“A little lesbian joke …”

The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel test — sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test — began as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” back in 1985. Posed in a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it asks three simple questions:

  1. Does the story have at least two women in it?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something besides a man?

At first it seems a little silly — until you start looking at the data. In one study of almost 900 successful US films from 1950 to 2006, the ratio of male to female characters remained stable for more than half a century: 2:1. But women were portrayed as being involved in sex twice as often as their male counterparts.

A 2014 study of 120 films made worldwide showed only 31% of the named characters were women, a figure reflected in another study of 700 films made between 2007 and 2014. Only 30% of the speaking characters were women.

Why does this matter? According to US National Public Radio’s Neda Ulaby:

“it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”

It’s still largely applied to films, but it’s equally applicable to books. Goodreads has lists of crime, SF, YA and general fiction that pass the Bechdel test and it’s also been applied to the classics.

The Finkbeiner test

The Finkbeiner test  is a checklist to help journalists avoid gender bias in articles about women in science. Proposed in 2013 by Christie Aschwanden, a health columnist for the Washington Post, it was named after Ann Finkbeiner, one of her colleagues, who decided to write about an impressive astronomer and “not once mention that she’s a woman” because “when you emphasize a woman’s sex, you inevitably end up dismissing her science”.

The pair were concerned about this sort of thing:

“Jill makes a fantastic role model…because she is married, has two children and has been able to keep up with her research.”

(In a profile of biologist Jill Bargonetti in the New York Times.)

“No matter how much she bends time, there’s no escaping the fact that she’s just turned 43 and that if she wants to have kids she’s going to have to get on with it soon.”

(In a profile of pre-eminent physicist Lisa Randall in the Guardian.)

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children”

(The New York Times again, in an obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill.)

So Aschwanden proposed seven rules for stories to pass the Finkbeiner test. The story cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to …”

She adds:

Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.

Apply that trick to the examples above and you’ll see exactly what she means!

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Lee Child on writing and research

Lee Child readingA while back I asked Lee Child a question. Not in person, but via a Goodreads author promotion, and he was gracious enough to give a detailed reply.

I suspect it’s something many writers struggle with, and I revisited his answer because it’s something I bumped up against last week, writing the follow-up to my novel Private Viewing. Like its predecessor, the new novel is set in London, and although I know bits of London pretty well — having lived there on an off for about four years — there’s lots of bits I don’t know.

The internet is a fantastic tool for writers, but it’s also a fantastic trap. You can lose yourself for hours doing “research” — and I did just that. Till I remembered Lee Child’s answer and “researched” that instead. After a quick re-read, I stepped away from my browser and got back to my text …


I’m interested in your writing process. You’ve said elsewhere that the final book is pretty much your first draft; that you sit down, start writing and see where the story leads — both you and Reacher. But what about research? A lot of your books contain detailed descriptions of places, weapons, etc. Do you incorporate that as you go? Or do you add these details in later, once you’ve got the story sorted out?


Lee Child:

You could say a writer’s whole life is research. Everyone I meet, everything I read or see or experience is packed away for future use. Whether to do extensive research to ensure all your facts line up is an interesting question. When writing fiction, I don’t think accuracy matters as much as whether people perceive accuracy. If I wrote a novel set in New York City, I could make it extremely accurate, but my guess is the more accurate I made it, the more people might find it inaccurate. What matters is not what NYC is really like, but what people generally think it’s like. Readers will sometimes mail me to correct mistakes they’ve found in my books and sometimes they’re right, but surprisingly it’s usually the things I research most carefully that they say I got wrong. All in all, if you’re convincing rather than accurate, you’ll probably please more readers.

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The collective insanity of the publishing industry

“Publishing is about she who writes and she who reads.
Everyone else can lend a hand or fuck off.”
Hugh Howey

Gene Doucette has a few things to say about the collective insanity of the publishing industry …

Gene Doucette on publishing insanity In 2014, there was a drawn-out dispute between Amazon, and Hachette. The latter is one of the largest publishers in the world, and Amazon is a company that sells things, such as books.  The essence of the dispute was that Hachette—and all the other publishers we affectionately refer to as ‘the Big 5’—wanted more control over the list price of their e-books on Amazon.

That sounds thoroughly reasonable, and it sort of is, but please let me explain because the crazy is in the details.  What was happening was that Amazon was discounting the price of the ebooks, and it may seem like this is something the Big 5 would want to stop, except the markdown was coming off of Amazon’s end.  In other words, if Hachette wanted to charge $15.99 for an ebook, and Amazon marked it down to $9.99, Hachette was still paid their cut of the full price of the book.

