A meditation on women in fantasy and scifi

I read a short story this week by a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author that had five characters — four men and one woman. The physical description of the one female character started with “high-breasted.” Not her hair color or eye color. Not her complexion. Just “high-breasted.”

The author’s treatment of the character didn’t improve from there. While all the male characters in the story had reasonably complex personalities, the woman in the story served almost exclusively as a sexual foil. She slept with two of the other characters in the story. And her personality was generally just a reflection of the protagonist. She amplified  his personality rather than challenged it. She was only a “high-breasted” source of moral support.

I’ve been acutely aware of issues like this ever since a sexist cover of the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America touched off a heated blog debate among authors in the market. Many authors, both men and women, have written very thoughtfully about this issue, like Delilah S. Dawson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Chuck Wendig has written a whole series of posts about the issue.

I’m an unpublished genre author and my experience with this situation is limited. I don’t have anything substantial to add to the debate. But this whole episode has made me much more thoughtful about how I portray women in my own work.

When I was describing the fantasy novel I am writing to a female friend of mine recently, she asked me if it had any strong women characters in it. My answer was a qualified yes. I had some interesting women characters, but not any strong women characters. The book has three protagonists — all boys or men. There were two major female characters. One dies early on. The other is pivotal to the plot, but rather passive. I think this is a problem.

The issue has been percolating in the back of my mind as I work on the book. Coincidentally I reached a point in the writing process where the book wasn’t working. The plot was not coming together the way I wanted it to. I started avoiding the book. I lost the will to deal with it.

I stepped away from the writing process for a couple weeks and did a lot of thinking. I realized that I needed to change some the motivations of my principal characters to unlock the plot. To do this, I needed to a couple more characters.

I decided that the new characters would be women. Not only women, but powerful women. Not damsels in distress. Not sex objects. Not foils. They would be well-rounded characters with their own hopes and dream. They would command respect within their communities. And they would have the ability to determine their own destiny.

These characters were not there to fulfill a quota of strong female representation. I needed them in the book. And as soon as they were added, the pieces of the plot started falling into place. With these women there, I was able to change the relationships between the men in the story. The women took on some of the roles previously played by male characters. The plot became more complex but it also started to make sense again. The book is back on track and I’m excited to be work on it once more.

Novel Revision: Page One

This is the first page of the novel I’ve been working on. It’s a fantasy novel set in a secondary world analogous to Medieval Europe (no points for originality).

Anyway, I’m in the midst of heavy revision of the 95,000 words I have written so far. I’m drafting a new outline based on feedback I’ve received from an editor and an agent.  Here’s page one. I’m trying to balance character and setting on this first page. Villiard is one of three protagonists Some might argue that I should spend more time on him and less on the setting in these first paragraphs, but I want to pull the reader into my world. And the city where the book takes place is very much a character in its own right. 

Let me know what you think, if this this is working or not.

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was born, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel where fish leapt from the water and ducks swam with the current. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains that marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish at the headwaters were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city, of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Downstream from its headwaters, the River Weiss carved through its valley, the Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket. The river watered crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where Villiard had grown up.

As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, the river was throttled by the Vaydeenum. Here in this city where Villiard now lived, the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood. He could could smell the rotten stink of the Weiss choking to death on the foulness Vaydeenum. He saw rotten, dead things float by, and he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart. Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After a long day of working in fields he had drunk from it. He had led herds of sheep to it for watering. But here the city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Vaydeenum was a provincial capital of the empire, its central citadel visible for miles. It had sprung up as a trading town millennia ago around a ford. Over the centuries as it grew, the city had pressed against the banks of the Weiss, dirtying its waters and choking the life out of it. Vaydeenum was a muddy, dusty, sprawling miasma of stone and brick, winding streets, trade and power. As the river ran through its heart, past tanneries and sewers and slaughterhouses, the water congealed into a fetid sludge.

Like all rivers, the Weiss escaped the city that abused it. It flowed south into the coastal plain, where it forked and forked again into a wide delta that spanned for dozens of miles until its urban putridity emptied into the Ashen Sea, where the water would be redeemed in the salt and the sun.

