mention a tad hypocritical – I did grow up on Disney and Harry Potter after all – but it’s my gut reaction to such hyperbolic statements.

And then something like this happens, and I’m like: ‘Is this what they’re talking about?’ I caught myself this time and felt rather embarrassed, though amused as well – it’s something that happens quite a bit, and particularly as an Arts graduate where my degree is basically in critical thinking it feels mortifying that I’d so readily take on a statement like this as valid just because it confirmed something I wanted validation for.

I want to believe that honesty is always the best policy, that ratting out corruption and abuse is always healthier than keeping it secret in the long-run, and I want to act that way as well. But that’s so simple. It’s so black-and-white, and it doesn’t consider the consequences that are less healthy, less humane, that can come about as a result – nor the issue of how corruption is identified and by whom. And again, this is fiction, and speculative fiction at that. It makes me think of how long I’ve been reading books this way – and how much more I might have enjoyed some of them if I hadn’t been so quick to internalise these tidbits of seeming validation for issues I’ve been uncertain about.

Because this is a story, and I’m three-and-a-half chapters in. It hasn’t come to its conclusion yet; it hasn’t made its full argument. It’s giving me an introduction, and I need more information before I come to a conclusion. And even then, that conclusion should probably be about the story, not whether I want to go around exposing every dirty secret I’ve ever kept just because ‘honesty is the best policy’. Blanket statements are undisguised ideology, and at least that’s easy to deal with because you can see it. It would be most unseemly if I didn’t act like I did see it.

And also unhealthy, and that’s the main thing. I’ve never really thought about healthy reading habits, not explicitly, but at the same time I’ve been concerned with it for a very long time – it’s why I think books like Twilight and The Banned and the Banished should be burned, if I wasn’t against book-burning on principle, and why, much as I’ve come to adore Wonder Woman, I think we need fewer depictions of women in skimpy clothing in our widely-circulated media for general audiences. I care about the gullibility and lack of critical engagement of The Masses, but until this morning that never came with a personal experience to inform that concern. Well, I’ve had it now.

Actually, if I’m being honest, it’s part of the reason why I went off High Fantasy to begin with. It’s sometimes so abstract that anything resembling what I consider normal I’ll reach out and snatch in before it flutters away on the breeze, and I end up not really thinking about what it is that I’ve snatched and begun to internalise. I wonder how much, if any of it, has stuck without my noticing.

So basically, I know now what it is to say that I learnt something from a book – and that I will probably learn something more useful if I actually think about it first.

And I remember

How it all came true …

It’s been kind of wonderful taking my five sub-plots and writing up hypothetical synopses of what would happen if I took them and turned them into a stand-alone story premise. I remember now just how much time I spent on similar hypothetical scenarios before I eventually got started on the first revision. It took like six months to get out of that phase, and it’s something I’d like to avoid this time around, though it’s been very generative. Though, as tends to happen, a lot of what’s been generated is stuff that I’ve thought of before. I think that’s still good though, in the sense that, if these ideas keep coming up, there’s probably something worth investigating in them.

And now I feel like I know what I need to do with this next revision – which is exactly what I was planning on doing, which is to read through it again and make a ‘map’ of each character’s arc within the story, and specifically how these arcs interact with Tallulah’s arc, which is the central focus of the story. Then I can evaluate those threads and see how to get more out of them, tighten them up, make it all more dynamic or whatever. At the moment I’m just working from memory

The ideas that I’ve come up with over the past few days have all been good, but they feel more plot-driven than character-driven. However, they also work, and I’m sure I can find a way to use them in such a way that it keeps the focus of the story on the characters. And also it’s difficult to gauge these things when you’re the person coming up with the ideas, rather than just the person reading the final product. What I consider to be ‘too plot-driven’ may not read that way at all.

It’s also an exercise in using familiar ideas and trying not to be an elitist killjoy about it. I mean I think there’s a problem when even a hypothetical story using generic tropes and narrative structure makes me feel insecure. Although even with that anxiety I still honestly enjoy it, however uncomfortable that enjoyment makes me. I even feel that I may yet get over it.

I may be transferring that nitpicking habit over to how I define the status of my manuscript, whether I refer to it as a ‘draft’ or a ‘revision’, how I number it and so on. Right now I’m working with the idea that I have a First Draft, which has been through a First Revision, and once I have done whatever amount of Revisions it takes to make it feel like there have been Enough Revisions it will have transformed into the Second Draft. That or I only ever wrote a First Draft and everything from this point on is going to be a Revision of some kind.

I dunno guys I re-read this really good article by NK Jemisin about why magic shouldn’t make sense and it really speaks to me because I have first-hand experience of what she’s talking about re D&D and how it influenced the way I thought about magic only I was thinking that way about magic even before I ever touched D&D so my entire writing career has been partially defined by my desire to systematise everything and now I’m just SO CONFUSED

But in a good way. And I do agree with her. Games need rules, but stories are not about games. Unless it’s Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games or something, but in both cases the whole point is that it’s not a game, and the rules are there to be broken.

Ned Stark could tell you that.

If he wasn’t dead.

Magic is not science, guys. Unless you want it to be, in which case it is science. Because in the end, it’s your story.

And I really want to get mine to an agent before June, so I’d better get cracking.

5 Keys

Five key points. That’s what I’m focusing on with this next draft of Tallulah. At last I have a plan, a PLAN!

And so forth. I have been unsure of how to start this … well, I’m going to call it the second draft, following the first revision, based on how I feel about my own process and nothing more. In the words of a certain cartoon prince: what else is there?

