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Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Hero’s Journey: Writing Fiction with a Female Protagonist (ECCC 2014 Writing Panel Notes)

DonRocko and I have started going to Emerald City Comic-Con (ECCC). This year was the first time I realized there were also writing panels at the convention. And wow, was there ever some great stuff to attend! The next few sets of notes will cover what I'd hoped to get to sooner ... but such is life. *sigh* For a more detailed excuse, please see my first post of the year.

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The Hero’s Journey: Writing Fiction with a Female Protagonist
Sharon Skinner, Jenn Czep
Moderator: Bob Nelson (publisher, Brick Cave Books)

“We are people first and gender comes after.” – Sharon Skinner

How does the Monomyth feed into the stories today?

The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell’s original monomyth
-          Feeds into our need for story and the way we tell story, relate to story
-          How it helps us to learn and grow
-          But Campbell was writing as a man at a time when all of our heroes were men
-          So his idea of the hero’s journey is still in many ways one-sided.

Call to adventure – takes you out of comfort zone
-          At some point you go into a new realm
-          Adventures, helpers, etc
-          At some point you succeed, and bring something back to your people

The Heroine’s Journey
-          Basic premise: the female’s inner journey is internal
-          More emotional
-          Not necessarily an adventure

What Matters Here
-          A hero’s journey needs both the masculine and feminine perspectives
-          The more balanced a hero’s journey is, the more satisfying it is
-          So it may involve internal journeys, yes, but also external journeys.
-          The most satisfying journeys encompass both the internal and the external.

BN: Jenn, Blackstrap is a female captain pirate at a time not known for female captain pirates. Want to talk about it?
-          JC: Not true. Piracy was not all men.
-          One of the first female entrepreneurial choices was piracy.
-          Women know how to run a business. But they weren’t allowed to own business, or have rank, unless they married.
-          But they had the skills, so piracy was an excellent option.

BN: Sharon, Kira comes from a very specific examination of the feminine hero. Want to talk about it?
-          Kira came as a character SS followed around
-          Her stories are very layered. A story, patriarchal norming, navigation of the established system and taking the system apart
-          Used Kira’s story for thesis in Master’s in Creative Writing
-          Fantasy and SF as resistant text for young people – resistant text that pushes back from the social messages youth are getting – gives young women a place to go

Audience Question: Resistive text: what you were reading years ago was male-based. Did that make it difficult to get inside the minds of your characters?
-          JC: started reading a balance – Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons
-          Also, reading male characters – you can relate to them, that sense
-          SS: Read a lot of Heinlein, etc, very patriarchal bases, male SFF – didn’t hurt her any, but didn’t clue her in enough when she wrote the first version of her book, The Nelig Stones. Fell into the female protagonist trap – where if you’ve been fed these messages all your life you write the female that needs to be rescued. But also still reads male character stuff. Nick Fury YA,

Audience Question: JC, when researching Blackstrap, did you have difficulty researching female pirates?
-          Yes and no. Western pirates, yes, but Eastern pirates had a wealth of information
-          Also, has a friend with a PHD in pirate history
-          Some of what the women historically did was crazier than the stuff she wrote

Audience Question: So what constitutes a strong female character?
-          A strong female character isn’t much different from her male counterpart
-          She’s someone who owns their own destiny by the end of the book
-          They have to own it and they have to be willing to own it
-          As a writer, write a character who can be tempered through the challenges of the fire they face.
-          Character needs to start in a place where they have room to grow and become that character they need to be at the end of the book
-          They have what they need to have, but need to be tempered by the fires of all of the obstacles they face
-          And the fire that tempers them is what makes them their own instrument to take on their own destiny
-          That’s the most satisfying – so what can grow into so they need to be at the end of the book

Audience Question: Do you need to be masculine to be a hero?
-          JC: Not the case at all.
-          Game of Thrones: Strong female characters are strong in every way a fem character can be strong. Even Cersei. A strong maternal character. Even if it means killing everyone else off. This is a strength women hold.

Audience Question: Masculine in the sense of being nice, instead of just being perceived as bitchy?
-          Sansa’s trying to fit into society, play by society’s rules with the cards she’s been dealt
-          About being in their environment, finding their way within the system – they can be disliked, but they’re doing what they can with what they have

Audience Question: Resistant texts – how do you write female antagonists without parroting the bad guys in society?
-          SS: Has a female character in Healer’s Journey doing what she thinks she needs to do to make her way in the world, but people hate her – what matters is that the character is real enough.
-          The key is keeping it real, and making your characters fully faceted individuals.
-          If an antagonist is too all bad, they can come across as not real. Make them real.

Audience Question: Sansa as a Strong Female Character – she has very little agency, everything’s directed by outside forces. Can you write a character who is strong despite choices being made by outside forces?
-          Can be done, but again, you just have to make them real
-          Ask yourself: whose journey is it really?

