Other Cool Blogs: Civilian Reader August 1, 2017

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Plans Change

“But-but-but…,” I stare at the screen, “You are not following the outline.”

The character looks back at me, smirking, “You want real characters, then we get to decide our own actions.”

Book Cover for Honestly

In Honestly, I had carefully set up a sexy encounter in the laundry room. And I waited, and I waited. Nothing happened. Eventually, Kassandra and Troy take Troy’s laundry down to his room. Whatever. I just kept typing. Suddenly, when I – the writer – have forgotten about things and Kassandra starts up the stairs again Troy stops the story.

“But…you…grrr….(sputter unintelligible things)” and then I typed.

The reason that scene is so organic is it just happened. I didn’t write it. My characters did.

Joshua Palmatier discusses the issue of the characters running off with story in a guest post on Civilian Reader. He had it much worse than my little hiccup. They didn’t change just one scene, but the whole final book of a trilogy to the point he needed to talk to his editor because the book he was writing wasn’t the book he sold them.

Important take away: “…if the characters don’t at some point take control and do unexpected things, then the book isn’t succeeding.

Blog: Fail (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So my Fail. I failed the Bechdel Test. This test was developed in 1995 to measure movies for inclusion. It goes like this:

  1. The movie must have more than one woman in it.
  2. They have to talk to each other.
  3. And their talk has to be about something other than a man (male).

Honestly and Threshold Sanctuary (the short published in WeAreNotThis) both fail at the first step. I tried to console myself with, well, they are romances where the main activity is between the romantic leads thereby limiting the cast. Except for Honestly, I have Dewayne, Fred, and Boulder all talking to each other about something other than the opposite gender, and they are secondary characters!

Further, during my recent sociological studies, I ran into two more terms “The Smurfette Principle” (1991) and “Women in Refrigerators “(1999). In both of my published works I have only one female appearing on screen, Kassandra and the witch. And the only offscreen character to suffer created solely for character development of an onscreen character was a woman for the male’s background (Troy’s mom).

(expletives) I am completely a product of my society. Especially the entertainment biz.

Therefore I am going to do a writing exercise right now to figure out how bad I am doing.

WRITING EXERCISE: Go over your body of work using the Bechdel Test, the Smurfette Principle, and Women in Refrigerators. If you need to understand the Women in Refigerators better, the video from Feminist Frequency explains it well.

READING EXERCISE: Watch two movies which passes the Bechdel Test and Smurfette Principle – one movie using these two tests based on gender and once based on melanin. If you watch movies in theatre, the movie should be in theatre. If you are NetFlicks watcher, then NetFlicks and chill. If part of your mind goes, but “I don’t wanna watch a chick flick” clearly you need to work outside your comfort zone. People always tell writers they need to read outside their genre; approach it with this mindset if it helps. Also who said anything about a chick flick? For example “Hidden Figures” could cover either the gender or melanin portion of the exercise.

ME DOING THE WRITING EXERCISE:

Remember, the point of these tests is not if one of your works fails but to study systematic problems over a body of work – a consistency of issues. So really my failing the Bechdel Test and the Smurfette Principle in two publications of romance isn’t bad. I will have a problem if I look at a statistically significant body and still have the issue. So 2016 blogs here I come!

First the 2016 non-fiction blogs related to specific people: 9 book reviews, 12 author spotlights, 18 magical word posts, and 12 other blogs – total of 51. (The book review included three multi-author publications which I am not counting.) Melanin split – one immigrant and one foreigner. No one of color. If going by appropriate ratios for American demographics at least 7 blacks, 2 Asians, and 6 immigrants.  Gender split – 33 to 18 (65% to 35%) favoring women (several of the blogs were by more than one person) with the author spotlight and book reviews by design and conscious choice evenly split between male and female. I had been working to have the magical words and other blogs also being an even split, but women tend to blog more than men about writing so the pool to draw from curtailed my options. So Fail on the Melanin and a “D” on the Gender splits for non-fiction even when actively trying to address the know issues.

For my 2016 flashes I am not including the one appearing in the writing exercises, just the flashes – a total of 52. I am limiting myself to on-screen characters who are more than scenery; they do not need names, but they do need to have a level of agency. Gender Split – In 52 flashes, I had 118 characters – 60 male, 53 female and 5 unspecified – 50%, 45%, 5%. Not perfect but not bad – a “B” grade. For the Melanin split I end up with the clearly defined whites at 57%, blacks at 11%, Asians at 2% and undefined at 30%. I often deliberately choose to not clearly define skin color. In addition I have 2.5% clearly defined as Hispanic and 1.5% defined as immigrants – the immigrant is a gray area since not all the stories are set in America. Melanin is fine. Grade of an A-.