I love that movie more than is reasonable for a man of my age.

The main thing that I took away from reading through my revised manuscript – which I am calling Draft 1, following the Zero Draft – was that while the overall flow of the story did feel much better, the structure of the sub-plots needed a lot of work. To this end I’ve just quickly made synposes of the main 5 sub-plots, and thankfully they all revolve around character relationships so it’s easy to flesh them out into premises for self-contained narrative arcs.

It’s working well; I’m seeing where the holes are and where focus needs to be tightened by taking each of these relationships and treating it as though it’s an entire story all on its own, which makes me look for ways to get the most out of each premise. Going back to the points I made (or at least tried to make) about originality the other day, I’m taking these premises and using what’s familiar to build a coherent path through the story. I’m just thinking about putting a familiar narrative together, a story that I recognise and feels solid. It’s quite empowering.

The good news is that three of the five sub-plots feel much more solid than I thought they would, but I stopped writing them to write this post instead when I got to the fourth one, as I knew at once that it was The Problem, and it’s been that way from day one. It’s probably to do with how late it is – it’s almost 3:30 a.m. as I write this – and will look better in the morning, but it’s as much a sense of finality as anything else. This particular thorn in my side has been around for so long, and I’m finally forced to face it in all of its lodged, infuriating glory and find a way to resolve this ongoing issue.

It’s so clarifying. I feel lucky that I even thought of doing this; I’ve been wracking my brain all day about how to get started and then it just clicked. And I guess that’s how it happens, and I should be used to it by now. Make an effort in the general direction that you want to go and try some things and, eventually, you’ll stumble upon the solution you’re looking for.

Which means that Draft 3 is officially a-go. By this point I’ve been working on Tallulah for twenty-two months. I’m going to miss it once it’s over, but at the same time I really, really want to move on to something else. I need some variation, and I need the time and energy to devote to it. I do think I’ll keep writing other things on the side while I’m revising, but I crave the freedom to really dig into a new project, get swept up in it again. But I’ve got solidarity and commitment with Tallulah, and while it’s not always exciting – although it’s getting exciting again now – there’s really no substitute for it.

Here we go again.

Being a good writer

I realised something today, finally, at long last: this blog isn’t my ‘platform’. This isn’t how I’m going to reach millions of people who will then buy my books and gaze adoringly at me in their mind’s eye. This is just a public writing journal.

You know what? I’m okay with that. It’s worked for me so far; why change a winning formula?

I tried writing two posts yesterday and neither of them worked. I’ll take that as a sign: I’m not ready for the kind of commitment that it would take to build up an online presence that could be an asset to me in terms of getting my name/brand out there. I had things to say, but the first one I just couldn’t find the right words for, and the second, a review of Wake by Amanda Hocking – I just don’t like the review format. I’d much rather pick a topic and draw on material from all over the place, rather than treating one text as a topic in and of itself. I can do that with films just fine, but I don’t like that with books. To be honest I don’t even like it with films, it’s just what I’m used to.

But, considering that I’m happier discussing single topics and drawing on multiple examples, let’s do that.

I caught this in my Tumblr feed today, and it’s always really heartening to know that I’m not the only one with these particular concerns, even as it’s depressing that anybody has cause for these concerns. Which we do. One of the fifteen unfinished blog-posts sitting in my Drafts is about the Love Interest stereotype, which has become more or less synonymous with the Damsel in Distress stereotype. I was going to talk about how I actually like a lot of these characters, how despite the fact that they’re perpetuating this really reductive trend of how gender roles are depicted in the media (particularly fiction), if you take them on their own, some of them are actually pretty good characters.

I was going to go on at length about how I really like Buttercup from The Princess Bride, mostly because Robin Wright is a total boss and brings an integrity to the role that perhaps wasn’t there in the writing. The point being that even a character whose main purpose for being in the story is to be rescued by the hero and is therefore more or less unable to defend themselves can be a good character. Life is full of situations in which people are helpless and unable to defend themselves, and thus require help from others to get out of trouble. To deny this would be disingenuous, erasing and ignoring a harsh truth of life by neglecting to give these experiences a voice.

But of course it’s not a one-to-one direct comparison: the Love Interest in Distress is represented a certain way that is probably very different to the real experience of being abducted, held prisoner, enslaved, or anything like that. Buttercup is abducted by one short angry villain and two really quite chivalrous mercenaries (I mean they still took the job, but all things considered it could have been worse for her), and is never physically beaten or overtly abused, though of course the whole death-threat thing kind of balances that out. It’s a very romantic kind of depiction of the situation, and the design and narrative of such characters reflects that, not a real experience.

To that end, we you have another kind of Damsel in Distress, the ‘gritty realism’ counterpart of the stereotypical fairytale princess. We see this in films like Taken, where the implication of some really horrific abuse coming to Liam Neeson’s daughter, Kim, at the hands of her captors is not just present but very much played-up for effect, to create a sense of tension, revulsion and urgency. We want Bryan to save her not just because she’s been kidnapped, but because she’s in very real danger, and terrible things may have already happened to her that Bryan can’t protect her from. Her victimhood serves as the impetus for us, the audience, to cheer for the hero; we can’t cheer for her because it’s obvious, give the narrative these kinds of stories present us with, that she isn’t able to help herself.

What they both have in common is, of course, the fact that they are women relying on men to get them out of trouble. It’s the fact that this particular role-allocation along gendered lines – women are victims, men are saviors – is so common and repeated so often that is the issue, not any one individual instance of it. Not to mention the fact that it turns abuse and victimisation into a kind of fetish – after all, Taken wouldn’t even have a plot if it wasn’t for Kim being abducted and sold into prostitution. (By evil Albanians. Of course. Hey, at least they’re not Arabs, right? Right?)

