Category Archives: Book Talk

Wordcount-Binging and the Quest for Flow

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged in writer circles anymore – see what I did there? – that bringing as many words as possible onto the page in each sitting is the key to writerly success. Espoused everywhere you look, from the ever-popular Nanowrimo to blogs, podcasts and self-help books for writers, the basic idea seems to be that finishing a book is hard, and the easiest way to get through it, is to do it as fast and painlessly as possible. Get the words out there, vomit them onto your text processor, and most importantly: don’t think about it at all. That’s the way to Flow. Flow, that magical word that has been making the rounds for a while, state of infinite creative potential when the mind is linked-up, perfectly aligned to spill out your inner genius.

I don’t know how ADD we have become as a culture that we think it necessary to explain and mystify the benefits inherent in a state of enduring and enjoyable concentration, but that’s all it seems to be. Despite being often compared to a runner’s high, that feeling athletes seem to get when the rush of endorphins from physical exertion overpowers pain and exhaustion, there isn’t actually any link between the two. I shouldn’t have to point out that one includes the exercise induced rush of hormones and the other, well, doesn’t.

Now, I am the last person to diss Flow. Flow is amazing. I just seriously question whether Flow really has anything to do with the word-vomit we are often called upon to expel into our manuscripts. To clarify: we are supposed to just write down whatever comes to mind without caring about spelling, phrasing, the beauty of words, sentence and melody or even the appropriate wording of dialogue. Least of all should we think about theme or repeating topics, motifs and metaphors. The resulting text might require more editing (according to some sources up to several times the amount it took to write), but that’s supposedly worth it, because the important thing is to get it out of your head as soon as possible.

Now, I am the last one to complain about our generation’s obsession with speed, but… really? I am not in the position to judge other writers and what they enjoy about writing – but while I agree wholeheartedly that prolonged periods of concentration and the efforts to increase your writing output in an effort to keep the story alive and active in your head – I can’t abide by the dogmatic nature of the rest of it.

First of all: As a translator, I achieve Flow all the time.
This is relevant here, because you cannot stop thinking, evaluating and constantly assessing the whole picture while you translate. Now, according to Flow-espousers, this should prevent Flow. My inner critic is on 100% of the time, I constantly check terminology, look up words, compare them to earlier usage within the text, make sure this is the best way I could possibly express any given sentiment etc. And still I achieve Flow.

In fact, I achieve Flow faster and easier than I do in writing. That’s not because I enjoy translating more. I don’t. But I believe simply because translating is a more immersive activity, just BECAUSE you have to concentrate so hard on so many things at once. You can’t help it. In writing, it’s easier to waver a bit, not to be fully invested in the task at hand.

Secondly: I simply cannot enjoy shoddy worksmanship, no matter how many times I tell myself that I will edit it later. For me, writing is primarily a set of skills, not some magical spring inside of me that produces the clearest water if I just let it run free. I enjoy finding just the right words to unlock just the right feeling while I write. That’s what makes it fun for me. Finding out just how a character would say something is so integral to the character development, I can’t imagine leaving that until the very end. And yes, I love theme. Sure, some emerge later on, but I start every book with certain themes and motifs, and yeah, I do keep them in mind while I write.

After all: Finishing a book isn’t actually that difficult.
It is when you do it for the first time, because if you’re like me and most other people, you are constantly plagued by worrying if you can actually do it, if it’s worth all this misery when it sucks so much anyway, and why in the world you would do this to yourself to begin with. But once you have finished that first book, it’s just as difficult as any long-term task you choose to engage in and that has to compete for your attention with your Netflix account, with sleep and friends, and the normal fluctuations in creative self-confidence.

It’s definitely not difficult enough to warrant this desperate close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England approach. Besides, if you’re anything like me, this is exactly the approach that will mess most with your self-confidence.

I’m the kind of person who has to read back a few paragraphs in the morning when I start writing. And there is NOTHING that will kill my motivation faster than seeing how bad my own writing was the day before. I need to see something that at least resembles the standard I want to see in novels or else I’m hanging in my chair, close to tears about my lack of talent, faster than you can say Flow. And bam, the creative confidence cycle has hit rock bottom again.

Instead, I could write a just a little bit more slowly (I still tend to reach at least 1000k in an hour), but write deliberately, thoughtfully and with intention. That way I actually enjoy what I’m doing while I do it, and when I reach back the next morning, I am full of motivation for the next stretch.