Now the two I am really scared of – the Betchel and Smurfette tests. Since flashes rarely have more than two characters, this limits the options. For the Betchel test I have only included flashes with two people if both are the same gender, otherwise 3 or more people are needed. Twenty-one flashes meet this requirement and only 7 pass the Betchel test. A higher ratio than big entertainment, but less than 50% pass. On the other hand, I should see if we just switch the gender on the Betchel test, how many would pass. Ordinarily it would not be necessary, but because flashes restrict interaction so much, a better comparison in this case is seeing of the 21 flashes the female to male Betchel test passes. How many times do just men talk to each other? In this case 9 pass vs. the 7 for women. In only one case does a flash pass for both the men and woman Betchel test. Again a “B” rating because they are close, but I still am showing an unconscious preference for the dialogue to center on man-to-man. I will need to look over the statistics again next year simply because the statistical pool for the Betchel test was low.

Now smurfette. With only 17 flashes with 3 or more people, the pool is even smaller than for the Betchel test. It takes three to create an outnumbered gender. In this case I have 7 times where the story only had one woman and 6 times where the story only had one male. I pass!

Final review – For 2016, I did not do perfect with the flashes and non-fiction, but the larger review does indicate for first fears after the review of my published works are manageable. I do need to work harder. And I should review this next year; this is something I should monitor if only because I love numbers and sociology and the easiest person to “experiment” on is myself. Right now I give myself a C with a “B” for the fiction area and a “D” on the non-fiction.

Your turn – comment below on your Writers and/or Reader’s exercises.

Editing Rant: Weaving Plotlines

Image courtesy of wowspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Internal and external plot lines apply here at the long-form. Single plot lines go to the short story entrance on the side.

Anything longer than a short story should have multiple plot lines woven together, and even the best short stories have more than one thing happening. The most obvious is an internal emotional journey of the main character, such as coming-of-age, and the external situation needing resolution, for example a killer needing to be found in a mystery. Outside of the internal and external (emotional and action) plot lines, most stories include multiple relationship interactions including family and romance.

Adding additional story lines is easy. Keeping them all advancing and interacting with equal tension is not.

This is where the plotter has the advantage over the pantser. An outline indicates where beats happen, the need to circle back and concentrate on the mystery and allow the romance to take the back burner in the science fiction thriller. A pantser after completing the book often needs to find all the stray plot lines and trim them or weave them in to the story cloth.

One thing you should not do is concentrate on only one part of the story until running out of steam then switching to the next plot. Maybe during the rough draft, just so all the information is on the page. You can’t rewrite until the writing is done. But after the initial writing is finished, the internal and external and relationship plot lines should be integrated. A reader shouldn’t look at a scene and say “this scene was written to advance the emotional growth plot line”.

The only thing a reader should know is they need to read the scene so they can move to the next scene because everything is woven so tightly together the story pulls them from the beginning to the end.

WRITING EXERCISE: For your present work-in-progress (WIP), define all the plot lines occurring.

MY EXAMPLE: In Honestly, the following plot lines are occurring:

Book Cover for Honestly

1. Internal – Kassandra’s acceptance and adjustment after her breakup. In particular, but not limited to, her sense of self-worth and worth of being loved.
2. Relational – Kassandra’s relationship with her son and their relationship with her ex; adjusting to the new dynamic.
3. Internal (indirect) – Troy’s ability to reveal his physical vulnerability to others. 
4. Relational – Development of Troy’s and Kassandra’s relationship, revealing the past and figuring out the future.
5. External – Kassandra’s job situation and balancing her needs of being a parent against the need for income.
6. External – Troy’s physical therapy and injury recovery requirements, his ability to accept them, and the ongoing impacts medically to his life.
7. External (indirect) – Troy’s ongoing job with the military.

Not every plotline in Honestly is fully developed, nor is every plotline directly visible to the reader. Number seven, Troy military job, may have impact in future stories within the universe they come from. Kassandra originally appeared in Light it Up, part of the Atlantis Warden urban fantasy universe.

Blog: Made Me Look

I have several vloggers I follow on youtube – Acapella Science (the science singer), Action Movie Kid (family fun and special effects), Jill Bearup (on writing and fandom with her lovely accent), and, most recently, the Pop Culture Detective. His posting for today was especially insidious. (Fair Warning – Watching today’s episode, linked below, may wreck some of your favorite movies. It did not for me, since I had long ago realized these issues. I never saw the Bladerunner scene for anything other than what is described in the video; I saw it as an college-age female after … well, we don’t discuss such things in mixed companies, it might hurt our male friends to know. They’re fragile.)

You know, never mind. I watched Bladerunner after I had two experiences of being thrown against a wall by a male – once in college from a guy I had been friends with for over a year and once by a random guy in high school. The high school guy put his hands either side of me against the wall to hem me in and waited for a reaction. My friend, FRIEND, tried to strangle me because he was angry – I had been ragging him about school as teenagers are wont to do for a while and he exploded. Guys are stronger. The friend was actually shorter and younger than me, and I couldn’t break his grip. To this day, I still can’t have a massage on both sides of my neck at the same time. In any situation where a woman is alone with a man she is offering a trust beyond anything a person used to being in a position of strength can ever understand.

And, here is the truly crazy part, I blame myself for the friend one. I had been the one teasing him and I “should have known better”. Why?