More people will buy a book at $9.99 than at $15.99, so essentially, the Big 5 was coming out ahead in this arrangement in every conceivable way.  They collected royalties at an unreasonably high price point while moving the number of units that corresponded to a lower price point.

So of course that had to be stopped right away.

Hachette fought for, and won from Amazon, the return to something called the Agency Model, whereby they set their price and Amazon wasn’t allowed to reduce that price.  So that $15.99 book stayed at $15.99 until Hachette decided to change it.

Soon after that contract was signed, the other Big 5 contracts came due, and they all asked for the same Agency Model arrangement.  Thus, the finest minds in publishing—or one might assume—negotiated themselves out of an arrangement whereby they sold more units at a lower cost without suffering the financial impact that comes with a lower unit cost.

On purpose.

This isn’t even the crazy part.

After securing the right to price their ebooks unreasonably high and having those prices stick, the first thing the collective brain-trust of the Big 5 did was raise their ebook prices even more.  Often, the prices were higher than the price of the print edition, which is just fundamentally insane.

It should come as very little surprise to you that after jacking up the prices of their ebooks at the start of 2015, the Big 5 sold fewer ebooks.

Now here’s the fun part, the part that just makes me shake my head and giggle and wonder how I can live in such extraordinary times.  After six months of depressed ebook sales, the Big 5 announced that the ebook market was slowing down.

Not: “we priced ourselves out of the market and stopped selling as many books”. No no no.  The ebook market!  Is slowing down!

This was celebrated!

I mean it.  One article after another, from the New York Times on down came news pieces declaring that print was making a comeback at long last, and the long national nightmare was over.

All it took was the biggest publishing companies in the world deliberately murdering their own share of the market.  And it wasn’t even true.


The Wall Street Journal highlighted declining sales last September with the headline “E-Book Sales Fall After New Amazon Contracts. Prices rise, but revenue takes a hit.” In January, with the annual figures in, The Bookseller positively gloated about it:

… we can without a shadow of a doubt say that e-book volume slid for the Big Five publishers for the first time since the digital age began, collectively down 2.4% to 47.9 million units last year.


But what they failed to mention was where those sales went. Here’s what Hugh Howey, co-author of the quarterly Author Earnings Report has to say (his bolding):

more than half the market is now in ebooks, and half of what’s left is online print sales. 75% of your market is online, and publishers are willing to nuke your career in order to protect historical relationships with the 25% that’s left. We have this in their own writing. This is not speculation. Even industry insider Mike Shatzkin has blogged about this strategy and how it has backfired.


So the Big 5 are celebrating lower sales and therefore reduced income for their authors. Hugh Howey again:

I’m still pro-author and pro-reader above everything. If Amazon and the Big 5 all go out of business tomorrow, all I’ll care about is whether and how writers and readers can commune. The middlemen are only useful in how they serve these two parties.

Publishing is about she who writes and she who reads. Everyone else can lend a hand or fuck off. According to our data, publishers are mostly doing the latter. I hope they turn that around.

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5 English language myths

mythsBustedThe problem — and the delight — of the English language is that there is no such thing as Standard English. Plenty of other languages have language regulators, but there is no equivalent of France’s Académie Française for us.

Here’s five very common ones …


1 : Verbs with -iz suffixes are Americanisms

According to Oxford Dictionaries, “Many verbs that end in -ize can also end in -ise: both endings are correct in British English.” In fact, the -ize form has been around for over 400 years. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of “organize” to around 1425. “Realize” dates from 1611. The first -ise version of it, “realise”, didn’t occur till 1755 — more than a century later!

Whichever version you use, just be consistent. Don’t chop and change. But note!

  • Some words don’t have -ize versions — like “advise”, “compromise” and “surprise”.
  • And the few that end in -yse in British English, such as …

… are all spelled with -yze in US English.


2 : Never begin a sentence with a conjunction

such as and, because, but, or, so or also.

‘And why not?’ you may ask. Because it’s just not done!

Apparently this is a childhood rule that no one tells us we can discard when we grow up. It’s much favoured by English teachers to prevent youngsters from writing in fragments — “And then I went home. And then I had some cake.” — but once we’re more proficient with the language, it can be ignored.

Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog notes; “The argument against using and or but to introduce a sentence is that such a sentence expresses an incomplete thought (or ‘fragment’) and is therefore incorrect. However, this is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical rule.”


