A Call to Pens for Women Veterans
Someone on Twitter reported “How insulting” that I thought I was the only woman veteran writing, so I wanted to write about why I think that.
Especially with Veteran’s Day on Wednesday. There’s going to be a lot of people sending veteran photos over Facebook. Photos of men standing next to the Vietnam Memorial; men out on the battlefield; men holding rifles.
The default image of a soldier is a man. I’ll read a front page article on the Veteran’s Administration or something else on the military. The newspaper will have interviews with three soldiers, and it’s all men. Sure, they’ll be an article about women once in a while, and it’s like an afterthought. Oh yeah. We have to write about the women, too.
The books are like that, too.
There will be a book on women who served, like the one I found when I returned home from Desert Storm, and then a bunch of books about the men. There are women in those books, but it’s the wives writing them, or the daughters and granddaughters.
When I’ve been published in some of these collections, I’ve often been the only woman veteran. The exception was Red, White & True. That book was edited by a woman veteran who had previously published a book and had one other woman veteran besides me. Still not a whole lot.
It’s hard finding the stories of the women soldiers, about their experiences.
So much so that the women veterans on a Facebook page I’m on (all women; all services) complained that there was no representation for the women veterans.
Is there bias?
Yes. That’s pretty clear. But everyone tends to point fingers at only one party, and the women are also responsible.
Let’s start with the fact that writing well enough for publication is a darned hard skill to learn. It’s not a matter of just having what we think is a best selling story, putting the words on paper, and magic happens. Though most people think that.
Add to that a lot of the veteran’s calls are non-paying. In many cases, what gets into the non-paying is not going to be very good quality. Any veteran who is writing professionally is going to want to get paid for their time and effort so they steer clear.
The second problem is that there’s a high likelihood that the publisher of this book is going to be inexperienced. In one of the early non-paying books I was in, they accepted everyone who submitted and probably shouldn’t have (and I was still the only woman veteran writing in that!).
What’s wrong with that? First, if the pieces aren’t screened for a specific theme or quality, readers are probably not going to buy the book. There might be a few, and family will certainly buy it, but it’s not going to get a lot of visibility.
But also, if the publisher doesn’t know what they’re doing, they can tend to be people wanting to either help writers, or veterans. That sounds like a good thing, and it’s not because they’re focusing on helping the writers, not on giving the readers what they want to read. If the book makes it to publication, it’s probably not going to be read by very many.
Assuming the book doesn’t crash and burn before it gets to publication.
I was accepted for one book that was part of a fledgling small press. It was not a veteran’s call, but it had a topic that I could do a woman veteran story for. In this case the topic really lent itself to therapy. Meaning, everyone—including me—were writing these stories as therapy. I think the editor was doing it for that, too.
She got into a strange fight with the publisher over the title of the book versus what she had called a small business she started. The publisher thought the names were too similar. It was strange because no one would have thought of the business when seeing the title. In hindsight, I think the publisher suddenly realized they had a problem when they saw the book. They may have been imaging something different in the pitch; when they saw the book, they realized they were going to lose a lot of money on it.
Which goes to the third problem, and that has to do with the writer. I’m on a women’s writing board, and everyone seems to be doing a memoir. Writing about rape and abuse is a popular topic for a memoir (therapy, remember?). There’s a woman on the women’s veteran board who wants to write a book about her experiences with military sexual trauma.
We had front page news with the scandals about how the military was treating what happened to the women soldiers. How many publishers grabbed up stories about those personal experiences and rushed it to press to cash in on the publicity?
None. (Don’t believe me? Google it.)
It’s a not a topic readers want to read about beyond a news story. It’s too difficult of a topic to spend an entire book on. Every book has to be entertaining in some way, even if it’s exposing a scandal. But the reality is that there are some topics where it’s just plain a hard sell to the average reader.
Add to that probably a lot of women veterans are doing what the average writer does: This book is The Event. They put all their effort into writing this one book, or this one story. If it doesn’t get accepted by an agent, they turn to the free publications. If it gets published, it disappears because few are reading the poorer quality non-paying publications. If the publication folds, it disappears, too.
And if only a few women veterans are even trying to write about their experiences, that makes it easy for them to never be seen.
The answer is one story is not The Event, and it’s probably not what people want to hear: Write a lot of stories.
Early on, I did a story twice about visiting a Vietnam memorial for the first time after the war. Both those were published (non-paying publication though). I also did a Christmas in Desert Storm piece that got into the Washington Post. After Starcon, I wrote a non-fiction article about meeting William Windom (Star Trek), because it was really about two vets, one of whom was an actor. That one was also submitted to a non-paying market that folded. Since we had a dog during Desert Storm, I tried one for Dog Fancy and got a personal rejection for that one (a shame. That one was professional payment!).
I also ventured into fiction and poetry. I have poetry still in submission to an anthology on death. They did pay, but not a lot, which was why I wrote the poem, since it was lousy pay for a short story but great pay for a poem. I’m also thinking of writing for a paying call for poetry on fear. That doesn’t pay a lot, but if it doesn’t get accepted (and if does), I can use it to fill a future book of war fiction and poetry. I’m also thinking about military science fiction stories.
The best chances for women veteran’s voices to be heard is get our stories—as in more than one—everywhere.