Way back when I asked all of you to assign me some blog topics, Erica Redshift asked what I thought of the generally accepted wisdom that men read fewer books written by women. She’s at the beginning of her writing journey, and is, understandably, outraged to think that putting a woman’s name on her book might trim her potential audience.
I had her send me a few of the things she’s been reading on the subject, for context:
Want to be a Successful Writer? Be a Man! (from Jezebel).
Poetactics on women using male pseudonyms.
From Me, You and Books, an attempt to explain why. And Hannah, on W&N, on the same subject.
I’ve struggled for an embarrassingly long time with the question of how to reply. Preferential sexism among my readership is not something I give a lot of thought to in my day to day, or when I’m actually writing something. And yet… I can’t pretend I’ve never given it any thought. I have an idea that I have more female readers than male, but some of my most vocal and enthusiastic fans are guys. (You know who you are, I hope. I treasure you bigtime.)
I can certainly remember my first editor at Tor saying Indigo Springs was, unequivocally, “a girl book.”
It was only at my most recent appearance, in Bellevue Washington, that a number of twenty-something women–people I didn’t know, that is–turned out because they already knew who I was and loved my books.
When I chose to go with my initials as a byline, it was the Eighties. Part of my thinking was definitely about having a gender-neutral name. But some of that ties into my own gender identity, which isn’t exactly cisgendered female. There’s no James Tiptree, though, hiding behind that mysterious A.M.: I’m out and about on the Internet. Everyone who cares to knows who I am: it’s all there, probably, except my blood type.
Maybe I don’t think about it much, but I was on the founding Motherboard of Broad Universe, an organization that describes itself thusly:
We are a nonprofit international organization of women and men dedicated to celebrating and promoting the work of women writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
I don’t have a great problem with publishers identifying the target audience for my fiction and trying to market to the marketing at the people most likely to buy it. My publisher does a pretty great job of this, in my opinion. As for who reads my books, who loves my books… that’s entirely out of my hands. I write them. I certainly try to make them cool and lovable.
If someone isn’t into my stuff, I’m great with that. Everyone should seek out fiction they love, right?
So the real question, for a female writer starting out, I think, is “Will this tell against me? If so, what can I do about it?”
I think the answers are the same as they’ve ever been: a) write the best stuff you can; b) Represent. Whether it’s by joining Broad Universe, blogging to support the writers you love, or even just telling someone at a party that Ilana C. Myer has a novel coming out next year and it’s amazing, OMG. Or mentoring talented younger writers, and maybe keeping an eye peeled for people who might fall through the cracks because of gender, or race, or physical ability, or abundant social awkwardness, or whatever, y’know?
Celebrate the good guys. If you take on bad guys, pick your fights carefully, and avoid sticking knives, metaphorical or literal, into your peers’ backs.
Basic human stuff, in other words.
(Erica, I’m sorry this took so long. I kept thinking if I revisited the draft of this essay every week or so, I’d come to some profound insight or another. It did spark some things, but nothing that quite fit into this essay.)
I am pro cheese. If you were to ask me to articulate a political position on cheese, in all its full-fat, salty glory, I would definitely be hitting all the available Like buttons, possibly while shouting: “Up with cheese! Go NDP Go!” The two main purposes of wine, as far as I’m concerned, are first that it makes cheese tastier and then that it helps you chill out after a tough day of not reformatting your co-workers’ hard drives (or brain stems) with a crowbar. I tell you this because Badger, in response to my “Tell me what to write” plea, said this one thing: Cheese!
I know what you’re thinking. After “Yum,” how much more is there to be said?
In 2009, I volunteered at Cheesecamp, which was an offshoot of a delightfully nerdy wine event called Vinocamp. Volunteering meant emptying spit buckets of red wine, mostly. In exchange, I got to sit in on sessions designed to edumacate my cheese palate. Samples were provided. It was a fun day.
Ninety percent of what I remember learning, from the Benton Brothers presentation mostly, was the thing that put me off mass-produced cheese by the brick, of the sort that you’d get at your local Safeway, (a chain we don’t actually have in Ontario). Don’t get me wrong, the edible material of which I speak isn’t made of kitten toes or anything. You can read on without fearing regurgitation, unless you truly are a delicate flower. You will not have to march on any Hill or storm a dairy to liberate a big-eyed animal after I’ve shared this with you.