No one could catalog all of the foul contributions that Vaydeenum made to the River Weiss, but some people specialized in tracking very specific adulterations, including Villiard. There were people who trawled the Weiss for its contents. The remains of wrecked riverboats could be salvaged for wood and nails. Orphans and urchins would swim in the stinking mire for half-rotten fruit that had fallen from boats. And then there were the bodies. The body’s were Villiard’s business.

Muse & the Marketplace takeaway: Novel revision time

So I went to my first Muse and the Marketplace, the annual writing conference held in Boston by the wonderful nonprofit Grub Street. This was a big event for me because I had signed up for the show’s Manuscript Mart. The Mart is a unique feature of the conference where writers can sign up for meetings with literary agents and book editors who have donated their time. The agents and editors will read 20 pages of your manuscript and a synopsis ahead of the show and then sit down with you for 20 minutes.

I signed up for a meeting with an agent and an editor at a major press and sent them the first 20 pages of the fantasy novel I’ve been writing since December (95,000 words written so far).

The meetings happened yesterday, and they were productive but painful. Long story short, although I have good ideas, my synopsis revealed some holes. I need to re-plot the book. I also need to rethink my character arcs. My beta readers love my characters and other aspects of my writing, but this editor and this agent saw past that. They wanted to see more depth. They wanted my characters to have more at stake.

Bottom line, a character can be well-rounded and interesting, but that’s not enough. They must have a wound that drives them. They should be striving to regain something they lost. Or they should be seeking to right a wrong that was done to them. They should be trying to restore order in their lives after something has upended everything.

I thought I was doing these things with my characters, but it’s clear to me that I need to do more. I need to raise the stakes.

For a few minutes I came away from these meetings discouraged, but as I drank a beer with a bunch of other writers (including my mom), all I wanted to do was go home and write. I had the urge to revise.

The manuscript I have was only 75% done, but I’m not going to finish it. Not yet. I’m going back to the beginning. I’m going to rip pages a part and revise. I can’t go any further into this book until I’ve gotten the first few acts just write. I need to make sure I have a good story before I finish it. I’ve spent a few hours on it so far. The first chapter is gone. Important elements of it have been integrated into subsequent chapters.

I’m also digging deeper into the inner lives of my characters, seeking out their pain and disappointment, they hopes and dreams. I’m going to pull it all out of them and make them desperate to push my plot forward.

Here’s how the book starts now:

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was from, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel swollen with life. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains,  which marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish that far north were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Villiard knew the river well. Downstream from its headwaters, it carved through the great Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket, watering crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where he had grown up. As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, it was throttled by  Vaydeenum. Here in this city the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood.

He could could smell the rotten stink of river choking to death on the foulness of the city that he now called home. As he saw the rotten, dead things float by, he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart.

Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After long days of working in fields he had drunk from the Weiss.  He led herds of sheep to the river to water them. But this city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Novel writing roadblock: Getting past the wall at 93,000 words

I started writing a fantasy novel in September. The book is based on an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a couple years. When I started writing, the book just flowed through me. I was churning out 5,000 to 6,000 words a week. I wrote an outline. Then I wrote a new outline. The chapters practically wrote themselves. I went from having two protagonists to three.  Secondary characters emerged everywhere. They wrote themselves. I have 23 secondary characters. I have dozens more tertiary characters. I’ve created a magic system. I’ve written the outline of 1,000 years of history in the world I created. I’ve drawn maps. I’ve created a polytheistic religion, some rudiments of language. This book is rich and vivid. My beta readers are loving it.

But I hit a wall at 93,000 words. I diverged from my outline around 40,000 words ago and I’ve strayed so far that the outline is useless. For the past two weeks I’ve been unable to write. Instead, I’ve been revising earlier chapters, filling in gaps in character arcs and plot elements. But moving forward has been impossible.

