How would you like to be remembered?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week’s death of Colleeen McCullough (bestselling Australian writer of The Thorn Birds amongst others) – was not only extremely sad but also, surprisingly, the catalyst for controversy over alleged gender bias in the literary world. It wasn’t her death per se that prompted this controversy, but rather the obituary written in one of Australia’s most prominent newspapers ‘The Australian‘.  How’s this for a first paragraph…

“COLLEEN McCullough, Australia’s best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”

So much for mentioning that she was a bestselling author of 25 novels or that she had also been a neuroscientist at Yale Medical School…

The fact that a newspaper such as The Australian would even print such an obituary made many Australians (including myself) cringe at the specter of a female writer being judged, not by the quality of her work or her books sales, but by her appearance and her weight. 

At least the publication of this obituary has generated some valuable debate over perceptions of women in creative and ‘entertainment’ spheres. The controversy that erupted has provoked some great mock obituaries as well. On Twitter there is even the hashtag #myozobituary (Take a look at some of these – I think the the author Neil Gaimon’s mock obituary is particular good).

Apart from the obvious idiocy The Australian’s obituary demonstrates, it nonetheless raise concerns about how gender factors into society’s assessment of writers – and I wonder how much we, as readers and writers still tend to make judgements based on ‘appearance’ as well as talent.

So TKZers have you ever encountered moments where your gender, appearance, weight or other physical factors were judged rather than your writing?

Do you think appearance matters in this very visible age of book marketing? Do you think it affects women and men differently?

If you write darker thrillers and mysteries have you considered using a pseudonym or initials so that your gender isn’t a factor in how a book is perceived?

And finally, if you feel brave, feel free to share what your mock ‘oz obituary’ would be…

The Male Perspective

I’m hosting a panel at an upcoming conference on Romantic Elements in F&SF: The Male Perspective. What does this mean? The conference coordinator has in mind a talk on how men and women each approach romantic male characters.

I can tell you my response as a woman writer. In romance fiction, we use two viewpoints, male and female. We are aware that males think differently than females but we also want our romance heroes to be sensitive guys. So while he may start out noticing the heroine’s physical attributes, he also has to be attracted to her on a deeper level.

Since men aren’t always as well connected with their emotions as women, he won’t recognize this deeper attraction yet. And even when he does acknowledge his feelings for her, he may not be able to speak them aloud.

As a romance hero, there has to be an inner torment or conflict that keeps him from making a commitment. He has to come to some revelation and change his attitude by the end of the book. The female lead goes through her own emotional journey. Whether the setting is in outer space, a futuristic time period, modern day, or the past, these defining characteristics remain as genre conventions.

From the male writer’s viewpoint, how does your hero behave toward an attractive woman? Do you bring his emotional responses into play or does he just focus on how he’s hot to get her into his bed?

Love scenes, in both hero and heroine’s viewpoints, are written by female writers (excluding the erotica genre) more on an emotional level than a clinical act. Here’s where I expect a divergence from the male writer. Is your focus different? How about the aftermath of sex? Does your hero reflect on what it meant to him or does he jump into the next action scene?

Does gender as well as genre make a difference? For example, in thrillers and perhaps also urban fantasy, the characters have less time to reflect on emotional issues. How does the writer deal with the action hero’s romantic relationship in this case?

Do you feel a female writer has a different sensibility when writing male characters than a man?
Does your hero have a romantic relationship with anyone in particular?
Do his views regarding the female protagonist change through the story or the series?
How do you approach sex scenes: open or closed doors?
Is your hero an Alpha type (strong and stoic) or a Beta hero (sensitive, in touch with his feelings), or a bit of both?

How do you approach the male viewpoint in a romantic relationship?

Gender in Writing (or VS Naipaul’s Talks Tosh)

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week VS Naipaul inflamed a fair bit of controversy when he declared that there was no female author whom he considered his equal. Setting aside the sheer stupidity of such a statement (and the question of his own mental state) I found it interesting that he felt that he could tell “within a paragraph or two” whether a piece was written by a woman. According to Naipaul women have a sentimental, narrow view of the world which comes across in her work as “feminine tosh” in his view (yes, my hackles are rising as I type this).

