It’s Rant Thursday! For those of you who are too polite to ask, yes, I’ve been working on my novel. It’s a humbling process, this: this coming to the realization that my manuscript, in fact, wasn’t and won’t be dictated to me by God. Or, perhaps it was/will be dictated to me by God, but man is that Dictaphone in rough shape and only about one in every three sentences is legible. I am learning all sorts of Useful Lessons, though. For example:
a) Just because you have read lots of novels, it doesn’t mean that you are qualified to write one.
b) Just because you have edited novels, even if you have won awards for editing books, it doesn’t mean that you are intuitively capable of writing a decent novel.
c) The fact that you are good writer in no way guarantees that you will write even a halfway decent novel. Good writing is not the same thing as a good novel.
And so on. As I said, humbling.
My first draft was pretty much pulled out of the air: sitting down and semi-desperately trying to tune into that staticky voice of God over the shoddy celestial Dictaphone and getting down the words. For my second draft, I’m working from the ground up: going back to basics, reading books on the craft, doing the kinds of exercises I have tended to avoid. In essence, I’ve designed for myself a one-year Masters degree in fine arts, complete with textbooks, assignments (e.g., pick a novel I like and break it down scene by scene in order to analyze its construction) and a thesis: my second draft. At the moment, I’m creating the equivalent of a thesis proposal: a plot treatment, a sort of Rosetta Stone for the entire manuscript wherein I list, in order, each scene and its structural function: who’s doing what, where, and why? How do these actions further the overall plot? What, by the way, is the plot, exactly? The theme? What does my protagonist want, and what antagonistic forces are preventing her from getting it? What is her fatal flaw of character and how will she overcome in order to fulfill her desires? Just simple stuff like that. The kind of thing that drove Anne Lamott on a booze and cocaine bender — and that was after she did what I’m doing and then her editor rejected it, again.
But that’s for later.
Right now I am just chugging along, doing the exercises, reading my books. Which leads me to the real point of this post, and this rant. Here’s what it says on page VI of Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:
NOTES ON THE TEXT
To deal with the pronoun problem I have avoided constructions that distract the reader’s eye, such as he annoying alternation of “she” and “her” with “he” and “him,” the repetitious “he and she” and “him and her,” the awkward “s/he” and “her/im,” and the ungrammatical “they” and “them” as neuter singulars. Rather, I use the nonexclusive “he” and “him” to mean “writer.”
Mr. McKee. Robert. Bob! Can I call you Bob? Can we get all chummy like that? Well, no, actually we can’t. We can’t because you don’t think I exist. We can’t because you are still mired in the antiquated miasma of sexism that thinks it’s perfectly okay to verbally exclude more than half the world’s population from your ideas, all the while protesting that in no way are you being “exclusive.”
Bob, look: I’ve been over this before. But just in case: women exist. They exist as actual people, of course, but also as novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, copywriters, editors and characters in stories. We exist as writers. And very few of us, I’m willing to bet, would find it “annoying” to see our teachers and so-called mentors acknowledge that existence. I’m sorry that you think that the simple phrase “his or her” is distracting; personally, I find it distracting to be constantly reminded that the so-called expert advice I’m reading comes from a person who doesn’t think I’m alive. Personally, I think it’s annoying that, well into the 21st century, it’s still perfectly acceptable in your imagination to perpetuate the myth that men are the default, “neutral,” writers of this world. You know what’s actually awkward? It’s awkward when somebody won’t shake your hand or make eye contact with you because you’re a girl, when they go to great syntactical lengths to avoid acknowledging your existence and then insist that they aren’t sexist, not exclusive at all. No-ho.
(Something else that’s annoying, by the way, Bob: the phrase “put emphasis on.” Say “emphasizes.” It’s briefer and more elegant.)
It’s especially annoying because I’m reading your book on the heels of reading Dara Marks’s fantastic Inside Story: the Power of the Transformational Arc, which has given me all sorts of wonderful tools and insights into this process. It is, in my opinion, a better book than yours: much more practical; take-home points on every page; written with a certain economy that you lack — and this despite the fact that Marks uses “he or she” and “his or her” and other gender-neutral terms throughout. Guess what? It’s not distracting in the least. It’s respectful. It’s also realistic.
Bob, I’m prepared to be humbled by this process, but I’m not really prepared to be ignored, devalued, discounted, solely on the basis of my gender. If you’re going to dismiss me, do it for a real reason — like the quality of my writing or the structure of my plot. And I’ll try to take the few helpful points you provided and make them work for me. But that’s gonna be hard, because I don’t trust you very much: I mean, how am I supposed to take seriously your claim to be a “master of the craft” of storytelling when it’s clear that you’ll never be able to write a fully formed female character?
In other words, Bob, the pronouns aren’t the problem here. Misogyny is.