Ableism in Literary Gatekeeping

I’ve been thinking about ableism/bigotry in literary gatekeepers again. My last post on this stirred up wank. I’d appreciate it if y’all kept that to subtweets if you must, because I’m through making room for that ableism in my world.

I’ve been writing as always, and forging ahead in this career of mine. I’m working on my 17th full-length novel, and I’ve been pitching agents with an own voices YA—the (*counts*) twelfth novel I finished, about a bipolar girl navigating high school, first love, and institutionalization (sounds cool, right? It is 😊) .

Right now, I’m not making a lot of money off of book sales; most of it comes from the freelance editing/writing/consulting work I do. Deep in my heart, I know I’ve been concentrating my efforts in the wrong areas, and avoiding the work I really need to do. Because, no matter how much I enjoy editing and the other stuff, my goal is to make the bulk of my money off my own books.

In order to make money off of books, however, you have to do THE “M” WORD.

(I mean marketing, not some more interesting “m” word.)

I have five titles already published. I’m proud of those books, and people who read them like them. I’m utter crap at marketing, which is why I’ve been looking for an agent: for guidance and handholding in my marketing efforts, more than my publisher can give. But even with an agent, I’d have to do a lot of that work myself. So what am I waiting for? Why am I not doing it?

Marketing my books is no easy task, however. To start with, they don’t fall easily into a niche (especially my Other Place series). If you were to ask me who my audience is, I would probably say…people? Who like books?

More typical marketing efforts haven’t worked well for me. My romance and other genre fic author friends often try to take me under their wing and get me involved in Instafreebie giveaways, takeovers, anthologies…that stuff is hella fun, and I get great comments about my little romance short stories and such that I write, but it never translates into a major boost in sales. That’s because my full-length books are pretty much in the “other” genre.

Just like me, according to the neurotypical world.

Strangely enough, the only marketing method that gives me a sales bump is when I appear in-person to give talks about my writing and neurodiversity. I sell out of books at events like these, then get an e-book bump, as well. I think this might be because I’m a five-foot-tall, snub-nosed white lady who, as some officers at a recent CIT session I spoke at so aptly put it, doesn’t “look crazy”. I’m non-threatening. I may fidget a lot, but I’m told I’m an eloquent and compelling speaker. At any rate, people just seem a lot more prepared to listen to me in person than they do online.

So, I decided, it’s time for me to do That Thing That I Hate So Much: contact people. Specifically, to try to get book signings.

There’s an indy bookstore in Seattle that a lot of my friends told me to contact, because it was easiest for them to get to. It’s a place a lot like other bookstores I’ve done well at, so I wrote them a little email. I introduced myself as a neurodiverse own voices writer, and said I was looking for a signing to showcase my Other Place series, which is the story of a woman dealing with homelessness and addiction, and a schizophrenic man trying to make it in the art world.

I got a response back: “Thank you for contacting us. We don’t feel your books would be a good fit for our venue, because our clientele aren’t generally interested in romantic suspense.”

Readers, I should have left it at that. But, sometimes I’m so fatigued by ableist what-the-fuckery that I dissolve into a big bucket of can’t-even.  I replied that the books aren’t at all romantic suspense (not adding that I fucking wish they were RS, because then I wouldn’t have to waste so much time talking to bitches like her, and could just do the Instafreebie and author takeover things that work well for RS authors). I tried to clarify what type of books they are…of course, I was just restating what I’d already made clear in the first email. And, of course, she didn’t reply.

I don’t know if literary gatekeepers (and others) even know how ableist they are. From the way they’ve said in the past that I’m “whining”, “bitter”, “delusional”, and that I “don’t know how publishing works” when I’ve spoken up about the ableism I encounter as a neurodiverse own voices writer, I’m hoping not. But, while I may not know marketing from the inside of my dog’s butt (I don’t know anything specific about the inside of my dog’s butt, for context), I do know ableism when I see it. I’m a goddamn expert on ableism. And gatekeepers: y’all are IT.

This events coordinator woman wanted to reject me, because of the visceral reaction people have when they hear someone is “mentally ill”, especially when that mental illness involves psychosis. She went looking for a reason to reject me. It wasn’t a reason that made sense, at all. I mean, the books aren’t by any logical yardstick romantic suspense, and also, how whacked-out do you think I am that I’d believe a bookstore could afford to alienate romance readers? You’re a BOOKSTORE. I don’t care how cultured you think you are: unless you’re a university store where students get their textbooks, romance of some sort is likely your bread and butter, or a good portion thereof. Additionally, even if the Other Place series was  romantic suspense, it would be own voices romantic suspense with neurodiverse characters. That’s not “just” romantic suspense: that’s something that *should* be interesting to a more…(educated? Pretentious? I can’t find the right word here. They’re all inappropriate and/or more insulting than I want them to be)…readership.

I’ll get a signing eventually, but it doesn’t mean that this experience was okay.

So, gatekeepers: y’all are ableist (and prejudiced in other ways). I’m not whining. I’m not bitter. I’m just throwing the God’s-honest truth at you. It doesn’t matter that you already have a book with a neurodiverse character, or by an own voices author, on your list or on your shelves. We’re not a trophy that you can hold up to prove you’re not bigoted. We’re not that “one friend” you have that means you’re compassionate and progressive. We’re authors, writing great books, and you’re shutting us out with your (sometimes unconscious) prejudice.

Get conscious of that shit, because y’all are assholes.

Elizabeth Roderick doesn’t think YOU are an asshole. You read her whole post. If you’d like to check out her books, she’d really appreciate it.

Living in a Tiny House: Part 3

I’m going to give myself a little break this lovely Sunday morning and do another blog post about living in my tiny house, and how I’m working toward my goal of subsistence farming, and independent living as a neurodivergent person.

It’s been closing in on a year since I last posted about this. Yikes! Time gets away from me when I’m so busy.

A lot has happened since my last tiny-house post. My mom had a triple bypass in February, for one. It’s really brought home the fact that all of the hardship that led me back to the family farm in the first place was well worth it, because this is where I belong. I was able to help my mom out and be there for her during her recovery, and it’s brought us closer together as a family.

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Winter on the farm

 

 

It was a beautiful fall, and an early (and pretty hard) winter. The first hard frost came early in October, and since our last one had been on June 15 (! – really, super late for this

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Tomatoes, peppers, and basil from last fall’s harvest.

area), we didn’t get enough tomatoes to can or freeze. I fried up quite a few green ones, though. Just thinking about the fried green tomato po boys and bahn mi (on homemade rolls) I ate is making me hungry right now. So good with veggie bacon and sprouts; or tofu, thin-sliced cabbage, Korean-style turnip pickles, and sriracha mayo.

 

I tried ripening some of the green tomatoes indoors, but without much success. I’ll hopefully get more ripe ones this year, but there are always some green ones left over when it freezes. I may sauce some of them this year, because green tomato puree/sauce is a great addition to soups, enchilada sauces, salsas, etc.

I did string a lot of peppers, can a lot of peaches, make jam galore, and Kid and I had

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Chestnuts and apples – gleaning leftover produce from others’ farms supplements my harvest.

plenty of dried plums, pears, and cherries to gorge ourselves on during the cold winter months and fight off ye olde scurvy. I also gleaned many pounds of chestnuts from a neighboring orchard (gleaning happens after harvest, so is not stealing. It’s produce that otherwise would have been left to rot.) I wrapped those up in tinfoil and roasted them in my potbelly woodstove, quickly learning that you have to score them beforehand or they’ll explode, sometimes right in your face, the shrapnel burning your eyeballs and curling your eyebrows. For those uninitiated, chestnuts are a little difficult to peel sometimes, but they’re SO good—really meaty and savory. I like roasting them in the oven with potatoes and root vegetables, and as a yummy addition to mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m going to experiment more next winter with grinding them into a paste to use in crusts, breads, and desserts. (Making a cookbook of all our recipes is something Kid and I are working on, but we have so much else going on, that it may take a while.)