Now our very own Kathryn Lilley raised the issue of ‘gender detection’ in writing in a blog post a while back and, if memory serves me right, we all submitted a paragraph to a website (possibly gender genie) to have a computer program evaluate an author’s gender based on the words used. I also seem to recall that this so called assessment misdiagnosed a number of pieces – so I continue to wonder, can you really tell if a woman or a man wrote something??

For my part, I doubt I would be able to distinguish a thriller by our own Michelle Gagnon from those of her male colleagues (except that I obviously have read her work and know it). Indeed many female writers have been mistaken for being male writers (some deliberately choosing to adopt male pseudonyms as well) so you have to wonder what planet Naipaul is on. I wouldn’t know that PD James was a woman from reading her Adam Dalgliesh novels just as I wouldn’t have guessed that a mother and son were the mystery author ‘Charles Todd’. There are also just as many book written by men that, had I not known that, would have assumed were written by women (Snow falling on Cedars and Room with a View, to name just two). Even in the literary sphere has Naipaul not heard of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell or George Elliot??

But, rather than continuing to rant (VS Naipaul isn’t worth it), let’s focus on the nitty gritty – can you honestly tell if a novel is written by a man or a woman?

Where Angels Fear to Tread…The PW Top 10 List

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I seriously considered entitling this post ‘Gender Blind My Arse’ but was worried it might be too…ambiguous…and I wisely held off from commenting on John’s Saturday post for fear that I might come across as some half crazed loony, or worse…a feminist…that’s right, that terrible eight letter word (I know, it’s amazing, I can count!)

But before I start pissing everyone off already, let me say that the PW top 10 list doesn’t bother me all that much. Why not? Because it’s not surprising. Because all lists are subjective. Because at least on the extended list women are (sort of) represented. So why, do you ask, am I pissed off? I’m angered by the reaction it has garnered – because it feels like we’ve been down this road so many times before and it’s always a dead-end. Reviewers will always say they were gender-blind, that they tried their very best not to be influenced by anything other than the writing itself (what lies beneath the covers, not what lies between the legs to paraphrase from John’s post). To this, groups like Sister-In-Crime will always counter by saying that gender bias is systemic in the publishing industry – from the books selected for review, the level of critical ‘gravitas’ bestowed, and in the awards handed out. As far as I’m concerned it’s a no-win situation and this is what drives me nuts – I mean, after all that we have fought for, I can’t believe we’re still having this debate.

What I don’t get is how women, who buy the overwhelming majority of novels and dominate the publishing industry (at least in terms of editors), don’t just proudly denounce all the nonsensical crap that comes up around the gender issue:

  1. Women do not write ‘small’ ‘domesticated’ books. So what if the traditional cozy doesn’t have zombie dismemberment, it can still be well-written and it can still deal with important ‘universal’ issues surrounding the human condition. Just because there’s a picture of a cat with a ball of yarn on the front does not mean the book has to be marginalized as ‘chick-mystery-lit’.
  2. Romance does not equal brainlessness or crappy writing.
  3. There are no inherent gender traits in writing. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I write emotions well and action scenes badly. I may write a traditional historical mystery but that doesn’t mean that (as a woman) I couldn’t write a gruesome, psychologically disturbing book (Val McDermid, anyone?) .
  4. White men don’t write better books…

The final point seems spurious to me…but in light of PW’s list…I guess I had to say it.

Real Men Read Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As I rushed to finish my current book club book over the weekend (which is, by the way, the terrific Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See) I could sense my husband getting antsy – he kept asking me what I had to ‘do’ each day and, when I remained vague, he catalogued all the errands and chores that he would be doing. I felt I could hardly confess that apart from playing with the boys, cooking and the like my only plan was to read…because let’s face it in my husband’s world that was tantamount to doing pretty much ‘bugger all’.

