Tag Archives: howIwrite

There’s Only One Reason SFF Should Fail The Bechdel Test…

…and that’s because the author has planned for it to fail.

So why are we still having this discussion?!

Ok. Deep breath, and let’s start at the beginning.

You’ve opted to go into science fiction and fantasy (SFF) because it provides a breakout from the boring structure of reality or history, where only men have speaking parts, and women are love interests. You want unicorns! Spaceships! Time travel! Magic! All the exciting stuff that doesn’t exist in our current universe, or is an extension of it, or is somehow a flight of fancy from our boring reality. That’s what makes it fiction!

And somehow you still fail to populate your world with anything other than men.

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU.

Ok. Another deep breath. Caaaaalm.

The Bechdel Test. It’s got four parts: two women must have a conversation about something other than a man. So that requires a) two female characters, b) talking  c) to each other, and c) about anything other than a man. It’s pretty damn simple.

The Bechdel Test is, frankly, a baseline that should be easy to jump for anyone. And this takes us back to the start: that there is only one reason why your book should fail the Bechdel Test.

That is because you, as the author, have deliberately chosen for it to fail. For example, your narrator is isolated – in which case, they’re not likely to be having conversations with anyone, so that’s fair. Your narrator is a single POV (although do they never overhear any conversations? Or see anyone else have any?) Your narrator is, for some reason, surrounded by men for plot or narrative reasons and this makes sense in the book.

That’s it.

What is not cool is for you to apparently completely forget that women exist outside of a love interest – or, even worse, a “very helpful NPC who points the way to the (male) hero”. You should not find it difficult to include women in the plot. You should not be making excuses as to why there are no or very few female characters. You should not be completely forgetting that maybe you need to make some of your important characters female. (If you only make a couple of NPCs female I will judge that even more harshly. Women are not bit players only.)

It is The Year Of Our Space Mom 2020 and two women having a conversation somewhere in the course of an 80,000 word book SHOULD NOT BE DIFFICULT.

And don’t even get me started on LGBT, trans* and non-binary – or, horror of horrors, what if you wanted to write aliens? I mean, it’s SFF. You couldn’t possibly think completely outside the human gender box, could you?!

I will now go and write an extremely polite rejection letter, pointing out the SHEER IDIOCY, and then fume in a corner. Thank goodness there is good writing out there to soothe my soul!

Kill Your Darlings?

I was chatting to Otter about writing advice, and my interpretations vs. what they’ve gleaned from reading too much of it online – and the one that got me waving my hands the most today was that old favourite, “Kill Your Darlings.”

Otter, from extensive research online, suggested that it sounded like “Take out every single piece of writing that you actually like.” Or possibly “If you’ve written a good bit, you’ve done it wrong.”

My first takeaway from that was “THERE’S SO MUCH FUCKING PRETENTIOUS WRITING ADVICE ONLINE, WHAT THE HELL.”

My second was “WHY WOULD YOU REMOVE ALL THE BITS YOU LIKE FROM YOUR BOOK?!!”

So, for me, “Kill Your Darlings” has three facets.

The Edit Tantrum

The first is when your editor sends edits back. Every single writer’s responses is going to be some form of “No! Won’t! It’s my book, I love it, you just don’t understand!” (And I say this as a writer, too. I’ve been there.)

Take a step back. Take some time out. Take a breath.

You might not agree with all of your editor’s points, but it’s worth considering them: think about why they’re being suggested, and what the effect would be. Even if you ultimately decide not to do that thing, your editor will very rarely* be suggesting wholesale slaughter for the fun of it.

So take some time, eat some “I’m Miserable” ice cream, and then kill your darlings.

The Scene Stealer

I really need to get my thoughts together for a longer post on this, but for me, every scene must do at least two things. Does it advance the plot AND tell us something about the characters? Does it give us some setting AND present a pivotal moment in character development? And, importantly, does it do something you haven’t done in another scene?

The same applies to language to some extent. You might have written the most beautiful conversation between two characters… but if you can tell us the same information in one sentence, then maybe you don’t need it. That line can be a brilliant gut-punch, but if it’s in the wrong place or offsets what you’re doing in the rest of the scene, it needs to come out.

This is the most frequent “Kill Your Darling” that I come across. It’s where you’ve written something good, fun, amazing, poignant – but it’s not needed. You’ve already told us that information; you could condense these three scenes into one; you could remove that sentence and it would make the rest of the conversation flow better.

