Today, I bring you a special edition guest post from our friend John. Last week, I talked about men writing women, and we thought it would be fun to get the other side of the story. So, without further ado, here’s what John has to say about it.
Ali: I did a lot of stuff this week. I went on three hikes, I made muffins, I went on a food tour, I turned a year older, and I mostly kept up with the chain. I gave myself two days off for the holiday weekend/my birthday. But, I also finished transcribing Chapter 2 of the Sleeping Beauty project and sent it off to Jenny for her to take a look at. I also wrote about 2/3 of a new short story which I’m writing as an exercise in starting with a bad situation, then escalating it. Even with two days off, I’m pleased with how the past week has gone.
Jenny: Happy Birthday to Ali!
I’ll keep it quick, since this is posting so late (my bad). Good news: my chain continues to grow!
1. Finished rewriting a chapter of La Llorona.
2. Am halfway through a short play I’m working on for a local theatre festival.
How are y’all doing?
Since my last post was about gender & writing, it caught my eye when I saw a call for submissions from Dark Moon Books that wants horror written by women: “No doubt about it, woman view the world differently than men.” The deadline is June 30th.
Time to get your creep on.
Sorry boys, this one is girls only.
I the Divine was the first book I read by Alameddine. When I picked it up, I had a moment of skepticism because here was a dude writing a book with a female protagonist and some of the chapters are even in first person. Right around this time, we had a couple of guys cycling through our writers group who were trying to write female protagonists and failing spectacularly. So, I was in a cynical frame of mind. However, I was pleasantly surprised because Alameddine wrote his protagonist like she was a real human, not just a male fantasy. Imagine that!
Why is it so hard for guys to write authentic female characters? Or, rather, why is it so hard for some guys to write good female characters? Maybe because a lot of our contemporary fiction is pretty short on strong female protagonists – a lot of times, a “strong woman” gets translated into stereotypes and a chain mail bikini.
But, I say cheers to all the male writers out there who actually understand that women are people too. If you haven’t already seen Jim Hines’ blog post where he mimics the poses of women on book covers, click over right now. It’s not only hysterical, it makes great points, too.
Another piece that makes some great points is an article author Greg Rucka titled Why I Write “Strong Female Characters”. One of my favorite parts of the article is when he’s talking about preparing to write Shooting at Midnight, which was written in the POV of Bridgett Logan. Here is what he has to say about preparing:
“Bridgett was not my first female protagonist, clearly, but it was the first time I was diving into such deep waters. I was going to be in her head, see through her eyes, and while I knew her personality, there were many gaps… And despite my best empathy, I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a woman.”
My favorite comment of Rucka’s is the one that the problematic writers I mentioned earlier really need to hear and understand, because that’s the crux of where they go wrong.
“But the best thing I did, the thing that helped the most, the thing that became the guiding principle, and has been ever since, was also the simplest.
I talked to women.”
See, these guys who were problematic would bring their work to the writers group, then the women in the group would give them feedback about the characters, and the guys would blow it off. They thought they understood women better than women did. No wonder their female characters were disasters.
Let’s go back to women on covers. Consider the difference between the woman portrayed on the cover above and the woman on the cover of one of Rucka’s comics below. Which woman would you take more seriously?
Ali: Today’s our first joint accountability post. I’ve been doing well with my calendar chain strategy. One week of X after X on my calendar and no gaps. When I started, I was nervous. I’ve been on a long slacker stint and I was going to have to get back into a groove that I’d been out of for a while. Luckily, the beauty of the chain is that it’s not a question of quantity, but consistency.
Each day, if I write (or revise, or transcribe) I give myself an X. Some days, I think about skipping. One skipped day isn’t the end of the world, after all. Then, I remind myself that I just need to do a little. I tell myself, “Don’t worry about it, just do a paragraph and you’re good.” One paragraph? That’s easy enough. So, I sit down to write one paragraph. It never ends up being a paragraph, though. I write my paragraph, then I figure that wasn’t so bad, I’ll write another one.
Yesterday, I sat down to write one paragraph and ended up with almost three pages instead. Okay, so they’re three pages in a small notebook, but three pages is better than a paragraph, and a whole lot better than nothing. I’m liking this chain approach. It’s deceptively simple. Even better, it’s helped me finish a first draft of Chapter 2 and start Chapter 3. I think that’s pretty cool.
Jenny: I’m with Ali. Totally digging the calendar chain. However, having been at this for only one week – gasp! – there is already a gap in my chain:
|Behold! The Gap of Doom!|
I know, I know. I’m so ashamed. But let’s not focus on the single negative, gigantic circle that resembles a zero.
Let’s look instead at the stuff that was accomplished. For example, I now get to say that I’ve written an opera. You can read it here if you wanna. (A mini-one, but it’s still a libberetto!) The low-down on this particular project is simple: Neil Gaiman, Will Self, and A.L. Kennedy are the judges for the script portion of the English National Opera Mini-Opera competition – they get the links to the blogs that have posted scripts, they read them, judge them, and pick the top ten to move onto the soundtrack portion of the party. (Announcements will be made by June 4 for the book portion.)
When the top ten soundtracks are picked, the finalists then move onto the film portion and winners are picked from there.
I saw this via Neil Gaiman’s twitter feed and thought, “I never thought to write an opera. Wouldn’t it be cool to write an opera?” So I did. And let me tell you…it was tough. I feel like a better person for it, sure, but it was still pretty wracking, even before blogger refused to accept any of my formatting. Grrr. That gap there on the 18th is actually where I was banging my head against the wall for trying this.
