Saturday, 28 March 2015

Why An Idea for a Story Is Not Always a Story

One of the questions that bemuses, confuddles and even occasionally downright annoys successful writers of all genres (apparently) is that well-roasted chestnut "Where do you get all your ideas from?"

I can imagine why this question is irksome to a successful writer with a clutch of published works under their belt. It's a bit like asking a cyclist "how do you manage to not fall off your bike when you're riding it?" What you do, by that point, is subconscious; you're trusting on inner instincts that help you make decisions about what you're doing without thinking about the mechanics behind them. So you can tell people you just watch people, and life, and keep up with current events, and all the obvious things that work as sources for stories, but you can't tell people how to process that source information in a way that turns them into 'ideas.' That's just crazy magic mojo-shizzle that goes on inside the noggin, and there aint no brain-scanning machine that can record that happening just yet.

In short, to the successful writer it looks like those people are asking the question in the hope of finally discovering The Ultimate Secret. And the truth is - as any writer, published or otherwise, will tell you - there aint one.

But on the other hand, I can understand what drives many aspiring writers to ask that question of writers who, in their eyes, have already 'made it.' Because when you've just started out and you're still finding your feet as a writer, it can feel like the getting ideas part is something you struggle with. Oh sure, you'll get a ton of inspirational flashes every time you people-watch, pick up a newspaper or watch the telly. But getting them any further than that? That's the tough part.

Do you have a teetering stack of unfinished short stories hidden away somewhere? A sad graveyard of novels that never made it further than Chapter Five? Yeah, me too - and so has just about every famous and prolific author since the beginning of forever. Because here's the painful truth... not every Great Idea For A Story makes a Great Story. In fact, in ninety-nine percent of cases, a Great Story needs a lot more than The Great Idea For A Story can offer.

Let me give you an example. This week I responded to a post on Chuck Wendig's terrribleminds blog about the CleanReader app (a whole separate topic in itself.) While doing so an idea popped into my head: 'What if a group of people invented a microchip that could be implanted into a person's brain that could somehow 'censor' real-life, everyday situations and interactions with other people, so they would never have to hear anyone saying 'bad' words or expressing viewpoints that made them uncomfortable?' Imagine it - a whole section of society who, to all intents and purposes, would be living an entirely different reality to everyone else around them! How would that affect them - and what impact would it have on the world at large? Would they use this power for good or evil? But best of all... what a totally awesome and bell-rocking idea for a story, right?

And yet, after about ten minutes brainstorming on that idea, I was forced to admit... erm, no actually, it isn't.

No really, it isn't - because it's not enough on its own. Trying to make a great story out of just this idea would be like trying to make a cake when all you've got is flour. (You could of course say "screw you, Christopher" and give it a go anyway - but all you'd end up with is a solid block-of-flour-cake, and trust me, aint no fool gonna eat that can of mess.) This idea is a great premise for a story - an intriguing set-up for all sorts of potential shizzle to happen. But what's missing is that potential shizzle. It's just a backdrop - the green-screen in a George Lucas movie. We're gonna need a ton of other ingredients before this Great Idea can become a potential Story Cake.

When I look back through all my abandoned novels and short stories, it's clear this was the problem with all of them, and why they all petered out and died less than a quarter of the way through. They all started off promisingly, but once they'd made it out of the starting blocks there was just nowhere for them to go; no master plan to work towards, no destination at the end of the journey - heck, there wasn't even a view out of the window for them to check they were still heading in the right direction.

But y'know what? I'm keeping every one of those abandoned babies - and you should keep every one of yours too. Because there may come a time when you get another Great Idea for a Story that, when combined with one or more of those rejected ideas, has all the magical elements of a Great Story.  Don't look on your never-finished projects as failures - see them instead as potential ingredients in your store cupboard, just waiting to be transformed with the right recipe.

And how do we create those amazing recipes? Well, that's a question I'll be exploring in future posts - because there must be some method to it all, surely? Wanna come along for the ride? It could be an interesting journey...

Saturday, 14 March 2015

When Did Feminism Become a Byword for Intolerance?

I am annoyed with a certain type of feminist right now.

Not all feminists, let me hasten to add. Most of them are reasonable, intelligent people (of both genders) who look at words written on a page or screen and actually think about the possible subtext within them, rather than just adding them up like word-numbers and coming up with some total of infinite chauvinism. If you've been anywhere near Twitter or social media in the last few days you probably already know where I'm going with this. I am of course talking about the Andrew Smith debacle.

For those who don't know, YA author Andrew Smith gave this interview to VICE. In it, he was presented with what was, quite frankly, a loaded question containing the accusation that his stories aren't 'woman-friendly' enough. The response he gave, in that moment and as an attempt to defend himself from a question with distinctively disapproving undertones, was actually two paragraphs long, but it was this first paragraph in particular that kicked everything off:

"I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though."

