A Personal Evolution in Fantasy

(or, What Happened When My Childhood Met the Works of Patricia C. Wrede)

Believe it or not, I spent the better part of my early childhood as an insufferably girly girl.  Everything I owned was pink.  There were unicorns and butterflies and rainbows everywhere.  My number one fantasy was to be a beautiful princess awaiting rescue by a handsome prince.  And when I played make-believe with my little sister, we usually played house.

Then, around maybe fourth or fifth grade, something began to change.  Suddenly, I was reading tales about princesses being rescued from fire-breathing dragons, and I was rooting for the dragons.  I began thinking it was awfully rude of those brash princes to just rush on in and slaughter an innocent dragon without asking the princess if it was really necessary.  What if the princess and the dragon had become friends?

And then I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, and I felt like a whole new world opened up in front of me.

dragons

For anyone who was not so fortunate as to encounter these books as a child, let me sum them up for you:  The story starts accounting the adventures of a dark-haired princess named Cimorene who, in a world where her pretty blond sistren are traditionally kidnapped by dragons so as to be rescued by princes, chooses to run away from home and become a dragon’s housekeeper.  She befriends a lady dragon named Kazul who eventually becomes the Dragon King (because in dragon society, the King may be male or female) and a witch named Morwen with a plethora of clever talking cats, among others, battles evil wizards with soapy wash water scented with lemon, wields swords and flying carpets, marries for love a man who respects her for her power and spirit, and goes off on a mission to save magic while pregnant with her first child.  The series addresses and delightfully satirizes nearly every fairy tale trope in existence, and in the character of Cimorene, you get a brilliant, willful, resourceful character who is absolutely true to herself.  She is both warrior and housekeeper, adventurer and mother, shrewd problem-solver and compassionate friend.  Kazul, likewise, is an icon of strength and perseverance, and Morwen a wise and steadfast individual who also knows how to be comfortable in her own skin.  These women became role models to me at a young age, and I think I’m a better person for it.

Since then, I’ve encountered numerous works that attempt to do similar things, satirizing and parodying old tropes, painting dragons in a positive light, presenting tomboy princesses who don’t do as they’re told, but for me, these books were the first, and still to this day among the best.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and I can’t remember most of the books I devoured, but these stories have lingered with me fondly.  They resonated with the desire in me to be a part of a world of magic where my role as a female wasn’t to be bandied about as a plot device or used as bait to lure magical creatures to their demise.  These books were the first to teach me that a woman can be a hero, can fight fear with understanding and compassion (or soapy water, as the case may be), can live the life she chooses no matter what popular opinion may say to the contrary.  These books will always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children of my own, you can be sure I’ll read these books to them a hundred times … which probably means I should invest in some nicer copies.  My old paperbacks have certainly seen better days!

As an aspiring writer now, I have a renewed respect for many of my favorite works of fiction, and a devastatingly more critical eye.  It’s all too common to return to an old favorite and find its brilliance dimmed from what you remember.  I will never again be able to read these books with the kind of wide-eyed fascination and unconditional adoration I met them with as a child, but I can still learn from them and see what it was that made me love them in the first place, applying those lessons to my own storycraft.  Maybe one day I too will have written something that will find a nostalgic niche in some girl’s heart.  Until that day, for all that these books did to help me realize my potential, for all the times they made me laugh or read on with bated breath late into the night, and for all they did to open my eyes to what women in fantasy could be, I tip my hat most respectfully to Ms. Wrede.

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Strong Female Character: Round 3!

(or, Battling a Culture of Appeasement)

As a woman and a feminist, I enjoy seeing female characters who are complex, empowered, intelligent, strong, and unafraid to reject societal roles and stereotypes to be true to themselves.  I admit that, realistically, not every woman embodies these ideals, but I still like a story better when they do.  Unfortunately, the desire, even demand, for such characters can create a certain trap that sometimes causes more problems than it addresses.  It’s difficult to describe and even more difficult to deal with, but bear with me a moment while I try to put this into words.

