Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sara Paretsky, Shara Summers and Feminism

I read a great many books - on average, just over one a week.  I have read so many books that I find it impossible to pick out just one favourite.

I do, however, have several favourite authors.  Authors whose books I constantly go back to, and it feels like visiting an old friend.  Books which affect me in such a way I have to choose carefully what I read following them, because everything else will just seem inferior.

One such author is Sara Paretsky.  I discovered her V I Warshawski series in the early 1990s, back when I was first aware of enthusiastically embracing feminism.  It was a revelation.  Here for the first time I encountered a heroine who represented everything I wanted to be.  A fiercely independent woman who was brave, resourceful, unafraid to speak her mind and without need of a man to define her existence.  Single and childless, V I is sarcastic, blunt and able to hold her own in a fight.  I thought then, and still think now, that she is a fantastic role model for young women.

And even in the 21st century, there are few heroines like her.  Sue Grafton has a similar independent minded, single and childless heroine in Kinsey Milhone.   Kathy Reichs, another writer I admire, has a strong woman in Temperance Brennan, but unlike V I Tempe is a mother, and does occasionally need rescuing by men.

Not everyone shares my adoration of V I, as reviews on Goodreads and Amazon testify.  Some readers - among them women, I was surprised to note - find her too unlikeable.  They don't like her sarcasm and confrontational manner.

I do not deny that my amateur sleuth Shara Summers was inspired by V I Warshawski.  When I set out to write a crime series, I wanted a heroine like V I - someone courageous and independent minded, who was not afraid to speak her mind.  But I wasn't brave enough to write a police procedural, so I went for an amateur sleuth.  And in many ways Shara is very different from V I.  She's not as brave.  She's not the champion of the underdog the way that V I is.  And she does occasionally get rescued by men.  And because I'm just not as good a writer as Sara Paretsky, sometimes I don't pull off what I'm trying to do.  Maybe Shara just comes across sometimes as being bitchy instead of courageous.

It's also clear that Shara is not everyone's cup of tea.  DEATH SCENE racked up 31 rejections before it was published by Lyrical Press.  One of the most common reasons for the book being rejected was the character not being likeable enough to take through a series.

The revelation that not everyone loves V I Warshawski - because I've been enthusiastically recommending these books to everyone for the last 20 years - was a bit of a surprise, and I've recently been ruminating on that.  V I is sarcastic, snarky, and blunt.  She can be downright rude - especially to arrogant and patronising men.  In the early books, which seem to be set in the early 1980s, V I is unusual in being a woman P I, and she encounters a hostile reaction to this by many people.  Especially men.

Women are not supposed to embody these qualities.  Even in these times, they are generally expected to be soft, caring and nurturing, and I think this is the main reason that women who don't possess these qualities are regarded with suspicion.  They are considered to be not 'normal' women.

I like the fact that V I is snarky, blunt and rude.  But there are some people out there who might say I embody similar qualities.  And the same people who wouldn't like V I for these qualities probably don't like me much, either.

I must confess that now I'm the wrong side of 40 I've got to a point in life where I don't really care if people don't like me for being me.  As a woman gamer, role-player, and horror writer, I've encountered a number of men over the years who don't know what to make of me.  The fact that I'm deliberately childless also causes resentment in certain people - it's surprising (and depressing) how many people, even in this day and age, who assume that all women want children and any who don't are instantly labelled as being abnormal and not to be trusted.
None of these things matter that much to me these days, but I'm pretty sure that the people that fall into the aforementioned categories are not my target readership.

For the length of time that human beings have existed on this planet, we've proved to be depressingly stagnant in moving on with our thinking.  I will go on recommending Sara Paretsky's books to everyone I have a conversation about crime books with - particularly women.  I would like every young women to read at least one V I Warshawski book.  For every one who comes away thinking, "this is the sort of woman I want to be," then a battle will be won.

There's a long way to go before we win the war, though.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Riding the Rejection Train

I am currently in the position of having two completed manuscripts and no publisher.  One is a horror novel, the other is the second book in the series about amateur sleuth Shara Summers.

