Showing posts with label Flash and Bang. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flash and Bang. Show all posts

21 July 2020

The Problem with Writing about Mean Girls


Funny how you can write a story, revise it, edit it down to a certain length, read it again before submitting it, proofread it before it's published, and even read it once more after it comes out, but when you read it yet again five years later, you're surprised by what you see.

That's the position I found myself in last month when I prepared to read my story "The Wrong Girl" at an online DC Noir at the Bar. The story was published in October 2015 in the anthology Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology (Untreed Reads Publishing). It was a finalist for the Derringer Award in the flash category in 2016. I had been proud of the story. I still am, but there was a bit of language in it that caught me off guard when I read it fresh last month.

The story is about a fifth-grade girl in a private school who's humiliated by her teacher, so she and two friends decide to make her pay. Little do they know when they're planning their revenge that they're not the only ones in the girls' bathroom. A custodian is in there too. Here are her relevant thoughts:
It wasn't the first time I'd heard kids plot against their teachers. Usually they were simply blowing off steam. But sometimes, like now, I could tell the kids meant it. In the past, I'd reported them to the principal. The result every time: parents were summoned, the children pleaded they'd been joking, and the incidents were swept under the rug. No punishments. No consequences. 
Not this time. Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything. I couldn't let that happen again. This time, I'd let the plan move forward far enough that the authorities would have to act.

Finally, justice would be served.

Did you catch the wording that bothered me when I read it fresh last month? Maybe not. Maybe you were swept away by my story and the words blew right past you. But I caught them: "Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The italics are added here for emphasis.

When I read this sentence last month I was struck by how sexist it sounds. Are there no mean boys? No mean men? Why hadn't I written the following instead? "Mean children who faced no consequences grew up to become mean adults who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The story certainly would have worked just as well with those substituted words, and that's how I read it at the Noir at the Bar last month.

But the original version, with the "mean girls" and "mean women" language, is still out there. I've tried to think through why I used wording that makes it sound like girls and women are the only ones who can be mean. Did I use those words because this is a story about girls who are mean, as well as a female teacher who is mean, and I was just being very focused? I hope so. But maybe I had gotten lazy and relied upon a stereotype.

We hear all the time about mean girls. They're in the news. On social media. Heck, there's a movie called Mean Girls and a Broadway show based on that movie. I did a Google search for the term, and got 14 million results. But a search for "mean boys" only yielded 171,000 results. I did a more specific search for news articles about mean girls and got 141,000 hits versus one about mean boys, which got 1,100 hits.

What does this all mean? Are girls meaner than boys? I doubt it. I would think all children and adults have the same capacity for cruelty, regardless of their sex. So why is there so much focus on mean girls throughout our society? I'm sure sociologists have probably studied the phenomenon and could give an answer. I don't have one.

I also don't know for certain why I used those words: Mean girls. Mean women. I would hope, as I said above, that I chose those words because my story was about a mean woman and mean girls. But that raises the question: Why did I write a story about mean girls instead of mean boys? And not just this story. I've written several stories involving mean girls or women.

Another one of my
stories about mean girls,
"Evil Little Girl," can
be found in my collection
These stories often sprang from incidents in my life, and since the incidents involved women and/or girls, I was probably more inclined to create related stories about females. I likely also made these choices because I once was a girl and now am a woman, so I probably have a better grasp on how women think than how men do. My decisions to write stories about mean girls and women also probably stemmed from the fact that we hear so much about them, as I also said above. Maybe the more I hear about mean girls, the more I'm inclined to write about them. All of these reasons probably played a part in my choices.

All of the "mean girl" stories I've written are good (I hope). They're entertaining while also making good points about societal issues. But I fear that by making these storytelling choices (choices of character, plot, and language) I may have helped perpetuate the sexist idea that it's girls and women who are mean far more often than boys and men.

I'm not going to stop writing about mean girls and mean women. It's a topic I'm too interested in (apparently), and I do enjoy writing from the female perspective. Besides, there are mean girls and mean women, so stories about them are realistic. But women don't have a corner on the meanness market. So I'm going to try to take a better look at my choices when I'm writing to see if a mean woman could instead be a mean man, and if it might be appropriate to refer to "mean kids" instead of "mean girls" and make other similar choices. If a story is written well enough, the reader may not notice one way or another. But words can have power, seeping into our psyches, even when we don't notice them. So I'm going to try to do better.

If you're interested in reading "The Wrong Girl," you're in luck. The ebook version of the anthology it's in, Flash and Bang, is half off this month at Smashwords as part of their Christmas in July ebook sale. Go to https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/583654, where you'll be able to pick up the ebook for $2.50.

And before we get to the comments, a little blatant self-promotion: My story "Alex's Choice" from the time-travel/crime anthology Crime Travel was nominated last week for the Macavity Award for best short story published last year. And Crime Travel (which I also edited) was recently nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology/collection published last year. If you'd like to read "Alex's Choice," it's on my website. If you'd like to read the whole of Crime Travel (which I recommend), you can find the book in trade paperback, hardback, and ebook from lots of bookstores. Stories in Crime Travel have been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and Shamus awards, so clearly there's a lot in there for you to like.

08 December 2015

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors


by Barb Goffman

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we label Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had something new published that year can stand up and tell the audience about their new works, and a local bookseller (usually Mystery Loves Company from Oxford, Maryland) is on hand to sell the authors' works. The first Saturday of each November, we appear at a library in Columbia, Maryland. The first Saturday of each December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. In our promotion, we remind people that this is a good time to do your holiday book shopping, and it's also a way to support local mystery authors and a local indie bookstore.

