One of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that you always learn things. Whether that is the names and shapes of different types of blades, how to deal with head trauma or the problems associated with marine mammals’ blowholes, it teaches you things. Things about the way things work, things about yourself, things about writing. You write. You practice. You research. You learn.
I won NaNoWriMo 2015 writing a Waterworld inspired high fantasy about bounty hunters, and it taught me just how much of our everyday language is gendered. In this still currently unnamed world (I am rubbish at naming things), the language is gender neutral apart from pronouns – chosen from three as part of a coming of age ritual – and archaic royal titles. It was actually a lot more limiting that I thought it would be and made me realise a few things.
1.) We use gender to talk about people a lot. You would think that, as someone who perhaps considers gender more often than most, I would have noticed this. To an extent I had but when it came to completely removing gendered terms I realised how reliant on them I continued to be when I wrote. I had to learn to avoid writing that “a man had entered the room” and come up with something new – something that sounded good and flowed without being forced. Even in speech, characters would say things like “aww man” and that would have to go.
2.) Trying to sound informal and gender neutral can be tough. “Oh, there was some guy asking about you.” A perfectly normal and casual sounding sentence. The structure is familiar and commonly used, at least where I’m from, but when changing the “guy” to “person” it loses a lot of the formality. These types of switches worked well enough in the prose but when it came to dialogue things became tricky. Instead with the sentence above, I found myself altering much more than that in order to accommodate both of these essential requirements – gender neutral and informality. Of course, in the true spirit of NaNoWriMo there was often a far simpler solution that I couldn’t see at the time (“Oh, there was someone asking about you.”) but it got me thinking about language and how we use it, which I think is the point.
3.) Even some ungendered things are gendered. No, you read that right. This novel is set in an ocean world and it took me until twenty thousand words to realise that the word “fishermen” didn’t fit the setting. An easy thing to fix, just changing it to fishers, but I was still impressed (okay, so more annoyed) that it had slipped past me after I had been so meticulous with other very similar words. To myself though, it is just so ingrained into my mind as the word for “people who fish.” I don’t know about you but I’ve never heard anyone say either fisher or fisherwomen. When it comes to fishing, fishermen generally means everyone. This could be regional, of course. I was at university before I learned that “jamp” wasn’t actually a word. The point is that this term that would never had existed in this world slipped in because it was so normalised to me that I never spotted it. And it wasn’t the only one. I know now that I will have to be exceptionally attentive when it comes to revisions.
4.) I had it easy. I speak English, just about. I am, very slowly and poorly, trying to teach myself French. I’m awful at it. Just dire. But I’m trying, so that’s something. In French, everything is gendered. Apples, for example. Why are apples gendered? I don’t know. I also don’t know how one would even attempt to set a novel in a gender neutral world with a language that works in this manner. For personal reasons, I find this part of the language stressful enough. Just the idea of trying to figure out how to make it neutral and legible makes my head spin. There could be a way, for all I know. Like I said – I’m still learning and moving slower than an escargot. All I know for now is that I had it easy!
I hope everyone else’s NaNoWriMo adventures were as fun and fruitful as mine or, if you didn’t NaNo, that you just had an awesome November. I have two and a half chapters of the Fishperer left to write and then I will be cracking on with the dreaded Through the Black revisions.
If you took part in NaNoWriMo this year, what weird and fun things did your novel teach you?