Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fear and Genre Jumping - Writing What I Would Read

When I decided to refocus my efforts on learning to craft fiction, I assumed my gifts would best serve the dramatic genre. After all, up until that point all of my best short stories (and the one novel I finished for NaNoWriMo back in 2008) were LGBT dramas.  I loved writing those sorts of literary tales of love lost and regained, of personal epiphanies and modern degeneration, and most of all, of hope in the here and now and the promise of a better tomorrow.

But the more I thought about it, the sillier my assumption seemed.  I didn't really like reading those sorts of stories most of the time. Why would I want to write them?  If you asked me what genre I preferred as reading material, I would have answered speculative fiction and fantasy, no questions asked.  But I was absolutely petrified to cross that bridge, to tackle a story that was too fantastic.  What if it came off as cliché?  Silly?  What if my world-building was unbelievable?  What would I do then?

As it turns out, I'd do what I always do.  I'd go back, start from scratch, and re-write the piece.  In my own methods, I've found no difference between revising speculative fiction and revising realistic drama.  At least with speculative fiction I wrote pieces I'd genuinely enjoy reading (at least the first thirteen times). My first novel, due out this spring, is a lesbian feminist drama.  It's also fantasy.  And it's the book I've been dying to read (even if someone else might have executed it far better than I).  Instead of feeling bogged down at the prospect of rewriting, I'm excited, because with each revision I come that much closer to something I hope others can enjoy as much as I do.

I believe that every author finds more success in specific genres than perhaps in others.  These variations in quality naturally reflect our talents and our personal preferences.  But I also believe that if someone is afraid to tackle a particular genre--not uninterested, but afraid-- they owe it to themselves to make an attempt.

In the spirit of my own ever-present fear and attempts to overcome it, I'd like to offer my readers a short piece I wrote a year or so ago.  It was written for a very small-scale prompt-based contest, and is definitely not one of my favorite pieces. The multiverse in which the story takes place is much larger than I have the time or energy to tackle right now, but perhaps in the future a novel or two will come out of the ideas.  We'll just have to wait and see.  

So, without further procrastination, in honor of my 300th Twitter follower (hey, you've gotta start somewhere), I present to you "The Gate." Enjoy, comment, burn, etc.  Just keep in mind that I blister easily.  ;-)

"Thunderstorm at False Kiva," by Max Seigal (copyright 2013).  This picture was the prompt/inspiration for the piece below. Check it out at The Atlantic.

 * * * * * * *

The Gate
by Amalie Cantor
**Note: An earlier version of this short story is housed at my online portfolio at writing.com.  If you like this little piece, be sure to go check out some of my other stuff!**

“Blindfold off,” the harsh voice snapped.  Isra lifted the black velvet wrap from her eyes as the Jeep's asymmetrical jerking lurched to a stop. She squinted, blotches of blue and green swimming in her vision.  Her eyes stung with the salt of sweat as they readjusted to the faint light.

Six hours of almost constant shifting over rugged terrain had left her shaky and unbalanced. Isra braced an arm on the Jeep's frame as she stumbled onto jagged stone. Her eyes finally focused as she examined her new surroundings.

She’d expected the base to be hidden in some remote military bunker, sterile and devoid of life. Instead she gazed at a vast canyon, its ruddy walls lit sporadically by the yellow lightning crossing the purple sky to the northwest. The Gate--for it could be nothing else--stood upon a surprisingly small stone platform flanked by an assortment of monitors and control panels. The surrounding ten or so technicians flurried from screen to screen in preparation for--

--for what she couldn't be precisely certain.  Each wore an unpretentious Egyptian blue uniform, their cream and crimson badges firmly attached to the right breast pocket of each wool jacket. Isra's own uniform, which Red had thrust into her hands earlier that afternoon, stretched uncomfortably around her chest and lay overly baggy around her torso. The top few buttons refused to stay snapped, which had entertained Red endlessly as the two women traveled.
"I'm glad you accepted the mission.  At least I've got a great view for the drive," Red snickered as she hit another bump in the gravel road.  Isra could hold either the torn leather seat or her chest, not both.  Unfortunately, she valued her skull more than her dignity.

