Representation in Fiction

“Representation” is the current buzzword in the world of fiction. Readers are getting more and more vocal about stories that are not representative enough and woe betide anyone who happens to write something with a straight white male protagonist in the lead.

And I get it. Sort of.

When I first started reading (English) fiction on my own as a child, Nancy Drew and the Famous Five were my staples. The girls in these books were not passive stereotypes and they passed the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp scenario long before I knew to look out for it. When I started reading fantasy the heroines became scarcer, true, with female characters usually relegated to the role of love interest who either stays home and yearns after the questing hero, or dies tragically to give him the motivation he needs to confront and defeat the bad guy. And yet Susan picked up her bow and arrow to fight against the White Witch and Paksenarrion left the farm behind to become the gods’ champion. When Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series entered my life and I met Moiraine, Egwene and Nynaeve (to name just a few of Jordan’s incredible cast of strong women) I found it natural for them to take on the prominent roles that they did.

The Path of Daggers – The Wheel of Time Book 8

I’m lucky in that way. I’m an able-bodied straight cisgender white woman of privilege, and somehow I never felt left out when reading.

Others are not as fortunate.

For years I vowed never to write anything other than white female characters. How could I possibly depict someone whose skin tone, orientation and life experience differed so much from my own? I would never be able to do the character justice. Whatever I wrote would always, in some way, offend someone, because it would be clear that I had no insight into a character as diverse as that.

But times are changing and I think it’s worth trying to incorporate diversity into stories for the sake of inclusion. I’m not saying as a writer I’m going to try and please every demographic. The changes I make will be small and subtle at first. Although my main characters may remain the same for now, there’s no reason why my supporting cast can’t become more representative. I will be asking myself: Does this character in a position of power absolutely have to be male? Does she need to be white? Does he need to be straight? Am I unconsciously writing a stereotype? Am I reading enough books that are representative?

Small changes to help effect larger ones.

And if my story calls for a white male main character, as is the case with my Mythical Menagerie series, then so be it. But just know that I’m trying to fill the world around him with more interesting, more diverse and more representative characters, one little step at a time.

What are your thoughts on representation in fiction? Have you felt left out? Does the thought of reading diverse characters scare or annoy you? Does it matter to you what type of characters fill the pages?

Second Book Syndrome is Real

NaNoWriMo kicked my butt this year, and the reason for that is because I’m trying to write the second installment of my Mythical Menagerie series.

While the first story flowed from my fingertips as if Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, was whispering in my ear, writing this second one is like trying to wade through a pool of neck-deep mud. I’ve heard about Second Book Syndrome, where the second book just doesn’t live up to the greatness of the first, and I’ve even read my share of sequels that were really very bad, but now I’m experiencing it for myself and I have nothing but commiseration for those authors whose second attempts have disappointed me in the past.

The things is, the story is planned and plotted and I’m happy with the character progression and the themes, but oh my word, the magic that made that first story so much fun to write is just not there this time! Every phrase I write is awkward, every word feels misplaced, and all my inherent sense of humour that seeped through the voice of book one is gone.

It’s a disaster.

And this is the reason why NaNo will fall by the wayside this year with less than 5k words under my belt. The point of NaNo is to write as fast as possible and as badly as needed to get the story out. But that’s not working for me this year. I don’t want to end up with a hastily written manuscript that needs to be scrapped and redone completely. Too much is at stake for me to spend months fixing writing that just isn’t good enough and was only tossed onto a page to meet an arbitrary word count.

I can’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

So while it would have been wonderful to have another NaNo success to my name, it would be even better to have a good story I can publish and feel proud of instead.

Frustrated Writer | © Alberta Johnson / Flickr

My plan to combat Second Book Syndrome is to start over completely (at least some of that 4k-odd words are salvageable), this time taking the time to have the characters and setting infuse my writing. If it takes a little longer to get it right, so be it.

But get it right, I will.

Have you heard of Second Book Syndrome? Have you read a second book that disappointed you so much because the first one was amazing and this one just didn’t live up to your expectations? Do you move on to the third book if the second one was bad?

