Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Eight Tips for Nanowrimo

As people who read writing blogs are probably aware, Nanowrimo starts this Thursday. (If you’re not aware of Nanowrimo, visit their website , and all will be revealed to you.) As a four-time successful Nano-er, and one-time Script Frenzy-er, I present you with six tips on how to write 50,000 words in a month.

1. Find a writing buddy
These are invaluable. The Nano forums may be there to let you know that other people are suffering with you, but if you have a writing buddy, you can tell them about your novel from the beginning, and when you say, “Archibald is too tall to be a cyborg!” they’ll know not only what you’re talking about, but hopefully how to fix it.

2. Write as much as you can on the first day
Having just started writing a novel, you will probably be super-excited, and overflowing with brilliant ideas. The beginning is usually the easiest part to write, in my opinion, because if you’ve only just started, you can’t even have plot-holes yet. Before the buzz of your super-awesome new novel wears off, get down as many words as you can. That way, when you are feeling sad and unmotivated, or when something comes up that drags you away from novel writing, you’ll already have a stock of extra words to prevent you falling behind.

3. Write every day
I know this isn’t possible for everyone, and a lot of people plan for November so that they will write a few hundred words every weekday, and catch up on the weekend. In that case, this advice should be ‘Follow your schedule’. It’s a lot easier to fit 1667 words into a busy day than it is to fit 12,000 words into a weekend, no matter how much time you may have. 12,000 words is intimidating. 1667 is achievable.

4. Don’t procrastinate
Achieving this is actually impossible, but in this case I only mean it in short bursts. Word Wars are your friend. The Nano website runs them through their forums, or you can find yourself a real-life writing buddy. Set yourself ten minutes, and write like crazy. Not only will this stop you wasting you life on the Nano forums and Facebook, but it will also make you realise how much you can write in ten minutes. If you can do 400 words, 1667 will only take you forty minutes!

5. Find something to motivate you
Hopefully, there is a motivational website out there to suit everyone. If you like looking at cute pictures of cats, visit Written? Kitten!, and you will be gifted with one every time you achieve a word-count goal. If you need to be motivated by something really cruel, go to Write or Die, where your work will disappear if you don’t keep writing. Otherwise, there’s always rewarding yourself with chocolate, or a nice long perusal of the forums.

6. Generate a plot-twist
If all else fails, and you’re staring at your computer screen, and wondering why you ever thought this was a good idea for a novel in the first place, and whether you have enough plot to fill the next 100 words, let alone 50,000 of them, generate a plot twist. After all, it’s Nanowrimo, and the aim is to get words down on paper (or, you know, screen), which you can always fix later. If your plot twist works out – brilliant! if it doesn’t, hopefully it will at least provide some inspiration, and if nothing else, it will add enough words that you  won’t start feeling unmotivated by being behind word-count tomorrow. Seventh Sanctum, TV Tropes and the Nanowrimo adoption forum are excellent for this.

7. Use pointy brackets
Pointy brackets are your friend. If you can’t think of what to name your character, write <name>. If you can’t think of that word you really want, write <that adjective that sounds kind of like ‘alpaca’>. If you can’t think of how on earth you’re going to write your next scene, <that scene I really can’t work out> will save you. This will save you all the time you would have spent staring in panic at the screen, and also the time you would have spent perusing naming websites, dictionaries, and other procrastination stations.

8. Don’t give up
A weekend of solid writing can always save you. There are people – and I don’t know what bizarre kind of people they are, but they are people – who complete Nanowrimo on November 1st. All 50,000 words of it. If they can write 50,000 words in a day. It’s just a matter of sitting down, and writing without doing anything else, until you’ve reached your goal.

I hope this helps people with Nanowrimo. Do you have tips to share?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Historical Fiction: Spoiler Alert

Earlier this week, I finished reading Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome, which is a fiction novel about the Roman Republic. If you’re into Ancient Rome at all, I definitely recommend reading it. But sadly, telling you how awesome it is is not the purpose of this post, so onward.

The book covers the political and military careers of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, two of my favourite Ancient Romans. So I was reading along, and these two main characters were besties, and things were going along swimmingly. But there was a problem (and yes, spoilers lie ahead) – having studied the history of the Roman Republic, I knew that eventually they fall out and end up at the heads of opposing sides of a civil war. And that Sulla goes really evil and massacres thousands of people. And the closer I got to the end of the book, the less I enjoyed it, because I knew what was coming, and I didn’t want it to happen. And even when I got to the final pages, and discovered that it doesn’t actually happen (presumably until the next book in the series) I still felt discontented, because although McCullough had written what seems like a happy ending, I knew that really it wasn’t. And that after the two main characters walk off arm-in-arm into the sunset (and yes, this is genuinely what happens in the closing scene) one of them turns around a backstabs the other, and it all goes downhill from there.