And that’s where the issue of being a ‘good writer’ comes in. On the one hand, we all want to tell the best stories that we can, and I don’t think anybody ever came up with a story that they didn’t assemble from pieces of other stories they knew. And surely we don’t want to sacrifice a meaningful act of artistic self-expression for the sake of being ‘politically correct’. We all probably know at least one book, film or TV show that spends more time preaching a moral than telling a story; I can think of Pocahontas (which I have many other issues with, but the preaching is certainly one of them, especially because it’s so disingenuous) off the top of my head, and in terms of books there’s the god-awful The Banned and the Banished series by James Clemens, which one day I will have to tell you all about because wow that is some twisted shit. If ever there was a series that needed a serious feminist makeover …

And that’s the other hand. We do get our material, our inspiration, from what’s around us. So how can we ever expect future storytellers to tell better, more inclusive, humane stories than those of the past if they don’t have anything to work with? And how are those stories going to be told for future storytellers to draw on if we, the current storytellers, don’t actively analyse, critique and deconstruct the stories that we draw on for inspiration, and our own decisions for telling the stories that we do, and in the way we tell them? The short answer is that they won’t be told.

I came across an article on Cracked the other day (which I also tried and failed to write about), a list of five writing tips, and my favourite is #2. The idea is that we shouldn’t get hung-up on our ideas being ‘original enough’ before we go to work on them. Well, I agree. Working with ‘unoriginal’ ideas is not only fine, but it’s something that we can’t even avoid to begin with. Originality comes not from the conception of something totally and singularly unique, but from taking existing concepts and combining them in a way that has not yet been done (to our knowledge). I mean if you do come up with something totally and singularly unique then that’s awesome, and that certainly counts as original, but it’s not the only thing that counts. I agree with this piece of advice and especially like the bit about having a gun to his head, because it’s not so much about what you write, it’s that you write. We all want our work to be original, but just because you write something down doesn’t mean you can’t ever change it, or you’re somehow committed to it, or that your brain will seize up and never be able to generate original ideas if you dare to put an unoriginal one into words. I’ve found that it makes coming up with original ideas easier, so by all means, write down those unoriginal ideas.

Which comes back to the Damsel in Distress, the designated Love Interest, and so many other things – setting a fantasy novel in a world that resembles feudal Europe and is populated by elves, wizards, orcs and dragons, for instance, or writing a YA paranormal romance set in a high school in which a young woman with self-esteem issues who ‘isn’t like the other girls’ is singled out by and falls in love with an impossibly attractive young man, who turns out to be some sort of supernatural being with a serious lack of respect for personal boundaries and even consent.

The example of Harry Potter is particularly pertinent to this discussion. What is ‘original enough’? My answer: it’s not a thing. Or at least it’s not a thing beyond a self-delusion whereby we insist on holding ourselves to an imaginary elitist standard that we never actually take a step back from and analyse what exactly we mean by it. Because Harry Potter is filled to the brim with ideas that other stories have used before it. It’s got elements from The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Matilda all separated out and stuck back together in an epic remix, and it makes for an experience that is completely distinct from any of those other stories, even while we can see the obvious connections when we look at its component parts individually.

And if JK Rowling had thought to herself: ‘Well, that’s not original enough’, then we wouldn’t have the second-most successful book series of all time. What’s ‘original enough’ is not the same as what’s ‘good enough to write’. I’m sure she didn’t have every single detail planned out from day 1; I know she spent a lot of time planning the series, but when she first started thinking it all up I am willing to bet that it wasn’t the same combination of ideas that took her fancy. And besides, it’s fun to mix and match existing ideas for your own purposes. It’s the same as doing a writing exercise where you have to include certain elements; the limitations give you tools to be creative with – just because you’re using the same materials doesn’t mean you’ll end up making the same product, and I think a lot of aspiring writers think the exact opposite. I know I certainly used to.

But of course, the other side to that is that some of the stuff in Harry Potter is not only unoriginal, but politically pretty bad. Hermione Granger is a fantastic character, and the Potterverse is full of strong female characters. But how many of them are close friends? How many of their friendships with other women make it to the forefront of the narrative, in the same way that Ron and Hermione’s love-hate relationship plays out, or Molly’s strained but fierce affection for Fred and George? Ginny is not my favourite character, but part of the reason for that is that her story is so one-note, because it’s the story of somebody with a crush on Harry Potter. We never get to see into her life like we do with Ron and Hermione, never get the sense that she has much of a life of her own, and even when we do see her going out with other boys it’s later explained as her attempt to get over Harry (which Hermione advised her to do). It’s not like this is bad on its own, but when it’s all we get it becomes problematic in terms of the trend it’s perpetuating – in this case, that of the Love Interest who is willing to wait any length of time and put up with seemingly any amount of crap from their OTP because True Love Conquers All or whatever.

On top of that – Harry doesn’t deserve her. He forgets that she was possessed by Voldemort when she confronts him about the possible dangers of the diary of the Half-Blood Prince; and that’s realistic, don’t get me wrong, seeing as they move in different social circles and, well, she’s his best friend’s little sister who he’s used to pretty much ignoring. But it’s hardly the foundation of a long-lasting relationship based on mutual respect. This is also the book where he finally starts getting interested in her, and it’s only then that he starts paying attention to her, and it just so happens that she’s still into him and ready to hook up at his earliest convenience.

