Saturday, 31 January 2015

Unravelling the 'Strong Female Character.'

Over the last few decades there's been a change in attitude to female characters - in books, television, films... pretty much all media actually.

Back in the Dark Ages of yore we all (apparently) liked to read about hapless captive-princess-types, who were stunningly beautiful, so sweet-natured they practically farted rainbows and could transform every man in existence into a love-drunk white knight simply by aiming their impossibly lovely gaze in his general direction. Solve her own problems? Nooo! How bloody unromantic is that? Much better to have her flop around being all trembling and powerless at her horrible, perilous situation. But not - heaven forbid! - angry or grumpy, or even the teensiest bit cross about her trauma, because such behaviour is soooo not feminine, y'know? Bearing her misfortunes with resignation and infinite optimism is how the girl does it - if she wants to actually be liked for the beautiful, non-threatening quest mcguffin she truly is, of course...

Mmmm.... yeahno, actually. Most women have to solve their own problems in their real lives, so fictional female characters who rely on their magical beauty-powers to get everyone else to do it for them are not exactly helpful role models in that respect. So we all started to wise up; the Female Lead Character needed a serious makeover if she was to appeal to the modern reader. And so, if the weak, passive female character was no longer acceptable in fiction, she shall henceforth be replaced with....

The complete opposite! Ta-daaah! Ladies and gentlemen, meet... the Strong Female Character!

And the world rejoiced. Strong Female Character? That sounds gooood. It must be good, because it sounds completely unlike the one we had before and we already know we don't like her any more. So.... how to make a Strong Female Character then? Mmmmmm, lemme see....

Oooh, I know - make her do everything a man can do! But better! And in sexy clothes (but not too sexy, 'cause she's not an object of lust any more, remember? Unless of course that's entirely her choice and she's doin' it for the empowerment, gimme five, sisters!)

Oooh no, wait, I got a better one - make her intellectually superior to 98% of the men around her! In which case she'll need to be a bit of an ice queen, maybe even a ballbreaker. No man could ever be a match for her when it comes to braininess - not that she'd even be looking for a man in that way of course, because she's, like, sooo above that sort of nonsense. In this lady's world, men are the weaker sex, and if they dare to be attracted to her for reasons other than her phenomenal boffin-power they can say hello to a sharp kick in the 'nads.

And lots of people clearly went "Yeah!" to all of that, because from that moment on there were quite a lot of those types of 'Strong Female Characters' karate-kicking and equation-solving their way into fiction. All fine and dandy. But then at some point something changed.

Having 'Strong Female Characters' stopped being merely a cool thing to do and started being a mandatory default setting for every female character in every book ever. And if you're a female writer, the pressure to conform is double-strength - because if your Female Lead Characters are not Strong With a Capital S, you're letting the sisterhood down. Yeah, you - personally and wilfully, you traitor!

And so we had the Buffys, the Witchblades, the Seven of Nines, the Katniss Everdeens. All fine characters in their own right, but... the gold standard for Strong Female Characters? How many women in the real world do you know who are just like them?  Is being super-brainy or able to kick butt in a fight the only way a female character can be defined as 'strong' now? And if she fails that test, is the novel she's in doomed to fail along with her?

In Redemption (my current w-i-p) my main character is a female called S12, and the story is told from her POV. So... is she a kick-ass babe who can handle herself in a fight?

Errrr... no. She does have some specialised skills, and she would certainly try to defend herself physically if the situation required... but the odds of her succeeding in smacking down a would-be assailant are pretty darn small. She's learned that negotiation is a much more effective strategy for her. Yeah, I know - that much-maligned 'feminine' trait of trying to resolve things peacefully!

O-kay.... butt-kicking's not her thing then, so she must make up for it by being super-smart, yeah?

Errr... no again. She was raised in the ghetto zone of a future earth, which means that, while she has a level of street-smarts necessary for survival in such a harsh environment, she aint no college graduate. But she's savvy enough to know that sometimes playing up to her apparent 'dumbness' can make a smart person tell her things they wouldn't tell her if they thought she could understand them. Tsk tsk - pretending to be an airhead to manipulate people. How horribly anti-feminist!

