On Gender and Pronouns in Character Building

One of my coworkers at the Day Job goes by they/them pronouns. I do my best to use the correct ones, though I’ll slip sometimes. After working with them a short time and getting along quite fine, I told them to feel free to correct me at any time — in fact, if I slip in their presence, they are free to slap me on the arm. [And they have, much to mutual amusement.] I’ll still slip from time to time, but I think I do pretty well now. In fact, it’s gotten me thinking a lot about others I work with or the customers I meet, wondering if I’m using the right pronouns they prefer, and it got me thinking a lot about how I write gender in my novels.

I’ll admit I didn’t know much at all about the gender spectrum when I began writing the Bridgetown Trilogy back in the early 00s. I mean, I did, but I didn’t have all that much real-life experience at the time to base it on other than movies and books that may or may not have done it justice. I did, however, encourage myself to insert characters with different sexual and/or romantic preferences. Caren, for instance, is bisexual. Sheila is lesbian and Nick is asexual. (Alec is purely hetero but he accepts the entire spectrum, which fits his character.) The closest I got to it was hinting that Colin was a variant of the gender spectrum, which gets explained in a bit more detail in The Balance of Light — the reveal of who Colin really is, and how there are others like them, is actually tied in with the book’s thematic concept of balance.

It wasn’t until maybe the last ten years that I realized that maybe I should expand my central casting a bit more. I’d learned a lot and expanded my knowledge and experience considerably by that point, so it only made sense to use it. In My Blue World, for instance, includes both nonbinary and trans minor characters that I put there for that reason. And in MU4, I’ll be introducing two new soon-to-be majors, one of whom is trans and the other is nonbinary.

I realize that some writers are worried that they’ll do it wrong: placing this kind of person in there for the gold star (Hey look, I’m inclusive n’ shit! Gimme a cookie!), creating this character for manufactured conflict or drama (the minor role/target that ends up dead because Real Life Is Gritty), or something similar. I knew I’d fall into that same trap if I overthought it or constantly worried about it, so the way I approached it was to approach the way it is in real life: hey, some people are just trans or nonbinary or queer or whatever, simple as that. No literary reason except that’s just who they are, and that’s how life is. I do expand on their character description as necessary to ensure they read as such, but I’m always conscious of making them realistic instead of a caricature or a stereotype. I don’t create these characters for political reasons, because that’s not the kind of writer I am (and believe me, I’ve tried that route and I am absolutely terrible at it). I create them because it’s like meeting my coworker for the first time: they just happen to be such, and it’s up to me to honor that.

And just like my coworker, I have to make sure I use the correct pronouns. In Theadia one of the main characters is nonbinary and I had to make sure I constantly used they/them. And yes, I did have to fix it in a number of places during revision! I totally understand that when you’re taught that he/him and she/her are the socially correct defaults, it’s sometimes easy to forget when you meet (or in this case, create) someone who doesn’t go by that default. It’s not about going out of your way to please them; it’s just about creating an alternative to make it work for both sides.

Fly-by: returning next week

As mentioned over at Walk in Silence, I’ve been creatively busy these last couple of weeks and I’m happy to report that things are going well so far in writing MU4, at least as far as scrappy first drafts of first chapters are concerned. Exactly where I need to be right now.

I’m planning on returning to the blogosphere at a regular schedule next week, so I’ll see you then!

Still here, still writing

It’s been a couple of weeks, hasn’t it? So what’s been happening in the Mendaihu Universe? Well, aside from the fact that I feel like my writing work is moving at a glacial pace (I always feel that at the start of a project), I’m actually not doing that bad at all. I’m allowing myself to write as few — or as many — words as befits the scene or the session, so some days I’ll get about three hundred words and other days I’ll get closer to seven hundred.

A few things I’ve learned so far:

–I really love writing in this universe. I mean, really love writing it! When I started working on this version, I immediately felt a lot of things click into place: I knew and remembered the universe’s voice intimately, what tone and pace it’s supposed to take. As I’ve said before, I’m not trying to emulate what’s already been written or trying to relive the sessions of the Belfry years, and in doing that I was able to return to that tone and pace naturally.

–I do loves writing me some dialogue. I’ve also been doing a reread of the original trilogy at night as part of the refamiliarization process, and it’s apparent that one of my favorite things about writing fiction is conversations between characters. Sometimes I worry that the scene might stall a little because of it, but my workaround for that it is to keep the characters physically moving somehow. A frustrated Caren will start flailing her arms, an angry Sheila will barely be holding back violent impulses, and Poe will almost always have the urge to light up a cigarette when he gets stressed out. The focus is on the words they’re saying, but I’m also having them react to them in some way.