Audience Question: What typically do male authors get wrong from a female perspective, and can you think of any that get it right?
-          Joss Whedon. But he gets it all right.
-          Nowadays we’re seeing more male authors who are getting it more right.
-          Back, looking at comics, they’re not getting it right. 
-          Garth Nix – Sabriel – incredible protagonist
-          Neil Gaiman and Arthur Golden also get it right
-          Example of getting it wrong: CS Lewis – Perelanda series – “Now, because I’m becoming a real woman, I can give up my frivolous dreams and become a real mother.”

Audience Question: Do you find it harder writing internal strength, or external strength?
-          SS: It’s the balance of both matters. In the character arc, growth must be internal and external for them to become that instrument. Sometimes that means learning to swordfight, sometimes that means learning to nurture.
-          D&D books, not much internal growth – some readers like that
-          Some prefer emotional rollercoaster
-          She likes both.

Audience Question: Resistant texts – how to make a character likeable but strong – we also should read widely. Can you think of texts we shouldn’t read?
-          SS: Twilight. No real character arc. Prime example of this.
-          The Host – likewise, the character didn’t change.
-          Very escapist
-          This is a matter of taste
-          Mentor texts: You read widely, eclecticly, to learn how to do it well, and then you also read ones where you learn what NOT to do. Texts you can decipher and dissect. Go back and read those pages that teach you.
-          As a painter, you learn to copy the masters. As a writer, when she had to learn to write a battle scene, she picked several battle scenes from books she’d read and liked, then picked them apart for how they pulled it off. Copy the techniques. Example: George R.R. Martin gives an eagle view of the battle, then makes it personal.
-          Likewise if you get thrown out of the narrative when reading a book, think of it as a bad example, and *don’t* do that.

Audience Question: What do you think of writing trans* protagonists?
-          JC: Hasn’t written any, but it’s important to remember that the journey is still just as much about the internal and external journeys. It’s about being human first. Gender isn’t about what they are, it’s about who they are, so you can show what growth there is, and what character arc there is, regardless of who they are. It’s a different character arc for that person.
-          SS: It’s all about love. About being human, not being afraid to take that leap, especially when you’re going into a territory your character clearly knows, even if you don’t.

Audience Question: Exercise in gender perspective – wrote a scene with a male protagonist, then changed all the pronouns to female. The story completely changed. Is this how society views it? Or do you need to write men and women differently?
-          SS: When you’re writing a character, it’s about how effeminate or masculine you want your character to be, male or female, and the strengths you choose to give them. Not so much about gender as it is about their masc/fem sides of who they are
-          JC: The reader will read it in their own way. Pirate books – many of the characters go either way, and it’s not about sexual pref but more about power, and with one villain with a fem harem, it was about having power over others. But if she wrote that same character as male, it would be a flat character. But some will read it differently.
-          Sharon: We all see the word though our own lenses. As a writer we hope that our readers get lost in the world, but if our readers see it slightly differently.
-          Sharon: Human motivation is what drives us all. It’s all about motivation. You have to make sure the motivation behind what your characters are doing is what makes them real.

How to pull away from the tropes?
-          JC: One example: Cimorene – rebellious princess, but with mad skillz. Arya Stark, too.
-          SS: Take the trope and turn it on its ear.
-          Take the cliché character and change something drastically about them, give them some major skill or huge character flaw, an Achilles heel, and switch it up.
-          Character tests and sheets are helpful tools, but don’t let them run your life or tell you how to write or not to write.
-          The biggest tool is to write your heart out. If you don’t enjoy spending time with your characters, then you need to rethink what you’re doing.  But don’t let the rules and the tools get in the way.
-          Every book will tell you how to do it, but that’s just how the one author did it. We’re artists, first.

Messages to men when they grow up: about being strong, etc. But if you’re writing strong female characters, is it a challenge to write strong males?
-          Characters should balance each other out.
-          The difficulty was not in making the male characters weaker or the female characters overpoweringly strong – it’s about making them both strong in diff ways.
-          About being human, not about gender.
-          JC: Male characters aren’t necessarily unlikable if they’re very strong or very weak, but something should offer assistance to fem character. If they’re weaker, there’s got to be a strength within them that isn’t a physical strength. They could be mentally adept.
-          SS: Stumbled in allowing both male and female characters to be their own people – stumbled because didn’t want her character to have too much help, needed more tempering – want her to have a character arc.  Struggled with figuring out who’d the characters would be together, how their strengths and weaknesses would play off one another. Figuring it out now.

When writing trans* or intersex characters, or say aliens without identifiable sex or gender – How do you avoid problems  with them becoming just objects for traditional characters who bounce their gender issues off other characters?
-          SS: whatever issues they struggle with, temper them, put them through the fire.
-          Get back inside the head of your character and find out what that journey really is.

