Vive la difference!

Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo-ers! How did it go? Any words of wisdom on plowing through, finding time, writing speedily? Any lessons learned?

Here’s a little more in this English thread that I’ve begun. One of the things that made writing Stolen Magic such a lengthy endeavor is that, under a spell of insanity, I decided to try not to use any words that entered English after 1700, so I was consulting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on almost every word. It was nuts to do for a book that would be published in the twenty-first century. I will never indulge that exact madness again, but sometimes I still wonder about particular words. If they seem too modern to me, I look them up. Often, I discover that a contemporary-sounding word originated in the thirteenth century. But sometimes I’m right. I looked up deadline this week and found that its first appearance in writing was in the early twentieth century. What did they use before then?

Do you do that–look up the etymology of a word? I think any online dictionary will give you the date of origin of a word, although the OED shows the etymology of each use. Consider stand, for instance. The OED gives its history not only as noun and verb, but also for all its shades of meaning.

On to the post! On July 7, 2016, Christie V Powell wrote, In my current WIP, my main character is facing an arranged marriage. I just started writing a soul-searching conversation with her and her father. Important stuff for their characters comes out but I can’t help worrying I’ve just alienated all of my male readers. Before whenever I have “girly” parts I’ve tried to include other elements of things going on, but I’m worried about this one. So, do you consider the gender of your readers? Can you think of a way to make this scene less mushy?

This exchange followed:

EmergingWriter: Hmm… I’m afraid I don’t typically consider the gender of my readers. I suppose I probably should! You’ve got a male character to work with– the father. Could you give him some thoughts that read as more “male”? Not fully understanding or relating to his daughter, finding her more emotional than he might be, etc. I’m not sure, though, because on the other hand you probably don’t want to fall into the quagmire of gender stereotyping. Maybe the father is really very sensitive!

Christie V Powell: Both of them come from a culture that is very stoic, so they will be talking more logically and rationally, but they’re still talking about marriage– and I feel like that logical approach might be even more alienating to teenage boys.

I’m just remembering when I was a kid and thought Toy Story was too mushy because of the scene where Woody bares his heart to Buzz when trapped in Sid’s bedroom. Not even romance, just high on emotion. Then again, I was a lot younger than my target audience.

Emma: I haven’t really considered the gender of my readers very much either when it comes to things like this. I definitely should think of this more. I do consider my male readers when creating characters, however; I try to create characters, both male and female, that will not only connect with my female readers, but with my male readers as well (but then again, we all try to do that). I think that if your male readers love your story and your books, they won’t be daunted by a few “girly” scenes. I know when my brother reads books, he doesn’t mind a few kissing scenes or highly emotional scenes, so long as that isn’t the main focus of the book, and so long as most of the plot is action centered. He doesn’t let the girly stuff stop him from reading a book if he loves the book (and as long as the girly stuff is kept to a minimum), and he’s a 13-year-old boy who’s a die-hard Marvel fan. There’s no guarantee of how your male readers will react, of course, and since I haven’t read your scene I can’t give specific things to change, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I like EmergingWriter’s idea of giving the father thoughts that are relatable to your male audience. I was going to suggest adding a dash of sarcasm or humor to make it less mushy, but you said your two characters will be talking logically and come from a stoic culture, so this may be against their character.

I’ve thought about this, too. I believe my books are full of action, but they have titles like The Two Princesses of Bamarre and covers that feature the female MC. I’ve sat at book fairs and watched boys approach and then flee the girly cooties of my covers and titles. I should sell the books with optional brown paper covers!

My publisher tells me that most of my readers are girls and I shouldn’t worry about it. So I’ve pretty much stopped. But, regardless of the gender of my reader, I want my male (and female) characters to be believable, which includes gender, and I, too, don’t want to slip into stereotype. I’m entirely with EmergingWriter that a dad or any male character can be sensitive. These days gender seems to be increasingly fluid. The Q in LGBTQ stands for questioning. And, just saying, my husband weeps easily and still comes across as solidly male. I hardly ever cry, and I think I’m unmistakably female.

Admittedly, since I’m writing fantasy and mostly drawing from an old-fashioned European fairy tale tradition, I haven’t gotten very complicated so far, but I have fooled with gender in the character of my dragon detective Meenore in A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic, who won’t say whether IT is male or female. When IT meets people, IT both bows and curtsies. I don’t even know which IT really is! If I write more books in the series, I doubt I’ll ever reveal the answer. IT can even fall in love with another dragon–who also won’t tell ITs gender.

If our plot calls for emotional dialogue, then it does. I don’t think we should duck it. I think we worry too much about what may turn off a reader. Readers bring unpredictable attitudes to their reading. Some males may love the marriage conversation but may be left cold by something else. If our story is engaging and our writing is clear and occasionally sparkles, we’ve done our job.

How our characters conduct themselves in the conversation and what they say will reinforce and expand what we know about them, including the way they inhabit their gender.

Anyway, pronouns do a lot of work for us. He, she, and even the relatively new they (for people with a more complicated relationship with gender) convey a great deal. As readers, when we read the pronoun, we form a limited idea of the character. When he, for instance, does anything–speaks, acts, feels, thinks–we masculinize it in our minds. When she does anything, we feminize it. If we have a they character, we’ll probably have to give our readers a little more information.

Physical description, including clothing, also helps. I don’t mean we have to describe gratuitously, but when we’re showing people, the reader will see them, including their genders.

As for the mushy factor, I’d wonder about the relationship of the father and daughter and also the relationship between the father and his wife. Are they sentimental about their love for one another? If they’re not, the conversation doesn’t have to get mushy. They can talk about affection rather than love, about negotiating differences, about respect and friendship. Depending on the society, they can delve into tradition and duty.

