Thursday, May 17, 2018

Questions from a Brave and Stupid Man to a Panel of Women Writers #1: Because Asking Honest Questions Is the Best Starting Point, I Was Told

Being a white man, I willingly acknowledge I have blind spots, things that while they don't register to me like they perhaps should are things well worth my time and thought and important for me to know and understand in order to a member of a community of diverse writers.

That said, I've assembled an all-female panel of writers to be my teachers.

Today's discussion is this: 


Are there issues in the writing and publishing community common to women that aren't typically experienced by men? What are they, and are they merely irksome or downright systemic?

Alexandra Christian
Alexandra Christian: I think all us chick genre writers have experienced the “girls can’t write horror/sci-fi/fantasy/pulp.” Or “girl’s put too much kissy stuff” are “too emotional.”

Lisa Matthews Collins: I could go on ad nauseam about that topic. :/

Alexandra Christian: And I like kissy stuff (obviously) but good stories don’t have to be devoid of relationships (kissy stuff).

Elizabeth Donald: Oh my god yes this. Nowhere was it more obvious than when I switched from writing vampire thrillers - which were dismissed condescendingly as "vamporn" - to writing zombie action-horror. "That's kind of a guy thing," I was told, and while they were half-kidding, in almost every case I was the sole woman on the zombie panel if I could get on the panel at all. The stereotypes of What Women Write and What Men Write persist.

Lucy Blue: I will never understand why a dude, reader or writer, who is perfectly enthusiastic about a detailed description of the bare-handed evisceration of a toddler by a monster, alien, or zombie gets entirely skeeved out by an even remotely realistic love scene. I can see it now, a new trend in splatterpunk - 'this one is REALLY scary - they talk about their FEELINGS!!' ;)

Elizabeth Donald: I've been to cons. I know sffh fans like sex. :) And yet when I did my first Dragoncon, I was with my then-publisher Ellora's Cave handing out cover cards at my booth for my first novel, an erotic vampire thriller about a serial killer tearing out throats near a vampire-run sex club. A man looked at the description on the back of the cover card, looked at me and said, "The only difference between this stuff and Penthouse Forum is the words, 'I never thought this would happen to me.'" Then he walked about five feet away and threw my cover card on the ground, in my full view. I wanted to yell after him, "That shit cost me money, asshole." Or possibly do something antisocial to him. I did neither, because I was mellower then. :)

Stephanie Osborn: I've had that happen a few times. My response is generally, "I try to write realistic characters with realistic relationships. Are you in a long-term relationship?"

(if yes) "Then you get what I mean."
(if no) "Do you WANT to be in one? Then you get what I mean."

Lisa Matthews Collins
Lisa Matthews Collins: I have had this experience twice...told that I needed to go write another genre because as a girl I didn't know enough science and math to write hard science fiction. Both times by 50+ year-old white men.


Elizabeth Donald: Sara Harvey can talk about being on a panel with a male author who opined that women can't write science fiction. He said it outright; I've been on panels where they obfuscated it behind vocabulary: "The language of science fiction is different than the language of romance, they don't blend well."

Stephanie Osborn: I do occasionally encounter people who don't know my background who try to explain the science to me. Until they find out what I used to do. [Editor's note: Stephanie is actually a rocket scientist.] Then they tend to disappear pretty soon quick.

Anna Grace Carpenter: Male characters are seen as the default, so men writing male characters is part of the norm, but when women focus on female characters (or things perceived to be female "interests") it's shunted into niche categories. (I had a dude at a convention back in January try to convince me that I could not possibly have written my books for him because the narrator was a woman, therefore it must be a book for women, not men.) Because men are the default, when a male author writes "outside his lane" so to speak, whether it's writing female characters or in a "woman's genre" it's usually regarded and brave and insightful, while women writing in genres perceived as "men's genres" are chasing trends or playing the gender card or whatever the current phrase is to indicate that women don't really belong in that space. Also, men can write characters that are either completely perfect or so very ordinary they shouldn't succeed in saving the world, and they won't be labeled as "wish-fullfilment" or "self-insertion" but women writing characters that are competent and skilled are frequently damned by accusations of "Mary Sue" characters.

While it would be nice to think these things are really just annoyances, they directly impact access to reviewers (or rather, how many female authors are reviewed each year), general exposure for their work, and ultimately sales numbers. (Let's not forget that a survey of top-market book reviews a couple of years ago revealed that dead male authors still received more critical attention than living female authors.)

