Creating a Stand-Up Female Character

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Man-woman-PonyJPGMy wife holds a serious measuring stick against female characters created for stories. She’s an avid reader and voracious about her television mysteries, too. Her women have to be smart, plucky, generous, and have a heart ready for love. Those are all good attributes for women who appear in stories. The challenge is creating women who can be good as well as bad in a story, even while they’re heroines or protagonists.

Whatever the name of the character, I like it when their middle name is danger.

I’m working on a historical novel (Monsignor Dad), and my female protagonist is living through the turn of the century more than 100 years ago. This wasn’t a generous time for women, and it was a lot easier for them to live compliant lives, with men in charge. While that happened most of the time, there were exceptions. A sharp, daring, and headstrong woman in 1897 would be a lot more interesting to create and to read about in a book.

So, while building any character, you look for the fears and desires under the surface of their life. With so much withheld from women in the Progressive Era of history, there’s so much to yearn for, so much that’s out of my character Anna’s reach. Education in a formal setting. Control of her finances. Training for better work. Even the ability to choose her own partner in love. Creation, love, safety, the knowledge that leads to wisdom: they’re all fundamentals of a better life. Things to reach for.

So a good female character should be striving, and that striving will get her into trouble. So far, all of this applies to male characters as well, except the part where these things are withheld from them. The only thing that’s withheld from men of the Progressive Era is an easy way to express love, unless the character is a poet or an actor. Anna has better access to the expression of love. She will take chances and make mistakes trying to get all of those other things, and probably over-play her hand in the matter of love in her life.

There’s always injustice to correct, and in the era where I’m writing there’s more injustice for women to push through. Anna will also be bad, do something forbidden and do it often, all in pursuit of those fundamentals. Creating a female character who’s stand-up, rising up to her full height through taking action and agency in her life, is so much better than painting the tired picture of vamp, tramp, or bookish wallflower. This agency and action is exactly the same thing that a male character would want from his creator. And as it turns out, the desire for women to have the same things as men is a major part of the story of Monsignor Dad.

Genres are a way in to getting paid

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MashupCoverI was at a Writer’s League of Texas meeting this summer, the annual Agents & Editors Conference. An agent on the panel said, “Don’t think of writing in a genre as a way to settle. Think of it as a way in to getting your story read.”

I had a client once who said he was worried that his book didn’t seem to fit in any of the publishing categories like science fiction, or romance, or thriller. The book had all of those elements. Sell it as a combination, I suggested. Blade Runner meets The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Now Amazon is showing us that genre is the fastest way to a career as a writer. A new program, exclusively for writers of science fiction, romance, and mystery, is going online in a few weeks. “Authors whose books are selected get a $1,500 advance and 50 percent royalties on net ebook revenue.” Not bad. The Net 50 part of that deal is pretty common for small presses. Some of the small press deals won’t even print a book at first — you get an ebook produced instead. The paperback comes later on.

At Amazon, you’ll submit your genre book as a Word file, and you have to dream up a cover. Then your completed story of more than 50,000 words gets crowd-sourced to see if it’s popular. How the mechanics of the latter will work remains to be seen.

But only genre stories are eligible. They’re usually closest to being ready for a publisher to sell. Still to come: genre crowdsourcing for historical fiction, horror-paranormal, fantasy and erotica. Length will be an issue with those last two. Fantasy probably cannot be done in under 120,000 words today. Erotica will struggle to get 50,000 words completed. Maybe there’s an erotica-fantasy combination that can be sold.

Make money writing erotica. It’s harder work to create complex stories of art.

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People read books for many reasons. Lots of them just enjoy a good plot. Others get their groove on as they enjoy rich, unique characters, or people and places drawn with superb details.

Rock HardThen there are the books that tell stories with subject matter you don’t see elsewhere. There was a time when erotica like Olivia Cunning’s Sinners on Tour books could only be found in adult bookstores. (That’s why they call them bookstores, although many of them don’t sell any printed matter by now.)

But today we can buy books like the Sinners without even putting on pants, straight off Amazon. The covers really help. But the books’ novelty doesn’t lie in the characterizations, or the plots, or even the subject of erotica. Erotica’s everywhere now, like duckweed.

If this sentence — “Jessica’s confident smile faded as the grade on her final paper burned its ugly red image into her retina” — doesn’t yank you out of the Dream State of the Story — as John Gardner calls that hypnotic effect — then the Sinners series will give you exactly what you’re seeking.

There’s two reasons that Olivia was able to write six of these, plus two more in the One Night anthology series, in just four years. The first reason she does eight books in 48 months is that Olivia has great work habits. (If she was on an auto assembly line, she’d never back up the manufacture.) The other reason is that these aren’t complex books. There’s a rule of thumb that says the less time a book takes to write, the less complex (and rich) it reads. Compare Twilight to Harry Potter to see what I mean.

Good books do need sex and erotica. Sex is a part of who we are. Erotica books must have both sex and love; the rest is often just a setup for those elements. Pornography just needs the sex. That’s why the cover lines in this series promise that you’ll enjoy the love as much as the sex. If you’re reading these on Kindle, get the Kindle Unlimited membership. This Series is among the 600,000 titles in Kindle’s Netflix-of-Books club.

Unlimited is a poor deal for bestsellers, for books rich and with high art (Potter), or anything you can check out at your library. But it’s great for titles like these. I’m not sure how Olivia is compensated for getting checkouts from Amazon’s Unlimited library. But it might be better suited to the effort I can see to create a salacious series.

Do you enjoy a good erotica read? Do you enjoy it enough to try to write one?

Slipstreaming toward a genre

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One of the hard things for an writer to accomplish is knowing where their book will land on a bookstore’s shelves. Write a mystery, romance or western, and you have no challenge on this score. Write a story that simply tells a tale, though, and you have two choices: mainstream, or slipstream.

The latter term was coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling in 1989, and it’s even got a Wikipedia entry. Eventually that entry will lead you to Sterling’s article. He quips that he’s made up the word based on mainstream. Slipstream is also a kind of propulsion drive used in Star Trek, too, but in Sterling’s view it’s a story that crosses genres (say, sci-fi and mainstream) and describes a world that’s different.

For a master list of the wide and wooly range of slipstream, have a look at the titles Sterling compiled along with Nova Express sci-fi editor Lawrence Person. (Both living in Austin, by the way, home of our Writer’s Workshop.) Sterling’s article is worth reading if you’re writing something that isn’t quite one genre or another. For now, I’ve decided that my book Viral Times is slipstream fiction. It’s not a section in Barnes & Noble, but at least it’s a more accurate description of how rich the story will be once its finished.