And yes, I see no reason whatsoever why writing the book faster only then to take longer on editing is in any way a win for me at the bottom line. I enjoy writing a lot more than editing. So how stupid would I have to be to rush through the thing I enjoy only to pile up more work for me in the area I enjoy less? Not to mention that editing gets exponentially more painful the messier the first draft is to begin with.

The only thing that matters in the end is that we, each of us, finds the writing process that we find enjoyable.  But concentration and thoughtful writing doesn’t have to be anathema to Flow and good, speedy writing.

It’s Not All About Plot!

Every second genre book, it seems, features these descriptions somewhere in its product description: they are fast-paced, action-packed, and plot-driven. Short, dramatic sentences underline the idea.

Nobody is safe. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Death lurks around every corner. She must solve the riddle or pay with her life. Your basic summer block buster description. Only… I kind of despise summer block busters.

Now, obviously, I recognize the value of a well-structured plot. I even get the action elements and the driving suspense, especially in Dan-Brown-style thrillers. That’s part of the deal. I just don’t understand why all so many others genres are this quick to adopt the strategy. Are readers really looking for a breathless thrill-ride when they pick up a fantasy or sci-fi novel, or even more puzzlingly, when trying to decide on their next YA or general fiction read?

Some definitely do. But there’s also a valuable and vocal part of the reading community who don’t. Personally, I almost always forgo books advertised this way, and when I stumble onto one that follows this principle without making it quite so plain in the description, I tend to end up disappointed. It’s just not what I am looking for in my reading experience.

Cassandra Clare’s books, for example, always strike me as too plot-heavy. And she is by far not the only one in the YA/Paranormal/Fantasy/UF etc. community. I actually think she creates great characters and hints at really interestingly interwoven relationships, but whenever we get a little more into those, another plot point crops it short and sends the reader careening into another plot complication that doesn’t ultimately change the outcome at all.

Plot, after all, is only one ingredient in the whole book recipe. It may feature more prominently in thrillers and mysteries, but each genre mixes the available components a little differently and I, for one, think we should continue to celebrate that. There is world-building, to name just one, which may just be a subtle after-taste in contemporary romance, women’s fiction or many general fiction stories, but it can be deciding factor in Sci-fi/fantasy novels. Harry Potter, for example, isn’t perfect in all respects for me, but the world-building alone is so uniquely imaginative, quirkily adorable and well-crafted throughout, that I will never say a word against the series and probably love it for the rest of my life. Another great example for this would be Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

My personal favorite is character development though, and with it the development of different relationships as well (including, but definitely not limited to romantic ones). The moment plot concerns are starting to override character developments, my reading enjoyment starts to slump drastically and if the trend continues throughout the book, it will leave me feeling unsatisfied and a little empty. Like fast food, maybe, except who am I kidding Fast Food is awesome. (Can you all tell I’m sitting at work and haven’t had breakfast yet?)

In my Lakeside series, the first installment By the Light of the Moon is definitely the plot heavier one, whereas the sequel A Taste of Winter focusses more on character development. That’s why I think the latter is a lot better, but I also know that not everybody feels that way. Some readers liked the increased plot density of the first book, and to be honest, as a book of mine, it probably had ample character development too and maybe I overdid it a little bit in the sequel, indulged in what I like to read and write best.

I like plot. I’m a plotter myself. It is important to me to figure out what will happen throughout the book and which plot twists can best lead characters and readers to both the final climax and a satisfying ending. But I also balk at creating unnecessary twists just so that every chapter ends in cliff-hanger, to send characters and readers on wild goose chases only to come up empty and be pretty much in the same position they were three chapters ago. I’ll always rather spend those chapters on getting to know the characters and how they feel about it all, how the plot events changed their world and how they accommodate and react. Some of my favorite scenes in A Taste of Winter are the ones that show Owain dealing with the prejudice faced by his kind, and his determination to overcome it, for example, or Moira finally growing up and coming into her own strength in the relationship.

But those scenes slow down the reading experience, I’m told by countless how-to guides to writing. They put the brakes on that non-stopping thrill-ride, while the characters enjoy the landscape, go for a drink in a road-side café or park in a lonely alley for a clandestine blow-job. I get that.

But then, I’ve always been a friend of landscapes, road-side cafés or clandestine blowjobs, myself. I care more about having a good time getting to my destination, than to get there as fast as possible.