Elizabeth Donald
Elizabeth Donald: There's another aspect of that "male character is the default" that I think is going to take at least another generation to work out. The initial experience of the reader is one of identification, of compassion in the original sense, the ability to identify with the main character and empathize with his or her plight. For the vast majority of English-language literature, male characters were the default, as written by male writers. Women grew up reading those stories, and learned to identify with male protagonists and their sideline girlfriends as well. We learned how to relate to a character different from us, because we didn't have much of a choice. I didn't grow up with Buffy or Katniss; I had Nancy Drew, who kept needing to be saved.

Men didn't have the same identification experience, because most of what they read had Someone Like Them at the center of the story. They didn't have to stretch to identify with a female protagonist written by a woman, because that didn't exist all that much. Without that practice as a young person, without learning that empathy and identification with someone Other, their experiences in fiction were different than ours - and I leave it to others to say how much that affected them in real life as well.

Sadly, we're continuing this today. We still have children's movies aimed at girls or boys, separate toy sections where girls are expected to buy girl dolls and boys "action figures." We see children's entertainment retitled because we think boys won't see a movie with a girl as the main character, defying the entire history of Disney. :) There are parents beginning to read stories about girls to their boy children (vice versa has never been a problem), and I think that will make a big difference going forward.

Anna Grace Carpenter: I cried the first time I read "Dealing with Dragons" by Patricia Wrede because it was the first time I'd found a book that really seemed to feature a character I understood at a gut level. (And there are a lot of other "YA" books from my childhood that I love, but there was something deep in finding a character who reacted like I did, who had similar goals. Something I think a lot of men never have to contend with because so much of fiction is about male experiences.)

Lucy Blue
Lucy Blue: If you're a woman, the assumption is ALWAYS that you write "women's fiction," and "women's fiction" is always assumed to either be romance, True-Story/Lifetime-style trauma fiction (usually with a romantic element), or menopausal tales of triumph (usually with an erotic element). But you know who leaps to that conclusion fastest and makes the biggest stink-face about it? Other women writers in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and pulp--not all, of course, but some. I don't know whether they're so bruised and battered from running that gauntlet themselves that it's made them brutal or they feel like they had to go through it so damn it every other woman should have to go through it, too, or that they want to make sure that the other boys in their genre know they ain't no stupid girly-girl--I suspect it's a little bit of all of these, depending on the woman writer in question. And just like with writers of color, female writers are continually being asked by male writers in traditionally dude-centric genres how to write women better. Sometimes it's a genuinely respectful and heartfelt question posed so that the male writer in question can make the female characters in the stories he already writes better--this panel being a shining example. But sometimes it's a dude writer wanting to cash in on what he thinks is that sweet, sweet romance-infused market of chick readers by writing one more urban fantasy novel with a female heroine with her big boobs barely contained in her dirty tank top on the cover. He wants to be able to say when some other woman accuses him of writing a male fantasy of female empowerment, "that's not possible! I asked three different women what women are like!"

Elizabeth Donald: I have no studies to back it up, but when I began, nearly all my acceptances were from female editors and rejections from male editors. This began to change, however, when I got out ini the con circuit and made contacts among male editors and publishers. They got to know me, and my work, and then they came to me with opportunities or were open to my pitches. It's worth noting that "exposure" at cons is often at the whim of con organizers, so if a con is not particularly 'woke,' you'll find all women on the midnight sex panel and "why are vampires so hot?" and all men on "how to kill a zombie: gun or sword?" I know which panel I'd rather be on, but it's taken some doing.

For the record, those male editors have been almost all delights to work with, and I'd consider them all fairly open-minded, cosmopolitan folk. So I don't know how much of it is simply "we publish the people we know" (which is its own problem), and how much is, "A woman wrote zombies? Is it a romance?"

Ellie Raine: There have been a LOT of times when I tell someone I've written a book, they automatically assume it's romance. Even if I say it's fantasy, they think "fantasy romance". I've gotten into an argument with one man who insisted that women writers always use too much "emotions" compared to male writers, even though William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolas Sparks, Brandon Sanderson, James Patterson, George RR Martin, Neal Gaiman, and just about EVERY popular/GOOD author focuses on the character's emotions (which is pretty damn crucial to good story telling) and includes either a romance line or (in Martin's case) more sex scenes than 50 shades of Grey.

