I was a single parent for much of my sons’ lives. Through their teenage years the three of us lived decidedly as bachelors, even going so far as to designate two cardboard boxes for all our socks (darks, almost-whites) so that none of us had to sort them into pairs. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read a romance novel, and I walk out of public restrooms if I don’t immediately see a urinal for fear of having entered the wrong door.
I am, ahem, a guy.
So imagine my surprise when two of my beta readers announced that the novel on which I’d been working was, in fact, women’s fiction.
“Shut UP!” I responded, though in my most polite “shut up” voice and said mostly because I wasn’t exactly sure what women’s fiction involved. There was just no way in my Y-chromosome perspective that I had hammered out a story of women’s fiction.
Finally I did what any reasonable guy would do in that situation—I hit up Google. As it turned out, my friends were probably right. My story is about a woman raised as the adopted daughter of a hypocritical and lecherous hellfire minister who is now finding it difficult to forgive her own daughter the sin of having become a famous television evangelist. Strong female protagonist with a long and difficult character arc? Check. A story that will be predominantly read by women? Highly likely. Bechdel test? Passed it.
Well, I’ll be danged…Women’s Fiction.
More Googling, which led to a website operated by a group called the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. A well-respected writer, Barbara Claypole White, became my go-to for the question, “Is this really what I’ve written?” She couldn’t have been more gracious, and once she assured me that, yes, women’s fiction fit, she further flabbergasted me by inviting me to join the organization. I re-explained that I was male. She didn’t hold it against me, and she assured me joining would make me a better writer. I did so that very day, and in surprisingly quick fashion I found myself actively engaged with superb writers from around the world.
I’ve learned most from the three women in my critique group (Laura Kaste Broullire, Karen Tkacik Cimms, and Gretchen Romstad Anthony) set up by the folks at WFWA. My three critique partners have proven themselves astute readers, wonderful writers and, yes, friends. We’ve grown to care about and cheer for each other in successes, and to support each other in harder times. They’ve also explained the difference between mascara and eyeliner and pointed out that my protagonist would have swollen ankles during late stage pregnancy…I’m such a dude.
I spent thirty years in public safety, chasing bad guys, jumping out of aircraft, and investigating violent crimes. I loved my career and the men and women with whom I shared that time. So, you may wonder how a guy coming from such a background would even consider writing a mother/daughter/forgiveness story. I submit that there are strong analogies between being a good cop and being a good writer. Both are disciplines founded in integrity and courage, and each requires fortitude to weather the hate of bigots and critics; both must exercise judicious restraint on a daily basis, and practitioners of each profession generally get better as their life’s jump bag of experiences and empathy fills.
The only requisite element missing between a career in public safety and a career in word-craft is an innate ability and insatiable drive to be a story-teller, though many of the best cops I know tend to be world-class raconteurs. Suffice it to say, writers spend their lives immersed in the lessons of life, inordinately observant of those around them. Empathetic and informed writing transcends gender, becoming simply human experience and perspective shared, and I can’t imagine doing anything more exciting at this stage of my life.
I am a Larry McMurtry fan, Lonesome Dove being one of my all-time favorite novels. McMurtry is probably best known for his western historical fiction, yet he also wrote The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. Deconstructed, McMurtry’s works—every dusty, spittin’ one of them—are love stories. There are few more poignant or revealing stories than of McMurtry’s Texas Rangers of old, doing and giving all for one another. Their loyalty and honor are as much about love as the passion and resilience on display in, say, Terms of Endearment. Both stories will make you laugh out loud or choke up, and both will make you want to be a better human being.
Perhaps that sense of love that grows not just from romance, lust or infatuation, but also from honor, loyalty and courage, is the most critical deciding factor in women’s fiction. That seems fitting to me. So, I’m a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and I’m a better writer for it. Still a fan of sock-boxes, though, and I hold out hope my wife will let me install a urinal in our home someday. It’s a guy thing.