 

IMG_2840This year is off to a great start. I’ve been working on expanding the farm business. We opened a little nursery (selling vegetable, herb, and flower starts we grew in our greenhouses). We were able to make costs (pay for the seeds and soil) plus a few hundred dollars on top of that, and we still had ample plants left over to fill our own gardens. I call that a success.

We’ll also be selling fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs—I’m already selling snap peas, turnips, basil, and cilantro. I have plans to start a worm farm soon, to save money on soil next year and increase our profit margin, while increasing the quantity of plants we grow.

I also hope to have enough extra eggs to sell soon, and maybe fresh chicken. The “fresh chicken” thing probably needs explanation…I used to be a vegetarian, but since my financial situation changed and I moved back to the farm, I’ve had to take a more practical approach.

This all started when (fucking asshole) neighbor dogs came in and killed a bunch of our chickens last winter. I’m so poor, that it just didn’t make good economic and moral sense to throw away good protein, so I butchered the poor things. It wasn’t too bad, though it was definitely an olfactory experience, and one that brought me into touch with my place in the food chain; as I labored at cutting out all the bad meaty/organy bits while leaving the good ones, I imagined hundreds of generations before me, working so hard just to feed themselves and their families, at peace with the fact that we are able to live

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Home-hatched chick. Name: Penguin

because other organisms die. There’s a sort of meditation to it.

 

So, anyway, still on the subject of chicken death, last year we had about thirteen chicks hatched on the farm by our own broody hens. Nine of those (eek) were roosters. They were wreaking havoc: fighting each other, brutally gang raping the hens, and traumatizing my parents’ border collie, who is autistic (this isn’t some ableist joke, nor am I comparing my dog to people to be clear—I’m serious, and I’m autistic so I have insight). She’s very noise-sensitive. Whenever the roosters would get into a kerfuffle, she’d pace and whine and be really upset. When a certain rooster crowed, it really set her off: she’d spin circles and snap at that rooster. I really felt for her, because she couldn’t walk away from the situation and it was really triggering for her.

So, before I moved back, my dad would give the roosters away to a guy down at the feed store who would slaughter them himself. I figured, if we know they’re going to be killed anyway, we should just own that fact and butcher them ourselves. My family reluctantly agreed, so we had a good old-fashioned butchering day in the spring. We rounded those cocks all up, my dad killed them and I processed them. I thought it was going to be horrible, but it wasn’t so bad because it was just family work, for a good purpose. We talked with each other so the togetherness could decrease the sting of mortality, and I just thought about those poor, gang-raped hens (it was really awful) and the poor dog, and it was a lot easier.

(Incidentally, if you’re a vegan who wants to harass me about this, I am quite literally doing what I need to survive. I’m neurodiverse, and disabled, and farming is the way I’ve come up with to make a life for myself and Kid. I’m happy to discuss the ethics of all this with you, but please don’t police my choices.)

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Home-hatched chick. Name: Nu Egg

 

I increased our chicken flock by twelve this spring by buying chicks (ten americaunas, and two silkies because I couldn’t help myself), and so far we’ve had seven chicks born on the farm. As I said, we lost some of our flock to (stupid fucking) neighbor dogs, so we’re currently standing at about 30-ish birds altogether. We eat all the eggs now ourselves, but hopefully I’ll have some extra to sell by fall.

 

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Bees!

We also got two hives of bees!! This is really exciting. I love watching them. The hives are already big enough that we had to add the second brood boxes, and hopefully we’ll be able to put on the honey supers by the end of summer. If all goes well, we’ll have honey next summer.

 

I increased my vegetable garden by 300%, tilling up a bunch more bottom land by my cabin. I’m growing lots of different stuff, including popcorn (I eat SO MUCH popcorn) and soybeans. I’ll sell some of it, but I’m digging a root cellar to store more of my vegetables and squash

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More garden!

. It got down below zero last winter, and was in the teens a lot, plus we had several feet of snow that stayed all winter, so the veggies didn’t keep in the ground at all. I was left having to go to the food bank and purchase food. I’m doing pretty well digging the hole. I’m hindered somewhat by the desire of my dog, my cat, and myself to lie in the cool dirt (which is unproductive in the traditional sense), but more by some physical problems: I’m getting a deep ache under the shoulder blade,

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Root cellar—hole in progress

and numb/tingling fingers, with an inability to grasp or lift things with that hand. It makes it hard to dig/hoe, and I have to sometimes rest for days on end (from strenuous arm-using physical labor, anyway) and drink my herbal painkilling tea. If ONLY I had a strong, sexy BOY who loved digging holes and eating fresh vegetables, and who could help me out…but I guess some people are just buttholes and don’t want to move up here, and I guess I’m not helping my cause by talking about how decrepit I am. I’ll get my hole dug by myself anyway. I don’t

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Man commonly known as Boy, here looking self-satisfied with the ocean breeze fluttering his beard

need any strong, sexy boys. *flounces*

 

As an aside, the weird thing is, if I were getting paid to dig someone else’s hole (not a euphemism), I would have quit and gotten worker’s comp for the injury, and would be in physical therapy and maybe having surgery. That would undoubtedly be the healthy thing to do, but I like digging holes if they’re my holes; I have to do it because no one else will do it for me; and I’m afraid of getting treatment because they’ll say, “stop digging darned holes, dammit” which is advice I will not heed in any event, at least not in the summer. So, I’ll soldier on and see what happens with my arm; if I need to get it looked at, I’ll do it this winter when I’m idler (as long as I get my wood all cut beforehand…and as long as Trump’s Deathcare bill hasn’t been put into effect yet CALL YOUR REPS, U.S.-IANS!)

All this farm work takes at a minimum three hours a day, often a lot more. It’s obviously not paying the bills yet (which, thankfully, are minor, because I own my car, have no debt, use barely any electricity (and we’re going solar!), have well water, etc. My only bills are my phone and my car insurance). I supplement this income with freelance editing, freelance writing, and a startup called Authordock that I’ve become involved in. It’s a website that helps writers with their publishing goals: I critique pitches, queries and first pages; give advice; direct clients to opportunities like pitch competitions; and provide resources by composing advice articles and making how-to videos…it’s a really cool project. The result of this is that, now that I’m, as people say, “lazy and unemployed”, I’m actually working 90-hour weeks, and yet making half a pittance. This is another way that disabled people end up making super-subminimum wage: the work we’re able to do isn’t something society values very much, so is underpaid.

I also have, you know, some books published (I’ve had several come out this year, and I have a short story in the next edition of a bestselling anthology, which comes out in a few days). That does bring in a little money, but I have very little time left for marketing, so not much at all. So, I’ll do that thing where I tell you I’m super poor and disabled (not that you should pity me—I love what I’m doing, I just make very little money at it). I don’t have a tip jar, so if you like hearing about my tiny-home and farming adventures, you should consider buying one of my books. People say they’re really good! And they’re ownvoices books, with neurodiverse and queer characters. They’re my way of trying to share my strange world with others. If you buy them, consider giving me a review, and/or recommending them to others who are into that sort of books.

Think of buying ownvoices books like donating to a charity, except you’re not paying forIMG_2873 marketing and executive salaries: you’re making a contribution toward someone’s independent, sustainable living and/or affirmation as an important member of society. In my case, you’re not only affirming my worth, you’re keeping me off the streets or out of an institution, making sure Kid has a stable and happy mom (and new socks when she needs them, which is too often), PLUS you get great books. This is such a win/win/win, y’all!

I’m trying to get an agent to help with the book marketing thing. My publisher is great, but their marketing apparatus isn’t really the best for my kind of books. If I had an agent directing and supporting me in my marketing efforts, I think I’d do a lot better. I have a handful of fulls out with agents right now, of my thirteenth novel—an ownvoices YA contemporary romance/magical realism about a young woman with bipolar psychosis trying to navigate high school, first love, the foster system and the mental health system. Wish me luck!

