Friday, June 26, 2015

Social reading

I grew up in a fortunate environment, surrounded by people who loved to read. My parents, my brothers, and all of my friends: all heavyweight readers. In elementary and middle school, I lacked close friends, so in high school, my newly-discovered joy was social reading. When someone recommends you read a book… or you reccomend they read a book… just so you can geek out about it together.

The first of these was probably the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. At the time that I first started reading him, I believe he had published book seven, Crown of Swords. All my new friends had already read to that point and some of them had had to re-read several as new ones came out. Each of them was impatient with the wait. I, newly exposed, was exuberant to be reading them. Most of my friends gave up on the series at about that point, saying they’d come back and read it when the series was complete, but I didn’t mind—gamely, I’d buy the next one and read it without a refresher, and I caught up.

I honestly didn’t understand why reading a book series you enjoyed was considered by so many to be work. I mean, you don’t go back and re-watch the first four seasons of a show when the fifth comes out, right? There’s a sixty-second blurb at the beginning of the first episode that explains where the last season ended, and we’re all back in the game.

At any rate, I read Wheel of Time, Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Dark is Rising series, and The Rook (the list goes on, but those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head) in the spirit of “OMG you have to read this book!” Since then, I have recommended books I’ve discovered to my friends with mixed results. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, and Rant—all books I deeply enjoyed—didn’t go over as well as I expected among my friends. This is, of course, fine. Everyone is completely entitled to his or her own taste. But I feel I must have spent my “OMG you have to read this book” capital, because since 2010 or so, it seems like I can’t get anyone to read anything I recommend.

Mindful of the fact that my last series of recommendations were met with lukewarm responses, I’ve kept my finger off the trigger when it comes to recommending books. In fact, I’ve only recommended three—Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight, and Dreams of Gods and Monsters. I started with gentle nudging: “Hey, I think you might like these books.” I continued, weeks or months later, with equally gentle reminders. My volume got louder and louder until I finally offered to buy the first book for any of my friends who would read it. I succeeded in getting one of my friends to read the first book, and she absolutely loved it and couldn’t put it down, and we geeked out about it a little bit—but she never read the second book, or expressed any interest in doing so.

What the hell?

I know that everyone’s not only busy, but mentally and emotionally “occupied.” People are either not reading or they’re re-reading books they know they love, the same way you put on your favorite slippers.

I miss the days of social reading. I think that, like other things, when we’re stressed and tired we convince ourselves that reading is a chore. I wish I could re-show people that it’s really not; really, it’s an escape from the things that stress us out. Forget a chapter a night—a page a night is such a good winding down from the day. And, when we read the books our friends recommend, we have more things to talk about when we’re together; more lines of connection that are, frankly, becoming more and more scarce as the years go by and our roads diverge.

Just a thought. Happy reading, all!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reading progress, with a side of exhaustion

I’ve finished reading UtToDIBT and HaHH as of yesterday. After finishing the former, the latter started out weak, but I got used to the differences and, side by side, both were extremely valuable resources. It gave me many pointers on how to strengthen my story, establish and reinforce themes, be aware of the literary power—and be a good feminist while doing so.

My current concern is that the hardboiled genre is unkind. In its original form, its conceptualization of women tends to be victim, villain, or virgin (and the “virgin” trope really doesn’t show up much); all that’s important is how they relate to the men in their world. The power of the woman lies in her sexuality. None of these women ever come out on top. The flip side of that, is that in noir, no one really comes out on top. The detective prioritizes his “code” above his personal life, and the book ends with the feeling that he does his best in a flawed world.

The problem lies in trying to have a hardboiled novel in which a woman is the investigator. It isn’t a problem if you don’t care about the underlying sexism of the genre, but since I do, I’m ending up with some problematic choices.

