Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Letter from my NaNo Novel

Dear Morgan's friends:

I am Morgan's 2012 NaNoWriMo Novel. I will be at least 50 000 words long, and written entirely in the month of November - which, yes, is only 30 days.

I should be up front with you - this is a warning that I am kidnapping your friend Morgan for a month and replacing her with writer Morgan.

This new creature may respond to "how are you?" with groans, tears, long rants about how annoying having to do schoolwork is, or excited tirades about the progress of, well, me. Once in a while you may also get normalcy. Don't expect it though.

Speaking of which, Morgan may also stop sleeping, eating, showering and socializing for the next month. The dishes will not get done. Neither will laundry. Google "1667 words song" to get a musical interpretation of what Morgan will be experiencing for the next month.

Come December, I will return Morgan to the world, in more or less decent condition. She may be forced to hibernate for a while to catch up with regular life in time for exams. I hope you will help her survive both the writing and the catching up.

Morgan's Novel.

aka "The Bloodmage's Sacrifice" 

P.S. Find out more about me here.
P.P.S. Keep up with Morgan's progress here.


For anyone wondering if/when I'll follow up on my last post, it will be soon. Just not today. Today, it's time for bed. Because tomorrow, NaNoWriMo begins!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dear writers of the Cornell Critical Thinking Test*;

*Specifically, Robert H. Ennis and Jason Millman, authors of Cornell Critical Thinking Test, Level Z, 5th edition, (c)2005.

My name is Morgan and I'm going to try really hard to be diplomatic in this letter. It's hard, since I wrote most of it while I was still so angry I was shaking, after your "critical thinking test" left me feeling sick and invisible.

I am a first year engineering student at a Canadian university known for having a high percentage of female engineering students. It's one of the main reasons I chose to study here - to not be alone, and in the hopes of avoiding sexism.

Today we all wrote a critical thinking test - yours, to be precise. At first, it was kind of fun. I did notice that the first two names sounded rather old time British, but only in passing.

But by the time I was halfway through, the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong had taken root, and as I started to examine the test more closely, my confusion and anger only grew.

Where was I in this test?

It hurt when I realized what the problem was, like someone was ripping a part of me out, telling me I didn't belong where I want to go. And I know that sounds dramatic, but that's what it feels like to be invisible in your chosen field, so don't you dare dismiss my concerns as an overemotional reaction.

In case you were tempted to, I have the data to prove my point. Let's start with the gender breakdown of unique characters.

Male: 8      
Women: 5     
(+2 doctors, sex unknown - but likely presumed male by nearly everyone)

Doesn't sound too bad, does it? Let's dig a little deeper.

1A & 1B
2 men debate politics (ie. immigration)
Mr. Wilstings, Mr. Pinder
2 men argue public policy (ie. water chlorination)
Dobert, Algan
Discussion of an experiment run by 2 doctors, as well as a further experiment done by a male researcher
E.E. Brown, M.R. Kolter
Various short and colloquial conversation about definitions
Bill, Joan, Mary, Jim (also ‘his mother’ and ‘her father’)
2 married couples discuss discipline in childrearing
Mr. Dobert, Mr. Algan, Mrs. Dobert, Mrs. Algan

What may jump out at you, before any gender issues, is the rather white Christian bent to the names. Here's a graph to give you a better sense of the gender imbalance:

Women appear in only 2 sections
I really hope that you can see what's wrong with this, but maybe you'll be too busy pointing to the final two sections, which contain most of the characters, and crowing gleefully that women are fairly represented.

To which I can only say: bullshit.

First, to include women 'fairly' in only two of seven sections is not fair at all. And second, while sections 6 and 7 do have 50% female characters, the way these women are presented is nearly as bad as not having any women at all. In the case of section 7, it may even be worse.

Why? Gender norming.

Women have spent a long, long time fighting to be seen as people, to not be defined by their gender, and to stop the harmful policing of so-called typical gender roles. Sections 6 and 7 are a slap in the face to those ideals.

To begin with, these two sections are the ones with the least 'worldly power', for lack of a better term. They are colloquial conversations: no politics, no science. Clearly women can only exist in the home with kids, or when talking about kids. Now, I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn't intend to say this when you wrote the test, but regardless of intent, that's what you're saying. 

In section 6 we have a mom who is clueless about cars, a generic girl named Joan, and a girl baking. It's so stereotypical it makes me cringe. The men are no better: a dad who is clueless about baking, a boy talking about cars and a generic boy named Tim. Can't we move past those rigid gendered prisons?

I didn't think it was possible, but section 7 was worse. It consists of four people discussing discipline in child-rearing. The male characters Dobert and Algan reappear - and now they magically have wives: Mrs. Dobert and Mrs. Algan. 

