Monday, November 22, 2010

In Defense of NaNoWriMo (Guest Post!)

This week we have a super-special guest post from my friend and coworker, Amanda. By day she wrangles late reviewers and herds books towards publication as an Editorial Assistant; by night she blogs about classic films at A Pocketful of Nickels; and for the entire month of November, she puts her nose to the NaNoWriMo grindstone and churns out 50,000 words with the best of them.

She took some time out from her NaNo novel (which is at 30,000 words, at last count—I'll give you a second for applause) to write this response to an article I tweeted at the beginning of the month. In the article, "Better Yet, DON'T Write that Novel," Salon's Laura Miller argues that a month spent writing novels in an already flooded fiction market could be put to better use by joining the dwindling numbers of avid readers who keep the publishing industry alive. The article spurred a lot of discussion at my office, where NaNo is popular, and I invited Amanda to share her response with us. So with no further adieu...

November is a time of leaves turning and pumpkin pie consumption, but for many people around the world it is also the time to dabble in to the art of writing. The article Rachel mentioned has stirred a lot of talk amongst those embarking on the adventure of spending a whole month writing a book. In fact, I’ve heard so much about that article and counter arguments to it, that what I really want to do in response is talk about writing.

I started National Novel Writing Month (or NaNo for short) last year and immediately fell in love. I had gotten away from my writing due to some difficult emotional times and then I just fell out of the habit and life; well, life just got too busy. At least that’s what I thought. But here this contest, involving this teeming mass of aspiring writers all pledging to write 50,000 words in the span of just 30 days, had a way of drawing me in. Suddenly I wanted to do it just to see if I could shake loose those writer’s hands and let the mothballs out of my creativity closet. And you know what happened? I wrote again.

I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember. It was part of a culture in my family, this telling and sharing of stories, and it was then as a little girl listening to my grandfather that I learned how storytelling is an ancient art. It connects us within our culture and allows us to share with one another our history and our dreams. It also requires both the teller and the listener; or in writing terms, the writer and the reader. Both are involved and both keep this culture of storytelling alive. We cannot have one without the other.

NaNoWriMo has helped me expand my writing life as well as my reading life. It was through the seemingly impossible competition that I met some great friends and also joined a book club. I’ve read more books since my first encounter with the contest than I had at any time previously. It’s wonderful! The more I write, the more I want to read. I found that I am continuously inspired by other writers, like my new favorite author, Richard Russo. I just read his book Empire Falls and fell in love with his ability to craft characters and such memorable depictions of life. To learn the writing craft, you need to study the masters. That’s a lesson true of everything from painting to music to really any of the other arts. Writing in a bookstore is perfect—what a wonderful way to connect with the masters who have made it to publication. While I’m there amidst the shelves of books, I pick up ones that I may not have otherwise noticed and read through them as I write. I’m engaging in both sides of the literary cycle.

Now, not everyone needs a competition like this to kick-start their writing lives, and I applaud those people who don’t (and envy them a bit). But what it all comes down to is the simple fact that writing is fun. Thousands of people sign up for NaNo every year. Do not judge their intentions, for one thing is common—they all have a crazy desire to create. That is the reason we write. Certainly we may all harbor a secret desire to one day be published, but that isn’t our driving force. Writing is a good way to channel frustrations, sadness, anxiety, whatever emotion that you might have trouble otherwise expressing. In some therapy centers, writing is even prescribed as a way to work out problems and understand emotions.

Writing allows us to be on the other side of the page, to appreciate what an author does to produce a work. I have far more admiration for writers after writing a few full length (and rather awful) novels of my own. And you know what? I have never met a NaNo writer who would willingly share his or her writing with me or anyone else. That doesn’t bode well for anyone with dreams of one day publishing their work, but does that really matter? I talk about my novel just as much as I write it; my friends and I are all familiar with each other’s plot and characters. The telling and the writing are part and parcel. No story is polished from the outset. Talking to readers and other writers will help, as will taking the time to revise and edit. As writers, we have to accept that there will be a lot of “crap” at first. Think of the first draft as a pile of cars in a junkyard and ask yourself if there is anything you can salvage. But we aren’t alone. Everyone goes through this process, even if we never see it: photographers, painters, choreographers, filmmakers, even journalists. In the ever-growing markets, it might seem bleak to think that your beloved novel may never see a bookstore shelf. People with poor writing skills have national bestsellers solely based on a brief brush with fame. Anyone who can make headlines can publish a book, but so many aspiring novelists cannot and thus will not. That is the grim truth of NaNo, and one we tend to put in a corner under a blanket to shut out of our minds. We ignore the fact that we are pouring energy into works that have little hope of surviving in this world.