–My openings are, as always, a hot mess. But on the flip side, I’ve learned to just write them anyway so I can fix them later. All the new scenes so far are a bit weak, but that’s okay! The whole point of writing them is to get the story moving in the right direction.

–I am, as stated earlier, listening to mood-appropriate music just as I did in the Belfry years. Sure, I’m returning to a few classics (I had Beck’s Sea Change on the other day) but I’m also enjoying some newer albums that will surely become a part of the Eden Cycle Soundtrack list. [At the moment I write this, I’m listening to Radio Songs by Blur’s Dave Rowntree and I’m pretty sure this one’s going to be on the playlist for a few months.] Again: not trying to relive the sessions of the Belfry years, merely trying to recapture its vibe and update it. And I think it’s working!

–And lastly, I admit I’m not writing every single day. I’ll take a day off to focus on errands or other important non-writing things. And I’m okay with that, because I know I’ll end up writing again the next day, whether it’s a quick hour’s session before doing a midshift at work or bashing it out after dinner. By not forcing myself, by allowing myself the writing time, the stress of getting it done lowers considerably.

I’m not expecting a quick three-month turnaround. It might take a few months or it might take a year. I’d love to have something out this year, but it definitely won’t be this. I’m taking my time with this one. I’m writing this on my own terms, with the simple aim of writing the stories I truly want to write. I know I’m not going to be a pro writer, I’ve come to terms with that quite some time ago. It’s not the kind of writing I do. But I’m writing something that’s just as intriguing, just as enjoyable and exciting. Something that resonates with me.

And that’s the most important reason.

Note Worthy

Notes swiftly written on the back of old team schedules

First of all, I do apologize for the terrible pun in the entry title.

When I was writing the Bridgetown Trilogy back in the early 00s, my process was that I’d start the day by utilizing the slower moments of my work day at Yankee Candle by doing a bit of plotting. Nothing too detailed mind you, as these moments usually lasted no longer than five or so minutes before the next wave of boxes came down the conveyor chutes, but I wasn’t looking for detailed to begin with. This was merely doing a bit of planning ahead of a few scenes. I’d think a bit about what I wanted my characters to be doing while I built those pallets of candle boxes and then write it out when I had a minute. And more often than not these scraps of paper were nothing more than the backs of copied labels that we’d tape to the side of our finished pallets.

Then later that evening during my writing sessions in the Belfry I’d take those notes and start elaborating on them. Sometimes I’d use them to the letter, and sometimes I’d actually go in a slightly different direction, but the whole point of these notes was that I’d be prepared for the session instead of sitting there staring at the screen or distracting myself with whatever music I wanted to listen to that night. When I returned to the Trilogy in 2009 to finish the last quarter of The Balance of Light I realized that the best way to go about it was to do the exact same thing: longhand notes followed by typed elaboration.

I used slightly different versions of this process for most of my follow-up novels, but never to the same degree. Most of the notes for Meet the Lidwells! contained personal information about the characters and a detailed discography of the band. Same for In My Blue World: for the most part that was written on the fly with most of the notes merely being character bios. I think part of the reason for this was that working for a bank, even as a back office drone, didn’t really lend much time or brain power for this sort of thing. I figured out alternate ways to write novels, even if I didn’t feel it was quite the same.

So when I recently decided it was time to return to the Mendaihu Universe, I also decided that the best way to play all of this out was to go back to what worked: a bit of note writing while at the Day Job followed by elaboration at home. And being that I’m back in retail, I’m once again able to steal a few personal minutes during breaks and slow times to write, this time using the backs of the previous day’s team schedule we have set up at each register. I have the time and brain power for this sort of thing again, so why not take advantage of it?

So far I’ve gotten myself maybe two or three scenes down that I can work with. I’ll be starting off the fresh new version very soon, and I plan on continuing this note taking throughout the entire project. I’m even thinking there’s a chance I’ll do a bit more Tuckerization, once again using coworkers’ last names somewhere while I keep them updated on the latest fictional drama.

All told, it’s not only great to be back in Bridgetown, but it’s also great to return to a process that worked really well for me.