Ahhh... okay, but she's still a confident, independent woman who always behaves appropriately for the situation, right?

Errrr... you already know where this is going, don't you? She tries to do the right thing... mostly. She even gets it right sometimes. But many other times, she gets it woefully wrong. This is mostly because in her previous life in the ghetto her survival depended on being subservient to men, in a big way. Now she's suddenly found herself in an unfamiliar environment where she doesn't have to play that role anymore... but it's all she instinctively knows. And since no-one in this new place seems in any hurry to state what's required of her instead, the only way she can learn is by trial and error. A lot of error.

So how does she score? In terms of the Popular Concensus for what constitutes a 'Strong Female Character,' it seems she pretty much goes against most of the ideals. But to write her any other way for the story she's in wouldn't make a lick of sense. She's who she is because of what's happened to her before the story begins - and what happens once it does and what will have happened to her by the time it ends.

In short, she's not the 'Strong Female Character' beloved of the traditional default requirements. She's a fish-out-of-water, good-intentioned-but-flawed female character who's trying to find her way in the strange and scary world she's been dropped into. Is that so bad? Is that really a handbag-slap across the face of feminism?

For a long while I was seriously worried I was the only one asking that kind of question. But this week I found out I'm not. In this guest post on Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog, the author S.L Huang discusses the idea of flawed female protagonists, and in it she also references this essay by Rose Lemberg. It seems the idea that all of them must be kickass and super-capable might finally be losing its appeal, and a new generation of readers are looking for more down-to-earth characters they can relate to instead. Because when it's not done well, isn't the kick-ass, super-capable Strong Female Character really just another version of a Mary Sue? Male characters have the freedom to be anything and everything in novels. Why are female ones only allowed to be awesome role models, simply to avoid being branded an outdated - and 'chauvinistic' - stereotype?

What do you think? Should we continue to champion the Strong Female Character as an ideal? Or should it be enough to just accept them as 'a female character' - in whatever of a million different flavours that happens to come? Y'know... kind of like females in real life?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

What Keeps You Writing..?

To any Writer With A Capital W, the above looks like a very simple question with an equally simple answer. We keep writing because we have to, because it’s what we were meant to do, because, if we stop writing for any period of time, we actually get cranky and more than a little bit cheesed off with our lives, the world and… well, existence in general.

In that sense, it’s like choosing a career path; starting at intern and working your way up the medical profession to become a respected consultant, for example. You have to be a certain kind of person with certain particular qualities to not only want to go in that direction, but to keep wanting it as you rise up the ranks and then continue to enjoy it once you've got there. It’s definitely not for everyone, but the ones it is for have the same passion for it as a Writer (with a capital W) has for writing.

But that’s not what I mean with this question; I'm going deeper than that. Three levels deeper, actually. So let’s take them one at a time…

Level One: What keeps you writing what you write?

For those of you out there making a living from what you write already this is obviously a no-brainer – it’s what pays my bills, dear. You know what you do works for that purpose, so you carry on doing it so you can… afford to carry on doing it. The Circle of Life! (Well, at the very least the circle of making a mostly enjoyable living, I would hope.) For you guys, that carrot is a real one, and you know it’s real because when you’ve reached out for it in the past you were able to grab it and take it.
Unlike the yet-to-be-published writer, who can only hope the carrot they’re reaching for isn’t just a fanciful illusion that exists only in their yearning writer’s imagination. What keeps you yet-to-be-published writers chasing that carrot, pushing through that nagging fear that it’s not really there at all?

I’ll use myself as an example, purely because I’m here now and ready to answer any questions I might ask me. My ‘area’ in the past was song lyrics – for straight-up commercial songs, for two full-length musicals and a lot of parody lyrics. That’s where the bulk of my writing experience lies, while Redemption is and will be my first completed novel. It’s a hell of a switch –  in terms of genre, expected writing style, size of finished work… just about everything really. Who’s to say that, just because I’ve had some success writing lyrics, I’m also capable of writing a decent novel? Ultimately, for all the effort I’m putting into it, I might suck as a novelist.