If I ever do write that fan-fic I occasionally threaten myself with doing, I am most definitely addressing that.

I am absolutely an advocate of using ideas that work because you understand them in order to tell your story, even if it’s just to get the ball rolling. But once you’ve gotten the ball rolling, look at what’s bundled up in it. Why that stuff? Why not something else? Is it necessary? Why? What happens if you take it out and replace it with something else, or even just tweak it slightly?

Let’s use the example of Star Wars. Princess Leia is being held captive by Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. Luke and Obi-Wan are on a mission to rescue her, joined by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Without her there to be rescued, Luke’s journey to become a Jedi Knight would never have taken place. I don’t think many people think about that; I literally just realised it as I wrote that sentence. That is how vital Leia’s being held hostage is to the plot.

But does it need to be?

Imagine if she’s not being held captive. Imagine if she actually escaped the Empire and came to Tatooine herself to deliver the message, and then she and Luke went to find Obi-Wan together. Everything still works. Just have it so that they go to Alderaan to try and deliver the plans but arrive to find it destroyed, and then the Death Star captures all of them. Events still play out pretty much exactly the same way; she can be the one who bribes Han with reward money for taking her and the others to Alderaan, et cetera. In the end, while her delivering the message does serve as a catalyst for Luke getting involved in the rebellion and meeting Obi-Wan, she doesn’t need to be abducted and need rescuing for it to work.

I remember having a rather guilty conversation with a friend of mine (a woman) about this story I wanted to resurrect, and my conflict over the fact that, while I felt horribly sexist for not having many female characters who were important to the story, it didn’t feel honest to include them – not because I ‘had anything against women’, but because I just couldn’t think of how to include them. This is what was honest for me: this story was high fantasy, and all the creative resources I had to draw on with regards to high fantasy was all about the diverse and important roles that men played in such stories. I had tried taking characters and swapping the gender; it didn’t work, felt fake, didn’t seem ‘realistic’ (in a book about a boy’s best friend being turned into a magical talking sword by a robot dragon necromancer). Any attempt that I made to include female characters felt like quota-filling, because all of the important roles were already taken – by male characters. There was no need for any other characters, and while I felt guilty and frustrated at not being able to feel confident about writing female characters, I wasn’t confident about writing them.

That was what was honest for me. Did that make it okay for me to write that story?

Hell no.

Honesty is vitally important, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all have prejudices and things that we take for granted, and the stories and narratives that we are familiar with are no exception; we only know what we experience, and sadly a lot of the stories that we experience are very much regressive in terms of how they depict gender and sexuality, never mind race, bodies, religion and politics. But it is incredibly irresponsible and lazy to use honesty as an excuse for not interrogating our prejudices and trying to understand and consequently overcome them, to broaden our scope and challenge our ignorance, however unintentional (and much of the time it is unintentional, but that’s also no excuse). If I hadn’t kept trying to write female characters who felt interesting and vital to the stories that I included them in, if I hadn’t sent the first few chapters of my current WIP, which has a mostly-female cast, to a few friends (all but one of them being women) and gotten some vital (and mostly positive, much to my delight) feedback on what I’d written, then that would have kept being honest for me, and that would not have been okay. Not if I wanted to walk the walk, and I did. It’s now at the point where I actually can’t be bothered even thinking of male characters anymore. I’m just bored with them. I’m not saying that this isn’t a problem; I’m saying that I’ve changed, and that we have a responsibility to change if what’s honest to us is also harmful, offensive or destructive to others in a moral sense. I’m quite fine with everybody being harmful, offensive and destructive towards homophobes or sex offenders. But that’s something that those people can choose to do or not to do. Being a woman (cis or trans), or Latina, or bisexual, or poor, or confined to a wheelchair – you don’t choose that.

So while it may be ‘honest’ to think of certain ideas when we’re coming up with stories, and while I think that ‘unoriginal’ ideas such as women always needing to be saved by men and only having stories involving romance and/or sex are fine in a first/zero draft, because in a first/zero draft I’m of the opinion that anything goes so long as you get something out of it that you can work with, beyond that it is ethically necessary to investigate the underlying reasons that we have for making these decisions and coming to these conclusions, and asking whether or not we can do better. And we have to try. We have to share our ideas (with people we can trust to give constructive criticism) and listen to feedback; we have to expose ourselves to stories that we might not normally look for (and ask ourselves why), and we have to act on it. We have to accept the fact that art is never neutral and always political, because unless we never let anybody else see it, it involves other people. We have to be political about it and be aware of what trends we might be perpetuating with our ideas and how we can do better, otherwise nothing is going to change, and I think there’s a pretty big consensus that things have to change.

That is what it means to me to be a good writer.

Not dead

Hi guys. I’m not dead.

I’m getting into a zone I haven’t been in for a long time, and that is the Reading Zone.

I used to be a prolific reader. Whenever I hear people start a sentence with ‘I used to be a’, I assume they’re talking about their childhood, and in my case it’s certainly true. I read a LOT as a kid, and I enjoyed it. I remember being around 8 years old and staying up until probably past 1am (the joys of being unschooled are many) just reading things. I’d re-read things I’d already read, because time was an infinite resource and I had no concept of what else I could or should be doing with it. And because I enjoyed being up and around, by myself, and filling up the solitude with enjoyment.