Our events are open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. We usually get fifty people at our Columbia event. At our event this past Saturday in Reston, more than ninety people showed up--standing room only--including the twenty authors who spoke. We started having these events annually when I was chapter president nearly ten years ago. And I've had the pleasure of organizing them nearly every year since. My experience has taught me a few things about how to succeed as a speaker, and I thought I'd share them here:

  • Keep it snappy, i.e., don't feel the need to use all the time allotted to you. Short story writers have long known to get in and out of a story as fast as you can. Don't meander and go into unnecessary detail. This is good advice for public speaking, too. The authors who keep the
    A different kind of high point
    audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters and drill down into a lot of the plot. They hit the high points, the exciting stuff, the information you'd find on the back of a book, and they leave the audience wanting more. If you're a person prone to meandering, consider bringing a cheat sheet with you with bullet points so you can occasionally look down and see the high points you want to address. (More on bullet points below.)
  • Consider if you have something particularly interesting to share--not just about your story, but perhaps an interesting research tidbit or what prompted you to write the story. A good tale can entice an audience. For instance, on Saturday, when speaking about my story "The Wrong Girl," I shared how my fifth-grade teacher tried to get me to stop speaking quickly, and how that humiliating experience finally became useful when I wrote this story about a girl who went through the same thing I did, but unlike me, my character doesn't plan to let her teacher get away with it. I heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. I know public speaking can be scary, and writing down
    My story made the cover!
    what you want to say can help you feel more comfortable. But I've seen too many authors read their speeches with their heads down, barely making eye contact. Don't do that. You want to connect with the audience. So practice at home. Get a feel for what you want to say. And if you'd still feel more confident with notes, bring them, but have them address only the high points, so when you look down, you'll be reminded of what to talk about, and then you can look up and do it. For instance, if I were talking about my short story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character
    • What's her problem?
    • What's her solution?
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice first. And have someone you trust--someone not afraid to tell you the truth--listen to you read so they can tell you if you are a good reader or a bad one. If you read in an animated fashion, looking up regularly and making eye contact with the audience (see the prior bullet point), great. If you read in a monotone voice without looking up at all, then don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly (for a few seconds) hold up a copy of your book as a focal point. But don't leave it
    propped up there while you talk. That's distracting, and it might block someone's view of your face. (This applies to panels at conventions, too.)
  • If you're a funny person, don't be afraid to be funny while you're speaking. But if you're not funny, don't force it. There's nothing worse than someone bombing because he felt the need to come up with a joke. You're there to sell your books and yourself. Do it in the way best suited to your personality.
  • Keep in mind how much time you have. If you think you'll fill your entire allotted time, practice at home so you can be ready to wrap up when the timer dings. You don't want to hear that ding and know you never got to talk about the third story you had published this year because you meandered talking about story number one.
And since I have your attention, I'll tell you briefly about my new stories from this year. There's "The Wrong Girl" mentioned above. It's in the anthology Flash and Bang, which is the first anthology featuring stories from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. It's available in trade paperback, large print, and e-book format from Untreed Reads Publishing. In "The Wrong Girl," a fifth-grader humiliated by her teacher plans revenge.

My second story is the aforementioned "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In this story, my main character is the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey. It's two weeks until Christmas, and Santa says he's skipping Jersey this year because a murderer is on the loose. So my main character sets out to find the murderer and save Christmas. Can she do it? You can find out by reading the story--it's available on my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/A_Year_Without_Santa_.html

Do you have any public-speaking tips for authors? Feel free to share in the comments.

27 October 2015

Kids and Crime


by Barb Goffman
When I was in sixth grade, word spread through my elementary school that some fifth graders were going to put Spanish fly in their teacher's coffee. I didn't know what Spanish fly was, but it sounded bad. Dangerous. I waited to see what would happen and ... nothing happened. Did the students chicken out? Did someone threaten to rat them out so they called off the plan? Did someone actually rat them out but this information was kept quiet? Did they call off the plan themselves because they realized it was a bad idea? Or had it been a big rumor with no truth to it at all? I don't know. But it's certainly true that kids who may not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions can enjoy playing pranks, and they can get angry and want revenge. Teachers often are a prime target.

A review of news reports on Google bears this out. A small sample:
  • A thirteen-year-old student was charged with allegedly sneaking a sleeping pill into his teacher's coffee after she chastised him for disrupting class.
  • A middle-school student was accused of putting several of his asthma pills into his teacher's coffee.
  • An eighth-grade teacher was sickened after two students slipped a prescription sedative into her lemonade, police said.
The articles go on, including ones involving elementary school students even younger than the kids involved with the Spanish fly rumor from my elementary school. It was these types of stories that prompted my newest short story, "The Wrong Girl," about a group of elementary school girls who seek revenge on a mean teacher. Addressing this topic was cathartic for me because what happened to the girl in the story happened to me, except I never tried to get revenge.

What causes some kids to try to hurt others? Do they not truly understand the consequences of their actions? Or do they understand but lack sufficient empathy? I don't know, but it's a topic I like to explore in my fiction. I've had several short stories published involving children and teenagers. You can find a few of them in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press, 2013). My newest story, "The Wrong Girl," is my first attempt at flash fiction. It's in a new anthology called Flash and Bang, which was published on October 8th by Untreed Reads Publishing.

This new anthology is the first one featuring members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Every story involves a flash or a bang. The publisher chose nineteen stories, including one from fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd called "Rosie's Choice."

I hope you'll check the book out and let me know what you think of my take on kids and crime. (The anthology is available as a trade paperback and as an e-book, so with a couple of clicks, you could read it right away.) In the meanwhile, as we head toward Halloween this weekend, when children are encouraged to beg for candy or else they'll supposedly play a trick on you, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on children and crime. At what age do children come to truly understand the consequences of their actions? And at what age should they be held accountable?