I’ve been a fan of Barbara’s blog for a while (yes, I squeal out loud with joy every time my email alerts me there’s a new post at her site, and yes, I drop whatever I’m doing and read the post immediately because I always know she’ll make me laugh), so I was thrilled when she offered me a spot to talk about my approach to writing women as part of the Hereafter release party blog tour. I really wish Barbara was going to illustrate this post with Barbie shots, but, alas, no such luck (the woman is imperious to sad puppy-eyes pleading).
So…what is my approach to writing women?
When I set out to write Hereafter, I had two goals: to write a story featuring an “ordinary” woman and to write a story in which the woman has to save herself. Unfortunately, it’s these two goals that ultimately posed the greatest problems for Hereafter and made it a very hard book to get published.
The first problem was that Hereafter wasn’t a romance novel. Why was this a problem? Well, in tone and in scope, Hereafter falls closest to the Chick Lit or Fantasy lit genres—both of which generally involve a romance plot line. Without a romance, it became unclear what genre Hereafter was. I had a LOT of people, including a couple of agents, arguing for a strong love interest. One agent wanted me to change Jonah, the fourteen-year-old boy in the story into a “nineteen-year-old college hottie that Irene ‘cougars’.” There was a lot of trouble accepting a story featuring a woman—that wasn’t women’s fiction—that didn’t end with “happily ever after.”
A romance just doesn’t fit with Hereafter, though. Setting aside the logistical issues of a romance that starts after the person dies, Irene isn’t in a place emotionally or mentally to be a fit mate for anyone. For her to find true love by the end of Hereafter she’d have to undergo a radical transformation—the sort of radical transformations I HATE in romance novels. The one where the heroine wakes up one day and realizes she needs to completely change in order to be worthy of the hero’s love, and—instant presto—she just makes up her mind to change and that’s that. If only it was that easy. I wanted, more than anything, for Hereafter to be realistic, to be grounded in the reality I know, the reality where change is not easy, where I can’t always change despite my best intentions, and where wrapping my head around a problem (and getting my own thinking about it straightened out) is a much a part of the solution as anything else.
The second big problem was that many readers find Irene to be just too damn bitchy (excuse my French) to be likeable. She’s not soft and cuddly and she’s not sweet and virginal. Apparently women only get away with being snarky and having a chip on their shoulder if they can also kick your ass. Anita Blake or Lisbeth Salander, she’s not, and so Irene doesn’t get a pass on the needed attitude adjustment. On the other hand, she’s snarky and even bitchy, but not to the point where she’s an outright villain that we can boo and hiss or love to hate. She’s in the middle ground of a woman who is outwardly confident but inwardly afraid, who is self-assured and yet supremely lacking in self-esteem, and who is smart but has been made to feel that her intelligence is a detriment, who is embarrassed by her physical appearance but has been made to feel her looks are the only thing of value about her. In short, a woman who is complicated, conflicted, and struggling to figure out who she is—which I think is a position many women find themselves in. So, what, exactly is the problem with Irene that causes so many people to have such a strong negative reaction?
Well, it turns out, surprisingly, a large number of people (mainly women) are completely horrified by how much Irene “bullies” Jonah. Irene isn’t maternal, and that seems to be her biggest sin. She could be as snarky as she wanted if she had more “female agency”—that is, if she was more maternal and protective of a child. Jonah bullies Irene right back, but readers don’t seem to notice that. Jonah made me laugh when I was writing Hereafter—he’s a little monster, really (I say that with nothing but love and affection, I adore Jonah). His bullying is often subtler, more passive aggressive and emotionally manipulative, and I just love him, because he’s just so darn clever at getting what he wants.
As Irene and Jonah develop a friendship and Irene becomes nicer to Jonah, readers warm up to her. Apparently women who are “kick ass” heroines earn our respect and women who are maternal and nurturing earn our sympathy and women in love earn our empathy, but women who are none of these things—well, we just don’t seem to know what to do with them and we find them off-putting. Looking around at women I know in real life, I realized that this was in large part true. Insecurity manifests itself in a variety of ways, none of which are pleasant to be around—over-compensating, competitiveness, cruelty, irrationality, short-temperedness, neediness. It’s usually pretty easy to pick out someone who is insecure.
The interesting part is that all of this has made me think. Insecurity is generally reviled—we tend to avoid insecure people, which is actually the opposite of what the person needs. Certainly, for Irene, all the people who walked away from her only served to re-enforce her insecurity. Only empathy and unconditional love are able to help her finally overcome her fears (notice I said love, not romance). When I set out to write Hereafter, I wanted to create a heroine who saved herself—by discovering her own self-worth rather than having one given to her (by a hero); that her self-worth would be organic to her, rather than a reflected or oblique sense of worth derived from the love of a romantic partner. While Jonah is the catalyst for Irene finally attempting to overcome her self-destructive tendencies, he cannot be the sustaining agent. Because Jonah is not a love interest (and this is why it was so key that he not be), if Irene is to continue with the gains she has made she’ll have to do it on her own. And that, dear readers, will be the challenge of Book 2. 🙂
Barbara sez: To go along with the FABULOUS interactive graphic/page (made by the highly talented Rebecca Johnson, here’s an exceprt from Hereafter:
She wasn’t sure what to do next. The house seemed quiet and still—in fact, almost dead. She listened hard. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but somehow the house, her house, seemed foreign and strange. The house seemed to be holding its breath, almost as if it was waiting for something. She felt the thick, gathered pause pushing around her. Irene shivered. She crossed her upper arms, trying to smooth away the sudden goose bumps. How could she get goose bumps if she was dead?
The phone rang, causing her to jump. Her drink crashed to the floor. She stared at the phone stupidly for a moment, and then, recognizing LaRayne’s phone number on the caller I.D., she grabbed the receiver.
“Yes! It’s me!” Relief flooded through her. LaRayne could hear her!
There was a pause and then LaRayne said, “Hello?”
“LaRayne? Can you hear me?”
Relief fizzled away. Disappointment washed over her, so strong her knees buckled and she grabbed the counter for support.
The line went dead. LaRayne had hung up.
Slowly, Irene replaced the receiver, numb with shock.
The phone rang again. Irene let the answering machine pick up this time.
“Hey, Irene. It’s LaRayne…I’ve left you some messages…well…you know…call or whatever.”
Irene cleaned up the spilled drink, sweeping the broken glass into a dustpan and dumping it in to the trash, and then mixed herself another one. She wandered back to the hall and then back to the kitchen and finally to the living room where she dropped heavily onto the couch. She sipped her drink, not really tasting it. Then she spied her laptop across the room on a chair. She fetched it, firing it up.
Email. Yes, that’s it—email. I’ll email everyone and tell them what happened, she thought through a fog of mounting hysteria.
Even as she thought it, dully watching the computer scroll through start-up screens, the “drunk emailing” incident of a few years ago—which had led to then-boyfriend Chase becoming ex-boyfriend Chase—came to mind. The part of her that was still thinking rationally pointed out that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to email anyone until she knew for certain what exactly was going on.
You still don’t know what you want anyone to do, she thought. Call a doctor? Perform an exorcism? What, exactly, was the remedy here?
About the Author:
Terri Bruce has been making up adventure stories for as long as she can remember and won her first writing award when she was twelve. Like Anne Shirley, she prefers to make people cry rather than laugh, but is happy if she can do either. She produces fantasy and adventure stories from a haunted house in New England where she lives with her husband and three cats.