I have lots of other plans for my life—selling hand-woven baskets, and other crafts made with natural and upcycled materials, for instance, as well as the cookbook and some other things. Plus, I have a short story on contract for another anthology coming out in September, and I’m working hard on writing my seventeenth full-length novel. Another tiny house is also in the works, to give us more kitchen space and Kid her own bedroom. But I think I’ve rambled enough for this post, so I’ll talk about all that later.

Thank you for reading!

About Writing “On Trend”

IMG_1163As a professional writer, it always pays to keep an eye on the industry. No one wants to write a book that they then have to shelve simply because it’s a played-out trend. But, as others have said over and over again, you should never try to write “on trend”. I personally believe that means you should not fail to write “off trend”, either: you shouldn’t decide not to write a book that you really want to, just because you’re afraid it won’t sell.

For one thing, you never truly have shelve a book if you don’t want to. Some things will always be in fashion, and other things come back into fashion again. It’s like when my 23-year-old boyfriend put on Abbey Road, then got miffed when I sang along with all the songs. He apparently thought The Beatles were some great band he’d rediscovered, not knowing that they’d never been un-discovered. Or it’s like when his 19-year-old best friend asked me, “Have you ever heard of this awesome band System of a Down???” Psh, step aside, little man. I was howling along with those fools when you were teething, but I’m glad they’re cool again.

If it doesn’t turn out that your genre is a trend that’s here to stay, and you don’t want to wait until it comes back into fashion (as it undoubtedly will one day), self-publishing and indie publishers are viable options. There is absolutely no shame in either, nor will you ruin your chances of hooking an agent with future books by taking that route.

Let’s look at how a trend generally happens (I’ll use genre trends as an example): someone writes a book that becomes really popular. Agents who really liked the book are excited to sign authors who write similar ones, and publishers snap them up, because readers are voracious locusts who will feast unrelentingly on that fresh crop of books until the stores and libraries are barren dust bowls.

Later, though, agents get tired of seeing query after query for the same darn thing (because writers also loved the book that started this whole mess, too…or because they unfortunately think deliberately writing “on trend” is a good idea). Publishers also eventually stop buying books in that trend, because the market is saturated. It isn’t because readers have stopped loving books in that genre, it’s just that there is now such a thriving crop of them that the locusts will have a hard time devouring them all in their lifetimes, and so it’s hard for one book to stand out and make money. That’s why, like I said above, self-publishing and indie-publishing are viable options for off-trend books: those books still have an audience, and you (or your indie publisher, who might specialize in that niche audience) can find them.

HOWEVER, just because you’re writing in a supposedly played-out trend doesn’t mean you’ll never find an agent or a big publishing deal, even before the trend comes back around. Say you write a spectacular vampire romance. You aren’t trying to copy Twilight, you just have this really powerful story that you HAVE to write, in your own new and different way. If that’s the case, you could probably find an agent that sees that greatness, and realizes they can pitch it with a spin that appeals to publishers.

With regard to trends besides genre trends, specifically the “first person, present tense fatigue” that I spoke about in my earlier piece…I’m sorry, but I find this “trend” hilarious in a way. I was wondering if this sort of thing would happen, since a while back a lot of agents were lamenting that they wanted to see more YA written in first person present. The thing about tenses and points of view is that, unlike genres, there are very few of them. As long as you’re choosing the ones that are best for your characters and story, and aren’t just writing or failing to write it in a certain way because you’re worried about trends, a reasonable agent won’t turn you down just because of that. Unless, perhaps, if it’s second person or future tense (though you could find the right agent for these if you are skillful).

Writing is indeed a business, but it is first and foremost an art. You should write the books that are in your heart, and write them the way you want, whether it’s on trend or not. There will always be more books for you to write in the future, and you will never lose out by telling the stories you hold dear now.

 

Choosing a Tense and Point of View

12061-strict-woman-teacher-stern.1200w.tnI’m going to talk a little bit about how to choose a tense and a point of view that’s right for your story and characters.

For those who aren’t followers of my blog, I’ll tell you little about myself so you know my qualifications to opine on this subject. First of all, I’m a writer, so I love to see myself write in the same way that some people love to hear themselves talk. I also think my opinions are of paramount importance, also due to the fact I’m of the artistic persuasion, so I will state my views loudly over the boring drone of other people stating their own opinions.

Actually, I hope the above is not true. At least too much. I am, indeed, a writer. I have three published books, and a contract on two more that are set to come out on 3/7/17 and 5/2/17. I have written fifteen books in all (which are in various stages of revision and pitching), and am in the midst of drafting another. These books are in all manners and mixtures of tenses and points of view (though I’ve not used second person or future tense, and I don’t write in omniscient).

I’m also a freelance editor, and an active beta reader/critique partner, which means I’ve helped or tried to help a lot of other people decide the best tenses and points of view in which to write their own stories.

And, of course, I read a lot, and pay attention to how other professionals use tense and point of view as style and literary devices.

Okay. Here we go.

The default tense and point of view for fiction writing is third person, past tense (at least in English and Spanish, the two languages I’m familiar with). This makes sense when you think about the oral storytelling tradition. In most stories, myths, legends, and parables, the narrator is telling about something someone else did in the past. The exception to this is, of course, when someone is telling a personal anecdote. Then the narrative would be in first person, past tense. In the oral tradition, using present tense would be awkward, because that would actually be running commentary of what’s going on at the moment. Listeners might find that creepy: “The savory scent of stewing venison washes over me as Miriam adds carrots and potatoes to the pot. She bends over to fetch the peeler from the bottom drawer, and the hem of her skirt creeps upward, giving me a view of the smooth, delicious curve of her bare thigh.

“Miriam turns to scowl at me. ‘What the hell did you just say?’

“I rub the back of my neck sheepishly. ‘Sorry, Miriam.’ I really shouldn’t think things like that about my mother-in-law.”

Anyhoo, the oral tradition has influenced the written tradition, and it seems most common for books to be written in third person, past tense (this is especially true of older novels). However, you can use whatever tense and point of view you want—it’s no longer uncommon to use first person or present tense in fiction. I’ve also read stories written in second person, though I can’t think of anything I’ve read in future tense.

I will now tell you about how I go about choosing a point of view and tense for my stories. I don’t always consider the following things in the same order I list them below. My mind just isn’t that organized. My thoughts generally resemble a sluggish river roiling with piranhas and crocodiles, but it usually calms down in there eventually and I figure stuff out.

Genre Considerations, In General

One of the things to consider is the genre, although this, I think, is the most minor consideration, unless you’re writing memoir: that’s almost always first person past tense, because you’re telling about something you did or experienced in the past. I think I did read one supposed memoir that was first person present, and I found it so contrived and douchy that I had to put it down…though you definitely could pull that sort of thing off if you did it correctly.

There are other genres that are sort of traditionally third person past tense, such as mystery, westerns, and historical romance. But even with those genres, as with all the others, it’s basically free-for-all: you can do any tense and point of view you want, as long as it works for your character and story.

As a side note, I did have someone recently tell me on Twitter that an agent said they had “first person, present tense fatigue” with regard to YA. I wrote a whole tirade about “trends” here, but it ended up being 700 words. So I took it out and gave it its own post, here.

Back to tenses and points of view…

The biggest things to consider with regard to choosing your point of view and your tense are your main character (or characters), and the nature of your narrative.

Point of View

Let’s look at point of view. First ask yourself, what kind of person is your main character? Do they pull you straight into their head and show you how they think? Are you intimately involved with their thoughts? Is the story at least partially crafted by how your main character sees the world? Then you should probably tell the story in first person, so you can let your character’s voice dictate the narrative.

First person is very useful when you have an interesting main character with a strong or different voice; or an unreliable narrator that sees the world differently than others do, and part of the story relies of the reader having to figure that out. For example, my book The Other Place, which has a schizophrenic main character, is written in first person—his character voice is strong, and the way he sees the world provides a lot of tension and interest to the story.

