Kari Maaren is is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and university English instructor who lives in Toronto, Canada. She has just published her first novel,Weave a Circle Round, an old-fashioned kids’ fantasy adventure. If you challenge her to a duel, she will choose a ukulele as her weapon, or possibly an accordion if she really has it out for you.
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
I want to say Meg Murry, but I know she’s been covered pretty thoroughly by other people. I’m still going to sneak Meg into my answers because I just can’t help it. However, for my main answer, I’ll go for Elizabeth from Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess. I was obsessed with Elizabeth when I was little. I can still quote sections of the book.
Can you remember what it was these characters did or what qualities they had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Elizabeth is the complete opposite of me. She’s girly enough to moon openly over a boy, but as soon as her One True Love is kidnapped by a dragon, she just hops into that paper bag and sets out to rescue him. I stopped being brave enough to tell boys I liked them after one of my friends made it clear to me, when we were both about nine, that I wasn’t pretty enough to do that. If a dragon burned down everything I owned and kidnapped my (secret) One True Love, I would probably go to pieces. Elizabeth was a girl who could get things done. As well, my middle name is Elizabeth, so when I was younger, I sort of saw Munsch’s Elizabeth as my secret identity. Maybe Kari would never have been able to do those things, but Elizabeth could. I also identified strongly with the end of the story, when Ronald rejected Elizabeth because she was dirty and dressed in a paper bag, and she called him a bum and waltzed off into the sunset alone. A lot of the other stories I heard at that age told me the girl was supposed to marry the boy and live happily ever after. Elizabeth could live happily ever after without marrying the boy. I wanted to be her so badly.
Sneaky Meg note: Meg is much more flawed than Elizabeth, which is why I love her. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that Meg saves the day not with her strengths but with her faults.
Sneaky Alyx Response: I loved that about her too!
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your creations owe her?
Weave a Circle Round’s protagonist, Freddy, starts off as more of a Meg than an Elizabeth. She’s singularly immature at the beginning of the novel, and while her faults aren’t the same as Meg’s, they’re just as pronounced. She’s very unlike Elizabeth in that she has to grow into her own competence. Elizabeth has an arc, but because the book is so short, her development happens very quickly. She goes from a princessy princess in love with Ronald to a paper-bag-wearing badass capable of tricking a dragon in the blink of an eye. Freddy starts as a social coward in denial about just about everything, and when she finds herself in a bad situation, she doesn’t snap immediately into Bravery Mode; she has to work at it. I still love Elizabeth, but she’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy. That isn’t a criticism—we need our wish-fulfilment fantasies—but I find that my characters tend to muddle through their adventures instead of facing them head on.
Sneaky Meg note: Meg’s faults will, I suspect, reverberate through everything I’ll ever write. Freddy doesn’t use her faults to save the universe, but they’re also firmly part of her, not superficial elements that are cast aside when she grows up a bit. As I tell my students a lot, there’s a difference between a “strong character” and a “strong person.” Strong characters can be weak people. In fact, many of the best stories are about weak people struggling against their own weaknesses.
How do you feel about the word heroine? When I started talking to people about writing these posts, I am specifically looking for female authors’ female influences, whether those women they looked up to were other writers or Anne of Green Gables. Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served by equally well by hero?
I like the word “heroine.” Yes, it’s rooted in the word “hero” and can be seen as redundant, but the problem is that when we collapse the terms, we still treat the male hero as the norm and the female hero as a deviation from the norm. The term “male hero” seems redundant; the term “female hero” doesn’t. Therefore, when we speak of “female heroes,” we often mean women who fit the male heroic standard, not women who fit some gender-neutral heroic standard. The word “heroine” acknowledges that women can be heroic—in the literary or the broader sense—without necessarily conforming to a model regarded as inherently male.
I study and teach fairy tales. My course has a unit on heroes and a unit on heroines. The students tend to go into the course assuming that the heroes will be handsome princes and the heroines passive princesses awaiting rescue. What they learn is that while there are certainly plenty of passive princesses, they tend to have been made that way by writers such as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. There are many “Cinderella”-like stories in which Cinderella doesn’t just sit around and moan because she can’t go to the ball. Fairy-tale girls go out into the world to seek their fortunes just as often as fairy-tale boys, and both boys’ stories and girls’ stories frequently culminate in marriage (not love but the economic transaction of marriage, via which both boys and girls can rise in the world). At the same time, the handsome princes the students are expecting tend to appear only as simple reward figures in female-centred stories, while the “heroes” unit is full of tricksters. “Hero” and “heroine” are both words with rich histories, and they’re more complex than a lot of people know. Getting rid of “heroine” because everyone assumes it’s a lesser, demeaning category does a disservice to the spinning women who used to sit around weaving tales about clever girls using magical women’s implements—spindles, carding combs, spinning wheels, needles, even laundry—to complete their quests. The sword is not the only weapon out there.
About this post:The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with (usually) female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Faith Mudge, Stephanie Burgis, and S.B. Divya . If you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.