Stephanie Osborn
Regarding more industry culture, I've stopped going to formal writing conferences as much because I was tired of showing up for workshops just to have random guys initiate conversations to give me unsolicited advice about how to finish my first novel (even though I had three finished, but they didn't bother asking me first), how to get a publisher to notice you (which I'd already done, but they didn't bother asking), and how to find a man who would stay with me for a long time and eventually marry (even though I was already married and was wearing a wedding ring) and--the kicker--how to navigate high school (even though I was well into my twenties, but they didn't bother asking). It was weird how MANY men(usually into their 40s and up, and--for some reason--all wrote Literary and kept telling you how much better It was compared to fantasy and that I should switch to that if I REALLY wanted to improve my writing) gave the exact same theme of advice, and all of them assumed they knew my age, my relationship status, and my writing level without asking a damn thing. Fan Conventions are WAY better than conferences with this, no one has ever assumed they knew anything about me there and even the people who wrote literary there are chill and engaging. Basically, my experience with formal conference culture is that a LOT of people are there to make themselves feel better about how they've been going to these things for decades yet still haven't gotten a book deal with a publisher (all the men in question informed me they weren't published yet or even self published when I asked them). I don't know, I expect people to have actually gone through the publishing experience either trad or self before they feel free to offer advice on it without anyone asking them in the first place.

Lisa Matthews Collins: I was told I needed to go back to writing female lead POVs in my stories because who would want to read a male protagonist written by a girl?!

Elizabeth Donald: Oh lord... my husband writes horror romance, I write action SF and dark horror. Everyone assumes it's the other way around. He writes romantic happy endings; my books end in funerals.

Lisa Matthews Collins: This is an old thing that is still an issue... being judged by your name...not on any merit of storytelling expertise. I took a gamble on writing science fiction and pulp under my name Lisa M. Collins and not going with the safer route of L.M. Collins. Sadly, it took me awhile to make the decision to go with my name because Lisa is a girl's name.

Lucy Blue: And it's a double-edged sword. If you use your real, apparently feminine name, you get pre-judged. If you use your initials or a more apparently gender-neutral pseudonym, then when people find out you're a woman, you cheated.

Nikki Nelson-Hicks: It's the presumption that, because I have a vagina, I must write "girly horror." That I can't get deep and dirty with it. Once, at a writers' critique group, I submitted a piece and this guy kept saying, "You wrote this? YOU did. YOU?" Yeah, fucker. Me. I really never understand this idea that women can't GET horror. Sweetie, our lives are a horror show. We are a walking chemistry experiment that can explode at any moment. Body horror was MADE for us.

Anna Grace Carpenter
Anna Grace Carpenter: I had an editor tell me I really knew how to write action sequences to the point that he was "recommending them to folks I meet". (And, sure, he meant it as a compliment. But it's not the first time I've heard similar and there is *always* an undertone of "You do this really well for a girl.")

Elizabeth Donald:  I got that one once from an editor. "You write action a lot better than I expected." Thanks? 

I got a lot of criticism for my first zombie book, in which my protagonist is a former Marine paramilitary zombie fighter heading a group of ne'er-do-wells fighting paranormal threats. The criticism? "She swears too much." She's a goddamn fucking Marine zombie fighter, is she supposed to say "oh phooey, they're chewing his face off"? And each time I heard it - every single one from a man - I had to breathe deep and NOT say, "If she was played by Jason Statham and directed by Quentin Tarantino, you wouldn't blink at her use of the word 'fuck.'"

Lucy Blue: Oh yeah, I've heard the "she's not ladylike enough!" comment from everybody from my mom to editors to reviewers on Amazon.

Amanda Niehaus-Hard: My experience is different, but I write under different names, in different genres and categories, and for different age-range audiences, so I've seen prejudice of all sorts, but haven't specifically been a target.

I found it interesting to read Ellie's comments, because my personal experience has been pretty much 180 degrees the other way from hers, as I mostly go to book festivals and writers conferences now (as opposed to conventions) and I've felt MORE accepted at those festivals -- but that's of course only my own experience. I really want to respond to some of what she posted because I think there's a LOT of problems in the conference (and convention) culture that is part of why I think they’re failing financially.

Ellie wrote: “Basically, my experience with formal conference culture is that a LOT of people are there to make themselves feel better about how they've been going to these things for decades yet still haven't gotten a book deal with a publisher.”