Even on a four-month break from university, I still feel like I’m ‘on’, and it’s been really hard to acknowledge that I actually have no schedule whatsoever, that I can do or not do whatever the hell I want with my time until semester begins again, and currently that is to read, a lot. I’ve just finished the first three books of Sweep by Cate Tiernan, which I’ve had recommended to me over and over again and, upon finally reading it, I really like it, and am now on to Wake by Amanda Hocking, self-publishing superstar.

I’m also going to re-read Tallulah, my current WIP and on its second draft at this point. I am relying on the idea that what I did the first time is going to work the second time, that reading over what I’ve got and looking at how much of that can be used to tell the story I want to tell without having to add in anything new is the way to go. I have identified a few very crucial issues that need to be sorted out, though, and that will almost certainly require that I’ll have to do more than ferry scenes and dialogue from one chapter to another, but I don’t want to go in with the idea that everything I’ve written is going to be replaced. I want to go in with the idea that it’s all going to stay exactly the way it is, because that way I’ll get frustrated at all of the things that need to be better, and how they need to be better.

Which is why reading is so important.

I mean it’s important to do things you like, and I’m enjoying ‘zoning in’, as it were, and not worrying about how many hours it takes to read a book as opposed to watching a movie. Wake is particularly easy reading; I have a lot of issues with it so far, mostly because the third-person perspective is really jarring in the way it jumps from one character’s experience to the next, and it’s very drama-heavy, but I can’t say I’m not engaged. I’m pretty easy, really, for all that I get critical and political while I’m reading. Or watching. But reading in this case. It’s entertaining enough and I want to know what happens next, and most importantly, as I bought this book originally to make sure that Tallulah wasn’t going to seem too similar – it is nothing like the story I’m telling, so that’s one sigh of relief I can treat myself to.

But it’s also important to do that critical work, and looking at what others have written and finding how it works for you, noting what you feel could have been done better and what paid off and why, is a nice safe way to exercise those critical skills without having to do it to your own work. Although it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to critically evaluate your own work, but it can, and it keeps your brain active, so it’s win-win as far as I’m concerned.

Also, Scrivener has changed my life. I bought the version for students/educators and have been using it pretty liberally, most recently to organise my huge sprawling reviews of movies, and soon enough i’ll use it for books as well. Having all of your documents available in the same window, being able to view two of them simultaneously and being able to ‘roll back’ to earlier versions if necessary, to view a bunch of documents as though they’re a single document – it’s just so convenient, and takes so much of the hassle out of it. I will definitely be using it for the third draft of Tallulah.

One thing it does that makes it a bit irritating to import Word documents into the program is that it suggests you do your chapters in ‘scenes’ – I like this, because it means I can more easily shift scenes from one chapter to the next with a project that’s already been written in Scrivener with this method. But seeing as this isn’t how it works with Word, it means I’d have to sort out the ‘scenes’ in each of my chapters manually. It was easy enough to do in Word, but it also took a really long time because, for the bits where I did want to write new material, it got very clunky. I’m sure it’s worth it in the long-run, but I do hate having mountains of manual labour to look forward to.

Speaking of which: I finally got around to reorganising this blog, and it’s not what I originally intended for it to be once I was finished. That’s mostly because my older posts don’t quite line up with the kinds of posts I was planning to make going forward with this blog, and it’s quite possible than in a couple of days I’ll crack and reorganise everything all over again, dumping all of my old posts into one ‘wastebasket’ category and then pushing forward with my New And Improved blogging format agenda, followed by yet another change of heart in which I try to re-establish the Way Things Were when I wasn’t so worried about making everything neat and tidy and uniform.

Or I’ll just leave it as it is, use what I’ve got and all that. I do want to go back to updating more regularly though; I’ll definitely have some things to blog about once this third draft gets underway, and I am still absolutely going to review the Twilight series, since it’s been about six years since I read them and all of my prejudice against them I developed after I read them, so other than anything else I just want to see if I can stomach it, and if I have anything original to add to the existing, very well-founded criticism of the series. Plus all the other stuff I’m reading. Still gotta do that Vampire Academy review. Maybe one for Millennium People, although I don’t know if I can be bothered. It’s so hard to review books compared to films; they just take so much longer to get through.

But yeah, I’m not dead, just waking up from the New Year’s afterglow.  Reading will continue, and revision will recommence, and I will keep you updated about it as best I can. Hopefully that will come with some kind of schedule on my part. Gonna shoot for a post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and see how that goes.

Hope y’all are enjoying the new year.

Freshly pressed

Fresh, because I have been exercising more and feel, well, cleaner. Something to do with oxygen, sunlight and blood circulation I assume. Also showers.

Pressed, because I’ve been reorganising this blog and its posts and categories all damn day and I’m still not done. Nowhere near done. I thought I could whittle it down to, like, three different categories, and then realised that that was not going to work, and now after reading some stuff about how writer’s blogs are a bad idea, I’m wondering why I’m even bothering to begin with.

And honestly, I’d like to just have A Blog, in which I write mostly about Me. I’m not just a writer; I am many things, including a fan of various things and a critic of all things in time. But then again, this was originally my Writing Blog, and it gave me a wonderful sense of peace to have it there, separate from my messy, embarrassing, far too honest Tumblr blog, which I’m sure there’s an old link to somewhere in my archives if you really want to check it out.

The one good thing that’s been happening is that I’ve been writing at least 1k words every day this year, including the blog post I wrote on the 1st of January. I also got a trial version of Scrivener, and I should probably back it up to Dropbox, but other than that it’s wonderful, I don’t know why I ever used anything else, other than the fact that I didn’t know Scrivener existed and had no money to buy it anyway. If you wanna get technical.

