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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Third Draft Struggles

So you may, if you've been following this blog for any length of time, be wondering what happened to The Unravelling, formerly known as Resilience, the novel I finished the first draft of in May 2011, and workshopped the second draft of at Wiscon in May 2012 (after rashly remarking to an agent or two, in my whirlwind tour of NYC en route to that Wiscon, that I'd most likely have it done by this fall...)

Well, the spring round of feedback (at Wiscon and by email) was mixed. Happily, while mixed in degree (from "even if published as is it would be my favorite book of the year" to "I'm sorry, I just honestly couldn't get through it"), it was actually remarkably consistent in direction: a clear consensus picture emerged. The first seventy pages were a slog, infodumpy and contrived; after that, the plot got going and was exciting and involving for a few hundred pages, before falling apart into flail at the end. Much of the general worldbuilding was daring and fun and almost-worked... with a few glaring errors of consistency. The main character and secondary-romantic-interest were pretty relatable. The primary-romantic-interest suffered from a serious case of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. Some of the extrapolative sfnal tweaks I was going for -- the panoptic social control, the many-parent family structures, the social centrality of birth order, the polysomatic thing -- delivered. Others -- the economic system in general -- were vague and handwavy. And one, upon which I had loaded much of the thematic energy of the book -- the handling of gender -- was, while intriguing in places, ultimately a faily mess (as was, separately, the evocation of transgender experience).

To paraphrase one particularly perceptive, insightful and ruthless critiquer1: "you've basically taken all the things you don't like about being a man and moved them to the female gender."

I left this process with a mix of feelings: profoundly grateful for the kind of allies who would let me fall on my face with them, instead of in front of the world, and tell me so. Excited about the new depth that would be available to the book if I followed the paths that the critique opened up. Exhausted. Demoralized. Fascinated by what I'd learned about the book and myself. Petulant that it wasn't just freaking done already.

I spent our summer in America somewhat in shock (and not just about the book; a high school friend I loved a lot, and didn't always keep as close as I wanted to, died in June) -- and mostly nestling in with old friends. But I also did, I think -- as regards the book -- two smart things. First, I gave myself a short remedial survey course in trans* issues by reading Bornstein, Califia, Kennedy, and Serano. Second, I had a series of story conferences with my friend Jamey, who combines a) a great deal of native talent as a writer and editor, b) a similar esthetic groove to mine, c) an abundance of possibly unwarranted confidence in me, and d) a distance from, and indifference to, the fiction publishing industry, which allows him an enviable unjadedness none of us beaten-down pros and almost-pros can approach. Just what I needed, in other words.

When I got back to Switzerland, Civ IV ate, to be completely honest, another month; I guess that was healing?

Now the new year has begun, and since we welcomed in 5773, I am more or less back on the horse, clocking words-per-day.

The first practical thing I did, revision-wise, was flip the pronouns.

See, I figured I'd created wholly new genders for this future society. Bail and Pale; extravert and introvert; a Kirk gender and a Spock gender, if you will. I'd divided up the pie of gender anew, replaced our gender ideology of "hard" and "soft" with a different one of "fast" and "slow".

I made the Bails "she" and the Pales "he" (mostly because invented pronouns are hard to pull off, on a line level, at novel length) -- but this was, I thought, a relatively arbitrary assignment. It could be inverted just as easily. The point was partly to destabilize the reader, to make them aware of their assumptions, of how they inevitably read "she" and "he" through a certain filter -- and then to keep upending that. And this part of the experiment did, I think, have some moderate success.

But. As noted -- there was also a good deal of fail.

When I began revisions for the third draft, I tried flipping the genders, making Pales "she" and Bails "he". (It's actually not as trivial to implement this as you might think; it's not just a search-and-replace. This is because, annoyingly, "her" maps to both "him" and "his" -- you have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, which one you mean. Similarly, "his" maps to both "her" and "hers". It took a day of fiddling, but finally I had everyone's gender swapped).

I suggest you do the experiment sometime, with something you've written. It's mind-blowing. Maybe particularly because I'd set myself up for a fall, by imagining I'd written Pale and Bail outside our associations of gender.

The same characters, with the same in-world genders, taking the same in-world actions, read totally differently in terms of reader sympathy. I'm hard put to say more without spoilers, but actions which, when Fift was a "he", seemed rash but self-evidently necessary, somehow suddenly, now that Fift is a "she", seem bizarre and selfish. Shria's Bailish sexual forwardness, when she was a "she", seemed provocative but also stimulating, attractive; how that he's a "he", it seems predatory and gross2. Switch the pronouns on "proud, rebellious teenage male" and you get "mentally ill teenage girl"; switch the pronouns on "manic pixie dreamgirl" and you get "asshole".

