Writing Our Own Deliverance

Once again, a Tumblr post has made me think thoughts.

This piece on geek girls/growing up female/becoming a female creator came across my feed recently, and the bit that struck me the most was this:

so we made it up. we gave barbie a cape and our spotted dog the ability to control the weather. we wrote barely-legible fanfiction about vampires who were also terribly in love with us – because we were perfect in this world, unlike the mess of what really was – we crafted entire sub-stories about how the main characters in our favorite universes were secretly girls in disguise. we made 17-year-old characters who would cut the throats of anyone who hurt them. we drew pictures of women in full, angry armor. we wrote bad poems about the girls we loved and the ones we were jealous of.

It got me thinking… Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if all the women writers shared their first efforts? The heroines they created in youth, ludicrous and wonderful. The princess-superheroes, the werewolf-ninjas, the warrior goddesses. The shameless self-inserts who saved the day. The Mary Sues.

Mine started out as an Alderaanian refugee/X-Wing pilot/spy/Jedi knight who was, of course, fantastically beautiful, as tall as I never turned out to be, prodigiously talented and independent at 16 (which, when you’re 11, seems perfectly reasonably grown-up), and the epicenter of a totally kickass strike team/soap-opera-worthy drama. Everything I wanted to be, I poured into her. Every story I loved, I ended up filtering through her. Over the years she was also an actress, a courtesan, a sharpshooter, a bartender, a mother, a great lady. She was whatever I needed her to be at the time. Others of my wish-fulfillment heroines were lion-women with gorgeous snarls and pitiless claws. They were warrior queens, adored by their armies, who flew into berserker rages when faced with injustice. They were femme fatales with starlit eyes and no mercy for men who did wrong. That first one stuck with me, though, and she’s been reworked into a dozen heroines since.

As the world turned more violent towards me and my friends, as I learned just how ugly it can be towards women, particularly women who don’t match up to certain expectations, my heroines got more violent, too. Looking back, the theme of vengeance trails through so many of my stories. Something was taken from them — a kingdom, a child, their liberty, their choice — and they would fight through anything to get it back. They would land themselves in trouble, captive and deprived of agency, and they would slaughter their way back to freedom. Bruised and bloodied they might have been, but they were always survivors, always the last one standing. And like I’ve said before, it wasn’t as though any thing so truly heinous happened to me — but I was reacting to the permeating misogyny of culture I couldn’t escape.

And I know so many other women who did the same thing. This was how we claimed space for ourselves, even if it was only in our own hearts. Even if we only shared those stories with each other, in safe small groups, on email chains or whispered over laced fingers in the dead of night, because it didn’t take us long to figure out what response we’d get if we shared them more widely. But they were our characters, our stories. We owned them and we took power from them.

I shamelessly advocate fanfiction not just as excellent training for those who want to be writers, but as a worthy pasttime for anyone in need of an outlet — most particularly for young women. On the page, you can scream and rail and punch and claw and kick and do all the things you can’t do in life. On the page, you can have power that the world denies you. If you do become a writer, you get better at it. Your characters cease to be perfect and all-powerful; they develop flaws and weaknesses. They fit into their worlds, rather than bending existing worlds around them. But what can still live in there is the sense of the fight.

So that’s why I’d love to know, from all the female authors I adore, who their first heroines of shameless self-fulfillment were.

Bonus material: I’m a paper packrat who’s kept every writing notebook and sketchbook she ever had. Proof of concept right here:

Attention to Detail, or, Cass is an obsessive freak

So I’m almost done with this round of revisions. I’m at the point where I’m doing the penultimate read-through, which will hopefully make sure I catch any continuity errors created by my changes thus far and that I fill in any major omissions from the points raised by the editorial letter. Then the final read-through before sending things back to Sarah will be on hard copy, which is the best way for me to catch the tiny typo-like things. (Or places where I “pull a Cass” — leaving a sentence unfinished because I got distracted partway through writing it).

This round has involved a lot of filling in the edges of my worldbuilding. Sarah had a lot of questions about the world of Aven, about the political and religious systems, the economy, social classes, etc. The social history, really, the demographics and dynamics at play. These are things that I have swirling about in my head when I’m writing, but I hadn’t really pinned them down in specifics yet — because I hadn’t had to in the same way I’d had to be specific about, say, geography. It’s the sort of stuff I love — and the sort of stuff I actually sort of fear writing down, because too much of it can turn an otherwise sensible chapter into an encyclopedia entry. (I say this as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun as a child, so it doesn’t always occur to me that other people might not find that sort of chapter interesting. It’s something I have to check myself on — or be checked on by others).

But sometimes I just plain need that encyclopedia entry, at least for my own head. In order to find the places where I can drop a casual reference, hint at a larger world, I need to take it out of the blurry background noise of my brain and shape it into something concrete. And frequently, I find I need to do that sort of brainstorming by hand.

Thing is, once I get started, it’s a little hard to stop. Sometimes, that means I end up with notebooks stuffed with lists and diagrams. Sometimes, it means I end up with a 13X300 spreadsheet detailing every single magically-gifted citizen of a fictional incarnation of the city of Rome.

