The trouble with women

2hrs 37mins. That’s how long it took for a woman to speak in my latest audiobook. A tenth of the whole story without a female speaking part. More than that: only one other woman was mentioned in the first three hours, and she a nameless ‘wife’.

This post isn’t about this book in particular; it’s as much about the way this struck me as strange. See, I’ve read other books with heavy gender imbalances. Catch-22 has very few female characters. Jane Fletcher’s ‘Caelano Chronicles’ are entirely man-free and I love them. Hell, even Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all time favourite books – has only one prominent female character and the supporting cast is resolutely masculine. So why did I particularly notice this one book above all the others? Why has it prompted me to write about it?

I’ve touched on politics in writing before. Elsewhere there’s been great reams of metaphorical ink spilled on the lack of people of colour and women in fiction. Maybe the difference is simply my awareness: exposure to issues raised by others has sharpened my awareness of the imbalance.

The thing is this: it is perfectly justifiable to write a novel without (many) women or men or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri. Certainly this particular book is set in a very male-orientated world and the absence of women is not irrational. I believe that people should be able to write what they want; I don’t believe in quotas or that people should be forced to write in a spot of diversity just because it’s the prevailing culture. My wife – who is a woman – defended the novel when I said how strange I found it. Why shouldn’t an author be able to present a masculine culture from a masculine point of view?

If you’re a man, in general, it’s harder to write female characters than male ones. Fact.’ This is from Joe Abercrombie’s blog, the author of the book in question. Now before you go and make your snap judgments based on that I should say that the quote was posted in 2010 and the blog has a coda in which he says that he now winces at some of the things he said. So don’t rush out to hang him.

I enjoy writing female characters. I can’t honestly say that I write women as well as I write men (or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri) because I don’t know, but no-one has said that I don’t do it with at least equal incompetence. Is it fear that stops us from being diverse? The fear of doing it badly?

That doesn’t stop me finding a lack of diversity a little odd. I’m used to fiction containing many different notes, perspectives and tastes. Maybe the strangeness I feel is more of a reflection of my own experiences and the fact that – as I first began this post – the story seemed a little one-note and needed more colour. Since then the novel’s been growing on me as the characters have developed.

It’s an author’s right to describe a civilisation in which I don’t feel comfortable. It’s an author’s right to add or omit elements that strike me as uncomfortable or unreal. But it’s the reader’s right to find it all a little strange. Ultimately it’s their right to put the novel to one side and never pick it up again.

The title of this blog, incidentally, is stolen from Jacky Fleming’s book, which is excellent.

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Graft

I am not special. I am not a genius. My characters don’t keep me up at night, conversing, nattering, telling me their life stories. I am one of nature’s grafters, trying to compensate for my lack of natural talent with hard work and a furrowed brow.

Writing is an unusual thing. Take a glance at Twitter, or do a search for author quotes: I’m betting you’ll find in short order quotes on the lines of ‘writer’s block is when your invisible friends stop talking to you’; ‘I don’t create, I merely eavesdrop of the voices in my head’. I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of voice-hearing and it makes me rather sad that I don’t seem to have this faculty. I’m sure I used to. Somewhere in the last ten years I lost it.

I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake. I’m just a middle-aged white cisgender male who has yet to achieve anything worth singing about. I have no Muse – which is decidedly not the same as inspiration, of which I have plenty, thank you very much.

On the other hand, I have got things done. I have written seven novels, some of them worth the effort of creation. It’s been a strong contention of mine that too much attention is given to the nebulous and unexplained phenomenon that is ‘genius’ and not enough to the achievements born of submersing oneself into a field and working damn hard. I say again: I am a grafter. I’m proud of that.

All these awards for ‘best first novel’, ‘best first writer’; shouldn’t we also celebrate the most improved novelist? Can’t we tell more from a third novel than a (possibly) flash-in-the-pan debut? Can you sustain the pressure? Can you make a career out of an artform?

I’m not grumpy about this – or at least no grumpier than I am about the rest of modern life. I’m merely musing Muselessly. But I’d be very interested in your experiences. When you’re writing do you hear your characters talking to you, telling you what to write? Or do you have to poke them with sticks and lead them by the nose to get them to get off their fat asses and act?

The shattered remnants of ego

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s nothing like a good critique to squish the missteps. And, as is rapidly becoming a tradition, I got squished.

Oneiromancer was placed under the microscope on Monday night. My irregular manuscript-exchange group, AB-FAG – that’s Abingdon Fiction (Adult) Group to the uninitiated – met to deliver the verdict on my work. And, by and large, it was a hugely productive and beneficial meeting with the added bonus of beer. Now I have to gather up my notes and the shattered remnants of ego and work out where the hell to go from here.

The real benefit of such a group/meeting is to show the author things she can’t see herself. Writing is a balance: too much backstory or not enough? Too much telling or an overreliance on clumsy and flow-slowing body-language? Clarity in mythos-explanation or pages of info-dumpery? What is the novel lacking? What’s superfluous?

