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I have a folder full of draft blog posts, and I go in and noodle around there sometimes, trying to figure out what I want to post next. My oldest draft post varies dramatically in length, because sometimes I go in and delete everything, sometimes I rewrite it until it's 10 or 15 pages long. It's from 2006 or so, and it's about the tendency of authors to use the words "masculine" and "feminine" as adjectives.

Well, I've decided to give it up for a bad job, and instead post my basic thoughts about it. Which are: Just stop it. That is some lazy-ass writing, and it makes your work boring, and I'm tired of reading it.

Masculine and feminine, more than almost any other words in novels, mean radically different things to different people. Often, they are used as "shorthand" words -- especially (though not only) in romance novels and action/adventure novels. These words usually (but not always) are meant to tell the reader that the cisgender male hero smells earthy, has a large, muscular body, and embodies some vague societal idea of "masculinity" that really doesn't mean anything in the context of a book that is usually about idealized versions of the norms inside the author's head. It also implies that no cis woman ever could possibly hope to achieve these qualities.

This is also seen a lot in m/m romances, to explain why men are gay. Because no woman ever can be muscular or smell earthy or really know how to give a great handjob, and no man ever could possibly not be or not know, right?

The word "femininity" is the same -- the cisgender female hero smells like a combination of citrus and the sky and "mystique," and regardless of how strong or short she may be, her limbs are slender and long and her skin is delicate, and she embodies a, frankly, much less vague but no less societal idea of "femininity." It is slightly more formed than "masculinity" because "everyone" knows what women are "supposed" to be like (thanks, magazines and tv!), but the details still exist mostly in the author's head.

And hey! Check out some f/f erotica, and see how no man could ever hope to touch her this way, how orgasms are completely different, how no man could ever truly understand a woman's body . . .

It may seem innocuous. It may seem ridiculous that this is something I focus on. But you know what? In the absence of the book itself defining the words masculine and feminine and securing those words in the context of its society, those words are ridiculous. (An interesting exercise: read some historical fiction by contemporary authors, and then books set in the same time period by authors who lived contemporaneously, and observe the masculine and feminine ideals.)

I'm also going to come right out and say that these words, beyond being lazy and boring, are hurtful. They encourage gender policing, and they are transphobic, and they erase people who are genderqueer and intersex from the narrative completely. They also erase the experiences of people who may be cisgender, but whose presentation, experience, or sense of self doesn’t fit into the hazy, yet totally controlling, ideas of "masculine" and "feminine." This doesn’t just mean that these words are bad writing, but that these words, used generally and without clarification, do tangible harm to real people.

When I do developmental/line edits, I often point out to writers where they use "masculine" and "feminine" and ask them to write instead what they really mean -- either to use better adjectives that get across exactly the ideas they're using these words as shorthand to represent, or to root these words in a context for the reader.

I challenge all authors to do this: go through your writing, find these words, figure out what you really mean, and write a more interesting, thoughtful book.

Note on commenting: I'm usually lax about policing comments, because the people who comment on my posts tend to be pretty great. Please keep up that trend. Hurtful, ignorant, and nasty bullshit should go somewhere else.
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Last night, I watched the first episode of Fringe with the commentary turned on.

I am not usually a commentary type of person. I find that too often the commentary on DVDs are a bunch of people getting drunk together in a small room, making inside jokes as they watch their own work, boring the crap out of the people listening/watching. Plus, the author is dead, right? I actually find that finding out what authors intend often spoils the work for me. Does anyone remember when Jacqueline Carey declared that Melisand Shahrizai was supposed to be a sociopath? I never read another Kushiel book again, not even to reread the first one, which I'd originally enjoyed. I have had a lot of experiences just like that!

When an author can't get across everything zie wants the reader to know in the book itself -- when the makers of a show can't get across everything the viewer is supposed to know in the show itself -- I admit to not having a lot of sympathy. As an editor, I know how tough and consuming it is to be the person who has to point out where the holes are; as a writer, I know how awful revising can be. If the creative work isn't ready to be put out there, though... don't put it out there.

