She Shrugged and Tossed Her Curls

Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.

While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined writing.com several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.

Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?

The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.

Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.

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Plot Drivers

Several years ago, I worked at a place where we had a whiteboard on which people would post questions or challenges. Anyone could answer in response. The prompts ranged from the mundane (what song makes you happiest?) to the practical (what are you bringing to the potluck?) to the philosophical (how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?). By far the question that prompted the most answers in my time was one of my own: What was your most memorable car and why?

I had been reminiscing about the many colorful vehicles of my past and wondering if other people had similar stories. The answers covered the board, after which enterprising souls answered on paper and taped the answers on the wall. The final result went from as high as most could reach right down to the floor and filled the sides of the wall panel.If ever anyone wanted a topic for a book, this appears to be a strong contender. Everyone seems to have a story they would like to tell on this topic.

Cars have characters all their own to be sure. They do not have to be as active as Christine or the Love Bug to be prominent in our life stories and in our fiction. They can just be as temperamental as the cars in James Thurber’s short stories or as talented as the ones in the Harry Potter and James Bond serials. Or they can just be there as catalysts (the car crash that led to…etc.).

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about a related matter lately, namely what your car says about you (and, accordingly, what car your character should drive). Cars played a key role in my mystery work Soleville, mainly as a marker for the changing lifestyle of the hero, whose sudden promotion obliges him to step up in the automobile world and into unfamiliar territory. For me, the necessary research was an engaging foray into an imaginary world where my car-buying budget was well beyond my real-life means. It was fun and slightly addictive.

Back in the real world and limited by a middle class bank account, my spouse and I just purchased two new-to-us used cars after similar (but far more constrained) research. Most of the people I know clucked approvingly at the choices we made but the response I received from one person who’s known me for years surprised me: “You never struck me as THOSE kind of people.” Since then, a couple of my husband’s male acquaintances greeted his arrival in one of the cars with the remark “Now THAT is a car.” It might interest them to know, both cars were love at first drive for my husband, though not necessarily at first sight. One he dismissed at first with the remark, “Looks like a hearse.” The other he seemed too disengaged from for a comment. The same man dismissed one of the cars we test drove with a curt, “This just isn’t me.”

We didn’t intend to make any kind of statement with our purchases but car choices do say something, even if it’s only “I was in a hurry and didn’t have a lot of money” (exhibit A: the Geo Metro we once owned). You might ask what kind of person drives a jacked-up red pickup that hangs on your bumper and peels off indignantly when in fact you are going the speed limit (no, really, I want this guys’ plate number so I can turn him in)? Or who drives a blue Buick sedan about 10 MPH below the limit (All right, that would have been my mother)? Or who is that in the black van with the tinted windows (Truly, we don’t want to know)? Or who buys a car that matches their wild pantsuit (see Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety)?

Our expectations can be so raised by vehicles that there is a comic effect when the driver pops out and is a different person than we’d come to believe was behind the wheel. Maybe the jacked-up red truck is driven by a wizened old priest? Could it be the Buick is driven by a 7-foot professional wrestler? The black van, for that matter, might just be operated by a kindergarten teacher. Seeing my husband hop out of our black Volvo Cross Country had, I guess, a different effect than seeing him rise out of the white Prius (to those who knew the beat up old Subaru Forester he used to drag down the logging roads). Perhaps that was all my commentator meant: two people who drove the same old shabby colorful cars for so long do look out of place in newer vehicles. Still, can’t the padre drive a little slower?

Wherefore Art Thou JarJar?

NPR recently aired a story about an author who specializes in translating Star Wars movies into Shakespearean language. Along the way, he has managed to take one of the most hated characters of the franchise, the fawning, simple-minded, suspiciously accented JarJar Binks, and added unexpected depth and interest to him. We may never grow to love JarJar, but now, using a couple of Shakespeare’s common techniques, the aside to the audience and the clown or fool character used as a disguise, we can understand him better. This is an inspiring example of how to add shading and dimension to a character to enhance the interest of and connection to the reader.

Your characters may not actually have any other dimensions to add (i.e. they may just be that shallow) but you might reconsider their cause after seeing what a little extra detail work could do. I have known a few people who put on accents or goofy personas when they want to disarm others. I have seen the ploy be too successful as well, to the point that the actor cannot be taken seriously anymore. If this author is to be believed, that is exactly the case for JarJar and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for thinking worse of him. I reserve the right to wince anyway.

Panicking is Permitted

A colleague sent around this link after one of our spelling cops virtually rapped him on the knuckles for a blooper on one of our reports.  This is a useful exposition on when to double your consonants for participles in English, with a brief note on the variation between British and American English. Apropos of the article, the “cop” replied “I apologise,” a spelling that trips my spell check here in the colonies but is perfectly fine across the pond. The typo-criminal above should take heart (and so should the rest of us), though, in this BBC news commentary (about “words spelt incorrectly,” another phrase that sets my spell check off). The writer suggests (despite oodles of articles to the contrary on LinkedIn, one of which she cites) that spelling errors are not a sign of stupidity but can be the opposite, a sign that the writer is a competent professional much more concerned with form and structure. Since senior management at most companies is not that enlightened however, we need our cops to keep watching.