I don’t have all the answers; they’re not all handed to you on a plate. But there are some things upon which everyone agreed:

  • The opening is confusing and off-putting. There are too many POVs too soon
  • Likewise there are too many aliases, which make it hard to grasp character (although at least one reader likes this conceit, which is just bloody typical)
  • With one or two exceptions the characters are underdeveloped – partly a consequence of my attempt to write an ensemble piece rather than one with a single, definable protagonist. The consensus is that more backstory would help
  • The villains need to be villainouser, and their motives need to be made more explicit; that they’re not just invading/subjugating/killing etc for the sheer hell of it. Or, if they are, I need to make their wickedness wickeder
  • There is a lack of light to balance the grim darkness; the humour present takes the form of pitch black irony

I think all of these points are correct, although I can quibble a little. I don’t want none-more-evil bad guys; I want them to be the heroes in their own minds, not maniacal monsters. Humour? I don’t do that very well (although in my mind there’s more wit in this work than in any of my previous novels), but I see the need for more light to give the fears more shape. I don’t know how manage this right now but I’ll think on it.

These things I can do. They are, in the editory sense, fairly simple. It’s a case of adding or subtracting, rewriting some scenes and expanding others. Not necessarily easy but envisionable. But other suggestions provide me with more of a headache.

There is one particular scene which is horrible. It’s meant to be horrible; an ordeal for the reader which results in the death of a moderately minor character. It was intended to form the second pillar of my mid-novel climax, although the latter half of the novel just kept on rolling and so an action-scene now holds that position.

The Nasty Scene is, unsurprisingly, controversial. There are valid writerly-reasons for its inclusion. It’s part of that ‘grim irony’ thing I mentioned – the heroes’ actions directly caused it, although they don’t know that. It’s meant to be a shock and an emotional wrench. The question is whether it works. Whether it’ll put readers off. Whether killing that particular character is good or bad for the story.

Incidentally, there seemed to be a bit of a gender-divide here. The women in the group (mostly) hated it. The men had less of a problem. I’m not drawing any conclusions from the tiny sample-size – and it doesn’t actually help – but it makes me wonder.

I’m unsure what to do. A suggestion was to move it later in the story but that’ll wreck the skein of cause-and-effect. It was said that killing the character removes someone that has an important story-link that needs to be kept. I don’t know. I will mull.

Another suggestion was to move my inciting incident as far forward as possible; in essence to massively trim down the first hundred pages of the book. A good idea, but massively hard to execute. I want to get that in early too, but I wrote the story the way I did because I felt the information that came before was essential. Again, mulling is required.

So what do I do now? I think my first decision is to do nothing. I’m half-way through another edit of Australis, the second book in my Antarctica trilogy. I’m going to finish that before I move back to Oneiromancer. I will reread the notes that my betas gave me and, when Australis is back on one side I’ll print out the Oneiromancer manuscript and go over it with a metaphorical red-pen-and-hatchet and try and fix all these issues.

One thing is for sure: the novel will be better for the advice I’ve received. It’ll be richer, bolder and more devastating. The punch-in-the-gut moments will have more resonance. Explanations will flow more naturally and I’ll invite the readers deeper into my world. All because of a wise, warm and diverse team of advisors. If you’re a writer and you haven’t got this support I urge you to seek out contacts – a writing group either physical or online. It really is the best way to develop your craft.

As for me, if one day I can learn how to successfully incorporate humour I’ll be one to watch. But possibly from a great distance.

The road to Good

Image

The first step towards doing something well is to do it badly.

I could be talking about more or less anything. The first draft; the rough demo, or sketch; hell, this blog usually requires a very erratic (and badly grammaticised) bash-through before I’ve worked out precisely what I want to say and how I want to say it.

You sit in front of the computer and you have an idea. You think it’s going to be easy. You struggle to get the words to appear, dark and dreamlike, in front of you, but something goes awry. The sentences don’t flow. Everything is half-baked, clumsy; like a five-year-old on his standardised national test, you shake and tremble and break down in tears as the dialogue that finally emerges seems to have come straight from the aforementioned five-year-old. Sucks to be you.

Be reassured. Everyone goes through this. And it’s easier to fix dodgy work than it is to pour genius onto a blank page. This is where I am with my artwork for Night Shift.

NS2b3

The image here is my first proper attempt at my front cover. I am not happy with it. The figure on the left looks like a robot. The body’s bum is too sharp. Nothing is consistent. There is a distinct lack of harmony.

But getting to this stage is a victory. This is my proof-of-concept: the first real manifestation of the idea I want to bring forth. I had to produce something I’m not happy with so that I can see what’s wrong with both the original idea and the execution – and so I can make subsequent versions better.

The first draft is always the hardest. It takes the most time as you struggle with your tools, with how best to use them, with a lack of prescience and a hole in the bottom of your skills-basket. The second – even if you have to totally scrap the original and start from scratch – will always be easier. You have a map. You have a plan. You know where you’re going. You can avoid the dead-ends and the boggy morasses in favour of higher, more solid, ground.

I will return to my artwork. I will modify my gradient maps (and if you don’t know what a gradient map is, neither did I until a few days ago). I will be more careful with my shading. And, once that’s done, I’ll turn my attention to the equally important choices of font, layout and scaling. Hell, if all else fails I’ve got an idea I can show to a professional so they can do it better.

Now I know where I’m going. With a little luck – and a lot of help – I’ll get there in the end.