So what is it with men and reading?! I did a quick google search before writing this blog and the statistics were depressing – basically the death knell for the male fiction reader has well and truly been rung. I only have to look at most of the men I know to be convinced of this- sure they read (well sometimes) but when they do it’s usually non-fiction, and the mere suggestion of forming or joining a book club is met with stony-eyed suspicion. As all the surveys indicate, women are the major purchasers of fiction, they consistently read more books and participate in book groups to the almost complete exclusion of men. So what does this mean for the publishing industry and, is it in part the fault of the industry that men don’t want to read much fiction anymore?

The exception to the fiction-free zone for men is (apparently) what some of the articles termed ‘manfiction‘ – you know, the full blooded male adventure thrillers by the likes of James Patterson, Clive Cussler or John Grisham – the kind of stuff that some of my fellow bloggers might write (though I have to confess I doubt any of my stuff would ever be called ‘manfiction‘ by any stretch of the imagination…) When it came to most other forms of fiction, however, (particularly that written by women) the gap soon widens up and this started me wondering: who failed whom? Was it the industry? Writers? Or was it just all the men’s fault :)?

I certainly know that when it comes to historical fiction everyone in the industry always says that a strong female protagonist is essential unless you are writing military historicals…Romance, which commands a whopping percentage of the market is pretty much solely for women and when it comes to that dreaded term ‘literary fiction’ , I think women are also the primary target – for they rule when it comes to book groups (and book groups are probably the only way literary fiction can become commerically successful). So what are you blokes out there going to do about this situation? Do you even care?

If you are a writer, does the fact that so few men read fiction affect your writing? For me I confess I have always assumed that women will be my main readership base (I’m always amazed when I get an email from a male reader who loves my books!) and I probably (though not deliberately) write accordingly. But it depresses me nevertheless – so will one of you endangered male fiction readers out there try and explain to me why you think this is the situation and tell me (reassure me perhaps?) – do you think it’s ever going to change?

Cara Black Grills Her Publisher

CARA BLACK The Kill Zone just loves it when guest bloggers visit, especially when their posts provide an inside glimpse of the industry. So when Cara Black offered to rake her publicity and marketing directors over the coals for us, we applauded her (from a safe distance). Courtesy of Cara and the lovely people at Soho Press, today we’re bringing you answers to some of the pressing questions you’ve always wanted to ask but were afraid to…

Thanks for inviting me Michelle! I know the most important thing is to write the best book you can. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite as Voltaire said. But after the real work is done and the manuscript has been accepted, copy edited, and slated for publication, what happens after that? I’ve often wondered, and have frequently been asked the same question at conferences. So I thought I’d ask the experts, in this case Soho Press, who publish wonderful books (and mine, too).

I love my publisher and I know they share the love. We’ve been together for nine books over ten years. Soho is a fiercely independent book publisher, based in New York, and their specialty is crime fiction from around the world. The Wall Street Journal has described Soho’s books as, “Some of the most exotic crime fiction in the world.”

But I thought I’d use this opportunity to rake them over the coals, grilling them about what we all want to know: how do the publicity and marketing director of a publisher—in this case mine —promote, market and sell a book? Something that, as either pre-published or published writers, we’d all like to know, right?

I think the answers and insights will prove universal and, hopefully, helpful. So now with my ninth book, Murder in the Latin Quarter, available this week—yes, murder in the latinthis week-I thought I’d politely ask them about what the heck it is they do. I know it’s not a fluke that Soho authors are regularly reviewed by the New York Times and interviewed on NPR. So I spoke with Sarah Reidy, Soho’s publicity director, and Ailen Lujo, their marketing director, both superstars in my book.

Cara Black: Can you describe a sales conference? It’s a mystery to me…who’s there? I’ve heard that the chains can decide a book cover.

Sarah Reidy: A sales conference is basically a meeting in which we (publicity, marketing, and editorial) present our upcoming list (of books) to the sales force. The sales team consists of all the wonderful people who are responsible for actually getting your book into stores. They take the information we give them and share it with Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and all the great indie stores out there. In terms of book jackets, that’s usually determined at pre-sales. I’ll let Ailen explain that one.

