Monday, September 23, 2019

The shame we carry forward from youth, and the empathy of writing


“I’m a novelist, not a memoirist.” It’s what I keep saying, in defense, when people ponder dubiously, sometimes viciously, in online book reviews, whether I (as a 40-something-year-old mostly-straight woman) have the right to write a novel about a 25-year-old bisexual male. Or someone from another country. Or someone with a disability I don’t have. Or any other difference you might name. I still stick to the defense that writing about people different than ourselves is the exact point and the exact job description of being a novelist, and that the empathy gained in the experience is wonderful for all of humanity. Same goes for reading novels. But, today, because it’s been on my mind, I’ll be a memoirist for a bit.

They say, “You don’t have the right to talk about what it’s like to be disparaged for who you are, your identity, your sexuality, because you don’t know.” But how do they know if I don’t know? Granted: right, Molly, how would they know your background when you haven’t told them? I haven’t told them because I didn’t want to talk about it, put it all on display. I didn’t want to be a memoirist; I wanted to be a novelist. Maybe I thought that was safer. Well, it clearly isn’t, in terms of being judged (nay, crucified at times), so I might as well put it out there.

In first grade—I barely remember this; I’m going by what my mom tells me—I had a teacher who was so strict she terrified me. My folks talked to the principal. They collectively decided that, since I could do the work just fine, they’d move me up into second grade. (Was there no room in other first-grade classes? I have no idea why this was the best idea. Personally I think it was a terrible decision.) Nonetheless, I got transferred to a second-grade class, to the surprise of me and the second-graders, and adjusted reasonably well and got on with life. OR DID I?

I have an August birthday, which, as you fellow summer-birthday people know, means I was already among the youngest in my grade. Getting moved up a grade meant I was now at least a year and sometimes almost two years younger than everyone else in my class. I was also physically small; always have been. I’m still only 5’2”, and I didn’t cross the five-foot mark till around ninth grade. My smallness and youth weren’t too huge a deal in elementary school, to my memory, but then came middle school.

Oh, middle school. I don’t have to tell you what it’s like. But I can tell you that it’s worse if you’re tiny, intimidated by all the suddenly-huge 7th and 8th graders around you, intimidated also by the daunting new level of academic work you’re expected to do, and it’s all made worse when you don’t have any close friends at the school. (My closest friends from elementary school went to a different middle school.) Boys who loomed over me and must have weighed twice what I did called me “Smally Molly” (so clever!), and stole my lunch tickets when I was naïve enough to leave them semi-visible in my open binder’s zippered pencil pouch, then they insisted to the teacher with wide-eyed innocence that they hadn’t done it. Popular girls stared at me and my dorky clothes as if I were a slug they’d just stepped on (I have NEVER gotten the hang of dressing fashionably), and whispered to each other and giggled. The one friend I hung out with gave in to peer pressure from a more popular girl and dumped me. I befriended a couple of fellow nerds eventually, and we three hung out at lunch, glumly relating the horrible things people had called each of us that day. Nice boys I developed obsessive crushes on eventually got tired of my leaving them cutesy shy notes and making moony eyes at them, and passed me notes that said “LEAVE ME ALONE! STOP LOOKING AT ME!!”

When I write about someone being rejected, being constantly picked on for who they are, for who they in their awkward cluelessness can’t help being, do I perhaps not understand what I’m talking about?

Then came high school. Things improved! I mean…they improved compared to middle school, but…

My obsessive crushes continued, transferred to now slightly more mature boys. They were even mature enough to start being nice to me—kind of. At the end of my freshman year I started going out with a sophomore, who, because of my extra-youngness, was almost two and a half years older than me. He seemed to view me as a fixer-upper, though one he did honestly love. He’d tell me, with sympathy, that some of the other kids were wondering why I wore the same jeans all the time. And that those scabs on my arms weren’t very attractive (marks from nervously picking at my hair follicles until I gave myself constellations of tiny scabs). And I held my silverware like a little kid; had no one ever taught me better? And also, my writing was okay, but there was no way I could, like, go professional with it. Babe, grow up, he’d say.

