Recently, I submitted a novella. The writer’s guidelines strongly hinted a preference for a female protagonist, without saying so explicitly. They also said the writer should feel free to submit as he or she saw fit.
My submission had a male first-person protagonist. It was promptly rejected. I don’t know if my male POV was why, if my synopsis made it sound too much like a “he” story, precipitating a quick rejection. I’m not all that curious about that, though. The editor has every right to decide whatever he or she decides, for whatever reason.
The rejection did make me think about writing from a female vs. a male POV, however. I employ a female POV a good deal of the time, but I use male protagonists too, as well as a few that aren’t one or the other. What’s more, the gender (or not) of my protagonist is one thing I don’t dither over. I know, right from the get-go, whose story it is, and where they fall on the gender spectrum.
Here are my personal statistics: Of a total of forty-five short stories (forty published) and two unpublished novellas, twenty-seven (57.4%) are written from a female point of view. Eleven (23.4%) are from a male point of view. Three are neither male nor female (6.4%), and six stories (12.8%) are from multiple points of view. Leaving out the “neither” and “multi” categories–in other words, when I chose either male or female–71% of my protagonists are female, and 29% are male.
My choosing a female protagonist/narrator is the most natural, the expected. Multiple points of view could be seen as a way of covering my bases. “Neither” points of view are kind of special, and quite specific. One of those was a non-gendered narrator commenting on the sex-based gaffes of gendered individuals. The other two were things, not beings. One was an evil ceramic patio fountain, and the other (actually another multi) was serially a cake, a food magazine, and a supermarket magazine rack.
That leaves the men. Why do I choose a male protagonist? Much of the time it’s that I’m writing a character who is used to being in control of situations, but finds himself in a situation he can’t fix. He underestimates those around him–especially women, but men, too. He thinks he controls more than he does. He is a man of action, but this time, his actions don’t work. I have an abundance of female characters on hand to give him helpful advice, which he does not take. (To be fair, sometimes their advice isn’t all that great.)
My remaining male protagonists are, save one, passive. One is a statue. He is clearly male though, so I haven’t put him in my “neither” category. One is grieving. One is tired. One is clueless. The only one who isn’t either overly confident or overly passive is superhuman.
I choose my protagonist’s gender without much thought, but not without reason. Is the gender choice inevitable? Could my male or female characters be written as the other gender, or no gender at all? I don’t think so.
My goal is not to write “she” stories or “he” stories, but human stories. That said, gender is a big deal when it comes to how we see ourselves, and how our culture sees us. Usually, a story rests more easily in one gender, rather than the other, or none, or both.
In The Invisibility Cloak, a short novel by Ge Fei (translated by Canaan Morse), Mr. Cui tries to improve his fortunes in life. The Kirkus review back-cover blurb describes our protagonist as a “likable loser,” a description I see as off the mark.
Mr. Cui is proud of his life. True, his sister, brother-in-law, best friend, and former wife view him as less than a winner. But Mr. Cui doesn’t embrace their views. He builds tube amplifiers for wealthy clients who want expensive, superior sound systems. Modern Beijing society doesn’t value his genius, but he sees that as an indictment of modern Beijing society, not of him.
His relationships are troubled and confused. His sister and brother-in-law want him to move out of an apartment they own. There appears to be some unfairness here, as the house his sister and brother-in-law are living in is a legacy from their mother, something which Mr. Cui ought to share in. Mr. Cui recognizes the unfairness, but does not dwell on it. Nor does he dwell on why they are doing what they do. He concentrates on getting enough money to avoid homelessness.
His relationship with his ex-wife is equally opaque. He is obsessed with the loss of her, but has little idea why she left him. His relationship with his best friend is equally unreciprocal. Mr. Cui is disappointed by his friend, but lets the behavior slide.
Mr. Cui is obsessed by his work with his beloved high-end audio equipment–unambiguous components, parts, wires, and tubes. Perhaps the clarity of his work brings him a clearer view of his wealthy clients than he could ever have of family and friends. He despises his clients–for their lack of musical taste, their pomposity, and for their disrespect for his skills.
Mr. Cui finally lands a job with a client he comes to like, but also fears. His experience with this client, and the client’s wife, promises to resolve some of the uncertainties of his life, and both succeeds and fails. For Mr. Cui, ambiguity must always triumph.
This is an odd story narrated by an unreliable protagonist. But it’s not Mr. Cui’s fault he’s unreliable. He can’t perceive what others hide from him, nor what he hides from himself. Throwing an invisibility cloak over large chunks of the world might be the only he could ever move forward.