"At least mine are real," Isra sneered before they hit another pothole.
Isra stared after Red, who had approached the platform and now shared whispers amongst the technicians.  A young man snorted under his breath as she'd whispered something into his ear.  Red smiled that same coy smile she'd attempted on Isra that very afternoon. Rationally, Isra should not fault her.  Why not use your charms to get what you want?

Isra despised her nonetheless.  Kari would have--

--but it didn't matter now did it?

“The guest of honor arrives!” A deep voice, smooth with humor and charisma, called from behind the platform. The gentleman--The Colonel, Isra assumed--approached with certain footsteps and offered her his hand. “Welcome, Violet!” Isra’s lip curled at the pseudonym but she said nothing. “You made great time! The storm is rolling in faster than anticipated, so I’m afraid we won’t have time for introductions.”

Isra nodded and accepted the handshake. She barely restrained a sneer when his eyes flickered toward her chest. “I understand, sir.” She studied him for only a moment. His dark hair and eyes twinkled as an impish grin stretched across his face.  Exactly as she’d been forewarned.  Best not to encourage familiarity then. “I am here strictly for the mission. If we succeed, we will have plenty of time for introductions later. If not--"  A giant clap of thunder shook the very ground as it rumbled.  She raised her eyebrows.  She needn't finish the sentence.

“Few words and strong intentions: the two things I love most in a woman.” His grin brightened.  He glanced toward his technicians, who froze at his gaze.  The hairs on the back of Isra's neck prickled as he placed a hand on her back and guided her to the platform.

Isra, for the first time, turned her full attention to the mechanism in front of her. The cylindrical base, no more than three meters wide, grew organically from the surrounding stone, yet its smooth surface shone as if polished. Standing vertical its very center, a flat metallic disc sporadically flashed white in time with the ever intensifying lightning. She approached the side of the platform to examine the disc’s mirrored surface. Silver, perhaps platinum, polished to a flawless shine, reflected her image perfectly. Still, the image felt unnatural. Synthetic. Aberrant. For one, it displayed none of the equipment, make-shift chairs, and consoles scattered around the apparatus.  Nor did it reflect the mountainous orange slopes behind her. The device displayed only the reflections of herself and The Colonel, who’d stepped up behind her. She stared at the strange aura of light surrounding each of them in the reflection: hers, a murky blue-gray; his, a dark copper.

“Amazing, isn't it?” Even at a whisper, his voice cut through the speeding wind and thunder. “Vertolium, the most unique substance yet known to man. I personally refuse to call it a 'metal;' it’s too fluid, too unstable. But when polished and prodded just the right way, it produces the most astonishing reflections. They show the grounded things, those things that are eternally true, those things that cross time and space and even from one universe to the next.  Your essence never changes, though your personality, your looks, everything else might fade away.” 

"It's beautiful," she whispered.  She reached a hand out as if to touch the smooth surface, but jerked back as a streak of lightning crashed into a tree not thirty meters away.  Isra couldn't help but deeply inhale the fragrance of burning pine.

"I suppose we should proceed,"  The Colonel called as he turned his gaze on Isra. “They’ve told you why you’re here?”

Isra swallowed the hard knot that had formed in her throat. Perhaps she wasn’t so resigned to this mission as she pretended. “Yes,” she whispered. “To seek her out, to measure whether our connection can be sustained, even now.” She took a deep breath. “To discover whether I might successfully cross The Boundary.”

The Colonel nodded. His grin disappeared.  With a snap of his fingers Isra was surrounded by the flurry of his team. They systematically and efficiently placed wireless electrodes at strategic points of Isra’s skin: temples, heart, navel. A particularly rotund gentleman pressed the barrel of some sort of gun to her left wrist. With a slight hiss, the gun pierced the skin and placed the final microtransmitter. Isra examined her wrist, tingling with an almost imperceptible current. Her hazel eyes widened.  No mark.

