Monthly Archives: July 2013

It’s Different for Girls (Updated Post)

Warning: This blog post contains massive sweeping generalisations with regard to gender so I expect backlash.  

Controversial statement coming up…

Males and females of the human species differ from each other.

Okay, so it’s not THAT controversial a statement, but as society seems to be preoccupied with gender equality, it can sometimes feel as though we have forgotten this fundamental fact of life. And it is with this thought in mind I bring you to today’s blog.

Recently I have been quibbling with myself over whether my children’s fantasy book, Prophecy of Innocence, will appeal more to girls or boys or will it be equally appealing (or abhorrent!) to children of both genders.

The question of gender equality rears its head on a daily basis for me as a teacher.  Lately it has become the subject of ‘learning walks’  and teaching methods expected to adapt as a result. Debate rages about why girls are under-performing in maths compared to boys and why boys are under-performing in Literacy compared to girls. I don’t have any definitive answers to this, (though I have my somewhat left field theories) and I’ll not explore this here because: ,

a) the question is too broad & I’m not writing an education based blog,

b) the answer depends on individuals and

c) I’m writing a blog not a dissertation so I will just leave you to dwell on what you think about that for yourselves.

Instead I’ll leave this mystery for my managers to unravel for me. However,  I will say this: I think we should stop ignoring the fact the genders are different and (another massive controversial statement ahoy) stop trying to make girls and boys the same, because whether we like it or not, males and females of the human species are not cut from the same cloth, no matter what gender stereotyping we subject them to or keep  hidden from them.

So, back to my original thought on whether Prophecy of Innocence will appeal overall more to one gender or the other. I can honestly say I do not know for certain yet. However, my little pupil beta readers so far are coming back pretty even on the enjoyment factor in terms of gender of readers.

As some background, I  have no qualms in admitting I am not a conventionally ‘girly’ girl.  I do not particularly enjoy romance novels or ‘Rom Com’ films and my favourite books and films err on the side of the male dominated realms of fantasy, adventure, crime, historical epics and comic book superheroes. (My best female friend calls them ‘brown’ films and books!) So when I began writing Prophecy of Innocence it was with these influences I set off. However, despite these influences, I am a woman and so I think like a woman and therefore I probably write like a woman. In other words, when  reflecting on my writing, I have found I have delved far more into the psychology and the humanity of the characters than perhaps, arguably, is necessary for a children’s fantasy adventure story.

As I believe the fantasy adventure genre is quite a male dominated genre… ( I warned you  I would make sweeping generalisations regarding gender, but these are what they are – generalisations and I know the ‘rules’ don’t apply to all.) Anyway the fact that fantasy adventure seems to be dominated largely by my male counterparts  has caused me some  concern with my writing. I remember, as I wrote the first draft, specifically thinking: “I need more action. I need a battle scene; perhaps some death, because otherwise this won’t appeal to boys.” (I spend a lot of time planning lessons for my pupils in this way too – minus the battle scenes and death.) In general I find I consciously think more about what will appeal to boys  than I consciously think about what might appeal to girls. I wonder if  this is because I am not male and so have to try harder to think like one.  When I am not consciously thinking about it,  I believe my natural writing style inclines more towards  female readers.

So with this in mind what I think I have ended up with is essentially a story for children rather than either for boys or girls. At least I hope. A balance of both. I think parts of it will appeal more to boys, some parts more to girls. This I don’t think is a bad thing, but would I be criticised for not stopping to think about the issue of gender appeal in the first place?  I know Book 2 will appeal more to boys because this is where they will get their battles and wars, but for now Book 1 is a story about how those come about.  I didn’t embark on the journey with a specific target gender in mind. But the more I write, the more the question has come to mind. Who will this appeal to? Should I have considered the question more when I started? Did C.S Lewis think about it when he wrote the Narnia stories? Did Tolkien think of it when writing Lord of the Rings? Did JK Rowling consider the issue when she wrote Harry Potter?

I have now started questioning the issue of gender appeal related to children’s literature even further. I would go as far as to say I believe there is a gap in the UK market for fantasy adventure stories written for girls  but is this because  girls are largely not a fan of the genre rather than there are no books out there for them? I see solely from the girls I teach that they like, for example, Jacqueline Wilson’s books. Girls, I have found, appear to like stories related to real life; stories about relationships and their effects. As it seems do women. (Yes I know this is not true of all.)  Boys, on the other hand, seem to enjoy escaping real life a bit more. Not just in books but through their play. They seem to prefer action and adventure more too. On further researching this, most of the blogs and books I have come across in the MG fantasy genre are also, it seems, written by men. I feel quite alone in the writing community writing fantasy adventure for the 9-11 age bracket in the UK. And from what I read on male author’s blogs and in their books is that they write action, battles, danger, magic, monsters. Stuff which appeals to boys. I wonder perhaps that male authors might not need to  consciously think about writing these things as much as I do simply because they are male and these subjects are inherent to their psychology?

