The month of May I took a sabbatical to Seattle, where my friend and playwright/screenwriter (the indomitable Katherine Gee Perrone!) helped me plot my latest novel. Because when you’re stuck, ask for help! Writing doesn’t always have to be a completely solitary vocation. But I digress. The most helpful part of our plotting session was learning some good screenwriting terminology that helped me cement in my mind how I like plots to be constructed, both as a reader and as a writer.

“Beats lead to beats!” she’d say every time I got stuck. And isn’t that the true essence of plot–more so than, say, “stuff happens” or “the characters did stuff”?

Just to make the terminology clear, in screenwriting, a beat “refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal” (via Dr. Wikipedia). Even if your character goes to the store to pick up a gallon of milk, how does that affect the story? (Granted, some readers like books where Stuff Happens that isn’t obviously moving the plot forward, so YMMV).

Speaking to the zeitgeist, I see two different ways this is employed in storytelling. One is the Outlander model, more episodic than any novel I’ve read. Each chapter of Outlander feels self-contained, so while some beats lead to the next beat within the chapter, many of the events of each chapter only yield consequences further down the line. The advantage of episodic storytelling is to give the reader time and space to feel immersed in the world–and the Highlands of 1743 is a world I don’t mind being a tourist in. Still, as I’m reading I can see that something that Claire and Jamie do or say will affect the plot later in the novel, so I’m never disoriented by having lost the “thread” of the plot.
The second method is the style of storytelling employed by Mad Max: Fury Road. The pace is breakneck. Each character’s decision leads to immediate and forceful consequences. What with the action scenes and blocking, the plot of MM:FR feels like a Rube Goldberg machine–in some action scenes, I mean this statement literally. The advantage in this method (manifold) is that your reader feels a sense of danger and urgency but also continuity. It’s not hard to keep track of where each character is in their arc, because the story doesn’t give you time to forget. The character Nux is the best example of this, since his arc is the most dramatic, (SPOILER AHEAD) going from being a minion of the villain to an ally of the protagonists. The scene where he “turns” from one side to the other makes sense, even given how short it is and with such little dialogue, because we’ve JUST seen him mess something up (END SPOILER)…no time is wasted with the dialogue remind the audience of what Nux has already been through and where his head is at.

A nice thing about plotting with a “beat leads to beat” style is that you can get a nice mix of character-driven and event-driven plot (internal forces vs external forces driving the story forward), because a beat can be decisions that come straight from the characters and also external events and circumstances. However, for me, the advantage of keeping this phrase in mind while plotting is that the plot feels like there is a continuous thread tying it all together. That sense of continuity is ubiquitous in Western storytelling, and your readers are probably looking for that.

I’m an Amateur Writer Because…

I say “novel” after clearly stating something as fantasy (i.e. “Please consider my fantasy novel”).

I’m submitting to a publisher even though I self-published my book last week.

I don’t really read books, but I enjoy writing them.

I’m querying a book I haven’t finished writing—or even started for that matter.

I take my manuscript to book signings with the hope that my favorite published authors will show it to their agents.

I say I want to be a writer when I haven’t written anything.

In the case of queries…

I tell agents that my book is unique without saying why, mostly because I don’t know.

Instead of stating the major conflict of my story, I say that my book is about inner discovery.

I’m querying a novel I haven’t finished yet.

I’m asking an agent to please consider my 125,000 word middle grade novel.

My book is a YA, but all the main characters are adults or nine years old.

I say my book has 27 chapters and is 307 pages long. I don’t bother to mention the word count.

My story is about the battle between good and evil, and I will neglect to tell you anything else about it in my query.

I tell agents that I know they’ll enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Sometimes it’s hard to be professional. As writers, we desperately want to get published, and, in the case of those who are already published, we desperately hope that our next book will sell too. Regardless of what publishing state you’re in, don’t forget the basics. Remember to hang in there. Because it’s the writers who stick with it, no matter what, who make it.

Hang in There Kitty

Escapist Magazine

Strong Female Characters (TM)

So in the last month, I feel like there’s been a resurgence of uproar about women in media and the mythological Strong Female Character (TM). Between Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers film to the horrid debacle that is Game of Thrones and Sansa’s character arc and the newly released Mad Max: Fury Road (which I have not yet seen), there’s been lots and lots of talk about what it means to be a Strong Female Character (TM) and how if a female character isn’t a Strong Female Character (TM), then she is some how weak, less valuable than her fellow characters, and deserves all sorts of awful things that happen to her.

And this is why I kind of think the whole concept of Strong Female Character (TM) is a bunch of bunk.

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When people talk about SFCs, they’re usually only using the word “strong” in the physical sense of the word. SFCs are physically strong and feisty and they’re good to have in a fight. Sometimes, SFCs are ultra-tomboys who eschew everything feminine. Other times, they’re more along the lines of Buffy (aka the Vampire Slayer), who enjoys traditionally feminine things like clothes and romance but who is also good in a fight.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with characters like this. Absolutely nothing wrong. There are women who don’t like traditionally feminine things. There are women who like to fight. There are women who are a mix of both. And it’s good and right to have representation of women like this in our media.

My problem is when we start acting like physical strength is the only way to make a female character strong and when we act like the presence or absence of physical strength (usually examined in conjunction with the presence or absence of traditionally feminine qualities or interests) is the sole deciding factor in whether a female character is “worthy” of our interest, if she’s “feminist enough,” or whether or not she deserves awful things happening to her.

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Take for example the backlash over Black Widow from Age of Ultron. In the film, she’s up to her usual ass-kicking but she also (1) had a love interest and (2) expressed some guilt/sadness/conflicting feelings over having been forcibly sterilized as a teenager, and large swaths of the internet lost their minds over this. Suddenly Black Widow was a weak woman. Suddenly she was just another woman who’s head was filled with notions of romance. I saw one criticism that accused her of infantalizing the Hulk so she could unleash all her long-buried maternal instincts upon him. While I will admit that the bulk of her screen time was seen in conjunction with the Hulk and the bulk of her character arc for this movie was a romantic one and that perhaps the movie could have struck a better balance in that regard, but at the same time, what on earth is wrong with a woman having romantic feelings for someone? What is wrong with her mourning the fact that the choice to have children or not was taken from her? (And let’s not forget that she had just relived the memory of being sterilized, so of course that’s wound is going to feel fresh all over again.)

I’m not saying that everyone has to love the way Black Widow’s character has developed, but it would be nice to not rake her over the coals because she’s a single character who cannot please everyone. (This is where the real problem is, by the way. If we had a better spread of female characters who embodied a wide range of interests and personalities and strengths and weaknesses, we wouldn’t spend weeks ripping apart a single character for not being everything we wanted. But that’s for another post.)

What I would love for people to start doing is to recognize that being strong doesn’t just mean being physically strong. As we work to make our media more inclusive, we need to remember that physical strength is not the only way to be strong. A few months ago, I stumbled across a post on tumblr that listed forty-two different kinds of strengths. FORTY-TWO! While some of those strengths were physical (endurance or dance/kinesthetics), none of the strengths on the list had anything to do with combat ability. Most of them were things like “having a keen eye” or “being self-aware” or “willing to be unpopular.” You know what else was on the list? Kindness. Sympathy. Elegance. Emotional intelligence. Style. All of those are things traditionally associated with femininity and none of them are things that are traditionally considered strengths—but adding these qualities to your characters will make them strong and interesting and well-rounded.

So let’s stop pretending that the ability to fight is the only way to measure strength and start recognizing the importance of other kinds of strength.