Conversely, if your character is stand-offish and doesn’t tell you a lot of their inner thoughts (perhaps even their motivations are in question); or the story is very plot-driven and relies on seeing events and character interactions from the narrator’s standpoint, then tell it in third person.

Additionally, if the “vibe” of the book depends a lot of the setting or scenery; or if the narrator voice is what’s really interesting (as is the case in a lot of humorous books, like Terry Pratchett’s or Carl Hiaasen’s), then you should write in third person.

If the book is very much driven by the narrator voice, and relies on the humor or drama involved in seeing events from more than one character’s point of view within a scene, then third person omniscient is warranted. Be careful with omniscient, though; it’s the easiest point of view to do badly, and you’ll end up confusing and putting off readers if you spread them too thin and make it difficult for them to identify with any one character, without letting them identify with the narrator voice. It’s better to choose one character’s point of view, or change POV only in chapter/scene breaks.

If you have a very hands-on character who tells you all your thoughts, but perhaps their voice isn’t as distinct, or part of the story relies on being able to see character interaction and other environmental factors from outside the main character’s head, consider writing in third person close point of view. That’s when it’s in third person, but you have a lot of inner dialogue (and no head-hopping at all).

I’ll touch briefly on second person. It can work well if your character is a certain kind of crazy (I am myself “crazy”, as I tell you about endlessly in my other blog posts, so please humor me in my use of this word, because I love it for some reason). I’ve seen second person used to great effect with characters who see themselves as not being exactly in control of their own actions, and yet still at the center of the universe. I don’t know if that makes sense, but if you can’t describe exactly why the narrative of your story needs to be in second person (or at least have a very strong sense of why), you probably shouldn’t write it that way.

It also works best, in my opinion, if only portions of the book are written that way, so readers don’t burn out.

And as for first person omniscient… just don’t, unless your character is a supernatural being of some sort.

Tense

Moving on to tense. This choice is also driven mostly by your character and your narrative. If you’re writing about someone who sees the world as very immediate…perhaps they don’t do well with taking the “long view” and contemplating their actions before they act, or they experience what’s going on right now very strongly for one reason or another, then present tense is the one you want to use. The best example of this type of character, as opposed to other types, is in Carl Hiaasen’s Native Tongue. Most of the book is written in third person (sort of omniscient), past tense, but when the narrative slips into the point of view of Pedro Luz, it goes into present tense. Pedro Luz is this completely steroided-up, bullheaded bully who is heavy on the action and not huge on thinking things through, so the change in tense is completely organic. Hiaasen does it so well that you hardly notice, and just slip naturally into the character’s point of view.

My book The Other Place, which I mention above, is also written in present tense, because the main character experiences the present so strongly that it sometimes takes over his whole perception and makes it difficult for him to remember that this too shall pass.

Also, if your narrative relies on the feeling that the character arc and story arc are unfolding in real time, as opposed to being told by someone looking back on events as an older, wiser person with knowledge above and beyond that which they had at the time, then it’s best to go with present tense.

If none of the above things are true, you might be better off defaulting to past tense. Still, it’s your call, and you can definitely choose either tense or point of view on a mindless whim and make it work.

As for future tense…I’ll leave discussion of that to someone with a graduate degree in literature.

If anyone has other thoughts on how to choose a point of view and/or tense, I would love to hear them!

 

 

Nightmare on Query Street

I’m finally dropping by again to mention I’m going to be a mentor in the awesome Nightmare on Query Street contest. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a great way to get your query and first 250 words polished and in front of a slew of great agents. It’s for a wide range of genres: the only things not accepted are picture books and erotica. Check it out! http://www.michelle4laughs.com/2016/10/mentors-for-nightmare-on-query-street.html

Pitch Wars #PimpMyBio: “Coming Out” About My #OwnVoices Book

I’m late to the Pitch Wars #Pimpmybio party, which is odd, because I usually have a bad habit of showing up way too early at most parties.

I just this morning resolved to enter the contest. This will be my third time entering Pitch Wars, and I’ve entered with a different manuscript each time. The first time, I entered the very first novel I’d ever completed, the first in a series of seven YA urban fantasy novels. I’ve since put that series on the back burner; it needs serious editing with my now-more-trained eye before I pitch it again.

The novel I entered last year, The Other Place, is an upper YA/NA contemporary magical realism novel. It’s about a young man with schizophrenia trying to make it as an artist, find love, and find his place in the world. This book was released by Limitless Publishing on 7/5/16.

Yes, I know. I’m a published author, and so I feel a little shy entering Pitch Wars. I know (from experience, unfortunately) that some other contestants are likely giving me the stink-eye, wishing I’d step aside to give the less fortunate a chance. But I don’t have an agent, and really want one; my books are getting great reviews, but I’m a marketing doofus and I think I could get wider exposure if I had an agent on my side, holding my hand and cheering me on.

This competition brings in some of the best aspiring authors in the English-speaking world, and I know I don’t have any more talent or chance of being selected than a lot of the unpublished entrants. The fact I’m published and others aren’t, isn’t a measure purely of talent, but also of hard work and persistence. In fact, no matter how awesome I think my manuscript is, I don’t have a ton of hope it will be chosen. That isn’t the real reason I’m entering this contest. I’m entering because, in past years, I’ve made so many great friends in the Pitch Wars feed, and I’d love to make some more. I’m also entering because I’ve had so much going on in my life lately, both good and bad, so I’ve not been doing much querying. Pitch Wars will make me focus on trying to find this book a home.

The book I’m entering this year is entitled True Story. It’s a diverse YA romance. The main character is a seventeen-year-old Native American foster girl with the unusual name of Mike Charley. She isn’t trans; she was named after her grandfather by her bipolar mother, who thought Mike was his reincarnation.
This is an #ownvoices book. I’m not Native (though I have family in the same tribe Mike’s mother was from), but Mike has bipolar disorder with episodes of psychosis, like her mother did…and like I do.
I’ve been hesitant about pitching True Story as an #ownvoices book, though I know it might make some people more curious about it. I only recently “came out” about my neurodiversity, and it has definitely been a mixed bag. I’m lucky that my diversity isn’t visible; most days, I seem like a perfectly normal, if maybe somewhat eccentric, person, so not a lot of people knew about my neurodiversity. Since I opened up about it, I’ve gotten such a wonderful outpouring of support, but I’ve also suffered a lot of negative and hurtful comments.
Bipolar is a condition that comes with many misconceptions. People either think you’re a howling nutjob, or that you’re being attention-seeking: “I get mood swings, too, and you don’t see me crying about it.” I’m not a howling nutjob on most days, nor am I particularly attention-seeking. These stereotypes are hurtful.
When I wrote True Story, it wasn’t my intention to “educate” the world about bipolar disorder. I was just telling a cool story about a wonderful girl. But now that the book is written and edited, and steaming up the windows in its boisterous urge to get on the road, I really do want to find a wide audience for it, to show one insider’s perspective on living with bipolar.
I also think it’s important to have YA novels with bipolar and otherwise neurodiverse main characters. After my first episode of psychosis when I was 15, I was terrified. I thought my brain would completely desert me; that I might lose control of myself and hurt people. That’s what most people think “psychos” are, after all: homicidal maniacs. Most books reflect these misconceptions, and portray psychotic characters as killers or otherwise evil antagonists. At best, characters with psychosis are often complete wastes of space, objects of nothing more than pity and contempt, and are there only to be somehow “saved” by a neurotypical character.
Because I’d swallowed all those stereotypes, it was decades before I had the courage to admit even to a doctor that I’d suffered psychotic episodes. Instead, I got pretty good at managing them myself. I tried to avoid the situations that might trigger them, and I self-medicated. A lot. When I was in my late teens, I discovered that heroin made my brain chill out, and eased my crushing episodes of (sometimes suicidal) depression. It took me years and a trip to prison to kick that habit, but I eventually found healthier ways to deal with my symptoms.
But those ways don’t always work, especially when you’re like me and don’t even try to control your episodes of mania.
I love being manic. My last manic episode started in the summer of 2013. That’s when I first started writing in earnest: I finished seven novels in a year, and another five in the year after that. However, the episode coincided with a huge shift in my marriage dynamics and caused it even more strain. My husband became very insulting about my inability to “grow up and act right”. His behavior felt very abusive to me, which triggered both my bipolar disorder and my PTSD and made my behavior even more erratic. I ended up having a psychotic break last summer (my first one in more than a decade), and a few close brushes with suicide, before the relationship finally ended for good.
My dream with regard to True Story, and my other books (and other authors’ books) with neurodiverse characters, is that people will read them and be less afraid to talk about their own experiences with neurodiversity. I want people with mental illness to know that they aren’t “less” than neurotypical people; they’re not dangerous or creepy, or in any other way unfit to take their rightful place in society. Then maybe they won’t have to go through some of the stuff I’ve gone through.
So I’m standing up (with somewhat trembly knees) and proudly declaring that True Story is an #ownvoices book. I know my admission that I have a serious mental condition might make some agents leery of working with me, but I console myself that they might not be a good match for my work anyway. When I finally do get an agent, that person will see my value, and will believe in me and my writing. They won’t buy into the negative stereotypes about bipolar disorder or PTSD. They’ll know people like me can be productive, professional, intelligent, and easy to work with.
So, that’s why I’m entering Pitch Wars: because I deserve to; because I believe in my books; and because I believe in myself and others like me.
Thank you for reading this. I’d love to hear your comments and get links to your blogs, as well. Like I said, making new friends is one of my main goals in entering Pitch Wars.
Good luck to everyone!