But at least someone loved me! It was intoxicating. I still didn’t have any other real friends around—those two fellow nerds from middle school had gone to the other high school in town—so of course I improved myself to please him. Not to mention, HORMONES, hello. We were teens. Kissing and fondling each other were the wildest and most exciting activities we had ever experienced in our lives. I was learning A LOT here.

“What a slut,” another girl said about me, because I kissed my boyfriend frequently in the halls. Never mind that he was the only person on Earth I was kissing or doing anything else with—apparently being amorous at all, as a girl, meant you were a slut. For that matter, my boyfriend himself really, really didn’t like it when I started becoming friends with other guys.  “He wants to get into your pants,” he’d scold, in a drama-filled argument we had over and over for basically every one of said friends. “You shouldn’t hug him.”

I couldn’t control what THEY thought, I defended. “You WANT to be sexy,” he accused. And he was right: deep down, I did want that. I didn’t want to have sex with loads of people, but I did want to be seen as sexy. Which reputable girls weren’t supposed to want. I was filled with guilt and shame, and tearfully denied his accusation.

When I write about someone being sex-shamed, scolded and put down for having sexual interests at all or even for being SUSPECTED of having sexual interests, do I maybe know what I’m talking about?

I broke up with that boyfriend, after way too long, after it had gone much too far into dysfunction. I blundered ahead into college and felt out of place once again, not cool enough to want to drink or smoke or party, too introverted to be social like the “fun” students, yet teased by friends in a rather sex-shamey way when I shacked up with my (new) boyfriend. I married him eventually, I kept writing, we had kids, and here we are.

But those scars—man, they still ache during certain weather. When I write novels, I’m being far more of a memoirist than I would have people believe. Even when I’m undeniably writing about people who are different than me and are undergoing specific hardships I’ve never faced, the emotions underneath are mine. Fear, isolation, grief, heartbreak, rejection, love, lust, shame, anger, confused pride.

I have this paranoid suspicion that people see my smiling author photo and read my whimsical-but-well-educated bio and think, “Yeah, I know her type. Girl who’s always gotten everything, had lots of friends in school, whose idea of a rough day was that time she got a bad perm.” I grant you, that WAS a rough day, but that wasn’t the worst of them by any means. I put all of the above out there to tell you that when I write “one of the quiet, weird kids” in my bio, I really mean WEIRD, and that it hurt, for years on end. And that when someone hates my novels and decides that what I deserve is for them to shred me and my work as if I’m no more worthy than that slug they just stepped on—yep, that does throw me right back to the popular kids slamming into me from behind and knocking me over, then breezing past snickering without pausing to help me up.

Is it worth it to keep writing novels? Absolutely. I love the writing part. The sharing part: goddamn, that’s scary. And it will never not be.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Guest post: Roberta Blablanski on how music inspires writing

I've been social-media friends with writer Roberta Blablanski for years, and lately, since we both had new m/m books released, we got up the idea to write guest posts for each other on how music has influenced and inspired our writing. My post for Roberta is over at her blog, and now I'm delighted to host her post here!
Take it away, Roberta!
--
Ever hear a song for the first time that immediately gives you all the feels? A story builds in your head of two lovers coming together for the first time, or someone grieving for a love they can’t have. Longing and heartbreak, lust and love. Most of us can identify with those emotions, and the perfect combination of lyrics, melody, and crooning have the potential to make us feel as though we are experiencing what a song is conveying.
Music is part of my writing process. At times when I find myself stuck with writer’s block, the right song will pop up on my playlist, helping me tap into the emotions of my characters. Writing some of the more angsty scenes of Addiction was challenging for me as someone who has not personally experienced drug addiction. I created a playlist that mirrored the emotions my characters were experiencing—denial, helplessness, frustration, hope.

I also use music as a refresher or palate cleanser. Writing particularly difficult scenes can be draining. Putting on something upbeat, fun, or lighthearted gives me a more positive frame of mind. Too often I find myself becoming too absorbed into my writing and having an outlet for bringing myself back to reality—and a reminder that I’m not actually living the life of my characters—is necessary.