“We’re in,” a new voice from the left called, but Isra ignored it. She watched intently as The Gate began to glow an electric blue. The Colonel clasped her unaltered wrist and gestured to the platform. She refused to face him but nodded and stepped forward.

Isra exhaled slowly as she stepped onto the cylindrical base. As soon as she stood in its center, a visible barrier snapped into place around her. The slight discoloration of the atmosphere separated her from the flurry of activity beyond the mechanism’s invisible walls. Though she could still see each team member working diligently to prepare the machine, their images were overwhelmed by auras as clear to her as spotlights, and as natural to her as breathing. What had seemed foolish speculation was suddenly comfortable, real, even inherent to the nature of existence.

“You’re feeling it already; that’s good.” She glanced back over to the Colonel, who eyed her with that same grin. “This will be both the simplest and the most difficult thing you have ever done.” He gestured to the sky above them, startlingly dark as the purple faded to deep blue and yellowed lightning created an electric charge in the air. Though power surged all around her, she felt as comfortable as if she’d taken this journey a million times.

“You have,” the Colonel’s voice interrupted her thoughts. Isra’s brow furrowed in confusion, but he made no attempt to enlighten her. “Your instructions are simple. Stare into that disc and study yourself, until you see the image of that which you seek. The lightning will provide a power surge, during which you must release any remaining anxiety, and do what you will know to do. Once you’re on the other side, we have no way of knowing how long your body will be able to sustain the paradox. Here, you feel more confident and at home than you’ve ever felt in your life; you will not have that luxury there. You will be the outcast, the abomination: every cell in your body will try to call you back. You must ignore it. The longer you are on the other side, the more information we can gather.”

“If I don’t return?”

“Neither success nor failure is ever absolute. We’ll still get what we need.”

Isra took one last look at the Colonel before she turned to focus on the disc. She could hear endless activity surrounding her, but it reached her ears as if through a dozen walls, each thicker than the last. The commotion around Isra faded into white noise, insignificant and irrelevant. Each tiny hair on her body rose as the growing electric current surrounded her like a halo. As the halo grew, the murky gray-blue aura surrounding her fanned out in every direction until she could see it not only in the disc’s reflection but also radiating from her skin. The aura snaked out in tendrils, searching, searching--

--And then a snap. The murky gray condensed into a solid, almost tangible line, extending from Isra's navel and reaching into the depths of the mirror in front of her. Her reflection faded into a hazy maze of colors: pinks, reds, and mauves. The cord from her navel reached into the haze and merged with it.  It gradually faded into a bright green and reached out into the distance. The Colonel had been right. She knew exactly what was at the other end, and her chest filled with familiar longing. The lightning surged, and feeling more like herself than she ever had, she stepped forward and through the open doorway. She felt a cold tingling rush as the atmosphere of the world beyond fell upon her skin, and with an explosion of light, sound, and electricity, all was darkness.

* * * * * * *

The irritating prickle of light pressed tiny needles into her closed eyelids. A bitterly cold breeze brushed across her exposed fingers. The air felt charged in a way Isra found disconcerting, even repulsive. Her skin throbbed as if submerged in a churning vat of electrified slush.  Her mind could not integrate the physical pain with her awakening vision. As her eyes awoke, she gazed upon an orchard in springtime, a dozen spindly trees covered in tiny pink flowers, occasionally swept from the branches by a light breeze and gingerly tossed onto the lush grass beneath her. Yet, as she swept her hand along that lush grass, the sting of thousands of tiny razors licked at her fingertips. She jerked her hand to her face in pain.  Her skin remained perfectly intact.

The Colonel was right. Every atom in her body vibrated with longing to return from whence she'd come. Yet she could not, would not, leave just yet. She hadn't found her; her mission was yet unfulfilled.

"I wondered when you'd arrive," a melodic voice called from behind her. Isra moved achingly slowly, using all her hard-won concentration to ignore the pain as she turned to face the voice. Her face flushed in anger as the voice chuckled.