Surviving, and Writing About, Abuse

I wanted to give my thoughts on a subject that’s close to my heart: how people in our society view, and write about, domestic violence and other types of abuse.

I’ve participated in a lot of discussions, both online and in the real world, about what makes people stay in abusive relationships. The answers people often give are along the lines of, “They’re insecure.” Or, “They just don’t know anything different.” And, “They don’t see any way out.”

I have been in abusive relationships, and I’ll tell you what I hear when people give the answers above: “It’s your fault. You stayed with your abusers because you’re defective: weak, ignorant, and stupid.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in the fact that people living in abuse are insecure, sometimes lacking in objectivity with regard to their situation, and that they might have a hard time taking whatever steps they need to in order to leave their home and family. Do you know who else fits that description? Pretty much everyone else on the fucking planet.

Unfortunately, more than a few fiction authors portray abused women (the abused character is usually a woman, though that isn’t always the case in real life) as creatures we should both pity and cheer on as they inevitably overcome all their difficulties and reinvent themselves as strong, confident individuals.

Conversely, some readers of my novel The Hustle have expressed frustration with the main character, Liria, who goes through a string of ill-advised and abusive relationships throughout the course of the story (will she do better in The Other Place? I’m not telling 🙂 ). “I just don’t understand why Liria keeps getting involved with people who treat her so badly,” some people say. “It’s like she doesn’t want a better life.”

That’s another way of saying it’s the abused person’s fault for being abused. And yes, I know it is upon each and every one of us to take control of our lives and try to be the best we can be. However, suffering people’s ignorant judgment doesn’t help us to feel empowered. Nor does pity, because pity doesn’t really equal understanding…though it’s definitely better than sneering judgment.

When I was a teenager, I was in a relationship that was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. After that, I was in a couple relationships that maybe weren’t exactly healthy, but were marred to a greater extent by addiction than abuse. Then, I met my current (ish) husband.

My husband is a Ph.D. professor of biophysics; a hard-working, incredibly intelligent guy who comes off in company as perhaps a little odd, but sweet and quiet and nerdy. I, on the other hand, have only an undergraduate degree and a history of incarceration and heroin addiction (that stuff is far in the past, but still). I felt sort of like I’d hit the jackpot when I landed my husband; not just because of his education and the fact he didn’t do needle drugs, but because he was unfailingly kind to me, never so much as looked at another woman, and was always reliable and safe. He had his frustrating weirdnesses, sure, but doesn’t everyone?

About three years ago we moved to California for his job. The dynamic of our relationship shifted, and his frustrating weirdnesses turned against me. I’d quit my job and started (compulsively) writing when we moved—we didn’t need a second income, and we’d discussed my being a stay-at-home mom when he got a tenure track job. But, for reasons I won’t go into again here, my husband ended up not liking this situation. He accused me of lying around all day and writing silly stories. He called me selfish, lazy, and immature. He said I was using him for money, and didn’t have the guts to leave him only because I didn’t want to get a job to support myself and my kid. Pretty mean stuff, right? But think about it: if you were lucky enough to get to stay home and write all day (and, you know, clean the house and cook and garden and all that), you might feel a little guilty about it, right? That’s pretty normal among others I’ve spoken to who are stay-at-home. So, when my husband said that stuff, I didn’t really think it was abuse: I thought he had a point, because he’d hit the bull’s-eye of my guilt.I mean, his words pissed me off and hurt me, sure, but this was a man I loved and had been married to awhile. I respected his feelings and opinions. Plus, he had never been so critical of me before, so I thought he’d get over it. I even tried to get a job to make him happy, because sometimes doing stuff to make your spouse happy is part of marriage. But we’d moved to the worst economy in the known universe so I didn’t get a single call back.

Some friends I cried to about this stuff told me he was being abusive. But I’d suffered real abuse, I thought, and it hadn’t really been the same. Other people thought I was overreacting. After all, my husband was the big fancy doctor with a sweet nature, and I was just some weird, emotional chick with a sordid past who thought she was a writer. This argument hit home with me, as well. All you writers out there probably know what it’s like to feel like a fraud and like you suck, especially when those rejections are rolling in.

Anyway, my husband moved on to saying he had lost all respect for me and was done with me. He told me he wasn’t interested in having sex with me ever again, and told me to get the fuck out of the house on various occasions.

Now, you think, any self-respecting woman would have packed up and got the fuck out of the house for sure at that point. And I actually did, many times. But I would always come back. I loved him, and I was worried about him. His behavior seemed erratic, and I was concerned for his mental health. I told him to go to a psychiatrist, which he did. We also went to marriage counseling. I still had hopes things would get better. And besides, I was a little selfish and immature: I just wanted to stay home and write, and I wouldn’t get to do much of that if I left to be a single mom. Plus, destroying a household and uprooting your kid never seems fun, under any circumstances.

My husband didn’t get better, though. He got worse, and I “dealt” with it by getting smashed-ass drunk several times a week and hanging out with another man. I can forgive myself for this a little bit now, because I was truly miserable and going off the deep end, but at the time I felt horrendously guilty and weak for not being able to change my behavior. I knew I had some mental health issues of my own, as well, and that I wasn’t really taking care of myself, which exacerbated all these problems. So when my husband yelled at me and berated me for all of this stuff too, it again didn’t feel like abuse: it hit home. I felt like it was mostly my fault our relationship had gotten so bad, and that I could fix things by being a better person.

It was true I needed to change in some ways, and I did, eventually: I cut down on drinking, etc. And, eventually, I took my kid and left. I went home to my parents’, where I renovated and built onto a cabin on their property. Now I lie around here all day writing, editing, gardening, playing with my kid, building cabinets and making homemade wine. I don’t know how long this situation will last, but I wanted to still live my life on my own terms for as long as I could. I didn’t want my husband to win, and force me into a miserable life that I don’t want.

Now, a lot of you who are still reading this (if anyone) might say that I stayed in my abusive relationships because I was insecure, because I didn’t know any better (having been in abusive relationships before), and that I didn’t see a way out (at least that allowed me to live the way I want). You’d be right, in a way. But what you might be wrong about is the fact that you would never act that way in my situation. Whenever I hear someone say they’ll never be with anyone who doesn’t treat them like a princess/prince, I usually roll my eyes inwardly. Because there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a human being who has made decisions that made sense at the time. I’ve done the best I can do with what I’m given. I don’t always do the right thing, but if you think you always do the right thing there might be something wrong with you.