So what should we do, we who want to write the stories as much as we want to read them? Do we take the philosophy that we should write for writing’s sake? Do we give up in desperation? Do we turn our backs on the cruel world of publishing and keep that blanket handy? Do we sit in a cruddy apartment in our bathrobe and stubbornly churn out two original stories a week that won't sell?* I agree that not everyone can be a great writer. Not everyone can be a great painter either, but should that stop anyone from picking up a brush to try?

I say we write. Yes, it is a selfish, lonely, narcissistic and sometimes maddening endeavor. But it can also be wildly entertaining and rewarding. For one month a year, let us give voice to our inner writers and set free all those thoughts, characters and adventures. Let us enjoy that freedom provided from being on the other side of the printed page. Most of all, let’s read and keep reading, to celebrate those who have made it to publication and to find the inspiration to tell our own stories.

*Yes, this is a reference to a movie because I’m pimping my own blog. Find out which movie here.

Thanks so much, Amanda!

Whether you're participating in NaNo or not, here are some great resources for both writers and readers:

  • The NaNoWriMo webpage is a great source for NaNo resources, pep talks and community for participants. Use it to find write-ins near you, or meet fellow writers online!
  • NaNoFiMo follows right on the heels of NaNoWriMo in December and challenges writers to finish long-untouched works in progress.
  • Similarly, NaNoEdMo invites writers to commit 50 hours during the month of March to editing their novelsI can't say I know too many editors would would claim that time is wasted.
  • The 10-10-10 Reading Challenge invites readers to tackle 10 books from 10 self-selected categories that they wouldn't normally explore before October 10th. Participants say it's a great way to broaden your horizons, find new favorite authors and genres, and support the industry.
  • Plenty of writers and readers prefer to spend November (or August, in some cases) working on their NaNoReaMo goals and reading as much as possible.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On a Lighter Note... Let's Talk About Character Transformations

I think that one of the reasons humans have always been driven to tell stories, and to tell them in the particular way that we do, is because they illustrate how something came to be—how something changed irreversibly, and the new state of being came to be the only one that worked. A story is a series of actions and decisions, but what a story’s about is change. There are some exceptions to this rule, but as a human race I think we’re mostly interested in internal, character-based changes. That means that characters change and are changed by their circumstances.

But how do you create that transformation, and how do you make it believable? And how do you fit that transformation into a framework of external circumstances which are, most likely, also changing?

Most stories begin with the status quo, but few hold the reader there for very long. The impetus for the actual story is usually some small change—a new cropping up, or a new rule being established. This new circumstance presents an obstacle which will grow throughout the story, and which will force the character to change.

Again, there are some exceptions to this rule, but typically plots are most interesting if a flaw of the character’s—the exact trait you will transform through the story, ideally—contributes to or even creates the obstacle. Though the reader may be aware of this flaw and how it contributes to the problem, the character will be blind to that fault at first. Nonetheless, the flaw will keep the character tied down, while the obstacle creates something against which the character is pushing.

I think of character transformations—and thus plotlines—as working like a slingshot. Even after the need for change is established, the character will try to move forward by acting in the same way she always has. However, whatever it is that she needs to change is keeping her from making headway, and any attempt to go forward will only result in her struggling against that force. This struggle will build tension as the character goes as far as she possibly can—and as with a slingshot, the struggle to keep moving in that same direction becomes more difficult the further she gets. Finally, the character will have reached as far as she can possibly reach by struggling in that one direction, and the slingshot’s elastic will either snap or release itself in a powerful reversal of the story’s direction. In either case, the character will have no choice but to change, and that change propels her right into the climax. The more powerful the tension and then the snap back, the faster and more intense the climax.