Creating and Cats

Writing — well, pretty much doing anything around the house — with two young cats prowling around and constantly getting under foot and demanding attention can be a bit tricky. Cali and Jules have been with us for a good couple of months now and they’ve been a lovely addition to our home and the biggest distraction ever. (Sometimes enforced distraction when one of us needs to get work done and the other needs to take over catsitting duties.) It’s a matter of taking it as it comes and squeezing whatever time we can to do it all.

During my evening writing sessions I’ll use one of the stick toys to get one of them away from A’s knitting and yarn stash, and eventually they’ll forget that A has all that enticing and chewable yarn in the other room. Jules is a little easier to sway, as she’s more chill about everything and will end up napping on the cat bed I have here in Spare Oom. Cali is a bit harder to deal with, but eventually I’ll get her to calm down as well. Giving them the nightly bowl of kibble also helps. We’re hoping they’ll become a bit less chaotic as they grow older, but for now we’ll need to keep them occupied when and how we can.

In the meantime, as I write this Jules is in the Spare Oom cat bed and Cali is most likely in the cat tree in the living room. That gives us a bit of personal time to get work done. It might not always be a lot of time, but it’s time enough for now.

Another Day in the Universes

So you may have noticed that I’m leaning hard on the Mendaihu Universe worldbuilding/MU4 plot creation these last few days. Thinking about how this new story will unfold, what new ideas and characters will show up. Getting myself back into the groove of this giant, extended created universe. It feels great to be back.

I’ll need to re-familiarize myself with my Anjshé glossary, having not been immersed in it since 2017. I’ll need to pull the Bridgetown maps back out so I remember where everybody lives and where major events took place. And I’ll of course need to get out my cast list so I remember who’s who and what side they’re on.

But other than that, life goes on in Bridgetown, just as Denni and Poe had hoped at the end of The Balance of Light. The Mendaihu and the Shenaihu are forging a tentative and fragile peace, learning to work together. Life in the Sprawl continues as always, with the best and the worst of intentions. And on Trisanda there is another delicate balance attempting to be forged between the Trisandi and the Gharné, who have finally been given the gift of Return.

It’s just another day in the universes, the future unknown.

Movement

I suppose I can make it official now that I’ve started prep work for MU4 as of Wednesday morning! And what kind of prep work is this? It’s the same prep work I depended on for the previous three MU books: mapping out a few scenes ahead on scrap pieces of paper during the occasional slow moments at the Day Job. It’s nothing major, but it gives me just enough of a stable platform to work from. It’s a process that worked perfectly for me during the trilogy, so I think it’s worth trying again now.

It feels great to be moving again creatively. This is where I’m the happiest when writing: the mental gears turning, the excitement of working through the numerous moving parts and making sure they’re all in the right place, the thrill of weaving several plotlines around the central arc. And tertiarily, this is where I find myself focusing more on the music that plays during the entire process: the writing soundtracks themselves that lend or inspire the emotions of the prose.

Movement was part of the thrill of writing the Bridgetown Trilogy, actually; I’d made a conscious decision that nearly every single scene in the three books were always in motion somehow. Even during the slow moments where no one was physically going anywhere (the scene in A Division of Souls where Denni needs to get to the warehouse and she and the others are stuck in traffic comes to mind), their minds were going at full tilt.

I’m looking forward to implementing that same process for this new project as well. Even when I’m taking small steps like these. It’s forward progression, and that’s what counts.

On Returning

So why am I returning to the Mendaihu Universe? That’s a good question, and my answer is that I’d never really left it in the first place. Once I made that decision to self-publish A Division of Souls back in 2013 or so (and spent several months rereading, revising and editing before releasing it in 2015), I knew I could finally see the culmination of the trilogy. It would take a lot of work and a lot of patience, but it would be worth it by the time The Balance of Light dropped in 2017.

And right about that same time in 2015, I started writing outtakes of the fourth book. At this point I knew it as a rough draft, because I’d decided that it would be a backburner project. I wanted to focus on a few new books in the meantime: Meet the Lidwells! and In My Blue World. I wrote both of those to prove to myself that I could write shorter and tighter novels, and I’m quite proud of them because I’d proven myself right! The rough draft of MU4 (as it’s currently titled for now) bubbled to the surface now and again when I had the time and the inclination, but never went all that far.

But back to the question: why refocus on the Mendaihu Universe again? Easy answers: because I’m ready for it, and because I’ve wanted to return to it for some time now. Because I love how deep I’ve made the worldbuilding and I can’t wait to get back to it.