Anyone who has been lucky enough not to experience abuse is just that: lucky. They weren’t subjected to it at a young and impressionable age, and they didn’t get sucked into it slowly and insidiously like I did later, or any of the other things that can lead people into abusive relationships. Because I didn’t stay with my husband because I’m weak or dumb or ignorant: I stayed with him because I loved him, and I didn’t want to give up our life together: the same reasons people stay in healthier relationships.

What we need to do, both in life and in fiction, is see abused people as human beings—intelligent human beings with rich inner lives, just like anyone else—not as objects of pity and contempt.

Find The Hustle, my book that deals with abuse, here.

Six Writing Tips that Work Across Styles and Genres

Simple(ish) tricks to make any style of writing better

I’ve done a lot of critiquing, beta reading, and professional editing. I work with people who write in all different styles and genres—even ones vastly different from any I usually write—and I’ve learned to appreciate them all on their own merits.

I see a lot of writing advice out there, and a great deal of it frustrates me, because it amounts to a style critique rather than sound writing advice, especially if applied indiscriminately. This sort of writing advice tries to regiment style and can impede creativity.

There are some pieces of advice, however, that I’ve found work across all styles and genres. These are some of the tips and tricks I use when writing and editing my own work as well as pretty much every other piece I look at. It’s the stuff that always seems to make writing better (although there are exceptions…I broke some of these same rules when writing in Justin’s schizophrenic character voice in The Other Place and its sequel. There are always times to break every rule, as long as you’re doing it on purpose.)

So, with that small caveat, here are six things I’ve found (almost) always improve all types of writing:

  1. Avoid dialogue tags whenever possible.

This is a common piece of writing advice that is sound, on most occasions. If you only have two people in the conversation, you don’t need a dialogue tag with every line of the conversation, because readers understand who’s talking as long as they’re oriented now and again.

You can also use action tags in the place of dialogue tags. Action tags usually precede the dialogue (though they can come after), and describe something a character is doing while they speak. Action tags are super great because they can perform quadruple duty: let us know who is speaking, develop character, create a mood or vibe, and put a vivid image in the reader’s mind. For instance:

“I just don’t know,” Marla said.

As opposed to:

Marla chiseled the dried blood from beneath her fingernails with her hunting knife. “I just don’t know.”

Of course, if you’ve already let us know that she’s cleaning her nails, choose another image. Also be careful of saying things like, “She smiled” or “She cocked an eyebrow”; I myself am guilty of overusing these action tags, and often they don’t add anything, and/or are already implied by the dialogue. In those cases, sometimes the normal dialogue tag is better.

  1. Adjectives and adverbs are okay; redundancy isn’t.

If the adjective or adverb is already implied by the scene, dialogue, or action, you don’t need to use it. For instance:

The bright Southern California sun shone intensely on their faces.

Neither “bright” nor “intensely” are really needed here, and don’t add much as to style, either (you probably don’t even need “on their faces” in most cases, if you want to get technical.) Or:

“We need to get out of here!” she yelled urgently.

You really just need the dialogue there, without the “yelled” or the “urgently”.

However:

He leaned on the dented bumper of his car, eyeing her lustily.

Both “dented” and “lustily” add something here, if we don’t already know those things from context.

  1. Description is fine, but diagraming is generally not.

I love it when the author creates a bizarre, beautiful, or bleak image that sticks with me. However, I get really confused and any image in my head is destroyed whenever I read something like this:

The house was three stories tall, with three rows of five windows off to the right of the main entrance, and three rows of eight windows to the left of the entrance. The front door was tall and stately, a double door, with carved frescoes of cherubs and nymphs all along the edges.  Inside, a hallway led off in front to the state rooms. Another to the right led to the ballroom, which had windows on one side and framed mirrors on half of the other walls, with portraits on the other half.  A large, curved staircase…

You get what I’m going for. This happens even in traditionally-published novels more than I like to say.

The point of writing is to give readers an image; a feeling; an idea of what’s going on. Their imaginations will fill in the rest. In fact, you need to let readers’ imaginations do the rest, because that’s part of the fun of reading. They don’t need to see exactly what you’re seeing, they just need enough to get their own picture. In the passage above, the idea the writer is trying to convey is of a grand, old-style mansion. You can give us this impression with little images dropped here and there throughout the dialogue and action, preferably when the characters interact with their surroundings. We don’t need a layout of the house, especially all at once.

  1. Inner dialogue and exposition are fine, but be careful of telling the reader stuff they already know, or don’t need to know.

He pressed his lips to hers. She gave a little gasp, and her body melted into his. I want him so badly, she thought. I’ve never felt like this before about anyone.

Now, you can get away with a lot of inner dialogue and exposition, especially in romance, but in the above passage, we don’t need that inner thought at all. Even if we do perhaps, in some cases, need to see that thought once, we don’t need it every time he kisses her. We actually feel the moment and the romantic tension more if the inner dialogue is mostly implied by the characters and the situation, and left to the imagination.

Also, giving backstory or detail that doesn’t even play into the story is a double no-no. Backstories on minor characters that only appear once in the book; memories of events that aren’t relevant; long descriptions of job duties when the whole of the novel takes place while the character is on vacation—these sorts of things are often dead weight that slow pacing and bore readers.

  1. You don’t need to say something using the fewest words possible, but avoid repeating yourself, or telling something you’ve already shown.

Some people can go on and on and on without losing the reader, because their style is engaging for one reason or another. Not all of us are exclusively into the Spartan style of writing. But, even if you’re prone to wordiness, you don’t need to say things more than once. For instance:

She drove quickly down the road. She was in a hurry. She was late for a meeting, and would be in trouble with her boss.

Those three sentences basically convey the same idea a bunch of times.  You could say the same thing by showing her honking her horn and swearing at traffic, and letting us know by context that she’s on her way to a meeting; or if nothing else by saying something like She drove like a maniac to get to the meeting.

Or:

She hated chocolate pie. She poked at the chocolate pie with her fork, wrinkling her nose. “I hate chocolate pie.”

You really just need the action there. You could also have the dialogue if character-appropriate, but the first sentence should never be there. It just tells before it shows, and thus reduces the impact of showing.

  1. Avoid sensory words such as “saw” “heard” “smelled” or “felt” as much as possible.

This is the hardest one. The trick here is to put the reader in the story; you do this by  describing what’s going on instead of saying so-and-so saw or heard it going on. For instance:

Jeremy smelled jasmine.

As opposed to:

The scent of jasmine wafted over him.

The second makes you feel more like you’re there, right? Sometimes you need the sensory tag for emphasis; for instance, if your main character is in the other room and can’t see the door opening, you can’t say the door opened. You have to say they heard the door opening…or you could say The door creaked as it opened, or something, if appropriate. Also, I use the saw tag when I want to make it clear someone is noticing something that they were not meant to notice. Abraham saw Fred tuck his shirt over the butt of his pistol. That makes it clearer that it didn’t just happen, it happened surreptitiously.

The “feel” tag is harder to remove. It’s best if you can write the scene so it’s obvious what someone would be feeling. If you’ve done your character development, scene setting, and dialogue right, this is often possible. But, at times, you really do have to say things like George felt like she’d hung him by his nuts from the flagpole. There’s just no other way to get the point across and keep the reader along for the ride.

What writing tips and tricks do you use? I’d love to hear them. I’d also love to argue with you if you don’t agree with some of mine 🙂

Elizabeth Roderick is the author of two published novels, with more upcoming. She is a professional freelance editor.

Magical Realism and Realistic Magic: How Stories Come Alive and Keep Us Alive

The three books in my Other Place series are magical realism books. The reason for this, technically, is that the main characters experience shared dreams and sometimes foray into psychotic states.

I have a hard time calling that magical realism. Shared psychosis is real. I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced it; not at quite the level my characters do, but pretty close.

The part of the series that seems magical to me is the overarching story. Many plot events are larger-than-life and fantastical. All the elements in the “real world” and the “dream world” fit together perfectly in a way that makes sense and is orderly.

