Hi Nora – Thanks for letting me have a preview of your book. I really enjoyed reading it.
One of the things that hooked me was, although set in a women only society, it wasn’t a utopia. I know, when I started reading lesbian fiction, in the few spec-fic novels around, a women only world was often idealised to the point of incredulity. The women were pacifist amazons, flawed only by a tendency to go off on a neurotic, emotional bender for no justifiable reason, other than the plot needing it.
When I created my world for the first Celaeno novel, it was a very deliberate decision on my part not to make it a utopia. I didn’t want to make it a distopia either. I wanted good and bad in it – rather like this world.
Reading your book, I was wondering how much of a conscious decision it was for you, not to make your women only society perfect. What are the reasons for your world turning out the way it did?
It was definitely a conscious decision. I had a similar reaction to you when I read some of the world-without-men utopia stories. My experience in real life has been that women-only spaces are sometimes amazing, but certainly not paradise. Also, if you write a utopia, then where is your conflict? A lot of times in lesbian fiction, the perfect all-female or all-gay society is at war with the neighboring reactionary society. I wanted to try something a little different.
I really wanted to write a dystopia, because that’s a genre that I’ve loved to read ever since I was a kid. When I started writing Swans & Klons, I had in my mind something akin to bullies at an all-girls school. You know, maybe they’re not punching their victims or dunking their heads in the toilet, but they’re using psychological torture and verbal abuse and exclusion. And the victim doesn’t even know it’s bullying and she thinks the bully is her best friend. I wanted that kind of pernicious atmosphere for my female-only society. I figured that actually, an all-female world could be incredibly evil! It could be a subtle, exquisitely twisted kind of evil!
I can really see how your Calaeno series has a mixture of good and bad, just like real life. In fact, my favorite thing about my favorite book in that series, The Walls of Westernfort, is how there are really no villains in it at all even though there’s a lot of fighting and conflict. I felt sympathy for every single character. For my part, though, I love writing characters who are pure villains.
I totally agree with you about the trouble with conflict in Utopias. If you paint one side as paragons of virtue and the other without any redeeming features, you end up with a one-dimensional, very trite examination of the obvious. There is no possibility of any sensible internal conflict for your heroes.
I’ve read too many books about a lovable band of disparate characters fighting the evil hordes of the dark lord. It could pass as original when Tolkien did it – not any more. But it’s the lack of internal conflict I feel most hamstrings a plot, because it removes what would normally be the main driver of character development.
For similar reasons, I wouldn’t want to spend too much time on a total villain. The Mad Butcher in Shadow of the Knife is the closest I get, and she is very much in the background. The typical opponent for my heroes is someone who has managed to convince themself that they are doing the right thing. I certainly spend more time thinking about their motivations than I do for any other character.
There’s a premise that writers need to be at least a little in love with their villains. I’m guessing you meet this criteria. Which leads me to one of my favourite topics – do you fall for your characters and let them run with the story to see where it goes, or do you start with a story and then flesh out the characters to make the story work?
I used to start with the characters and let them lead the story, but these days I start with the story and then flesh out the characters. I think my results for both approaches are about the same, but I have to do less re-writing when I start with the story. And I hate re-writing! The first draft is always much more fun for me. And yes indeed, I am always a little in love with my villains.
Ah-ha a reformed panster. <beg>
I am definitely in the plotter camp, and I agree one benefit is the reduction in re-writing. I also wonder whether it also leads to more diverse characters. If I were to start with the character, there would be a strong risk of always effectively having the same protagonists, distinguished only by their backstory, and the same dynamic with their love interest.
Many fellow writers talk of their characters running away with the plot and doing things that the writers hadn’t planned. My characters always do exactly what I want, but they frequently become people I wasn’t expecting. For example, it was a complete surprise to me when I realised what an adrenaline junkie Riki was, in Dynasty of Rogues. Or that Ellen, in Shadow of the Knife, had to be about 10 years younger than I had first thought.
When I read Shadow of the Knife, it almost felt like a YA novel to me, because Ellen is young and just starting out in the militia, but with a very for-grown-ups romance element.
Looking at my novels, I see myself veering towards the ‘coming of age’ type of story. Shadow of the Knife is this with bells on. It’s not deliberate, but a definite marker of the way my imagination goes.
A surprise I sometimes get is when my minor characters turn into major characters. But here’s my big question for you: is it hard for you, or was it ever hard, to write a female-only world? When I was writing the rough draft of Swans & Klons, a few times I tripped up and wrote “he” for very minor characters who were doing jobs that are traditionally associated with men, for example a security guard. Even though I know perfectly well that many women do those jobs. It made me feel extremely brainwashed and sheepish to learn that “security guard” signalled “man” in my head. There’s nothing like writing to show me the prejudices and stereotypes that are so deeply embedded in my lizard-like brain and need to be rooted out. Did anything like that ever happen to you?
As for my ingrained inner stereotyper, I did not have any slips in the Celeano series. However, my conception of the world for the Lyremouth stories had no proscribed gender roles whatsoever. Yet when I came to edit my first draft, I also discovered that a high percentage of guards were men, and an equally skewed ratio of shopkeepers were women. This was especially the case with the very minor, incidental characters who don’t even merit a name.
To get over this, I had a coin on my desk while I edited the story, and as each new character appeared, unless there was a real, plot based reason not to, I tossed the coin and assigned gender on the result. Hence over a third of the characters in the first 2 books of the Lyremouth Chronicals had a sex change between the first and second draft. I did not though, change anything else about them. Interestingly, no reader has ever got back to me, criticising a character in the books with comments starting “No woman would ever…”, or “Only men ever say…”
I love the coin idea! That is brilliant.
Jane and Nora’s conversation will continue on Friday, May 17 on UK LesFic Blog (http://uklesfic.wordpress.com) and Tuesday May 21 on Women and Words (http://lesbianauthors.wordpress.com/). Please join them there!
Jane Fletcher is a GCLS award-winning writer and has also been short-listed for the Gaylactic Spectrum and Lambda Literary awards. She is author of two ongoing sets of fantasy/romance novels: the Celaeno series and the Lyremouth Chronicles. As a child, her resolute ambition was to become an archaeologist when she grew up, so it was something of a surprise when she became a software engineer instead. Born in Greenwich, London, in 1956, she now lives in southwest England where she keeps herself busy writing both computer software and fiction, although generally not at the same time.
You can find Jane at on the Bold Strokes Books website (http://www.boldstrokesbooks.com/categories.php?category=Paperback-Books/Lesbian-Fiction/Browse-by-Author/Fletcher%2C-Jane), her own website (http://www.janefletcher.co.uk/), and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jane.fletcher.3110?fref=ts)
Nora Olsen was born in 1975 and raised in New York City. Although her mother, a prize-winning author, warned her not to become a writer, Nora didn’t listen. Swans & Klons is her second YA novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Collective Fallout and the anthology Heiresses of Russ 2011: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. Nora lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her girlfriend, writer Áine Ní Cheallaigh, and their two adorable cats.
You can find Nora on the Bold Strokes Books website (http://www.boldstrokesbooks.com/categories.php?category=Paperback-Books/Young-Adult-Fiction/Browse-by-Author/Olsen%2C-Nora), her own website (http://noraolsen.com), and her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-End-Five-Queer-Kids-Save-The-World/177651288926440?fref=ts).