I can write lyrics for a complete song, start to finish, in two hours if I put my mind to it (and my personal best is twenty minutes – but that was a really good day…) So the idea of spending more than two years now on one project is… well, it’s been an adjustment, to say the least. Jeez, no wonder I’ve worried about being crap at it! Why am I making life so hard for myself? I could just go back to writing lyrics instead – stick to what I know, and cherish that feeling of finishing something without watching entire birthdays fly by…

But for some reason I can’t. I’m still hell-bent on completing my novel, scene by scene, chapter by chapter – even though the process seems so agonizingly s-l-o-w compared to writing lyrics. What the heck is driving me? What is that intangible thing that keeps any aspiring-to-be-published-writer plodding down the road towards that carrot-that-may-be-just-a-mirage on the horizon?

Level Two: what keeps you writing that specific thing you’re writing?

This relates not just to the fact that you’re writing a novel, but that you’re writing that novel. You’re investing a heck of a lot of time and effort into this one story burning a fire in your brain that ultimately… people might never bother to read. Or all the ones that do read it don’t like it -- hate it even, to the point where they vow never to read anything else written by you ever again. That thing you just spent ages toiling and sweating over? It was a bad idea, chum. Should’ve gone with something else entirely.

Ouch. Now they tell ya’…

I know many writers (including myself) talk about these stories as being tales they have to tell, that almost have to be extracted from their minds and released into the world before they can sleep normally and carry on with their lives. They even say things like “I don’t care if it never gets published or no-one ever reads it, I'm still going to finish it because I have to” (I know that, because I've said it myself, about Redemption.)

It’s easy to motivate yourself into writing something that’s guaranteed to work out just fine. But what about that thing that “will probably never get published, because no first novel is ever good enough to get published...”? How do you make yourself believe that’s still worth slogging your guts over? I suppose the argument is that you can’t write the novel that will get published until you've written all the ones that won’t first – but that’s like telling a kid if he doesn't keep eating all those Brussel sprouts he’ll never get to eat the ice-cream… someday. Sooner or later most kids just say “Y’know what? I don’t want the ice-cream that much anyway.” And stop eating their sprouts. But what about the ones who don’t? What is that magical thing that keeps them shovelling down the sprouts?

Level Three: what keeps you writing that specific thing you’re writing… when you’re getting sick to death of trying to write it?

Okay, so you've got through levels one and two – but this one’s the real toughie. Because this level happens even with the stories you’re most in love with and most desperate to tell. All of us writer-types are in on this secret; writing a labour of love is a roller-coaster ride, and on the downward-sloping parts even trying to put one sentence in front of the other – without the results looking like the work of a monkey after a bottle of Jack Daniels and a spliff – is harder than sucking porridge through a straw. That’s when your Inner Grinch pops up, and tells you there’s only one reason it’s suddenly become so hard; it’s because this story sucks, and you suck too… and y’know what? You’re probably always going to suck, because you’ll never get past writing stuff that sucks because you know you suck soooo much

(Or is that just me? Not that I’d wish it on anyone else of course, but I’m kind of hoping it’s not…)

This level is the reason I – and probably a gazillion other writers out there – have a Novel Graveyard somewhere on their hard drive. And a secret pile of half-filled, handwritten notebooks in a musty-smelling cardboard box in the loft. All of them containing stories that begin full of fire and promise, before slowly petering out and being left to die in the pit of their own loneliness somewhere around Chapter Four. Maybe they really were stories that were never meant to be… but even if they were, ultimately the Grinch won.

Redemption is the first novel that my Grinch has thus far been unable to kill. I finished – actually finished! – its Draft One, and, even though it’s been hard going, I am still squirreling my way through Draft Two. And I am in no mood to give up on it – someone or something will literally have to kill me to make me do that. My Grinch has still been making regular appearances, acid-raining on my parade with the schadenfreude of all his previous attempts. And, in low moments, I still listen to him and feel sad and hopeless for a while. But then I punch him in the face (metaphorically of course) and carry on writing. What’s changed this time around? What is it about this story that’s making me believe in it so deeply, where I didn't or couldn't believe in the ones I attempted before? What is that special ‘thing’ in every writer’s first completed novel that kept them believing this was the one they should put a ring on?