I’ve mentioned before how too often, storytellers will try to craft a “strong female character” simply by imbuing her with physical strength or putting a weapon in her hand.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the warrior woman archetype itself; the failing comes when the storyteller allows the character’s depth to end there or implies that the only measure of “strength” in a character is that which can be proven on the battlefield.  There are many, perhaps less obvious ways to craft a complex and compelling character, but they don’t get employed as often.  Why is this?

One potential reason is fairly simple: an author wants an ancillary female character or love interest for his male protagonist, and he doesn’t want to spark feminist uproar by having her be some stereotypical damsel in distress, so he makes her tough, or sassy, or otherwise outwardly and obviously “strong.”  Maybe this works within the context of the story, or maybe it sticks out awkwardly like hillbilly at an artisanal soap convention.  In those instances, it may be that the author only wrote his character that way because he felt like he had to in order to make his story passable to a modern audience.  Not understanding the underlying problem, these writers basically put a band-aid on a bullet wound.

Another reason is more complicated, and that is that some kinds of strong characters get dismissed as being “not progressive enough.”  A character who is simply a housewife and mother, for instance, might be expected to draw just as much feminist backlash as a meaningless sex object.  Thing is, such a character can exhibit tremendous depth, complexity, and strength even while existing within what is considered a traditional gender role.  Though a more rebellious individual might favor breaking with tradition and fighting for change, it does take a certain strength and ingenuity to make do with the situation in which you find yourself and thrive.  Some authors seem to fear that to present a woman who is not some kind of societal iconoclast is to invite the wrath of feminist readers.  And, in some cases, this proves to be the case.

Feminism is a tricky thing.  Defining it is like trying to define love, or memes: maybe there’s a perfect answer out there somewhere, but even if it exists, you can bet not everyone will agree with it.  The meaning invariably changes with the individual trying to define it, their personal beliefs and goals, their experiences and perception.  At its core, it’s about equality, but the message gets muddied as it travels.  The successful corporate crusader who’s dedicated her life to fighting for equal rank and equal pay may look at the stay-at-home mother and call her lazy, submissive, and backward.  That mother, who dedicates her life to raising daughters who are intelligent, well-rounded, and self-assured, may turn around to that businesswoman and call her selfish, arrogant, and power-hungry.  We look at sexually-liberated woman who revel in the trappings of beauty and pleasure and simultaneously praise them for taking charge of their sexuality and appearance and decry them as whores and slaves to objectification.  You find feminist women who describe themselves as equal to men, better than men, or separate from men entirely.  They may be straight women or gay women, promiscuous or prudish.  Or, they may not be women at all, but rather men who support the equality of their female counterparts.  And some storytellers, rather than focusing on crafting a strong story, are trying simply to do what will make them look the least offensive to this diverse and opinionated sector of society.

To appease everyone is impossible, and I don’t think that should be the goal.

In my own work, I have a personal goal to present female protagonists (and antagonists) who are true to themselves, complex, and believable, wherever that may lead.  I want my readers to admire, respect, and understand them as humans (or other sentient life forms) first, women second, because gender is just one part of an impossibly complex whole.  To me, the ultimate expression of gender equality is to give someone the freedom to do what they will how they will based on their own choices, not their gender.  Where biology comes into play, it’s simple enough to make minor adjustments to allow for equal opportunity, particularly when you’re dealing with fiction.  Rather than writing a character in to fill that checkmark next to “strong female character,” write a full cast of strong, developed, complex characters, some of whom happen to be female.  So long as you’ve put a full and honest effort into creating a deep and believable character, and you are true to the character you’ve built, I believe you’re doing the right thing.

