Feb 07

Warning: This Article Mentions Condoms. A Lot.

I’ve been thinking about condoms a lot lately. I can’t figure out whether or not to use them. I want to prevent pregnancy and heaven knows I don’t want to promote the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but condoms have a tendency to get in the way and create awkwardness and I can’t really figure out a way to wriggle them into situations which arise spontaneously without it looking really weird. And don’t get me started about the pill and how to work that in. But I wonder about my responsibility concerning their use.

A bit of explanation may be required at this point.

As writers, we write about sex, in all its variations and levels (you knew that’s what I was talking about, right?). And my dilemma concerns our role in portraying sex. If we knew only sexually well-informed readers read our books, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue—we could write unprotected sex scenes all day long and never give the little love sleeve (or the little love pill) a thought.

But we can never tell who’s going to end up with our books in their hands. And how many times have you heard someone say they learned about sex from romance novels? It seems entire generations grow up learning more about sexual intimacy from us than from their families. I know for a fact, given that I was just entering adolescence in the eighties, that many of my friends learned about sex from reading romance books. But they learned safe sex: in the eighties, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it was a political act to incorporate mention of condoms, and they sprouted like dandelions in all levels of romance, and pretty much every other book featuring men and women.

I’m proud that writers took it upon themselves to bring awareness to the gross lack of information available about AIDS and the dangers of unprotected sex, but this is why I have begun to feel the weight of responsibility for what kind of sexual information readers find between my covers. The covers. Of my books.


Clearly I need this book.

Clearly I need *this* book.

What is our responsibility concerning awareness now? Because we have a pretty extensive cultural conversation going about AIDS and syphilis and all the other diseases and how to keep from getting them, , as well as how to prevent pregnancy, are we off the hook? Or is that like saying, when the light is no longer shining on Ethiopia, that those people must no longer be starving? After all, there are still many people not engaged in those conversations.

To get some inkling of an answer, first I tried to get a pulse from readers. In online discussions, basically there are two consistent camps: they hate it when an author presents condoms or the pill because it reeks of political correctness. “It’s so inauthentic,” they say. The other camp is, at least for contemporaries, that not mentioning safe sex at all is irresponsible.

Well, at least we have clear directions. *sigh*

Next I turned to us and reviewed several different recent books of all heat levels to see if I could figure out what our trend is and, granted my test pool is limited, it doesn’t reveal much in terms of an answer, either. An erotic historical mentions condoms (my hat goes off to its writer! That’s some impressive work) but a contemporary doesn’t, and then vice versa. Many sweet romances, who would never have to broach the subject, mention the presence of one before their space break. And then in many romances of all heat levels they don’t exist. No one trend was evident.

OK, so what are they saying in the mainstream media? Although fairly universally panned, one thing 50 Shades of Grey is consistently lauded for, and something I ran in to again and again, is its ever-present use of condoms, written into the contract the two main characters sign, and the pill. Consider this article: “Research suggests that good erotica can be educational and that eroticised depiction of condom use can actually raise the likelihood that someone will practice safe sex in real life.”[1]

This is from Nursing Times, of all places; not a magazine generally involved in discussing books or their impact. That’s pretty thought provoking. The fact that any discussion is happening in the media infers we carry some responsibility for educating readers. The implication is that it could be that our mention of a condom is responsible for informing someone about safe sex who wouldn’t otherwise get the information. Is it, therefore, negligent not to do so?

Just about every argument I encountered, for and against, was touched upon in one post by a woman named CD in the All About Romance Novels forum[2]. It’s from 1997, but what she says is as relevant today as it was then. The biggest argument for it being fine to leave condoms out: it’s fantasy! What are we so worried about? CD: “I started out reading historicals, where all the heroine presumably had to worry about was the pregnancy issue. Well, of course we all know by now that that was probably the least of her worries…they probably should have been more terrified at the prospect of STDs and the lack of any kind of medical treatment whatsoever should they contract such a thing. And yet, no one seems terribly concerned that the hero/heroine doesn’t consider this at the blessed moment of consummation because, after all, this is only fantasy, right?”