I liked this book.
I hope, at this stage in my writing life, I’m not submitting anything truly horrible. I think I can assume that much. But I fear mediocrity, because I’m fully aware I can’t recognize it in my own work.
When I edit myself, I catch outright errors. I recast awkward sentences. I read out loud (or mutter to my laptop while sitting on my couch) and make changes whenever I stumble in my reading. (If I get confused while reading my own work, what horrors might others experience?) I make sure the plot makes sense. I walk around inside the characters, so that their actions ring true. But only rarely can I tell if my work is any more than competent.
I finished a novella last autumn, thought it was all right, but wasn’t super in love with it. At some point though, you have to stop fiddling, so I sent it out. Six months later, it was rejected, but with a note that it had made it to the final round of consideration, and they hoped to see more from me.
Really? I reread the thing. It was better than I remembered. This is good!
I have also reread published stories. Some wear well, and I’m really pleased. Others make me cringe. I won’t say which ones!
On occasion, I have written something I knew was good. These rarities tend to be stories that are relatively easy to write, unlike my usual grinding process. Most of the time, writing is a grind, and I am working in the dark.
(Note: I found this draft of a post from several years ago, and wondered why I never posted it. I offer it now, with minimal editing.)
I have been on a Julia Child journey lately, as I make my way through the Bob Spitz biography of her life. There is a lot to like about her: That she was a late-bloomer who didn’t hit her stride until middle age. She was a woman everyone who met seemed to have loved. But the most amazing thing of all, I think, is that at the beginning of her journey, she sucked at cooking.
She loved good food, an interest she shared with her husband, Paul Child. Early on in their marriage, she tried to cook, often with disappointing results. But she kept trying, receiving help from her sister-in-law, among others. Slowly, she improved. When her husband was posted to Paris, it was the beginning of her formal education as a cook. But before she could enroll at Le Cordon Bleu, she had to tackle something else she wasn’t good at: the French language.
Now, I don’t know exactly how terrible she was at either cooking or French (later on in the book, when the Childs are posted to Oslo, Spitz refers to Julia’s wonderful “ear for language”), but it is clear she didn’t exhibit any particular early talent for cooking. The usual manner of determining one’s life work is to identify one’s talents, and go from there. Julia Child’s life work grew out of something other than a native talent; it grew instead out of love. She loved French cooking, and desired to master it. For the cooking, she needed the language, so she mastered that as well.
Love is a powerful motivation, but rarely is it enough to overcome the baggage of failure. Julia Child had something else going for her, where the cooking was concerned. That something was science.
An intuitive, “talented” cook might brag about never measuring, and might be vague as to what temperature the oven should be, or how much time the thing should cook. Julia deconstructed everything. In mastering recipes for French classics such as coq au vin, she did trial after trial, methodically adjusting measurements and refining her technique. When compiling recipes for her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she and her collaborators tried multiple recipes for each dish, from French home cooks, and from master chefs. Julia kept breaking it down, seeking precision in every step.
Talent is attractive. Talent allows the extraordinary to look effortless. Talent is something to envy.
Julia Child was loaded with talent, but her greatest talents lay in her character and temperament. She is described by those who knew her as having boundless enthusiasm. She was also loaded with persistence and an insatiable desire for knowledge. She seemed incapable of embarrassment. Failure did not shame her; it motivated her to cook a dish, five, ten, or twenty times, until it met her standards.
Because, back in the day, my early days, phone numbers weren’t all numbers. We had exchanges, like CRestview, BRadshaw, HOllywood, OLeander, NOrmandie, and so forth, and a phone number would be listed using the first two letters of the exchange name, plus some numbers. In Los Angeles, in the 1950s, that looked like CR 5-5555. Or, BR 2-2222. If you were saying your number, you would say the exchange name, i.e., “My number is CRestview 5-5555.”
Back then phones had rotary dials, not buttons, and two or three letters were assigned each number, just as on phone key pads now. (Note that “dial” has persisted as a verb when we speak of using the phone, i.e. “drinking and dialing,” or “dialing for dollars.”
Rotary phones were still the standard when technological advances rendered the old exchanges obsolete in the 1960s. The old two-letter exchange designations converted to all numeric. “CR” became “27,” and the phone number, 275-5555, or, you might be assigned a new number. So, why didn’t the alpha disappear as soon as the all-numerical conversion was completed?