I’ve felt depressed over the last few days. I open up the book in Scrivener and try to forge ahead, but I just get tired and distracted. If my book were a five act play, I’m moving trhough act four right now. It’s crucial to get it right, but with my outline shot to pieces, I’m not sure where to begin. Starting the next chapter is hard when I’m not sure what I want it to be about. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my characters or my plot.

Last night I decided to forget about all that. Instead I let myself write whatever I could. My beta readers tell me they love my settings and my characters, but sometimes they want more sensory detail. So I decided to start there. Establish a setting and dig into the senses. Here’s what I started with. I knew that one of my protagonist Dosh, a thief and a cutthroat, needed to disguise himself as a soldier and go to the dungeon in the city’s central citadel to retrieve someone. So I put him there. I didn’t want to worry about how he got there or who he was with. I just put him in the place he needed to be, and I focused on what that experience was like. Here’s what I came up with.

The one thousand-year-old dungeon of Vaydeenum’s citadel stank. So may generations of people had sat in darkness, shitting and pissing in a a hole in the the floor of their cells, wearing the same rags for years, and picking at their daily meals of stale, moldering bread and gruel. During his years as a street rat, Dosh often frightened himself with the thought of being locked up in a dungeon cell for theft or murder. Now here he was, wearing the armor and livery of an imperial soldier and marching down the rows of cells as if he were the dungeon keeper and not a thief and a fraud.

Now I needed to put someone else there, someone to get Dosh out of his head (he’s been feeling sorry for himself) and get him focused on the task at hand. So, I had a prisoner call out to him.

“Oy, boy, you’re not old enough to carry a sword,” a grubby man said through the small, barred window on his cell door. His dirty hands were wrapped around bars. Dosh could see a wrinkled, bearded, dirty face.

Dosh was going into the dungeon with his boss, one of my nasty villains named Bern the Cooper. But I knew they needed at least a third person for the task I had for them. So I created another henchman. The Cooper has a lot of henchmen, but most of them are useless thugs who are too incompetent for sending on a delicate job. I’ve giventhe Cooper, three good henchmen, but one is too young for this job. Another got a very nasty concussion three chapters ago. The third is too dark-skinned to pass for a soldier in this city.   So I created secondary character number 23 (yes, this is getting out of hand, but I needed a competent henchmen). This new henchmen needed to establish his competence. Thus, I introduce said henchmen, Barrett Gwinn.

Barrett Gwinn, a man of the Lane who was accompanying Dosh and the Cooper into the dungeons on this job marched over to the cell door. A brown, leather-covered cosh slid out of his right sleeve and into his hand. He raised it quickly and smashed it against the bars and the grubby man’s fingers. The man howled and disappeared from the tiny window. The tiny club disappeared up Barrett’s sleeve again.
Barrett winked at Dosh then looked away. But the man in the cell was right. Dosh looked too young to be a soldier. The army that controlled the city was composed of veterans. Dosh had had a good look at the ones that garrisoned the citadel. The youngest one he’d seen was at least ten years older than he was. And they all had a far away look about them like the affairs of Vaydeenum were beneath their consideration. The Cooper had said these soldiers had returned from the war in Esseven Mil just months ago. They had been fighting overseas for at least four years.

Now I’ve noticed in those last sentences that the story is flowing through me again. I’m throwing out details about what the soldiers who have returned from war overseas look like.  But before I let myself move forward in the story, let’s circle back to setting the scene. The more setting I can ground myself in, the more I can immerse myself in this world. Then I hope the book will start writing itself again.

The stinking dungeon was dark and damp. Some torches burned in sconces along the walls, but many had burned out, which added to the gloom. Many of the cell doors were in shadows. If faces watched from the tiny barred windows, Dosh could not see them. He stared at his booted feet as he paced behind the Cooper. His feet stirred the dirty straw that partially covered the stone floor of the corridor. Aside from their footsteps and the occasional moan or scream from a cell, Dosh could hear dripping water somewhere in the distance. He considered that it could be someone having a slow piss.

At this point, I’m ready for Dosh and my other characters to do their job. They are there to retrieve someone through deception. An hour later, I’ve written nearly 1,400 words. Writer’s block is cured, at least for one night!