But! The gist was that for good public health reasons, the government forbids us to ship huge amounts of fresh milk–even if it’s pasteurized–any significant distance. In order to make the massive quantities of cheese-like product required by the big grocery chains, what producers do instead is acquire powdered skim milk and vegetable oil, mixing the two with water to reconstitute an allegedly milky substance. To this they add salt, bacteria, rennet and eventually packaging and a bar code.
The oil, which stands in for the fat that’s been removed from the milk flakes, is the reason why the cheese you find in the non-boutique part of the grocery–cheese which isn’t even all that cheap, I hasten to complain!–will express drops of oil if you leave it out at room temperature.
So! Not horribly gross, I know. Just a little. But I take this as my license to say: Hey, when I want to drink canola, I’ll swig from the bottle, in the time-honored fashion of my ancestors. (Or was it ketchup we drank that way?) In the meantime, my cheese when I lived in Vancouver came from La Grotta Del Formaggio, mostly, and sometimes Les Amis du Fromage. Here in Toronto, we surveyed our cheese options carefully. Kelly now makes a weekly run to the St. Lawrence Market to stock up on our house table cheese*, which is currently a honey goat gouda. We’ve also gotten a pretty tasty rougette there, recently. I do sometimes just gotta have the award-winning La Sauvagine, which one of the Marias at the Grotto described, famously, as “Jesus sliding down your throat in satin pants.”
I will close this entry by mentioning that:
One: I am still looking for topics from you all. If I can do cheese, I can do anything!
Two: If the above sounds like the smuggest thing to blaze across the Internet, it is almost certainly because I drafted it in my condominium hot tub.
*What? Of course we have a house table cheese. We’re terribly refined here at Dua Central.
Paul Weimer of SF Signal asks: Do I have a map for Child of a Hidden Sea?
I must, right? You write a portal fantasy, and one of the perks must be that you get a gorgeous map, drawn by a professional, with Game of Thrones steampunky fabulousness and vast deserts and picturesquely named verdant forests, all populated by something way cooler than Ewoks.
This is one of my favorite kinds of question, because there are several answers, and some of them just about contradict each other.
Answer #1 – Yes! Stormwrack is the same size as Earth, though its orbital tilt and the length of its day are different. It takes 365 days to orbit its sun. Zero latitude and the international date line run through the great Verdanii city of Moscasipay, which is the home of something Wrackers call a World Clock. In more comprehensible terms, the Greenwich of this world is located on the same latitude as present-day Saskatoon.
I made the above choices because I wanted to be able to look at a map of our world and say “Okay, The Autumn District of Sylvanna is roughly where Tennessee is, and that means the sailing time from Moscasipay, in a ship moving at X speed, is Y days.” This makes things much easier for me, as someone who has some deficits in the map-reading area. It also fits with my having given Stormwrack many Earth-like qualities: the same gravity, tides, a similar ebb and flow of the seasons.
Answer #2 – No! There will be no actual map printed in Child of a Hidden Sea.
Why? Stormwrack is mostly ocean. The land there takes the form of small archipelagos of islands. They’re much like the Galapagos: little blobs of terrain, each with its own microclimate. The biggest land mass is, again, Verdanii, and that’s not even as big as Australia. So here’s the problem: a map of the whole world, printed at the size of even a double hardcover page, would be water, water, water and more water. Take a page of blue construction paper, sprinkle a pinch of basil on it, and you’ll get the idea.
Aha, you may be thinking, do a partial! Excellent point. Some months ago I had a conversation with my editor, Stacy Hague-Hill, about whether there could be a map of the region where Child of a Hidden Sea takes place. But Nightjar crosses from one archipelago to another in this book: Sophie visits Stele Island and then Erinth (the island where “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti” is set.) She sails from there to a place called Tallon and finally ends up hooking up with the Fleet of Nations, at sea. There are also a few stops in San Francisco.
In the second and third books, Sophie and Parrish spend a fair amount of time on Sylvanna, without so much zipping around, so maybe we’ll revisit the issue.
Another Yes! Of course I have an actual map of Stormwrack at home, laid out atop of a map of Earth, with pins marking important locations and saying which sea is which.