The premise of a detective novel is, of course, crime. In my case, murder. And yes, murder of women. I am once more transforming women into bodies. I think that the way to deamplify this is to make sure that there are women in the story who are more than bodies, and I think that I achieve this just fine (and am cultivating ideas on how to do this even better). But when you have a genre that makes a point of shitting on women, and you add to that the systemic sexism of the professions of law enforcement and private investigation, you possibly end up with a protagonist who reinforces the idea that doing this “man’s job” is wrong and will bring her nothing but pain. When the male investigator makes that choice, we can say, “He chose this; we know that he could have made a different choice and no one would have been surprised or judged him more harshly than any other man;” but for a woman, there’s an added layer of judgement and expectation of failure. If she prioritizes her professional code over a man, she’s unwomanly, possibly even inhuman; if she gives in to her given temptation, she’s pathetic. So, do you give your character the opportunity for a happy ending and flout the genre conventions in favor of a more empowering feminist work? Or do you stick to the genre conventions and run the risk of reinforcing the idea that women are doomed from the moment they step out from behind the stove?

Branden suggested I minimize the sexist aspects of the world. “It is near-future; maybe things aren’t so polarized anymore,” was his argument. It’s not a bad argument, but exploring the boy’s-club aspect of this was a thing that intrigued me and excited me, and to be honest, reinforces one of my themes. So, I consider it to be an important part of the story. And, in line with my themes… a happy ending just doesn’t seem to fit.

I hope that doesn’t make me a bad feminist.

Since June tenth, I’ve had some real issues with fatigue. I’ve been tired and sleepy from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed, and it doesn’t matter how much sleep I get or that I’m taking Adderall to help me be human. I don’t know if I’m thinking straight anymore. Some things seem insurmountable. When I think about my book, it seems like I have too many conflicting things going on and I can’t reason my way through to a solution. I try to keep in mind that exhaustion is a mind-altering drug and I shouldn’t make decisions while exhausted, and that definitely helps me not overthink things too much, but I worry that I’m never going to not be tired again. I have to make decisions again at some point, right? I can’t keep track of everything, and I’m going to screw up my book, I just know it.

So… on a lighter note, I started reading the Maltese Falcon. It’s 187 pages. Right at this minute I can’t do a word count, but I suspect that’s really short. It also starts with a physical description of the detective, followed immediately by a physical description of his secretary, followed immediately by a physical description of the femme fatale, followed immediately by a physical description of his partner… I’m fairly certain that if this book were written today, it wouldn’t have gotten published. That being said, it’s fully engaging. It’s extremely descriptive: every action explained in minute detail, every feature scrutinized. That is not something I have done in my book so far, and honestly I can’t see myself doing it. But that’s okay. It’s good to know the established tropes.

Well, my train of thought just derailed. Until next time, faithful viewers!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Well, this has been anticlimactic

Just as I embarked on my third draft journey, I received the feedback from my writers’ group that I had so craved. While it has been overwhelmingly positive, the things that got picked on surprised me, and to my surprise, stung me quite a bit. I don’t want to go into them at this point, since I haven’t even mustered the courage to finish reading all of it. I know that intentions matter little when writing inclusive fiction—just because you don’t realize you’re furthering a negative stereotype or trope doesn’t mean you shouldn’t correct it when it happens. Still. I feel a little picked on, which I know is something I need to get past.

I found myself reacting to some of the feedback with, “But... I feel like that’s true to the genre,” which made me realize that I’m actually not all that well-versed in the hard-boiled detective genre (previously mis-identified [by me] as noir, which is a whoopsie made by the film industry, check it out if you’re interested) despite reading many contemporary examples of same. As they say, you can’t break the rules until you know them.

I picked up a couple of academic-style books about the Hardboiled genre, Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them by John T. Irwin and Hardboiled and High Heeled by Linda Mizejewski. So far, I’m about 82% of the way through UtToDiBT (that’s a fun acronym), and it’s really opened my eyes to what’s “important” about the genre. The tropes are fun, but they aren’t what makes it literary. It’s surprised me on many levels: one, how close I came to a lot of the marks without having been aware of them. Two, the fact that there are a lot of different ways to write correctly within this genre. Three, the best things about literature are present in the best Hardboiled and/or Noir novels.