As is true in real life, your character’s transformation will come gradually, and your plot arc will be comprised of a series of forward-backward strides. Similarly, in the very best stories at least some of the secondary characters also undergo transformations. You can apply the slingshot metaphor to the story’s subplots just as well as you can to the overarching plot. Vary the amount of tension and the amount of time spent building it based on how important a particular change is to the overall plot. Through each subplot, however, you want to always be pulling the slingshot that is the overarching plot tighter. Never allow the resolution of one subplot or struggle to release more tension than it builds.

The scope of different stories can vary widely, from an epic struggle or quest (think The Hunger Games or The Lord of the Rings), in which the entire world has the potential to be transformed, to more contained stories in which the world likely to change is that of one individual or family, as in Marcelo in the Real World. But in each case, the most essential change in the story is a character transformation. The Hunger Games is less about what happens in a violent arena than about a teenage girl learning to fight for the freedom of those she loved. The Lord of the Rings is, at heart, a story about several characters' transformations into heroes. And Marcelo is, perhaps more evidently than the other two, a tale about a boy finding the strength to stand up for what’s right and face adult decisions. Whatever the situation, these stories feel compelling to us because we can relate to and learn from the characters. And what we’re specifically relating to in these characters is the way in which they change in order to deal with their circumstances.

So properly building the tension around your character’s transformation will help you beef up your story’s emotional core. I strongly suggest taking the time to map out these changes so that you can devote the right amount of your story to each change.

And that’s where your input comes in! I’m curious: do you have any tried and true methods for mapping your characters’ transformations? How do you approach tension-building as you write?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The "Go-To Trauma" Part 2: Issue or Spectacle?

So, last week we established that though rape in literature raises a lot of questions, it's important that women's voices be heard on the issue and that books about rape continue to spread awareness and offer consolation to victims. But it seems to me that there are books about rape and violence, and then there are books that just have rape and violence in them. I recently read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (now’s the time for me to announce that there will be spoilers), and while I felt that Stieg Larsson wove a strong narrative and created compelling characters, especially in Lisbeth Salander, what I found myself thinking about most once I closed the book was the rape scene. Even a few months later, I’m not done thinking about it.

It just doesn’t seem necessary to me. True, it serves to develop Lisbeth’s character. We need to see her ability to carry out a coldly calculated act of violence before we reach the book’s ending, or her attack on Martin Vanger will seem to come out of nowhere. And for that to happen, Larsson needed to set up a situation for which Lisbeth is justified in getting revenge. Perhaps he chose rape because it’s so unforgivable that we’re certain to be on Lisbeth’s side, even as she reacts maliciously. And Larsson has established that Lisbeth reacts with particular violence towards those who violate her right to choose how she’s approached for sex, so the set-up is all in place for a scene like this.

But despite that—and despite the horrific crimes against women that Mikael Blomkvist discovers in his investigation, as well as the rape statistics that open every section of the book—this scene feels disconnected from the rest of the book. Larsson’s writing is subtle elsewhere, and his character development takes its time. Even the horrific murder scenes he later describes don’t have the same brutal feel that this one scene does. And it goes on for an awfully long time, in excruciating detail.

So I keep asking myself why Larsson wrote this scene in particular, when he could have written a shorter rape scene, or a different scene altogether. The scene made me painfully uncomfortable. That discomfort grew the longer the scene went on. And it stuck with me, because it made me wonder if maybe the scene didn’t end because Larsson was just a little too satisfied with it. I wonder if he found it a bit more thrilling to write than I’m happy accepting.

Missy Schwartz put it perfectly in her article questioning whether or not Stieg Larsson, professed feminist, had “an issue with women”:

The crimes are unspeakable—which you could argue is the point for an activist like Larsson: Bring it into the open, try to prevent it from happening again. Still, Larsson seems to want it both ways: to condemn such savagery while simultaneously exploiting it in graphic detail for titillating storytelling purposes.
That desire to have it both ways is what worries me.

It worries me not because of this one book or this one author, but because it’s a trend I see in a lot of writing, especially when the book is meant to be dark, and rape is used as that go-to tragedy. When I read certain rape scenes I have a hard time feeling that these scenes are about awareness, or that they’re therapeutic. Like the endless menagerie of horrific murders in your average slasher films, I feel like these rape scenes are as much if not more about a dark, voyeuristic pleasure that comes from watching something we can’t completely comprehend or experience with the character. When I read these scenes, there’s a part of me that feels like the writer is enacting a rape on a character. And I feel almost like the reader is enacting a rape on the character with each read, just to see what it feels like—and not from the victim’s point of view.