The next biggest argument, which CD also states beautifully: just because they read something doesn’t mean they’re going to do it—or not do it. “Let’s take your average nineties woman—be she a teenager, a college grad, divorcee, older widow, whatever…. Is one reader more likely to go out and have unsafe sex than any of the others? Is that teenager who reads historicals and feels those hormones start to race going to rush out and leave her condoms behind just because those books didn’t remind her? ….I would never, ever, come hail or high water or raging hormones, have unprotected sex simply because the book neglected to stress the operation. Just like I would never go and gun down a convenience store clerk or participate in a drive-by shooting just because I saw it on T.V….”

This argument is harder to credit, as it goes against the scientific findings mentioned in Nursing Times. But scientific impact isn’t the only, or even the biggest, reason to pause before making a decision based on the above two arguments. CD reveals the biggest argument for using them: ultimately, you are morally and ethically responsible for what you write. CD: “Now along comes the contemporary. Must we consider this something more than fantasy? Are writers of contemporary romance morally and ethically required to promote responsible sex? Is the main object of any kind of art or entertainment to teach, elevate, enlighten, or preach?”

This is my kind of protest group.


This is the deepest consideration and it reveals another: the reader’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. To know the difference, you have to know what comprises reality. And if a reader has never heard of condoms or the pill or safe sex, then her reality is going to be based only on what she’s read in her “fantasy.” It seems, even with the arguments giving us the freedom not to mention them, we can’t shake the ethical/moral thing. There really are people out there who only know what we tell them.

I can only think of one avenue left to explore. What role does personal authorial choice play? Should it play a role at all? I know that when I’m writing a scene of high heat level, I think it breaks the mood to have the man reach for his wallet, or the woman into the nightstand, and rip open the little packet. I just personally don’t want to write that in, and yes, it’s mostly for two reasons—one, I can’t do it without feeling like I’ve got some sort of hidden “BE SAFE, YOU OUT THERE!” agenda, which means it’s going to be about as subtle as an air-raid siren in the middle of your nap. But my other reason is, if you’re writing on the hotter edge of the spectrum, sometimes people are just having sex, as in: what if the two people in the scene had no intention of having sex, it’s just happening, the way death and taxes happen, and they’re in an elevator or at the top of the Space Needle, you see where I’m going. I mean in terms of protection, not…


How believable is it the guy or the girl is walking around with condoms in their possession, just in case they happen to, say, be wandering the aisles of the Safeway and, right over a jar of three-bean salad, lock eyes with someone and know they’re going to run off, right then, to the restroom to engage in hot, random sex? “Good thing I had this condom!” “Yes, it sure is! Be prepared!” Awkward. Artificial. Inauthentic. Reeking of Author’s Intended Message. It also says something inaccurate about your character; namely, “I am the kind of character who has random sex all the time.”

Ultimately, though, my personal preference can’t impact my moral and ethical responsibility, which is the way it should be—they’re not even on the same level. Does this mean our hands are tied? That we are actually irresponsible if we don’t mention condoms or the pill? That has the ring of Big Brother, which can’t be right, either.

So what is our responsibility with regards to how we portray sex? Does our moral responsibility trump our freedom as writers? Can there be any kind of middle ground? If so, what is it?

[1] http://www.nursingtimes.net/50-shades-of-grey-encourages-safe-sex/5048556.article

[2] http://www.likesbooks.com/toomuch2.html

Jan 05

Write Whatever You Want—But Be Trustworthy

The fundamental building block of story is change over time. This change is tracked through characters. We take care to craft characters who initially have flaws and strengths readers will connect with and then we create huge messes over the course of the story to generate change in these characters. But what kind of messes and how much change? We risk readers giving up on a story if they think characters are changing “too much” or in ways they don’t expect/understand (or worse, not at all). When this happens, readers can be pretty vocal about their displeasure. So this “how much and what kind” can be tricky.

This can make an author feel trapped—“Is that the deal? Change is necessary, but I’m not allowed to do too much or go in certain directions without risking losing my audience? How is that supposed to work?”

I first encountered this dilemma when I was working on a particular aspect of craft. I took my work live by writing a Harry Potter fanfic novella, which I posted chapter by chapter on two popular HP fanfic sites. In my story, in the first chapter, a young Lily and Sirius have sex. It wasn’t soft and gentle and we’ve-been-wanting-to-do-this-for-so-long lovemaking; no, it was we’re-being-hunted-down-and-I-don’t-know-if-people-I-love-are-dead-or-alive f…you get the picture. And there were many people who about lost their minds. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?” was popular, as was “LILY WOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS DO THIS EVER, NEVER, NEVER.” (Apparently, Sirius would.)