And I’m writing that old never-going-to-work-out project with those 1k words per day, and it’s going well. It’s messy and giving me pause as I try to deconstruct my own intentions, but that’s what first drafts are for. I’m going to kick up Tallulah starting tomorrow, or possibly next Monday, depending on how I go. But soon, anyway. And at some point I’ll get this blog organised the way I want.

I just don’t know what way that is yet. It would be a lot easier if Tumblr was slightly simpler to work with, because that’s my ‘real blog’ where I rant about things that annoy me and do deconstructive, probelmatising analysis on media texts that aren’t books. I used to write about writing there, until I decided that my writing was a precious and sacred thing and deserved an extra layer of respect and consideration from me and segregated it from the horrible underclass blathering of my plebian Id.

And now I’m thinking: well, y’know, maybe I should apply that to all aspects of my life. And guys, I appreciate the hell out of you for sticking with me, giving me the odd like or comment or whatnot and making me feel like I matter, I truly mean that. This blog has been one of the most positive experiences of my adult life and I’m thankful for it, and it’s been a writer’s blog, one of those blogs that ‘isn’t a good idea’. So messing with a working formula is not high on my to-do list.

But at the same time – it’s restrictive. And I don’t just care about writing, and reading books and writing my own books are not the only things that inspire me to write, to tell stories. That’s my whole life. My whole life gives me some kind of inspiration.

So I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But something needs to change. I feel blocked-off, like I’ve got a spiritual blockage in one of my soul-arteries. Something needs to shift. I need a clearer focus. And I think that maybe it’s time for Draft 2 of this blog, and of my blogging career in general.

But I don’t want to make any definite statements yet, because again, I just don’t know what I want. I will clean up this blog as it is and stick with what I’ve got, as that’s what’s worked for me in terms of writing novels so far, and see where that takes me.

It does feel good to be writing this story, though. I do know that. So I think I’ll keep doing it. If it’s somewhat bearable, I may even throw it up here for you all to read. Or even submit it for publishing, after I’ve done justice to Tallulah.

We’ll see.

2013 In Review

Happy New Year!

I don’t know what it is about 2014, but it feels like an actual new start, which is a thing I rarely feel about the starts of new years. I guess I’m just more of an optimist.

I’ve determined to take on a rather extreme New Year’s Resolution: to write 1k words every day – of a writing project. This can include a main project such as Tallulah, or a story that I’ve got on the back-burner, or a totally new story idea I just came up with right this minute. It can also be a script or screenplay (in which case I’ll have a much smaller word-count). But it has to be a project.

One fantastic thing that happened this  year was that sometime around June or July, I suddenly started updating this blog almost every day for a good couple of months. And looking back over my life ‘as a writer’, I’ve actually written something almost every single day of my life, and oftentimes it’s quite a bit more than 1k words. So I’ve already developed a really good habit, and that’s great. This new resolution is for two reasons: to take that habit and stress-test it, and to see what I end up with at the end of the year. My hope is that I’ll end up with at least one draft of another book I’m not ‘working on’. We’ll see – I’m looking forward to it.

And as I look forward, I will also look back to a few things that I learnt this year about writing. It’s been quite the year of writing for me, I have to say. It’s been quite the year in general, actually. And I’m looking to update my categories soon, which I’ve been procrastinating from doing for some time now, so hopefully this is the last post with the current ones. I feel like giving them a good sendoff.

So. What did I learn from this year?

  • I finished a novel

It seems like almost a year ago since I finished the first draft of Tallulah. This is good, because it was almost a year ago. I finished it in January 2013 (the 20th), and it was great.

Honestly I can’t remember much about that day, but I did blog about it, and I just generally remember that it was good. It opened me up and also made me anxious – I spent a good portion of this year feeling anxious about Tallulah – but in the end I can learn something from all of it. The important thing, though, is that I finished. Whatever else happened, I accomplished what I set out to do. I’ve learnt the importance of recording your progress and achievements; it’s not just for posterity, but it’s also motivating. Finishing a novel is worth recording.

  • I got feedback

Oh, my dear Alpha Readers. I cannot thank you enough.

Feedback sucks.

It really does. I actually feel I got pretty lucky, because the vast majority of the feedback I got was really constructive, but it’s just so hard to know how to deal with. It was made worse by the fact that these were my friends and family I was asking to help me out, and having to talk to some of them about how they gave feedback that I found unhelpful or even upsetting – it’s awkward. And it’s gotta be awkward to be on the receiving end as well. I hate giving feedback myself, because I’m so worried about upsetting the other person that I feel most of what I’d say is too sugar-coated to be of any use, so again, thank you to everyone who gave me feedback, seriously. Even the stuff that I found offputting.

Because it’s time and energy for literally no reward, except perhaps the knowledge that you helped somebody out. And I learnt a bit about gratitude through that process as well. I wrote a couple of posts about the feedback I’d gotten and a friend of mine – who’d given feedback – said that I sounded ungrateful. After the initial surge of crippling guilt, I read over it and felt even more guilty and wrote a post about, well, gratitude, to try and make up for it. That was a horrible night for me emotionally, but it was a valuable lesson, and for a few days afterwards I had a nice, humble perspective on life in general. Also I read The Tombs of Atuan to try and distract myself from my crippling shame and discovered a really touching little story that really resonated with me, and reminded me why I love Fantasy so much.

And then, there were my notes …

  • I made notes on my first draft for the first time ever

First drafts are a writer’s best friend, and they only require that you finish them before upholding their end of the bargain.