I've started submitting these two and I get a strange feeling of deja vu.  Between 2007 and 2009 I also had two novels to submit - one horror (SUFFER THE CHILDREN) and one crime (DEATH SCENE), the first Shara Summers book.  Then Lyrical accepted SUFFER THE CHILDREN, followed by DEATH SCENE, and the rest is history.

But now I find myself riding the submission/rejection train again, for the first time in quite a while.  Though actually I think 'rejection roundabout' is a better metaphor.  You feel like you're going round and round in a circle.

I can categorically say it doesn't get easier.  I've only just started this journey again, with each novel being sent out to only one publisher so far.  Unfortunately it happened that the responses arrived at the same time, in spite one novel being sent out quite a while before the other.  The rejection for the crime novel arrived on Monday; the rejection email for the horror novel on Tuesday.  So it's not been a good week.

Before I was published I held this fantastical idea that being published would make it all better.  That once I had one novel accepted, everything else I wrote would automatically get accepted, and I would never again worry that what I was writing wasn't good enough.  But that's not the way it works.  Just because someone accepts one novel doesn't necessarily mean they - or anyone else for that matter - will like everything else you write.  And you don't stop with the writer insecurities.  Instead of fearing I'll never be published, now I fear that the first two novels got published as a bit of a fluke, my creativity is spent and I'll never write anything of publishable quality again.
But the same rules apply to all writers, no matter how much or how little experience you have.  When the rejections come, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again.  So I've crossed the first names off the submission list for these two manuscripts, and getting ready to go down the list.

For the time being, though, I'm still smarting from the double whammy of being rejected twice in two days.  I'll be over here in the corner for a while, quietly whimpering.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

Adaptability seems key to success. After all, if you can't adapt, you're in danger of stagnating, not allowing yourself to grow, both personally and professionally.

Writers need to lean to adapt with the changing publishing industry. Even typesetting rules have changed. I remember when there were two spaces after a period. Now, it's one.

As writers, we tend to favor particular topics and genres, and our stories reflect this. But what if we could push ourselves, write in a genre or medium we're not familiar with? Sound scary? Perhaps, but not only would we be developing a new talent, it might even invite new opportunities.

What are my goals? I've always wanted to write a mystery. I wrote a whydunit, The Ripper's Daughter, which is awaiting a publisher's response. Not that it's a traditional mystery, although I tried that with a crime drama screenplay about a widowed homicide detective and his retrocognitive partner. (I'm thinking of writing that as a novel.) So I can say I'm making progress, but I haven't yet written the mystery I want to write.

That's one goal, and one I've started working on. Another goal is to create a TV series. Sound bold? Yeah. I was reading an article about setting goals. Not only do you have to have the drive, you need the knowledge. I've never written a TV show, much less created one. What the hell do I know? Very little. Okay, nothing.

How am I going to remedy that? Well, following the advice of that article, I need to educate myself, in this case not only on the craft of TV writing, but also the business side. Aspiring writers also need to learn about writing, not only how to write a compelling story, but also how the publishing industry works.  

What's even better about setting that goal is it's part of my overall goals, and will become part of my marketing plan. Of course, there's still plenty of work to do.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Geekfest 2013 - The Lowdown

This past weekend saw the first ever Nineworld Geekfest Con, held in London.

The Con was billed as a celebration of all things geeky, and an excuse to have a really big party, and it was held in two hotels at London Heathrow airport - the Renaissance and the Radisson.  I was impressed by the fact that a Con without a track record was able to secure not one but two major airport hotels.

Though I was looking forward to the Con, with it being new I was expecting a few hiccups.  I have to say I was impressed with the level of organisation.  And the amount of choice.  There were so many tracks running, we were all spoilt for choice.  There was a creative writing track, a Tolkien track, a Dr Who track, a Geek Feminism track, a video games track, an LRP track, a board games track - to name just a few.  it was impossible to do everything.

