Mark Terry

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Writer's Gender Game

November 19, 2007
I'm reading a kids' book for, oh, I can't even guess the age group, probably middle school to high school students. My son got it and loved it and the premise was so odd I decided to read it. The title is "Skulduggery Pleasant" and the author is Derek Landry. Skulduggery Pleasant, the title character, is living skeleton who dresses nattily, drives a Bentley and is a detective. He can also throw fireballs with his hands, among other things.

Despite being the title character, he's not the main character. And just to make sure I was correct on that assumption, I asked Ian who the main character was and he said, "Stephanie."

I agree, by the way, but I was thinking, "Hmmm, Landry made sure the main character was a girl, which would appeal to girl readers, but the book's essentially about a skeleton and all sorts of creepy stuff, which presumably would appeal to boys."

If you as a writer haven't given at least some thought to what gender your main character is, or for that matter, what type of story you're writing and who it might appeal to, then you're clearly not paying attention to apparent trends in the publishing industry.

Although I think there is a very strong argument for writing the novel you want to write simply because you want to write it, there's at least a little bit of a nudge toward potential publication by writing a book that will appeal to women. And as far as I can tell, that doesn't exclude hard-boiled PI novels or espionage novels, but...

Let me put it this way. You might want to consider having a female main character.

Now, the question is: Should you?

One of my published novels, DIRTY DEEDS, does indeed have a female main character and it got kudos for the character. In fact, I suspect that, had I actually tried to interest an agent in this book and gone the NY route, I might be writing this series today. But it came along at a time in my career where I was sans agent, totally frustrated with everything to do with NY publishing, and decided to give it my best shot with indies. It was almost picked up by Poisoned Pen Press, who ultimately declined, then I showed it to one other publisher, High Country Publishing, who snatched it up. HCP is a fine small publisher, but they struggle with what most small publishers do--they don't have very good distribution. Or much money, although I thought their editing was good.

Anyway, it got better and more reviews than any of my novels featuring Derek Stillwater, who has been largely ignored by reviewers, particularly the major review outlets. DD, on the other hand, had a good review by Library Journal. An LJ review sells books, period.

HCP and I went our separate ways, gracefully, I felt, and my agent tried to market the second book in the series, but the overall response from publishers was: It's good, but it doesn't feel like the start of a series. 

Well, duh, it wasn't.

Back to my main point, if there is one. I find this entire gender issue frustrating, frankly. I'm not the typical "male" reader, I don't think, although I am somewhat. Pundits claim men won't read a book with a female main character. One of my favorite authors is Sue Grafton. But yes, as a matter of fact, looking over my shelf, there may be some truth to that. Many of my favorite authors are men and their main characters are men. And most of them are bestsellers: John Sandford, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Crais, Dick Francis, Robert B. Parker, Rick Riordan. 

But there's also Sue Grafton and Kathy Reichs and J.A. Konrath (ahem).

I don't have an answer here. I'm very frustrating and annoyed by this entire thing. I'd be glad to read a novel by a woman about a woman if it was the type of story I like to read--lots of action, plot-oriented, a little danger, a little sex, a little violence, a strong voice, a strong dollop of humor...

Automatically writing a main female character won't make you immediately publishable.

But it's something to think about.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

Didn't Tess Gerritsen say something like writing a book targeting her male readers was a mistake, and that she couldn't afford to forget her female readers?

9:51 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I don't know if that's how Tess put it, but I think she was probably referring to the novel "Gravity" which I happened to think was fantastic, but which apparently didn't do well compared to her other books.

"Gravity" is a tech thriller about a million different things going wrong on the International Space Station and I found it fascinating. It does have a female main character, but yes, I would say it's probably a guy book.

5:38 AM  

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