East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Writing

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My brother, who plays the role of my conscience better than Jiminy Cricket, told me yesterday that I have to grow my Patreon. I was telling him that I started following a Japanese girl who has a Youtube channel where she teaches Japanese, and has over 900 supporters on Patreon, for an average of $ 5 per follower per month.
I have 42, of supporters on Patreon, people who trust me every month and bet on the fact that I will continue to write.

“You have to make sure you get more,” my brother tells me.
“Eh, it’s not easy,” I reply. “This girl holds courses, she teaches, it is clear that those interested in learning Japanese follow her …”
He shrugs his shoulders. “You also hold courses on your Patreon. That writing thing … “

“That thing of writing” is called Nuts & Bolts, a series of more or less monographic articles on the practice of writing that come out sort-of-monthly on my Patreon page. I once described them, to laugh, like Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Writing.
Which then in the end boils down to telling what I do, and what others I know do, in certain situations related to writing, publishing and selling our stories. The strategies that so far have barely allowed me to pay the bills.

It is not a writing course because I believe that

  • as for the basics, if you have not learned them already, there are ten thousand manuals that teach them, the important thing is not to take them as an matter of faith
  • once you have the basics, there is no single and infallible way to proceed, and if they tell you otherwise, they are trying to sell you a course

Nuts & Bolts is a series of practical articles: I see this problem, I solve it this way, others do it differently. Then the limit is spoken of in the comments – or should there be an plebiscite of interest for a given topic, let’s mount a chat with Discord or something.

“Tell them,” my brother tells me. “Post it on the blog and explain that anyone who signs up for your Patreon with a dollar a month gets at least one of these articles, plus two collections of cool stuff with Odds & Ends, and short stories, notes and things. Tell’em!”

I could also add that Nuts & Bolts, despite the English-speaking title and banner, comes out both in Italian and in English. A thousand words at a time. So far, nine have come out, which means I actually put more than one a month into it. But one is guaranteed.

“And then give’em a free sample!” My brother told me.

Well, here it is … the second article in the series, released three months ago:

I was hanging out on an online chat with a number of other writers. It’s not a chat I visit frequently, because the discussions there usually kindle my impostor syndrome – you know, the chilling conviction we have been bluffing so far, and sooner or later someone will notice.

So, the topic of the discussion was “How do we write characters of the opposite sex?”
And a lot of interesting stuff came up, like a male writer pointing out that males tend to act and react, and are shallow as frying pans, while women have a deeper and more complex emotional lives. Or the guy that said he has a team of female beta readers that check if his female characters are comme-il-faut. And someone else invoked the animus-anima duality of Jungian psychology.
You can see how one’s impostor syndrome can be triggered.

Because to me the whole discussion, and the responses, reminded me of that old story about Laurence Olivier and Dusting Hoffman, back when they were shooting Marathon Man.

As legend has it, Olivier (a classically trained stage actor) and Hoffman (who came from the Actors’ Studio) had the following exchange during the shoot.
“How did your week go, dear boy,” Olivier said.
Hoffman told him that he had filmed a scene in which his character was supposed to have been up for three days straight.
“So what did you do?” Olivier asked.
“Well, I stayed up for three days and three nights.”
Laurence Olivier then uttered this famous line, “Why don’t you just try acting?”

Because that’s basically what I do. I try writing.
But that’s only part of the story – the punch line, if you will, but missing the funny joke that comes before.
So, let me put it in another way

Q: how do I write convincing female characters?
A: just like everything else – I do my research and then wing it.

Let’s expand a bit.
First and foremost – the key word here is convincing.
Everything that goes on the page has to be just that – convincing. Not real, not perfect, not art imitating life. It has to be convincing.
The point is to work so that the reader will not have a “Come on, this is impossible!” moment or, should he have one, provide a good reason for it being after all plausible in the following paragraphs.

To achieve plausibility, we need to do our homework.
For esoteric subjects, there’s the web or the library – you can get the essential know how about everything, from Egyptian curses to interstellar space flight to the best place to eat a sandwich in New York, from online resources or reference books.

So yes, you can go and Google “how to write characters of the opposite gender” – you’ll get something like this…

And opening the first link you discover the four Rs
. Reading
. Research
. Recollection
. Review
And really, this is a good enough checklist.

I like biographies and autobiographies. They are a great source of inspiration, loads of fun, and great for research.
Right now I could mention Emily Hahn’s Nobody Said Not To Go as an excellent selection of text from Hahn’s various books, articles and journals, arranged in the form of an autobiography.
Great read (I am notoriously in love with Emily Hahn), great insight in the workings of a smart, independent, bold woman.
I could add a dozen other examples.
And by the way, I am not “Hmmm, let’s see how the female brain works…” when I read Hahn, or Rosita Forbes, or Sylvia Earle or Dion Fortune any other woman author. But I tend to keep my brain on.

I would add to this also songs and poetry.
Women songwriters and poets can provide a different point of view on some pretty well threaded subjects, and thus we can catch a glimpse of a different point of view, a different way of feeling.

Sometimes some focused research can be needed – I am about to write a story about a non-conformist young woman in the Edwardian age. I will read a few articles about everyday life for the upper classes in the early 1900s, specifically focusing on women’s conditions.

Then there’s the people I have known – family, friends, acquaintances.
All the characters we write about have a spark that comes from us, from the writer,and the rest is a Frankenstein monster of people we’ve met, characters we’ve read about or met in movies, cartoons, comics.

The review bit in the list is what that guy mentioned about his female beta readers. I did in a few occasions ask my friends of the female persuasion to check a story of mine – not to make sure I had got the women right, but to make sure I was not stereotyping them, or propagating offensive cliches.
The Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test are also useful at this point.

But I also remember the lady writer that posted on a forum a want ad for “a human being of the male persuasion” to describe her how it feels to make love from a man’s point of view.
The sense of ridicule, I am convinced, is another tool we must always keep handy.

And then there is the actual act of writing – what Lawrence Block calls “Telling lies for fun and profit.” And let’s remember Block wrote dozens of novels under a female alias, back in his early Paperback Originals days.
We don’t have to be the real thing, like Coca Cola.
We only need to be convincing as long as we are on stage.
It’s something I learned from illusionist handbooks.
(but we’ll talk about that another time)

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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