Discovering this stuff has really raised the bar for me. I’m simultaneously invigorated and goddamned terrified. I have seriously considered straight giving up. I have reminded my writers’ group that wunderkinds are bullshit, but it seems like the inventers of the genre all wrote literary-level novels on their very first try. I have a hard time imagining juggling all those balls, to be totally honest. But, if I think through the process, I have realize that either, they actually got very lucky without realizing it (which actually is a thing that happens), or they had this in mind as they wrote, and possibly shoehorned some things in which might have felt very unnatural to them at the time in order to get that level of literary value. Dashiell Hammett may have had a notecard that said: “Theme: contrast the repetitive with the extraordinary with the singular” and then another notecard that said “parable: Flitcraft? Features: flying shrapnel, breaking machinery” and looked back at these notecards as he crafted the dialogue—certainly a final-draft problem. The Maltese Falcon didn’t spring forth from his forehead, fully formed. It was designed, and he took as much time writing it as it took to get it as close to right as he could. (And, to be fair, it wasn’t his first work in the genre.) Hammett, Chandler, Cain and other authors within the genre were all striving throughout their careers to master their craft—more than just telling stories, they were telling the Human Story, even if those who fancied themselves authorities in the world of literature considered detective novels to be pulp fiction.

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I was reading UtToDiBT earlier and was suddenly overcome with the urge to fill out some notecards before I forgot all the brilliant things that had just occurred to me. So, instead of being OCD and forcing myself to keep reading, I went and got my notecards. I filled out six notecards with two character’s starting and ending points and the events that trigger the changes. I am happy that I did this. Now I’m done and am going to go back to reading. I’ll notecard again if the mood strikes me. If not, I’ll roll right into HaHH. After that, I’m going to be reading at least The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. And then I’ll feel at least a little more secure in asserting that something that may be considered a “bad” thing to do falls within my genre.

I may even feel empowered to do it differently.

Monday, June 1, 2015

June first! Back to the novel!

Yesterday, I was chafing against the “rules” keeping me from starting to edit my story again. I had over-filled my video game and TV meters, and was craving a creative outlet. I was sincerely frustrated, and felt thwarted in life in general. Luckily, I realized fairly quickly the cause. (That sort of existential crisis can seem world-ending if you don’t know why you’re having it.) The fact that it was May 31 and I was a mere twenty-four hours from being able to pick up my manuscript again gave me a lifeline.

In May, I had hoped to resume my four-day-a-week gym schedule, but alas, it was not to be. Branden and I went this past Saturday, skipped Sunday for sleep reasons, and today I attended the gym all on my own. I’m shaky all over because my muscles aren’t used to this kind of exertion any more. My stomach is upset, I think because I’m hungry. But for the first time in weeks, my back isn’t in searing, terrifying pain. The shakiness will subside, the hunger is treatable... I’m so glad I went.

Today has been a good day, so far. In addition to the gym, I ran a couple of errands and have knocked out about half the chores I need to do today. Although I could extend myself and finish them all before starting to write, I decided that starting the process is more important, more fulfilling. Also, if I can lasso the muse while she’s hanging around, I have a much better chance of actually being able to do something today, rather than staring bleakly at the page wondering where to begin.

Once again, I have high hopes of note cards and cork boards, and it seems slightly more likely to happen this time if only because everything is already there, waiting for me, not floating in the ether. But I don’t care too much if it doesn’t happen, because trying to force a certain method will only end up stifling me instead of helping. So I’ma let it flow as it flows, we’ll see what ends up happening. I may start out simply making notes in the margin, as it were, like “develop setting here” or “you could fit in more worldbuilding here.” I think that I may have the most luck trying to make a scaffolding for future edits, rather than trying to make the edits themselves. My idea, originally, before I knew what revision was, was that I would read a scene and rewrite it from scratch, telling the same story but in new words. Don’t know if that would help me. OMG I’m so out of my depth. At least I’m not getting graded, right?

My goal is to have my third draft, Cassidy2, done by the next Writers’ Group meetup in the end of June. I think it might be possible? I might also be proposing that I could have the Ark done by the end of June. We’ll see. Wish me luck!