Okay, so it wasn’t that bad. I also managed to get through Chapter Four on rewrites for La Llorona.
AND GREAT NEWS! The littlest kidlet just got into preschool! So I just have one more summer to make it through and then there will be MORE WRITING TIME. Fear me!
So all, in all, I guess that circle looks less like a head-banging zero and more like a hug surrounded by kisses:
|Behold! A hug on a bad day.|
Gotta love it.
(P.S. Ali – see? Pictures.)
Rabih Alameddine’s novel I, the Divine is a novel told entirely in first chapters. As a reader, the whole-novel-as-first-chapter concept put me in an immediate state of: What do I have to follow here?
(The answer is: Sarah’s life. It wasn’t as difficult a read as I thought it would be. Alameddine flows the first chapters together so gracefully that Sarah’s story is a mosaic – broken, but you still get the full picture.)
As a writer my brain went: Does it work? Why? And
What’s the purpose of a first chapter?
In his blog post The All-Important First Chapter, writer Nathan Bransford says that “the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they’re going to be getting, and what to expect.”
And, ya know, technically, in Alameddine’s first first chapter (yes, you read that right) he does promise the readers that they’ll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. But what’s interesting is that you could open up any of Alameddine’s first chapters and understand the same thing: that you’ll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships.
In one chapter, you learn about Sarah and her first boyfriend; in another, you learn about her second husband; in another, her grandfather or an AIDS patient or her mother…and so on. Technically, Alameddine promises in each of his first chapters – regardless of POV, tense, or length.
According to Bransford, the first chapter should also set up genre – and I think genre is the secret to why this book works like it does: it’s very literary. If Alameddine meant to write a high fantasy or a romance novel or a mystery, he couldn’t have done this.
This is a story about a woman’s life and relationships. In a real person’s life you can start anywhere. And I think that’s one of the points Alameddine is trying to make: there is a promise made at any point in a person’s life.
This promise is tied to something else Bransford says readers should know by the end of the first chapter: “have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing.” In a real person’s life, any moment can tell you who that person is. In a real person’s life, any moment can change the trajectory of their life. Their world changes.
So, Alameddine’s book is a crash course in how first chapters can work. If you’re stuck and don’t know how to start your story, here’s a few pointers inspired by Alameddine’s I, the Divine:
1. Set your chapter waaaaay earlier than you think is necessary for the story. Conversely, set your chapter waaaaay later than you think is necessary. Can you make either/both work?
2. Write a few first chapters – some long, some short; some in first person, some in third; some in present tense, some in past. Mix it up. See what feels right for the characters and the book. It’s just the first chapter – it’s playtime.
3. Keep the setting and main character in place – but mix up who the side characters are. Let them interact with your main character. How does that change things? How does it bring out different sides to your main character? At the very least, you might get an important scene for later down the road.
But, most importantly and regardless of genre, you have to pick the key moment. The moment the world shifts.
Do you guys have tips for first chapters? Or any chapters in between?
It’s very fitting that, in a month where we’re talking about an experimental author, I find a call for submissions from Blood Orange Review where the theme is Experiment. The part I think is cool about the prompts is, “We have purposefully chosen themes that can be interpreted in many ways, so if you think you have something that fits, send it to us. We look forward to reading your work!” So, they’re pretty open to whatever direction you take the prompt in, which gives you a lot of freedom.
The deadline is June 2nd, so get those words flowing. Happy writing!
Writers like Alameddine are interesting because living in more than one culture (he grew up in Lebanon and Kuwait, then moved to England, then to America) gives unique flavors to the writing. An article I read for my thesis is “Home: Territory and Identity” by J.M. Wise. It’s an interesting read and I definitely recommend it. One of the key ideas he talks about is the concept of a “Third Culture Kid”. Typically, these are the children born in one country of parents of another, so the children belong simultaneously to both their parents’ culture and their own birth culture. As a result, “they are not truly of the culture of their parents, or of the culture in which they live, but form a third culture” (306). For our purposes here, just take out “children” and replace it with “books” or “stories.”
Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati is a good example of a “Third Culture Kid” as it combines the culture of origin, in this case, of the Middle East, with American and creates something new in the combination. The form of the novel itself demonstrates the merger as the novel’s format is modeled on oral story telling tradition, blending conventions of the written novel with oral performance.
The first few lines of the novel make the influence from oral tradition explicit, “Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story” (1). Oral story telling technique is exemplified not only when the narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, as in the previous quote, but also in the structure of the book, which is multi-layered and includes stories about telling stories as well as stories within stories. There are points in the novel where there are as many as four layers of stories within stories.
None of this is a typical western story telling structure, yet he is writing for a western audience. The writing is all about combining the two perspectives and, by doing so, creating something that belongs to neither and is a combination of both.
I’ve been a slacker with writing lately. First, the novel group went on hiatus, which removed my constant impending deadline. Then, I was looking for a new job, which sucked up oodles of time. Then, I was moving for the new job and doing all the work that goes along with a move. Then… I was distracted – I was in a new place, meeting new people, lots of stuff to do.
A couple of days ago, I read this article from Lifehacker. It talks about some advice the author got from Jerry Seinfeld on how to be productive. The advice is very simple:
Step 1: Get a big calendar.
Step 2: Draw an X on each day you write. (After a few days, you’ll have a chain of Xes)
Step 3: Don’t break the chain.
Starting today, I’m going to work on a chain. Today’s Accountability Tuesday, so that’s fitting. Also, today I’m going to a Write Brain thingie with Deb and Jenny, so that’s fitting, too. It’s a good way to get started, and then all I have to think about is getting an X each day. Easy. Right?