Just, y’know. Hypothetically.

So, as a quick update and a teaser, I thought I’d share what a few of those world-building documents have looked like over the past couple of weeks. Plus, a chance for y’all to see just how bad my handwriting is.

Writing Habits Questionnaire

Saw this over at Jodie Llewellyn’s blog and, well, I’ve always been a sucker for a good survey, so here goes!

1. Typed or Handwritten?

Mostly typed these days, though it was not always so. Between the ages of 11 and 18 I filled about two dozen five-subject notebooks with reams upon reams of handwritten stories (a lot of Star Wars fanfic, a lot for various Broadway musicals, but a lot of original stuff, too). At first it was because I didn’t have a computer of my own (oh, the days of sharing time on the family desktop), plus it was, well, easier to sneak writing in during classes, since it just looked like I was taking notes. I know; I was terrible. My punishment is that I never learned how to calculate terminal velocity. (At least writing fanfic during class kept my narcoleptic self awake).

2. Cursive or Printed?

Hybrid. Sort of a connected print, I guess? Perhaps because I used to handwrite so much, my handwriting is, er, pretty distinctive. Here, I’ll just show you…

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Yeah. It’s been described many times by various unconnected people as “beautiful, but completely illegible”. I can read it. (Most of the time). And there are patterns to its oddities. Internal vowels tend to disappear. I forget to dot ‘i’s — or else I will dot an ‘i’ that got omitted in the word itself (this happens in my signature all the time). Anything with a lower loop is going to seriously encroach upon the line beneath it. I show a definite right-leaning slant. I have a really strange tendency to add serifs to capital letters. The words “if” and “it” often morph into single characters, as has “ng”. And any word with more than one loopy or bumpy letter in a row is just pretty well doomed to turn into a helpless squiggle (another problem with my signature).

All of which is why if I actually need to handwrite for someone else’s eyes, I tend to use block letters.

3. Show us your favourite pen.

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Blue ink Pilot G-2s all the way, baby. Since, like, ever.

4. Where do you like to write?

The beach. Not literally on the beach, sand not being particularly conducive to laptops, but my parents have a house on the Outer Banks, and it’s pretty much my favorite place in the world. I either write upstairs, at a lovely big table, or out on the deck. Both are comfy, conducive to spreading out any reference material I need, and within easy distance of the snack cabinets and drinks cooler.

Unfortunately, with that option only open to me about two weeks out of the year, I spend most of my time writing at the card table that currently serves as the centerpiece of my living room. I have a desk. But it’s currently in a room I don’t like being in as it’s mostly used for storage, so… yeah, lack of functionality there. I also sort of feel like it’s worn out its styling for me.

Here’s my desk at my day-job office. I just switched to this one from something much larger and bulkier, and I quite like this — something like it would be okay for home, though I’d really love if it could be something convertible to a standing desk.

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5. Who are your five favorite authors in terms of authorial style?

Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, Jacqueline Carey, Julia Quinn, Preston&Child (counts as one). A couple of those do, I know, trend towards somewhat effusive prose and overblown rhetoric, but, well, so do I.

6. What are you your three favourite books on writing?

Honestly? I haven’t read many. None that I could tell you the authors of off the top of my head. I know I had a couple of really excellent screenplay writing guides back in undergrad, but screenwriting is a different beast. The pattern and form is everything; originality is of less value. Mostly I figure when it comes to novels, you get better at writing by writing and by reading a lot of excellent voices (see above). Not through instructional guides.

7. Have you ever competed in NaNoWriMo?

Many times! Off and on since 2002. I think the years I missed were when I was directing a play, when I was writing a Master’s thesis, and… I can’t remember the third, but I feel like there was one. And I’ve done several Camp Nanos, too, often to help round out projects I started during Nano proper.

8. Have you ever won NaNoWriMo?

Several of those many times. Every time in the last few years, since I’ve been out of school and have been able to get really serious about my output.

9. Have you ever had anything published?

Fiction? Working on it. 😉 Nonfiction – a couple of articles and papers in my day-job field, along with 18 teacher’s guides which my company has self-published.

10. What projects are you working on now?

Working on the second book of Aven, since we’re currently subbing Book 1 to publishers, so that if, y’know, all goes well, I’ve got a head start on myself. Also working on The Antares Project, a steampunk novel (in case all doesn’t go well with the first project; I’m a firm believer in always having another project to fall back on).

11. What is your soundtrack to writing?

Documentaries. I actually have another post in the pipeline about this, but I’m someone who definitely needs background noise. Sometimes special-made playlists will do the trick — I tend to make new ones for new projects, characters, themes, etc — but often, I turn to Planet Earth, The History of Britain, and others of that ilk. I like them because I can tune them out so readily, but when I need a brain break, I can tune back in and learn something.

12. Do you have a writing pump-up song?

The second half of this:

Here I go and there’s no turning back
My great adventure has begun

I may be small but I have giant plans
To shine as brightly as the sun
I will blaze until I find my time and place
I will be fearless
Surrendering modesty and grace
I will not disappear without a trace
I’ll shout and start a riot
Be anything but quiet