As I prepared my review of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology by Jennifer K. Stuller, I found myself jotting down some comments about fandom, feminism, and storytelling that I wanted to share in the introductory blog post. Some turned into more – then a lot, and I reconsidered how to present all the ideas the book had inspired for me. So I’m keeping today’s post short; I don’t want a voluminous blog with my own commentary to overshadow how important Jennifer’s book is.
Most of what I’ve learned about fiction writing and storytelling has been self-taught. My first creative piece was novel-length. Looking back on it now, it’s riddled with flaws and melodrama – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s where I came from, and it’s written for me. Still, I’m the driven sort who always wants to improve. Point of view, dialogue technique, sentence structure – those are easy enough to find books and articles that show you the way. But other intangibles are harder to put a finger on…
The hero’s journey is one of the bigger pieces of that puzzle. The Meeting with the Goddess, Woman as the Temptress, Atonement with the Father are all steps in Joseph Campbell’s breakdown of the classic mythical path, but do they fit what I’d write for a heroine? Or am I just following a preset pattern because it’s so imbued in my consciousness from years of consuming fictional material?
A writer can only learn by doing.
After a million-plus words of fanfiction, I’m confident I have the foundational tools for writing my first published original novel. Writers are craftsmen with a lot of tools at their disposal. Some work with a lighter tool bag; others heft around pounds of hammers, drills, and screwdrivers. Ink-Stained Amazons helps identify the most important tools – the ones you can’t do without.
First is knowledge. People always say, write what you know. Well, it’s a good start. That’s why I think fanfiction is such a great way to learn writing: with character and setting already in place, the beginning writer can focus her mental energy on honing the craft. For an original novel, write what you know is even more essential. The writer has to know her world and her characters before they ever hit the page, and familiarity makes it that much easier to translate the muse’s vision into prose. There’s also knowledge of the audience, the market place, the current state of the world, the laws of physics… The things that need research are essentially endless. What Ink-Stained Amazons provides is deep knowledge about past portrayals of women, effective (and not-so-effective) characterization, and the ruts that storytellers get stuck in.
Self-awareness grows as you read the book. Jennifer is very effective at demonstrating the ways that we truly do write what we know in terms of tropes, relationships with our family, and our own internal biases from a lifetime of experience. Once a writer recognizes his or her own bias – yet another form of rut that can trap our storytelling – that is the path to breaking new ground, making the stories better.
Finally, Jennifer’s book reminds everyone that writers must have empathy, for their characters and for their audience. This book should be a must-read for any writer working in genre storytelling. As a resource for women in fantasy and science fiction who are still searching for that sense of who they are, this book will be a big help as well.
Just over a year ago in my review of a Star Wars book, which I criticized heavily for its portrayal of women, I commented that writers shouldn’t have to think about the gender-role implications of every single minor character they might write, as long as they did right by the major characters and their story arcs. As I read and learn more from others in the geek girl community, I’m reconsidering that perspective – for all characters. Looking carefully back at the outline for my novel, I recognized that many of the tropes and patterns existing within the design of my story were influenced heavily by the standard hero’s journey steps and the fiction realms I’ve been exposed to over the course of my life. Even though I consider myself pretty self-aware, I found character types and plot choices I needed to rethink. And I realized that right now, in this dawning era of epublishing where so many stories will be readily available, we’re on the precipice of change. But the result could be disastrous if we just end up with a gazillion stories by authors who recycle the same tired and worn archetypes and tropes. What we need, I’m coming to see, is more and more writers armed with knowledge, self-awareness, and empathy.
We’re all indebted to Jennifer for helping us further develop these tools and for writing such an enlightening book. Ink-Stained Amazons has inspired far more than one blog post, but I’ll get to those later. My story is calling, and its heroine has a few tropes she’d like to smash along the way in her heroine’s journey.
For more information on Jennifer’s work, check out her blog Ink-Stained Amazon. Jennifer Stuller was a panelist on this year’s San Diego Comic Con “Oh, You Sexy Geek” panel, and Events/Programming Director of Geek Girl Con.