Category Archives: Literature

The Bechdel Test for Novels?

womenNote: this post is made directly from my reply on a NaNoWriMo thread. I figured my reply was long enough (and hopefully eloquent enough) so I wanted to share it. For full discussion and other opinions, please visit the board.

The board commenter Millie714 made an interesting thread: can/should the Bechdel test be used for novels. If yes, in what form? Namely, is the Bechdel test applicable to novels, how much effort a writer should put into creating characters that represent our world (characters who represent multiple genders, races, and orientations) and if writers should be true to certain settings (for example, predominantly white towns or time periods) even if it means sacrificing inclusiveness.

As a writer who does think about this stuff, here’s my stance on the issue.

I think the Bechdel test (be it original, race Bechdel test, sexual orientation, etc.) is a nice thought experiment when you want to take notice of cumulative works. Such as, all movies released in the US in 2013. You take the list and see how many movies pass the test. I don’t have this list but I don’t doubt most of them will fail. Heck, I bet many would fail even the first requirement (“having two named female/POC characters”) Which is a good indicative that something is wrong and should be changed.

But on an individual level, it shouldn’t be taken as a law or a rule. There are actually many decent movies that don’t pass the test and many bad (and even misogynistic and racist, etc.) movies that do. Personally, I despise Sex and the City and I think it’s full of backwards ideas about sex and gender, but it passes the test.

So I do see the Bechdel test as a valuable tool. Not sure if it can be easily translated to an author’s individual written work, though. First of all, books and movies are different animals. A novel is, for the most part, a work made by one person; movies are, for the most part, a joined effort. In order to have two women talking to each other about something other than a man, all a writer needs to do is to write the scene and put it in the novel. In order to have the same scene appear in the movie, it has to be written by a screenwriter, included by a director, approved by a producer and it also has to survive the editing and the cutting room floor. It just requires more effort and different rules apply to novels.

But yes, I do think people should take the head out of the sand (or their own ass) and look around.

The problem is not having a predominantly white cast of characters in an area that is predominantly white – the problem is that the majority of (published) stories are centered around predominantly white areas and concerning white people only. Whenever something deviates from this “norm” it is labeled either chick lit (if it contains more women than is considered comfortable/acceptable), African-American/POC (if it contains more black people/POC people), gay & lesbian (if it contains more LGBT* characters), etc.

This is why you still have a strong divide between mainstream fiction (that contains just “the right amount” of minority (here including women) characters) and “minority literature”. As long as diverse characters and diverse themes are not normalized and treated as mainstream, we will have this uncanny situation.

For these reasons, I do think it’s important for mainstream literature to be diverse and to include a wide range of themes or characters outside those that often appear and are actually pretty bad (token characters, white saviours, madonna vs whore dichotomy, rape as motivation, lesbians who only need the right guy to become straight, disabled characters with esoteric powers, etc.)

I don’t, however, think a writer should force herself to be inclusive. Especially if her only reason to do so is because she doesn’t want to appear racist and those “angry POC get insulted”. No. If you truly have to be pushed and forced into even imagining a story that might include two named characters of colour/women, then I don’t think you are a writer who can give such stories justice.

So I kind of hope more and more authors will develop a frame of mind that makes them spontaneously envision stories that include diverse characters and themes. Not that they have to be dragged and forced into it.

Also, yes, an author has a right to write whatever he wants. It doesn’t mean he should be free of criticism if he happens to inject his work with sexism, racism, homophobia and other questionable stuff. Seriously, “I want to write what I want, political correctness be damned!” is often a code word for: “I know what I write is unfair and offensive but I am a nice person (honest!) and I really want to write it so I’d like to be exempted from criticism”. It just doesn’t work that way.

Photo credit: jjay69 via photopin cc

Writing About How to Write

I want to write about writing.

While this is, in essence, a personal blog, most of the time I don’t feel comfortable enough to write about my personal life or problems, so it was always more about the external things, such as movie review, social commentary or random rants. I also love to write about writing, not because I believe I’m an expert in the field (far from it), but because I like to have a space where I can share my thoughts and observations on fiction writing.

I also feel this theme might be inspiring enough to make me blog more often – at least twice a week, because this blog is in urgent need of some updating. While I was never popular – far from it – I’ve witnessed, over and over again, visitors leaving when there’s nothing new on the blog for weeks (you can’t blame them).

Stuff I want to blog about:

Writing tips

Again, I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert, so these will mostly be some observations I will, first and foremost, write as a reminder to myself. It might include points on characterization and plot, DOs and DON’Ts, common misconceptions, writing myths, etc.

Existing example of this kind of posts: How NOT to create Mary Sue

My writing process

These posts will cover my own way of outlining, writing and revising, writing schedule and stuff that works (or doesn’t work) for me.

Existing example: Choosing Character Names

Fiction I like & dislike

These will probably be made as reviews. Same goes for film reviews.