Ellie Raine
I don’t get into discussions with people like that any more, but I’ve seen them, and I notice the same ones show up for the same conferences every year, and when they workshop, they workshop the SAME DAMN STORY they’ve been workshopping for a decade! This is an issue that conference organizers need to be aware of and need to do something about. The way workshops usually go is first to pay, first on the list, and they REALLY need to be juried or something, if only to keep the approximate “skill level” the same, so all participants are at the same level and are getting (and expect) the same level of critical attention. If you’re a multiple award-winning novelist, you shouldn’t be in a workshop group with short story writers who are just breaking into the paying quarterlies. If you just started writing last week, you shouldn’t be in a workshop with people who are already selling work and looking at crafting a story collection.

Most general conferences, with the exception of the popular fiction conferences like those done by Writers Digest, are focused around literary fiction, so that whole “literary is superior” canard is ever-present. I honestly think SOME of that bias is starting to fade, as so-called literary authors are experimenting with non-realistic fiction, or fantasy/SF situations. The bigger writing programs are turning out more authors who experiment with non-traditional situations, so when the Iowa grads from 2010 to now start getting the high profile university jobs, I suspect we’ll see a shift away from dismissing genre (or they’ll just claim they do it better.) But either way, I see the snark becoming more about the work itself and less about the shelf category.

Nikki Nelson-Hicks
Ellie wrote: “I don't know, I expect people to have actually gone through the publishing experience either traditional or self before they feel free to offer advice on it without anyone asking them in the first place.”

This is essentially why I stopped going to fan conventions except for a select few that I just attend for fun. I’ve been going to conventions since the mid 1980s, when the scene was COMPLETELY different, and cons were both fun AND a way to get into the business of publishing. The panels were either professionally oriented (how to get an agent with people who had actual agents, or science topics with actual scientists) or they were fan-run and fun, discussing stuff like the sociology of Star Trek.

What I’ve seen of conventions lately is a lot of non-experts talking over actual experts (as in people who actually work as scientists for NASA) or people with no experience in “traditional” publishing sitting on panels about agent queries just so they can advertise their books. (I'm certainly not against self-publishing, as I've self-pubbed some educational materials, but that doesn't make me an expert on the industry.)

It’s only in the self-publishing and micro-press arena that I’ve EVER taken any slack over being female and writing horror, SF, thrillers, romance, YA, lit fic, whatever. My experience with so-called “traditional” publishers (and writers who are published that way) has been nothing but stellar and professional. (Again this is just my experience, and I’m sure it doesn’t echo everyone’s experience.) I could have just gotten lucky and surrounded myself with amazing people, but I can say I’ve never been harassed, dismissed, not taken seriously, or had any real negative experience with anybody in the professional horror community, the SF community, the thriller writers, and the pulp writers community. Pulp writers have embraced me and supported me, and people like Phil Athans and Sean and Tommy and the gang over at Pro Se have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. I have no idea what’s said behind my back, but to my face everyone has been professional and respectful.

The small-press horror community is two-sided. One the one side I’ve had wonderful experiences with people and presses whose work I read and enjoy. I have been treated like gold by my small press publishers and those who publish my friends and whose work I read regularly. On the other side are, frankly, people who can’t write well, and throw together anthologies just to publish their own work. Some of those people have been dismissive of me, but I don’t read their work and I dismiss them as well, so it’s even. The only group I’ve seen overt hostility from is a Bizarro press that I will NEVER buy from again and won’t recommend or review any of their work, let alone submit to them.

Amanda Niehaus-Hard
I haven’t had the same issues as other women in genre – probably because I’ve listened to a lot of their stories and avoided the people and groups they’ve warned others about. Cons nowadays take harassment seriously, because women in genre have demanded they do, so I’ve benefited from that and haven’t experienced harassment as a guest or an attendee. I appreciate that it’s people like you, Sean, who have helped create a more supportive and inclusive environment for women in genre fiction and in fandom, by keeping the conversation going.

Ellie Raine: I'm 100 percent behind the jurying idea for workshops. We don't have freshman undergrads mixed in the same advanced classes as grad students (unless certain exceptions apply), so this solution makes way more sense.

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Editor's Note: The panel includes women of various races/sexuality. The authors above were the ones able to respond by the deadline for this discussion.