And lo, the Supreme Feminists of the Movement did descend to vent their wrath on the poor sod. 'Oh, so you're trying to be better, are you? Well that's not good enough, Mister Manly Male Author! How DARE you not be well-versed in the mysterious wonderfulness that is the female entity - you get an F, you rampant misogynist!' And various other comments along that particular train of thought. Within hours Twitter had divided itself into two camps; one attacking Andrew Smith for his inadvertent 'misogyny,' the other attacking the attackers for 'bullying' him.

I'll admit, taking his words at face value, there is a certain dismissive quality to them when it comes to his views about women. But only if that's as far as you choose to think about those words - like I said previously, if you're adding them up like word-numbers instead of looking for the subtext beneath them. So how about we try that? Let's look at it in a little more detail.

"I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all."

I was raised in a family where there was just me and my younger sister, with a father who was in the Navy and so was away from home a lot, often for months at a time. Let me tell you, in families where you get little to no contact with family members of the opposite gender, being clueless about the mind-workings of the gender opposite to your own is a genuine thing. It's not even just clueless - it's clueless and a little bit scared of just how much your cluelessness puts you at a disadvantage with that opposite gender. The fact is, people with both genders present in their family will predominantly - not always, but certainly in the majority of cases - have that extra layer of knowledge and confidence compared to those who don't. It might only be a slight advantage, or it might be huge - but it's there, and to those that have it it'll always be invisible, because it's such an everyday thing they take it completely for granted.

"I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life."

Any first-time parent will tell you, the moment you hold that newborn in your arms and realise that you are completely and utterly responsible for its safety, wellbeing and happiness for... ooh, at least the next eighteen years of its life - when you still feel like you've barely figured out how to keep a handle on your own - is as terrifying as it is momentous. Now factor in the fear from the previous statement on top of that. I heard that fear in the statement Andrew Smith made, because I know I felt it too, when I held my baby boy for the first time. Before then, knowing precisely nada about the care and maintenance of willies, for example, had never seemed like a problem to me. Suddenly I found myself worrying that this very lack of knowledge would make me a neglectful parent, but actively seeking the knowledge to remedy the situation might alternatively earn me a visit from social services on suspicion of child abuse. In case you're wondering, I still don't know much. His daddy has the same equipment, so I feel he's better qualified than me to know what needs doing and when and how often. If that makes me the female equivalent of what everyone's bashing on Andrew Smith for, so be it.

"I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though."

This is the statement that seems to have caused the most outrage - and yet, when you really think about it, it's the one that all those angry feminists should be taking heart from. He uses the word 'ignorant,' for a start. That's not a complimentary word - no-one calls themselves 'ignorant' with any sense of pride, do they? He's being honest and acknowledging it as a personal fault. And then he follows that up with 'I'm trying to be better though.' Not only is he acknowledging the problem, he's acknowledging that it needs to be fixed and he's trying to fix it.

I could've just stopped there when it came to reading between the lines of what he said. But then in this other interview (a more in-depth version of the original) he talked about his childhood, and how he was regularly beaten by his parents (father and mother.) Which added another layer of poignancy to the statements he made and was now getting so vilified for. When you are regularly and repeatedly hurt by the very people you look to for love and to keep you safe... well, from then on, trust is something you don't just hand out willy-nilly to people. Usually because you spend more time looking for clues that you might suddenly be about to get another beating than figuring out how to just, like, totally get where they're coming from. Y'know - priorities and all that...

So, to all those people who jumped on his statement and tore out a definition of 'passive chauvinism' or whatever the heck it was that put those ants in their pants... is this how we're going to play this now? We're just going to scream like harpies at every single man who says anything that isn't utterly pro-women? Jeez, have you people ever even looked at the comments under the average Jezebel article or YouTube video that even discusses women? That's where you go if you want proper, serious misogyny m'dears. How many men have you known in your life who've ever uttered the immortal phrase "Women - I'll never understand them!" (Usually accompanied with a heavy sigh and a sad shake of the head.) Are we going to hunt all of them down too, in our Quest To Eliminate Sexist Man?

If that's truly what modern feminism has come to, we've got a problem. Because they're not the real bad guys. I know that's what makes shouting at them so much easier and puts us at far less risk than going for - ooh, I don't know, the guys that have downright dangerous views, let's say... but it's also hugely counter-productive. You don't attack people who say they don't understand, you offer to educate them, politely and with the intention of making them an ally rather than another moosehead to hang on your wall. Gandhi knew that, and so did Martin Luther King.

When you attack the 'ignorant' (as Andrew Smith openly called himself) you become intolerant. And then you're less than one step away from becoming the very people you claim to be 'fighting against.' You want to know who your real enemies are in the struggle for equality? Go visit their watering-holes. Like big cats looking for dinner, they tend to hang out where their prey gathers - Jezebel, YouTube and the like. Read some of the comments left there. Seriously, read them. They'll make what Andrew Smith said look positively pro-sisterhood.