The Women of Popular Fiction

Seton Hill University Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction January 2012 Commencement Speech

Greetings and good afternoon. On behalf of the Writing Popular Fiction Class of January 2012, I’d like to welcome you to Seton Hill University and to thank you for taking the time to be with us today as we prepare to respectively cross this stage and accept our degrees. I know that many of you came a long way to witness this important ceremony, to support this graduating class as we revel in this moment. As a class, we’ve also come a long way. We’ve traveled a great distance in pursuit of this Master in Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction. I think I can safely assume I’m not alone when I say it’s been a dynamic and life-changing experience. Speaking as a woman and a mother, after you give birth they tell you your memory of labor and delivery will fade with time. I think the logic is otherwise no one would ever go through the process more than once, and we’d have a world populated by only children. I’m not sure if this is true or not, though in the interest of full disclosure I’m the parent of an only child, but I know what won’t fade: my memories of the time I’ve spent in this program, and the invaluable knowledge I’ve gained from it.

As “ones”, we entered this program, each of us at varying points in our writing careers, with varying levels of proficiency. Somewhere along the line, somebody – whether it was a parent, a teacher or a friend – told us “You ought to be a writer” and we believed their pretty words. What they didn’t tell us was it isn’t as easy as it looks at first glance. It’s all very well and good to have the desire to write, it’s another entirely to do it.

As an aside, what I’d like to tell the “ones” is this piece of advice. See the gentleman in the front row in the jeans and the zombie tee shirt? His name’s Scott Johnson. Get to know him. Take his modules, enroll in his genre readings courses and – if you’re truly fearless – request him as a mentor. Cultivate a relationship with this man, buy him a drink in the Marriott lobby. Whatever else you do, hope against hope he likes you enough to write you into one of his books. You’ll doubtless die a slow, lingering death in the pages of one of his horror novels, but it’s NOTHING compared to the torment you’ll suffer at the hands of Dr. Arnzen in the purgatory that is his Teaching of Writing course. Talk about medieval torture.

Moving on. By the time we arrived at our second residency, we’d accepted a vital fact of life. If we wanted this degree we’re about to receive, we were going to have to write a full-length novel. And while it seemed like no less a daunting process than it did when we were “ones”, we’d begun assembling the tools we’d need. We’d learned from our mentors, from our fellow students, and from our own experiences about the importance of time management, of making time to write regularly. We’d started drafting outlines and penning synopses. We’d created and fleshed out character descriptions.

As “threes” we’d been at this process of writing and editing long enough that we’d begun feeling a little superior. After all, we’d discovered the secret only “pros” knew, that a plus b equals c or – as it pertains to writers – rear plus chair plus fingers on keyboard equals page count. We knew that no one was going to publish the book we didn’t write. By that point, we’d all made adjustments and in some cases terrific sacrifices to ensure the sanctity of our creative time and space. We’d stressed the importance of the same to our friends and lovers, our spouses and children. We’d all had “that conversation”. You know the one, when we strongly cautioned them not to bother us when we were immersed in our fictional worlds. We warned them not to interrupt us when we were spending time with the characters we’d created and grown to love, lest they too ended up with an ice pick in their skull. (Maybe that was just me?) Finally, our loved ones had learned this business of writing was just that, it was a business. It was our life’s work, an overwhelming, all-consuming passion that was to be valued and respected.

As “fours”, we felt like full-fledged club initiates, made men and women who’d paid our dues and earned our stripes. See how I just mixed up my metaphors there, not to mention resorted to cliché? Yeah, don’t do that. That’s in the manual right after Tim Esaias’s oft-repeated gem: “Never use the word ‘grimace’ unless one is referring to a gargoyle. And Tim thought all I got out of his modules was malted milk balls! (I’ll miss the malteds, as I’m certain my fellow graduates will as well, but I’ll always treasure the sentiment behind their distribution: If you want people to pay attention? Make them an offer they can’t refuse. See, I just did it again!) But seriously folks, all kidding aside, by our fourth residency we’d learned much about our writing and how to improve it. We now felt qualified to judge the work of others, to advise our fellow wordsmiths. We’d heard the phrase “show, don’t tell” so often we thought we’d punch the next person who said it square in the kisser. Still, having said that, that doesn’t make it less true!
But, by the end of the day, we stood as equals. We’ve all accomplished what so many people spend the whole of their lives striving to achieve: We’ve written a book, and whether it was our first book or our 40th, we set a goal – to write 60, 80, even 100 thousand words – and we did it. We overcame self-doubt and told self-loathing to take a hike. Most importantly, as one of my personal heroes writer and blogger Chuck Wendig would say? We made the words.

Fellow graduates? Give yourself a round of applause. You’ve done a remarkable thing. You’ve shifted from the camp of people who say “I’d like to write a book someday” or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel” to the community of writers who’ve penned that most eloquent of phrases: “The End.”

Yet even in our similarities, there are differences, just as there are distinctions among all the writers here today. Gathered together today, part of this very special program, are romance authors, mystery writers, science fiction and fantasy writers, horror novelists, even chroniclers of historical “fiction”.

There are differences not just in what we write, but in why we write, even in how we write.

Some writers are organizational wizards, able to plot out to the most minute detail the story they plan to tell, to pinpoint precisely when they’ll tell it, even who they think might publish it and what type of reader will be interested in it. Other writers, myself included? Not so much. While I envy those of my fellow writers their ability to create according to a schedule, and I certainly admire their work ethic and their convictions, I’m one of those writers who writes in bursts like I’ve got a gun to my head, like if I don’t write X amount of words by X time, the earth will cease to rotate around the sun. What drives me, what compels me to put my derriere in the chair and produce, is PRESSURE. And I think this is true of many, many writers.

