Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ubermadchen Fall/Winter 2015-2016

I finished Ubermadchen on Tuesday. It clocks in at something over 230,000 words (sections of the book that were written during the two times my computer broke are still handwritten) and the word document is at 500 pages exactly. For reference, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is 257,000 words (src).

But word count, though easiest metric to measure, doesn't tell anything really useful or interesting. All it says is, "That's a lot of words." What happened in them?

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This story, more than any other that I've written, has struck me by the constant parallels to my own life. This wasn't by design but it could be predicted, given that the story I chose to begin my second semester of senior year was about five clever but sheltered girls who are launched into the real world and gradually become more and more in charge of their path through it. The summer after I graduated high school I produced 100,000 words that brought the girls to the part of the story where they split apart from one another, and from their chaperone; I started college just as they jumped into the void. They made a real, deliberate choice to follow their duty at around the same time that I decided to go to Indonesia. Sophomore year of college has seen them mostly in Graz, working hard and struggling but together again, knowing themselves better and eager to try their strength.

My experience of my first five quarters of college cannot be disentangled from their story. We are, all of us, becoming more independent and more eager for that independence. We are, all of us, digging our heads out of the sand. My characters' emotional arcs and mine both trend toward greater responsibility and greater awareness of structural issues in our worlds. I haven't done as much about it as they have (see my last post), but I am thinking about it.

When I started writing Ubermadchen I did not have all the right words to think through some of their thought patterns, but a lot of their journey is grappling with privilege, class, race, gender--and especially perceptions of such. They are in disguise the entire time; they have to be, because commoner magicians are outlawed. But at various times some of them, the white ones, pretend to be noble; and at other times, they don't.

Mobility/access is there in the background, because they are doing a lot of traveling around. I need to think about this one more, because it may be unrealistic for them to be as mobile as they are in the story, and I might have to change things such that it is feasible. Originally I was going to write the full arc of what happens to Josefina and Suzanne when they are separated from the others, and the Grand Tour fellows they meet could have brought that out more--but they do show up, in passing.

Class/status is of course one of the major questions in the book, because at the time the most important social/legal division was noble vs. common, not rich vs. poor. Missteps that I made in this arena can probably be fixed with more historical research. But I also am listing economic status as something to think about more for revision. All the girls are commoners, of course, but Katya's father is a relatively prosperous merchant. I think Suzanne's class background might be lower than I have been assuming--the disempowerment of her parents is plot-crucial, and would also explain her relatively larger obedience to "her place."

After writing Orsolya I was a little disgusted by myself for having written two very male-centric books. The choice to write about five girls (well, five girls and one nonbinary afab person) was very deliberate. The choice to have them be ethnically diverse was both plot- and conscience-motivated (plot: magic is rare enough that detectably magical commoner children would not be closely clustered). I am unsure of how well I did on this front, since the supporting cast is still predominantly white. And although the main characters have moved beyond stereotypes, there are still aspects of their character that could be read as stereotypical (e.g. Josefina, who is Hispanic and Roma, controls fire).

I was wrestling earlier with whether or not Marilla might be black, but I don't think so. It is a plot- and character development-relevant that Marilla be privileged when she is in France. They do stay with a black noblewoman, though. And I think a new character (who won't make it into this book, necessarily, but may in stories set in this world post-epilogue) is emerging who is black and, like Marilla, a water magician.

The queer identities kind of...happened? I think in an early iteration, when the story was still set in the 1840s, I thought about having them have love interests among the students and realized that Marilla would not be into that. Katya and Levi appeared in my mind as a set, but Katya clearly is not into Levi because of his masculinity. Hence, Katya is bi. She is also the only one with a love interest because...because I shy away from writing romance and lack of romantic subplots is the default for me.

Terez is an interesting case where they were asexual and nonbinary before I realized that I am also those things. I don't remember how or why I came to these decisions. I don't think they're aromantic? Josefina surprised me, because I hadn't anticipated her being anything but straight (since she and Marilla are the most obvious foils--fire vs. water, loud vs. quiet, red oni blue oni), and then I was compiling a list of all my asexual main characters and Josefina appeared. She may be aromantic--I recall feeling very strongly as I was writing the Edinburgh part that Josefina would not get together with the student who seemed to have an interest in her.

If this amount of queerness seems unrealistic, it in fact lines up with the breakdown of the group of friends I chose housing with (1 cis ace, 1 nonbinary ace, 1 homosexual, 1 bisexual, and the token straight friend).

I don't know if my handling of this is historically appropriate. After the story climax, which involves magical and personal epiphanies, Marilla starts using they/them pronouns for Terez. Maria Theresia used male titles in some of her lands without any fuss, but that might be mitigated by the fact that she was a ruler (fun fact: I tried to write Maria Theresia with a Hilary Clinton-esque aura). Re: Marilla's own struggles, I am not religious, so I have never had to reconcile my queerness with a religion that says there is something wrong with them. I also have probably downplayed the role religion has in her life, because I don't know. She prays frequently...but I think, also, that growing up ten years unable to share religious practice with others might make religious congregation somewhat more meaningful to her than I depict. Not sure.

Terez is Jewish but atheist, having abandoned everything their parents gave them when they ran away from home (thought: is Terez even their real name?), and the growing reconciliation with community is something that both they and Josefina go through. I haven't gone through that process yet myself, although I have spent the past two years trying to undo some internalized racism. Something else to consider.