So essentially, my spoiler alert, which lies several lines up, is not a spoiler for the book at all, but a spoiler for history. And herein lies the problem. Is this just an inevitable thing you have to face, if you want to write historical fiction – that people can be spoiled for your book without having even heard of it? This seems like a very sad state of affairs, but if you’re writing historically about real people, it’s an inescapable fact. And sure, you can do it incredibly well – as McCullough does – but it still niggles at the back of the reader’s mind that they know what’s coming.

Of course, this is a greater problem in some historical stories than others. Marius and Sulla don’t have a nice story: they start out as friends, and then they destabilise the Roman Republic through civil war, and then Marius dies and Sulla becomes dictator and kills everyone (or something to that effect, but far less horribly simplified). And it makes for a terrible story, if you're after anything remotely resembling a happy ending. So perhaps McCullough just chose poorly (or I shouldn’t have chosen to read about those characters, if I wanted things to end well). But I feel like it probably goes the other way, too – if you know that life turns out well for your historical figure of choice, doesn’t it detract something from the tension of the novel? It’s like you’ve already flipped to the last page before you even start.

Every single time.
I’m not sure exactly where these thoughts are going, because I enjoy reading historical fiction, and it has never stuck me as a huge problem before, even when reading novels about, say, Marie-Antoinette, who always gets guillotined at the end. But as it is, I’m apprehensive about reading the sequel to The First Man in Rome, because McCullough created her characters too well, and so the last thing I want to see is their inevitable downfall. So maybe the problem iinherent in historical fiction, but only really well-written historical fiction. But if well-written is the problem, then I don’t know what we do. How do you pull off a good novel, when everyone knows the ending? Have you read any historical novels where you think it’s been done well? Or done really badly? I've now made myself rather confused about the whole historical fiction lark, so thoughts are appreciated.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Liebster Blog Award

Many thanks to Katherine Amabel of Beyond the Hourglass Bridge, who nominated me for the Liebster Blog Award, which – contrary to popular belief – has nothing to do with German strudels, and a lot more to do with nominating your eleven favourite bloggers (with less than 200 followers) to answer eleven probing questions of your choice. So, in answer to Katherine’s questions, here goes (also, I was in a kind of picture-y mood, so this post comes with images!):

Can you tongue roll, cross eye, ear wiggle or perform any other feats of physics? (And you can’t say getting motion sick at the slightest provocation, because I call dibs on that).
I can cross my eyes, and roll my tongue (though the latter only after quite a bit of practise as a child). I can also do the Vulcan Salute, which I consider to be a much greater feat of physics, simply because it enables me to feel more like Spock.

Live long and prosper.

Would you rather watch that video from The Ring, or start up a nice, family-friendly game of Jumanji?
I haven’t seen the Ring or Jumanji, so I really can’t answer this one. Sorry.

If you could be any book character, who would you be and why?
Ooh, that’s hard! Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, since she has magical powers, and she lives in a moving castle...

Tell me again why this would be a bad idea?

What fantasy invention do you most wish was real? e.g. Light sabres… invisibility cloaks… or those completely innocent and in no way drug riddled potions from Alice In Wonderland…
I would very much like a time machine. Or is that a sci-fi invention? Either way, providing I didn’t accidentally end the universe by marrying my grandfather, that would be lovely.

Name one habit you’re trying to break.
I have successfully avoiding perusing my Facebook newsfeed, and checking it several times an hour while trying to write essays. But who knew that this left you so excluded from useless social news, like the fact that my sister’s boyfriend’s grandma had super-glued his fingers together, or that funny picture of that cat...

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? (Because I feel like sleeping with the light on for a month).
Weirdly enough, it was The Princess Bride. I was going along, reading and reading and thinking “You know, Prince Humperdinck is a bit of an asshole, but he’s not actually evil.” And the The Machine showed up, and he revealed his sinister plans and I kind of just went “Oh God oh God oh God!”  and have forever been trying to work out how to make my villains that evil. It’s not sleep-with-the-light-on scary, but I was terrified.
Enough said.

What was the first job you ever wanted?
I think when I was very small I wanted to be an Olympic sprinter, because I won the younger-siblings-of-students running race at my brother and sister’s primary school. Sadly, my sporting talents didn’t last, and now I’m angling for author-archaeologist, a la Agatha Christie.

What was the first job you ever had? (Sorry!)
I worked at a burger place last summer, failing spectacularly to defy Arts-student stereotypes everywhere. This is what I do with education in Classical Latin. Nonetheless, I can proudly say to this day that I never flipped a single burger. And that it was not MacDonald’s.

If you had to live in any time period, past or present, other than now, what would you choose?
I’ve been ready Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome for the past week or so, and studying Ancient Rome at uni, so I think I’m going to have to go for the late Roman Republic today, because there were brilliant orators in abundance, and every day was a toga party. 

Look! It's Cicero!

