I was going to write a Thanksgiving post but that seemed weird, as it’s Wednesday.
Instead, I am going to write about women! Women and books! Ha ha!
So there I was, arguing with a female friend over books. Yes, I know, you would think someone with as much life experience such as me would know not argue with the fairer sex.
Damn it all, though, she just said something that really grated on my nerves. That’s what friends are for, snark.
But, I digress. Let’s call my friend Sheila. I changed her name to protect the guilty.
We were talking about romance novels, and Sheila flatly said, “I would never read a romance novel written by a man.” What follows is the paraphrased conversation:
“What does a man know about romance novels? It would be boring. Probably filled with too much sex.”
“What do you mean? Are you saying there are no romantic men?”
“No, I am just saying that a male writer would lack the oomph to write a romance novel.”
At this point, I thought Sheila was guilty of sexism, but she seemed sincere.
“Of course you do!”
“Look, writing characters is about experiences, right? So how many women have you romanced?”
Sheila narrowed her eyes. That was her version of the death glare. Plus, we were at work. She was probably wondering if I was hedging my language to avoid sitting in an office with frowny-face HR because someone overheard us talking.
“Are you asking me if I’ve slept with women?”
“No, I am talking about romance. Wooing. You know, courting.”
“Ah ha! Well, Ms. Smarty Pants, I’ve romanced more than one woman in my life, and I am here to tell you, they were all different.”
“Are you saying that each woman is different in bed?”
“Will you quit it about sex? I’m talking romance here. Flirting. Drippy stuff.”
“So, what’s your point?”
“My point is, an experienced romantic male writer could write a character-driven romance novel, and I bet the main character would be three-dimensional, above average.”
“So, more readers would be able to identify with his characterization because it’s more accurate. Unless, of course, we have the obscure scenario of a lesbian writing a hetero romance novel.”
Sheila did two things. She laughed and she rolled up the spec we were supposed to be talking about, and hit me with it.
“You’re such a dork.”
“Look, Writer Man, you don’t get it. You don’t get it at all.”
“When I read a romance novel, I’m only indentifying with the main character up to a shallow point.”
“In a romance novel, I’m the main character. That’s me. I’m projecting myself in the book. As long as the main isn’t a total bitch or some vapid mouse, the book takes me away. So, in a romance novel, I’m much more interested in the men.”
“So, how many men have you romanced?”
Sheila, by the way, is a smart woman and the kind of reader an author could only dream of having, she spends twice as much on books as my entire immediate family combined.
I frequently look back on this conversation. Her observation, as an avid reader, was dead-on for the genre she was intimately familiar with (ha ha, get it, romance novel, intimate? Never mind). My assumption was genre differences were more about setting and plot. This was wrong.
This is where I also learned that writing is not easy. Details and nuances are killers. Is it more important to write a rich, literary character that comes alive on the page, or should the writer go for, not an empty shell, but an identifiable main a reader could use to project herself into the story?
That’s when I learned about voicing. I’ve made my decision and skirt the edge between richness and entertainment. My minimalist style attempts to flirt with both, I try to reveal a character’s dimensions only by her actions and what she says, either to herself or other people.
To this day, I’m not sure if Sheila and I were talking about the same thing, but when I insert a character in a novel, man, do I ever pause and think just what I’m doing. There’s character motivation, and then there is writer motivation. Which path do I choose? Am I inserting this character merely to cause conflict, or is she real? Is this someone the average person knows, and does her motivations in the novel actually conform to some standard of reality?
This week, I’m thankful to readers. We, as writers, hear all the time we need to keep up with reading books and blah, blah, blah. This advice has gotten insipid and threadbare. I learn more about writing by talking to well-read people then I ever got from reading. Reading is part of my job, what I do to not epic fail my novel writing. Reaching out to my potential audience and picking their brains?
Yeah, give me more of that.