Gender Bending

ManWoman  Hey, there, Alex!

As I’ve been drawing up my plans, getting ready to try NaNoWriMo in July, I’ve been struggling with one particular character. I know what role this person plays in the story; as a mirror for the main character, as a balance for some of the action in the story, as an important turning point for my main character at a critical point in the book. But I keep going back and forth on this person’s gender.

When I first met Alex, she was a woman. She was elegant and poised and tough, made so by the struggles she’s faced in her life. This toughness was what pulled together the motley collection of people who form the core of the story. She’s not one of the two or three central characters, but she’s in the second ring. Without her it would definitely not be the same story.

Early on in my NaNo prep I tore my story’s structure apart, fitting it together again more tightly. Along the way I dropped a couple of characters whose functions began to seem redundant, folding some of their traits into other, more central characters. In the process the story became tilted more toward women. The majority of the characters were female (not a problem in itself), and all the male characters were suddenly either enemies or nincompoops. I don’t like stories where women are only allowed demeaning roles, and didn’t want to see that in reverse. So Alex became male. His name changed to Frank (for some reason Alex didn’t have the same gravitas, the same degree of near-pompousness I wanted for this character). He became more of a hearty, good-old-boy type, but still with that core of toughness and leadership needed to pull together the motley crew.

The weird thing is – I couldn’t completely believe in Frank. That person over there, doing that plot-related or character-related thing, persisted in being Alex inside my head. I kept reminding myself that I’d made this change, but it just wouldn’t stick. So I gave up. Alex wouldn’t go away, so there she is, pulling her weight in the story.

This meant another restructuring, and my story got stronger yet again. I pulled one of the male characters that had been mostly window-dressing into the heart of the story. Suddenly I had a romantic story arc, which I hadn’t planned on but which added an emotionally important layer. Some of the roles of some of the central characters shifted aside a little to make room, and everything clicked. Poor Alex; her determination proves too rigid in the end, and things don’t turn out well for her. But she held onto her place in the story by her neatly-manicured fingernails. and I’m glad she did.

I think this is what some people mean when they say that their characters come alive and take over the story. It doesn’t feel that way to me; I’m in charge of my story, not the characters. But if these people don’t have a certain level of reality in my mind, so that I really care about what happens to them, then they never will for my readers. The story of Alex’s attempted gender-morphing will always remind me of that.

Have you ever had a character come alive and take over? Was this a good thing for your story?

Dem Bones

Bones  Finding the Bones

[First – in case anyone’s worried – these are plastic castings of human bones, courtesy of my colleague who teaches Forensic Anthropology. No actual bones here!]

I’ve finished the first pass through my scenes. I have my goals, internal conflicts, external complications, stakes, and disasters all lined up in a row. I’ve checked to make sure each scene leads to the next, and each has its place in the story’s structure. Now I’m digging deeper, finding the bones.

For each scene I’m adding a paragraph or two about what happens in the scene. This includes descriptions the external action and dialogue, as in: Kay tries to run from the minions, but one of them grabs her by the leg. Or: Chase tells about his time of slavery in calm, objective terms, but his voice shakes and his hands won’t hold still. These paragraphs also include the feelings behind the action and dialogue. What is going through Kay’s mind when Jana dies? Why is this experience especially challenging for Chase? These descriptions help me to make sure the scene will work. How will I make the goal explicit at the beginning of the scene? How will I make the stakes, conflicts, and complications clear as the scene progresses? How will the disaster at the end happen, and how will it be a direct response to the goal? These are the bones of my story. Everything else makes it pretty to look at, decently clothed, but without these bones it will just be a blob that can’t move anyone.

The descriptions will also include all the little bits that occur to me as I work through this plan. Is there something in Chapter 3 that can set up something in Chapter 10? Make a note of it. What is the setting, and how does that setting look/feel/sound/smell? I can drop in pictures of what the shore of Lake Ontario looks like in autumn or maps with arrows to where action is taking place. This gives me the flesh, skin, clothing that drapes the bones to make them appealing. What I have to guard against is spending too much time playing around with details. Without the bones, they mean nothing; once the bones are there, I can always find the details I need.

Bottom line: I am so not a pantser. My hope is that when the time comes to write the scene, I’ll be able to see it play out in my mind. That should (fingers crossed!) make it easier to put it all down on the page. We’ll know in July!

Chain Gang

Chain  Only as strong as…. You know the rest.

As I work on sketching out the scenes for my novel, I’m trying to apply a universal piece of wisdom that I’ve seen in many places but which hit home to me when I read Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story. In a story, each step of what happens needs to leads inexorably (but surprisingly) to the next step. It’s not a series of things that happen one after the other: I talked to my friend. I went for ice cream. It’s a series of things where one causes the next one to happen: I talked to my friend and learned something distressing, so I went for some serious ice cream to make myself feel better. As I draft my scenes, I keep asking myself, “How does what happens in this scene set up the next scene?” I’m building a chain, and I need to make sure there are no broken links.