At their core purpose, feminists fight for a noble cause and aim to do good things for humanity.  As with any faction of society, there is discord, there are extremists, and there are stereotypes both exemplified and refuted.  To lump all feminists together and single them out as a group that is to be appeased and quieted by some literary trope in order to push your sales figures is ridiculous and dismissive, even offensive.  But, as always, there is progress, and there is hope.  Even the fact that authors would abandon the frail, silent female tropes in favor of combative, feisty ones is a kind of progress.  These characters have gained voice and presence.  Now we just need to give them depth, agency, and meaning.  And after that, we just need to make this something that happens naturally.  When your characters are speaking and acting from their own unique and fully-developed voices, living out their lives on paper or on the screen as wholly-realized individuals with their own motivations and beliefs, it may be that fewer people will feel the need to nitpick, lost in the wonderful tale the characters have to tell.

Moving Forward

(or, Concerning the Worries of a Budding Novelist)

I’m not going to lie to you – this article is about to drop some truth on you.  Heavy truth, the kind that comes out when you’re philosophizing with your best friend at 3:00 am after a night of heavy drinking.  Hopefully, that means it will be a therapeutic, inspirational kind of truth as well, not kind that will result in us going comatose and waking up the next morning with regrets.  It concerns moving forward in pursuit of a dream.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Winner-Campfire-Circle-BadgeCamp NaNoWriMo has finally come to a close, and it is with great pride that I announce I have reached my word count goal!  Well, my adjusted word count goal of 25,000 words, anyway.  I admit this is far from my original goal of 50,000, but 25,000 words is still nothing to sneeze at (unless, of course, you’re allergic to this much raw, unbridled progress!).  I am making significant headway with my novel, and for the first time in my life, I feel like I might actually finish a book.  Maybe I have what it takes; maybe I can succeed at a life goal I’ve had since I was a child.  I’ve written so much and I’ve learned even more, maybe these dreams are possible.  Maybe I can throw everything I have – all my focus, my energy, my extra time – into becoming a writer rather than just one who occasionally writes.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

You see, I felt this way once before, years ago when I had dreams of being a video game designer.  I did my research, I enrolled in classes, I made plans and worked what jobs I could to get by, and I worked harder than I’d have thought possible trying to make that dream a reality, barreling forward with what felt like supreme clarity.  Then, I got tripped up.  A financial screw-up left me with an extra heap of student loans but no qualifications to show for them, and my situation was worse than when I started – certainly no closer to my goal.  I had to surrender then or dig myself into a deeper hole without even the slightest promise of being able to climb out again at the end.

The experience of hitting that colossal roadblock still haunts me today, and it makes it difficult for me to readily commit to another leap.  This time, I don’t need an extra degree, I don’t necessarily need documents saying I’m qualified to do what I do, and I don’t really need to make a monetary investment in order to proceed.  But I do need focus.  I’ll need to set the things I dabble in aside while I dive deep into this one pursuit.  I’ll need to see that my paying work doesn’t interfere with my writing and vice versa.  I’ll need to write even when I don’t want to, and I’ll need to risk making myself hate the thing I love.  I’ll need to face rejection and failure as well as the possibility, years down the road, that I’ll look back and see all of this as wasted time that I could have spent trying to get a fancy job that would let me get a fancy apartment of my own.

I could just continue as I have been.  I love writing; I could easily keep it up as a hobby.  This book has been on my mind for the better part of three years now, and if I’m lucky and still quite diligent, I could finish the first draft within the year.  But then, for the second draft, how long would that take using just free moments here and there?  How many edits will I go through?  How long will I search for a publisher?  When will I start the next book I want to write?  What happens if I meet someone in the meantime, suddenly taking up rock climbing in a blind fit of infatuation?  What happens if there’s an alien invasion?  Will I wake up one morning, grey-haired and tired in the service of our alien overlords, still wondering if I’ll get published someday?

