Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:

Bechdel

As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)

 Front-Cover-(smaller)

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Timber Howligan First Month Update: Success!

Self-publishing is a business, so here’s the accounting: I promised to donate any proceeds to charity, the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies.

Here’s what Timber earned in his first month out in the world:

$4.07 from CreateSpace (11 copies)

$11.87 from Draft2Digital (5 copies)

$85.70 from paperbacks I sold directly (28 copies, including 12 to my mother, who made an extra $20 donation. This might have been out of the goodness of her heart or a math error and knowing her, could have been either…I’ll assume the best. Thanks, Mom!)

That makes just over $100 to donate! Not bad for a cat who only recently learned how to use an iPad.

Screenshot 2015-07-03 15.07.11

They are not kidding about the “wealth of information” part…beware becoming part of their email list. Good thing I REALLY like cats.

I’m not going to get much into the nitty-gritty business details, except to say that you might notice I made less royalties on CreateSpace (paperback sales, mostly) than Draft2Digital. However, if I’d raised the paperback price to $12 or $13, the royalties might be more—it’s all about how you price your books in the self-publishing world. So I still think CreateSpace is a pretty good deal, I just didn’t take full advantage of it by raising my price. Not that I don’t think authors deserve to make every cent they manage to earn on their hard won literary sweat and tears, and not that I don’t think my book is awesome, but I’m not bold enough to put my first offering out there at the same price as something by someone who’s been doing this professionally for thirty years.

Some might not call a first month’s tally of less than 50 books sold a “success,” but I’m actually very happy. First, I’m DONE. Getting this book ready for publication happened to coincide with my children’s last few weeks of school—what the eff was I thinking? So while I was pulling together class projects, class gifts, and generally overdoing things in my usual style, I was trying to figure out how to put together an ebook with illustrations (Note To Self: do NOT leave this until the last minute), maniacally fix every last typo, and still put dinner on the table every night.

Some things slipped through the cracks. I did not win a lot of “warm fuzzy spouse” points during those last hectic days. My husband did not put it so gently.

But he DID read the book, and he laughed his…butt off. So that is the SECOND reason I call this release a success: I have fans! Not all of them are related to me. At least two friends have texted me to let me know their kids were engrossed in the book, and one was already asking for a sequel. That’s kind of cool.

The most important reason Timber Howligan is a success is that feeling you get when you know you’ve finished something big, something that will last. This is a book that will be on my children’s shelves for years. You can drive your kids to school every day, feed them dinner every night, and they will forget it by morning. But write them a book, and they will remember it forever—forever! Ha! Parenting subterfuge at its finest!

Day before publication

Yesterday my husband came up with a really good idea for marketing Timber Howligan. “You should partner with Animal Rescue Societies, and get them to sell the book to raise money.”

What I should have said was, “That’s a great idea, honey. Thanks for thinking of ways to help out. In a few months, once the book has had some time to gather reviews, maybe I’ll investigate how to make that happen.”

Instead, I went, “BLAAAAAGH!” Which was better than what I was screaming on the inside: “I don’t know how to do that! Does that involve actual phone calls? Isn’t sending all the money to Alley Cat Allies good enough? I want to hide under a rock.”

All in all, I don’t think I’m doing too bad, considering I’m less than twenty-four hours before my stated publication goal. The ebook is ready to go—it will be available on iBooks and Nook. I don’t think Amazon will have Timber Howligan by tomorrow, but that’s my own fault—I fixed another typo, and didn’t realize there would be a several day delay between when I approved the proof and when the book became available. Oops.

I keep having to remind myself: I’m doing this because I like making things, and now I know how to make a book. (Though I STILL don’t know how to get it available for pre-order on Amazon. That befuddles me.) This week I’ve gotten a crash course in self-publishing: like how to edit an epub in Sigil and how to create a GoodReads author account. I even set up PayPal so I could sell signed copies—I already have one request! This week would have been a lot less stressful if I’d done all this ahead of time, but I’m kind of making this up as I go along. Until the book was finished, it was hard to see everything else that needed to be done.

On the bright side, getting Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat ready for publication has already accomplished my main goal: I’ve gotten out Book Two from its dusty shelf in my office. I wrote it two years ago, a crazy first draft with a wild cast of characters. It’s going to be really fun once I figure out how to pull it all together. I can’t wait!

In the meantime, I should probably be figuring out how to get Book One up on Amazon…but at least tomorrow, you can get it on iBook and Nook. Maybe I will throw a “post-release” party in a few weeks 🙂

Screenshot 2015-06-11 11.04.43

With all these books, do we need one more? (Hint: We do)

Have you read every book in the library? Every one in Barnes & Nobles? Do you have any idea how many used book stores there are in the world? Even if the book industry collapsed today, we’d all still have plenty to read for the rest of our lives.