Now I want to know about you, though! How do you feel about the plot/character development proportion in novels?

3 Reasons to Stop Worrying about Book Piracy

First things first: I am in no way advocating illegal downloads. And yes, I would hope that anyone interested in my books would take the official route. I mean, seriously, it’s the price of a cup of coffee, and you have no idea how much it makes me smile when I check my sales and there was a tiny jump in numbers.

But I keep seeing a lot of anger and worry and generally negative feelings created by finding books on pirate sites, and I always feel like that might be misplaced. Especially when it coincides with worries about income from writing, as though they are really connected. And in the end, I think it’s much better to accept piracy as a reality we can try to use in our favor rather than getting upset about it every time. And here is why:

1. I am not actually losing anything.

No matter often the dvd piracy warning has flickered over our televisions, we HAVE to admit that there is a difference between stealing a material good and stealing an immaterial copy of a digital file for their own use.
Yes, to produce an ebook costs money, and a lot of time. But to replicate one doesn’t cost a thing. And the value of an ebook is freely scalable. You can sell it for $9.99 or $0.99 and both are equally valid, and depend on your business model, how many you hope to sell, the genre expectations etc. Now we all want to make a living off writing, and I think we deserve to get there, but that’s a different conversation. When we are talking about piracy, I am not losing resources, time or any other costs if someone, somewhere downloads an illegal copy of my book.

This would be different of course if someone took my intellectual property and sold it on or plagiarized it. Then yes, I am losing the income they steal from me – but I do think illegal downloads represents something of an inbetween, no matter now much big companies are trying to bully legislators into considering it theft as much as any other theft.

2. Numbers of illegal downloads do NOT represent income I might have had

Now, people download for all kinds of reasons. Some genuinely can’t afford to spend money on books because they have a family to feed. Others are data hoarders, who just generate pleasure from collecting stuff – far more stuff than they could ever read. Yet others are serial downloaders, who — for whatever reasons, some more valid some less — have decided that the current copyright laws are outmoded and they don’t feel they are doing anything wrong in downloading.
Whatever I think about any of these people: None of them are likely to have bought my book if it hadn’t been available on a pirate site. So if they hadn’t downloaded my book illegally, they would never have gotten their hands on it at all, or in many cases wouldn’t even have heard of it.
That wouldn’t do me any good. Now, I prefer being read to not being read, and yes I would like it a lot more if someone simply contacted me, and told me that they would love to read my book but can’t afford it right now, and I’d gladly send them a copy… BUT I grant that not many people are likely to do this.

I can frame it this way in my mind, though, and stop getting angry.

The goal is to create media that makes people want to spend their money on, and to be to good to those loyal readers.

3. Creative media start to become goods of emotional value

If we look at the music industry, which is always a few steps ahead of us in terms of alternative movements, indie productions and digitization, what we are seeing more and more, are sites like Bandcamp where in many cases, the customers pays what they want to pay. Many artists have their own shop on their websites that functions much the same way. I.e. instead of a fixed price, pricing becomes an open field in which the fan/listener/reader types a figure before they click pay.

And what creators are seeing is that in general, they don’t make less money.

This is one of the most interesting things about the internet and content creation. We are seeing the same thing at Patreon, Subbable, Kickstarter and many more. We WANT to attribute value to the content that makes us happy. Some people may be able to pay 2$ others 10$, and that is a model that makes a lot more sense for digitized products that have no tangible, material value of their own. Because why shouldn’t my book be cheaper for a high school kid or mother of four who gets minimum wage, than for someone with a good, steady income? That sounds totally fair to me because to that mother of four, 2$ signifies the same financial burden as 6$ for someone who has three times her net income.

And publishing is traditionally a little bit elitist isn’t it? There continues to be talk about how “special” books are and, I think most of us mystify the idea of being an author, too. But once we step away from that – like many indie musicians stepped away from the hyped and idealized rock-star ideal – what we are left with is this: we are creators of content. No better or worse than a musician, someone who paints a weekly comic strip or produces a web series on Youtube. But where all of those have embraced new ways of attributing value to content and making it profitable enough to live off being a creator, we indie authors still feel shackled to the old model of the publishing industry when we should be opening our minds to new ideas.

Now obviously, this isn’t exactly tied to piracy, but the music industry has had to deal with that a lot longer than we have. And still indie bands are thriving as much as before. And many of them have openly stated that they don’t mind it when their music is downloaded, because they know that people who fall in love with their stuff will buy the next album, if they can. And I think we should try and approach piracy with a similar state of mind.