That may be a bit over-dramatic, but it illustrates my concern.  I know from experience that when I hedge my bets, I stay safe, but I go nowhere.  I keep doing art, writing, random job searching, and intermittent studies, always in spurts, never committing myself in full to any one pursuit lest I miss an opportunity provided by another.  However, by doing this, I fail to improve any one skill to the point where I become extraordinary.  I know I’m capable of charging ahead toward a single goal like an unstoppable force, but I don’t have enough faith in myself to know that the goal I choose is the right one – the one that can make me happy and keep me out of the poor house, more or less.  Maybe that’s the main thing that needs to change.

I will see this story finished, one way or another.  Whether or not it will meet the world at large one day is yet to be seen, but I hope it will.  Maybe it’s time for me to just give in to that tricky little can-do feeling and shut out the naysayer within.  My instincts were wrong once, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?  Besides, if you don’t try, if you don’t give it your all, then you can’t rightly weave a touching cautionary tale from your failure, can you?  If all I’m destined to be is the master of feeling sorry for myself, I might as well earn those laments!

Every celebrated author was once a struggling, aspiring author.  They were all the way up until the day they were not.  Some may have suffered less than others, some may have had extraordinary luck, some may have been identified as geniuses early on, and some may have gotten more recognition than their mediocre writing deserved, but there was a time for each when success was uncertain.  For whatever reason, they plugged on – maybe in wild, inspired bursts, maybe in a long, drudging crawl.  And then, one day, it all became worthwhile.  I don’t think I have it in me to fail utterly, completely, and permanently, not yet.  So, by my humble reckoning, it seems the only option left is to one day succeed.

Camp NaNoWriMo 2013

(or, The Magical Land of Word Frenzy and Writing-Related Camping Puns)

2013-Participant-Lantern-Circle-BadgeYou may remember me talking about NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writer’s Month, which occurs in November of each year.  Well, they also have two summer “camp” sessions each year, and this July, I’m taking part.  Did I love the grueling hours in front of my computer so much that one intense month of it would not suffice?  Not exactly.  But I did love the sense of accomplishment, the progress I made on my storytelling, and the real hope it gave me for one day becoming a legitimate author.  Can I reproduce the results in a month full of sunshine and the potential for summer fun?  Well, if I can, that will be one hell of a confidence booster.

In some ways, Camp NaNoWriMo seems a little more fun.  For one thing, their website is fully-geared into that camp theme.  The entire visual element (which is very nicely done, by the way – bravo, webmaster!) evokes the sense of an “idyllic retreat.”  The theme also creeps into their content in the form of puns like “the Block Ness monster,” giving the whole endeavor a sense of (admittedly cheesy but still delightful) humor that banishes the sense of dread or overwhelming that may otherwise accompany the daunting project ahead.  The atmosphere is much more casual, and you can even set your own word count goal, as low as 10,000 words.  You also have the option of being sorted into “cabins,” giving you the chance to interact with a small group of other random humans pursuing the same goal as yourself, talking with and supporting each other without having to express yourself to all the thousands of participants like you would in an open forum.

For me this month, I aim to add on to the project I started back in November, a novel that has since grown to just shy of 80,000 words.  If I succeed in writing 50,000 more words in July, then I will be nearly complete with my first draft!  It’s hard for me to imagine, actually having a full, completed draft of a novel, finishing a story I’ve loved and pondered for years.  Of course, that’s not nearly the end of the process – there will be months if not years of maddening edits ahead of me, followed by the uncertain process of attempting publication.  But that doesn’t deter me, not now.  Who knows, maybe a year from now I could be calling myself a published author!  Maybe even critically-acclaimed … or bestselling!  Yes, those may be a bit less realistic, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

Publishing, Professionalism, and You

(or, Why Every Time I Learn New Things About Getting Published, I Feel Completely Oblivious)