I have been talking about the Ubermadchen individually, but really, the story's schtick is that they are a set. All five of them, working together, loving and supporting one another. In high school I was a low-quality friend and was not often emotionally available. Since coming to college I have realized the error of my ways, and have learned that being a good friend is an active endeavor, loving your friends is an active endeavor, and both giving and receiving support and love is something that needs to be learned. The Ubermadchen end up with a very solid dynamic but they spend a lot of time arguing and being angry at one another. Different people mediate at different times. But they all still care about one another very powerfully.

The climax of the story involves the Ubermadchen solving a problem in a way that takes a very feminine-coded approach--or at least, much more feminine-coded than the way that the "real" magicians were taking. That weirded me out at first, because my relationship with femininity is contentious, fluctuated a great deal during the time that I was writing Ubermadchen, and is still not settled. Did I really want a story from which could be extracted the message that girls should act like girls in order to solve problems?

My way of reconciling myself to the story outcome is that listening and empathizing are a lot more active skills than commonly assumed, that the girls also rely upon their magical chops, and that feminine-coded traits and activities are denigrated enough as it is without me contributing. I recall reading somewhere that a lot of advice to women to "be more masculine" in order to be taken seriously implies that women need to change to suit masculine-favoring culture, whereas in many cases, the kind of masculinity that has been accepted as the norm leaves no room for compassion or kindness, and maybe the men are the ones who should be acting less like jerks.

I didn't intend to be political when I started writing, but backing up I see how a story with five people who are treated as girls, with the viewpoint character a girl who loves other girls, could be construed as political in its support of girls/women and the feminine traits/skills associated with them. Which is kind of messed up. Andrea Gibson, a spoken word poet/activist that I heard in the city a couple of weeks ago, said that at one point they decided that they would only perform political poems--and then realized that a lot of their love poems were political because they were about loving a woman. "And why does love have to be political?" they asked, to the applause of the crowd.

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Some brief (I'll try to keep it brief, at least) notes on the writing of the book:

Life always intervenes, OR: I am bad at prioritizing non-college things when I am doing the college thing. On the other hand, writing help keeps me grounded.

Bias toward forward motion. This is not a 230,000 word story. I am, empirically, 0/3 for book-size ideas that are under 150,000 words, but I have a long-standing admiration for the authors who can condense a lot of story into a surprisingly small amount of space (Frankenstein has about 75,000 words, for reference). A lot of fluff goes away in revision, but even in writing--sometimes you need the extra words and sometimes you are just dithering.

Good music helps (see below).

For the most part I've stopped thinking too hard about craft, and instead focusing on getting the meaning across clearly. Some places one does have to be more careful about how the words are put together--holding-breath moments, dramatic, tense moments, ends of important sections. I won't start a lot of sentences in a row with the same word (though "the" is more neutral than most others), and if the whitespace of ". " starts lining up too neatly, or sentences are constructed too similarly, I'll change it up. I didn't pay attention to period-appropriate vocabulary, although since the time period is a crucial part of the story (as in, I couldn't begin writing until I moved it from 1840s to 1777) I will take another look at that in revision.

In terms of plot and action--the idea of sacrifice and payoff keeps coming back to bite me. One of the driving forces behind my need to rewrite Orsolya is that the ending wasn't "paid for." The stakes didn't rise naturally. I'm also concerned that that is a problem here, since I stopped doing historical research and so lost the urgent sense of injustice at how society was organized. I think, in general, that a more solid grounding in historical circumstance would benefit the story. The strongest section in the book is the Versailles section, which is also the most historically rooted one. My impatience to write is what lets me get things done, but I need to balance it out against the benefits conferred by a little more research.

My worldbuilding is also inconsistent. Earlier on I put more effort into coming up with little cool details that would signal that this is not the historical 1777. Namely, magic historically acted as a "levelizer," meaning that indigenous cultures and practices everywhere were better able to resist conquerors, and although the power structure that resulted is that of the historical Enlightenment, the suppressed factors are more visible than in real life (although, that is also because the whitewashed view of history that we get might already be undercutting their influence--so maybe I should be more liberal with my inclusion of such non-standard-white-Christian-European elements?). Story and plot took over, as they will, but I could probably find many places where it would be natural to let more of the differences between this world and the historical one poke through.

Characters are my favorite part, and I've talked a lot about my characters already. In writing them, especially in scenes where it's all five of them, I built up more of an intuition for who would speak when, who would do what when action was required. That also stemmed, I think, from just hanging out in groups more often, and observing group dynamics in real life. I tried to balance between character consistency and character growth, and probably was somewhat heavy-handed with it (especially in the changes to Josefina and Suzanne when they reunite). Marilla's confidence fluctuates a lot, but I think I do a decent job of leading her up to her moments of glory.

I am very fond of these people. It's been a good two years spent with them.

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A brief list of the songs that represent Ubermadchen for me:
  • Team (Lorde) <- this is THE song. I had it on repeat as I wrote the epilogue
  • the rest of the songs on Pure Heroine
  • Numb (Marina and the Diamonds)
  • Underwater (Mika)
  • Winter Fields (Bat for Lashes)
  • Silhouettes (Swimming with Dolphins)
  • Papaoutai (Stromae)
  • Girlfriend (Icona Pop)
  • Take Me to Church (Hozier or the Alice Kristiansen cover)
  • Laura Palmer (Bastille)
  • Yellow Flicker Beat (Lorde)
  • Thanatos (Soap&Skin)
  • Emily/Elle Me Dit (Mika)
  • Burning Out (Thomston)
  • Defying Gravity (Idina Menzel) //I suppose "Let it Go" could also be a contender

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