Here’s the system I’m using to make this happen. I’ve got a page for each scene (as I discussed in my last post). I’ve also set up a separate page for the “scene chain.” It’s a bulleted list, with each scene described very briefly (no more than one line per scene). The bullet I use for this list is the three-dot “therefore” symbol you may remember from geometry class. So the list is saying “This happens, therefore this happens, therefore this happens…”. As I build this list, I hear that word over and over in my head, focusing me on these links. I hope this structure keeps me well connected!

Oh, and progress: I’m 75% through the first pass at sketching my scenes. I should finish that first pass in a couple of days, and then I can go back and polish the rough edges (tighten up that chain!) and put together a one-paragraph summary of the action in each scene. I have two more weeks. It should work!

Foundations

Foundation  Building a strong structure

I’m working on the next step of my MyNoWriMo plan, which is to sketch out the scenes in my story. I’m using a format for the information I put into each scene sketch based on the one from Janice Hardy’s blog, with modifications.  Here’s what I give for each scene, with all but the last being no more than a sentence or two:

  • Descriptive name (just a few words)
  • Goal (what the main character wants to get out of the scene)
  • Internal conflict (why things are emotionally hard for the main character)
  • External complication (why this will be outwardly hard to accomplish)
  • Stakes (why the goal is important, what it will cost if it’s not achieved)
  • Disaster (what happens at the end with respect to the goal)
  • Summary (this can be one or more paragraphs with the action, dialogue, and anything else that I think of that should go into this scene)

There are a few differences from Janice Hardy’s plan:

  • I’m leaving out the POV character, since my story is 1st person with one narrator, so that’s the same in every scene.
  • Her system ends with a climax, but I’m substituting a term from Jack Bickham’s book Scene and Structure: a disaster. Every scene (except the last one) ends in one of three ways: a simple No (the goal was not achieved), Yes, but (the goal was achieved, but at the cost of making things worse overall), or No, and furthermore (the goal was not achieved, and the attempt made things worse). Keeping this in mind makes me focus on my goal and on ratcheting up the tension as the story moves forward.
  • Janice Hardy’s system offers a paragraph summary of the scene as an alternative to the list of high points, but I’m including them both in my system. I want to have a place to summarize the action and dialogue, but also to throw in anything else as I work out my plan. If I’m working on one scene and realize I need to foreshadow something in an earlier scene, I can go back and make a note of this in the earlier scene. If I think of a juicy bit of description or a joke to relieve the tension, in it goes. This way I don’t forget anything later on when writing.

I’ve got a file with each scene starting on a new page.  For my first pass I’m just filling in the bullet list, not the summary, but once the bullets are done I’ll transfer the information from the chapter summaries to each scene summary and begin fleshing them out. I should be on track to finish by my deadline of May 3. So far, so good!

MyNoWriMo Step 4: Synopsis

Step 4  Rough Story Synopsis

I pulled it together: a synopsis of my story in two pages, 10 paragraphs, following the plan in Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog. In the process I learned a lot more about my story. I kept going back and adding ideas and layers to the rough chapter sketches I made while figuring out my story beats for my last step. I’m sure this will change a lot as I move forward as well – the more I figure out, the more things change. I’m feeling really positive about how well all the parts are fitting together!

I’ve decided to adjust my target dates a little, moving one date up. I think it was just a mistake the way I set it up before, since I allowed myself three weeks to throw together an idea bank and only a week to plan the novel’s beginning. The list below reflects the revised date.

Progress so far:

  • 3/1/15: Set the goal (a full 50,000-word draft, or half a novel?) – On time
  • 3/8/15: Develop my one-sentence pitch line – Early
  • 3/22/15: Establish major set pieces/beats – On time
  • 4/12/15: Develop a rough synopsis – On time
  • 5/3/15: Complete a rough outline or scene sketch
  • 5/17/15: Complete an “idea bank” with the things I want to include in the novel
  • 5/31/15: Plan the beginning of the novel, from opening scene to first major turn
  • 6/14/15: Plan the middle of the novel, including all the twists and complications leading to the ending
  • 6/28/15: Plan the ending of the novel, including the climax and the final resolution
  • 6/30/15: Get all my logistics in place (word-count log, file formats, backups, and so on)

Stepping Out

OpenDoor  I’ve opened the door.

I’m a shell-person – an introvert who is anxious about going out and interacting with people I don’t know. Ironic, since I also teach college and interact with hundreds of new people every semester. However, that’s in a context I’m very comfortable with, one where I’ve got 27+ years of experience. Going into a social context that I’m not so familiar with is kind of scary.

There’s a local group of people who are interested in reading and writing science fiction and fantasy: the Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC for short). I’ve known about them for months, and even know one of its members pretty well. I’ve been following them on Facebook and meaning to go to one of their meetings, but I kept chickening out. Guess what – last night I went! And it was good. There were about a dozen people, and they were all very welcoming and friendly. They went out of their way to make sure I knew what was happening and how everything worked. And when four members read from their current projects, the comments from the group were supportive and encouraging while still offering good, concrete suggestions for improvement. In addition to sharing works through readings, they have programs with information writers need (how to build a realistic planet, how to handle dialogue, and so on). I think I’m going to join and going to attend again.

