Writer's Stop

Writer's Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This is pretty important. At the end of a story, article, novel or whatever, a reader shouldn’t wish he/she had that time back. Most writers are fairly cognizant that the reader is doing them a favor by bothering to read and at, but some really push a reader’s generosity. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series comes to mind, partly because I finished it not long ago but mostly because he is one of those writers who is philosophical okay with meandering in the narrative weeds and dragging his readers along with him. His books drag on for hundreds and hundreds and then hundreds more pages, introducing a Russian novels worth of main characters with their own ancillary casts who bring in even more minor characters. There are so many point of view characters that when readers, naturally, develop preferences, they find other characters and plots/sub-plots distracting and a waste of time. If anyone needed proof that Martin is just indulging himself, they’d need only compare the novels to the HBO adaptation, which has cut characters and plotlines with equal abandon and is still managing to tell quite a good story. A secondary rule to the “don’t waste your reader’s time” would probably be – if you can edit your story by half and still tell a good story – you’ve burying your lead.
2.      Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

I don’t really believe this to be true of current day story telling. There are plenty of examples of books without a redeeming character to be found and yet people read. It’s not about rooting for the character as much as finding their story compelling, and that doesn’t mean characters have to be sympathetic as much as they just are extremely interesting.

3.      Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

I agree. Although the character doesn’t have to know what it is he/she wants or even be aware of the need/want, but the reader has to known.

4.      Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.

Yes, please! But it doesn’t have to be every sentence. Maybe every paragraph or page. Certainly every chapter should find characters, plot and readers farther along than they were.

5.      Start as close to the end as possible.
It cuts down on the meandering and as a writer, you can always go back and add. – either to beef up or to judiciously insert back story.  It’s easier to add than it is to cut.
6.      Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
I was noting this not long ago after Rob and I watched the movie, Beginners, with Ewen McGregor and Christopher Plummer. All stories are about two things really – loss and gain. Death, love, birth, aging, family, friends, lovers. You are losing or gaining or both nearly all the time.
And turmoil is what draws us. Think of the bloggers you read. What’s going on in their lives that brings you to read or makes them write?  For myself, I know that it’s easier to write when things are going on – good or bad. Status quo rarely compels me to come to the keyboard.
The same is true of readers. Zen is an admirable state of being but dull from a narrative perspective.
7.      Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

You should know your audience and you should cater to them. One of the reasons I am uneven and mostly unknown as a blogger is that I don’t write for that sweet spot niche. I wander about and so does my readership. Success means picking you p.o.v. and honing in on it.

8.      Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Agreed. Even mystery and suspense writers need to set a careful stage. When too much info is withheld than readers are caught off guard when characters take different turns or disappear from a story. Surprise is all well and good but if a novel hinges on constantly fooling the readers into believing one thing will happen and then the opposite does – one ends up with angry readers who won’t read your stuff again. People like the occasional surprise but prefer, really, the predictable. The bad guy gets his just dessert. The star-crossed couple comes together at the end. There are writers here and there who can get away with killing off major characters or having the couple part ways at the end of the story, but not many. That kind of story-telling turns most readers off. People don’t read fiction because they want more real life but because they want life that defies real life and is better than it. It’s more adventuresome or romantic in some ways but relatable on others. There is a reason whey some authors are perennially popular in spite of the fact that they seem to write the same book over and over. People like knowing what is going to happen. Real life isn’t like that at all after all.

Lord Snow

Arya Stark and her "dancing" teacher, Syrio

Currently, I am hunting down the first two novellas of the Dunk and Egg series which are “prequels” in a sense to George R.R. Martin‘s hugely popular series, A Song of Fire and Ice, better known to non-readers as The Game of Thrones. Once they are read, I will known all there  is  to be known (because Martin is a Scrooge about back story) about the fictional fantasy world of Westeros and the characters who inhabit it. And while I am enjoying this brief foray back into my fantasy reading roots of yore, I can’t help but notice that Martin, like many a male author, can’t write from the female point of view without veering slightly to insultingly into stereotype that is sometimes amusing but more often maddening.

My husband, Rob, who is also reading the series, has noted this too.

“What is the matter with Cersei,” he asked after reading her first POV (point of view) chapter in the fourth book, The Feast of Crows. “She’s stupid, arrogant and vain.”

I sighed.

“That’s how men often write female power characters,” I said. “Women who hunger for power have to be more shallow than a man and far less clever while thinking they are players of renown. Martin writes Cersei with all the ham-fisted finesses that most male authors employ when they think they can think like women better than women do.”

Here is the problem with Cersei. The novel is fantasy, so the author is free to invent as he pleases but it’s set in a medieval type of world that borrows heavily from our actual medieval history where women were essentially chattel. They lived brutally repressed and often very short lives at the whimsy of the males who fathered before being bartered away to live equally suppressed lives with the men who their fathers sold them to in marriage. With this sort of foundation, a writer’s already limited his female characters by a long mile.