If just because it’s better for our general happiness :) .

photo credit: Free Grunge Textures - www.freestock.ca via photopin cc

Learning to Write for an Audience

When you go through a difficult time in your life, you start to shed pride in pieces, in flakes like dandruff from your hair. Everybody starts to crack at a different point: maybe you begin to leave the house with greasy hair or stop shaving as regularly as you used to. Maybe you stop opening your mail, or your apartment goes to pot. Maybe you start to drink a lot more than is good for you. Maybe you do all of those things.

And eventually, you start to admit how bad things are. And if you’re someone with a lot of pride, like me, this comes in pieces. You admit one thing, then another. You tick them off one flake a time, because you cannot bear the idea that people look at you and see a weak person, a failure, a loser. That was one of the hardest things for me when I started dealing with my burn out almost two years ago now. I lied to my therapists, and my doctors. I put on a bright smile and said it wasn’t so bad. I just need a pill or a tiny holiday and then everything would be fine. But everything wasn’t fine. And everything didn’t have a quick fix. And so pride started shedding, and that’s a good thing because I started healing.

Through all that time, the one thing I never allowed to fall was writing. It was what kept me going, sure, but it was also the last thing that made me feel like I was a real, full human being with talents and skills and something to contribute to the world. I needed it. I needed it really badly, and so I wrote like a maniac. I wrote every day and I never stopped.

Now, my life is starting to come together again. I can feel the stitches starting to take, can feel the wounds starting to close. I can see the future again, can see a path out of this, can imagine myself as I used to know me before all this again: as a capable, professional, desirable woman. And so it’s time to admit to something: I’m having a hard time with this writing thing.

I’m having a hard time writing for an audience, knowing that audience, fearing their reaction. And I’m still not entirely sure how to fix it. I’m not even sure it’s a bad thing. It might make me a better writer eventually, but for now, I am ready to admit: I’m struggling a little.

 

BTLOTM -- color600x900When I started out, my writing was about me. Not literally, most of the time, but still to a pretty high degree. At its essence By the Light of the Moon is a book about a girl who can’t deal with her life and then somebody saves her. I needed that story at the time. It’s not, however, at its core, a particularly original story. I’m not bashing my work, I stand behind the writing and the characters especially, and I really love the sequel that I’m currently editing. But I feel like first (and second and maybe third) novels are books that you write for yourself.

You think, for instance, “Hey, I really like werewolves, but why are they always depicted as these ruthless, overly domineering alpha males?” Or “Hey, I love medieval fantasy and forbidden love, but why do I never see a heroine with mental health issues?” And so you (lol read “I”) write a book that embraces a lot of the points you’ve been missing in the books you’ve read. But… in the end, there’s still a lot of those other stories in yours. It’s still a noblewoman who hates being a noblewoman falling in love with a hunky werewolf.

Detail of female hands tied up with ropeWith Driftwood Deeds, my thought was “I want to read about sex and bdsm, but every time I pick up a book, it doesn’t represent my feelings or my experience of it, I don’t find the characters believable and I hate the prose.” So I set out to create well-written, real, honest, raw erotica. And I think I did that well. But I never thought about the audience. I never thought about having to sell that idea in a blurb and how terribly boring it sounds then.

The blurb for Driftwood Deeds could be summarized like this: Two people have sex. Or maybe less facetiously: A young woman has her first D/s experience with an older man at his seaside home.

If I didn’t know the author beforehand, I probably wouldn’t pick that book up. It just sounds like… it sounds like nothing. And Driftwood Deeds is not nothing. It touched a lot of people who read it; it’s still my highest rated work on Goodreads and Amazon. But I can’t blame people for not buying it, for not getting really excited about it. Because I only thought about me when I wrote it.

ALL400-600In a way, something similar happened with After Life Lessons. L.C. and I wrote it because we wanted to work together, challenge ourselves. Because we had this idea, that putting our characters up against zombies would be fun. And it was. But we’re not horror people, or even thriller people. We are character study girls. We love to write about people and their personal struggles, their little relateable drama.

And so that’s what After Life Lessons became. And we wrote it for us, because we wanted a book to exist in which a zombie apocalypse was not all about the zombies and the action, but about the human impact. We didn’t consider that other people really do want the zombie splatter action when they are promised zombie post-apoc. That they don’t want something different.