What’s the most exotic place you’ve ever been?
I don’t know what counts as exotic. I’ve been to Rotorua in New Zealand, where steam belches up out of the ground, and our hosts told us horror stories of a man who dived into what he thought was a nice warm spring, only to be boiled alive. I’ve been to a beach in Japan where they bury you up to your neck in hot sand and you just lie there for hours, which is somehow supposed to be therapeutic, but is really just horribly uncomfortable. But if you’re going for traditionally exotic, Jaco Island in East Timor, which is the deserted tropical island stereotype.

Finally, if you could apparate, where in the world would be your favourite spot to take your lunch breaks?
See above. Though really, if I could apparate, I wouldn’t choose just one spot to take my lunch breaks. I would find a new one everyday, I just have very small overseas holidays every day. It would be amazing.

Next step – to nominate eleven blogs, and ask eleven questions of my own.

I admit that I’m not much of a blog-reader, and I admit even more sadly that I couldn’t find 11 blogs that I read often enough to consider my favourites, that also have under 200 followers. But here are the ones that I did find and, following in the footsteps of Katherine Amabel, I am happy to fill the other six slots with the blogs of commenters. So if your blog has less than 200 followers, and you post a link in comments, I will add you to the list. (By the bye, I couldn’t work out how to check how many followers people had, so if you have more than 200 and I’ve nominated you – whoops?)

And now, my lovely nominees, you must answer these eleven questions, and then come up with your own eleven questions for eleven more bloggers of your choice.

  1. Who is your favourite historical figure?
  2. Where did you find the name of your blog?
  3. What genre do you write? Why?
  4. If you had a patronus, what would it be?
  5. What are your thoughts on Mr. Darcy?
  6. Do you have a muse? Are they real? Imaginary?
  7. What would you like to learn to do, if you could learn anything?
  8. Do you write with music playing? If you do – what music, and does it relate to what you’re writing?
  9. How many languages do you speak? What are they?
  10. Do you ever talk to your characters? Do they ever talk back?
  11. Would you ever be an astronaut?
And now I’m off for a backwards wander through nominees and their nominors for the Liebster Blog Award. Thanks again to Katherine Amabel!

Women in Fiction

Of late, I have become more aware of the problems of gender imbalances in novels and movies, and more specifically, the way female characters are dealt with when there is only one of them around. Case in point – X-Men: First Class. At the end of the movie, Charles Xavier and Moira (to prove how little of a thing she is, I just had to look her up to find out her name) have a sudden, unexpected romance that takes place over the duration of a single scene. I really felt like this relationship was never, ever developed, and that basically, because Moira was the only girl around - or at least the only romantic option - they felt like they didn’t need to develop a realistic relationship, since her role was clear. The leading man apparently needed a love interest, and so they gave him the shallowest one they could find. For want of a better term, it was Bond-romance, minus the sex-scenes.

I feel that this illustrates the dangers of gender imbalance – because someone is the only woman on screen, no-one feels the need to explore her character, because her character is ‘the woman’. This has always frustrated me about the Smurfs, because all the boys have different personalities and traits, and then there is Smurfette, whose defining trait is that she is a girl. And that works for her, because there are no other girls, so she is sufficiently distinguished by the fact that she is 'girly'. No, being a girl is not a personality trait. (Disclaimer: I have never read or seen the Smurfs. All I know comes from watching trailers, and playing a computer game that we had in primary school. I may be entirely wrong here.)

I don’t think the answer to this problem is necessarily to put more female characters on screen or on the page. Gender imbalanced casts are not actually the cause of the problem, but I think that it can be exacerbated by it. Having several female characters forces you to think about them as something more than just ‘the girl’, and instead to develop them just as you would any other character. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t need multiple female characters just to understand that they need to be defined by more than just their gender.

This rant started because I have been planning my Nano for this year, and am finding it a little lacking on the female-character front. On the one hand, it is a historical-type fantasy, loosely based on the culture of Ancient Rome (I think, maybe) and largely set during a war. The focus is going to be on military and political sorts of things, and obviously, there weren’t many – or any, really – women operating in these spheres in that type of setting. I never felt, for example, The Lord of the Rings lacked women, although from what I can remember, there are only two female characters who fill roles other than love interests.

On the other hand, well, basically everything I have said above about gender-imbalanced casts. As a girl, I feel like I should have a handle on depicting female characters well. Recently, however, I have found myself falling into the damsel-in-distress trap: using a girl, usually abducted by the antagonist, as an instigating plot-device. Both times I’ve done this, the character in question has had traits other than being ‘the girl’ and there have been other female characters around. But it still makes me vaguely uneasy, and similarly, I don’t like the idea of writing a male-dominated novel, even if I am entirely aware of the fact that female characters tend to end up characterised as 'the girl' if there is only one of them around.

What do others think of the potrayal of women in fiction? Is it a good idea to add female characters into a male-dominated novel just to ensure gender balance? Is it always bad to have a girl function as a ‘damsel in distress’? Being a girl who often writes about girls, should I just stop worrying about this and assume I can do it right?