Because our culture says it is the female’s job to avoid getting herself hurt. I won’t walk out a door unless my keys are in my hands so I can get either in the house quickly or in the car, and they, as I have been taught, double as a weapon. A piss-poor weapon because we are to throw them at the bad guy’s face, and then how are we to get away? I won’t go on about the rape culture; if you are on social media, you are aware of the issues. Thanks to social media, it’s an open secret.

Anyway, like I said, the vlog didn’t show me anything new. What it did make me do is look at my writings. I love romance and I love sci-fi. Both of these formats heavily lean on the predator-prey dynamic of the “woman doth protest too much”. Have I done this unconsciously, just like I absorbed it was me who is to blame about the friend getting angry? I had to look.

It’s so easy to fall into the classic “woman saying no but meaning yes”. I have consciously tried to avoid such scenarios. Just like avoiding my pet peeve of the couple not saying they love each other, or making assumptions without talking to each other, just so the author can keep them apart as a tension device. I endeavor to make my characters be mature adults. Even Dewayne in Honestly didn’t strike out physically, but left when asked to (and if I ever write the next story of that family unit, we will even see him mature a little, not a lot, but some). One of my readers mentioned expecting to see a physical altercation between Dewayne and Troy, and even during my initial writing I was thinking I needed to do that to prove Troy was the Alpha Male so often seen in romances. But as I wrote the story, the characters revealed themselves to be beyond the caveman-must-pound-chests … not by much admittedly with the screaming matches Kassandra and Dewayne regularly participate in, but they were real people.

So I reviewed my novella. In each scene Troy and Kassandra asked permission before closing, before touching. They respected boundaries and did nothing to weaken each other, such as playing games with the prosthesis. Each exchange was as honest and complete as they emotionally could handle at the time. (wipe sweat from brow) I had done what I had set out to do, write an erotica where both people were sexual, healthy beings.

Now the rest of my writings. Looking over the blog, the closest one is The Bleue Toscano Eggs of Power. In this one I was trying for the predator-prey vibe, since the couple about to become sexual were both super-power villains. But I also wanted it to show each was giving the other permission to move forward. They circled, touched, backed off, and bartered. Even with two forces of evil(ish), I managed to avoid coercion through mundane or magical literary devices. Meaning it can be done. American culture has it so women cannot wholeheartedly act sexually and this is unhealthy. It’s one of the reasons why I find erotica so freeing when done right.

We need to do it “right” more often, allowing the free and open “Yes” of women and men. Allowing tender touches and secret smiles, the sizzles and spanks. The only way to do that is “normalize” healthy behavior and phase out the unhealthy.

I promise to continue to write about Alpha Males who stand equal to their Alpha Females, if you promise to continue to tell me and other writers this is what you want to see.

 

Writing Exercise: Scenery and People

Photo by Erin Penn (2013)

Scenery, especially personal spaces, can give a great deal of insight to a character. While easiest to see in movies, like the mural in Uncle Ben’s house in Star Wars and Andy’s bedroom in Toy Story, what a person surrounds themselves with at home, in a garden, in a car, or on vacation can fill in the blanks on how a person may be feeling or her history, even when the person is not the focus of a first-person or close third-person narrative.

Many writers focus on physical and clothing descriptions, but stop describing a room beyond, say, the paint on the walls. These descriptions combine with dialogue, inner thoughts, and landscape description, sweeping the story through strong and hard without ever letting us know who the people other than the main character truly are.

In Home Cooking Part 1, Troy studies Mrs. Carter’s apartment to learn a bit about her. The spoken dialogue reveals only what she presents to the world and who she was before illness took her: a strong-willed woman, older, southern. The worn out apartment tells of a life without money, no husband as support even though she uses “Mrs.”, a throw hiding the worst of the damage to a sofa, and, most damning, the one button on her remote control completely worn out – not on/off, or a preprogrammed channel, but search. She is locked in, unhappy, and has no options. A far cry from being ONLY a kindly but firm grandmother offering something to eat to her daughter’s new boyfriend.

Further, we gain insight into Troy, because he notices these things. Not the focus character in Honestly, I revealed very little about Troy, taking a significant portion of the story before divulging his disability in all its details. We don’t know much about his military service other than he got shot once. The only real inner feelings disclosed, other than his infatuation of Kassandra, is his (mild) jealousy of Dewayne, which the Home Cooking flash indicates is alive and well.

What he noticed in the scene first, the ability to walk through it, exposes his ongoing life struggle with footing. The rest of it, well, his ability to pull apart a room for a personality profile indicates something other than standard grunt-level training.

READING EXERCISE: Choose one scene in your present book and figure out what information you learn about the characters from the scene and what from the dialogue. If only the dialogue was provided, how would what you know about the characters be different?

WRITING EXERCISE: For a character from your present work in-progress (WIP), write a scene description of their favorite living space where they had control of the decoration – bedroom, desk at work, work room in basement, etc. from the viewpoint of a person entering the space to learn more about them, a spy, a date, their mother. Do not directly describe history or feelings of the WIP character, only what the person entering the space can see and infer. For example, I never out-and-out go into why a remote control writing may have worn off, but a great deal of information can be inferred.