One good reason was that our phones were hardwired into the wall. Until the late 1970s, if you wanted a phone installed, you had to call the phone company and arrange for a man (and it was always a man) to come out and stick it into the wall for you. This often meant taking a full day off work. To have a phone removed, same thing. Pain in the butt. Once you had a phone installed, that phone stayed installed until you left.
During the 1970s, rotary dials gave way to push-button keypads, but the new keypads had letters, just like the old dials. And then a big change came, about 1980, when telephones were freed from being hardwired. Yes! You could now go down to your local PacBell (or other Bell) store, buy your phone, and plug it in yourself. This did involve one more visit from the phone company to install the jack, but still, a big improvement.
Toll-free numbers (like 800) had started appearing in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until around 1980 and the breakup of the phone company that toll-free numbers became cheaper, and affordable for smaller businesses. Along with that, it became possible for local businesses to afford a vanity phone number, one that spelled something out on the alpha keypad, something customers would remember. Enter 1-800-GET-CASH, 1-800-4MY-TAXI, 1-800-GOTJUNK? We needed letters to dial, or punch in, those numbers.
The 80s brought answering machines, the first car phones, personal computers, the internet, and email. Then, in the early 90s, people began to send text messages.
Some people, that is. Not me. I got my first cell phone around 1995. It weighed about as much as a small brick, and came with a big, rechargeable battery that was good for about one and one half phone calls, before it needed to be recharged. And even when I traded that in for a text-enabled phone, there was no keyboard. In order to text, you had to switch to alpha mode, and then punch a number two or three times to get the desired letter. Good thing those letters were still there, right?
Within a few years, phones grew mechanical keyboards. I had one…I tried to find it just now, out in the garage, in my Electronics Graveyard, but couldn’t. A tiny, but full, keyboard slid out, and it had buttons the size of pinheads. And then there was the Blackberry, where texting really took off. Then, a little over a decade ago, the smart phone, which comes with a virtual keyboard, and a keypad, but still with its alphabet. The only use remaining for them is to dial (there’s that word again) those vanity toll-free numbers.
I suspect the alpha days are numbered, though. My Apple watch has a number keypad, but no letters. No doubt an Alexa or Siri-type solution is just around the corner for those vanity numbers, and all we will have to do is say the name of the business to be connected!
Four years ago, I decided to take a break from blogging. Dozens of times since, I have considered picking it up again.
During my extended break, things have happened. Our daughter went to grad school and got a real job. I had my thyroid out. We’ve been to Memphis, Nashville, London, Paris, Berlin, and Helsinki, among other, less exotic, places. I’ve had two stories published online (Sockdolager and Allegory), and another to come out, soon, from the venerable print zine Tales of the Unanticipated. We had a long-lived pet cockatiel die, and adopted a new one. None of these events disrupted my schedule enough to keep me from blogging, and yet I stopped dead, as suddenly as if I’d fallen into a sinkhole.
I joke that laziness stopped me, but that is untrue. I would not describe myself as driven, but I would say I’m a pretty reliable plodder…the sort of person who does laundry on Monday and pays bills on Tuesdays, and writes very nearly every day. I’ve gotten stuff done, just not blogging. I might cite perfectionism, and that would be closer to the mark. I want everything I write to mean something. You know, there’s so much stuff out there. Lots of blathering. Most of it doesn’t mean much of anything, nor does it seem to have much of a purpose. And while “meaning” and “purpose” are different concepts they go together for me. Meaning is always useful, and that which has purpose means something.
I don’t know which things I write will end up meaning something to someone, so perhaps, “meaning” and “purpose” are concepts that need to be considered. My posts don’t get a lot of response, but I am grateful for the responses I do get, and am a bit amazed to still get the occasional comment after a four-year hiatus. Apparently there is occasional meaning here, but I can’t predict when or where or for whom.
I’ve been mulling over how the need for meaning and purpose can throw a stranglehold on a person ever since reading the second book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, A Closed and Common Orbit. In it, the AI protagonist tells us that animals don’t have a purpose. Human animals, however, are obsessed with the concept of having a purpose, of searching for the meaning of their lives. With that bred into their very souls, they have programmed their AIs to be purpose-focused as well. AI Sidra finds herself needing to re-invent herself to survive. Re-inventing oneself involves lying about one’s past, but she is programmed only to tell the truth. In figuring out how to undo her own programming, she comes to recognize survival, friendship, and love as purpose enough.
The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.
In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.
Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.
Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.
The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.
That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.