Cersei’s character has the added burden of being born into a wealthy and noble family. She’s educated, after a fashion, and been exposed to the machinations of her powerful father, whose use of her hasn’t gone unnoticed by her. Being a bolder by half than her two rather emo younger brothers, she resents that her femaleness is all that stands in the way of her being a powerful figure like her dad.

Penis envy. Can a male writer create a strong female character who isn’t a Freudian text-book case?

And this brings to mind two things. First, Freud’s penis envy theory has been long debunked, so two, why then do male writers persist in its use as a character device where strong female characters who seek a foothold in a man’s world are concerned?

Arya and Brienne follow along the Cersei path in this need to reject the penis-less female existence. Both aspire to be warriors. In order to be a warrior, according to the author, a girl must don male clothing, cut their hair and disavow any female emotional trappings  or aspirations. It’s not possible to have a relationship or children and be a warrior (this in spite of the fact that Martin creates a very minor set of characters – the Mormonts – whose women are both female and warriors.)

Indeed, it goes so far with Martin to set apart females who wish to compete in the male arena that he basically strips them sense and sometimes rationality. Cersei and Arya are borderline sociopathic. Brienne, who is a freaking knighted warrior no less, is about as worldly as an 11-year-old girl who’s been raised in a nunnery.

And she’s ugly.

I hate that more than anything where strong female characters are concerned. Even more than when they are supernaturally beautiful and use sex as a means to gain control, wealth and power (as Cersei and Danerys Targaryen do). The able capable woman who is as good or better than any male character she is put up against is often – as in the case of Brienne – ugly. Butt ugly. Masculine of build. Always tall. Why tall? What is it about “tall” and “female” that equates with the anti-feminine?

“His writing reminds me of that line ‘How do you write women so well?’,” Rob remarked.

I think of a man and then I take away reason and accountability.

That’s the bulk of the main female characters in A Song of Fire and Ice. Accept for the accountability part. Women are held accountable all over the place via rape, physical and emotional abuse and brutal suppression.

Oh and maiming.

Granted, Martin has a fetish for maiming or disfigurement in some way. The more fond he is of a character, the more physically hideous you can expect them to become over the course of the story. He makes use of emotional upheaval and tragedy in a similar manner. But nearly all the main females are subject to some sort of outward appearance downgrade in some respect.

Brienne starts off in the hole with freakish height, a face like a horse, muscles, breasts the size of half-dollars and no curves. She’s blessed later in the series with facial disfigurement when half of her cheek is bitten off in a melee.

Catelyn Stark is emotionally beat down on with a crippled son, a beheaded husband, a murdered son(s), and dead father before Martin has her rent her own face and has her throat cut. And as if these aren’t lessons enough for learning her place, she is then raised from the dead to live a half-mad existence as a somewhat ripe-ish pseudo-zombie.

Arya begins as the stereotypical tomboy. Favored by her father and brothers and despaired of by her mother, sister and septa (governess), she is soon enough clad only in boy’s clothing, which leads to her be repeatedly mistaken for a girl (despite the fact that in the HBO version of the series, she clearly has breasts) and eventually ends up shorn of hair and training to be an assassin who must frequently disguise herself as anything but who she is. Herself is beside the point and it is only by rejecting herself that she finds a place in life. By the end of the fifth book, she is clearly unhinged and can disassociate at will, spending her days learning to murder and her nights embodying her wolf and leading its pack on a killing spree.

Cersei, who I began this observation with, is the most insulting to women of all. She is presented as an example of what happens to talented girls who aren’t trained properly. Smart, ambitious and thwarted, when she finally gets an opportunity to play a man’s game of power – she fucks it up with mistakes that no one with half a brain would have made. Even her brother, Tyrion, whom no one has bothered to train in the “art of the game” plays it better than his sister, who’s spent most of her life living in the thick of a political hub. She commits every rank amateur mistake that Martin can think for her to make and then he throws in a little gratuitous lesbianism because – of course – in order to play at being a man, a woman has to take a female to bed and “use” her.*

While I can accept the idea that when one uses medieval Europe and Asia as a setting for a fantasy piece there are certain realities about women that needs be  respected, I am at a loss as to why – when one has the opportunity to create a world from the ground up – one doesn’t take the opportunity to banish things like rape and sexist stereotyping.

*He actually does the same thing with Danerys, who works off her widowed sex deprivation with a servant girl. Pseudo-lesbianism is an annoying male fetish. In the HBO series, the writers make up scene that has Littlefinger ranting about the cruel way the world has mistreated him while two of the prostitutes in the brothel he owns have sex for him. It’s not a scene you will find in the book, but apparently, it was necessary for the television version because of all the characters in Game of Thrones, only Tyrion seems to have sex on a regular basis and HBO has a reputation to maintain.