"Always were the stubborn one," it called again. Isra furrowed her brow as she managed to turn toward the new arrival. The cord at Isra's navel had grown even more tangible, the blue-gray reaching out, twisting into a brilliant green, and connecting her to the unearthly form standing before her. The woman looked like no one she'd ever known:  dark skin, violet eyes, hair so deep and dark it shone purple as the sun danced upon it through the branches above. The woman wore only a light tunic and skirt as she strolled towards Isra. Isra's heart clenched in pain even as she gazed upon her.

"Amaranthe?" Isra whispered, though she was sure she’d never known that name. She shook her head. "Kari?"

The woman smiled and cocked her head to one side. "I was called that once. I've been called many things, both before and after. You were most correct the first time. I'm Amaranthe." She gave a deep curtsy, and Isra realized she was being mocked. Without thinking, she reached out to swat Amaranthe's arm, but met only air. Amaranthe had ducked out of the way and landed several feet away. Isra frowned.

"You mustn't touch me," Amaranthe warned. "The paradox would not be sustained, and you would be ripped from this world with a speed that would destroy you." The corners of her lips turned up, her teeth bared in a gruesome smile. "I learned that one the hard way.  Let's say our first few meetings have made me more cautious."

Isra stared. "The first few?" Amaranthe sat on the grass a few yards away, perfectly content in her bare feet, digging her toes into the soft earth. Isra--and why did thinking of herself by that name feel so disconcerting?--continued to grit her teeth in pain as the grass inflamed every inch of skin it touched.

"Yes, dear Peregrin." Peregrin. Yes, that was her name. Why had she never known, not until this very moment? "This is at least the fifteenth such time I've stumbled upon you in this place. For some reason you're always drawn back here." Amaranthe's eyes danced casually over her form before they focused with interest at the still-exposed cleavage. "You didn't look quite this good the last time, though." She smirked and returned her eyes to Isra's.  "But, oh, how I’d love to tug at those fiery curls now."

Isra’s facial muscles spasmed with the first genuine smile she’d felt in months. “God, I’ve missed that. Missed you.” Water gathered at the corners of her eyes.

Amaranthe sighed. “I know, love, I know. I often seem to leave you a bit too soon.” Her eyes hardened. “But that’s no excuse for your cowardice."  Isra flinched, but Amaranthe pressed on.  "You shouldn't be here. What would happen if you ran into yourself? It might rip apart the fabric of every universe, not just yours or mine." Isra's eyes widened.

"You mean...I'm here?" She looked at the cord connecting the two of them and realized there was a second, less visible protrusion extending from Amaranthe's navel into the distance.

"Where else would you be? Of course you're here. You’re meant to be with me; you were destined to eventually arrive here.”  Her lips thinned even as her smirk continued.  "Just, not yet."

Isra’s face heated as her blood began to rush. The increasing ring in her ears reminded her that she didn't, in fact, belong here. They wouldn’t have long; she hadn’t meant the conversation to turn this way. “This is a regular occurrence, then? You abandon me and I follow you here?”

Amaranthe sighed. “I’d forgotten your propensity for melodrama.” Isra smirked as Amaranthe’s serene facade cracked, evidenced by her down-turned lips and shadowed eyes. “But no. Many times you abandoned me. Suicide. Accidents. Old age a few times. In one sense death is very reliable; in another, he has a bit of a fetish for variety.” Her lips curled into a sneer. “I at least was never fool enough to try to cross The Boundary to find you.”

Amaranthe’s eyes glowed faintly as the world began to melt into blurred colors and lines. Isra’s body couldn’t sustain the displacement much longer.

Amaranthe shook her head.  “You shouldn’t be here. You are giving him too much information. He’s using you as his damned guinea pig. He has ambition grander than you can imagine and will never be satisfied with power in one reality: he wants control of them all. Should he finally discover how to cross himself, he’ll do everything he can to make that dream a reality, even if he must annihilate everything in the process.”

