IWSG April: I’ve got insecurity, You’ve got insecurity, We’ve all got insecurity!

Here’s some advice I recently came across on tumblr, which is apparently the source of most of my critical thoughts these days. (Which is… terrifying, honestly, because the site is kind of a dumpster fire. Oops.) Technically it was referring to sending emails at work, but it applies to any kind of writing.

Edit out “just.”

As a word, just strives to lowball the statement it’s attached to. “I just wanted to check in to see…” “Just saying!” “It’s just that, I was thinking…”

No. You’re checking in about something for a reason! You said something for a reason! You were thinking something for a reason! Be firm, don’t let that insecurity shine through! And yet, I write this way all the time. Women, especially, tend to be socialized to apologize for any strong opinion or statement they have. There’s a whole bit about it in Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, where the girls stranded on a dessert island vote to eject the word “sorry” from their vocabulary. (And then forget, say it, and are like, “Oops, I forgot. Sorry. Oops!!” Because hey, it’s a comedy.)

As I’ve recently started a new set of duties at my part time job, I’ve gone through the email templates and phone call scripts to… well, check the basic sentence structure and stuff, do my usual “too many of these sentences/paragraphs start with the same word and it’s driving me up the WALL” thing… but I’ve specifically edited out every instance of “just” I can find. The results are messages that sound a lot more sure of themselves. Especially when it comes to leaving voicemails, which, while often preferable to the hassle of having to utter words to a live stranger, actually records whatever comes out of your mouth for posterity.

I have yet to really wade neck-deep into editing “just” out of my fiction. There will definitely be exceptions, because a statement like “I just started a few days ago” doesn’t lowball so much as indicate that something happened quite recently. It’s going to depend on where the emphasis is.

What do you think? Are you prepared to go on a crusade against “just,” or any other words?

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NaNoWriMo 2017

I’ve finally made a few decisions about what I want to do this November.

ONE:

I will definitely do NaNoWriMo. My novel is already announced on the site and I’ve come up with a working, if stupid, title that I got from googling “how to come up with a good book title.”

… It’s “Good Book Title.” Which probably won’t stick, although one of the main characters is a published author so maybe I can actually work that in.

The temporary cover image is one of the stock drawings from the how to come up with a good title wiki page.

TWO:

It’s definitely going to be a second draft of the novel I was working on last year, which crept along so slowly that partway through I had to do an emergency retcon just so I could get anywhere near the end of the story by 50k. Despite that, I think there probably still are some bits I can still use, but a lot needs to be changed/rearranged and there will be a lot of new stuff to fill in the gaps.

THREE:

I’m cheating a little and already writing. At the moment it’s mostly backstory shorts that wouldn’t necessarily be in the novel though.

… I say that, and yet it’s vital character building stuff for the main character’s later struggle with his sexuality as an adult. So I don’t know.

FOUR:

Boy howdy do I write better if I treat each scene like a short story. So for now I’m sticking with that, and filling in later. If I can spend November just getting down the most important bits, that would still be great progress.


So there’s that. Let me know if you’ve tried the each-scene-treated-like-short-story method and how it worked for you!

Tomorrow’s post will be about the fires in Sonoma County, where I happen to live.

Gender & Writing

When I was in high school, there was this one creative writing assignment that drove me up the wall because the responses were all pretty much the same. The idea was to write from the perspective of someone of the opposite gender seeing your bedroom for the first time. Long story short, it was always either about a boy being surprised a girl’s room could be so messy or a girl being surprised that a boy’s room could be so neat.

Gag me with a spoon. I don’t even remember what I wrote, but it probably fell into the same category. Of course, back then I was in a bubble of gender non-discussion where my creative writing teacher made lame jokes like”words have gender, people have sex.” (This was in 2004-2006. Like, a million years ago.) By now I’m aware that:

  • Gender is either some sort of continuum, 3D puzzle shape, or asymmetrical puddle of self-definition.
  • Man and woman is a separate thing from masculine and feminine, which is a separate thing from male and female. (There might be better words for that. Let me know if I should adjust the phrasing anywhere in the post.)
  • These are all social constructs anyway, and you do you.

It helps that I went to a very liberal college and met all kinds of interesting people. Lots of new thoughts happened. Sexuality was questioned. You know, young adult growing up stuff. As a writer, it introduced all sorts of new thoughts about my writing, as well.

In retrospect there was a writing phase I went through for a while that was actually pretty interesting. I wrote a lot of short romance stories with ambiguously named characters and without using pronouns, then asked readers to describe what they’d assumed about those characters and their relationship. My original reason for doing this was to question assumptions about sexuality, but it works for gender too.

I don’t feel that men and women are all that different, or that much different to write. Not on their own, anyway, and anyone who falls outside of those two (very broad) categories seems to be an indicator of that. We’re just very socialized to fit into two (pretty narrow) classifications, right down to the separate toy aisles that are color coded blue or pink.