There were some comments about the cost.  I think possibly this is relative - I'm used to London prices, where everything is more expensive anyway.  Although the Con itself wasn't that expensive - depending on when you booked, £75 could get you a weekend ticket to just about everything, which I thought was reasonable.  The hotel cost no more than I paid for my hotel room at the Brighton Cons I have attended the last few years.  The room was decent, the air conditioning worked, the bed was comfortable.  Yes we had to pay for parking, but £10 for 24 hours didn't seem overly expensive considering we pay £6 or more to park the car in Croydon for an afternoon of shopping.  Yes, the hotel bar was expensive.  But £5 for a glass of wine is not uncommon in a London hotel bar.  Sometimes bars are subsidised at Con hotels.  Genre Con-goers seem to have the ability to imbibe a lot more alcohol and yet still remain well behaved and less aggressive than your average non-geek after a few pints.  If the hotel manages to figure this out, maybe a deal will be struck for next year.

My writing group had arranged to do a critiquing workshop on manuscripts that had been submitted in advance, and this was scheduled for 1:30 on Saturday afternoon.  Since we drove up to the Con on Saturday and hit traffic, we didn't have much time to do anything else before this was on.  So hubby went off to the "In Conversation with Chris Barrie" programme item and I sought out the workshop.

We'd had seven submitted manuscripts split into two crit groups - one group dealing with historical and other-world fantasy and the other group (my group) critting the stories with more contemporary settings.  The crit session went quite well and no one ran off screaming after their crit, which is always a relief.

We finished earlier than expected and I was hoping to catch the second half of the panel on women in the Whedon universe.  But sadly this panel was so full they were letting no one else in, so I went off to take a look around the dealer room instead.  I caught up with Hubby here, who spent a happy half an hour spending money on the stall with all the old D&D modules.  I was distracted by many geeky t-shirts and jewellery, in the end deciding to spend my money on a pretty dragon pendant from the Pagan jewellery dealer I see at pretty much every Con I go to these days.

We left around noon on Sunday, and I left wishing I could have caught a few more panels.  But with so much going on, I think everyone came away wishing they could have seen more.
Buffy singalong. Photo credit:  London Nineworlds Geekfest

The highlight of my Con experience was the Buffy sing-along in the Saturday night, where we all gathered round a chap playing piano and went through every song featured in "Once More With Feeling".  And because we finished faster than expected, when he got to the end of the music book, he started again from the beginning.  You can see me singing away in this picture - I'm there near the front in the pink t-shirt.  The t-shirt actually says 'horror writer' on it and has an image of a cartoon grim reaper on it, but sadly you can't see it in the photo.  I let down my Buffy fangirl credentials by having to refer to the lyrics at some point for most of the songs.  There were some die-hard fans that knew every word.

There was a lot of Cosplay at this Con, and even if you don't participate in this yourself, it's fascinating to see the array of costumes, and see if you can correctly guess the geek reference.  Some of them were obvious to me - Dr Who characters; Marvel characters; the Alien.  Others I suspected were Manga characters, and these I am not as familiar with.

GeekFest made a point of making this Con accessible to everyone - regardless of gender, creed, orientation, physical ability, or anything else.  Children were welcome - there were many families at the Con.  Any item that was deemed to be for adults only was clearly labelled as such in the programme.  It was a Con where you could be who you wanted to be, not necessarily who you were born as.  The name labels were blank so you could fill in whatever name you wanted to be that particular weekend.  Many people stayed in costume - and in character - all weekend.  There was an LGBT track running all weekend.  There were even gender neutral toilets.  I have a lot of respect for the organisers for this.  This was a Con where everyone was welcome.  You could wear whatever you wanted, be  whoever you chose to be, and be accepted and welcomed, without the labels of 'geek', 'freak', 'weirdo' that so many of us have to deal with for being in some way different from what society perceives as 'normal'.

In summary, this is a Con I thoroughly recommend for anyone who has any remotely geeky tendencies.  Next year's Con has already been confirmed at the same venue, 8-10 August 2014.  Tickets are available, so book up now before the price goes up.

Fellow geeks, I shall see you there...