According to my app which counts all the things, it has been 1283 days since we adopted Lorenzo and Chinchilla, i.e. kidnapped them from their feral life in backyard Etobicoke and conveyed them to the lap of luxury. Here’s a pic of them from that day, snuggling on the bathroom rug.
The kids are a joy. Unlike our two previous cat pairs, they like each other. We’re very invested in this: this very morning Kelly shot video of them washing each others’ faces adorably. Buddha and Obiwan existed in a state of perpetual low-grade truce. Rumble bullied Minnow on a regular basis. These guys wash each others’ faces! Oh. Em. Whee!
And, as you may know, we spoil them heckin’ rotten. Sometimes Kelly and I refer to our lovely windows, which look out on our birch trees and the building courtyard, as CatTV. By this we mean she turns on CatTV every morning, before we leave for work, by setting out feed for sparrows. Generally speaking a good time is had by all.
Anyway. Today CatTV got tuned to the Holy Shit Orange Cat is Back Network.
The kids get excited and periodically stroppy about all sorts of the things on the fishbowl side of their universe. Squirrels. Our newest chipmunk friend. Raccoons. They have been known to fling themselves at the sparrows. They’ve even gotten into some through the glass growl-ups with orange cat before. No big, right? That’s entertainment.
Except today Orange Cat was hurling himself right back at them. All three cats ended up in the same square meter of space, with glass separating my babies from the interloper, and all three of them helicoptering each of their four limbs mightily. Which meant that Orange Cat bounced, and CinCin and Lozo got into a second’s worth of fur-flying hard-core yowling panic-driven battle. Three times, because Orange Cat bounces back.
Were they freaked out? Holy crap were they freaked.
Lozo peed. CinCin pooped. They both came away from the encounter 100% convinced that Orange Cat had got into the house, adopted the guise of their sibling, and was even now plotting the downfall of the regime. She growled. He yowled. Both of them with tails puffed out and an overall attitude of Kill, Kill, Kill.
Holy shit, Orange Cat, you broke my kids! I spent the afternoon trying to chill them the fuck out: keeping them separated, vaccuming (as a way of giving them a common enemy, which worked a little, for awhile) and eventually giving CinCin a huge-ass time-out in the bathroom.
So that was my day, complete with cleaning body fluids off the living room floor. It was better than their day, but not by much.
Here is the kind of paragraph I absolutely love to see when one of my students is critiquing another:
Your writing has some grammatical errors. I saw some confusion between it and it’s, and several comma splices. You might want to look into subject-verb agreement too. I’ve included some great and thoroughly unimpeachable links about these rules.
The reason I love this–especially if it’s tucked in at the end of a critique, after all of the substantial issues within the manuscript have been addressed–is it means the person doing the critique has learned that it is a misguided use of time if they copyedit* their classmates‘ manuscripts.
The urge to edit in a peer workshop is a powerful one. There is no greater joy than marking up someone else’s manuscript. Track changes options in word processing software make it easy and, to be honest, it’s fun. Providing a marked-up manuscript to a classmate shows an intense time commitment, usually earns some gratitude, and gives the reader a chance to directly share their own (possibly hard-learned) writing lessons.
So why am I arguing it is a bad use of resources?
Workshop submissions should always assumed to be early drafts. What’s important in a draft stage is to get the story out, and some writers cannot get out the words if they are worrying about the commas. Some members of your workshop might be perfectly capable of fixing up their grammar in later drafts, but are submitting 10 minutes before the workshop’s drop dead deadline. The reader can’t know if either of these things is the case. You could be driving someone into a panic without meaning to.
Almost no one in a student workshop is an actual copy editor. You’re fixing the errors you can see. A copy editor, who will ideally go through the manuscript in the latter stages of production, after even the savviest author and editor have polished it to a shine, can still find and address errors 90% of us won’t even dream of. Think of the movie ads that say: professional driver, closed course. Don’t try to drive the copy-editor’s race car.
Some participants may actually alter things that are correct and make them wrong. Unless the instructor checks every alteration in every edited manuscript, there’s no guarantee that someone isn’t teaching you bad grammar. Remember, there’s nothing to stop that person with the its/it’s problem from marking up your doc!
Copy-editing actually reduces the chance some people will learn the lesson. Look at the paragraph I love, above. If you tell someone they need to learn subject verb agreement, they have to go find out what the hell that is. If you just go and fix their sentences for them, all they have to do is hit Accept Change and go on making the same mistake in the next draft.
Copy-editing reduces the chance that you’ll learn something. All that time you spend changing mistakes that the author might know how to fix themselves (and possibly also mistakes they’re making deliberately as a style choice) is time you could’ve spent practicing your substantive editing skillset. That is to say: reading the manuscript more closely for big-picture strengths and weaknesses within characterization, plot, structure, setting detail, good images, not so good images, and clear thematic content.
Balance and positivity: Most workshops encourage readers to strive for a mix of positive and negative commentary in critique, so that the author knows both what they’re doing right and where they need to improve a story or novel. A document full of typo corrections and grammar notations is, by definition, a litany of negative notes. There is almost nobody who out there takes the time to mark up a manuscript while paying equal attention to the writer’s good sentences, clever ideas, nice character nuances, and brilliant turns of phrase.
