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.

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My Spring Allergy (and Dust Mite Shit)

Spring FlowersThis is a post in which I whine. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

So, it’s spring time! It was May Day yesterday (which is still considered a major holiday here, barbeques, people outdoors, day off work, etc.) and the weather is nice. But, ugh. The spring also means my spring allergy, and let me tell you, it’s not fun at all.

It first appeared sometimes in 2005. I have no idea why. Ok, I have two ideas: 1) this is when I moved to this apartment (the building is old and my grandma, bless her, was never big on cleaning) and 2) I was 24 at the time, and they say some allergies start after puberty.

In any case, every spring since then has been, well, not horrible, but difficult for me. It’s not just that I get rashes and my face is full of pink spots – I wouldn’t mind that as much. The main problem are headaches – I get pretty mean migraines. I’m susceptible to migraines so this makes them even worse. And these migraines are weird. They hurt and my ear gets cold and my throat itches.

I’m also sleepy all the fucking time. Like, I can sleep for 15 hours straight, wake up only to be sleepy in an hour.

The worst thing is that I can’t find a proper medicine. They either don’t work, or they work by making me even more sleepy. So I’m really unproductive. Which sucks.

They say I’m allergic to dust. Which actually means I’m allergic to dust mites. Which actually means I’m allergic to dust mites’ shit – because this is what people allergic to dust mites are actually allergic to.

But there has to be something else (and not just dust mites’ shit) I’m allergic to, because it starts in spring – some kind of a plant, no doubt. But they can’t discover what it is.

So… Yeah.

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My Camp NaNo Results

campnanowrimo I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time this year and it was an interesting experience. In a way, it is a lite-NaNo event; you can set up your own goal for the word count and you get a lovely cabin to share with 5 writers so you can all motivate each other. Here’s my camper profile for those who are interested in this stuff.

Though in whole honesty, I cheated. Well, not really: there was some writing and outlining, but the story is not new – I’m still working on my last year’s NaNo novel. It’s that fantasy story I’m trying to write, the one I’ve been outlining for years. The funny – or really not – thing is that only after I started writing it for real I realized how the plot should unfold and, well, many other important things (for example, villains. I never had a proper villain in the story. This fact alone is not problematic on itself; after all, I don’t like the cliche “evil for the sake of it” villains anyway. However, I’ve realized that my story lacks a conflicting force, something that would motivate my characters, move the plot and, well, provide conflict).

The truth is that I know more about my story at this point, but it’s still far from being finished. Looks like I need to revise my outline before I move to the next step. It seemed like a fantasy duology but the writing showed some ill-outlined moments. Like the fact I’ve tried to push most of the stuff in what was supposed to be the first book. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s another thing I need to work on.

All in all, I’m glad I had Camp NaNo to rethink my story and add some new chapters, but the first draft is not over. I was planning on finishing it before doing my revision, but now I wonder if it’s better to revise the outline and come back to the beginning so I can revise the story right from scratch.

Things I Want to Improve About My Writing

WritingThere are some things I need to learn or improve about my writing:

Finding the right amount of outlining

I tend to over-outline. Having a solid outline is the only way for me to write, but too much IS too much. It can prevent you from sitting and actually writing the story, because the outline feels incomplete. Or it can make you too fixated on only one possible solution you fail to see what’s best for the story. That’s why I need to find the minimal amount of outline I need and just start writing.

Knowing where to start

One of the most important things about writing a good story is to know where to start and where to end it. I know when to end a novel. My endings are good. I have a trouble figuring out how to open a novel. My problem is that I grew up with 19th and early 20th century literature. Things take ages to start rolling in those books. I’m used to preparatory chapters and I’m used to having a first hint of a plot circa page 50. However, you can’t go like that anymore. It’s important to start when your story actually starts: not with introduction of the characters or setting, but with the first conflict in the story. I know all of this, and I can identify when it’s a good point to start, and yet I don’t know how to do it without any character or setting introduction.

Being able to cut and change

This is probably one of the most difficult things, because I tend to get emotionally attached to plots, characters and scenes. It’s worst when it’s something I’ve planned for a long time, even since the first idea for a novel. When plots and situations are linked with the story from the beginning, it makes it seem like they’re essential, like they’re integral for the story. So even if it turns out that they don’t fit, I try to force my plot around them. Because hey, I’ve always seen my characters running away from point A to point B using a  boat during a stormy night, so how come I can completely disregard this scene? This scene is been here forever, it’s one of the first things outlined for the story, it’s one of the first things I saw in my mind when I got inspired to write this story! How can I change it, how can I cut it? And yet, that’s the only right thing to do. If it doesn’t fit into the written story (or even outline), it needs to be changed. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been part of the story.

Knowing how to say things with the least amount of words

Unlike this subtitle, I need to make my writing as concise as possible. This is one of my most serious weaknesses. I tend to over explain. I use many words when few would do much better. I repeat myself. I throw too much description. I repeat myself. I never know how to control my word count.

