Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Eve of NaNoWriMo!

     It’s October 31st, and I am so excited I can barely think. Not for candy, like when I was little, or for partying, like so many of my fellow teenagers, but for an event entirely unrelated to Halloween.
Tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, October ends and NaNoWriMo begins! It’s a month long endeavour that challenges writers from around the world to write a 50 000+ word novel in the 30 days of November.
I’ve done NaNo (as we WriMos call it) the past two years, going from a clueless novice to prepared (or perhaps the word is forewarned!) veteran. Recently for a scholarship application, I encountered the following question: “Describe a time you challenged yourself by taking on a task/project you felt was beyond your scope and capability at the time. Why did you do it?” My answer: NaNoWriMo. What follows is my mini-essay on the subject.
I've always loved to make up stories - what kid doesn't? - but the summer before grade ten I took this love to the extreme when I signed up to write a novel in a month.
It's called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and participants challenge themselves to write 50 000 words in the 30 days of November. I had never before even finished a story outside of school assignments.
Since NaNoWriMo exists in a student's version as well, there's a recommended word count goal for those in grade ten: 10 000 to 25 000 words - less than half the adult goal. But I was determined to reach 50 000 words.
I hadn't realized how busy I would be that fall - running cross-country, and playing hockey and ringette. I rarely arrived home before 5 or 6 o'clock. I was busy and stressed with schoolwork as well, and thinking about NaNoWriMo didn't help.
But something magical happened on November 1st. Suddenly I wasn't an overburdened student anymore - I was a writer, I was a novelist! Cheered on by new friends (fellow novelists) from around the world, I wrote at lunch, in class, when I should have been doing my homework and late into the night. I wouldn't let myself go to bed until I had my daily 1667 words written. I don't remember sleeping so little before or since.
It was a grueling month, but on November 29th, 2009, I finished my first novel. I was incredibly proud of myself, but the strongest feeling was of profound relief: the ordeal was over! But it was too late - I was already addicted. Since that first NaNoWriMo, I have written 3 more novels, and have expanded into scripts, short stories, songs and poems as well. I have even placed well in and won writing contests - locally and internationally. All because I was 'foolish' enough to think I could write a novel in a month.
Tomorrow, the insanity begins yet again, with NaNoWriMo 2011. Not that I know what I’m writing yet…. My original intention was to write a sequel to last year’s NaNoNovel. But We Who Are About To Die was, to be honest, fanfiction of my life. It wasn’t bad (and yes, I have an objective critique to back that up), but this fall I’m in such a different place emotionally that I’m not motivated to follow up with those characters.
So I started looking at other plot bunnies, those gathering dust in the back of my mind. I rejected a coming of age fantasy, a modern day romance with heavy religious overtones, and another fantasy story (Fire) that I’m still working on, but that I want to devote more care to.
I ended up choosing to write a novel based on a single snippet of an idea: that “Code 31” is an unofficial extra code meaning “Not my fucking problem,” but that the main character disagrees with his commanding officer and ends up with responsibility for an injured prisoner. That’s all I started with.
Now, of course, I’ve got more of an outline - well, to be honest, I have more worldbuilding than outlining, and even that is sparse. I do have enough to notice that my world is very much like that of BSG, with founding tribes that are believed to be myths, and advanced technology. But in my world, the ancient tribes’ descendants are alive and kicking, with special (but as yet unspecified) powers.
My preparation for November didn’t include much planning, but I did suspend all my book requests at the library until December 2nd, trying to minimize distractions. And I have all the write-ins marked on my calendar. I’m so ready, so excited!
If I didn’t have an important and very unfinished presentation due tomorrow, I’d stay up all night writing, and screw the exhaustion that would hit a few days later. I’m a novelist, I’m a writer, and I adore NaNoWriMo!!!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Characterization in a Gendered World

Since I seem unable to keep the same emotional state and/or type of relationship with this one particular boy for more than a week or two at a time, I’m going to try and wait a few months before saying another thing about him here. I really don’t think the world needs to hear/read me whine about my personal life.
Instead, I want to rant about “strong female characters.” I was inspired by an OLL (Office of Letters and Light - the people who run NaNoWriMo) blog post about “strong female characters,” which prompted me to find a rant I read a year or two ago on the same topic and post a comment linking to it.
Check out either link, although in particular the latter, for a lot longer and more in-depth look at the topic than I will provide here. To be honest, I’ve left this post too late to write very much. But what it all comes down to is that good characters are well-rounded and developed characters. Gender is just one of their many diverse attributes that combine to make them unique, interesting and flawed. Stereotypes get boring very quickly.
That’s not to say that every female character (or every male character, for that matter) should be totally different from every other character in existence - that’s not even remotely possible. They just need to be believable. An all powerful super-villain needs to have a logical source for his or her power and a good reason for being so evil. By the same token, the bad-ass ninja who takes the villain down needs to have a reason for wanting revenge on said super-villain. A good reason for wanting to, a good reason why they stuck with it, and a good reason why they succeeded - whether the ninja is a man or a woman.
Too many writers forget this all-important fact, and come up with an all male plot, only afterwards adding in a token female character or two. I’m sure every writer has been guilty of that at some point, but it’s not a forgivable sin in a professional, and the problem is most evident in Hollywood movies (and a certain Hollywood-esque genre of book), where the writers are most definitely professionals.
Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test? It’s simple and effective, and a shocking number of movies fail it. The test is composed of three simple questions. Does the movie contain:
-> Two female characters?
-> Who have a real conversation?
-> About something other than men?
I prefer a slight variant on the original test where the women must be named characters, and even then for the movie to truly pass, the named characters should be more than cardboard cutouts. But let’s face it: getting a movie to pass the most basic test in the first place isn’t easy.
It’s not that there are no movies/books/tv shows that pass the Bechdel test. It’s that way too much of the mainstream media we consume unthinkingly on a daily basis fails the test. What kind of message does that send future writers, future leaders, future anybodies? What kind of world is being portrayed?
Before leaving you with that question to ponder, I want to promote one of my favourite characters of all time. Her name Jacky Faber, and she is a well-rounded, flawed and intensely believable character. She’s the main character in the Bloody Jack series, and in the first book (~1800), she joins the Royal Navy disguised as a boy, figuring it’s better than starving or begging on the streets. That’s a solid, real motive that anyone could have.