While one method may seem preferable to the other, and I’ll let you all be the judge of which is which, the most effective method for completing a novel is the one that works for the individual writer.

Aside from the differences which set one writer apart from another, our class of wordsmiths is unique in that we are all female. While that’s not unusual for the graduating class of what began as an all-girls college, it is no less an honor to say I’m part of this distinctive group.

My fellow graduates are an eclectic bunch. We can count among our number a wide gamut of talents. We’ve got writers of fiction and non-fiction, editors, a veteran and best-selling romance novelist, a life coach, an expert on international terrorism, a nuclear physicist and a couple of teachers. And then there’s me, the authority on dead hookers. We are the newest members of an unofficial society. We are the women of popular fiction.

Popular fiction or rather the writing of it has always been a fairly inclusive field. Still, it’s traditionally been a male-dominated profession. Even today, only five of the top 20 selling novelists of all time are women, though it’s notable that the books penned by Agatha Christie, who is third on this list, have been outsold only by the Holy Bible and the collective works of William Shakespeare. Not too shabby for Ms. Christie or the so-called fairer sex.

In recent years, more and more women are successfully writing and publishing, and not necessarily in the genres you might expect. Genres that were once the literary equivalent of the Old Boys Network are evolving and expanding to include more female authors. Notably, the science fiction and fantasy sections of the local bookstores are home to a plethora of titles written by women. The same is true of the shelves populated by horror novels.

A professor, mentor and friend I had during my undergraduate studies had a saying he often repeated that I’m in total agreement with: “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” He trumpeted this advice so frequently it’s permanently lodged in my psyche, and I think it’s particularly apt of the women of popular fiction.

That’s right ladies, we steal. Not only do we pilfer from our literary predecessors, we pillage our personal lives for stories worth telling. We steal hours away from our children to give birth to our novels. Our affection for our spouses and significant others is oft displaced – nay, eclipsed! – by our passion for our characters. We form relationships with people for no other reason than to strip mine their very existences for literary gold.

But it’s not just us gals in the den of thieves the greatest writers of our generation have called home. Nor does our gender preclude us from borrowing from our male counterparts, or keep our brother writers from emulating our individual voices and the voices of our sister writers.

And there’s no shame in borrowing first before you buy or, in this case, steal. What else do we do each month in this program, when we ask our critique partners and mentors for their objective response to our work, but borrow? We borrow their knowledge of the mechanics of our language. If writing is the process of finding verbs, and I believe that it is, then editing is discerning whether we’ve used the right verb with the right noun, followed up by the proper object, modified by the best adjective. We lean on them for the expertise they can provide. We ask for their insight as to whether our stories – though fictional – ring true.

Because – whatever your politics, it seems appropriate in a speech related to women to quote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – it really does take a village to write and sell a novel. Particularly a first novel, which is what many of us graduating today have written. It takes the guidance of the early reader to help us focus our story and find our voice. It takes the honesty we come to demand of our mentors and critique partners. It takes the wisdom of the writing instructor to encourage us to craft prose that is clear and concise, to phrase our words so our readers will understand and appreciate them, even be inspired by them.

Finally, the process of writing and publishing a novel takes readers, for without them our words lack meaning. And, well, I don’t know about any of you, but I didn’t just spend two-plus years writing a book for it never to see the light of day.

And for that reason, I am so glad to be part of this village, this community of writers, for I know as I move forward with my professional career, I am far from alone.

I am also so proud to be one of the women of this graduating class. Each of us is dear to someone, perhaps even to someone in this very auditorium. We are wives, we are sisters, we are girlfriends, we are mothers. We are also dear to each other. We met as strangers at our first or second residency and forged bonds of friendship. We promised to support each other on this journey, even when we weren’t entirely sure where we were going ourselves. When it was called for, in workshops or as critique partners, we lent each an objective eye or an encouraging word. In the online classes, we learned from each other as surely as we learned from our teachers. Outside of the program, we traded Facebook posts and responded to each other’s Tweets. We shared writing tips, passed along news about conferences and contests, asked for insights on agents and publishers. Finally, we formed friendships I feel confident will stand the test of time.
Apart from each other, we relied on other women in this program, on the women of popular fiction who came before us. We looked to teachers like Dr. Lee McClain and Dr. Nicole Peeler for their guidance and considered them examples to emulate. We patterned ourselves after mentors like Anne Harris, Barbara Miller, Lucy Snyder. When they pointed out the flaws in our work and suggested changes, we listened to them and, in the process, we became better writers ourselves. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to the woman of popular fiction we’ve ALL come to love, lean on, and even at times to frustrate and outright harass, Wendy Lynn.

In closing, I’d like to address those we’re leaving behind, those of you who will someday cross this stage as we’re about to. Learn from the matriarchs of popular fiction, those I’ve had the privilege of mentioning and those I have not. Respect those who’ve given birth to this notion of genre fiction, to those who’ve nurtured fellow writers just as surely as they would their own children. Take heed of their knowledge and treasure their wisdom. They did not come by it easily, and it’s a great gift they’re giving you. Appreciate it. When they tell you that, as a writer, you must learn to crawl before you can walk, know this: Someday in the not too distant future, they’ll cheer you on as you run and, above all, they’ll always believe in your ability to fly.

Thank you.