Reaching My Reader — Part III

 

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.  ~  Stephen King

"Rock and a Hard Place" Several months ago, I blogged about the challenge of writing on a controversial subject—sexual fluidity—for an audience that spans three generations.  As I noted then, many of the words that describe the spectrum of sexual relationships described by Alfred Kinsey a half century ago carry very different connotations depending on whether you are age 20, 40 or 60. 

In retrospect, the challenge was more easily met than I anticipated. Because the theme of A Fitting Place is the growth that occurs when you step outside of your comfort zone, my interest was in how Lindsey Chandler deals with change, not with social constructs of gender or sexual identity. 

In this context, my camera is trained on the day-to-day interaction between two idiosyncratic women who are searching for new ways to cope as they struggle with failed marriages and distraught children. What matters is their ability to provide support, affection and physical comfort along the way. They see no need to attach a label—such as lesbian, bisexual, or sexually fluid—to their relationship. 

In a sense, the concept of sexual fluidity is of much more interest to me as an author than to my characters. In recognizing that sexual attraction, particularly for women, is often influenced more by the person than the gender, the concept allows me to discuss the dynamics of rebound relationships without getting ensnared in the “chick lit” genre.

The situation seems far more problematic now that my focus has shifted to marketing,  to getting this book into the hands of readers interested in the options available to women who have left, not always by choice, a long and stable relationship.

Suddenly, I am in the world of sound-bites, of pithy phrases, of zingy one-liners.  To use a cliché, I feel like I am between a rock and hard place.  

The term “sexual fluidity” has only recently come into non-academic usage, and is unlikely to resonate with a large audience.  Marketing copy that uses “lesbian” or “bisexual” implies something about my characters that may or may not be true, depending on the reader’s definition of those terms.  While the labels don’t really matter to the story, leaving such terms out of my marketing materials may result in  disappointed or angry readers who do not wish to read about unconventional sexual behaviors.

A Fitting Place addresses the challenges of rebound relationships, and their implications for all of us. The trick is to find a way to make an unconventional story appealing and accessible to a broad range of women.  

Hmmh ?  ?

 

My series on themes in A Fitting Place continues.  I welcome your comments on this blog. If you would be interested in contributing to the discussion with a guest blog, please check out my guidelines here. 

 

Comments

  1. That is a tough one, Mary. Some of the words I hear you using in your post like “rebound relationships” connected with “choices” or “options” sound as though they might help. But, if you want to find the readers who would be interested in your story, you need to be upfront in some way or you’ll lose everyone. As a reader myself I want to know what the book I just bought is about.

    I’ve been fooled many times lately by movie trailers that do not let me know as a viewer what I’m in for. I get pretty angry, when I think I’m viewing what I was led to believe is a funny film but find out it’s dark and full of gratuitous violence. Blurbs about books that aren’t honest would get the same reaction from me.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … Part of my challenge stems from my labor in developing a book blurb … at a mere 100 words, it is 3 – 4 longer than is allowed in twitter. Cutting a marketing description down to 140 letters inevitably leaves something important out. Maybe I just don’t use twitter!

  2. Mary,
    You’ve brought up a very challenging topic. IMHO, I feel it is important to be upfront with readers so the sexual orientation of your characters is an important bit of information even if your focus is on rebound, etc and relationships in general. I agree with Joan, the reader does not want to be deceived. I think, as you have described your themes here, you can address this and put the emphasis where you feel it belongs. Your thought process is so clear and that will be the key to getting the right message to your readers. I, for one, am looking forward to reading your novel. I feel like I already know Lindsey. Now I want to know more. Best wishes with your marketing!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Kathy for your encouragement. I’m okay with being “honest” about the subject matter, but how to do it in a few words is the challenge!

  3. I admire your bulldog persistence in grabbing this problem and wrestling it to the ground. My sense is that you’re very close – if not actually “there” – when it comes to a description that is true. Good luck with the marketing!

  4. I echo the thoughts about challenge — and surprise. I’m in the middle of reading Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa and Me, by Tony Cointreau, a book I was requested to review. I almost refused — I’m usually not into celebrity memoir, but something about this caught my fancy. It was a good decision. I am drawn into this book. What I did not expect from promo material was that Tony is gay. No surprise about that. I have not kept count, but a significant number of memoirs I’ve read the last few years have been written by gay or lesbian authors. The most recent one before this (as yet unpublished) was by a woman with experience that may not be so different from Lindsey’s. She had a “stabilizing” relationship with a woman between relationships with men. Some are up front about it, others not. It’s no longer a surprise to me as a reader.

    Could you perhaps describe Lindsey’s journey as one of “exploring sexual urges and significance?” Or something like that? Duck the labels entirely by focusing on what she’s DOING and not what it’s called? But basically, sexuality is only small part of the story, right? How do you avoid making it sound like the entree? Best wishes!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … interesting that you know someone with a similar experience. I think there are lots of women out there with a similar experience, but who are loathe to talk about it for a variety of reasons.

