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.

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