But also, No! Since I can’t draw, at all, the islands on the above-mentioned artifact look like someone pounded a bunch of Pop Rocks and blue-green wax crayons into some silly putty and threw it all into their microwave.
Finally, Yes and No–there are lies! I have a Gale story drafted, called “Island of the Giants.” In it, Parrish finds out that the official Fleet Maps of Stormwrack contain some politically motivated fibs. I don’t know yet when Sophie’s going to work that one out, but I promise she will be deeply unimpressed.
Paul Weimer was kind enough to pitch me this question a couple of weeks ago when I started asking what all of you who read this blog might want to know, about me or the books or, really, anything.
Here’s the original request. I am still gratefully taking your questions.
Every last soul reading this post could, if they chose, have 5,000 words of fiction up in some prominent e-bookstore by the end of this week. This is true too of feature journalism, epic poetry, creative non-fiction, film scripts, thinly veiled Raylan/Boyd Justified erotica, song lyrics, diary entries and stream of consciousness commandments for that new religion you’ve been meaning to think up.
Step one would be typing 5K words of, seriously, whatever. Steps two through finished would involve figuring out step-by-step instructions available everywhere, on how to set up, price and upload the relevant files.
If we were all to do this, some of those hypothetical stories–say the ones written by Neal Gaiman, Tana French, George Lucas, Elvis Costello, Patricia Briggs, Joss Whedon, Connie Willis and Wayne Gretzky*–would be commercially successful. They might not offset a week’s worth of other work at the Lucas level of income, but they’d get lots of uploads, reads, likes and user reviews.
A different subset, including some but not necessarily all of the works just mentioned, would make for entertaining reading. They ‘d be good stories, fun experiences, and worthy uses of reader time. There’d be some delightful drafts in the mix. Depending on each writer’s process, some would be quite polished. Others would be pleasing shambles of prose.
There might be a few runaway successes that were simply awful, and a few unnoticed, typo-ridden gems.
Then there’d be everything else: quiet stories that didn’t quite pull it off, novel beginnings that had promise, stories with okay structures but off-putting protagonists, and a whole lotta stuff that wasn’t all that great. A great bulk of words that would, whether deserving of attention or not, sink like sediment to the bottom of the great and growing e-commerce database.
What does any of this have to do with editing?
New writers can tend to see editors as a source of adversity. Editors are the ones who say yes or no to buying our work, after all. Yes means publication, money and–perhaps most importantly–a certain kind of validation. No… well, it’s hard not to take a rejection personally, especially if you haven’t yet heard Yes.
New writers wonder if editors will steal their ideas. They worry about whether they’ll ruin their stories. They wonder if they’re too cynical or overworked to recognize quality. All of these questions have been part of a larger discussion about how publishing is changing, in this age of throw it on the Internet yourself!
I don’t want to get sidetracked into everything editors do. Beth Hill has a quick and very useful summary here.
The question about editors on my virtual floor (this came from Blaise Selby, on Facebook**) is: do we still need them?
I say: do we still need chickens, I say? Pacific salmon? Caribou?
Editing, the act of reading fiction and providing insight into how the author can improve it, is a key process in the storytelling ecosystem. It is also, incidentally, an entirely noble activity.
One could–and many do–argue that editing can be performed by anyone with a reasonable degree of literacy. Your english teacher, your mom,your critique group, the lady who supplies your Diet Coke habit, a hired freelancer, fans, beta readers, agents, college professors, tax accountants, deposed dictators, or your romantic partner. They all read, right? And the fact is writers do seek out these people, and others, to read our work before it goes to market. This is, in itself, an argument that editing is vital.
But if anyone can do it, why do we need editors?
Expertise: the above random list of people could also provide first aid if you had a heart attack on the street.
If someone from your critique group CPRs you until the ambulance shows up and as a result you don’t die this week, that’s awesome. Go them! It’s a delightful human interest story. Even so, I bet you’ll be pretty happy when you’re ensconced in a hospital having a face to face consult with an actual cardiologist.
Getting CPR at the scene may keep you alive for awhile. Honestly, though, “not dead on the streetcorner” isn’t a very high bar. You want your writing to sing, to dance the Charleston in the streets. You want it climbing Mount Everest and swimming the Channel! Smarter, cleverer, stronger, and ever more effective.