I have many more thoughts on the issues surrounding the question of gender appeal in YA and children’s literature but I would like to hear what others think.  Should this issue of gender appeal in children’s books even matter? Art is subjective after all and literature is just one form of art. Surely we enjoy what we enjoy regardless of our gender?  Or do we? Do the rules not apply in the case of literature or if you happen to be under a certain age? I know I certainly don’t fit the stereotype I’m putting forth here.

Since originally writing this post I have now actually come across a contemporary fantasy adventure MG novel series written by a female author from the UK. Having read it, it felt very much as though girls would enjoy it more as the main protagonist is a girl and most of the main characters are female and it just has a more ‘girly’ feel to it all round. Personally it didn’t appeal to me, although a sound enough story and well enough written, I actually found the main protagonist quite annoying, dare I say.  I’m reading another book at the moment with a female protagonist who I’m finding rather irritating although I’m loving the novel itself so I can forgive the fact I’m not keen on her! Strangely I find my own main female character in Prophecy equally annoying and difficult to write.

Thus, I have had a sudden epiphany with regards to my writing:

I have concluded…drum roll please… I perhaps need to work on being a better writer of female characters.

I will not dwell on what this conclusion says about me personally.

Thanks as always for reading. The longest journey in writing history continues.

(P.S: Women: feel free to bash me with feminist views in the comments box below. I probably deserve it.)

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What I wish I’d known about writing before writing: 8 Handy Tips

Who knew there was so much to writing?

Well not me for one.  Surely you have a creative idea or just something interesting to write about,  then just put one word down on the page after the next, make sure your punctuation and grammar stacks up okay and hey presto! Done.

Of course this is not so.

Since  finishing the first draft of Prophecy of Innocence back in January, I have discovered numerous focuses for editing and I keep finding more. Every time I find a new one, I have to go back  and re edit.

So for any other novice authors out there, here are 8 really useful tips  for writing which I’d wish I’d known before actually writing, complete with links to the original blogs I found help and advice. I hope you find them as useful as I have.

Number 1: That or which?

I never even knew I had a problem with this until it was pointed out to me by a relative who read my story. Apparently I used “that” excessively (over 700 of the blighters in a 70,000 word document)! It was only after having it pointed out to me I could see plainly how dreadful my work sounded (see point 2).  Co-incidentally, shortly afterwards I found the following blog on this very topic. I am now far more enlightened and it was the first error to be subject to my editing axe. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/which-versus-that.aspx

Number 2: Proofreading aloud. 

I have already blogged on this very subject (see Reading Aloud) and perhaps if I had followed the advice to read my manuscript aloud in the first place, I maybe would have spotted the terrible overuse of ‘that’ much sooner. But this tip was part of a wider set of tips on proofreading aimed actually at blogging. Nevertheless the principle remains the same for writing a novel and it works!  http://www.problogger.net/archives/2013/05/22/7-steps-to-proofreading-like-a-pro

Number 3: Verbs.

Ah. To be or not to be? Well I avoid it like the plague where possible because, although I do know the difference between been and being (theoretically) I still never seem to choose the correct one 100% of the time. Or even 75% of the time if I’m really honest. Luckily for me, the entire rest of the world can do this and so anyone who has  read my work for me has spotted any errors in this department!

However the use of strong verbs is always one of the first edits to be done as when I write I just write whatever verb comes into my head first and then I use a thesaurus to search for stronger verbs if they are needed or if I have repeated the same one too much.

http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/05/writing-exercise-flexing-your-verbs.html

The main issue I found with verbs was some advice I found on using the past tense. The blog basically stated that wherever you had used  a verb ending in ing replace it with the past tense. Strangely I had peppered many sentences with present tense verbs, thinking I was enhancing the variety of my sentence structures (here comes the teacher in me!) but this very straightforward advice has really improved my story.

Verbs for dialogue are another interesting conundrum. Overuse said and is it boring? Overuse it and are you patronising or distracting your reader? I find writing a children’s book tricky as I feel it is almost my duty to introduce them to an array of interesting verbs. But perhaps this is the teacher in me surfacing again rather than the author. The following blog  touches on this area.

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/10/04/dialogue-mistakes

and brings me to the next editing issue:

Number 4: Dialogue.

As the above link demonstrates, writing dialogue is in itself a huge challenge. Personally I prefer it to description which I consider to be my weakness, nevertheless I have edited the dialogue endlessly to ensure it propels the story forward, gives insight to motives and actions of characters and makes sure I have not overused the character’s names either in speech or in dialogue tags. I have had to edit how some characters show their accents or give them a quirk which makes them different in some way. The other elephant in the room when it has come to dialogue is the overuse of adverbs after or preceding speech.

Number 5: Adverbs/Show not Tell/Head hopping and Point of view. 

Once again the teacher in me felt compelled to pepper my story with adverbs. Surely (yes, I have just used an adverb) they make a sentence come to life and enhance the verb we have used? They build a picture in our head don’t they? They show us how a character feels? No they don’t. Well at least not sufficiently enough to allow our writing to come alive.

