being a woman and writing dark fiction--it's complicated (#SFWApro)

It's question and answer time at the old blog! Today's winner is Beverly Bambury, who asked: How do you feel being a woman has affected you as a writer of dark fiction?

Like everything else in publishing--it's complicated.

Beverly's question made me think of the time I surfed through some posts on Reddit about year ago. Someone once commented that women don't write complicated novels like [insert list of male fantasy authors here].

Hmmmmm, I thought.

That is the sound of my brain warming up.

Hmmmmmm, why would someone make such an outrageous statement? Surely women were writing complicated novels that could be marketed toward the mainstream reading public.

Of course, the Redditor's statement sat in the back of my mind and fermented until Beverly’s question resurrected it. Now I was curious and wanted to dispel the myth that women don’t write complicated dark fiction, because I know a lot of women who do write complicated, intelligent fiction.

I constructed a search for female authors of dark fiction whose works were marketed to mainstream audiences at the same promotional level as those by male authors. My results returned a few prominent names: Gillian Flynn, Sarah Waters, Mira Grant, Joyce Carol Oates, and Elizabeth Kostova (and Kostova is not really a dark fiction writer—she merely qualifies due to The Historian). This is, by no means, a comprehensive list—these are just the first names that floated to the top.

I switched up my methodology and retooled my search to examine what kinds of books were being published by women. I kept my research primarily on new authors and generally skipped over authors such as Robin Hobb and Joyce Carol Oates, not because they aren't worthy of discussion, but because they have been involved in publishing for so long, their fan base and reputations are well established.

Goodreads was nice place to browse due to their Goodreads Choice Awards. I found that women are primarily, although not exclusively, published with following types of works (in no particular order):

  • Feminist literature (this includes novels with a protagonist who is a "strong female character" / usually college educated career track women, but not necessarily—the emphasis is on badass women who kick ass)
  • Young Adult
  • Urban/Paranormal Fantasy
  • Time travel (most of these novels follow feminist examinations of cultural attitudes, especially those surrounding mother/daughter relationships, and are either romance or coming of age stories--remove the fantastical elements of magic or time travel and these novels could easily be categorized as "chick-lit")
  • Historical romance (if a woman writes anything historical, there must be a heavy male/female romantic element)

As I browsed through the blurbs, I began to pick up on keywords directed toward women. The phrasing varies, but a lot of blurbs on women's fantasy contain differing versions of "they must work (or join) together." This is usually indicative of a romantic element within the story and is marketing-speak for "romance isn't the primary focus of the novel; however, there is a strong romantic element."

In order to prove my point, I'm providing a sampling of blurbs and with the keywords highlighted. If you intend to write for publication, you need to be aware of marketing techniques so you can design your blurb accordingly.

From the Goodreads Choice Awards for fantasy [note: all emphasis is mine and of course, the comments in brackets are mine]:

  • The Golem and the Jinni: "But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice." [Parting, then bringing the protagonists back together is a common romance theme.]
  • The Firebird: "... unearthing a tale of love, courage, and redemption." [Notice that "love" is mentioned first.]
  • The Ghost Bride: "After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim's handsome new heir, Tian Bai." [Desire=love]
  • The River of No Return: "Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance." [FEEEEELINGS ...]
  • The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic: This one pops all of the switches from the title on down: "Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true. Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school ..." [Well, of course he's gorgeous ...]