A slightly harder answer: because I still have a story to tell that the original Bridgetown Trilogy didn’t completely cover. When we last saw Denni at the end of The Balance of Light when she’s on the roof of Poe’s apartment building, asking him if she’d done the right thing. He can’t say yes or no, because his personal thoughts on that don’t matter. Enigmatically he responds by saying that if it resonated with her own spirit, then she did the right thing, and she seems to accept that. We don’t exactly know if she did accept it, as the scene was from Poe’s point of view, but it’s assumed she did.

Or did she? See, here’s the thing: in that same book, Denni and Amna (and Caren to some degree) realize that nothing is permanent, not even their spiritual awakening. Whatever miracles they performed to that point will definitely affect others in the future…but perhaps not the way they expect. Added to that, the last we see of the spirit of Saisshalé, he says he goes where he’s needed. So it’s assumed that he might go elsewhere…or perhaps he’ll return again.

All this metaphysics and spiritualism aside…I want to know what happens next because of these choices these characters made. There’s more to tell, and a lot of it has been stewing in my head for a while now.

We’ll see where this goes.

Bridgetown, only a few years later…

If there’s one thing I don’t mind sharing this early in game, is that sometimes breaking my own rules is what’s needed.

Originally, MU4 was to be set seventy years after the events in The Balance of Light. The reason for this gap, or so I thought, was to show how the perception of historical events changes over the course of a generation or two. Since then, however, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to wait that long. Our current history shows that perception, especially when put in the hands of certain social engineers, can change within hours, sometimes minutes. Why wait that long?

So, one rule broken: let’s think about MU4 taking place, say, a few months or a year or so hence instead. This means a few things suddenly come into play: the original cast of the Bridgetown Trilogy can return to some degree while I introduce a new cast as its central focus; I can explore a few worldbuilding points that I’d introduced in the books but did not have time or space to expand further; and most importantly, I can answer a few important questions (such as what happens to Denni/The One of All Sacred after the end of Book 3?) that I’d purposely left unanswered.

Any other rules to break while we’re at it? Sure. The other issue I’d had was that I was finding myself basing the New Cast on the Old whether I wanted to or not. I had maybe two original new characters I was fond of, but the rest felt like Poe Jr or Caren’s granddaughter or something similar. After a while it occurred to me: maybe the problem isn’t that I’m having a hard time coming up with a new cast, it’s that I really want to continue writing more with the old one. So another rule broken: fine, let’s bring back the Old Gang, since obviously my brain has things to say about them!

This brings up a new potential subplot: how does the Original Cast deal with the change of perception of the events they’d worked so hard to survive through and put in place for future generations? How do you react when an event that’s changed you mentally, emotionally and spiritually, is then seen as subversive, or dangerous, or outlawed? Or perverted for reasons of a power grab?

All these new questions are exciting and fascinating, and I can’t wait to figure out how to answer them.

And to me, that is a sign that I’m doing the right thing. Even if I am breaking a few rules. Some of which I’d laid down myself.

Returning to Bridgetown…?

Everything is still up in the air right now and plans have not yet been fully made…but there is a chance that I may return to the Mendaihu Universe in 2023. I think it’s time.

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve done wrong with MU4 over the last couple of years, why it’s always stalled at almost the same exact place every single time. But I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve done right with it, especially the storylines of the two or three characters that I’ve resonated with and are demanding more attention. I know what the main story arc is for this novel (and its possible sequels, if things go the way I’m expecting), and it’s worth telling.

And I’ve also been thinking about how there’s no rule that I can’t revisit the Bridgetown Trilogy and, well, give it a remix and remaster, to use musical parlance. Creators do this all the time, right? I’ve heard of many musicians and writers who’ve revisited their older work and made it better. I’m still incredibly proud of the trilogy but I will admit that it also has a few issues that I wouldn’t mind finally fixing. Especially now that I have a few more years under my belt and a better idea of what it needs.

But what about all those other projects, you ask? What about your infamous Best Laid Plans that never work out? Well…harsh question, but fair. I’ve been known to talk about things here only to have them duly crash and burn soon after. So it may happen this time too, but I won’t know until I try, right? And about those other projects: I can’t say for certain if I’m going to trunk them or hold onto them for a later time, but they are not what I should be focusing on right now.

This does mean that I’ll need to do another deep-dive revisit into the Mendaihu Universe before I go too far, but believe me, I’m not complaining about that. They say that writers often write stories they themselves want to read, and I love returning to this universe each and every time. I may even try my hand at a few related short stories and standalones that I have hidden away.

Again…none of this is set in stone, but I’m perfectly willing to give it a go.