 

Almost two years after I started writing By the Light of the Moon, I feel like someone who’s started learning a new language. I was an English teacher for a while, so I know the process. You start out and everything is crazy difficult. You have no idea what you’re doing, you’re just charging blindly ahead full of joy and the energy of the new, until you run into the first roadblock. If you’re lucky you either are very disciplined and get yourself out, or you have a teacher to push you over the hump. These humps happen a lot at the beginning. It’s why so many of us struggle for so so long to finish our first novel. It’s also why so many of us buy a language course on CD and never get past the first or second part.

At some point, though, you have a break-though. Suddenly, a few things just click and you get it. And everything is brilliant because you feel like you finally have a handle on this. This will be easy. Hell yeah! I was at that point at the beginning of the year. I wrote about it too. Here or here.

But it doesn’t stay. You learned a lot, but you keep learning and eventually you get to that point where you know just enough to realize, you still have no idea what you’re doing, just enough to realize how long the road ahead really is.

 

That’s me right now. I try to learn from these lessons, to think about how to make a book special and enticing from the get go, how to satisfy the needs of the genre without betraying what I love to write about. But I don’t know how to do that yet. I am still not sure how to write with an audience in mind.

Some people will tell you to just never read your reviews, but I don’t believe in that. I think that’s the height of arrogance actually. I do believe that I have something to learn from my readers, like we all have something to learn from almost everybody we meet and I want to be open to that. But it also hurts, and it’s scary. And when you realize you’ve started to censor yourself for fear of how readers might react to something that rings true and good to you, that’s when writing for an audience starts to suck.

So, that’s what I’m working on. Finding that balance. Writing to please myself and my readers.  Writing without fear of rejection without loosing sight of my readers completely. Writing something that I can be proud of and that really excites people, too. Because that what I want to do. I want to touch people, I want to write those books, the ones that helped me through the years – be that because they made me realized something, or because they made me feel good about myself, or because they made me sob uncontrollably and reminded me to feel, and to be vulnerable. I want all that! I want to be better!

I will be better. I get better every day.

Cover Art Adventures

As a writer, we’re supposed to hate and eschew clichés like vampires do garlic and crosses. They should make us shrivel and cringe, and sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t and we reach right into that trow of overused phrases and sprinkle them around our prose, anyway.

Here’s one that I hate and that makes me cringe: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Now, as a cliché (i.e. we’re not actually talking about books but about people) it doesn’t work because we all USE our “cover” to send messages. That’s why goths dress the way they do, and punks and why business-people wear all the same boring suits :) . I’ve grown up a fat chick with a pretty face, and like everybody else, of course,  I’ve always been aware of being judged by my looks, but just as aware of the messages my choices in clothes and make-up etc. send to people. That’s why we wear clothes. And even if we don’t care (and quite often I don’t, I just dress in what’s comfortable) that still sends a message that we’re the kind of people who don’t effing care what we look like when we go to the grocery store.

So I reject the cliché. Don’t be a superficial asshole, but also stop pretending like how we dress, what we say, how we act in public says NOTHING about us as people. Of course it says stuff about me. Not everything, by far. And most people may be inept at reading all those signals correctly, who knows, but there’s a correlation between a person and their “cover”.

I also reject the premise: There is also a correlation between a book and its cover. And it’s intricate and fascinating and it’s something to love and explore rather than just put off as superficial, image obsessed internet culture.

I love good covers. And I love the process, too. After writing, it’s kind of the funnest part of this whole publishing deal, and I have to admit, the fact that I get to design my own covers and work with artists and do all of that, is one of the biggest incentives for self-publishing for me. Because yeah, I don’t like that lack of control, leaving the public, outward representation of my work to people who aren’t me. I LOVE doing them, love the process of creating a cover that is not only pleasing to the eye, but also represents the content, the genre, the target audience, and yeah, your own brand. That’s fascinating stuff.

When By the Light of the Moon was first published, I did have some impact (i.e. I was asked to describe a few possibilities and I had the opportunity to suggest small alterations), but I was never happy the cover. I always felt slightly weird asking people to read my book, almost like I had to say “I know, I know what it looks like, but please…? Could you do that thing that I don’t believe in and reject, where you don’t judge the book by its cover?” And that’s an uncomfortable position to stand and to market yourself and your book from.