Ailen Lujo: In regard to presales: Twice a year an editor and I fly out to Minnesota where our distributor consortium is based, and we introduce our potential titles to the sales and marketing staff. In many ways this meeting is even more important than the actual sales conference because we talk about the minutest details of the book, from price and format (should we do this as an original paperback or hardcover?) to book jacket designs. If our account reps hate a jacket, we go back to the drawing board. We present titles at sales conference. We discuss titles at presales.

CB: What about blogs? Conferences? Bookstore events? How effective are each or do you recommend a combination?

SR: Oh, my. This is one of those questions that really depends on the author. I think blogs are great, and there is such a variety out there almost everyone can find a good match for him or herself. There are straight review blogs, of course, but there are also a number of blogs that do author Q&A’s, accept guest blog posts, or will post podcasts and book trailers. In addition, there are blogs that serve as extensions of “traditional” media outlets, such as Papercuts (The New York Times), Jacket Copy (Los Angeles Times),, and Washington Post Live Online. This is a market that is constantly growing and offering more opportunities. For any author, I would recommend researching literary blogs and reading them for examples and ideas. Once you get a feel for a blog, you can start coming up with ideas about how your book could fit in.

Specialized conferences are wonderful. As Cara knows, Ailen and I are both huge fans of Bouchercon for mystery authors. It’s such a close knit community, and it feels like every attendee is there for the love of a good novel. If you are a less well-known author, I think conferences and conventions are a much better option that a traditional book tour.

Bookstore events are good in some cases, and not in others. If you’re Tori Spelling or John Grisham, you should absolutely do bookstore events. People are going to turn out to see you no matter what. You lucky son of a guns. However, if you are a debut novelist with no real connection to a location, it’s hard to turn people out for these. Instead I typically recommend doing one big event in your home town, and perhaps somewhere else where you have a large community of family and friends who will come.

You should also look into reading series. There are some great series out there that set up a night with multiple authors…often at a bar! And everyone knows that drunk people are more likely to buy books (I just made that up, but I imagine it could be true). A reading series tends to have a built-in following, so it’s a good way to expose your writing to a new group of people.

Cara here. I really appreciated Sarah and Ailen taking the time to answer questions.Hopefully this parted the mist of publishing marketing and publicity somewhat. Does this mirror some of your experiences? Or does your publisher do things differently?

Cara Black writes the award nominated Aimée Leduc Investigations set in Paris. MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, the ninth book in the series, was just released and is available online and at fine bookstores everywhere. In MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, Aimée travels to the Left Bank unraveling the trail of a woman who claims to be her sister, murky Haitian politics and international financial scandals that lead to murder.



Mark your calendar for the following guest bloggers at the Kill Zone:

Robert Gregory Browne, March 15
Neil Plakcy, March 22
Liz Jasper, March 29

The McGuffin

by Michael Palmer

The Kill Zone is thrilled to have New York Times Bestselling Author Michael Palmer, M.D., joining us today. Michael can not only cure your ills, he’s also the maestro behind some of Thrillerfest’s most inspired ballads and his books are strong medicine indeed. Read on, as he explains the whys and wherefores of McGuffins…

Greetings from New England everyone……it’s a pleasure to be a guest blogger on so prestigious a site as The Kill Zone…..i have decided to write the way I’m most comfortable—without much punctuation/capitalization……if that style is uncomfortable for some of you, you’ll have to read it through twice……actually, there is another “lesson” here…..this technique is the way I work my way through so-called writer’s block……I just relax, abandon whatever punctuation I want to abandon, as well as grammatical “structure” and write down with minimal edits, the ticker-tape that is passing through my head…..

Michelle G. knows that I enjoy talking about The McGuffin, and asked me to blog some of my thoughts here……i’m going to sort of start at the beginning, and hope I don’t ramble on too long…..