First of all they encourage telling rather than showing and I discovered eliminating most of the adverbs I had used really forced me into thinking about showing the actions and emotions of characters in more detail  rather than telling the reader about them. Using adverbs also encourages head hopping form one character’s point of view to another which is confusing. I’m not sure I want to be responsible for confusing children when they read my story!  Furthermore, I  read somewhere else that Stephen King avoids the use of adverbs where possible.  Apparently they are the sign of a ‘lazy’ writer. I think they serve their purpose well enough in first draft, but they definitely need to be used wisely and sparingly (no irony intended there).

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2013/04/28/writing-emotional-wreck

Number 6. Semi colons

Does anyone really know when to use a semi colon? I had used a lot of them. Largely because whenever a green squiggly grammar line appeared on my screen, popping  a semi colon in seemed to eradicate it! So it seems even Word doesn’t know when to use a semi colon. Then I found the following blog. I’m not sure I still fully understand the intricacies of their use but I will be using this to help me edit those pesky punctuation marks. (As well as  ignoring Word’s squiggly green lines!)

http://expertedge.journalexperts.com/2013/06/18/editing-tip-of-the-week-semicolon-usage/

Number 7: Back stories.

All characters have back stories. But do their back stories need to be told explicitly? After having read the blog on the following link, uh oh – here was another mistake I’d made – thankfully, I had not delved in too deep and so the subsequent edit was not as painful to do as others have been. I  personally like back stories told in novels. I like to go back in the story and find out why a character has acted in a certain way but I realise this is something which is very tricky to achieve without stopping the flow of the main plot.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-weave-backstory-seamlessly-into-your-novel

and finally

Number 8: Self editing.

I thought to myself: “I can’t be cut out for writing a book if I am having to learn all these things and go back and change them and change them again and change them again. Consequently, there have been  so many times I have been ready to give up. Then I read the following blog and immediately felt more positive about the whole process.  Even established authors with editors often edit their own work numerous times first. It was this blog which has helped me to focus on a timeline for editing and proof reading before I begin to delve into the murky waters of self publishing.

http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/06/how-i-self-edit-my-novels-15-steps-from.html

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Of Monsters and Men

FlotsaithI suspect a prerequisite of writing in the fantasy genre is that there should appear a mythical monster or beast in my story which delays or hinders the hero’s progress in some way. One may appear yet in Books 2 and 3, but for now Book 1 of Prophecy of Innocence contains no such character or characters. Not even a minor one.

No doubt this will come as a disappointment to many who may automatically expect the heroes of our story to battle and slay some terribly hideous creature at some point. So why have I chosen to omit such a key element of the genre?

Firstly and foremost  there has been no reason as of yet, to include one in order to propel the story forward. The enemies – the ‘baddies’ if you will -are human beings. In Prophecy men are the monsters. Therefore it seems superfluous to include any further major adversaries at this juncture.

Ah, you say, but what about Harry Potter? His enemy is Lord Voldemort, a wizard like Harry (albeit it a much more twisted, evil and warped version of a wizard). However, despite this,  the seven books are still littered with wonderful creations and versions of traditional mythical beasts, such as the three headed dog or the giant spider Aragog. Similarly in The Lord of the Rings trilogy we encounter the Balrog , Shelob and Orcs to mention but a few, although they are all minor characters when you think of Frodo’s ultimate quest. Nevertheless, these beasts exist in the stories and help to shape them. That is fine for those stories and other similar ones, but I just didn’t feel the inclusion of this type of character would add anything to Prophecy of Innocence. Yet.

Secondly, upon reflection, the exclusion of mythical type creatures was not even as conscious a decision as the above paragraph might suggest.  I think actually they are not included simply because the mythical beasts and creatures element of fantasy fiction does not excite me very much. It never has, even as a child. And if I have no passion for such an element then I don’t believe I will write about it effectively. The fantastical beasts, monsters or creatures found in such stories are generally the aspect of the tale I find least interesting, perhaps because I know they will be slain or overcome and so there is an anticipated and expected outcome. Personally, I rarely feel they add much. There are exceptions of course, such as The Dementors in the Harry Potter books, but essentially monsters and beasts are usually a means to an end. Either to hinder or help a character. I have simply found other means of hindering and helping my main protagonists.

As I am writing a children’s book, am I missing a trick here? Do children need and expect monsters in their fantasy stories? In the feedback I have received from children so far there has been no request to add any in or disappointment voiced at there being none included. Perhaps children just enjoy a good story with or without mythical beasts.

In both the epics mentioned above it has been more the struggle the main protagonists face against their own kind (essentially the human nature of the characters, even if they are not actually human beings) which has kept me gripped.

What is it that causes  Tom Riddle,  an ordinary wizard to begin with, turn to such evil? What is it about the nature of hobbits and men in LOTR which allows the ring to corrupt them so?  In Prophecy of Innocence  the themes of power,  good versus evil and the internal conflicts and struggles among beings exist, just as they do in many other traditional fantasy tales. The difference is I have chosen to explore these themes without the monsters.

Is mine a classic fantasy adventure tale in the true sense? Perhaps not. But then where’s the fun in doing exactly what’s been done before?

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