That’s because an outside power is organizing them (me), and because there are a limited number of characters in the plot to affect events. If your life starts having a plotline that coherent, it’s either time to get your medication adjusted or go to church: the meddlesome Old Testament God is back and he’s got his eye on you.

Human beings create order where there is none. We constantly tell ourselves stories about the world in order to simplify and make sense of it. This process is what keeps us alive.

Our need to create order stems from an animal need for survival and procreation. We build houses, plow the earth into neat rows for crops, and comb our hair in order to get laid and have a safe, hospitable place to replicate our genes.  However, our need for order has far outstripped what is needed for those basic purposes. We essentially are in a battle against the unknown: we’re trying to organize the chaos into something we can understand and manage. We’re trying to build walls to keep out death.

That is because man cannot survive on bread alone. We have self-awareness and the ability to reason. Without claws and fur, we need to figure things out to survive. We do that by making connections between events and outcomes. But we make a lot of connections that don’t necessarily exist in a physical sense. Those false connections can take on such meaning in the context of a culture, however, that they affect human behavior a lot more than physical stimuli. Sometimes this results in whole groups of people being organized out of existence, because there’s no place for them in someone’s scheme of things, but often they work to our advantage.

These ethereal connections are based in our survival instinct, also, and in many ways they keep us alive. Our laws and moral sense—all of them stories about what is acceptable human behavior and what isn’t—make us feel safer and more comfortable, more in control of ourselves and surroundings, and can keep people from acting too much out of fear or anger. We also have rituals to help us through grief, trauma, and loss. This helps us make sense of the weirdness of life, so that we don’t go insane.

Most of us lose the thread of our cultural story sometimes, though. We look around and wonder WTF is going on in this crazy world, and why anyone even bothers trying to survive in a place that’s so messed up. Other animals don’t have to worry about this existential shit—this is our gift for being conscious, self-aware creatures. Happy birthday.

After those moments of angst, however, the great majority of people are able to pick up the common thread again and move on. Some of us have a harder time with that.

I’ve been diagnosed with all sorts of fairly insane-sounding disorders. If you ask me, my mind just works a certain way, and usually the only major disadvantage to that is how it can bring me into conflict with others’ story about the world.

On good days, I trundle through as well as anyone else, laughing at mindless television shows and finding beauty in the little things. I still feel like I’m a minor character in someone else’s story, but I can play along well enough.

Other times, everything most people see as reality seems to me like it’s a movie projected on a thin veil that could be ripped away at any second. Life seems so weird that I figure I must be missing something, because the ways people act make no sense to me. I can’t suspend disbelief well enough to participate in my cultural story very well.

On bad days, that veil gets ripped completely away. All those stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves alive and procreating cease to have meaning. I have to struggle to even maintain the basic-survival notion that I need to stay alive for my kid. The sense I’m missing something that others have, or failing to understand something that they do understand, is much stronger. I figure that’s why they keep living when it is so pointless to do so. I think most people reading this can identify with that feeling on some level.

Here is where I lose most of you, though. On the very worst days—few and far between, thank God—all those stories we tell ourselves disappear so completely from my consciousness and my poor brain starts making up completely new stories to make sense of my surroundings. That means that you and I could be looking at exactly the same thing but our brains would interpret it in completely different ways, so it’s very hard for me to effectively communicate with anyone. My brain making up these stories is a survival technique because, like I said, these stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world are how we are able to function. The stories my brain makes up are actually generally no more ludicrous than the ones supposedly sane people make up, but they are inconsistent with our cultural narrative and so make me vulnerable. My brain’s survival technique makes it more likely that I’ll be hurt or killed—written out of society’s plotline because there’s no part for me.

Psychotic people are much more likely to hurt themselves than others. We are probably less of a threat, on average, than non-psychotic people. But we are much more likely to be hurt or killed by others than non-psychotic people are. You all know, I trust, your propensity to shy away from psychotic people under the (almost always false) impression that they are dangerous. I’m a five-foot-tall female, so people rarely consider me dangerous, but I’ve been taken advantage of, physically and emotionally hurt, and abandoned because of my propensity to believe my own story. Those people thought they were justified in their behavior: they thought they were helping me, or protecting themselves. They were the delusional ones, in my opinion, but to each their own.

My friend/partner Phoenix, who has schizophrenia, is six-foot-three and well-muscled, but as gentle as they come. He has been beaten into a coma just for talking what other people saw as “nonsense”. He’s been arrested for having a nonviolent psychotic episode in his own yard. And he’s been nearly shot by police, simply because his brain lost the thread of the common narrative and started making up a different story, even though he posed no credible threat to anyone.

As soon as Phoenix and I walked into each other’s lives, I felt like I’d finally found another human being on a deserted planet. Even when I think I’m dead and that everyone else is a spirit trying to guide me into the afterlife; or that everyone else knows something I don’t; I know Phoenix is real and that he’s usually living in the same story I am. And that makes it a lot easier.

This is what is called shared psychosis.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows about Phoenix. I wrote him into a novel after having a short conversation with him, and ended up extrapolating what little I knew of him into a well-rounded character—Justin, from the Other Place series. Justin isn’t Phoenix, but when I felt the compulsion to seek Phoenix out again (after the novels were already drafted) there were spine-tingling similarities. And, after I knew him, the similarities in character seemed to extend to similarities in plot.

These connections, real or imagined, form a more coherent plotline than I usually see in real life. It seems at times our lives are intimately connected with my writing. In fact, Phoenix gets mad if I write about something that would cause harm to either of us if it came true. For his benefit, I try to loosely correlate those plot points with stuff that’s already happened, or else write about characters so wildly different from us that the connection is harder to make. Or I just don’t tell him my plotlines, because I don’t think the connection between them and our lives is as close as he does. Or I usually don’t, anyway.

Once, when I lost the thread, I began to believe I could make my dreams reality through the force of belief, and that I had the power to completely organize our lives through my writing. I thought that I was meant to write the Other Place series in order to give people a window into what it’s like to be psychotic, so people like us would be more acceptable to society. I might make some money off of my stories, too, so Phoenix and I could have something to survive on.

I believed that, like in the books, the physical world and the world in our minds were orderly, and fit together seamlessly. Essentially, I believed I could write us into society’s narrative.

Just as further illustration of how deep shared psychosis can go, I also thought, during that episode, that Phoenix and I could hear each other’s thoughts—that our connection in the real world was as intense as in the books. He says that part was true, but I can’t remember what we said out loud and what we thought, so I can’t call him on his bullshit. I do know that we’re often able to follow one another’s thoughts without speaking, and start conversations in the middle; we pick up on cues from each other that other people completely misunderstand. Other people do this, too. If you know someone well, you can follow their plotline well enough to gauge their thoughts even at a distance, at least at times. Telepathy isn’t too far off. My story isn’t much crazier than most.

Unfortunately, the physical world intrudes into our plotlines more in reality than it does in books. We’re not the only ones in control of events, and the story isn’t just about us as individuals. I, for one, do believe there is a coherent overarching plotline, but one of the ways almost sure to drive me over the edge to one extent or another is trying to figure out what it is and how it works. It’s too big for my brain to understand completely, so it cuts it into bite-sized pieces. This can result in some fairly out-there plots.

Maybe the Other Place series will create some order in my personal narrative, though. Maybe I’ve captured enough of the truth within our human experience to make my books compelling to people. I do know that this belief has been a driving force in my life, and makes me work hard to gain more control over my personal plotline. It’s made me feel like I have purpose, and like there might finally be a comfortable place for me in society’s narrative. Whether I’m ultimately called crazy, or just a heavy dreamer that made her dreams come true, all depends on how my life story goes from here on out.

The first book in the Other Place series, entitled The Hustle, released on 5/31/16. The second book, The Other Place, releases on 7/5/16. The third and final installment (Synchronicity) is in the process of final revision.

Find The Other Place Series on Amazon.