What's distinct about this experiment -- compared to, say, running a different story through the filter at regender.com -- is that in this case, nothing at all changed in-world. The Bails are still Bails, the Pales are still Pales3, and the expressed gender norms of their society, and their own conformance or non-conformance therewith, remain identical. The hypothetical manuscript in its "original language" -- the story were it written in the language of the world it takes place in -- is unchanged; all that I've done is changed the rules for translating it into English.

The immediate pull I felt, when beginning to revise on the line level, was to deal with these sudden problems of sympathy and identification by subtly shaping the characters back into different stereotypical modes of their new (pronomial) genders. Line edits to Shria's dialogue suddenly conspire to shift him from "asshole" into "Bad Boy" -- to put him into the traditional dangerous-but-redeemable-and-secretly-vulnerable, Heathcliff/Darcy/Rochester/sparkly-vampire territory. I have to yank my fingers back from the keyboard just in time, because that's not who Shria ever was.

To correct for this, I am now, honest to Moses, writing the book in "pxe/pxir/pxim/pxims" and "bxe/bxir/bxim/bxims"; I have set up Scrivener filters to compile it into she/he and he/she versions, and am reading each scene each way with each step of revision.

The result of this whole literary experiment may end up being a complete mess, but at least it has given me this sharp and disturbing glimpse of the Patriarchy, dybbuk-like, controlling my fingers at the keyboard.

1. Okay, it was Meghan McCarron.

2. This is because we read sex -- at least sex between women and men, and I expect the reading distorts our understanding of same-sex sex too? -- as something of value which is either given by woman to a man, or taken by a man from a woman.

3. Though I think I'm actually going to rename the "Pale" gender, as readers had trouble telling the words "Bail" and "Pale" apart -- they are too similar phonetically. I tried a made-up word ("Evvail") but I hated it; it needs to be a real, simple, basic, Anglo-Saxon word in English, in order to feel like such a core part of linguistic experience as gender. Current front-runner is "Staid".

Posted by benrosen at October 24, 2012 07:20 PM | Up to blog

Just minutes ago I was telling Janet how Civilization is one of my favorite games, but I've never played any of the sequels (other than the atrocious NetCiv) because of fear of losing a month to it. Unfortunately, I've been sucked back into playing the original lately through the magic of DosBox and the download availability of "abandonware." I justify it a bit by telling myself it is research for my game design book--but if I'm honest the "research" is completed in about 5 minutes of game play.

Posted by: Ethan at October 24, 2012 02:33 PM

You're talking about Civ I, Ethan? Wow, that's pretty far back -- I don't know that I actually ever played the real original version. I remember playing Civ II and Civ III. Civ IV was IMHO an improvement on those predecessors, a deep and rich game that gives you that distinct feeling of being inside history. I never tried Civ V as everything I read about it tended to imply they'd made it more of a wargame (albeit, perhaps, a better wargame).

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 24, 2012 03:50 PM

Great entry; thanks for writing this up, and thanks for doing the work behind it. (The Scrivener compile-both-ways approach sounds especially cool; I'm tempted to do that with modern-human characters too, though I suppose Regender might be sufficient for that.) I'm really looking forward to seeing where the gender stuff ends up in this book.

Reading your paraphrase of Meghan's comment, I had simultaneous "Ouch!" and "Yeah" reactions. :) Good point, Meghan.

I think I like "Staid" as a replacement for "Pale." I think a lot of the problem I had with the terms "Bail" and "Pale" wasn't that they were too similar, so much as that I had a hard time remembering which term went with which gender; they seemed like arbitrary names. So I think I would've had the same problem if they were, say, "Foo" and "Bar." Though I think I didn't have a lot of trouble with the terms while reading the book, 'cause I'd heard the terms enough times when you had read pieces of it aloud.

...I mildly wonder, though, if using a more obviously descriptive term like "Staid" might (a) make readers wonder why "Bail" isn't also obviously descriptive, and (b) make it harder for readers to think of it as a gender per se.

But I suspect those fears are unfounded; I suspect it'll work well.