Why am I even asking these questions anyway? It’s certainly not because I know the answers (sorry if that’s what you were hoping.) To be honest I wouldn't even know where to begin. Maybe it’s better not to have a definitive answer anyway. Sometimes analysing something too deeply is the surest way to kill it – in the same way the Victorians thought knowing how butterflies lived required chloroforming them and sticking their corpses on pins.  Or maybe it’s just something that can’t be defined by some sort of formula for human behaviour – “So, you want to actually finish a novel? Try X + Y = screw you, Grinch!

So I'm putting it out there because I'm wondering if any of you have any theories. I’d love to know, seriously. ‘Cause even if we don’t manage to come up with any answers, it’ll be nice to know if we’re doing similar sums to get there.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

How Natalie Goldberg saved my Christmas (and possibly my 2015.)

Anyone who's been following my blog in a way that isn't accidental (and I'm saying that to qualify the statement that follows this one, not because I'm deluding myself I actually have hordes of followers) may have noticed a slight downturn in mood over the last couple of months or so. I even addressed it head-on in this previous post, although at that time I didn't offer any theories or suspicions as to why I'd got myself into that particular funk. I did say I'd think on it though, in order to Get It Sorted.

And Christmas, as it turned out, was a good time to do that. Mostly because I got so caught up in planning, preparing and doing all the crazy stuff required to make Christmas run so smoothly no-one believes any effort goes into the process at all, that the writing schedule I'd been adhering to like a good little girl for the rest of the year went... well, not just out the window, but down the road and probably into the nearest pub to get drunk and have a few fights, for all I know. I actually had one week - admittedly the actual Christmas week - where my tally of hours spent writing was a big fat zero. As in, nothing. Nada. Zilch. For an entire week.

I still can't look at that week in my spreadsheet without getting a lump in my throat and wanting to beat myself about the head with my copy of Stephen King's On Writing. Either that or go back in time and try and do it all differently, but I'm thinking the first option is probably more achievable. And what with the New Year chasing the heels of Christmas like a deranged stalker, the last two weeks of December inevitably became a time to reflect on the year that's just passed and take that wisdom with me into the year about to start.

And bloody hell, what a depressing five-minutes-that-felt-like-a-lifetime that was. In January of last year, I imagined draft two of Redemption being finished and that I'd be deep into the nuts-and-bolts editing stage by now. I imagined succeeding at this would give me such a boost my productivity would double and I'd be positively champing at the bit to get it beta-read. Most of all, I imagined saying I was a writer would be something I could do with pride, rather than with the vague suspicion that people were either rolling their eyes or laughing at me behind my back.

As of this moment, I have achieved precisely none of these things. And that, I have realised, is the skeleton of my current depressive slump. The meat on those misery-bones? Writing advice. Tons and tons and tons of writing advice. As I've also mentioned before, I've read a lot of writing how-to books this year. One big reason for this is that there are several gazillion such books to be found in Kindle form via Amazon, and the majority of them at ridiculously low prices. While the possibility of spending frivolously on ebooks is easily tempered when you're paying £7-£10 a pop for them (because you're able to make a more rational decision about whether you really want that book that much) when they're only 77p you'll happily trade that rationality for "Hey - it's only 77p! That's, like, a bar of chocolate!" And, to be fair, some of them were very good...

Trouble is, a book-diet that's low in story and fun but high in writing advice can eventually start to feel like a food diet that's low in fat and sugar but high in fibre. As in, you keep telling yourself it's doing you good and you'll see the benefits in the long-term so WHY THE EFF DO YOU FEEL SO EFFIN' MISERABLE ALL THE EFFIN' TIME THESE DAYS?

All those books, filled with all those rules, that's why. The 'should's, the 'must,'s the 'you'd be advised to's and the 'don't ever..'s. An endless list of all the ways you can fail as a writer - wait, no, not just as a writer, but as a person too, because if you can't even see that's how you're failing you must be an egotistical asshole as well! And after a long period on a low-story, high-advice book diet, you start to feel like you're being followed around by a drill sergeant who's constantly looking over your shoulder at your work and going "Not good enough, slacker! Try harder! Work faster! Move your ass, you worthless piece of shit!"