Sure, that is a little over-simplified -- sometimes things just don't gel together, sometimes you're working to an unrealistic deadline that you don't have much of a choice about, sometimes you just need the damn money. But in those cases, can you really blame the readers for filling in details themselves, or taking to fanfic to satisfy their need for "fixing" characters or plot, or the desire for something more or deeper? (I guess you can if you want to. I'm on the side of the readers here, though.)

If you've done all you can to convey your vision, all you can do is trust that you've done your best to get what you want to say across, and leave the reader alone. Sometimes really exciting things come out of the minds of readers, things you might not have thought of, perspectives you may not have taken into account; sometimes the reader is so incredibly wrong that you want to reach through the computer screen (or step out from behind the lectern at a con) and slap that wrong person right on their wrong face! Yeah, I know how it goes. You think it's easier for the editor? The editor is supposed to help the author convey everything properly! If the readers don't get anything the author wants them to, it's (usually) at least partially the fault of the editor.

(Honestly, I've found that if I step away from being the author/editor of a work, and just take what the reader says about the work at face value, I can usually see where the reader is coming from -- even if I don't agree with it.)

Sometimes there's just no arguing with a reader/viewer -- and my recommendation is do not engage. Just suck it up, and realize that people bring their own shit to everything, and see most things -- television, movies, books, food, whatever! -- through the lenses of their baggage.

All that said... back to Fringe!

There are so many things about Fringe that I am interested in knowing about, especially because I still think the show's world building is so weak, that I couldn't help myself. I turned on the commentary. What. A. Mistake.

Those men are writing a completely different show than what I'm watching. They're writing, apparently, a soap opera-type drama about a father-son relationship. Yeah, Peter and Walter's relationship is definitely a big plot point, but the show I am watching is 90% about Olivia. Olivia kicking ass, taking names, being hard and vulnerable at the same time. I think she's a really good example of the kind of female character who I absolutely love -- she's flawed because she's human, not because she's a woman. And her flaws are real and deep and ring very true to me.

In the commentary, they talk about how Fringe was originally conceived as a show about a mad scientist, but they had two problems -- one, they couldn't write a character smarter than they are. (Honestly, I don't necessarily agree with this, but it's a good basic rule. If you don't understand the basics of physics, maybe your character ought not be a physicist...) Two, there is no way into a mad scientist character; there's no real way to relate to him, to empathize. So the show grew out of a need to make the mad scientist -- Walter -- relate-able and worthy of the compassion of the viewers.

To hear them tell it, Olivia barely factored into the equation then, and hardly factors into their equations now.

I can't lie -- I was pretty effing shocked to find this out. Were I building a show (or a book) similar to Fringe, I'd be starting with the strong female character in the center of everything, and building the entire show/book around her. Of course, that's me; no two people create the same way, and I can understand that.

What I can't understand is how/why they spent more time talking about Felicity and Alias than talking about the character of Olivia.

Plus, even though I suspected that they didn't have a plan or know anything about what they were writing, it sucks to have that confirmed. I spend every episode on tenterhooks, wondering if this is the episode where everything is going to fall apart or go off the rails like season three of Alias and beyond, and now that tension is going to be even worse! They haven't let me down yet -- although I do have a lot of questions about plot points that have just been totally dropped or overwritten -- but there's always that worry, because this show is made and written by people who I know cannot always be trusted to deliver.

So I'm back to not watching commentary or reading the author's intent about things. I might change my mind when my season two DVDs come, because I want to know all the little details about the noir episode. Maybe by the end of season two, they'll be tired of talking about the other shows they've worked on and making stupid Lost jokes, and they'll actually talk about the show itself.

Tell me about you: do you like knowing the intent? Watching commentary? What's the best commentary you've ever watched/listened to/read?


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anna genoese

November 2015

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