Posted by: Jed at October 24, 2012 04:13 PM

To tell you the truth, Jed, I'm not totally sold on "Staid" for just that reason -- that it's maybe too on the nose, too overtly descriptive. Actually "Bail" seems to me to have the right distance from the ideological "quick/extrovert/flighty/violent/physically powerful/adventurous/exploring/emotional" frame of that gender... it's not literally a descriptive of it, but the verb "to bail" suggests both rapid and violent movement (bailing out a boat) and emotional volatility (to bail on a project) so that there's a tangential, hopefully-unconscious connection. Whereas "Staid" is more WYSIWYG. I am open to suggestions for a better alternative to "Staid"...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 24, 2012 04:27 PM

Yep, Civilization 1. Still a great game!

I haven't had the advantage of reading your drafts so far, but while "Bail" does suggest flighty to me, it doesn't really match with adventurous/powerful/exploring/etc. to me (all those seem the opposite of "bailing out" of something).

Posted by: Ethan at October 24, 2012 05:15 PM

On the occasions when I do write, I almost inevitably switch genders between drafts. Occasionally multiple times per character. I sympathize with the lack of an easy search-and-replace option.

....and I sympathize with all the inherent gender assumptions and stereotypes that come flooding out every time. Which I read as more having to do with me, and the way I read gender.

Example? In this novella, I've switched the protagonist from female to male, and now I'm seriously considering switching back to female. In her original incarnation, as Beatrice, she watched in horror as her brother first verbally and then physically abused her nephew. In the second incarnation, as Jan, he went over and clocked his brother on the head with a shovel, ending the abuse.

Why was the male protagonist able to take action, to use violence to stop a violent situation, when his female double was unable to? I think this says at least as much about me and the frightening degree to which I've internalized these stereotypes of passivity/action as it does about the culture that promotes them.

But I think the characters benefit from the switching. I think they benefit from edits that move them subtly from original stereotype into new stereotype, a la "asshole" to "Bad Boy." Because it's not a full switch: they have all the inertia of the original portrayal. So they tend become more complex, less 2-dimensional, with every iteration. I think they have more options and actions available to them every time I struggle to bring my own gender stereotypes into line.

And so I'm thinking of switching Jan back to Beatrice, because I want Beatrice to have the ability to take action---even unacceptable action--- when something truly awful happens in her family. Because as a woman, I'd like to have that option on the table.

ps. If you ever teach at Clarion, Ben, will you make gender flipping an exercise that you teach?

Posted by: Jackie M. at October 24, 2012 06:36 PM

Jackie, I just added it to my "If I Ever Teach Clarion" list!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 24, 2012 07:19 PM

I was just mulling on footnote two, and wondering whether and how "the reading distorts our understanding of same-sex sex too"; and I was going to venture that this is maybe at least a part of why lesbian sex is exploited in our culture-and-current-historical moment as harmless fun offered up for the male gaze -- it doesn't mean Katy Perry is in-love to-night! -- while gay male sex is almost exclusively portrayed as scary and threatening (or pathetic and heartwarming, maybe, but that's not really the actual sex, is it, it's more the weeping-by-the-bedside-while-he-dies-of-AIDS?) If women are always giving and men are always taking, then women giving it to each other are generating a surplus for the benefit of the ring of guys egging them on at the bar, while men performing the act of love are inevitably at war with one another?

Now that I've typed that up I wonder if the huge cultural practice of slash fanfiction (from its ancestral Kirk/Spock on down) belies it. Or just subverts the trend? Or is the trope of hot struggly pseudo-competition taking-from-one-another a central theme there? I don't read enough slash to know...

Anyway, clearly I'm kinda out of my depth of analysis here...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 24, 2012 07:43 PM

Random idea: Do a kind of "Dictionary of the Khazars" thing and release both compiled versions. No longer economically suicidal in these days of e-books. Could trigger a whole bunch of interesting conversations.

Posted by: mathew at October 24, 2012 07:58 PM

There is some really intelligent commentary on the "women writing Kirk/Spock" slash, and how it is kind of exploitive of the gay experience? But, admittedly, in a different way from the stereotypes you just described. Now, if only I could find the relevant links...

Posted by: Jackie M. at October 24, 2012 08:07 PM

I have nothing to offer at the moment re: the original post that I haven't already offered on chat, but:

Jackie! Quit fiddling with that novella and put it in an envelope already!

Posted by: David Moles at October 24, 2012 10:55 PM

Can't! I have to put in my 100 hours of astronomy this week! And enjoy it!