The re-release cover of By the Light of the Moon is different. I can fully stand behind it and say “I love this cover.” That doesn’t mean everybody will, or that it will connect with anyone who chances upon it, but I love it. I can stand with both feet on the ground, shoulders back, chin held high and promote it.
It took ages to get there, though (which is e.g. what a good cover says. It says that the publisher or author believes in the book enough to spend ages, or a lot of money working it out). I think I have at least 10 different cover mock-ups for By the Light of the Moon on my computer. And I don’t mean evolving ones (then we get into the hundreds), but complete separate ideas from completely different source images. In the end, the only one I sort of liked would have relied on a very expensive photograph and I just didn’t (and don’t) have 500 bucks to blow on a cover. So I went back to the drawing board and changed my tack. It’s fantasy, after all, maybe photography is the wrong way to go.

Landscape without Owain-wolfy.

Landscape without Owain-wolfy.

Now, I am very lucky to have grown up in a family of artists and so I could go to my grandmother (whom I chose because I thought her personal style resonated most with my writing and my ideas for a cover, and I still hope I didn’t somehow insult my grandfather by not asking him). And we talked a LOT. I told her about the book, about my ideas. She talked about painting proportions and constraints and in the end, she painted something that I liked, but that I also didn’t know how to use. It was a little too colorful, with too much going on and at first I completely despaired of ever getting this right.
In the end, and after soooo many attempts, I found a way to limit the color and the busyness of the painting (if you want to compare, I took out most of the reddish/purple hues from the dress, the sky etc. and pumped up the real red in her hair; I got rid of her hands and the shore at the bottom of the painting and yeah, in the end, I added a tree that wasn’t there for color contrast balance).

Roswit Balke, my grandmother, working on my beautiful cover.

Roswit Balke, my beautiful grandmother, working on my cover.

This time around, and for Lakeside #2, I could take all those experiences on board and give my grandmother a much better idea of what I needed. And I think it shows. I was there yesterday to look at the progress, and we sat together, talking, looking at pictures of wolves and drew one into different copies of the same painting. It was a lot of fun, but I look at the unfinished work, and I can already see, that i will have to work a LOT less hard to make this a cover. It’s basically already one, and all I have to do is add the title.

I write a lot about how writing is learning. Every day. But this stuff is as well, and I’m really grateful and appreciative of the lessons I am given and allowed to learn on this journey.

Owain-Wolfy is stalking the forest, making his way into the picture.

Owain-Wolfy is stalking the forest, making his way into the picture.

For me, getting really involved with my covers, is almost an extended part of the writing process. It allows me to translate the written word into a visual impression, it makes me think about what my books are, what they represent and how I want them to be seen and i love that part.

It doesn’t always work – i.e. for After Life Lessons, we chose a very calm and thoughtful cover because we did want people to judge the book by it. And still we get a lot feedback about the gory action-ridden zombie bonanza they expected (and didn’t find inside this very calm cover). But that’s all part of the learning process. And it’s all good. It’s all part of the fun.

 

PS: Just putting it out there. I am open to advising authors about covers or helping them realize their dream visual representation. So if you’re still looking for a cover artist and like my stuff, why not send me a quick email at laila@lailablake.com.

Strong Female Leads don’t Cry… or something.

Writing for women is tricky. I don’t want to take away from writing for men or writing for all genders, but in the perfidiousness of patriarchy, we  women seem locked eternally in the act of policing each other and that does add an extra component.

We do this constantly, almost without realizing it. We police ourselves – our bodies, our eating habits, our emotional expression, our sexual experience; and then we do it to the women around us. We write blogs that call for J.K. Rowling to stop writing, stop clogging up the market — while we leave the men and their bulky bibliographies alone. We say this one is too fat, and that one looks too anorexic; this one seeks too much attention and that one just shuts herself in – how can she ever hope to find a man?; this one is a prude and that one’s a slut. Of course all it means, is that the woman polices herself differently than we police ourselves, she has sex differently, cares for her body differently, engages with men or other women differently than we would (or can) – than we have internalized as the right way to behave. And we forget how many strings bind us, how deeply we have permitted ourselves to be locked in the simple struggle of being ourselves.