That's how I was starting to feel. About Redemption, about writing a novel - heck, about whether I had the right to think I was even capable of ever being a published novelist. All those endless voices, yelling in my brain about what not to do, how not to write... check yourself before you wreck yourself, Mrs Wannabe-Author... 

But then I got lucky. I got a Kindle book voucher for Christmas, which meant I could use it to buy two or three quality £7-£10 books without feeling like Selfish Mum. (Much.) And, right within that price bracket, were two new books by Natalie Goldberg: The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language and Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open The Writer's Craft.

I first encountered Natalie Goldberg's writing some ten years ago, when I enrolled on an online writing course for which two of her books - Writing Down The Bones and Wild Mind - were required reading. This was in the days before e-books (that's right kids, but don't worry - we had moved on from gramophones by then) so my copies were made of dead trees rather than megabytes - but they were two of the most important books I've ever read. I know it sounds clich├ęd when people say a book 'changed their life,' but these two books truly did change mine. They were the first books I ever read that made writing and being a writer feel like an okay thing to want to to do and be - it didn't mean you were a nutcase, a feckless dreamer who failed at everything or a pretentious narcissist overestimating her cleverness. If I'd never read Natalie's books, I would never have gone on to read Julia Cameron's The Artists' Way, or Stephen King's On Writing... I wouldn't have gone on to write 100+ parody song lyrics and then progressed to getting a couple of short stories published, and I certainly wouldn't have even attempted to write Redemption. My writing life before I read her books had consisted of me standing in front of the Big Door To being A Writer, hoping that someday I'd be considered good enough to have the key that got you inside. Natalie was the person who said "Y'know, that door isn't locked. It's open to anyone and everyone - all you have to do is want to step inside." It sounds so simple, but sometimes the simple messages get drowned out by the everyday racket of dissenting voices all around you.

Natalie and her books are a lot like Marmite. Many people - myself included - love her enthusiastic zen approach to writing and life, while others dismiss her as little more than a navel-gazing hippie who peddles false notions that everyone has creative potential. For me, Writing Down The Bones and Wild Mind were like the secret letters from a best friend, passed under the desk when the teacher's not looking. They set me free, encouraging me to see my need to write as a positive thing rather than the delusions of an airhead who was too lazy to aspire to a 'useful' ambition.

If anyone could show me the way out of my current self-dug pit of crumpled confidence it was her. I started reading Thunder and Lightning on New Years Day, and, ten years after reading her previous books, I can feel her magic starting to work all over again. I'm only a third of the way through, and already I'm starting to recover; I've (re)-realised that:

- Writing Redemption until I'm happy with it will take... as long as it takes. And however long that takes... is perfectly okay.
- Not driving towards a goal of 'being able to fully support myself financially as a full-time writer'... is also perfectly okay. And not wanting to do so... does not mean I'll 'never make it as a writer at all...'
- When other authors say what writers 'should' be doing... they are offering advice, not laws. Their way is not mandatory, and not following it to the letter does not necessarily mean you 'can't be a writer in the proper sense of the word.'
Writing from the heart requires courage - but it's the courage of a lamb, not the courage of a lion. It's not about 'kicking ass' and 'taking no prisoners,' it's about going into the dark and neglected corners of your mind and facing your innermost fears.
- You write what you write because it's what you need to write - it's your heart and your mind on the page. Listen to advice from others about how to make it better, but don't let them try to grab your lump of clay and mould it into something else - something you never intended it to be.

 From a writing point of view, 2015 might not be any faster or more productive for me than 2014 was, but it's starting to feel like it'll be better. So thanks Natalie. You saved writer-me ten years ago and now you're saving me again. We've never met, so I can't really call you my best writer-friend, but that's how I've come to regard you through your books - you're the best writer-friend I'd choose if I was free to choose anyone in the world.

I can only hope that I might one day be as good a writer-friend for others. I'd take that over some stellar career as a high-flying author any day.