But our kids especially want the next new thing. The books we read as children, as much as we loved them, seem outdated by the time we pass them on to the next generation. Some books will always be classics (Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down), some books are instant classics (Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief), but for the vast majority of middle-grade authors, trying to get noticed by kids who spend hours a day streaming the world directly to their eyeballs is an uphill battle. Your intended audience has no buying power. Your memories of the books you loved as a child have nothing to do with what kids are reading these days—nothing. In children’s literature more than ever, the publishing industry’s editors and agents serve as valuable experts—they know what kids are reading, they know what kids want. Better yet, they know how to market it, package it, and make parents want to buy it for their kids.

Why on earth would anyone, like me, try to self-publish a middle grade novel?

I’m realistic. Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat isn’t going to be the next Harry Potter. First of all, Timber Howligan is a cat, not a wizard, so I doubt he could even get into Hogwarts. While I would love for the world to enjoy this book, my goals in writing it were simple: my eight-year old son needed something to read. He was an avid reader who had devoured the first three Harry Potter books, but wasn’t ready for the complex, dark themes in the rest of the series. He could read anything in middle-grade fiction, but had no interest in books about middle school drama. Kissing and crushes? Yuck. Bullies as villains? Not interested. He wanted something fun and funny, full of adventure.

He read my first draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed out loud at all the right places. He’s already planned out my next ELEVEN sequels. I’ve drafted the next book, and he’s eager for me to finish.

You cannot, when querying an agent, use your own child as a reference. But when it comes to books, I trust my son—he doesn’t read anything he doesn’t like, especially if I recommend it, much less if I write it.

Having my son believe in me was reason enough to put this book out there—and reason to do it right. I’ve got the final copy edits, and will be working on incorporating those over the next month. I’ve commissioned an extra interior image because I was so happy with the first ten. I’m working with the artist on the final cover design, and I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but it’s an adventure, and I’m enjoying it.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Timber Howligan likes to help animals in need, and so do I. I’ll be using the book to raise money for the American Humane Association (not, as I linked erroneously in a previous post, to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States) or a similar agency. I’m going to do some more research and due diligence over the next month and report back—is the Humane Association the best charity to help animals? They have an A- from CharityWatch, but like any large organization, there’s overhead—not all funds go to their programs. Donating to a local shelter is always most effective, but that lacks wide appeal, assuming this book sells beyond my local region. Stay tuned!

Timber Howligan–The art is here!

The interior illustrations for Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat are done! Always trying to support local artists, I hired Wendy H. Wilkins, who is also a children’s writer. Here’s a sneak peek!

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan's office

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan’s office

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Syncing Your Reader’s Brain With Your Protagonist’s and Other Bits of Helpful Advice

Syncing Your Reader’s Brain With Your Protagonist’s and Other Bits of Helpful Advice

If you’re in the process of writing or editing a novel for the first time, this Writer Unboxed article by Lisa Kron may help you as much as it helped me.

I mean, I know I have a lot to learn. I read writing blogs the way other people watch TV. But I’d gone through five major drafts of my novel: Surely it was close to finished, right?

After reading this article, I realized: Nope. Not even.

Too many parts where the story just went blah. Flat. Forcing a transition between one scene and the other. What was missing? Neurons. The synapses and emotions of my protagonist’s brain.

So what if he’s a cat! That’s no excuse for not diving in there and figuring out what motivates him. So what if cats, technically, suffer from chronic short term memory loss. My main character had to have a back story, and I had to make sure it came out through his eyes, at the right time, as he lived his Adventures. If looking at a piece of bacon reminded him of his first bowl of kibble, gosh darn it, I had to mention it. (Bad example: Kibble rarely moves the plot along, even for Cats of Mystery and Adventure. Although bacon, it turns out, can.)

So that explains Major Rewrite Number Six.

Now for the other miracle: After adding all that back story (finally, the mystery of Near-Death by Bubble Gum, revealed!), my novel is 1,000 words shorter.

Enter: The 10% Solution, by Ken Rand. You could read it in less than an hour, and the take-home point is how to whittle your book down to its beautiful, stream-lined essential. (While I only cut 0.67% of my book, remember this was the sixth major pass. Almost every cut was a prepositional phrase, e.g. during a scene in which the cats were under the couch, I cut every single instance of “under the couch” unless it were mandatory for clarity. If Timber were jumping up, I deleted “up”. I had serious prepositional problems, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Through admitting our problems, they lose power over us.)

For that I have to thank Cat Rambo, who mentioned the book during her First Pages workshop, which I attended (on-line) last month. While it only focused on the first 500 words of my novel, it helped me re-evaluate and set-up the entire book for success. Minor tweaks, I’m happy to say, but dreadfully important ones. The two-hour workshop was professional, fun, and very worthwhile.