Addiction can destroy your life. But if you destroy addiction, can you get your life back?
At twenty-eight, Owen Fredrikson is homeless, unemployed, and grappling with drug addiction. Before he let drugs take over his life, he had a pretty sweet job working the front desk of a fancy hotel, his boss was his best friend, and he had a loving fiancé.
After three years together, thirty-three-year-old middle school math teacher Dex Atterbury could no longer ignore Owen’s demons. Dex made the tough decision to part ways, leaving Owen destitute and Dex heartbroken. When tragedy befalls Owen and Dex is called to his side, Owen has some tough decisions to make. Both men must determine how far they are willing to go to rebuild the life they once shared.
Can Owen conquer his addiction while facing his demons? And can Dex open his heart and trust Owen again?
Content Warnings:
Depictions of drug addiction, drug use and abuse, and drug withdrawal
Scenes of violence 

Universal Buy Link: getbook.at/AddictionRB
Find Roberta at:
Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/ghniBf 


Roberta Blablanski hails from The Big Easy: New Orleans, Louisiana. She draws inspiration from her colorful hometown and her former life as a college radio DJ. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days searching for the world’s best Bloody Mary and avoiding people she went to high school with. Her normal habitat is curled up in bed with a good book and a cup of coffee.
Roberta developed a love of books at an early age, spending her summers at the library. Years later, after watching the American version of the television show Queer as Folk, she began searching for books featuring queer characters finding love. Most recently, she began writing queer love stories of her own, drawing from her own personal experiences and creating characters and story lines as vibrant as her ever-changing hair color.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

All the Better Part of Me: all the release links!

All the Better Part of Me is officially available worldwide! It was a long wait, and I hope you enjoy it if you're just now picking it up.
Also, this means Amazon is now allowing people to leave reviews. So if you have already read the book and loved it, please do review it on Amazon! (And for that matter on Barnes & Noble and any other bookselling site you enjoy, if you want to go above and beyond.) If you didn't love it, feel free to take no particular action. ;)
I'm especially excited that the audiobook edition is also out! It can be found via Audiobooks.com or Audible, and you might even find it in your local library's Hoopla collection. I've begun listening to it and am happily grinning at narrator Alex Kydd's delivery of various lines.
If you prefer video, I gave a book talk at Third Place Books Ravenna, in Seattle, last Friday, and it is now up on YouTube. I'm pleased to find that Third Place has flattering lighting, unlike some stores.
And finally, in further marketing madness, here are a couple of articles I've contributed to lately:
One in which I discuss how the main character of All the Better Part of Me got me hooked on the band the Cure, hosted at blog of author Roberta Blablanski.

And a Q&A from author Pam Stucky in which I discuss the problem of bi erasure, among other things. Come check it out if you don't know what that is, or if you do know what it is and want to make sure I got it right. (I welcome further education if I didn't.)

Whew. I think that catches us up, book-release-wise. Carry on and happy September.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Yes, people spoke casually in ye olden days too

Another Linguistic Pondering for you: in book/TV/film reviews for stories set in historical (or prehistoric) times, people often complain if the dialogue is casual, because that feels "too modern." The fallacy there is the notion that everyone was always formal in ye olden days. Which they were not! Humans have always been humans. All languages have always had a casual register and options of informal usage.

The issue on what would make it "feel too modern" is more one of translation: e.g., if you decide "'sup, dude," is the appropriate casual translation for a friend's greeting in ancient Rome, then yeah, that will seem anachronistic, even though technically having them speak English at all is inaccurate, so the whole thing is in translation. Even so, what can we substitute? We know, if we think about it for five seconds, that close friends likely didn't greet each other with "Good afternoon, my friend," but rather with something along the lines of "'sup, dude." But what can we use? "Hey"? "Hi there"? "How's it going"? Nope, all those will get you flagged "too modern" too, unfair though that is. We have to fall back on "Good afternoon, my friend" or else it doesn't sound "historical." Which is stupid, now, isn't it?

Part of the issue, I suppose, is that casual wording, being akin to slang, falls out of usage fairly quickly, so even what was technically casual in, for instance, Shakespeare's time now sounds archaic and therefore "formal" to our ears--because of the above fallacy that anything archaic must be formal. (Did you know that "thou" was the informal 2nd person term of address, and "you" was the formal? Yet try using "thou" today without sounding super-formal.)