I have this terrible habit of choosing life ambitions for which I have no good personal mentors, barreling blindly along toward a goal that I slowly discover to be more and more unattainable.  Coming from a family where college educations were rare and career paths were often just whatever came along first, any time I stood up and said, “I’m going to do something crazy and amazing and clever with my life!” all they could really do was smile and say, “Cool!”  Not that the emotional support was undesirable, but it usually came with the understanding that they had no idea what challenges I would face, how I might face and overcome them, or what were the right and wrong things to do.  They operated in the same school of thought that tells children they can accomplish anything they set their mind to, if they want it badly enough, or work hard enough, or whatever, and I’ve learned from experience that that mentality, when not supported by knowledge or experience, can lead to soul-crushing frustration as you begin gaining that knowledge and experience.  Eventually, you hit that brick wall where you know enough about what you’re doing to know that you have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re ever going to get it done.

When you hit that wall, it’s discouraging.  You begin to see clearly for the first time just how difficult the path ahead of you is.  You begin looking back at all the wrong decisions you made, decisions that cost you time and money and got you nowhere closer to your goals.  You start looking ahead at all the time and money yet to be spent toward uncertain returns. I have to believe this is the point where many people give up.  The nagging doubts and the nay-saying become the most prudent-sounding voices.  At the very least, this is where you have to really look at the costs of your pursuits and decide whether the end result is worth the effort.  Are you capable of achieving this goal?  Are you good enough?  Strong enough?  Persistent enough?  Charming enough?  Lucky enough?

I’d like to believe you can break past this point simply with the power of positive thinking, but to me, relying on optimism alone here seems irrational.  This stage requires honesty more than anything.  Honesty to yourself, and honesty from the world around you.  I think that if you’re honest with yourself here and decide that you can and will proceed to your goal, then nothing can stop you.  Well, nothing apart from a freak hot air balloon accident or a hostile alien invasion.

Now to circuitously get to my point.  It seems that the further I get into my writing process, the more things I learn I should be doing or thinking about.  Writing, like anything, is an industry, driven in no small part by cash flow and complete with its own rules, regulations, best practices, and etiquette.  It’s one thing to set aside your idealism and acknowledge that fact, quite another to actually operate within that understanding.  To me, it feels a little like wandering around in a foreign country where your language skills are just about equal to the first ten pages of your pocket phrasebook.  There are a lot of exciting things around you, but also a lot of confusion and awkward, shuffling silences as you search for the right words to express the simplest concepts.  For every new scrap of information you learn, three new questions emerge, and at some point, you find you’ve gotten yourself inexplicably lost.

So where do I stand now?  Well, apparently I should a) have a website (for which this ramshackle blog may or may not count), b) have a social media presence, c) be a member of some sort of writer’s association and/or d) be subscribed to some publication about the writer’s market, e) be networking with publishers and authors at conventions, f) be shamelessly self-promoting, and g) probably be looking for an agent.  Of course, the list changes depending who you talk to, and there doesn’t seem to be any proven method of “success.”  I’ve encountered writers over twice my own age who have done everything “right” for longer than I’ve been alive and still seen no success while on the other hand some starry-eyed teen strolls out of high school in a haze of invincibility and promise to get work published from the get-go.  I’ve obviously passed the stage of youthful prodigy, but where on that spectrum am I going to land?

The best I can do right now is take all the things I learn and just file them away.  First things first: finish the first draft of my novel, then worry about publication, publicity, and professionalism.  Some sources seem to suggest that I should establish myself as an author before I’ve actually written anything final, but however prudent that may be, I can’t help but feel like it’s a little pretentious.  For the time being, this little blog is my web presence.  A story will unfold here as I bring my novel to completion and (hopefully) get it published, and maybe as I start putting the things I learn into practice, I’ll become that smart, professional author I’m supposed to be.  In my most idyllic dreams, I imagine looking back at this moment years from now, with several published titles to my name, and laughing over my panic and naïveté.  Maybe some other young author with no clue what they’re doing will dig up this blog post and say to themselves, “See!  She was a wreck too, but she turned out ok!”  One can only hope.