Blast from the past: About Strong Female Characters

I’m traveling today, and I’m also still in the staring-at-walls-and-seatbacks phase of brainstorming my next book, so I’m reposting another blog entry on writing. From May 2013:

About strong female characters.

Shadow

A few weeks ago Publishers Weekly reviewed my upcoming novel The Shadow Tracer, saying: “Gardiner’s second stand-alone (after Ransom River) boasts another of the strong female characters she’s known for and enough pulse-pounding action to satisfy the most avid thriller fan.” This made me run outside and dance in a manner that would severely embarrass my children.

For a friend, however, the line about “strong female characters” grated. Ann Aubrey Hanson pointed out: “They never say that Lee Child writes strong male characters.”

True. Almost universally, thriller heroes in novels written by men are expected to be strong. Whereas some heroines might be strong and others, even when they’re main characters, might be fragile femmes.

Ann added: “I think it’s about the reviewer trying to indicate that you aren’t writing a ‘girl’s book’ and that you do the genre justice… but aren’t we past that by now?”

Maybe, maybe not.

It’s true that I try to inject strength into my characters — by the end of a novel, they’d better have picked up a banner and rushed into the teeth of battle, metaphorically at least. Besides, how many readers like to spend time reading about wilting flowers who cringe and require rescue? I don’t. To paraphrase my fellow crime author NJ Cooper: Who wants to spend 300 pages with wimps?

In any case, I am happy to have the women in my novels recognized for their strength. Because in my books, “strong” means that the heroine is:

  • Resourceful
  • Decisive
  • Smart
  • Creative
  • Loving — to the point that she’ll risk herself for friends and family

It does not mean:

  • She’s coldhearted
  • She packs a gun
  • She can kill a man fifty different ways with her bare hands
  • She hates the world for what it has done to her

I try to write about women who are realistic, flesh-and-blood, full-hearted human beings. And because I write thrillers, these women are going to be thrown in front of spinning propeller blades. (Again, metaphorically. Probably.) Last autumn at Bouchercon, somebody suggested that my heroines are all tough women. I said that in my mind, they aren’t; they’re ordinary women facing tough situations. They’re people who must rise to the challenge.

Digging deep. That’s what my heroines have to do. Just like folks in real life. If that makes them strong, I’ll take it.

It’s brainstorming time again

I’m brainstorming a new novel. This is the time of the year when I dive deep inside my imagination. That means I stare at the walls, bite my nails, and decide that every episode of True Detective must be watched right this damn minute without interruption. It also means that blogging suffers, because my thoughts are waaay below the surface and entangled with plot and character.

So while I swim around trying to spear ideas, I’m going to repost a few blog entries about writing. Here’s one that I originally wrote for The Kill Zone, about The Nightare Thief:

Joy and Insomnia, or How to Bring a Novel to Life, Kicking and Screaming

Some writers love first drafts. To them, starting a novel feels like hitting the highway for a summer road trip. They toss the map out the window, crank up the tunes, let their characters take the wheel, and sit back to see where the story goes. To them a first draft means freedom: blue skies, unlimited potential.

I’m not one of those writers.

I love the part before the first draft. Brainstorming is terrific. Brainstorming means flinging ideas at the wall like spaghetti, to see what sticks. And when an idea gets under my skin—stings like a hornet, itches, keeps me up nights—I know I’m on track. I have the fuel that will drive a thriller.

That’s how I felt with The Nightmare Thief. An “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. That idea did it. Yep, brainstorming, and then sketching a synopsis—Jo and the kids are trapped, bad people are closing in on them, and my other series heroine, Evan Delaney, has only hours to find them—that’s fun.

But then I have to actually write the thing. And for me, writing a first draft is like pulling my own teeth with pliers: slow, painful, and messy.

The plot takes form, and it’s fat. The characters sit around a lot, thinking. When they do speak, the dialogue needs spice. Worse, everybody on the page sounds exactly the same and, worst of all, exactly like me. And all those plot twists that were so exciting to sketch (“Evan discovers a deadly betrayal”) stare back at me from the synopsis, going: Well, how?

I cringe. I couldn’t show this stinking mess to my dog, much less my editor, and oh, sweet Lord, I still have three hundred pages to write.

And I need to write them at a rate of 2,000 words a day, because I have a deadline.

That’s when I remind myself:

  1. My critique group has a rule for reading out loud: We all think our rough drafts are crap. It’s stipulated. So don’t waste time quailing that your piece sucks. Just read. Well, the same goes for actually drafting the crap. Just write.
  2. My job does not involve cleaning a deep fryer. I should stop being an ungrateful moaner. Just write.
  3. If I spew all these wondrously awful first-draft words onto the page, they will at least exist. And words that exist can be fixed. Words in my head cannot. Just write.

So I keep going, for months, until I reach the end. Then I run through the house with my fists overhead like Rocky, while the stereo blasts the Foo Fighters’ “DOA.” “I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest…”

In the five-stage writing cycle (excitement, delusions of grandeur, panic, compulsive eating, delivery) this is known as the False Ending. Because now it’s time to rewrite.

Joy.

I can hear some of you shouting, Rewrite? Don’t make me. Stab me with a fondue fork instead. Repeatedly. Please. But I mean it: Joy. As I recently heard Ken Follett explain, revising means making a book better—and who wouldn’t want the chance to make something better?