Look at me – stepping out there and forming connections.  Yay!

Pint-Sized Pandora (Review: The Girl With All the Gifts)

GirlWithAlltheGifts  I just finished M. R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, and I’m heartbroken. And thrilled. And wonderstruck. It blew my mind. Let me ramble a bit about why I liked it, then try to dig into its structure a little more deeply.

Though it never uses the word, this is a zombie story. Humans are fighting a last-ditch action against “hungries,” people who have been infected by a fungal spore that shuts down the brain’s cognitive functions and hijacks the body and nervous system as a host for the fungus. Hungries live on protein from uninfected animals and humans, and the fungus is transmitted in their saliva to infect those they bite. They are mindless hunting creatures, solitary and terrifying–except some that are different. Melanie, the girl at the heart of the story, identifies herself with Pandora, whose name translates as “the girl with all the gifts” and who brings to the world great trouble, and also hope. She is one of a small number of children infected by the spore who retain their mental functions. They have been isolated at a heavily-guarded military base north of London, where they attend a school to see how much they can learn while a medical researcher tries to understand how they have been spared the brain-killing aspects of the infection. What makes this different from a standard zombie story is the depth of characterization. The military men tasked with keeping the humans safe, the doctor trying to find a cure before it is too late for humanity, the teacher who opens her heart to the terrifying children, and most of all Melanie herself, are fully realized three-dimensional people, and I cared about each one of them. As the story progresses inevitably to its tragic, heroic end, possibilities fade and flicker out for each one, but there is still hope, from the girl with all the gifts.

I find myself these days reading stories for fun and delight, and also for the workmanship of the plot. This story is a spot-on example of the three-act structure, with everything precisely in its ordained place. Since I’m going to be taking it apart and discussing different events from the story, beware:

Spoilers

  • Inciting incident: The event that disrupts out the uneasy, unsustainable status quo we opened with is Dr. Caldwell’s decision to dissect Melanie and Miss Justineau’s determination to stop that from happening. This event takes place at the 20% mark, which is rather late in some ways. However, in a story like this one, which takes place in a world so different from our own and is largely told by a person very different from anyone we know, a lot of ground had to be laid out to begin with.
  • First plot point: What tears everything apart happens precisely at the 25% mark: suddenly there are sirens and explosions and a window shatters, “and the hungries swarm over the sill.” Four adults (Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and two military men from the base, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher) and one mysterious girl (Melanie) escape, trying to get to the human enclave at Beacon, 74 miles to the south.
  • Midpoint reversal: After narrowly escaping the most terrifying hungry attack yet, two things happen. They are quieter than most of the big action-packed events in the story, but they represent an upheaval at a core level, and they’re exactly at 50% in the story. One is that we’ve now seen two hungries with unusual behaviors, closer to human though not nearly at Melanie’s level: a woman blindly pushing a baby carriage that held the dead body of her baby, and a man thumbing mechanically through family pictures in his wallet and singing snatches of an old song. This opens a whole new vista about what hungries can be. The other is that Melanie, who until this point has only wondered what she is, now realizes that she is herself a hungry, a monster. It rocks her, but she goes on.
  • Second plot point: The five have fought their way to what seems like a miracle: a mobile lab, built just after the breakout and designed to enable scientists to travel in safety and study the infection. For Caldwell it is the chance to study the infection under the best possible conditions. For Parks and Gallagher it is firepower and armor plating and a motor to get them through London and on to Beacon. For Justineau it is safety from the hungries who surround them ever more densely the farther south they go. Only Melanie is not cheered by the vehicle. She is fighting her nonhuman nature more and more as she spends time with the humans, and needs to get away from them and feed so that she can get her hunger under control. But she runs across something that sends her mind reeling: a group of hungry children who hunt in packs and communicate with each other, just like her but feral, without the benefit of school. At this point, exactly 75% through the book, things tip and start racing to the inevitable conclusion.
  • Climax and denoument: One by one everyone dies except Melanie and Justineau, and Melanie makes a frightful decision. If things go as they are, the attempts of the last few humans to kill the hungries will endanger the children, but there is no hope for humans in the end. It would be best if all the humans on the planet to become infected right away. Some of them will make new children before the fungus destroys them, and those children will be the future of the planet. So Melanie makes this happen. True to her alter ego as Pandora, she has unleashed the ultimate horror on the world, while preserving the most slender thread of hope: Miss Justineau, sealed in an environmental suit, begins teaching the next generation of children.

It is certainly true that a good genre novel doesn’t have to hew this precisely to the rules of the three-act structure, but this book is an example of how it can be done. I learned a lot by analyzing it, in addition to the pleasure of reading such a gripping tale.