Existing example: The Power of Writing: Atonement

Things I probably won’t blog about:

Short stories, poems, essays, etc. The posts will focus on novel writing, because this is what I’m experienced with. Which is, by the way, a serious problem: a writer needs to know how to write in different formats. I suck at writing poems and I don’t know how to write short stories. It’s bad. So I might reconsider short story writing, but since there are so many things so be said about novel writing, I’m not sure about this. As for essays, I am good at them, but they’re completely different beasts.

Writing excerpts. I’m not confident enough in my English to share my writing online. I might reconsider this, because I know it’s impossible to practice your craft without beta readers and some critique.

This doesn’t mean I’ll turn this into a writing blog. However, expect to see more writing-related posts from now on.

The Hobbit: What’s in a Trailer

I’m a fan of Tolkien’s work, but I was never crazy about The Hobbit. Not sure why. The way it was written… Something was lacking. It’s not that I don’t like stories for kids; I do. But I guess it was so ordinary, compared to LotR and other Tolkien’s work (and yes, I’ve read LotR first). I bet that when you grow up with The Hobbit and fall in love with it, it’s different, but for me… I’m not crazy about that book, and to be honest, I don’t remember much of it.

That’s why I don’t know how I feel about the upcoming movie, or its trailer. I’m one of those people who didn’t really like LotR movies. The novel is one of my favourite books, so the movie was disappointing: eye candy for sure, but Jackson simply failed to capture the spirit of the novel. Luckily, there was Howard’s Shore amazing score: certainly one of my favourite scores and the one that does capture the spirit of the book.

Since I don’t remember that much of The Hobbit, I can’t really say how annoying the trailer is when it comes to movie changes and illogical stuff (which bothered me in LotR). What I can say is that the movie seems a lot darker than the book. The book is a fun story about a hobbit’s adventure written for kids, while the trailer presents is as dark and epic. I guess this is intentional: you simply have to make it earth-shattering and epic to make people (particularly LotR movie fans) interested. And you don’t want to make it into a movie for kids. I get that. And it’s not that I wouldn’t like to see a bit darker take on this story. Still, it looks like this will be another Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien that doesn’t capture the spirit of the story.

There are good things, though. I really like Martin Freeman as Bilbo. The man is born to be a Hobbit, much more than Elijah Wood ever was. I also think he’d make a great Bilbo. Which is important for the story: nothing sucks more than having an annoying protagonist. I can already tell who the new hotties will be: Richard Armitage (Thorin) and Aidan Turner (Kili)… Luckily, they are better than Orlando Bloom (who will reprise his role… I mean, wtf? His former teen fans are not in their mid-20s).

But despite not being that interested in the Hobbit adaptation, I must admit the trailer made me enthusiastic. Not sure why. It just seems like a movie I’d like to watch, and hopefully, Howard Shore will be there with some amazing music. I guess these movies just make you watch them, even if you cringe at movie changes, illogical stuff or Orlando Bloom.

I bet it will be a semi-crappy disappointing movie, beautiful from the outside but lacking from the inside, just like LotR movies were. But I am sure interested.

Choosing Character Names

Choosing character names for your story/novel can be a lot of fun… or incredible pain in the butt. Some writers obsess about it, trying everything to get the names absolutely right, to the point of being unable to outline or write the story until they choose a name that fits the character perfectly. Others don’t bother that much, and will instantly know how to name a new character. Usually, writers encounter both of these scenarios.

Names are important. Serious academic discussion/research show that words in general have power to shape people’s view of the world. And names are often important part of people’s identities. So it’s understandable that a writer wants to pay attention to this.

A character name should be, first and foremost, appropriate to setting (such as time, place, culture – unless you purposely decide against it). It should also be easily distinguishable from other names in the story. But other than that – and this is where it gets tricky – it should “fit” the character.

What a “name that fits” actually means depends on the writer. Some search for name meanings/origins and try to find the one that fits character’s personality or physical appearance. Others pick names based on people they know (and love… or hate). Some simply try to find a name that “sounds right”, for whatever reason.

I choose character names based on synesthesia.

I strongly associate letters with colours (same goes for numbers, months, days in a week, etc.) It’s always been like that for me. I guess all people do, but it’s quite strong with me that it often makes it seem like a name doesn’t fit the person just because it starts with a “brown” letter and they have blond hair.

Needless to say, my synesthesia influences the way I pick names for my characters. While I try my best to make them appropriate to the setting, the main thing I do is to see (literally) what name goes with their physical appearance (meaning: hair, eye or skin colour; sometimes the colours they like to wear). This way, I often end up with completely generic names, but they fit the characters (in my mind at least), because the colours are right.