There is nothing like finishing a novel, looking back over it, and learning. All of the mess, all of the bad ideas and ‘what the hell was I thinking’ moments and continuity errors, all the superfluous side-characters and sub-plots that you fully intended to follow up on until you completely forgot that they even existed – it’s amazing.

It’s also almost unbelievably difficult sometimes, because through reading over it and making notes you get so much material that, ultimately, cannot all fit into the story without making it an entirely different story. In fact one of the things I had to deal with this year was that most of that material gathered from note-taking and reading over my own work came in the form of, like, three or four different possible directions that the story could go in. Totally different stories. And then there was the incident with this song and imagining my characters cast as specific actors I like that got me even more off-track …

The lesson I take away from that now: it’s good that this happens. It’s good because it proves that there’s ‘something there’, that the thing you’ve just written over however many months or even years is alive and generating power, and the only downside is that you are its sole recipient, and the choice of what to use that power for is all on you.

This also taught me to really focus down on what the story is, and which, if any, of the various ideas generated in the aftermath of note-taking actually serve the purposes of telling that story better than it’s currently been told. And that’s not easy. There is no right way to do it. I did it by taking what I’d already written and trying to find the core of that story, and it took me reading the manuscript twice and making summaries of every chapter to eventually get there. Speaking of which …

  • I had a huge hiatus during which I got really frustrated with my lack of progress but then learnt from the frustration and came up with better plans to get where I wanted to go

I came up with a lot of plans for Tallulah.

I was deadlocked; I had too many options and they all worked too well for me to pick one over the others. There was no clear winner, and I didn’t know what the best course of action was – should I go with one of these new exciting ideas, use what I had, rewrite the whole thing over from scratch? Eventually, for the sake of making it simple for myself (easy is another matter), I chose to go with the story and manuscript that I already had to hand, and seeing how far I could take what was already there and reworking it to tell a story that was closer to the one I felt I wanted to tell. To let the story tell itself, in a sense.

Before I could do that, I had to know what the story was. So I read it, made notes – which took a little while – let it sit, then started re-reading it and almost imploded from that horrible feeling you get when something’s wrong and it feels like your stomach is collapsing in on itself.

And that woke me up. Go simple. I started over, made much simpler notes – a general point-by-point summary as well as a little bit of analysis and plans for things I wanted to change – and it worked. I was done in three days and it was like reading a different story. After that it was just a matter of shuffling those neatly-summarised chapters and events around a bit, cutting some things out, adding very few things in (even fewer than what I planned to add in when I actually got around to the revision), and I had a functioning plan for a second draft, and most importantly, one that used as much of what I’d already written as possible to tell the story that I hadn’t quite managed to tell the first time around.

It’s like a stress-test. I wrote the first draft with a story in mind, so it stood to reason that at least some of what I’d written would work fine as it was. And I was right.

  • I wrote a second draft of a novel for the first time ever

‘Light revision’ my ass.

I cut out about a third of the manuscript, rewrote over 20k words and did part of it while studying at the same time. It took me much longer than I thought it would, but I did much more than I thought I would do as well, so it evened out somewhat.

And also, I got it done, no matter how long it took.

Again: this is the only Draft 2 I’ve ever written. I have been ‘writing’ for over 13 years. I have finished three Draft 1s in that time. None of them with comprehensive revision notes, or any revision at all. So this was a massive breakthrough for me. In essence, I finished two books this year.

Because shuffling things around, cutting things out and adding things in (mostly just re-wording things, but a couple of tweaks that count as actual new content) actually made the story different. It made it stronger for one thing, a lot stronger, and the most wonderful thing was reading stuff that I’d written only recently and speculating about it like I would a book written by another author, getting excited about what could happen next. I can’t really put into words how heartening that is. It makes me want to write. It makes me want to find out what this story can be.

I try not to give writing advice on this blog (cough), but this is one piece of advice that I absolutely insist on: FINISH. It is incomparable, and it is absolutely invaluable to improving your writing. It is the best cure to that story that’s been giving you hell. Just finish it. Unless you know for sure that you want to do something else, or you’ve found that it’s not really your thing, finish it. Let it be as whole as it can be; let yourself make it as whole as you can, because there’s a huge difference between knowing how you’re going to end it and actually ending it. And then reading it. And taking notes. And learning from yourself.

Finish.

  • I started filling up my bookshelf

This year was a big year of awareness-raised-ness for me, and more specifically, acting on these things I became more aware of. One of these things was the fact that the books that I own that I consider my favourites are mostly written by men, and that’s not because all the ones by women are books I don’t like: it’s because there are hardly any female authors on my bookshelf to begin with. Now, if I had the Harry Potter books on my shelf that would be different, but those are family books that I don’t personally own so I don’t want to hog them just for appearances. So what did I do?

Why, I hit up The Book Despository, obviously.

I also hit up a friend and fellow writer who is also a librarian, and she hooked me up. She also lent me parts 2 and 3 of The Hunger Games, which is now one of my absolute favourite book series. I do actually put it up there with Harry Potter, for my own subversive reasons – Harry Potter I grew up with, and when I did grow up, I read The Hunger Games. They’re both fantastic stories, and very different.

I also discovered the joys of YA. The ridiculousness of City of Bones, the totally shameless and engrossing Vampire Academy, and waiting on my bookshelf are a host of others, including a story by the legendary Tamora Pierce, the first of the Song of the Lioness quartet, and the first White Trash Zombie book. At the moment I’m reading Sweep, which my librarian/writer/fellow English student pal hooked me up with. It is really damn enjoyable, and surprisingly mature for what it is, and what it could have been. I am down.