Doesn’t have to be boring, either. Our MC’s thoughts and feelings can keep the conversation lively. Also, she can have memories that illuminate what’s being said, and these can be full of action.

This is reminding me of an utterly unsentimental, wonderful mid-twentieth century poem about a father’s love for his son. Click here to read: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/core-poems/detail/46461.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write your own version of the conversation between the MC and her father. They’re both stoic, but show how their stoicism differs.

∙ An arranged marriage is pretty loaded with feeling and impending trouble. Write the scene in which your MC learns that there is to be an arranged marriage.

∙ Write a scene in which the husband-to-be discusses the upcoming nuptials with his mother.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Jenalyn Barton says:

    NaNoWriMo did not go very well for me this year. But since I’m pregnant, unable to take my ADHD meds, and because my health took a turn for the worse halfway through the month, I’m cutting myself a bit of slack. Besides, even if my 10,000 words aren’t the 50,000 of my goal, they’re still 10,000 more than I had October 31st!

    I always thought the Q in LGBTQ stood for Queer, not Questioning.

    As for the topic, I’ve never worried about the gender of my readers. I just wrote the story I want to write, and I figure that it will attract the readers that it will, whether I want certain readers or not. I still try to make all my characters as realistic as possible, no matter their gender. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

  2. I love the etymology of words, but how daunting to allow yourself to only use words in use prior to 1700! I think I remember reading somewhere that Chaucer lamented the paucity of words in the English language. I suppose if he were like Dr. Seuss he could have made some up, but then maybe he did.

    In regards to Christie’s question, I’ve often heard that the gender of you MC will likely be the audience that will read your book. Has anyone else heard that before? Of course that doesn’t mean others won’t read it, but it might take some of the pressure off to be fully inclusive. Speaking of gender I just finished “If I Was your Girl,” by Meredith Russo. It was a very open portrayal of life as a transgender person in high school.

    Congratulations to those who finished NaNoWriMo!! Even just working towards that goal is impressive.

    Gail I loved the poem thanks for sharing the link 🙂 And I have something to share with all of you, I had a poem published in the January issue of Highlights Magazine! I wish I could have shared that news with my mom, who also just had a short story published posthumously.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Congratulations on the poem! And I’m so sorry about your mom.

      Yes, the vocabulary limitation was a silly exercise.

  3. Thanks! I especially like the idea of using action-packed memories. I think that story is going to be dissected since I used quite a lot of it–at least the key scenes–as flashbacks in my NaNo novel. I made the goal, barely. Recovering after having a baby is actually a really good writing time, considering how much time you stay in bed!

  4. I look up the etymology of words sometimes. I’m always disappointed when a word or expression I want to use is derived from modern technology. I keep having trouble with gun words in pre-gunpowder settings.
    A character can’t sit “ramrod straight” in a world without cannons. No cannons, no ramrods.
    Caliber referred to gun barrels before it meant quality or skill level. So you can’t have “a man of his caliber”.
    Before firearms, no one “fired” a weapon. Archers “loosed” arrows instead. Pixar’s BRAVE does a good job on historical accuracy here. But modern people use “fire away” or “shoot” in response to “Can I ask you a question?” “Loose” is easy enough for a modern reader to understand when a character is commanding archers, but it sounds clunky as a question response.
    Lots of lifespan related words are new, too. “Teenager” came around in the 1940’s and had a hyphen in it for a while. I looked up “parenting” in the OED and its first use is 1918.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      “Deadline” is similar, I think. I doubt deadlines could be precise before time-keeping was standardized, which happened in the United States about when the word entered the language, originally American English, according to the OED.

      • I wonder a lot about time awareness in eras when people didn’t have personal timekeeping devices. I try to make characters do things for a moment or a while rather than a second or a minute. One of my professors, a medievalist, told me cooks used prayers to measure time because they couldn’t set the microwave for sixty seconds. Kind of like how kids learn to sing “Happy Birthday” to wash their hands for the right amount of time.

  5. Firstly, congratulations to Christie V Powell and Jenalyn Barton on your little ones! : )

    And now, going off on what Erica Eliza said earlier about certain words or phrases being deprived, after watching Sense And Sensibility (1995 version), I fell in love not only with Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace!) but also with the 1800s way of talking. Such as: “I must away” “Greetings!” “I have a pain.” I found it very quaint!
    I was looking forward to using that in my Jack and Elsa story, since Frozen is set around that period, but then I realized: “They don’t actually talk like that. Rats!” I didn’t mind their contemporary mannerisms and dialogue, until now. And the laws of good fan-fiction dictate that my characters have to talk they way they do in the movie. Grrr….
    It would be cool more animated movies like Brave, where the characters act the way real people did in those time periods!

  6. What a jam packed post! I loved the writing prompt at the end. This was my first NaNoWriMo and it went swimmingly. Not going to lie, I gave up a lot of sleep and my family had to do without me. But the kids weren’t naked or hungry so it all worked out. I summed up the 3 things that I felt contributed to my ability to complete it here – http://www.juliavee.com/2016/11/30/what-every-writer-needs-to-finish-nanowrimo/.

    Additionally, a very fun thing I did, taking a page from Wayne Dyer is that I bought a cover so that it felt more real. I’m really glad I did this. It was a good investment in creating a writing mindset. http://www.juliavee.com/2016/11/09/start-from-the-end/

    I also re-read the first few chapters of your book, Writing Magic. I want to thank you. That book gave me courage to start and then I dug deep and found that I had the rest to keep going.

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