And, to be serious, I have a method. Tackle the big issues first.

This is a technique I picked up from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, and it has turned my editing inside out. It’s saved me months of wasted work. Stein calls it triage: Fix the life-and-death issues in a manuscript first. Is the conflict stark enough? Is the protagonist strong enough? Does he or she face a worthy antagonist? In other words, when rewriting, don’t simply start at page one and go through the manuscript fixing every problem as you spot it. It’s counterproductive to spend a morning fussing over sentence structure if the entire scene needs to be cut.

So I identify all the triage issues and outline a plan to address them. Then I return to my miserable first draft. I attack those fat, introspective scenes. I build in unexpected twists. I obstruct the protagonist’s path. Throw down impediments that are by turns physical and psychological, accidental and deliberate. Breakdowns. A monkeywrench. A landslide—literal or emotional. I cut endless swaths of verbiage, like so much kudzu. It’s gratifying.

Admittedly, revision isn’t all fun. I’ll wake up worrying that I’ve done insufficient research. Maybe some howlers have slipped through. (Anybody seen Lord of War? An Interpol agent strafes Nicolas Cage from a fighter jet. That kind of howler.) So I hit the reference books, and contact some experts, and revise again. And I have a fail-safe plan: write a rip-roaring story, so that if all else fails readers will miss any mistakes. Put the pedal down and nobody can see the errors as they blast through the novel.

Meanwhile the deadline continues to loom. Eventually I reach the stage known as Revise! Or! Die! It comes down to a cage fight between me and my story. With major revisions on The Nightmare Thief, I’m happy to say I won—which is to say, the story won. The lumpen first draft was flick-knifed into a sharp revision. Or sledgehammered, where necessary.

When I finished, I sent it to my editor and pitched face down on my desk. Then I sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box, thinking of all the changes I still wanted to make. Then I pitched forward on my desk again.

Eventually I sat up, picked off all the paperclips that had stuck to my face, and staggered to bed, where visions of Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney danced in my head. Well, they didn’t dance—they opened a couple of beers, clinked bottles, and put their feet up, waiting to see what I would do to them next.

I love this job.

Saturday: CALM Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon

CALM-logo

Saturday I’m taking part in the CALM Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon in Santa Barbara.

It’s a great cause. If you’re interested:

28th Annual Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon
10 a.m. Saturday, March 8
Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, 633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.
Santa Barbara, California

I’m looking forward to it, and honored to be invited.

My new muse

photo 2

I have a new office. This fairy is painted on the wall above my desk. She’s one of many that decorate the room.

Help me out. Should I:

1. Paint the walls? If so, what color?

2. Leave the fairies?

3. Draw Uzis into their hands? (Thanks for the suggestion, John Aubrey.)

4. Add other imaginary creatures to the panorama?

Thoughtful suggestions are welcome.

The War of the Squirrels, Part III

Writing can be solitary. I sit alone in a quiet room, staring into space, thinking up mayhem. So, when a loud crack reverberates close by, it can creep me out. As happened yesterday.

Being a writer, I immediately did the only logical thing: I wrote about it. First on Instant Message:

Squirrel

Thank you for laughing at me, Snart. Thank you so very much.

squirrel 2

Then I took the terror to Twitter.

Fiery squirrels. If that isn’t material for a thriller, I don’t know what is. Quick, to the writermobile!

As for earlier squirrel skirmishes, here’s more information on War of the Squirrels, Part I, and the samurai sword. Part II involved traps and a sledgehammer, and remains a painful memory. I won’t tell you who won.

Heads up: CALM Authors’ Luncheon March 8

CALM — Child Abuse Listening Mediation — is a charity that works hard to protect the most vulnerable among us. These folks do good work, and have for a long time. Every year, they hold an authors’ luncheon in Santa Barbara to raise funds. This year, I’m happy that I’ll be one of the authors attending.

28th Annual Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon
10 a.m. Saturday, March 8
Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, 633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.
Santa Barbara, California

Tickets are $150, and if that sounds like a chunk, remember CALM’s mission:

“CALM was founded in 1970 to reach stressed parents before they hurt their children. CALM continues to be the only non-profit agency in Santa Barbara County focusing solely on preventing, assessing, and treating child abuse and family violence through comprehensive, cutting-edge programs. CALM offers children, families, and adults a safe, non-judgmental, caring, and strength-based environment to heal and increase family well being.”

I’ll be at the event, and so will Tim Conway, Lian Dolan, Margrit Biever Mondavi, and many other wonderful writers, including YA writer Valerie Hobbs.

5 more things I’ve done that you probably haven’t

It’s been a while since we’ve taken an inventory of weird things we’ve done. In earlier installments I listed my battles with squirrels and shrieking seagulls and my hair-pulling wrestling match with an editor. Here are five more things I’ve done that you probably haven’t:

1. Skied down an Olympic downhill course. On my butt. Screaming.

2. Ran with a Bear and a Viking. (And a Packer.)

3. Got lost in the woods during an Easter egg hunt.

4. Got kicked out of Burger King for singing, “Have It Your Way” at the counter.

5. Ran barefoot through the lobby of the Federal Building in Manhattan, calling: “Where’s the FBI?”

What about all of you?