Monthly Archives: April 2015

Is This Sexist? The Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests Are Here to Help

The other day I was reading an agent’s blog and came across two types of tests she prefers that novels pass before queries are submitted to her. I’d never heard of either one of these tests, so I was curious and looked them up.

The first is the Bechdel Test. This test was introduced back in 1985 through a comic strip. 521f82bc22887

Dykes to Watch Out For Comic Strip

In order to pass this test a movie, story, etc. must have (1) at least two female characters, (2) these female characters must talk to each other, and (3) they need to talk to each other about a topic other than a man.

Basically, this test is meant to show whether or not a story is gender biased. It indicates that women’s relationships are more complex than being a man’s sidekick or love interest, and that women do not exist solely in relation to men.

The second test is the Mako Mori Test. Mako Mori is the leading female character in the movie Pacific Rim. 521f8027f17e4

Mako Mori

When the movie came out a lot of people were upset that it did not pass the Bechdel Test. Mako Mori was nearly the only female character in the movie, and she never talked to the other much smaller supporting female character.

However, Mako Mori was not the stereotypical female character. She didn’t pose on a car in skimpy clothes. Her life didn’t revolve around a man. She fought for her place within the hierarchy and was overall a strong female lead.

Thus was born the Mako Mori Test. To pass this test a film or story must have (1) at least one female character, (2) this character must get her own narrative story arc, and (3) her story arc is not about supporting a man’s story arc.

Both the Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests are simplistic. Critics of the Bechdel Test have stated that all the requirements can be fulfilled and the story can still be sexist. None of the requirements for the Bechdel Test state that women must have character development. Technically, there could be two women in a film, who are inseparable best friends, and who only talk about shopping. That scenario passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s stereotypical and not at all empowering to women.

As for the Mako Mori Test, there can be an incredibly independent and strong female lead, but still contain sexism. In the movie Avengers, there are two female characters, however they’re rarely on the screen at the same time and don’t talk to each other (thus failing the Bechdel Test). The movie does pass the Mako Mori Test because of Black Widow, who is a major force within the movie. Yet, she is a sex symbol, which is stereotypical for Hollywood films.

I love the idea of creating tests to ensure women are something other than supporting characters for men, but creating such a test is harder than it seems and neither the Bechdel Test nor the Mako Mori Test ensure independent female characters. What might be a better alternative than having one test is to combine the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests.

What do you think?

[Photos courtesy of Bust.]

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Thinking like a Filmmaker: Writing a Novel in Terms of Camera Shots

filmmaking-sillouhetteWe live in a world where television shows and movies play a big role. How many hours of television or movies have you watched in the past year alone? With having so much experience watching, we are accustomed to the style of movies and television. We recognize the elements within film and TV, and expect them. In many ways this has transitioned over to literature.

Many authors now write novels keeping in mind their novel’s ability to be adapted into script. Writers pay attention to the visual elements of a scene. What makes a great scene? What makes a scene flop? Can you picture where each character and prop is within a scene?

Film and TV have only a short amount of time to relay all the important information. They have to grab your attention and hold it. Plus, they have to make viewers feel the emotions occurring within each scene based on character movement, expressions, etc. Added to that, they have to have specific set directions, to know where each character and prop in the scene is.

There are certain steps you can implement to create a very visual, riveting scene.

  1. Think about POV. If you think of your point of view as the camera, imagine where the camera needs to be for each scene. This doesn’t mean POV has to change, rather your POV character is in the optimal position in each scene to see the vital elements occurring within that scene.
  2. Know your key moments. Each scene gives readers something, whether it’s new information or a new insight based on old information. Scenes have to move the story along, and within each scene are specific moments. Without these moments a scene cannot occur. Think of each moment as a different camera shot, and all the camera shots add up to a scene.
  3. Pay attention to sensory details. What sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and physical sensations are important to the scene? It’s a good idea to have at least two senses stand out in every scene. Are there trains nearby? How about the smell of lavender? Or the feel of the humidity pressing in, warning of a coming storm? How about color? In film and TV, color is very important. Each color connotes a different meaning. Infuse the scene with time and place, weather, texture, etc. How do these sensations relate to the character, the story?

Within commercial literature, readability and visualization are vital. Thinking like a filmmaker will help bring those elements to the forefront of the story. Making deliberate choices as to camera angle, which sensory details are placed within the scene, which camera shots are used and the order they’re placed in, POV, etc. all create a specific environment that adds to the story, a story that will stay with readers long after they’ve finished reading it.

What is your opinion on thinking like a filmmaker?

(Photo courtesy of f-stopacademy.)

Getting a Leg Up: Improving Your Chances of Getting Published

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I’m always searching for ways to improve my chances of getting published. No matter what avenue you pursue getting published is a challenge. Many times it seems more about luck than talent or perseverance, though without staying power the chances of getting published are reduced to zero.

I’ve joined a critique group, taken creative writing classes, read several creative writing books, analyzed commercially successful novels, and am now working toward a Masters in Fiction Writing. All of this done in an effort to polish my work into a piece of writing an agent and then an editor will take on.

wanted lit agentBut even as I do all of this I know my chances are still slim. And before I go off on a bunny trail and start talking about how many poorly written novels end up being bestsellers (readability is one of the most important aspects of successful commercial fiction, not literary finesse), I would love to know what others are doing to improve their chances of getting published.