There’s nothing quite like working with a professional editor to not only pull up the quality of a given piece of writing but to teach you techniques and spark ideas that will inform the quality of the next story.
So what else? Editors have a financial stake in your writing: anthology and magazine editors curate selections of short fiction that reflect their taste, the themes they want to explore and the best prose they can find. Book editors seek to add authors and novelists to their publishers’ lists that will bring glory, awards and pots of money to the company coffers. If they do these things well–economy notwithstanding–they get to keep publishing their favorite writers, bringing things they consider beautiful and affecting and important to readers.
I’m not the biggest fan of the invisible hand, but there is an increased investment in this process that can’t be matched by volunteer readers. Editors’ reputations rise and fall on their professional choices. When your workshop group is just trying to get through the latest round of manuscripts without breaking into a flamewar, and your writing professor is moving on to the next classroom full of aspiring Rowlings, when the freelancer cuts you an invoice with a handwritten note saying “Good luck with this!” your editor is still there, chewing away on the problem of why this or that angle within your book doesn’t quite work.
Financial stakes the sequel: It is simply nice to work with people who send you cheques. This sounds facetious, but consider: you have profit motive too. And when the person paying you says “This is a problem,” you’re going to be less inclined to ignore them than when your writer BFF says it. We all get tired of revising our work. Sometimes we need to suck it up and do another pass.
An editor who buys your work is investing in you. They’re taking a risk on you, in a way that the purchaser of a 99 cent e-book simply isn’t. That is a heady and important thing, something every artist deserves to experience.
The gatekeeper thing: I hate the word gatekeeping. To me, the word puts everyone in mind of club bouncers or Saint Peter in an unreceptive mood, barring the gates to Heaven. And we’ve all heard from writers who see it in exactly that light, and resent it accordingly.
But editing is about finding treasure! It’s archaeology, Indiana-Jones style. A quest for the awesome. They’re unearthing nifty written artifacts, polishing them up, and bringing them out into the light to blow readers’ minds.
In a world without editors, readers are be left to do their own digging in the quest for good fiction. Word of mouth, these days, includes professional review, as it always did. It’s also everything from blog entries to user reviews from anonymous posters to that friend you never quite agree with to what your book club’s reading. There are lots of ways to get opinions, good and bad, on what you should read.
In many ways this is a good thing. But crowdsourcing has its drawbacks. The accumulated opinion of everyone who happened to post might not be an opinion that helps you. Consider Yelp’s restaurant ratings. Canny Yelpers tend to have to develop a personal system for divining which ratings are actually accurate. A five star restaurant with only three reviews isn’t really a five star restaurant, is it? It’s a place that three people happened to like. A restaurant in the heart of a big city tourist district might have hundreds of reviews and ratings. And many of those are going to come from jet-lagged, hungry travellers who were grateful to be able to sit down and eat something that wasn’t deep fried nuggets o’ Spam.
As S.M. Stirling pointed out in a comment on this thread, any reviewer or gang of pals with an ax to grind can skew things the other way, dragging down the approval ratings of perfectly good writers, books (or restaurants, hotels, and fix-it guys) for obscure reasons of their own.
Thriller writer Chris Pavone praises gatekeeping elegantly here, at Publisher’s Weekly.
High grade your time: I consider making stories to be the highest and best use of my working hours. I want my writing to be fantastic, and I don’t want to spend endless hours on typos hunts–a skill at which, you may have noticed, I entirely suck. Every time an editor notices that I’m fuzzy on the difference between north and south or that I’ve forgotten to distinguish between constitutional debate and criminal law in the third Stormwrack story, I look smarter.
Editors have been part of the storytelling ecosystem for a long time. Cut them out, and the system will react accordingly: invasive species will flood in to imperfectly fill the niche they’ve left. Writers and readers would both suffer.
The idea of not needing them is, to me, unthinkable.
*It’s my blog, I can imagine any readership I like.
**This essay is one of a series inspired by all of your responses to a query I threw to the Internet, asking everyone to let me know what you’d like to hear about in the near. I am still welcoming your topic suggestions.
***Your Raylan/Boyd recs are always welcome.
Thank you for the question, Blaise!