Posted by: Jackie M. at October 25, 2012 03:45 AM

Well, There is some really intelligent commentary on the "women writing Kirk/Spock" slash, and how it is kind of exploitive of the gay experience? But, admittedly, in a different way from the stereotypes you just described. Now, if only I could find the relevant links...

Posted by: Kent at October 25, 2012 08:13 AM

Mathew, I actually had that thought! I think I might want to do something of that sort, at least, as you say, in an ebook version? Maybe?

Kent, are you a novel sort of spambot, or do you just think very similarly to Jackie, and like to put capital letters in the middle of sentences?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 25, 2012 01:34 PM

Have you seen Kate Harrad's "Genderswitching the Classics" project? She reversed the genders on Pride and Prejudice, a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories, and more, with striking results:


and wrote about it in the Guardian:


Posted by: Paul Crowley at October 26, 2012 03:31 PM

Well, I'm certainly glad you didn't make the poor blighter into a sparkly vampire, that's for sure, even if the fellow is still a bit of a tosser.

@Benjamin Rosenbaum: My understanding is based upon my teenage and young adult interactions with teenage and young adult writers and consumers of slash and yaoi fiction, so while I try to take even my own biases with a grain of salt (as impossible as it so often is), I would have to hold that it more plays into what you were thinking than shows it to be false or subverts the taking angle, at least, with the amount of coercive/violent rape and sexual and emotional control and abuse after establishing a relationship I ran into.

I know such is not representative of everything slash and yaoi and it's probably more of a function of who it was that I personally knew who was writing and recommending things to me, but, that's the two cents of my useless anecdotal experience. :P

As for footnote 3: I'm not sure about the word staid, as I've only run into it in a perjorative sense. But that's a minor quibble, if even that.

Posted by: Fortuna Veritas at October 26, 2012 05:53 PM

So glad you posted this because it's really interesting, but I just have to ask (since it was my reaction both the first time I read it and looking again just now): what things don't you like about being a man?

Posted by: Emily Gilman at October 27, 2012 02:32 AM

Paul, cool, I will check that out -- P&P immediately came to mind, for this exercise (as did the Bible; should we kickstarter a project to place leatherbound genderswapped bibles in every hotel room in America?)

Fortuna, thanks -- anecdotal data points are not useless!

Emily, ha. Interesting question. I'm not sure if "don't like about" is actually the right formulation (it's what Meghan said and it rang true, even if it's not 100%) -- perhaps "am conflicted about" is closer? Violence, roughness, wildness, an expectation of sexual promiscuity and the establishment of prowess thereby, competition, the demand for decisiveness, etc? It's hard to say I just "don't like" them when I am, for instance, an avid rugby player, but they are definitely loci of unease and slippage between me and "masculinity"... though there's one big thing I don't like about being male that stayed assigned to Pale/Staid as opposed to being moved, which is the expectation of emotional suppression, clinicality, etc. Possibly it's not that I moved what "I" don't like about being male, but more that I moved what the canonical SF reader doesn't like about being male? But close enough...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at October 27, 2012 02:54 PM

You might have resolved this issue by now, but have you considered either of the following?

1)Use the same pronoun for both genders. This might (though probably won't) manage to retrain the reader not to associate the pronoun with the gender we immediately connect it to.

2)Use both "he" and "she" but don't assign them according to gender, but rather to some other contextual criteria. So, for example both Bails and Pales would be referred to as "he" when indoors, but "she" when outdoors. Or the distinction could between being alone or in public; with strangers or with friends; thinking or acting; etc. My first thought was to assign the pronouns based on tense or case but I had trouble thinking of an example that would work.

Posted by: Brent at February 17, 2013 01:50 PM

Hi Brent, these are excellent ideas and it would be interesting to see them play out in fiction.

I kind of want to use he and she with the genders because part of where I'm going with the worldbuilding is to confront the reader with the ways in which dimorphic gender ideology constrains us and shapes the way we see the world. We affix gender to people whenever we talk about them, and our language imagines gender as a fixed and stable constellation of attributes; I want their language to do the same, with different attributes, to see what this illuminates.

Samuel R. Delany uses a variant of your second suggestion very effectively in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, an amazing and ambitious book which influenced mine greatly. Everyone is referred to as "she" except when the speaker is speaking of them as an object of sexual desire, in which case they are called "he". It works elegantly and startlingly. That was one of my starting points: but Delany is also describing a very egalitarian culture with a fluid idea of gender, unlike the world I'm telling a story about, which is as constrained as ours, albeit differently.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 18, 2013 06:44 AM
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