Currently, there’s the debate of whether or not to pursue an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in creative writing. Thousands of people apply each year to get into this program, while each year thousands snub the program. Real fast: an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, usually taking two to three years to complete, that offers students the opportunity to focus on their writing and grow as writers. Students participate in traditional style classes and workshops, where they read and critique other students’ work and where their work is read and critiqued.

One of the best attributes of the MFA is the opportunity to have your work read and critiqued. The program provides you with a community of writers that will give honest and thorough feedback on your writing. Sometimes when you have family or friends read your work, they’ll want to be encouraging, and so will be afraid of truly critiquing your novel. When you’re in a workshop setting, that is not the case. You will get straightforward and truthful feedback, whether you want to hear it or not.

An MFA program also teaches you to read with a critical eye. As I’ve delved deeper into the literary world, I’ve noticed my reading style changing. Whereas I used to read solely for pleasure, now I automatically dissect technique and literary elements within any work of fiction I read. On one hand this is great because I come away with a better understanding of the work I just read. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy books as much as I used to because I can better pick out the inconsistencies, plot holes, flat characters, etc. Though in order to improve as a writer, you have to learn what to avoid when writing, and one of the best ways to learn that is to become a critical reader.

As with all programs, there are downsides to the MFA. One, there’s the cost. Very few programs cover expenses. Most will cost students anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a degree that provides little opportunity in the professional world!

There are no guarantees that you’ll get published. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and years of your life focusing on improving your work, and nothing may come of it. One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is to not quit their day job.

Also, an MFA tends to be literary. If your focus is commercial, it’ll be challenging to get accepted into such a program. The literary world tends to snub the commercial world, while the commercial world doesn’t care all that much for the literary one. As stated earlier, one of the biggest proponents of having a commercially successful novel is readability. I’ve read many novels where the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, where the plot is nothing new, and where the writing is average at best, but I’ve come away liking the books because of their readability. (Literary fiction usually doesn’t promote readability to the extent of well-crafted writing.)writer

In the end, what you choose to do to improve your writing will be based on personal preferences, what you can afford, and what other successful writers in your genre have done.

I’m happy with my decision to work toward a Masters in Fiction Writing part time (this is different from an MFA) because it gave me a group of writers and professors – all published – who provide me with feedback for my work and gave me a group of people who understand what it’s like to pursue writing seriously and who know how difficult it is to be successful in the literary world.

No matter what it’s important to read and read widely. Reading books in your genre is vital, but so is reading books outside your genre. Join a critique group, and in doing so be open to (1) putting in the work and (2) being open to criticism. (I recently learned of a critique group where everyone wants their work read and critiqued, but very few want to read and critique anyone else’s work. Reciprocate people!) And when your novel is finished, revise, revise, revise. If you’re not great at editing, consider hiring a professional editor (if you have the funds to do so). Attend writer’s conferences. Immerse yourself in the literary world.

A great article I’ve read recently about the MFA and whether it will give you a leg up in the publishing world is “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” It’s worth a look.

How do you improve your chances of getting published? What’s your stance on the MFA?

(Photos courtesy of The BookBaby Blog, The Graduate21, i am CAM Jr!)

Getting Ready for a Showdown with Revision

When you ask writers what their least favorite part of writing is, many will tell you revision. Why? Revision is a necessary part of writing, however it’s something a lot of writers struggle with. It’s time consuming for one, and it can be difficult to spot the flaws within your own work. Not to mention mentally preparing yourself to tear apart everything you just wrote.western_showdown

A good old-fashioned showdown.

Revision can seem like a daunting process. So how do you prepare for it? 

  1. Remember that first drafts are for dumping all your ideas onto the page. First drafts aren’t perfect. Characters, setting, and plot can still evolve afterward. If you had an ending in mind when you began your novel, it might have changed halfway through. Now, you need to go back and foreshadow correctly for the new ending.
  2. Relish in dissecting your story. It’s natural to want to keep to keep your writing, but if the writing doesn’t fit the story, then it’s got to go. One of the great things about computers is that you can save all the different drafts of your story. Just because you make a change doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. But the goal is to improve your story, and if there’s a chapter that doesn’t advance the plot or reveal anything, then it doesn’t serve a purpose other than to add to the word count and so it needs to go.
  3. The story is key. The story is what matters. Story and plot are two separate entities. Plot can change, while the underlying story remains the same. The story is the core issue, while plot equals the events within a story. If your protagonist needs to come across the corpse in chapter two, then be caught by the murderers in chapter seven, then escape in chapter ten, etc. there are many different ways these events can occur. You can change up the entire plot and still have the same story!
  4. Break it down. Revision doesn’t occur all at once. You’ll revise your work multiple times. Decide what aspects of revision you’re going to focus on during each stage of revision. In revision one, you’re likely to focus on the big picture issues, such as plot holes, coherency, the stakes for the characters, etc. Without first looking at the big picture issues, you won’t know if your story will work. The next revision might take a look at each chapter, instead of the story as a whole. The third revision could focus on certain sections of chapters. Eventually, you’ll be looking at grammar and punctuation. By breaking down the revision process, it doesn’t seem like such a mountain.

In the end, the goal is to make the story better, and the only way to accomplish that is through revision.

How do you prepare for the revision process?

(Photo courtesy of CowboyLands.)