And then, there was Wonder Woman.

  • I discovered the awesomeness of comics

I discovered the awesome that is comics at university, and it was my favourite storytelling medium for a little while. I have since fallen equally in love with writing and movies, and I just have more experience with those two, watching a lot of movies and doing a lot of writing. But comics are something special. They’re almost metaphysical in the way they’re read, and they’re really easy to mess up in terms of making them coherent for the reader. But it’s worth it when you find one that gets it right.

Kick-Ass the comic is my favourite anti-superhero story for the way it deconstructs the implicit relationship between hypermasculinity and the superhero narrative. I will always love the movie, but the comic just has so much more to say, and definitely comes out on top for me.

But as for straight-up superheroes, Wonder Woman takes the cake.

I read The Circle, deciding that instead of shooting my mouth off about how female action heroes are always written really weakly and perpetuate all sorts of horrible sexist trends, I should actually investigate what all the fuss about some of the big ones were, and who’s bigger than Wonder Woman?

At first, I thought it was pretty boring. Wonder Woman really is just an archetypal superhero; she’s noble, she’s honourable, she’s always doing the right thing and things always work out for her, one way or another. And her personality flaws are few and far-between.

But I appreciated that, hey, at least she isn’t being saved or set straight by some dude.

Upon subsequent re-reads, I realised just how feminist the story was, and while she is hardly an antihero, she does have flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – she struggles with them, but she also owns them. And when I read the older comics …

It was hysterical, and so amazingly sexist. But for its time, yeah, I have to appreciate the precedent that it set. And after a while I just found it amusing.

Most of it.

And then I read a Batwoman/Wonder Woman crossover where she was just so … dull. And constantly showed-up by Batwoman. Who I like, but yeah, the Bat-family does have a tendency to outshine everybody else, for all that they’re supposed to strike from the shadows.

But the potential for Wonder Woman to be awesome is made manifest in Simone’s version of the Amazonian princess, and I really hope that her appearance in the upcoming Superman vs Batman movie will lead to her own stand-alone flick. And that it’s good. I don’t think it will be, but I will hope, because if there was a good Wonder Woman movie?

That would kind of be wonderful.

(I also read her first Batgirl comic – it’s good, but oh boy do I wish she was still writing Wonder Woman.)

In fact I spent a good 6 hours fantasising about a Wonder Woman movie, and felt the crushing despair of knowing that it would never come to pass the way I envisioned it – the way it was meant to be, dammit.

  • I rediscovered the joy of copying parts from other stories that I like in order to tell a story of my own, how it feels to not feel ashamed of my own imitation

This one is courtesy of City of Bones, the movie. So corny. So formulaic.

So beautiful.

It was just so blatant. The book actually does a slightly better job of burying its roots, but it still reads like fan-fiction. The movie is just so unashamed of what it is, and it reminded me of how I used to write things the same way – take bits and pieces from all over and mush them together as my own story. It’s fun. And it’s good training.

  • I changed my mind about fan-fiction

I was, until attending a Harry Potter marathon early last year (where I borrowed the first Hunger Games book from the hostess), firmly set against fan-fiction, despite having written over 60k words of a Dragon Ball Z fic in my youth, and in fact that’s part of the reason why I was so against it.

But fan culture is so fascinating, and so much of it is so positive – and furthermore, I believe in the vitality of stories, of how important they are, and that their power is to be respected. I mean come on, Disney made its name off fan-fiction, more or less. Why are the stories of Rowling or Collins any less part of culture at large than those of Grimm and Dickens and Austen? Copyright law. That’s all. And I absolutely believe that writers deserve to make money for their work.

But I also think that, so long as money is not an issue, fan-fiction should be seen as a legitimate artistic expression. We all borrow, we all take inspiration, and one of my favourite stories, Wicked (the musical), is very much a fanfic.

I may never actually write any of my own, or read any (other than My Immortal, which is truly beautiful in its awfulness), but just for the reason that I believe stories are more than commodities, that they are an integral part of our cultural and individual identity, they ought to be things that we can interact with creatively.

But at the end of the day, I still prefer original ideas.

  • I came up with several really cool story ideas that I really want to write

Last year was probably the most generative in terms of new stories that I wanted to write, and also getting back to my roots of storytelling, of why I wanted to tell stories – not to make a political point or social commentary, but for fun. Because it made me excited.

Right at the end of last year I came up with three or four ideas that I really liked, and when we put the house up for auction and then it hit me, when we sold it, that we were moving, I also got inspired to write my bumbling, constantly-on-hold and in-progress fantasy epic – and to write it as it really was, without trying to update it or make it ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘progressive’. These are all good things, but they’re not this story. And I’m not saying this story is good. It’s not. But it’s mine, and I’ve had it for 12 years. This may be the way I say goodbye to this house, to this stage of my life.

That’s the thing about stages in your life – often, you aren’t the one who chooses when they end and begin. Something happens and you adapt.

Okay, that is still technically your decision, but you know what I mean. You take the idea and put your own spin on it, make it your own. Use it to tell your story, instead of having it told to you.

And the great thing is that it’s always both. Both is unavoidable. We are at the mercy of the fates, and we define our own destiny. We always have both.

It was a good year. I think it was slightly less jubilant than 2012, but on the whole much more satisfying. I feel like I’ve grown and changed, and that this is actually a next step in my life.

Those 1k words are going to have to be counted here today. I guess I’ll allow for blog posts as well.

Thank you all for following me, or just checking in, whether for the first time or if you’ve been around for a while, for the past year. I hope you’ll stick around for another.