P.S. Maybe, though, we don’t need to get as spastic as Weird Al does in “Word Crimes.”

Shaken and Stirred

I recently received this useful piece of advice from Larry Niven via a quote in an email:

If you want to know that the story you’re working on is saleable, try this: I tell it at a cocktail party. I dreamed up “The Flight of the Horse” one morning, outlined it that afternoon, and by that night was telling the tale to a clutch of cousins. I held their attention. I didn’t miss any points. I kept them laughing. The noise level didn’t drown out anything subtle and crucial. Then, of course, I knew how to write it down so I could mail it and sell it.

 I told the sequel the same way (“Leviathan!”) and sold it to Playboy for what was then fantastic money. 

 This makes for good memories. It’s also a useful technique. 

 Some of the best stories simply can’t be told this way, and I can’t help you write those. Nobody can. They are rule-breakers. Try some early Alfred Bester collections. But any story you can tell as a cocktail/dinner conversation, without getting confused and without losing your audience to distractions, is a successful story. 

—Larry Niven

If you’re like me and you don’t typically get into social situations where throwing out your latest story would be welcome, I’ve found walking through it aloud on my own can be helpful. I have even recorded my “pitch sessions.” EXTRA TIP: If you run through your pitch aloud in the car, stop talking to yourself at the stoplight, especially if you live in a state where cellphone use in cars is illegal and, like me, you work in the same building as the state police headquarters.

Plumbers in Space

Since the Atlantic posted an interview with Stephen King regarding his thoughts on teaching writing, there have been a number of echoes on the web. I came across this one on LinkedIn in which the author notes that several of King’s musings from the book On Writing proved valuable even to the process of writing non-fiction pieces, although King is better known as a fiction writer. The author notes that King’s confidential style spoke to him as a person and helped boost his confidence as a writer. The last section of the blog post devoted to lessons gleaned from King deals with “what to write” and is worth reviewing if you are scratching your head over that very question. More than once, it assures you that whatever you want is fine, even if it’s “plumbers in space.” Seeing that advice reminded me of the Scottish Book Trust  creative writing master class series with Keith Gray on YouTube which includes a suggestion to try mixing up genres to create fresh material.

While you are waiting for the various disparate pieces of your ideas to fall into place, you can surely do worse than King’s classic advice to “read a lot.”

My Little Town

So the setting of your next work is a small town. What does that mean? Will everyone ride tractors and have pet pigs? If you are one of the writers of the television series Sleepy Hollow, on which the characters often whine about the tiny size of the town and there being “nothing to do,” this must mean fewer than 3 Starbucks per block and fewer than 8 lanes on the interstate. Others have written about the how the fictional size of the town as depicted on the show is much greater than the actual size of the real town (by about 16 times) so I am not the only person who has noticed the disjoint and wondered how a place with over 100K people got classed as “small” (let alone a “town”). By this definition, there are no cities in the whole state of Maine. It may be that this is just a sly inside joke (like the winking awareness that an outfit worn by a character buried underground for 250 years who was then dragged through several messy adventures might smell a tad rank). If not, however, it’s a good example of geographic dysmorphia (inability to accurately gauge the relative size of a population).

At this point, let me note my creds on the subject. First, I have lived in Carthage, South Dakota. We may disagree over whether my current hometown of about 6K is “rural” or “suburban” in setting or the real Sleepy Hollow (about 9K) is a large or small town. Carthage, however, (at 300 residents back in my day, about half that now) should provoke no debate. It is the only town in which I have lived that had tumbleweeds blowing down the main street (for a peek at this town, check out the movie Into The Wild).

I also have published a paper on access to healthy food in rural areas. In order to get into print, I had to run a gauntlet of internal and external reviewers who could accept my definition of “rural.” Let’s just say, having survived some animated discussions on the topic, coming to an agreeable definition can and does provoke debate. For the record, I used the U.S. Census Bureau definition: a place with fewer than 2,500 people.

I have my quarrels with the census definition too. Having lived in Chamberlain, South Dakota, which skates the edge of the number used for a bright line, I have seen how the degree to which that edge can be ragged. Chamberlain is a key service community and county seat. It is more built up than the town in which I currently live, which is more than twice the size.

I do not think of my current neighborhood as “rural,” though it has no city sewer or water, no sidewalks, and no streetlights, because the road is paved and the houses are visible to each other.  Friends visiting me from a more urban area asked beforehand if I “still lived in the country.” The question gave me pause, as I had previously lived in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Augusta, Maine, with city services and a WalMart less than a mile away (Starbucks came later). When they got to my new house, they teased, “Geez, how far away is the supermarket? Ten miles?” Actually it’s eleven, but there are two decent grocery stores five miles away. I have seen worse (see: Carthage, South Dakota). We have no Starbucks but we do have a Subway and the adjacent town of about 15K does have both Starbucks and an interstate.

What the Sleepy Hollow case shows is that the relative size of a setting makes more sense if based on local definitions. To that end, I suggest visiting an actual smallish town (hint: less than 20K to start) to get some real experience if you don’t have any of your own. Listen to chatter at the diner. Count the tractors. Ask someone where the nearest city can be found and where people shop. It might just be someplace without a Starbucks.