For example, my main characters in the last year’s NaNo were named Sarah and Tom. “S” is yellow or light brown, which fits her hair colour. She has green eyes, so a name starting with a green letter (I or K) would also fit. “T” is a blue letter. Guess Tom’s eye colour. And so on. I even had huge problems with myself for naming a light haired guy Mark. “M” is a red letter. So I gave the guy red car to drive (and parade around). Yes, I go that far.

Similarly, if there’s a character that somehow ends up with a name that’s not appropriate for his colours, I will make him wear said colour often. I won’t necessarily describe this in detail, but it will be there in my mind.

I guess this method is as good as any other. But not many people mention using it, and sometimes I wonder if it’s a bit limiting. Or if it makes you pick a name that “sounds perfect”, but isn’t fully appropriate for your setting.

My novel has arrived!

Photobucket There’s a reason for the lack of updates this time. I was planning this blog post for a long time, waiting for the proof copy of my novel to arrive… Only to realize I couldn’t afford new batteries for my camera to take pictures of it. But then I remembered there was a picture of the cover online, so… Here it is. The long awaited “my copy has arrived” post.

First things first: the proof copy looks amazing and professional. Better than I expected it to be. It’s a prize made by a NaNoWriMo sponsor, Create Space: whoever managed to write 50 000 words by the end of November got a free proof copy of her novel. Sounds great?

Well, to tell you the truth, it sounds both great and lame, because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s not like you have your novel published, or in print (unless you decide to self-publish it with them). Still, it’s nice to have it as a real book, with your (pen) name on the cover.

And now, the bad news: the novel itself.

It is… Amateurish, to say the least. Well, it sure didn’t seem so when I revised it, so the only explanation I have is: I was stupid enough not to print it and revise a printed copy. Never, never, never attempt to judge your work unless you have a printed copy!

Sounds logical? Yes, but I skipped this step, thinking I was smarter than this (and I couldn’t afford to print 370 pages, but it’s not an excuse). I’m one of those people who have no problems reading text on a monitor, even a long one, so I guess I thought printing the novel before revision was unnecessary.

Wrong. Besides glaring mistakes in the form of “he looked at her with his eyes” (I shit you not), there are so many unnecessary and amateurish things, such as head hopping (sudden shifts in POV), awkward pace and repetitions. And it’s not like I didn’t try to fix those things in the revision! So I guess I’ve learned a valuable lesson: always, always, ALWAYS print your copy before you declare you’ve done with the revision.

Also, it’s slow. And not slow in a literary fiction, Ian McEwan “one day on 100 pages” kind of slow. Slow in a boooring kind of way. It gets better in the chapter 3, and particularly after the chapter 10, but people won’t read that far unless I make them interested in the story.

On the other hand, there are some good things. I’ve managed to capture the setting (a small town) in all its beauty (or lack thereof). Also, dialogue. I used to think I’m bad at it, but now I see it’s one of my strengths. I also seem to be capable of not revealing too much (and making the reader fill in the blanks, which is quite important, since the whole story is basically peripheral: we never learn the big things, only their aftermath, beginning, or consequences). I’m also decent at creating realistic characters, though I’d say I still need a lot to learn in that department.

This was such a good experience, the whole NaNo thing. First of all, it helped me in a very tense moment in my life, and it prevented me from becoming depressed. This fact alone makes the whole thing precious.

And I’ve learned a lot about writing, too. I’ve learned that it’s possible to write on command, so to speak, without waiting for your muse. It’s difficult to wait for your muse when you have one hour of free time to write per day, for example. So you just start writing and… It works. I never believed it’s possible, but it is. So it’s a good thing to know.

I also learned how to squeeze things, so to speak. I still ended at 90 000 words where 70-80 000 would be more appropriate, but I’m learning how to control my writing.

And I learned how to handle dialogue. And how to reveal, explain, and describe using dialogue and action, not mere description (the “show, don’t tell rule”).

I also learned how to write from a male POV, and make the guy seem and sound like a guy (even in sex scenes! Go me!), which is something many female writers are unable to do right (see Simone Elkeles’ Perfect Chemistry … or Twilight for that matter (or better, not). Though a guy sounding like a girl is not the biggest problem with Perfect Chemistry, but it’s another story). Writing from a male POV is very important for me, since my fantasy novel has a male protagonist.

Finally, I learned a few things from my mistakes. The biggest one probably being: print, print, always print your work before/during/after revision.

So I’d say the experience was positive. I will leave this novel for now (though I already penned a few things that are crucial for the second revision), and I’ll focus on the new stuff. I sure want to start writing my fantasy novel (it’s been 8 years and counting, and I’m still unsure if I’m ready), and for this year’s NaNo, I want to face what it seems like the biggest challenge: writing in English. I know I’m not ready for it, but I’ll never be ready unless I try, and fail, and try again, and fail a little less. I’ll probably start with something simple, a YA (young adult) story, and I already have not one, but two ideas (one realistic, and another with a premise so absurd that it begs to be explored).