The McGuffin is a noun created by Alfred Hitchcock, and applicable more to suspense stories than most other genres of screen plays and books, although there is certainly some crossover… of some of this material can be found in the writer’s tips section of my website. . . .

when I start my books, I force myself to begin with a carefully constructed “what if” question, which is limited (for clarity’s sake) to no more than 25 words or 2 sentences—sort of a what would you say your book is about to an agent who got on the elevator on the second floor and was getting off at the fourth?? . . . . For example, for my new book, The Second Opinion, the what if is: What if an expert in IT and an expert in electronic medical records began using EMR as a murder weapon? ……sound good?… does to me, and I’ve had 14 of 14 books on the times list… let’s go with it…..

now, with the what if under my belt, before I decide on a main character (“whose book is this?”), I need to take a crack at answering the question asked in my what if . . . . That answer we will call The McGuffin . . . . it doesn’t have to be the forever answer……I can change it any time I want to . . . . it doesn’t even have to a great McGuffin—just one that works and isn’t something totally ridiculous for this book like that martians are using the information in people’s EMR to choose subjects for kidnapping to their labs . . . . actually, now that I read it over, that McGuffin ain’t too bad . . . the McGuffin doesn’t have to have any tremendous relevance to the plot, but it does have to provide a reasonable answer to the what if question…..

example: in my book Extreme Measures, the what if is simply “What if there was a drug (there is, incidentally) that could make you look like you were dead when you weren’t”… that’s a great what if……Poe went to the bank on what ifs like that one . . . . but where’s the story? . . . what would someone want with a drug like that??…..the answer my friends is THE MCGUFFIN……in the case of extreme measures, the baddies want to use the drug to remove homeless people from society to use them for human experimentation (using their organs for transplant would work just as well as a McGuffin, and there are dozens of others) . . . are you getting this?? . . . it’s not such a simple concept, but once you understand it, the mcguffin will support your plot development like a rock….

To summarize: a McGuffin is a plot device which you need to drive the story, but which is changeable and has no real relevance . . . I would not advise choosing your protagonist and starting your prologue without having worked out a decent McGuffin, but it’s certainly possible to try it that way and hope for McGuffin-inspiration along the way . . .

There are examples of McGuffins in all of my books, and in all of Hitchcock’s films……what was Psycho about??—certainly not the $40,000 Janet Leigh stole from her office……she could have stolen plans for a new toaster . . .. and in North by North west, why were the baddies chasing Cary Grant?? Why to steal his McGuffin, of course……I’ll bet only a small percentage of you who have seen and loved North by Northwest can tell me why they were after Cary and Eva Marie – in fact, I’m not sure Hitchock himself could have told you fifteen minutes after he wrote it into his film . . .

So try to have your McGuffin place before you begin your book – it’s much easier that way…..but don’t worry if you decide to change it along the way—it doesn’t matter….just remember, that like any other endeavor, there are A+ McGuffins and C- McGuffins . . . the more organic your McGuffin is to your story, the better . . . but a C- is still passing . . . .

Many readers (although they have never heard the word) think they are reading your book to learn the McGuffin–that is to find out exactly what has been going on–why these baddies are poisoning people to make them look like they are dead when they’re not . . . but the truth is, if you are any good at this writing business, they are flipping pages like mad because you have led them to care–genuinely care–about the characters you have created . . .

What are your all-time favorite McGuffins? I’ve got one in my latest release, THE SECOND OPINION, which is in bookstores now…

Michael Palmer, M.D., is the author of the The Second Opinion, The First Patient, The Fifth Vial, The Society, Fatal, The Patient, Miracle Cure, Critical Judgment, Silent Treatment, Natural Causes, Extreme Measures, Flashback, Side Effects, and The Sisterhood. His books have been translated into thirty-five languages. He trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine, and is now an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s physician health program.

My Other Car is a Porsche

by Michelle Gagnon

At least, this week it is.

We’ve spent a fair amount of time on this blog discussing gender issues, but far be it from me to stop flogging a dead horse. Here’s what happened.

My new car needed to be taken in for servicing and a few minor tweaks. My husband graciously offered to run this errand since I was swamped. So he drove to the dealership, and they offered him a choice of two vehicles. One was basically the same car we bought: a wagon, which is used to shuttle kids in car seats, dogs, groceries, the odd dragon costume, etc around town.