So what’s the key to writing a female hero?
-          SS: Butt In Chair. Make the person human. Whoever they are, whatever they are, make them human, as real as possible with strengths and flaws.
-          Make sure you throw lots of obstacles and challenges at the characters. Temper them as much as possible. Make them the sword they need to be at the end of the story.
-          JC: Pay attention to people. The realistic characters you’re surrounded by.
-          Characters are very much us, but also the people around us. If you know a strong woman in your life, pay attention to what makes them strong.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Beta-Reading Lifehack: Using a Tablet

As crazy as things have been, one thing that was important to me was to honour the commitments I made to beta-read. In one case, it was the next book in a published series for an established author. In another, it's my critique partner, whose latest WIP is filled with so much awesome that I can't wait to see her succeed with it. Both situations were time-sensitive. And after the move, with my life in as much disarray as it is, I needed to find a way to be able to keep those promises while not losing it completely.

Which led to a useful solution: putting it on my tablet.

Backstory: I have an iPad, but I'm a PC user. I particularly like using Microsoft Word, since that's been my program of choice for more than two decades and I'm fairly well-versed in its ... eccentricities. But the act of beta-reading can be draining, sitting at the computer and reading manuscripts. Especially at times like these, when my energy is low (see previous post). And I'm a huge fan of the Track Changes method of beta-reading, but the screen clutter can get to me sometimes.

So what's a girl to do? Yes, I know there are Word and Word-like programs for the iPad now, but like I said. Screen clutter.

Here's how I made this work:
1. Print the document to a pdf.
2. Load the pdf onto the iPad or tablet.
3. Open the document in the reading program (in the case of the iPad, iBooks).
4. Read and make notes by hand. Make sure the notes are clear enough that you can find what needs to be changed! I used page numbers and word strings.
5. When finished, go back to the original Word document, and add in the appropriate comments and revisions using Track Changes. Use the "go to" page numbers and search functions to further improve the speed of accessing the part that needs editing.

Why this works:
- Less fatigue and strain from sitting in front of a computer.
- Going through the whole manuscript and doing everything at once can be overwhelming, and take more time than it needs to, but this breaks it into manageable steps.
- Not making changes to the original document until you're done reading it can speed up the reading process.
- The second pass through the manuscript, even if brief, can help you see things in a different light, and even make comments about certain issues that you wouldn't have noticed until the first read-through was complete.
- The format change allows you to "see" the document in another way (so this can work for editing your own stuff, too).

So, there you are. That's what worked for me. I hope you can find it useful as well.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Happy New Year!

"Those guys up there. They said they're not paying their rent."

It was the first of December, deep into the evening. Our landlord had texted us to let us know he'd be coming by ... two hours ago. By the time the knock sounded at our door, it was nearly our bedtime (okay, would have been nearly our bedtime if we were responsible adults) and we were honestly starting to get a bit worried. He's a nice guy. When he finally showed up, he was very distressed.

We live in a fourplex: two upstairs suites, two basements. We had the latter. And while we were reasonably happy with where we'd lived for the past seven and a half years, we knew the time was coming when we wanted a little bit more. Y'know, like a suite with ninety-degree angles. And a bathtub instead of just a shower. 

And while I secretly hoped a top suite would come available, it didn't seem like it was going to happen. Upstairs are a lovely couple who we get along with well enough that we feed each other's cats when the other is away. And Upstairs Next Door was a family that frankly, seemed pretty entrenched. Even if there were ... Issues. 

Yeah. Issues. Polite as I may be on here, you can be damn sure that those things will make it into my fiction. But now is not the time to dwell on drug dealers or obnoxious DJs, or people who threatened my friends for parking in "their" spot when in fact street parking is public.

So when Mr. Landlord came by late that night, he was panicked. And just like that, in part sympathy and part selfishness, we agreed to take the place.

By the fifteenth.

The next three weeks were a blur of packing, moving, feeding friends who helped us move coffee and doughnuts and then pizza and beer, then finally, unpacking. We are still not entirely unpacked, but by the 21st we kinda hit a wall and we needed to take a holiday break.

Which was great, because I came down with a nasty cold that still hasn't let up.

This whole moving caper came right on the heels of what is probably my last NaNo (long story). Which I successfully completed, in two weeks, because I came away from this year's SIWC with some important requests, and had to make some equally-important revisions before I could send stuff to agents. I also wrote a short story during Novemer, which felt so refreshing to do.

My point? The last few months have been insane. And that's not even factoring in Stuff. Which is still a problem because ... *mumblemumblemumblePeople*.

But one of my resolutions this year is to stop putting up with certain things in my life, and to make more space and time for myself. So I just wanted to say hi, Happy New Year, and yes, I'm still around. With hopefully some great things to share in the weeks to come.