In short, I wish more of the world freely accepted that people have always had a casual register (alongside a formal register), throughout all of time, and therefore using casual English as the equivalent is not an error, but rather an accurate translation.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Flawed characters = better story. Fiction ≠ a how-to-live manual.

I'm sorry, but I wrote a bit of a manifesto. Here goes.
I'm a human who screws up sometimes, and as such, I find it comforting and endearing when characters in books make mistakes too. Characters who are perfect aren't inspiring to me; they're usually boring, in fact. Sure, if all the main characters are so flawed that they're obnoxious and I wouldn't want to hang out with them ever, I might take off one star on my book review for that alone. If they commit truly awful deeds and display unashamed bigoted thinking, AND they never seem to realize it's a problem and aren't any better by the end of the book, then yeah, that's a sucky book right there and it deserves a scathing one-star review.
But your basic subtle human flaws--someone saying the wrong thing or making a dumb choice because they're stressed or emotional--those resonate with me, and those are also *necessary* for a compelling drama. In fiction, a character must go through struggles, and if the struggles are solely external (human or paranormal antagonists, forces of nature, harsh circumstances), that's going to be less interesting than a story that includes internal conflicts too (characters facing and overcoming their own flaws).
In my books, you're going to find protagonists with flaws, who will sometimes do or say things that make you want to yell, "NO, STOP," because they aren't perfect and their insecurities will make them screw up now and then. But they do learn, and by the end they acknowledge their mistakes and apologize for them, and end up better people than when the story started.
So if you're reading fiction with the idea that everyone, from the very start of the story, must be the paragon of whatever identity they are--man, woman, parent, teenager, gay, bi, straight, conservative, liberal, American, Chinese, Argentinian, you name it--and never ever make a mistake or else it reflects badly on their "group," then...I think you and I disagree on the point of fiction.
We all want to be careful with our representation, yes; e.g., if you only have one Asian character and they're a sadistic fiend, that might send a negative message about Asians that you (I hope) didn't intend. We obviously should also avoid flat stereotypes; all main characters should get to be well-rounded. But that's a side topic that others have already covered exhaustively and well. I'm here to defend characters who are well-rounded but flawed, no matter what their other attributes.
A novel isn't a straight-up how-to manual. It isn't a self-help book. It's a *story*. Which can and (maybe?) should have role models, sure, but they're likely going to be the type of role models who mess up and go through difficult and interesting trials and who come out stronger for it. Just like we all can. Just like we all do. Even though it's uncomfortable to admit it.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

On All the Better Part of Me as a coming-out book

All the Better Part of Me is a coming-out story, a story where a lot of the focus is on sexuality and identity. But it’s probably the only one of that category I’ll ever write.
I have written and will continue writing characters who happen to BE queer (along with straight ones), where the story’s focus is on other things, but it’s true that a focus on LGBTQ issues feels like “not my story to tell.”
Some have told me so. Usually straight liberal friends concerned about appropriation or “getting it wrong”—never my actual LGBTQ beta-readers and friends, who have been enthused and encouraging, while also helping fix my awkward wording in stories dealing with these topics.
I was moved to write a story about coming out and having homophobic parents because of the many, many true stories I keep hearing from LGBTQ folks still being needlessly damaged by the attitudes of others, even in our “tolerant” era, even in “blue states.” 
I wrote ATBPOM to say “I see you and I love you and support you” to them, and, sure, maybe to hope I might change a few homophobic minds if they’re open to changing (ha, well, I can dream). But having written it, there, I step back and leave the issue-book field.
I’ll move on to the cheerier scenario: LGBTQ characters getting to have cool adventures alongside the straight cis characters without sexuality or gender identity being an issue. The way things should be; the status quo we can aspire to. 
It’s daunting as a cis-het white person to write diversity, even when we long to for the sake of fairness and variety and having more interesting stories, even when we get lots of sensitivity readers for it, even when we get a green light from them. We’re going to make someone mad on book-Twitter regardless.
But I know perfectly well it’s scarier to BE any of those minorities. I want it to become un-scary. I want that shining future. I hope well-written diverse books, no matter who writes them, can help open mindsets so we can get there. 
(…Because believe me, if I only wrote characters who matched my own identity—middle-aged white happily-married-to-a-guy stay-at-home writer/mom in Seattle—you’d rightfully gag and then die of boredom.)