 

 

 

Writing Through Adversity: The Story of the Other Place Series

About a year and a half ago, I was living in my little ranch house in the tiny (like no-stoplights sort of tiny) town of Shandon, California.

I’d moved there with my husband and child for my husband’s tenure-track job as a biochemistry professor. He and I had been together for eight years, very happily, but once we moved to California our marriage started to fall apart.

I didn’t work outside the home, and so had time for writing when we moved. A year and a half ago when this story starts, I had just finished a series of seven YA fantasy books. Book one of that series was the first novel I’d ever completed. I’d been completely engrossed in the story, and I’d written all seven books in slightly less than a year. It had been part of the way I’d dealt with the myriad of stresses of moving to California.

That writing took up a lot of my time. I cooked and cleaned, sure, but everything else was  writing. I only left the house to go to critique groups, and about 99% of the conversations I had with anybody, including my husband and kid, revolved around writing and the querying process.

My husband was really frustrated with me. He wanted me to quit writing and get a job—not because we needed the money (we didn’t) but because he told me I was miserable.

I wasn’t miserable at all. I was the happiest I’d ever been, because I’d finally found what I was put on this earth to do, if you believe in that sort of thing. Writing fit completely with my personality. It helped me organize my sometimes racing and random thoughts, and I could do it in the middle of the night (I have a habit of waking up at 2 a.m.) I didn’t have to try to act professional or worry about the wrath of my boss. And it was the most fun I’d ever had. Sure, it was shitty sometimes, but isn’t anything?

My husband is a differently-minded person, though. He doesn’t understand feelings the way most people do, so he tends to construct an emotional model for people. If your description of your own feelings doesn’t fit in with the model, he dismisses it as an outlier.

I could find no way of communicating with him about our relationship problems, and we ended up in a lot of brutal fights. He called me immature, selfish, and lazy; told me he’d lost all respect for me, and he was done with me.

We were like two mentally-odd ships passing in the night, firing randomly at each other in the darkness.

Anyway, when I finished my YA series, I was plunged back into the real world without my characters for companionship. A new character had arrived shortly before I’d finished the series, but she wasn’t very good company. Her name was Liria, and she was a somewhat languid and depressed junkie. I’d quit heroin almost twenty years ago and I didn’t feel much inclination to be pulled back into that world, so I kept telling her to slouch back off from whence she came.

She wouldn’t leave, though, in that way characters do. I started writing her book.

It was a bit horrifying. I hadn’t worked through a lot of the issues from that period in my life, and Liria brought them back pretty vividly. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD—I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I guess a symptom can be that you run away and/or have an overblown emotional reaction when confronted with reminders of your trauma. That was me in spades. Writing the book made me even freakier, and my husband didn’t have the resources to deal with that. When I tried to talk to him about the stuff from my past that was bugging me, he’d tell me to get over myself. He said, “Having a baby is worse than getting raped, but you’re not complaining about that.”

When my husband and I fought, I started closing down completely. I’d turn into a screeching banshee when anything even resembling a slight left my husband’s lips. Sometimes I’d get in my car and end up hours away without a very good notion of why I was there.

Add that to the fact that, when I brought chapters of the book to critique group, some people said, “There’s nothing likable about this character. Why would anyone want to read about someone like this?” To them, Liria was nothing but an object of contempt, fear, and pity. They’d never thought of someone like her as a real human being, with a rich and complex inner life. Liria had a lot of me in her, and so those critiques felt like rejections of me as a person. I was already getting enough rejection from my husband and agents. I didn’t need more.

I tried to quit writing, but I couldn’t. It was an addiction as much as the heroin had been, and I got anxious and morose if I didn’t do it.

I was sitting in the local park one day during this time—I’d taken a temp job running the food bank’s summer lunch program—when this guy walked up to me.

“I like your shoes,” he said. “They’re red, white and blue, like Captain America, or like my house, which is red, white and blue, also. It’s the Captain America house.”

We talked about his workout routine and his muffin pancake recipe. He was the coolest guy in the world. I couldn’t get him out of my head after that conversation, and he ended up in Liria’s book. I named him Justin.

Unlike Liria, my critique partners LOVED Justin. So did I, but I was pretty sure he would be one of the darlings I’d have to kill. I didn’t see how he played into the story.

Except he did end up playing into the story. Justin wove himself in and out of Liria’s dreams the way the kid from the park wove through mine. I created a well-rounded character based on that half-hour conversation about my shoes and the coat rack exercise.

When I finished Liria’s book, Justin’s character kept talking to me, so I started another book.

Justin’s book was even more brutal than Liria’s. The kid from the park had obviously been schizophrenic, and so was Justin. I was terrified of schizophrenia. I’d spent a lot of my youth worried I had it. I didn’t talk to people about it much, but I’d had some pretty severe episodes of psychosis in my life, and putting myself in that mindset was even harder than being in Liria’s shoes.

As I wrote the book, though, I realized I wasn’t scared anymore. Justin was a wonderful person. His episodes of psychosis didn’t mean he was bad—that was just the way his mind worked.

Justin’s book had a sequel, and I was almost done writing it when I decided I had to talk to the kid in the park again. I knew he wasn’t Justin, but I felt like getting to know him better would help me get Justin’s character right.

I hadn’t talked to him in more than five months, and wasn’t sure where he lived—the “Captain America” house not being what you’d call a precise address—so I went down the park for lack of other options.

He walked in just as I did. “Hey, it’s you,” he said. “I was looking for you.”

The kid in the park’s name is Phoenix. He isn’t much like Justin, but he still helped me to round out Justin’s character in a very big way.

Phoenix became my new obsession, my new best friend, and my new way of avoiding the increasingly horrible fights with my husband. When things progressed to my husband telling me to get the fuck out of the house, Phoenix was the shoulder I cried on. That summer, when my kid was visiting her dad, Phoenix lived with me in campgrounds and my car for quite a while as I looked for jobs and tried to put my life together. When my husband finally asked me to come back home, though, I went. All I wanted to do was write, and the only way I could see to do that was to try to repair my marriage; being a single mom working two jobs wasn’t a recipe for success as an author. Besides, I still thought my husband would eventually realize he still loved me. I thought he’d change. I’d been in abusive relationships before and knew I was being naïve, but things always look different when you’re in the midst of them.

Meanwhile, I eventually got tired of trying to break into the publishing world with one of my bizarre novels populated with unlikeable characters. I wrote a romance with the idea of pitching it to small publishers so that I could establish myself, and maybe have an easier time getting my other stuff published. That romance was Love or Money—it was still bizarre and populated with unlikable characters, but it got published pretty easily. Soon after, I signed a contract on Liria and Justin’s series—the Other Place series.

A few months after that, my husband gave me divorce papers.

I tried to stay in the house so my daughter could finish the school year. It was a complete emotional shit-show. It wasn’t long before—you all saw this coming—Phoenix and I were in a relationship.phoenix n me

I ended up moving out before the end of the school year, because it was just too hard. I renovated and built onto a cabin on my parents’ farm, and I’m living here rent-free, trying to get my writing and editing career off the ground.

I had to leave Phoenix behind, but I think about him every day. I’m headed down to visit him today, too.

Phoenix and I have a sort of shared psychosis. It’s not an easy relationship, but the strength of the connection is more epic and magical than anything I’ve ever known. It’s the connection of two people living in a world very different from the world of those around them. After all, the definition of psychosis is a belief in things that aren’t real, and that aren’t consistent with their society and culture. Everyone is psychotic, but Phoenix and I are just psychotic in a slightly different way.

Yes, perhaps I destroyed my life by writing the Other Place series, but I think it might have been a good trade-off. Even if the series completely flops,my divorce was probably for the best. Writing this series taught me who I am, and that it’s okay to be that person. It’s not much use for me to try to change to make someone happy.

I hope the series doesn’t flop, though. I hope all of you read it and learn to love the unlikable characters in my books. I hope you’ll also take a second look at the unlikeable characters in your real life.

My books on Amazon.

My website.