Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Derailing as Course Correction

Train in the Snow
Claude Oscar Monet
I've hit several dead ends with Ubermadchen, to the extent that I have at various points in the past week regretted posting the character post since the possibility exists that I'll put off this project in favor of a short story or novella. But that tastes too much like failure, and since I am stubborn I'm going to try to think through what's not working for me with this story.

Part of the problem is that I chose the time period of the story more or less arbitrarily. 1840s Europe? What's so special about that era? I don't have any particular fondness for it. The story was actually originally going to be set right after the Congress of Vienna.

I might actually change the setting. The characters are all that matter, and though in this iteration one of the main problems is that they aren't supposed to know magic, as non-nobles, the basic conflict between haves and have-nots could be exported to most ages.

Moving the story forward in time: Napoleonic era? This gets more directly into the violent upheavals of society, but in real life the French Revolution era ended with an overwhelming reactionary tide. So the Ubermadchen would have to do something that would fundamentally shift society to prevent the autocratic Metternich period from occurring.

Yet farther: mid-1700s? Circa the War of Austrian Succession? Have their actions contribute to the wave of radical ideas that led to the French Revolution, while putting it on a firmer ground than in history? Lots of famous narrow misses in this period: what if Louis XVI's older brother hadn't died as a child? Wait, this might actually be promising…

But before I get too excited about this idea, I need to explore further fields. Going even earlier doesn't really work for me, since I don't want to predate the Enlightenment. What about going later? World War I is probably the upper limit, since after that I have to account a lot for the US, which doesn't work for me since I want to try, as an American kid, to write a book with an old-Europe kind of flavor.

What about after 1848? But this is drifting somewhat too far from my beloved Enlightenment. Romanticism I appreciate aesthetically, while not really imbibing too much of its spirit (my younger self dissents, and perhaps I make too much of my rejection); Realism bores me, honestly.

Writing this, I think that the setting actually is a big source of my issues with the story. While researching, I was frustrated because the mid-1800s is not a popular era. I think I was being hipster when I chose it first. I do believe that it's good to do things that are challenging, that are more difficult than strictly necessary, but I'm not really feeling it with the Age of Metternich, even though there are trains.

Then, another problem with my chosen time period is the difficulty of making changes and the unimportance of the girls' actions. These may seem contradictory, so let me explain myself.

In the 1840s, conservatism was entrenched. Even though Napoleon had sown the seeds of liberalism and nationalism all over Europe, the revolutions of 1848 for the most part failed through lack of organization. What could a band of five girls do to undermine the authoritarian structures keeping down revolution?

Of course, I could challenge myself to find those leverage points, those political maneuvers that would let change happen.

My second objection was that the girls' actions in the 1840s would be unimportant. That was because the middle class was economically significant; political representation was just a matter of time. The nationalism situation, on the other hand, was unstable enough that maybe they could do something that would catalyze change. But I deliberately mixed the ethnicities/nationalities, and the breakup of multinational empires does not gel with my philosophy.

Whereas a 1760s setting seems to me more plastic. Maybe because of the wealth of ideas flowing, the un-ossified political structure. There's so much to play with that hasn't happened yet: the American and French Revolutions, the beginnings of Continental industrialization. The middle class isn't yet the big force that it will grow to become. Things are still unbalanced; the ancien regime hasn't yet been killed, and the girls can fight a dying beast instead of its zombie.

(That was the strangest metaphor I've made today.)

I seem to have talked myself into changing the time period. (Un?)fortunately, I didn't do that much rigorous research into my chosen time period, so I'm not scrapping much on the research end. The plot, of course, will have to be redone from scratch, but I could sense fundamental errors in it anyway.

That means that the past month of work has, essentially, been thrown away.



The fundamental question that I see running through the entirety of the above discussion is: how much challenge do you want to take on? I could probably get another whole post out of discussing this, but here is a thesis:

In starting any endeavor, whether creative or professional or whatever, we need to find the right amount of difficulty. Too easy and the project won't be worth the effort; too hard and it stalls because the way forward is on the other side of gigantic hurdles.

Ubermadchen already represents a big step up from anything else I've written. This story is solidly alternate historical fantasy, which means way more research than a scifi like the Utopia Project or a straight-up fantasy like Orsolya and the rest of my GW pieces. This time, I'm researching not only for historical flavor but also facts, power structures, names, specifics.

Furthermore, the focus of Ubermadchen is one group of five girls. I may have mentioned how awful I am at understanding humans, and this story is essentially a case study of friendships among young women. I don't really need to research that, since I am a girl and I have female friends, but heretofore my focus has been on individuals, with group relationships portrayed most of the time as power struggles.

The story therefore has difficulty built into it, which eases the blow to my pride in switching from a less-famous political/social era (1840s) to one more storied (1760-70s).

Obligatory STEM analogy: this is like when I started learning how to code--programming involves a different way of thinking about problems, of using words, than anything else I'd learned before. Trying to learn coding through the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs would have either given me mad street cred...or would have turned me away from CS forever because I would think, wow I'm dumb, this isn't for me. So instead I learned Python.

My thesis revisited: challenge yourself by giving yourself important, complex things to do. Then do them in the easiest way possible. If you're going to climb a mountain, don't also tie your hands behind your back.

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