It’s a lovely darling – but it doesn’t need to be in this book.

(By the way, I always took these bits out and saved them in another document – it’s one way of killing darlings without feeling too bad.)

The Deus Ex Darling

This one, I admit, mostly applies to newer writers, or the more tender-hearted of us. (How on earth do people like GRRM just kill everyone off? Do they have hearts of stone?!)

It’s where you can’t bear to go through with the plot or the action that you wanted. You’ve got to a certain point, to a climax, and- I just can’t do it. I want them to get together. I want them to survive.

Well, you’re the author – they can!

Except it breaks what you’re trying to achieve. It’s where plot armour comes from; where countless ordinary soldiers die, but the hero only gets a distinguished scar. Where no matter how many bad things happen, your hero still gets up again. It does also work the other way – where the hero gets more crap piled on than anyone else. Do they never get a break? Do they ever get some happiness? Frankly, a litany of Terrible Woe is as hard to read as someone Overcoming Every Obstacle Without A Thought.

Very often this is fixed by some judicious tweaking of cause, effect and the amount of shit you’re piling on characters, but it’s also a mindset. You are allowed to get personally invested in your characters – that’s the point! – but you also have to be mindful of the wider plot, of your reader, and of the need for emotional tension. You need to balance character with plot, and sometimes that does involve being mean – or not.

Don’t Kill The Good Stuff

So please don’t take “kill your darlings” to mean that you have to take everything you like out of a book – if you don’t like your book, then how on earth is the reader going to like it?

I think what “kill your darlings” is meant to do is make you look at the bits that you’re attached to, and give them a critical once-over. It’s making you think about why that piece is in there, and if you’re just leaving it in because you like it. It’s looking at the needs of the plot and the characters and the book as a whole, not at your writer’s ego.

And sometimes it’s wrong: you can leave that bit in. You can keep a sentence just because you love it. You can keep a scene because hot damn, it’s awesome.

But think about why you’re doing it.

And don’t be afraid to put the knife in when you need to.

 

 

*I mean. I’m not ruling anything out here.

The Process of Editing, Kate-Style

Am I getting better at editing, or am I just getting more picky?

OH I HAD THIS THOUGHT AT 3AM SO HAVE A RANDOM EMAIL ABOUT CHARACTER MOTIVATION

If you consider the villain as the hero for a moment, how do they expect their plan to work? What are the political, logistical and financial aspects? What do they expect to happen, and what steps have they taken to ensure that opposition is squashed or neutralised? And where do ridiculously huge, magical war-machines fit into all this?

More toe-bones for everyone!

Sometimes it’s not killing your darlings for the fun of it; it’s identifying the threads in the book, identifying the core story and the core moments, and taking short-cuts to get the characters there. It’s identifying something that builds the character up (or tears them down) and making that happen without the intervening 50-page build-up.

YOU CAN’T KILL THAT CHARACTER HOW VERY DARE YOU.

I don’t have a background in English Lit and I’m sure there’s proper words for everything, but I’m just going by “I’m not sure starting with action actually works, because he’s not in a place to command the narrative, ok? He’s coming in with no plan and then it absolutely fails which obviously it would. Him getting arrested is a much better place to start, because that’s definitely more in-character at that point.” I think I’ve ended up at literary theory via practise, which is basically pointing at a bit and going “I don’t like that, it would work better like this.”

…STOP THREATENING TO KILL THAT CHARACTER IN EVERY SYNOPSIS!

The idea of every scene being needed, and advancing the story; but! not necessarily for plot. Character interaction and worldbuilding are just as necessary. However – and another BUT here – that doesn’t mean that those threads can’t be wound into the plot-related scenes. Worldbuilding and character-building are two of the things that need to wind around the bones of the plot, and if you have a scene that just builds characters, check with yourself: do you actually need it? It could be The. Most. Adorable. Thing but if it just adds texture, could that texture go somewhere else? Could it be threaded into another interaction?

THIS IS SO GOOD AND COOL AND I LOVE IT SO MUCH

And the other side of that is that we do need to feel for the characters. We do need to care: otherwise it’s a bunch of DnD murder-hobos running around. Why is that specific character doing that specific thing? How would they react? What are their feelings about a thing? How are they saying something, or doing something? If you don’t have enough character building and then throw them into something, we’re just reading for your snazzy description of sword-play, and not because we’re genuinely worried about what could happen.