Accountability: In a face to face workshop, you have to look the author in the eye as you deliver your opinion of their work. In an online workshop, your critique post has the same effect: whatever you say is out in the clear, where you’re responsible for it—and where the other members of the workshop can debate whether they agree or disagree with your points. If you say “I was confused by X,” another reader has the opportunity to say “I thought it was crystal clear and here’s why.”
The comments you append to an annotated manuscript aren’t public fodder, not really. Even if they’re available to the rest of the group, 99% of the time nobody but the author is going to read them. You’re taking a portion of your critique and tucking it out of sight, where it can’t be discussed.
Highest and best use of time: In a student workshop you should be aiming to try to achieve two amazing things with each and every critique. One is to give your classmate the best substantial reading you possibly can. The second is becoming a better reader and writer by formulating that outstanding critique. By reading deeply, digging below the surface (which is where the grammar lives) you sharpen your own sense of story. Every second you spend polishing the buttons and shoelaces, the commas and semicolons, is one you spend depriving both yourself and the submission’s author of deeper insights.
It is not always the case that the best and most thorough readers in my class are also the best writers. But there is a strong correlation. The better someone is at critting, usually, the better they are at craft.
Grammar can be a dodge: If a story is particularly difficult to critique—which happens both with the very problematic stories and the ones that are so good they seem done!—picking at the rules of language may even be a way of letting yourself off the hook. It’s hard to read and crit a great story. It’s incredibly tough to shine the way forward for someone who’s just beginning. If you’re copy editing their piece, are you really just writing yourself a pass to not wrack your brains about how to make the ostensibly great story incandescent? Or the apparently broken piece just one doable step closer to viable?
Give it some thought.
Finally, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not saying don’t critique the author’s writing style.** “It’s ungrammatical and hard to read” is a valid part of any prose critique… but it isn’t the whole story, and probably shouldn’t be all you have to say on the subject of their line by line writing.
All writers have to learn grammar. It’s okay to tell someone you think they’re falling down on this part of the job. Make the note, pull out a few offending sentences, offer some how-to links if you like… and then dig deeper. It’s tougher, but it’ll vault your whole workshop forward, and take your own writing with it.
*Most new writers don’t necessarily distinguish well between line editing and copy editing. I don’t particularly want my students line-editing each other in a separate document either, and I’ll talk about why at length sometime, but the tl;dr meat of it is in the Accountability item, above.
**I’m also not saying that instructors shouldn’t do some document editing, or that peer workshops between pros might not agree that this is useful.
Quatloos and Credits and Latinum, Oh My! Sunday 1 PM; Solarium
Who else? and Panel Details!
Creating Languages: Many SF/F worlds have their own languages, Elvish and Klingon being two examples. From etymology to grammar to culture, there are many characteristics to consider. How do you craft languages that make sense? How does a language reflect the identities of its speakers? How do we make our languages and vocabularies believable? Alyx Dellamonica, Sephora Hosein(M), Lawrence Schoen
Eating and Ethics; What is the ethical scope of our food choices? Is buying local really better than buying imported food? Are Vegans better for the environment? How do things like socioeconomic status, mental health, and disability intersect with the ethics of food consumption? Charlotte Ashley (M), Alyx Dellamonica, Lawrence Schoen, Gunnar Wentz
Plot Complications: Characters in a story are attempting to solve a problem. In the best stories, their attempts go horribly awry. Who can forget the moment when the Crew of the Enterprise, attempting to defeat the Borg, is faced with the announcement from their beloved Captain–“I am Locutus of Borg.” And the course of the story is changed. Or, when Boromir falls to the lure of the Ring and tries to take it, splitting up the Fellowship and changing everyone’s paths. Panelists and audience are invited to present their own favorite heart-stopping moment from books and film. Timothy Carter; David Clink, Alyx Dellamonica (M), Cathy Hird
Quatloos and Credits and Latinum, Oh My! Economics is frequently overlooked in SF. Do adventurers simply live on nuts and berries and what they can kill? What do they pay with when they visit an inn or buy a drink? How is trade carried out, particularly between species? Is there still a struggle for resources or has science advanced to the point where anything can be fabricated? Quatloos and Credits and Latinum, Oh My!; Alyx Dellamonica, Cenk Gokce(M), Kelly Robson
I was so pleased this weekend when Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest took home an Aurora Award for Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, which includes my story “Tribes” as well as fiction by Gemma Files, Hayden Trenholm, James Alan Gardner and so many other great writers. This was one of the Laksa Media series anthologies, done as a benefit for people with mental health challenges, and I was proud to be included.
Many of the authors in the antho will be there, talking about the story behind each of the stories in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound. As the poster says: Sandra Kasturi, Rahti Mehrotra, Derwin Mak, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Toni Pi, Karen Lowachee and Charlotte Ashley will all be there. And so will I, talking about the Proxy War story series generally, my piece “Bottleneck” in particular, and what a story about a hard-bitten army sergeant is doing in a book of pieces about caregiving and caregivers.