Confession: I Hate Vampires and Werewolves

I’ve always considered myself an epic fantasy girl. Give me a hero, an evil nemesis and an impossible quest and I’m in my element. I devour books by Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson and Robin Hobb as if they were slabs of chocolate. The guilt-free kind.

So it came as a bit of a surprise that I prefer writing urban fantasy. I don’t generally read a lot in this genre (am I allowed to say that out loud?), because I don’t particularly care for vampires or werewolves. Is it just me, or are the majority of urban fantasy novels overrun by these two supernatural creatures? I don’t know if it’s the result of living in a post-Twilight era, but I have yet to find a series that does not have a brooding immortal with overlong canines in it.

Since when has deathly pale with a thirst for blood been sexy? And don’t even get me started on hairy beasts that mark the furniture. Imagine all the vacuuming. No thanks!

I promise you that my Mythical Menagerie series (first installment coming soon – sign up to be notified here), which takes place in a world where creatures from myth and folklore live among us, will never have a vampire or a werewolf in it. Unicorns, yes. Dragons, definitely. Lesser-known creatures from Far Eastern, African, and Native American traditions, most probably.

Werewolf vs Vampire | © Dragoart

There’s a whole world rich in lore out there. I think it’s time we looked a little further than the confines of the traditional denizens of the urban fantasy sphere and be more creative with our choices of characters.

Can you suggest a good urban fantasy series without any werewolves or vampires in it? What other supernatural creature has become a cliché of the genre too? What are your favourite mythological creatures?

To NaNo or not to NaNo

If you’re a writer, then you’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Writers exist in a coffee-fuelled, sleep-deprived zombie-like state throughout the month of November as we attempt to write 50,000 words in thirty days. That breaks down to 1667 words per day, which doesn’t actually sound that much – until you attempt it. Then, suddenly, everything from cleaning the oven to taking your dog for that long-overdue check-up becomes absolutely more doable than sitting down in the chair and facing that blank page.

This year will be my fourth NaNo. I failed miserably the first two times, not even reaching the 15k mark, but the third time’s success was so euphoric that I am now hooked for life. There’s nothing like seeing that little word count meter turn green when you finally, on the last day, crawl across the finishing line. One little word – winner – is enough to make the sleepless nights, the early mornings, and the other missed deadlines worthwhile. I did it, I’m a winner

“So what’s the secret to your NaNo success?” I hear you wonder. It’s a combination of factors, and here’s what worked for me last year:

  1. At 4:45 every morning, come rain or sunshine, I dragged my lazy ass out of bed and down to the study where I gave myself exactly until 6:00 (when it was time to get ready for work) to get 1667 words done.
  2. Because I only had an hour to write in, I needed to know exactly what I was going to write. Wasting time thinking about what happens next meant I wouldn’t be done in the allotted time, which was my only window for writing that day. So I not only needed to know where the story was going overall, but also where it was going that specific day.
  3. I made sure not to write more than 2000 words per sitting. Not only did I not have the time for more, but it also forced me to stop (sometimes mid-sentence) in the middle of the action, making it easier to continue the next day.
  4. I updated my word count on the NaNo site at the end of each session to watch my graph grow and give me a sense of achievement.

Against all expectations, this worked. I sat down and the words flowed out of me without any effort at all. Okay, sometimes there was a little effort, but generally it went pretty smoothly. Because I had the big outline to keep me going, I had the freedom to be creative with the little stuff. I now consider myself neither planner nor pantser, but a plantser instead.

There is one other factor that helped my success. The first two years I attempted writing novels, but the last year I wrote short stories, each more or less 10k words long. This meant that I was able to keep focus, because just when I hit that mark where I usually start losing interest in the whole process, my story was done and I needed to start with a new one. It worked out brilliantly.

(We won’t talk about the fact that it took me nearly a year to find the time and build up my courage to revise, edit and publish just one of those short stories!)

Is it worth doing NaNo then? For me, it totally is. Apart from the sheer joy of taking the time to write, it also gives me, an intensely introverted loner, the chance to engage with other writers. I forced myself to attend the weekly write-ins and, although they weren’t always that productive in terms of word count, they were wonderful opportunities to meet others who share my passion for writing and to hear about the stories they’re working on. There’s just something about the atmosphere of a room where a group of people are sitting in silence, typing furiously away at their keyboards while the clock counts a word sprint down, that gets the creative juices flowing.