Isra frowned. “What am I to do, then?”  Both voices now rang hollow, as if the words themselves traveled through water to reach her ears.

“Stop following me, Peregrin. Each time we’re separated, he seeks you out, lures you in with promises he won’t fulfill.” Her eyes dimmed. “Yes, I’m she whom you've loved and lost, but I’m not Kari. In each universe, time and time again we are reborn; we meet, we fall in love, and we are eventually heartbroken as we part ways. We feel the heights of both ecstasy and pain, and it is terrible and wonderful and breathtaking. Eventually, we both are born here, and we are happy. Be patient, and that time will come for you--unless you allow him to destroy it all.”

“But I can’t, Amaranthe,” she whispered. “I could never stop myself from searching for you, even if I wanted to.”

Amaranthe smiled. “Well, you’ll admit that much at least. I suppose you’ll just have to figure out a way to stop Him.”

“And how should I do that?”

“Live. I warned you: it’s your cowardice, your fear of being alone that drove you here. You hoped to find me, yes, but you expected to die. Your ultimate goal was to stand by my side once again, no matter what that cost you or anyone else.  But Peregrin, you are the only person in your world who has experienced what you have and who knows what you know. There is much good left to be done in your world even now, even on your own.  The world--all worlds--need your help.  Use your brain and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.” As other colors faded from Isra’s vision, the violet of Amaranthe’s eyes pierced into Isra’s. “Even now you make a choice: to die, to move onto your next life where you will find me once again; or to live, to face the rest of this life with courage. Please, for me, make the right decision.” Unable to fight any longer, Isra gave herself over to darkness.

* * * * * * *

“We’ve lost the connection,” Red snapped as the activity on the monitors spiked and then crashed to almost nothing.

The Colonel’s smile didn’t diminish. “Five minutes of data this time. A new record, ladies and gentlemen!” He turned and gestured toward the platform. “Take care of the mess, would you Greenie?” He fondly slapped the rotund man on the back. Green’s eyes narrowed, but he moved to obey nonetheless.

The Colonel turned his gaze to the monitor and begin the painful process of scouring the data. Red frantically typed away at the primary control panel.  She periodically shifted screens as The Colonel called out instructions. He groaned under his breath.  He always hated this part. Brilliant though he may have been--and he was neither naive nor humble enough to deny it--making definitive conclusions based on millions of minute pieces of data was still tedious as hell. He could only hope that the The Subject's hard won measurements could produce a clearer picture this time. With each attempt the formulas gained clarity and precision. Another few tries and the team might be able to attempt the crossing with an Untethered Subject.

“Boss,” Green’s voice called from the platform. “You might want to come take a look at this.”

The Colonel’s smile slipped for the first time that evening. “A bit busy here, Greenie.”

“Trust me; you definitely want to see this.”

The Colonel furrowed his brow and scowled as he approached the platform. The electric hum had ceased as the power had shut down.  The barrier had vanished, its metal disc melted back into its gelatinous state. The Subject lay perfectly still in the middle of the platform.

“Green, what’s the meaning of this?”

Green gestured to The Subject. Frowning, the Colonel knelt and pressed two fingers into the limp body’s throat. His eyes widened as he recognized the faint thump of a still beating heart.

The Colonel flew back to the monitors. At the top of an auxiliary screen, a weak but slow and steady beep pulsed almost silently. The Colonel’s eyes lit up in wonder, his restored grin stretching the sides of his face.

“Well, team, tonight has gone even better than expected!” The team crowded around the monitor in astonishment as that slow and steady pulse refused to cease. They watched for five minutes. Ten. And still the heart kept on beating.

“Initiate Plan B! Finally!” The team immediately dispersed to enact the emergency protocols. The Colonel went back to the platform and grinned down at the still Subject. “Welcome back, Violet. I suppose we’ll have to introduce you this time.”