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Madame d'Aulnoy and contes des fées

When it comes to historically significant fairy tale writers, you've heard of the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and maybe even Charles Perrault, but have you heard of Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy? Writing at the same time as Perrault, she composed and adapted traditional fairy tales, retelling them in literary style to publish and share at salon gatherings. She was in fact the one credited with popularizing the term "fairy tales": "contes des fées."

She was forced into an unhappy marriage at age fifteen, tried to get revenge a few years later by conspiring to have her husband imprisoned, and, when that failed, was forced to flee France for many years, although according to Wikipedia she MAY have worked as a spy for France while living abroad.

Upon returning, she charmed her way back into good social standing with her romantic contes des fées, "where love and happiness came to heroines after surmounting great obstacles." And she ought to know about those things.

Raising my cup of coffee to you today, Madame.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_d%27Aulnoy

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Four Tendencies: which one fits your character?


In her books about happiness and habits, writer Gretchen Rubin describes the Four Tendencies, the personality framework she created. I realized in studying them that these tendencies are not only a fabulous way to learn about ourselves and our friends, but to flesh out our fictional characters too.

Brief description of the Four Tendencies:

Upholders are people who respond readily to both outer and inner expectations; that is, expectations from others as well as expectations they set for themselves.
Questioners are people who meet inner expectations, but question outer expectations; they’ll meet others’ expectations only if they think they make sense.
Obligers are people who meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.
Rebels are people who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike, but can do nearly anything they truly want to.

Since this framework deals with people’s response to goals, it’s related closely to motivation—which, as every fiction writer knows, is crucial in understanding characters. What are we advised to decide right away for every main character in every scene? Their goal, their motivation. Thus knowing your character’s Tendency will help you know how well they will perform under various challenges.

Is your character’s goal imposed by another person, such as an assignment a teacher gives a student? A student who is an Obliger or an Upholder will dutifully do the assignment even if they don’t like it. A Questioner will ask herself if she has a good enough reason for doing it, and if so (for instance, if getting good grades is important to her), she’ll buckle down and complete it. A Rebel might have trouble getting around to it even if he means to—or, conversely, might have no trouble doing it if he decides that writing this essay is what he wants to do, but he’ll probably bend or break some of the instructions in the assignment.

Or is the goal an inner expectation, such as the resolution to find a new job by the end of the month? In a situation like this, Questioners and Upholders have no trouble sticking to their self-appointed task. Obligers, meanwhile, find it hard to follow through unless someone else is counting on them—for instance, if their family needs the money and it’s therefore important that they find work. As for Rebels, there’s no counting on them unless they’ve hit upon a job that calls out to them and they’re determined to do it, at which point nothing will stop them. Expecting a Rebel to meet someone else’s meticulously laid out job qualifications, however: don’t bet on it!

Once I decided, in my latest novel-in-progress, which Tendencies my main characters belonged to, it helped me see their strengths and flaws more clearly, and thereby made it more obvious what their overall character arc should be. An Obliger might have to learn to break free from the burdensome expectations laid on him by others and stand his own ground. A Rebel might have to learn to shoulder more responsibility for her actions and take fewer reckless risks. A Questioner might have to learn to trust someone else and take a leap of faith. An Upholder might need to learn to loosen up and let his plans change.

Rubin and the contributors commenting on her blog have come up with examples of the Four Tendencies among famous fictional characters. Hermione Granger is a textbook Upholder, turning in every bit of homework on time as well as doing extra assignments she chose for herself. Jane Eyre is a Questioner, not accepting the rules of others until she has thought things through to her own satisfaction—in fact, on the first page of the book, her disapproving aunt calls her a “questioner.” George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is an Obliger, always tending to everyone else’s needs, sometimes at the expense of his own goals. And Sherlock Holmes is a Rebel, doing exactly what he wants, when he wants, with brilliance and total disregard for other people’s rules and expectations.

How about your characters? Which Tendency do they follow, and how does this illuminate the actions they’re likely to take?

You can take Rubin’s quiz here to find out your own Tendency or that of your characters.

As for me, I’m a Questioner. My thought when that answer came up was, “Hmm, I don’t know, I really thought I was an Upholder. I question the…oh.”