Where’s the conflict?

writing

A story I wrote recently came back after some time away on submission, rejected but with several rounds of comments. I’m usually glad of comments, even if the piece is ultimately declined. It’s a chance to learn, to really see your work through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, of course, the comments come from a parallel universe which appears to have very little in common with your own.

One of these recent critiques struck me. Where’s the conflict? it asked. Why doesn’t the character grow and change? These are valid concerns and good questions to ask, especially if you are to avoid the dread vignette. But conflict can take many forms. Life is not all about arguments and violence. Conflict can be something perceived only by the protagonist, something internal. So can growth and change.

Perhaps I’ve counted too much on the recognition of experience. The reader’s understanding, without too much being stated, that this is how the character would feel, that this is the conflict she would be experiencing.

I’d argue, too, that not everyone grows. We become stuck in our ways, despite the evidence, despite the prods the universe gives us. That’s part of the human condition, often a sad part. I’m tempted to add that the need for overt conflict is a very male trait, though I’m not sure if that’s entirely true.

I’m rewriting that story. But not too much. Sometimes the quietest things are the best.

Onwards and upwards.

woman warrior

Only the good die young

writing

None of us are truly good, most of us aren’t particularly trying. But there are good actions, good intentions. I’ve been wrestling with how to write about them without making them boring or schmaltzy. (not for this current story, but perhaps for the next) Marillyne Robinson does it. And possibly, on a lighter scale, so does Alexander McCall Smith. The TV show Rev manages it too, I think.

There’s an easy fix: the complicated character who does something good. My daughter wanted her nose pierced recently and, because we were on holidays and I, apparently, had made a vague promise in the past, we ended up following Google to the nearest available place. Me, with the articulated thought that if we didn’t like the look of wherever it was we were heading, we didn’t have to go in.

100 metres north, up in a dodgy lift, and we came to a small shop. We were greeted by a woman with multiple piercings (no surprise), wearing a goat’s head ring, a goat’s head necklace and a T-shirt which read something like Drink Coffee and Worship Satan.

I smiled and handed my youngest child over to her. And, as it turned out, she was the most helpful, reassuring, patient body piercer (if that’s the correct term) I have ever encountered.

So that, or something like it, was an easy story.

But we are so drawn to the bad, to the outre, to the shocking, that everything else is so easily passed over. And to be deeply good is profoundly difficult. A life’s calling and never attained. Perhaps the writing of it should be equally difficult. I will let my subconscious cogitate some more.

cemetery at St John's Gordon(The view from my hairdresser’s car park.)

2016: Things could be worse

life

January 1 is always too soon for New Year resolutions, but now, back from a (very rainy) beach holiday, I’m almost ready. Besides, my Calamityware mug just arrived and really what better resolution than to remind yourself that things could be worse.

 

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I am fond of creating timetables in the hope that the perfect routine will somehow create the perfect life. Alas, so far, no. Brain Pickings, of course, has some inspiration via the thoughts of Pablo Casals on creative vitality and mindful ritual. Pablo Casals’ morning routine of a walk along the beach followed by some piano playing (two Bach preludes and fugues)  would be a wonderful start to the day, although unlikely to be accepted well by the other, hideously demanding, members of my household.  Small steps. And as for the interior life,  Cheryl Strayed has wise things to say about fear and courage and the importance of words when telling yourself the story of your life. Stayed believes that a new course requires changes to your inner voice, not just to your actions.

So I’m going to start 2016 with an attempt at more mindfulness, more intentional ritual.  And if I have a goal for this year, it’s for a creative life, an observant life, a kind and thoughtful life. And, secretly, fingers crossed, a wish for a  little bit of luck.

Let’s see what the new year brings. After all, things could be worse.

The unlikeable female character

Books, writing

I’ve just put aside a short story which has failed to find a home. It was something true and honest, maybe a little too honest, maybe a little depressing, and, at least for now, it’s going back in the drawer. It was about a woman who, despite a magical discovery, only gets older and more unhappy. She does find something to hold onto in the end, though not necessarily something someone else would want or understand. Yep, maybe too depressing.

N.K Jemisin has written an interesting piece Tricking Readers into Acceptance about something similar, or at least the ways in which she strived to make readers accept a protagonist who was an “unlikeable fortysomething woman of color”. As Jemisin says, “The problem is that readers have been trained to like women less. Writers have to work against a weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight cis white guy. We see this empathy failure everywhere and not just in fiction.” Be warned, there are major spoilers for those who have not read The Fifth Season. Jemisin makes lots of good, strong writerly arguments and I very much admire her work. I did notice that many of the comments were from readers who said that they emphasized with this character from the start. But then they too were women.

Speaking of great writing advice, Ursula Le Guin is responding to questions over at Book Cafe. And if, like me, you are in the mood to read more prickly women characters, Tansy Rayner Roberts is doing a series on SF Women of the 20th Century. This link is to her article on Octavia Butler.

Happy reading
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Image via HJS Designs

Aurora

Books

I’ve just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. What a book! With one of the main characters a quantum computer on an intergenerational starship hoping to find a new home in the Tau Ceti system.

For much of the book, the quantum computer/Ship is the narrator, allowing Robinson to seed the story with all manner of facts and figures. The problems of such a difficult and long-term undertaking are never minimised. It’s the kind of science fiction I know I have no hope of writing, so full of technical knowledge. There were a few moments when I felt Robinson was tipping into info dump, but there were many more glorious passages.

During the voyage, the ship muses on the nature of consciousness, of Artificial Intelligence, of Turing’s test, of love, of politics. And, of course, it is an outsider’s view of human nature. All our flaws and fallacies and wishful thinking exposed.

There is a transcendent passage where the ship is flying close to the sun, but despite that, the ending (and look away now if you’d rather not know) seems almost a polemic against starships, or at least a warning against a blind love of space travel at all costs. And there is an argument for earth as the true human home, the place we must care for and maintain, because there may be no other.

As I read, I marked some passages to share, but now, only a day after I read them, they don’t really capture the way I felt, sitting, reading, thinking. The nature of consciousness, demonstrated, here. So difficult to convey.

Someone asked me what I was reading yesterday and I saw their eyes glaze as I described, very briefly, the book. But books like this are why I love science fiction. There’s something glorious and bold and profound and wondrous that I don’t think you find anywhere else.

Write like a man

Uncategorized

I can’t stop thinking about Catherine Nichols’ article Homme de Plume: What I learned sending my novel out under a Male Name.
My first reaction was … I want to say disbelief, but that’s not quite right. Something more akin to weariness, something like really, still, again? And then I thought about one of my writing classes. The tutor was a woman, a much loved, insightful, published author. But she did favour the boys! And it took me a while to get my head around that. A person I admired, whose opinions I cherished who, nonetheless, was more laudatory of male writing, more critical of female. And someone who, I think, though I’m truly guessing, would be horrified to realise this bias.
And then there’s this interesting article by Jessica Norell which discusses some of the workplace experiences of transgender people. The same person, different gender perceptions, different treatment.
It’s tempting, but I don’t think I’m quite prepared to submit using a male name. Though I have thought one up that matches my initials. Just in case.
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