Maybe this was convenient for you, but it was heartbreaking for me. It was a dismissal of the last 100 years of history of the fight for birth names and the right to independence from men.

So in section 7, you may see two women, but I see two faceless Mrs. versions of previously presented men who are only permitted to chime in on a quasi social policy issue because it has to do with children's behaviour.

Those were my options if I wanted to see myself in this test: a mom, a girl who bakes, a girl named Joan with a single line, or two women defined by their husbands.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these characters - but when they are the only options for women in a test filled with politicians, scientists and debaters, there is a problem.

Was I angry? I was livid; I was trembling. I scribbled down all the information I could, knowing I would need facts to back up my feelings when I wrote this. I barely managed to finish the test. To claim that your test is a fair measure of critical thinking when it makes it near impossible for me to think at all is laughable.

If this test hadn't been presented to me in my first year engineering course and clearly copyright 2005... well, let's just say I would have believed my English teacher last year if she had brought this out as an example of bygone casual sexism when we studied The Handmaid's Tale. It was that bad.

An important note: the portrayal of women in your test is far from the only issues. As someone who is straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied and neurotypical, I won't claim to speak for other underrepresented groups. But I can talk to you with confidence about women, and I can certainly SEE the rest of the issues better by comparing them to my own feelings about being invisible as a woman.

I'm not here to tell you that every test has to show examples of every power minority. I doubt trying to legislate or enforce that would do anything but generate backlash against "political correctness". But when the test is basically all straight white men, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING. And you should want to change that. (It might help if you weren't both - as far as I can tell from your names - white men.)

In my high school, a lot of teachers would use names of people from the class on tests. They couldn't make the names represent the world, but they could make sure they represented the test takers.

As writers of a test with a far larger audience, you have a responsibility to ensure a better representation of that audience. I don't care if it upsets some people - doing the right thing doesn't have to be popular!

Writing this, thinking back on the test... I just want to cry. In our first few days at university, we saw a series of skits to help us during orientation. One skit was just a "how people break stereotypes" and I laughed when they did "Just because I'm an engineer doesn't mean I'm stuck in the 1950s."

I laughed, thinking yeah, things have gotten better. OF COURSE we're not stuck in the 50s. I'm here, aren't I? But a whole lot of what I've seen since then has made me doubt that we're truly so enlightened as the men in charge claim.

I don't know how to eliminate sexism from the world, but fixing the gender imbalance in your critical thinking test would be a step in the right direction.

Morgan Hyde


Sorry readers if you wanted a writing post. I needed to get this out of my system, and I could also really use some advice. What do I do from here?

I'm going to contact the course administrator about this, I've decided that much. But I don't know what to say, nor how to say it so I have the best chance of making him get it.

And should I send it to anyone else? Should I edit it (more) first?

All I know is that I can't say nothing, especially in light of recent findings (opinion piece here) that show not just a lack of equal outcomes for women in the sciences (which could be due to any number of factors) but a lack of equal opportunity.

That's the key thing: if women don't have the same chance to excel in STEM fields, how can people look at gender differences in excellence in STEM fields and claim that discrimination plays no part?

Anyways, thanks for listening, and please let me know if you have ANY advice. Or supportive comments for when I talk to the prof. All much appreciated!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

TCWT October: My NaNo 2012 Novel

TCWT's October blog chain prompt:"What are you writing for NaNoWriMo? Briefly explain how this book idea come about. Then write a mock first page for the novel.”
My story's 'logline':
A powerful young mage discovers he is a sleeper agent whose goal is to bring down the Bloodmage Order from the inside, but while leading the revolution he
struggles to win the heart of one of his many victims.
This is an idea I've been fleshing out for a while, hammering out the details and (in)consistencies, trying to make it work. And since I'm now arriving at the point where I just need to write it, this will be my NaNo project for 2012.

The seed of the idea came to me last fall, when I was thinking about plants/infiltrators - people who join causes with the eventual goal of bringing them down. I realized that if the cause or organization was bad enough, the plant would have to do a lot of terrible things before they would be in a position to make any changes, and in many cases the kind of person who could force themselves to do all those terrible things might not end up changing anything at all.

This was kind of interesting, but I didn't want a main character who could commit mass ritualistic murder - even for the 'greater good'. Then the idea popped into my head of somehow magically separating part of oneself: creating a different personality to be present for the rank-climbing years, so that the "true and good self" could retake control and make changes once one had power in the evil organization.

That's the premise of this year's NaNo novel, currently known as SRM ("supressed rebel mind") and desperately in need of a proper title. Suggestions very welcome. 
I hope you enjoy the first page below, and please check out the other participants in the chain.