Let's switch over to the Goodreads horror picks and see what happens:

  • White Trash Zombie Apocalpyse: "Soon she's fighting her way through mud, blood, bullets and intrigue, even as zombies, both real and fake, prowl the streets." [You can't tell me that Diana Rowland doesn't write kick ass women characters.]
  • The Fate of Mercy Alban: With the help of the disarmingly kindand attractive—Reverend Matthew Parker, Grace must uncover the truth about her home and its curse before she and her daughter become the next victims. ["With the help of" can be substituted for "they must work together" also note that the good Reverend is kind and "attractive," because in marketing-speak no one falls in love with ugly people. Obviously.]
  • Parasite by Mira Grant gets a pass, because the blurb mentions nothing about love, relationships, children, or women's issues. However, Parasite was marketed to the same mainstream audience that loved World War Z. Grant is the exception, not the rule.
  • Come Alive: It’s one thing to bring the woman you love back into your life. It’s another to try and keep her there. For Dex Foray, con­vinc­ing Perry Palomino to open her­self to their bur­geon­ing rela­tion­ship has been more chal­leng­ing than hunt­ing ghosts, bat­tling demons and stalk­ing Sasquatch com­bined. [Romance.]

The subliminal message that I'm now taking from all of this is that women are only supposed to write within certain paradigms that focus the work entirely on women’s issues, romance, or children. The trick is to keep the story-line as simple as possible, because marketing personnel obviously feel they can't easily slip a woman into the domain of traditionally male dominated "complicated" stories.

The other message is that women only buy books written by women, therefore any woman who writes a book that is not aimed at women is “unmarketable” or “too complicated.”

I am reminded of the dragon’s syllogism in Grendel: "All pigs eat cheese / Old Snaggle is a pig / If Snaggle is sick and refuses to eat, try cheese."

The publishers' syllogism is: All women love women’s issues, romance, and children / Women only read books by other women / If women want to be published, they must write books about women’s issues, romance, and children.

Whether we like it or not, that appears to be the mentality we’re dealing with.

Don't give up. I operate under the philosophy that one cannot break the rules until one thoroughly understands the rules. The cold, hard truth is that it is very difficult to break an establishment from the outside. I tend to follow the Taoist philosophy that implies I must penetrate gently and imitate the wind.

Sometimes I'm more like a hurricane, but those are the breaks.

Let me give you some advice:

  • If you are lucky enough to have an androgynous name such as Robin, Alex, Jesse, Gillian, etc., use it as your by-line. No pictures. Give scant information about your gender.
  • If you are like me and have a more gender specific name, use initials. Create a pseudonym. Go the KJ Parker route and submit to editors without them knowing your gender if at all possible. Design your website and all of your marketing with the pseudonym in mind.
  • Network, network, network, network with other authors and with publishers. This may mean going to the larger conventions that host multiple publisher tables in their dealer rooms. If are you are like me and don't have a large budget for cons, network online. Other authors and bloggers have done more to promote my work for me than all the publicists in New York. They are awesome! Thank them prolifically!
  • Take workshops with well-known authors and publishers and editors who offer them, either online or in person.
  • Join a professional organization and get involved as much as you can. I know some folks have had problems with the SFWA, but so far, I haven't. Since I can't travel as much, the forum has been an excellent place for me to get marketing tips and meet other members.
  • Learn how to use social media effectively. Watch your stats and your Google analytics. Measure which blog posts are working and which are not. You want your voice heard and spread across the Internet in a positive manner. I am merely one Who in Whoville, but hear me now, my friend, you never know precisely what is going to resonate with the masses. Keep at it. Horton is out there.
  • Utilize short stories as promotional tools. I sold two short stories to anthologies last year and wrote several more that I haven't placed yet. I've been known to give them away here and another one is here, because every little click bumps my name higher into Google's algorithms. I also intend to move into hybrid publishing and self-publish some works this year.

This will break your heart, because I know it did mine: writing a good book is not the same as being marketable. This makes me very sad, because when I started writing, I had this lofty notion that I would finally be evaluated by something other than my gender, or my education, or the social circles in which I moved. I thought I would be judged by my prose, by my stories. I know you thought these things too, but unfortunately that is not how it works.

I have a friend who tells me that acceptance is the key to all of my problems and it is. First, I have to accept the fact that in order to become published, I must write something marketable. In order to do that, I must understand what publishers and editors mean when they say "marketable."

Once you understand those terms, then you can either write a novel that fits within one of the standard paradigms, or go incognito.

The choice is yours.