Should you do NaNo? That’s up to you to decide, but I would definitely recommend trying it, at least once. It may not be for you, or it may turn out to be the life-changer it was for me.

Happy writing!

Have you participated in NaNo before? How did it go? Are you going to attempt this year? What are your secrets for success?

Why I Write Short Stories

There are two main reasons why I write short stories instead of novels (at least at this point in my life). The short answer is writing style and stamina.

When they edit their first draft, most people need to cut out bits that are unrelated to the story. They tend to add lots of description and go off on tangents that don’t really add to plot, character or story. For me, it’s the exact opposite. Generally, my writing style is very minimalist. I don’t have excessive descriptions, I plan ahead so I rarely write something that doesn’t end up in the final draft, and when it’s time to edit I always have to work hard to flesh out the location and any other descriptions that play like a movie inside my head but don’t necessarily land up on the page where someone else can read it.

So the short story format comes very naturally to me. Instead of trying to flesh out something to novel length, I tell the story in the amount of words needed, and no more.

Additionally, while I personally love reading seemingly never-ending series comprised of books thick enough to kill someone if you throw it at them (hello Wheel of Time!), I just can’t seem to sit still and write anything that long. It’s not that I get bored with the story itself, it’s the physical sitting down and writing it. I am the poster child for instant gratification, it seems, and short stories are perfect for this. While the whole process of writing and editing still takes time, it’s a much shorter cycle that gives me many rewarding moments in a faster time frame. That makes me happy.

Which is why I’m currently writing a series of short stories (or in this case novelettes) that would probably have worked very well as one novel, but instead will be serialized into shorter installments. Hopefully this will keep both me and the readers wanting more after each story. And, as fellow writer Nils Ödlund said in his post on writing a novella, I also quite like the idea of writing something you can read in an evening instead of mindlessly watching yet another rerun on TV.

Reading | © Sam Greenhalgh / Flickr

What are your thoughts on short stories? Do you like reading them or do you prefer full-length novels? Do you write short stories?

 

On Self-Publishing My First Short Story

Ever since I was little I’ve dreamed of seeing my name on a book, proudly on display on someone’s bookshelf or in a store. I wanted this dream so much, and to work with books in general, that I even studied for and obtained a bachelors degree in Publishing. But studying and dreaming does not get a book published.

You need to sit down and write. And write well – that’s the hardest part. It’s much easier to read books about how to write than to actually write, I’ve found. But at some point you need to make the decision to commit to your writing. Sit yourself down in a chair, write that horrible first draft, then edit it until it shines, and then let it go.

And, like most people do, I wanted to be traditionally published. I wanted that validation from a professional in the industry who would say: wow, you did a good job here. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the patience for that.

My short story, Spirit Caller, was rejected by two well-regarded online publishers. Now, admittedly, two rejections are nothing. I was ready for and completely expecting to get hundreds of rejections, but then it hit me: why go through that process when the whole publishing industry has changed in the last decade. Why not just jump the gun and self-publish?

And so I did. I had a professional graphic designer design a cover for me (which I love!) and I took the plunge.

So now I’m officially a self-published author.

It’s a little bittersweet, I’ll admit. I won’t get to see my story on a shelf, not in its current format at least. But at least it’s out there and I can say I did it. It’s only a short story and not a whole novel (and I’ll get into that in another post), but I wrote something and I put it out there for the world to see, for better or for worse. It’s incredibly exciting.

 

Teva knows something is wrong in her village. The cold winter months approach and yet no crops have sprouted, nor have the great elk returned to roam the plains. Nothing but dust flows between the banks of the once mighty river Einuhuatl, and all the animals guarding her village have fled. Have the spirits of the earth abandoned them?

Only the Spirit Caller will know.

To save her village, Teva journeys to the forest in search of the woman who can speak to the spirits. Together, they must confront the Eater of Souls, or face the death of everything Teva holds dear…

Available on Kindle Unlimited and for purchase at your Amazon retailer of choice.