[Trigger warning: descriptions of torture, sexual assault and murder]

Anita had never been so scared in her life. Not when she'd nearly drowned as a toddler, not when her brother Connar had broken his leg and she'd had to walk ten miles for help, and not even when masked strangers had dragged her from her bed in the middle of the night. That had been terrifying, but this was what they had dragged her away for, and it was ten thousand times worse.

She was deep in the bowels of the Galoy cliffs, where the Bloodmage Order made their nest, attending some sort of ascension ceremony for a young man not much older than she was. She used the word 'attending' rather loosely - she was a prisoner here, and would rather have been anywhere else.

Anita could feel her whole body trembling in fear, and she watched the young mage to distract herself. He walked the room with an assurance few men twice his age possessed, and wore robes embroidered with enough gold to feed her family for months.

He was well-featured, there was no doubt about that, but arrogance and cruelty twisted his face into a mockery of handsomeness, and when he stalked closer to where she stood, Anita cowered away from him in disgust as well as fear.

But he did not even look at her, instead grabbing the first girl of the three in line. They were all similarly dressed - in nothing - and held tightly by their guards. The young mage tore the first girl from the mage holding her and dragged her to the centre of the room, where he bound her to the floor with invisible chains.

Anita couldn't watch then, but she heard the soft, wet sounds, the cries and pleas of the prisoner and the laughter of the mage. He seemed to revel in her pain and fear. The sounds stopped suddenly, and when Anita risked a glance back, she saw that the girl's throat had been neatly slashed.

She looked away again as her stomach threatened to rebel, knowing the young mage was not done yet. He grabbed the next girl and bound her to the floor as well, but this time started at her with the knife right away. Anita began to think his treatment of the first girl had been near merciful when the second victim was still alive hours later, bleeding profusely but no longer even able to scream.

The mage seemed to be drawing the pain out, stretching the kill, inching toward some peak of pleasure - no, some peak of power. And when he reached it, she knew despite no knowledge of magic, because he shone with a dark red light, and he smiled a victorious smile that made her want to melt into the ground

But even though the girl beneath him had breathed her last, the mage did not come for Anita. He rose slowly instead, and took up the gold circlet an older mage passed him. He crowned himself, and all of the other mages knelt.

"Who is your master?" the young mage asked.

"You are, Grandmaster." The reply came as if from one voice.

"Who will bring you power?" he asked again.

"You will, Grandmaster."

The Grandmaster - although Anita had litte idea what that title actually meant - nodded in clear satisfaction.

"Do you pledge to serve me, obey me and in every way be bound to me?"

"We do, Grandmaster." There was another shining light, this one black and thick, connecting the young mage to each of the kneeling mages. A small piece of Anita's mind wondered why such a younger man - nearly still a boy - would be leading this group, but she didn't have much time to think, because as soon as the light faded, the new Grandmaster turned dead pale and started to sway on his feet.

His lips moved in silent speech, too fast for her to have any idea what he was saying - or was it praying? It almost looked like it, but she didn't think the bloodmages workshipped anything but power. She guess this - exhaustion? - must be normal, for none of the servile mages mentioned or questioned it. 

Indeed, none of them spoke at all until one of the oldest stepped forward. "Grandmaster, will you finish the sacrifice?"

The young man's lips continued to move, though his eyes were curiously blank.

"Grandmaster," the bloodmage repeated, "we are truly impressed that you did not require three sacrifices to bond to us. Would you care to take power from the third one now?"

He meant her, Anita remembered with a start. The third sacrifice was her, and the young mage was being egged on to kill her. She swallowed hard, and went back to wishing to melt into the floor.

I hoped you enjoyed my first page (okay, first page and a bit). It's a first draft that got a bit of polish, so while I welcome critique, please keep in mind that this is rough.

If you're also doing NaNoWriMo this year, I'm Morgan101 on the site. Feel free free to add me as a writing buddy!

Want to follow our blog chain?
October 5th  – Lily’s Notes in the Margins
October 6th – Reality Is Imaginary
October 7th – One Life Glory
October 8th – Of a Writerly Sort
October 9th – The Leaning Tower of Plot
October 10th – This Page Intentionally Left Blank
October 11th – What Updates?
October 12th – Miriam Joy Writes
October 13th – Between the Lines
October 14th – Inside the Junk Door
October 15th – Musings From Neville’s Navel
October 16th – Kirsten Writes!
October 17th – A Mirror Made of Words
October 18th – The Teenage Writer
October 19th – Platonic Pencil
October 20th – Mark O’Brien Writes
October 21st – It’s All In My Head
October 22nd – The Incessant Droning of a Bored Writer
October 23rd – Teens Can Write, Too! (announcing next month's topic)