WE NEED MORE FROOF

(As you may have summarised, I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently! It’s been on a wide variety of books, which has been very fun – I’m going between space opera to the cutest necromancers to a rather terrifying dystopia to sword-fighting ridiculousness. It’s actually been really interesting, because I’ve read two of the books before – about five years ago! – and it’s been fascinating to see what I pick up this time versus what I did then, and also how much firmer I am in my opinions. Editors are as prone to Imposter Syndrome as anyone – and actually, probably more so, because we’re the ones that Know Best and Make Things Better and We Are Right – and it’s fascinating to me to see how far I’ve come from “so, if you possibly did this would it make this happen?” to “LOOK JUST REWRITE HALF THE BOOK OK?”

It is hard work. It is tough. It is a knotty, thorny minefield of character interactions, bits I don’t want to cut, characters I love, wordcounts I have to get down and threads I want to tug. It’s so so interesting to see how different writers approach things, and how their ideas feed into mine – and vice versa – to make a book stronger. But it’s also very very fun!)

(Also, I have the best authors. They’re all a joy to work with!)

Going back to things is scary…

The really satisfying days start with a punch to the face.

Not usually my face – although there have been exceptions – but there is something very satisfying about kicking someone else’s butt. Literally.

I’ve found myself, over the past few months, thinking of bits in No Man’s Land and the associated writing I was doing. Sentences keep coming back, and I keep thinking of parts I loved. I wonder about dipping in again, or find myself explaining bits and jokes and snark to Otter. It’s sort of bubbling back to the surface…

[Crib notes: modern urban fantasy with two magical people, who are incidentally exes and also incidentally hate each other, trying to save the world. The slight spanner in the works is that everyone might be going mad. It’s fun.]

I paused on NML because I’d had feedback that the first third needed to be better integrated – and they’re right. The danger needs to start sooner, and it can – that’s fairly easy to do, in plot terms.

But when I got that feedback, I was deep in burnout. I knew what I needed to do and I could see the shape of that, but when I started writing it just… didn’t come. Went flat. It was all words and no characters, no emotions, no flow.

I reluctantly put it aside when life went to hell, and promised myself I’d go back to it. And that fact it’s bubbling to the surface suggests that I should.

But I am scared.

I know that diving back in is going to bring back a lot of memories and emotions; I tend to write with a word cloud mixed with music mixed with emotions, and every book has a different one – so bringing that back again is going to hurt. The book was written at a very different time in my life, so that’s going to have memories; it has a lot of people and associations that are going to be hard to process.

And simply in writing terms, too, I’m going to have to dig back in. I’m going to have to figure out how to work it. I’m going to have to remember a whole bunch of stuff and backstory and details and then figure out how to change it.

But… diving back in might be good. I’ve had a break, and levelled up as an editor, so looking at this with fresh eyes will be good for it and for me.

It’s just going to hurt. And I’ve had so many hurts of the past few years that I don’t really want to face another one – it’s going to require a lot of falling down and getting up again, and I’m going to be falling on already-bruised knees, if that makes sense.

Hey ho.

Well, no one ever said the writing life was easy.

A Brief Conversation About The Bechdel Test

So I was chatting to Otter about their writing, and they expressed worry about the Bechdel Test. “I mean, if I have a male main character, should they… overhear a conversation? I mean, I could have them eavesdropping. Or maybe just walk in on one? But that would mean they’re in the room-”

“Hang on, hang on. They can be present during the conversation.”

“Oh! Ok. I thought it was a conversation without a man present.”

“…no. The bar is literally set low enough that it has to be a conversation.

And there was a moment of silence as we contemplated exactly how low the bar was that just one conversation between two women is hard to hit.

“And it can’t be about a man?” Otter adds.

“So… an argument about who’s turn it is to wash up?” I got another ‘really?’ look. “Yeah. Seriously. Hey, have you come across the Sexy Lamp Test?”

“You have got to be joking.”

“And Sexy Lamp With Post-It. Ok, go look up Mako Mori. That’s a good one.”

Some more contemplation was had, possibly about the state of the world.

“So… what happens if you don’t meet the tests?”

“Nothing. It just depends if you want to your books to be bought by readers who don’t want to consider women as characters.”

“Ah.”