He pulled out his phone to begin the necessary flurry of calls. With an excitement he’d not genuinely felt in lifetimes, he spoke. “White? Prepare for Phase 2.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In Defense of Microambitions

I have a rather large confession to make.  I am, despite my best efforts at personal reform, a devotee of the art of YouTube surfing.  I have made several attempts at sobriety, but I have yet to see meaningful change in my way of life.  My partner is likewise afflicted with the horrendous affliction. We cycle relentlessly in an ever-widening gyre of days of remission only to inevitably fall back into relapse.  Ours can be a painful existence, and I cannot say I'd recommend it to anyone.

Yet, even in that dreadful darkness can we find beacons of hope.  I was engaged in a multi-hour viewing binge about a week ago, when I came upon this delightful video of an address at UWA given by Tim Minchin.  The whole speech is full of chuckle-worthy plays on words as well as meaningful--and meaningless--advice.  I particularly recommend a stretch beginning at 3:15:

"...I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. "

As a child, I was guilty of sins far worse than YouTube gluttony.  You see, I was a dreamer of dreams.  But not just realistic dreams, oh no.  I had delusions of grandeur the likes of which the world had never seen.  (Obviously, I've never quite grown out of them.)  You see, fate had predestined me to be the world's most brilliant figure skater.  In the evenings, I would consult on high-risk surgical procedures whilst preparing gourmet meals for my five-star restaurant.  On weekends, I would paint landscapes worthy of the Louvre and read poetry to thousands of adoring sycophants.  I would find the life I was destined to live.

Of course, the two times I attempted ice skating I could not maintain my balance for more than thirty seconds at a time.  I had neither the stomach nor constitution to give my mother her weekly allergy shots. I didn't learn to boil spaghetti properly until I was at least 27.  My only contributions to art were the scribbles on my bedroom wall, and my poetry stayed relegated to the catacombs of deadjournal, where I hope they yet rest in peace.

None of these things were in and of themselves bad.  They were sparkling dreams contrived by a young girl who had been taught that there was no goal so high she couldn't strive to reach it.  The problem was never the dream.  The problem was its execution.  I never learned how to work for those dreams, and so, when I realized their non-sensibility, their impracticality, I gave them up, changed them, shifted them into what I assumed were more meaningful long-term goals.

I have come to realize though, as Tim Minchin did, the value of the micro-ambition.  I value these bursts of desire for achievement for two primary reasons.  First, as he suggests, they promote flexibility.  I cannot imagine what opportunities I might have missed had I been too focused on an ultimate goal.  Had I been determined to stick with music education as a career, I wouldn't have moved 700 miles away from the only home I'd ever known to learn a new trade.  Had I been determined to continue my doctoral studies, as I had planned to do, I would have both likely lost the love of my life and been another hundred thousand dollars or so in debt.    Had I not seen the value of entering one small writing contest, then another, then another, I never would have even considered the possibility of becoming a writer.  Had I not been fortunate enough to win one of them, I likely would not be nearing completion of my first novel.  Each of these accomplishments arrived thanks to one small shiny thing that managed to distract me from what I thought was my final goal.
Second, micro-ambitions give you something small and achievable to which you can apply yourself much more effectively and consistently than if your life is defined by enslavement to a particular path.  My whole adult life has come down to discovering and chasing a series of micro-ambitions.  Complete this class.  Finish this degree.  Get this job.  Be admitted to this program.  Move to this place.  Write this story.  Publish this poem.  Finish this novel.  Whether I knew what I was doing or not, I set myself goals which, while rather large, were small in comparison to my childhood dreams.  Because these goals were smaller, I achieved them with an awareness of what could be done now and well, rather than what would take a lifetime of work and might still never see fruition.

At the end of the day, I do still have dreams.  I'd like nothing more than to end up on the bestseller list one day.  My dreams may be flighty, but I value them more for their fickleness.  Every day is another opportunity to make my dreams come true, because every day is an opportunity to bring a new dream to life.  For now?  My dream is to finish Book 1.  Then perhaps Book 2 and Book 3 (both already in the initial planning stages).  After that, who knows?  Maybe I'll throw in the towel on writing and go back to school, finish that Ph.D.  Maybe I'll open a restaurant selling gourmet grilled cheese* or a bookstore or a corner coffee shop with lattes that don't taste burnt (Sorry, Starbucks).