      Your idea of “exploring …. ” is intriguing. On the one hand, Lindsey can’t help but ponder her sexual identity when she’s sleeping with a woman. On the other, exploring her sexual identity is not why she goes into the relationship … the sexual relationship is a consequence of a personal one, not the other way around (as so often happens in heterosexual love affairs)

  5. Well, Mary, I’ll chime the bell a third time with Joan and Kathy who believe that honesty is the best policy. But I would add–It depends on your emphasis. For example, Eleanor Vincent in Swimming with Maya: A Mother’s Story writes about the sexual fluidity of both of her parents, but that is not the focus of her book. The publication information on Vincent’s book indicates broad categories like mothers and daughters, single parent, etc. I infer that your book deals with change, growth within what is still considered an unconventional relationship in our culture. Thus, you may need to hint at this somewhere in the book’s blurb. You have the pioneer spirit, Mary. Best wishes with your newest brain-child.

  6. Mary Gottschalk says

    Thanks Marian …your perspective is exactly what I am reaching for … marketing info that focuses on the key themes, but does not set up false expectations about the environment in which Lindsey’s story takes place.

  7. Marian stated well the rest of what I was reaching for. Unless sexuality plays a dominant role, it’s a minor theme you can perhaps infer without being graphic. I agree with her that saying much about it ahead of time implies a stronger focus that it sounds like you have and biases the reader. Am I correct that Lindsey is “exploring” all aspects of relationship? I use that word in the singular to emphasize it as concept more than specific. Any relationship of significance has some level of “energetic involvement” which may or may not involve libido — initially or later.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … yes … you have honed in on a useful concept … she is exploring “all” aspect of human relationships, not just the sexual. Thanks for pointing the way.

  8. Mary,

    Sometimes our audiences come from the darnedest places, which is a marketing challenge. There is no secret formula to follow when finding our readers, and especially ones willing to help with reviews.
    P.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Paige … I have to accept what my reviewers say, even those who don’t like the subject matter. But I have no one to blame but myself if someone picks this book up expecting chick lit and is annoyed or offended by the sexual mores of the book.

  9. Mary, I’m coming in on this conversation a little late, but if it were me, I would be counter intuitive and make the most out of the fact in marketing promos that the main female characters are in love. Hollywood might just sit up and take notice and read your manuscript. Who knows? I, for one, will be interested to read how you handle the lesbian relationship, all its nuances and the love of two people who just happen to both be women. The fact that their relationship may still be looked on askance by many in the general population is what it is. But the territory is so new – I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel where two women are in love and in a sexual relationship. This seems a real selling point of your novel. And to couch it in words like “sexual fluidity” – well, I have to agree with others here that that may be viewed as disingenuous by the reader.

  10. Mary Gottschalk says

    Susan … thanks for a thought-provoking (to me, anyway) response. I’m not concerned about revealing that the primary women are passionately in love, as long as I have the space to frame it in the context of rebound relationships and the way that social norms constrain our freedom of action.

    I complete agree that using the term sexual fluidity seems disingenuous, if only because so few people really understand the concept. But a sound bite that only mentions the same sex relationship risks being tagged as LGBT (which it is not). A sound bite that only mentions rebound relationships risks being tagged as chick lit (which it is not).

    I can’t control how people will interpret a given sound-bite, but I am laboring to reduce the risk that they get it completely wrong. The answer may be to swear off Twitter!

  11. This is a fascinating conversation! I can see your marketing challenge as to the subject of sexual fluidity – whether to face it head on and risk turning off a segment of your potential market or slipping it in under another umbrella. This is a relatively new term that readers may have to process. When I first heard it, I didn’t understand what it referred to, and for that reason, avoided using it in a memoir about bisexuality which I co-authored. (It is explained in the author’s Therapist’s Notes section at the end.)

    While your subject is the growth Lindsey faces when she steps out of her comfort zone, the part that will hook or turn away readers may be precisely the sexual fluidity theme. A rebound relationship with a woman has not been covered much in other general market/women’s lit books, which gives your novel an edge that can cut both ways. I suspect that in fact there are more such rebound relationships, a woman turning to another woman, than people would admit or accept. From experience I know that marketing the two women in love aspect risks turning off an important segment of your potential audience and your novel being corralled into the LGBT market. (A friend published her memoir about her bisexual life/experience and I urged her to target the women’s market. Her PR agency had other ideas and pushed it into the LGBT niche.) This only makes the rebound factor more challenging. Good marketing is all about taking on a challenge with a negative and turning it into a plus. The best marketing/advertising stories are the ones that achieve this (after selling you something you don’t think you need.) It might help to consult with a professional copywriter and get an idea of how to approach this. Book writing is not the same as marketing writing, and what works for one may not for the other, a distinction that many writers don’t perceive until it is too late.
    Good luck with this next, difficult stage of your book publication

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Pennie … You’ve put your finger on the two key “marketing” issues: 1) I think there are lots and lots of women who have had Lindsey’s experience, but do not talk about it 2) sexual fluidity offers a way to talk about this experience of “personality rather than gender” attachments, but the term is still new, and it’s much easier for people to use familiar labels like lesbian or bi-sexual. The nature of sexual attraction is AN issue in this book, but it is not THE issue, and I would prefer to stay out of the LGBT debate.

      We shall see.