3 : Never end a sentence with a preposition

Or to quote my favourite casting of this ‘rule’: “A preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.”

The idea apparently dates from the 17th century when a handful of writers tried to make English grammar fit more neatly with Latin grammar. Once again, it’s a personal preference, not a rule, and it’s hard to recast some sentences to avoid “breaking” it. Consider, for example;

  • He had no one to play with.
  • Please, come in!
  • But don’t let the cat out.
  • What sort of music are you interested in?
  • I hate being fussed over.

You could rephrase them “properly”, but you’d end up sounding awfully pompous. (“He had no one with whom to play.”)


4 : Never split an infinitive

Another nonsense ‘rule’ from trying to make English grammar fit in with Latin. The Grammarphobia blog notes;

Writers of English have been merrily “splitting” infinitives since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-nineteenth century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—misguidedly called it a crime. (Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive.) This “rule” was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it. But its ghost has proved more durable than Freddie Krueger.

Grammarphobia also provide some delightful examples for you to try un-splitting:

  • Kiri’s landlord wanted to flatly forbid singing.
  • He threatened to more than double her rent.
  • The landlord is expected to strongly oppose weaker noise regulations.

Somehow “The landlord is expected to oppose strongly weaker noise regulations” doesn’t quite work for me …


5 : Never use “they” as a singular pronoun

This ‘rule’ reckons that because they is plural, it must have a plural antecedent. So the sentence “If anyone has an answer, they should tell me” is wrong because anyone is singular.

Actually, there’s nothing wrong with using they as a gender-neutral, non-sexist singular pronoun. Shakespeare and Austen used they, them and their in that context, and no one moans about their poor grammar!

As Geoffrey K. Pullum says on Language Log, “… we have a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.”




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JK Rowling on rejection slips (and more!)

A fascinating interview with JK Rowling (AKA Robert Galbraith) in The Guardian.


On rejection slips:

… the first publisher ever to turn down Harry [Potter] wrote Robert [Galbraith] his rudest rejection. So I think it’s safe to say I will never write for them. They clearly don’t like me, in whatever way I present myself. [Laughs]


On success:

Some people would assume that you’re sitting around feeling simply marvellous and shining your baubles. But I remember, a week after I got my American deal, JK Rowlingwhich got me a lot of press, one of my very best girlfriends rang me and said, “I thought you’d sound so elated.” From the outside, I’m sure everything looked amazing. But in my flat, where I was still a single mum and I didn’t know who to call to do my hair, everything felt phenomenally overwhelming. For the first time in my life I could buy a house, which meant security for my daughter and me, but I now felt: “The next book can’t possibly live up to this.” So I managed to turn this amazing triumph into tragedy, in the space of about five days.


On the birth of Harry Potter:

JK Rowling2


It was like an explosion of colour, and I could see lots of detail about the world. Of course the whole seven-book plot didn’t come at once, but the basic premises were there.


Lots more here.

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Seven things writers should remember

konrathA gentle reminder from Joe Konrath

This post goes out to no one in particular for no particular reason. Maybe it will motivate some. Maybe it will make others think a little bit. Maybe it will irritate you. But it’s good, tested advice, and worth repeating.
1. Nobody owes you a living. I’m old school, and I busted my ass to get where I am. But I don’t feel any sense of entitlement. Yeah, I worked hard. Maybe I’ve got talent. But I don’t deserve readers, and neither do you.
2. Success is mostly due to luck. You can do everything right, and still not be satisfied with the state of your career. That’s life. No one ever said this would be fair, fun, or easy.
3. Stop whining. The internet is forever. No one likes a person who constantly complains. Even if you feel that bemoaning (insert whatever here) is justified, it will always be linked to you if someone Googles your name.
4. Don’t Google your name. What people think of you is their business, not yours. Remember, one of life’s greatest journeys is overcoming insecurity and learning to truly not give a shit.
5. Never respond to criticism. It will make things worse. And if you apologize, it will get even more worser. Keep out of any discussion about you and your work. You may think you know better, but you don’t.
6. Remember your Serenity Prayer. Fix what you can change, accept what you can’t fix, and learn to know the difference between the two. If it is beyond your control, drink a beer, do yoga, go for a run, or bitch to a close friend where it can’t be seen online. And if you can’t stop dwelling on your bad fortune;
7. Quit. The world will keep turning without your work. If writing and publishing is so traumatic, go use your time doing something else you can derive some pleasure from. Life is too short.

Read Joe’s original post.

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