I don't know just yet.  I've honed in on the shiny thing of the moment.  But as to what comes next?  I'm still watching the periphery.

*I'm serious about the gourmet grilled cheese.  Ever tried a jalapeno popper grilled cheese?  Mine are phenomenal -- definitely better than his.  I also make a killer feta/red pepper grilled cheese.  Watch out world.  It's coming.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Character Development - Secondhand Character Interviews

It's no secret that I prefer character-driven plot, both as a writer and as a reader.  I fully admit that my skill at designing plot is far inferior to my penchant for character design.  Plot is my weakness.  The only way I can make it work is with my characters' full support.  And sometimes they are STUBBORN.  Go figure.

Thank God my friends are all as sane as I am.

Since I am so fond of discovering characters, it's no surprise that I am a big fan of character interviews.  In Outlining Your Novel: Mapping Your Way to Success (which I highly recommend)K.M. Weiland provides a few examples of these sorts of interview questions, etc., which can provide us with real insight into our characters and thus help us portray them as consistently (or, as I see it, accurately), as we can.

Character interviews, when they work best, allow authors to really immerse themselves into the mindsets of their characters.  When tackling a character interview, I discover certain facts about my own characters, obviously:  "My name is Janet, not Jane you ridiculous woman!"  Those facts are important, of course, but perhaps more importantly, I also begin to understand how they talk, how they think, whether they chew their nails when they are nervous or refuse to make eye contact when we speak.  Knowing these sorts of details, even if they never make it into the final manuscript, helps me to produce prose suitable to the character's personality.

There are many, many good character development tools out there. Weiland provides an excellent outline in Chapter 7 of her book.  Recently I've also used 100 Character Development Questions for Writers, which has enough in-depth information to help writers really delve into the heart of their characters.  But for all of the things that are available, I had trouble finding something that I thought would help me with a little problem I tend to encounter in my character development.

The problem with interviewing your characters is that they have a tendency to talk only about themselves.  And why wouldn't they?  I'm asking about my protagonist, am I not?  It makes sense for her to talk about herself.  Unfortunately, I sometimes get a very skewed perspective of who a character THINKS he or she is.  The reality of who she is or can become is sometimes hidden behind a wall of insecurity or even arrogance.  So how can we get around this wall?

I considered, therefore, how I might utilize a series of interview questions written FOR one character ABOUT another character.  What does the average inhabitant of my world think of my protagonist/antagonist?  What do the antagonist and protagonists think about each other?  What does the lover really think of her beloved?

So, I present to you my work in progress:  a worksheet for performing character interviews, secondhand.  If you use the list and find it useful (or completely useless), let me know! Link backs make me happy, and a happy Amalie is an Amalie who isn't tearing the wings off her fairies.  Save a fairy.  Add a link back.

Also feel free to submit your own questions.  If I like them, I'll add them and credit you with a link back.  The one great thing about the online writing community is that it's incredibly friendly.  Let's continue to work together to make ALL of our stories the best they can possibly be.

Character Development:  Secondhand Character Interview Worksheet

For this exercise, pick a character which you'd like to know better.  Then, write (in first person) from the POV of a different character in the world of your story.  You might write as your antagonist about your protagonist (or vice versa).  You might write as the "best friend" about your protagonist.  You might write as "random hot dog stand owner" about the antagonist.  Whatever you can do to get out of the head of the character in question.  The point here is to get to the heart of a character from the perspective of those around them.  Write as much or as little as you want, and feel free to dive off of these starters into other questions or even rants/raves from characters.