Perhaps this wouldn’t stick with me if I hadn’t had that feeling over and over again, both in my early writing workshops and as I read for classes or for pleasure. I have such conflicted feelings about this issue, but it’s also one of the closest to my heart.

So I’m asking you guys—what do you think? Is the increased visibility—any increased visibility—a good thing? Will that help teach our society to be sensitive to these issues, and to try to stop the epidemic of violence against women? Or could the epidemic actually be made worse by a culture full of books about rape that sensationalize it, or turn it into a spectacle?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The "Go-To Trauma": Is Writing about Rape Humanitarian, or Just Voyeuristic?

Brace yourselves, Writer Friends, because this week’s topic is a heavy one. I’ve been shifting these thoughts around in my head since I was in college, and when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a few months ago they resurfaced. But even if you haven’t read the book, keep reading this post; I’m not going to talk about Larsson’s book yet. I’ll elaborate on that in next week’s follow-up post, but for now I want to talk broadly about one of the issues that this book brought to the forefront of my mind.

When I was young, I gravitated towards books about broken and wounded women, spurred by a teenage precociousness, even a certain morbidity. I think a lot of young readers today—particularly young girls—do the same; books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, Sarah Littman’s Purge, and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay are today’s version of the books I read, like Patricia McCormick’s Cut and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.

Broken women aren’t new to fiction at all, and I see a lot of beginning writers gravitate towards these subjects. I think we all have at least a side of our personalities that is fascinated by dark subjects. And I think our society considers rape to be just about the darkest subject, the worst crime, and possibly the most traumatic event one can experience. So it’s no surprise to me that I’ve yet to have a writing course in which my class didn’t workshop at least one piece about a rape. More often there are three or four in a semester.

Years of reading queries as an intern—and, of course, books as a general consumer—have taught me that the fascination doesn’t die down for writers after college. I recently had a conversation with a friend and coworker who called rape the “go-to trauma” in books and movies, and I think that’s spot-on. It’s easy to elicit a reaction to a rape—it’s clear who the victim is, it’s impossible to rationalize or justify the act, and it still carries a lot of the shock value that violence has begun to lose since we’ve been deluged with it in TV shows, movies and video games. Rape scenes are horrifying and compelling—and I think, on top of that, there’s something about them that makes both writers and readers feel like activists, at least in spreading awareness of that issue.

But are we always spreading awareness in a good way? When we write about rape, could there be something voyeuristic about it?

See, these scenes always get me asking questions. Do we have the same responsibilities toward fictional characters that we have toward fellow human beings? If we’re riveted by a scene about rape, is that even in some small way like being fascinated by an actual rape? What are the social implications of one reader’s—or of one writer’s—fascination with one rape scene? What are the social implications of thousands of readers’ and writers’ fascination with thousands of rape scenes?

I was once drawn to books about wounded women out of teenage morbidity, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been drawn towards those books more out of concern for a society that I see as flawed in its treatment of women. Now, each time I read a book that features rape, I find myself wondering if it’s undermining or supporting a culture of rape and violence against women.

Some books bring female characters from rape or violence to redemption, and seem to have the power to spread awareness and spur action. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye opened the eyes of readers to the everyday horrors of violence against women by offering us whole, complex stories that could have been (and are) those of real women. And as the many powerful responses to recent attempts to ban Speak have demonstrated, these books are needed as much by the victims of such crimes as they are by those to whom they bring awareness.

In that respect, I stand strongly behind a lot of writers who choose to write about rape. It wasn’t that long ago that rape wasn’t even talked about. Truly, the fact that women’s voices are starting to be heard about rape is an accomplishment. That the media acknowledges, in any degree, the epidemic of violence against women in our society is a triumph. So it’s immensely important that there be books about rape and violence against women, and their crippling effects on women’s happiness and mental health.

But is there a wrong way to write a rape scene? What do you think? Have you read any books that involved rape or violence? How did you feel after reading them? Why?

Next week, I’ll dig into this issue further with some thoughts on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Until then, leave your thoughts in the comments!