IMG_6989smallI don’t think men do that. Not like this, not many of them, anyway. Lily Myers in her poem “Shrinking Woman” said something that stuck with me. To her brother, she says “We come from difference, Jonas, you learned to grow out, and I learned to grow in.” We filter, we listen, we modify ourselves and analyze because we were taught to do so from birth. Even my mother – a liberal, a hippie, a stout feminist who struggled all her life because she raised us as a single parent – admitted to me once, after I pressed that she treated us differently. That while she made my brother coffee when he was sleepy, and cut him up vegetables so he’d have something healthy with his pizza, while she left him alone to study (because it’s more important and he was busy), I was expected to eschew pizza altogether (and received sighs and looks when I didn’t), to cook healthy, to be part of the household, to do the dishes and mind her feelings. All of those are good things – but there was no proportion: my brother got so little of these admonitions and I got all the rest. And I don’t blame my mother for this. She only learned from my grandmother, who still does the same to every woman around her. I listen to her talk, and every single one has something wrong with her – from her sister, to my mother, to me, to her neighbor – of my brother she only speaks kindly, tolerantly. And how could she not? My brother is wonderful, he’s the best man I know (and he took all these pictures of me) — but she doesn’t know him at all.

Every single friend of mine has a mother who policed her food, her weight, her sexual identity, the volume of her voice – or any of a million things that we now police in ourselves, the women around us, probably our daughters one day and definitely, definitely the fictional women we read about. And here we are at the reason why writing for women is tricky.

Fictional women have to be just flawed enough not to strike us as too unrealistic, as so much better than us that it becomes uncomfortable – but they also can’t be too flawed or our teachings kick in. She has to be “strong” but not arrogant; she has to be able to accommodate our own ego without leaving us behind.

In what I’ve read and what seems to be well received – this leaves us with two basic archetypes. One is the “least offensive woman possible”. She’s the girl with very little character of her own and  who every reader can project herself into – the Bella Swans, basically. As far as I can tell – and have seen expressed in this way a lot – she is just necessary to play out the fantasy of the perfect guy, but she should be almost negligible in her effect. It’s all about him, the less the reader has to think about her, be confronted with her the better. She can be seen, but not heard, basically.

IMG_7112smallThe other archetype is the “strong female lead”, the fighter chick, the one who won’t cry a tear over some idiot, who knows how to play with her sexuality to get what she wants or eschews it altogether. These girls are tough, confident, sometimes even brash and they yeah, they kick ass.

I like a girl who can kick ass!

But we also ended up, yet again, in a strange position where we constantly pit these two against each other, and that ended us up at a very strange idea of what strength looks like in women, and reversely what weakness is.

In an author group I attend, someone recently proudly reported that she realized how much her character cried in the novel and promptly fixed it all as to not make her look so weak. Another large sheet comparing all the recent YA heroines with each other, marked almost all of them as having “poor self-esteem”.  Talking about feelings, having feelings and expressing those is becoming whiny and annoying and that makes me uncomfortable.

We live in a world in which guys are under this strain all their lives. To show emotion, they learn this from their fathers (and if they have better fathers than that, they learn it hard at school), is to be a girl, a sissy, a momma’s boy. And so they shut it down. We are faced with a generation of men who have no idea what they are feeling, because they were bullied into shutting it down. Men who can rape unconscious girls not because they are cruel, but because they have been taught that compassion and pity and kindness and sweetness is an unacceptable trait in their social circle.

And I don’t want that for women, and I certainly don’t want it for female leads.

That’s not what strength is.

 

I think I’m a pretty strong woman. I have ambitions and I work for them. I stared at a razor IMG_7125smallblade and stepped off the ledge and got help instead because of the people I love. I do things that scare me every day, I am loyal to my friends. I have convictions and I stand up for them.

But I also cry all the time – from a public service announcement about equality, to a movie, to just because I got a bad review or because I’m scared of the future. I have panic attacks and anxiety; I overanalyze everything I do and everything anyone says to me. I secretly think I am terribly ugly and nobody could ever love me.

And I am still not weak. I can be strong and cry. I can be strong and be afraid. I can be strong and quaver at the thought of my crush seeing me naked for the first time. Strength is not the denial of negative, hurtful or worrying emotions. Strength is to go on in spite of them, accepting them and limiting their power.

Strength is to stick up for friends even if that scares you, even if you could never do that for yourself. Strength is to have convictions and to stick to them — but strength is also to alter them when you grow older and learn new things. Strength is to say you were wrong and that you’re sorry, more sorry than you could ever say. And strength is to love and to trust and to be alive and open and vulnerable every day. Strength is to let people in and to show yourself to them, for who you really are.

That’s the kind of characters I want to read about.  Strong women who cry.