Individual Perspectives
1.  How did you meet [character]?  What were your first impressions?
2.  How long have you known [character]?  Would you consider yourself friends?  Enemies?  How would you describe your past together?
3.  What (good or bad) physical trait would you say is [character's] most distinguishing feature?  Why?
4.  What one thing most annoys you about [character]?
5.  What one thing is most endearing about [character]?
6.  What is the one thing you'd love to do with or to [character]?
7.  What is the one thing you fear most with regard to [character]?
8.  What would you do if [character] died tomorrow?
9.  What would be different for you (or for your world) if [character] had never been born?
10.  What one thing do you wish you understood about [character]?

Community Perspectives:
1.  What is [character]'s role within the community?
2.  How is [character] seen within the community?  Would you say [character] is well-liked? Despised? Feared?
3.  Who would you send me for more information about [character's] place in the community at large?

Eternally in Progress - Post suggestions in the comments!  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pen Names and Privilege

One of my friends sent around a blog post on Facebook this week that used a biking analogy to provide one possible explanation of what we mean when we speak of "white privilege."  It's an excellent (if imperfect) blog post, but it reminded me that quite often we don't recognize privilege as its recipients: it's only when we suffer under a particular type of privilege that it becomes apparent.

As writers, we are granted a certain amount of anonymity that sometimes protects us from some of the inequalities of privilege.  Yet the more I consider it, I realize we are just as much victims/perpetrators of racial/financial/heteronormative privilege as anyone else.  Nowhere does our acceptance and perpetuation of this privilege become more apparent than in the historical adoption of the "nom de plume."

By haphephilia

For instance, the adoption of masculine pen names has historically been a socially accepted way for female authors/poets to overcome the patriarchal prejudices of readers (and publishers).  The Brontë sisters all published under masculine names, in part to keep a bit of anonymity, and partially to avoid the prejudice of femininity.  George Sand was born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin.

The phenomenon, however, is not merely historical.  J.K. Rowling and K.A. Applegate both chose (or were pressured) to write under their initials to preserve a bit of ambiguity about their gender.  Neither have been secretive about the fact that they are women, but we might argue their readerships under those names were helped (or at least not hindered) by the blurring of their gender presentation.

Carrie Cuinn wrote an excellent short piece on the problem with publishing under pen names.  She made a conscious decision not to use a pen name because she wanted "to be read and judged and known for who I really am."  And I agree wholeheartedly, even as I publish this post under a name that differs from my own legal name. 

When I selected my own pen name, I chose something dissimilar enough from my legal name that I could safely write academic pieces under my legal name while publishing fiction and poetry under another.  However, the two names are similar enough in ethnicity/gender that, since the very first time I tried it on, my pen name felt like me.  In the online community I am very comfortable being referred to as "Amalie."  She is me, with my history, my prejudices, and my (perhaps imagined) talent.  "Cantor" is even more personal; it is a tribute to a long-standing discussion between my partner and myself on how we should combine our last names when we are finally granted the legal right to marry. 

I am fortunate, however.  I write fiction that features primarily lesbian characters.  Were I to publish under a masculine name, I would run the risk of alienating my primary audience (other lesbian readers).  My partner confessed to me a few days ago that when she seeks out lesbian fiction, she intentionally avoids authors with male-sounding names.  She says she can't trust them to adequately get to the heart of her concerns as a feminine lesbian woman.

So what does that say about me?  Though I am hesitant to admit it, I like to think I'm operating under oppression, that I'm fighting the good fight by intentionally being as true to myself and to my potential audience as I possibly can be.  But it turns out that, because of the audience I'm seeking, my name may in fact imbue me with a level of privilege I didn't realize existed.  It's not a moral issue, not really.  It just is what it is.

And it demonstrates exactly what our bike-riding blogger was talking about.  I'm driving an automobile in a niche market that's been built to allow me free access, when others might still be riding their bikes to work.  What if I wanted to write about the adventures of a male wizard (as an homage to Ms. Rowling)?  Would I need to shorten or completely change my chosen pen name just to get an honest reading from my intended audience?  It's a question that deserves continuing discussion. 

Our pen names can grant us a level of privilege we may not feel we can earn under our legal names.  Whether we intentionally play into that privilege or not, it's our duty to consider how the system that created that privilege might be hurting our fellow authors.