7.19.2018

The Importance of Being Ernestine

The axiom “It’s a man’s world” is losing its potency these days. Nowhere does this observation apply more than in the world of book publishing. Two-thirds of all fiction readers are women, and that dominance is reflected in publishing employment as well. If you submit a manuscript, the chances that one of the three people involved in approving the sale—editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher—will be a woman is very good.

What does that mean to a male writer of commercial fiction? A novel set in the locker room, the barracks, or the executive suite has less of a chance of selling if it doesn’t feature a prominent woman character. This seems dumb, because everyone knows that the sexes regularly segregate themselves in their activities. Guys don’t want to discuss hairdos. Gals are bored by sports stats. It’s, like, biological, right?

I am inclined to agree, but I also think it doesn’t matter. You might as well tilt against windmills or rail against the sun setting. Times have changed, and the day of the boys club novel has run its course. Women’s novels by and large have always included a healthy amount of thinking about men, and the same is becoming more prevalent on the other side of the divide. I’m not talking about giving the wives more lines of dialogue; rather, I’d advise you to think in terms of a female lead.

The next consideration is: what do women like to read? As romance, perennially the best-selling genre, shows, they like to read about relationships. Not necessarily sex, but it doesn’t hurt to have some sexual intrigue, as in any novel. Women also like characters that are better defined, and this work can be done through the relationships they have with others. In an action-oriented book, that means pairing the male lead with his counterpart in a way that their interactions build over the course of the story.

You can also keep them separate, running dual plot lines. A novel is a large vehicle, capable of carrying multiple plots. If the male lead is attractive enough, though, you probably want to pair them at some point. Keep in mind that many of the characters, in a genre like military thrillers, will be men in both plot lines. The point is to focus the reader’s attention on how they are interacting with her, the way you would with any plot lead. In other words, your novelistic considerations don’t change, and the book will be fuller as a result.

Exercise: If you are worried you cannot portray a woman in any depth, pick out an interesting woman in your own life. Identify her three most salient traits, and write down a list of examples of how she shows that trait. Now look at the plot outline. Can you meld the two lists so that her personality fits into the plot?

“Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.” 
—Groucho Marx

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine








 

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