Recently I read a blog post that raised the question of how to write characters from the opposite gender, which is a pretty timely question for me. The main character in the novel I’m working on now is a guy, and his actions are mainly determined by how he was raised, the expectations placed on him by everyone in his life and particularly his father. I’ve found that being a guy is not what makes him difficult to write… If I can brainstorm the conditions and expectations the character was raised with, that helps. Having his head up his ass is what makes him difficult to write.

However, I do like to have my partner read over things and do socialization checks for me to see if my characters seem realistic. It always helps to get a second opinion, one that isn’t quite so wrapped up in the story.

Where I do stumble over writerly gender-ish problems tends to fall closer to my side of the fence but with personalities that are different from mine in particular ways. I find it hard to write women who, for example, consider makeup important because I never really “got” makeup. Mostly it’s a texture thing, I hate the way it feels on my face. Also I have a thing about touching or poking my eyeballs that makes me extremely bad at mascara, even if someone else tries to do it for me. My mother just didn’t get why I refused to wear any except when I had my arm twisted to look nice for prom. If I had to write a character who wears makeup regularly and considers it a source of confidence and empowerment, that would be a major struggle regardless of pronouns or their gender identification.

So I’m curious. What are your stumbling blocks when writing your characters, and do they fall along or against stereotypically gendered lines?

Monday Musings #16 – Writing About Relationship Problems and Families

I love my family. Really, I do. I’m lucky enough that my grandparents and aunt’s family on my mom’s side have lived nearby since I was a year old. But at the same time, I don’t have a lot of patience for family drama. Add that to one of my favorite people in the world while I was growing up kind of being a drama faucet at just about every available opportunity and, well…

In lieu of actually ranting, though, I’d like to turn this into a writing exercise. Might as well turn it into something potentially productive, right?

Everyone who has been in a romantic relationship has had some amount of relationship hurdles. Even if it’s just small but frustrating stuff like “for the love of god if you finish a roll of toilet paper and don’t put a new one on one more time…”

Anyone who hasn’t is lying.

But here’s something I didn’t fully appreciate until recently: those hurdles can affect the people around the couple, and when they do it can be a significant effect.

Say you have two couples. Couple A has their issues, even serious ones, but they keep it behind closed doors. Their friends and families aren’t particularly aware that they’re having a rough time, and therefore no one ends up dogpiling in with their two cents. That’s not going to have much of an effect on anyone around them, except eventually they might break up and it will come as a surprise to everyone.

For better or for worse, couple B is not as discrete. There’s a lot of different ways that could manifest. Maybe one of them is the kind of person who wants the people around them to pick sides. Are their friends and family the kind of people who would…

  • Take one’s side and be nasty to the other just on principle
  • Take one’s side and offer support, while remaining non-confrontational
  • Take no one’s side, at least not officially, but stay out of it and on okay terms with both
  • Take no one’s side, at least not officially, but privately think they’re both in the wrong and gets more and more pissed at whichever one is more responsible for dragging everyone into their drama but will never say so because ugh, confrontation
  • Just really try to ignore it and not take sides, with minor exceptions when one of them is being totally insufferable
  • Not say anything to their faces but casually try and defend the underdog when the meaner one is really laying into them about something

Other factors to ponder:

  • Does the couple have kids together?
  • Are the in-laws drawn into the fray?
  • Does it become a factor at family gatherings like birthdays and Christmas?
  • Who’s sad, who’s angry, who’s both?
  • Who accepts it as just something that’s happening, like whatever?
  • Who’s frustrated and wants everyone to just shut up?
  • Who has a lot of feelings but has no one in the family they feel like they can discuss it with, rather than just telling/venting/dumping and getting no response back?

Families are complicated organisms. We all know this, and we’re frequently counseled to write what we know.

What family dynamics would you add to these lists of possibilities?

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #4 — Hostages

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“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable.” ~ Joss Whedon

(image source)

I am not surprised to see a quote like this come from someone who’s created some of my favorite characters and then murdered them. Why Wash, why? Still, this is classic advice.

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” ~ William Faulkner

As writers, we like our characters. We like our plots We like our settings. And sometimes we get so overfond of them that it’s hard to hear the constructive criticisms they sometimes need. We “kill our darlings” and resurrect them in another form with every fresh round of editing — or maybe we put them to rest and let them stay there. Maybe they’ll reincarnate in a different story entirely someday.

Joss’ quote is more like… holding your darlings hostage. Because taking your best idea out? Your best idea? (My immediate suspicion is that my favorite idea or scene is central, the one I’m building my entire story concept on.) Either you grit your teeth and do it, or you kick into high gear and figure out how to save it. You bargain. You manage another page so that you can justify keeping your favorite.

When it really comes down to it, what would you do? Would you take this advice? Would you need someone else to tell you to write more or cut it? I know I would. Could be a cool group writing exercise.