Finding Beta Readers

I know the importance of quality Beta readers, but I still feel hesitant to share my work. This is a huge mistake. You can’t  write a good story without Beta readers. There’s a point for any writer where you need to learn how to share your work with others and how to accept criticism. Interestingly enough, the mere sharing (having someone read it) feels more terrifying to me than people criticizing it. In any case, it’s juvenile and it needs to stop.

Practicing my English

I don’t write in English, and at the same time, I know writing in English is the best way to go if I ever want to be published. However, whatever I write in English seems like pure crap to me, and I’m not even talking about bad grammar – bad grammar is possible to fix. I just don’t seem to have my voice in English, which is a shame. I can do ok when it comes to articles and essays, but not fiction. As usual, practice makes it perfect, but I guess I’m just too much of a coward to try.

Finding the best revision method

When I was younger, I didn’t do any revisions for my novels. I wrote ferociously as a teen, but  mostly to entertain myself and to put my daydreams into words. I lived through these stories, and once they were written, I’d move to the next one. I didn’t have any wish to publish them, and only a few selected people were allowed to read them.

It’s one of the reasons why my revision skills are seriously lacking. I am still trying to figure out the best way to do it: the best way to let it sit on the side, and the best way to identify all the problems in the writing and to find solutions. The best way to cut, and then cut some more. The best way to know when I should stop revising and move to another story.

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On “Love” Without Respect (And How Men Do It)

Can love exist without respect?One would say love can’t exist without respect. There is some logic and truth to it – true love doesn’t come without respect for a loved one. However, there is a sad reality of many people who confuse admiration with love and who can feel a deep affection for someone without truly respecting them.

Dare to say, men are the main culprits here.

Men tend to be more susceptible to this (due to different socialization and gender roles). This isn’t really surprising – it’s the way society tells them how to treat women. It goes with the perception of women as ethereal and beautiful, but ultimately strange creatures a man can never truly understand. A man builds an admiration for her beauty, her charm or maybe even her character, but this affection falls short on the respect because a woman is seen more of a beautiful object than a fully human being. This was a traditional way of viewing women and femininity.

Luckily, things are changing these days, but these feelings are still present surprisingly often. This is how you get men who will claim to love a woman but without understanding her as a person, men who want to protect and support a woman but without accepting her agency and opinions, and, ultimately, men who have deep feelings for a woman while still considering her an inferior.

It all comes from the power imbalance and unchallenged gender roles. Women, on the other hand, often internalize these opinions. This is why you still find many women who believe that a man finding them beautiful is the highest praise there is or that being admired by a man is more important than a basic human respect.

I must say I am not familiar with this feeling. I am not a type of a woman men admire or find beautiful. It sure made my self-esteem shaky as a teenager. But paradoxically (or not?), the lack of sexual attraction and admiration often led men to respect me. I don’t mean they necessarily liked me (in fact, I am not particularly liked; I’m too awkward for it). However, any dislike or animosity came from a dislike for my individual character. In other words, I was treated as fully human, for better or worse. As if lack of attraction or sexual interest made men able to see me as fully human, as if it made them respect me on a basic human level.

And yes, I could tell a difference. Fashion magazines tell you a bit of makeup and trendy clothes make a lot of difference, and they’re right. I know what is like to dress up and “prettify” yourself, and yes, it makes men see you differently. Those moments resulted in a heightened interest by men (I am usually ignored – many men ignore women they don’t find attractive), but the type of comments I’d received and the way my opinions had been received clearly showed the lack of human interest. As if being attractive somehow made me less human. This the disrespect I’m talking about.

The main point is that men (or whoever has a problem of “loving” someone without respect) should understand that a person they love is a fully human being not so much different than “their kind”. The whole idea of men and women being inherently different is particularly harmful here because it essentialises gender differences in a way that prevents people to see those of a different gender as “one of their own”. As a result, it leads to Othering and exoticism of the other gender(s). And as we all know, Othering & exoticism = no true human respect.

Not to say women are not susceptible to this. However, women as a group still don’t have equal power in the society; society is still male-oriented and catered to male needs. Men are presented as fully human all the time: they are leaders, teachers, doctors, flirts, fools, cowards, heroes and anything in between. They are still seen as a “default human”. In this sense, women are constantly aware of all the different ways men are and can be; women can’t simply forget men are fully human and they can’t forget all the variety of their behavior. Sadly, the way women are portrayed is still reduced to a few types, often defined in a relation to men: a mother, a wife, a daughter. There’s still a harmful dichotomy – the one that leads to the whole “admiration without respect”, the horrible “Madonna vs whore” dichotomy.

What is the solution? There isn’t an easy one, and it probably requires redefining gender roles from scratch. I don’t see it happening anytime soon. At the same time, I must say I do notice a bit of a change in a good direction. Still, we have a long way to go before this problem is fixed.

PS- My personal litmus test here was to never trust a guy who wouldn’t respect you if you had a one night stand with him. I suppose it’s a bit unorthodox way to go, but it worked for me.

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