As he was leaving, the salesman said, “Oh, and we have another one you could take. There it is, over there.”

This, my friends, is the car that the dealer offered my husband:


I’ll let you guess which one he chose. The practical car, something like those Honda SUVs which could easily handle everything we throw at it for a week? Or the two-seater with terrible gas mileage and worse crash records, which by the way happens to be a standard?

For anyone wondering just how bad things have gotten for the auto industry, there’s your answer. You hand them a wagon, they give you the keys to a Porsche Cayman. That can’t be good. If you’re looking to buy or sell a vehicle within the next few months, you can look into a site like one sure insurance, to highlight some of the most important information and trends in the motor industry, hoping to save you money and make the best decisions about your vehicle.

And here’s the real kicker: I don’t know how to drive a stick shift. Never had the chance to learn, since all of my cars have been practical, work horse automatics.

Did I mention that this was to be my car for the week? My husband uses a motorcycle to get around the city, and keeps a ridiculously large Dodge 3500 truck in storage for his job towing boats around the state. Driving a truck the size of a small house around San Francisco is not my favorite activity, which is why we agreed to a loaner car in the first place. Seriously, to parallel park that thing requires a full ground crew, complete with waving flashlights and orange cones.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a sporty car as much as the next person. And I’m not unsympathetic. I understand that, as my husband describes it, “I wasn’t thinking. My eyes just glazed over. Never in my life has someone handed me the keys to a Porsche and said, ‘Have fun with it.'”

Sure, I get it. But under the same circumstances, I can pretty much guarantee that I would have held the keys longingly for a moment, before sighing and handing them back as I said, in a voice laden with regret, “I’m afraid we’ll have to take the wagon. Our toddler has trouble holding on to the roof at high speeds.”

So there you are: gender differences. What leapt to my mind was the infamous scene in “As Good As It Gets,” where misogynistic romance writer Melvin Udall (as played by Jack Nicholson) is asked (by a woman), “How do you write women so well?”

And he replied, “I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability.”

Reason and accountability, eh? Hmm. To every woman who cringed at that line, I offer you this: my husband, handing me the keys to a Porsche, our (temporary) new family car. Without even blinking.

Business owners looking to add vehicles to their fleet should consider leasing from Intelligent Car Leasing.

Do men and women write differently?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by Michelle’s blog post last week on gender bias I decided to tackle the question of whether women and men write differently and, if so, can authors write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex.

In my latest writing project I tackled the issue head on – having multiple ‘voices’ in the book including a male character. I have to confess I was worried initially as the female characters came very easily to me – their voices (though quite different to one another) rang true and clear. Once I was about a third of the way through my first draft however I found myself thinking that something was lacking and I realized I needed to get the perspective of my lead male character. I hesitated – would I really be able to write it convincingly? Would the voice sound authentically male?

Of course that question opens up a whole range of others but fundamentally my concern was whether I could write from the point of view of a man? Was that even possible? When I asked my husband he said he thought the whole issue was a non-issue. My female characters went far beyond my own experiences or personality so why would I not be capable of moving beyond gender? He didn’t seem to think it mattered whether the writer was male or female and I admit that, as a reader, I thought many writers (both male and female) have managed to write from the opposite gender perspective – but it’s always different when it’s your own writing!

I was worried that I would make my male character too ‘soft’ – a feminized ideal of a man – capable of articulating his feelings and noticing elements that quite frankly a man would not – like the color of someone’s eyes or their clothes. I got about half way through my second draft and had my writing group give me feedback and they told me that my male character seemed to be a bit of a bastard. I realized that in worrying about making him too idealized I had actually succeeded in making him sound like a shit. So back I went – refining and editing the voice until finally a real person began to take shape. It took a while but I found his voice emerging and then the writing flowed so much easier. I had the character in my head now and gender no longer mattered.

But the real question is should it matter at all?? Should the gender of a writer change the way a reader perceives the POV or character in a book? Do you think it makes a difference?

Have you ever read a book and been surprised to discover the writer was a man because you had assumed it was a woman (or vice versa)? In short, does gender even matter when it comes to writing effective characters?