Oh come on!

Oh come on!

I was worried. I knew my storyline, knew where I was headed and why, but here, in the first chapter, I was losing the very audience I wanted to test my writing with!

But honestly, why was the reaction so vehement? Yes, I was messing with the HP world. Granted, these were beloved characters. But what had I actually done besides put two people together who shouldn’t have been together? I felt trapped, like I was going to have to write a different story than I wanted just to make sure people would read it, and that rubbed me all kinds of wrong.

It wasn’t until I was a beta reader for the sixth book in the NYT-bestselling Charley Davidson series, authored by Darynda Jones, that I got a way to navigate this dilemma. As we discussed Charley’s reactions to the rather horrific things she’s been through in the series,[1] I told Jones I loved how, in the fourth book, Charlie had to work through PTSD brought on by what she’d experienced in book three, and asked her why she’d stopped exploring that in book five. Jones said a LOT of people were upset with her for giving Charlie that reaction, because Charlie WOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS react that way. This sounded very, very familiar.

Did you feel like you had to compromise your story because of those reactions? I asked. Why did you do what you did and how did you decide to do it?

What both those questions boil down to, she said, is trust. As in, Trust Me, the Author.

Trust is at the base of the author-reader relationship. It’s part of our unspoken agreement: “I’m going to take these characters and put them in messes that change them utterly and irrevocably, and then I promise I will bring those messes, and characters, to a satisfactory resolution.” When these things don’t happen, readers get really, really upset.

She listened to the readers based not necessarily on what they were saying but on why they were saying it. By objecting so strongly to Charley having PTSD, she realized they were really saying, “You didn’t bring this mess to a satisfactory conclusion. We can’t trust the changes you’re making in this character.”

But what was so unsatisfactory about the conclusion? What was it, specifically, that broke her readers’ trust?

Jones realized it wasn’t that Charley had gone through a harrowing experience and changed in the face of it, and she knew that she, as an author, wasn’t going to stop putting her character through harrowing experiences…and having her change in the face of them. (To do otherwise would be to make your readers think you’re stupid or make them wonder if you think they’re stupid. To deny that events affect us and change us would be to deny the reader the respect they deserve, and to disregard that essential building block of story—change over time.) It was that she couldn’t introduce permanent fear into her character, in the form of ongoing PTSD, as a change. It wasn’t a satisfactory resolution, and therefore trustworthy, given she had a character who was going to continue to get into intense situations. Her readers needed to trust they weren’t slowly going to watch a beloved character go under.

I realized all the books I haven’t enjoyed have, in some way, broken this Golden Rule. In some way the author had failed to give a satisfactory resolution. One book I vividly remember, even though I read it many years ago, had a main character who, with one childhood lie, violently derailed the lives of two adults she loved and allowed a third to get away with a horrible crime. The entire book implied this character’s growth arc was going to include getting over her fear of telling the truth and finally clearing the two characters’ names and bringing justice to the third. Instead, at the end, she didn’t—she just calmly told the reader she wasn’t ever going to do it! The author completely broke my trust. I’ve never read another of their books. I still, to this day, hate that book passionately.

Oo! The thumbs-down from Joaquin Phoenix! Kiss of death, my friend. KOD.

This raises an important question: does “satisfactory resolution” mean you have to have a happy ending? No. (Except here in our Romance world! J)  “Satisfactory” means it brings satisfying closure. There may still be a huge mess at the end of the story, but you absolutely have to provide closure to the messes you’ve created and the changes the characters have made.[2] This is what it means to be trustworthy.

I broke that rule right off in the first chapter of my Harry Potter story and they told me loud and clear they didn’t trust I would be able to pull off any kind of satisfactory resolution. I made the decision to stick with my original storyline, realizing they hadn’t yet read the whole story and hoping people would be curious (or furious, either works) enough to go along for the ride with me. To their credit, almost every of those initial readers stuck with the story, and loved the resolution I brought to it.

So whatever you write, you’ve got to pay the most attention to whether or not you’re a trustworthy author. You can go anywhere, do anything, but the rule is: bring satisfactory closure to the messes and changes you put your characters through. How will you know if you’ve achieved this? You won’t. You’ve got to test your story on other people. Have them read it and listen not just to what they’re saying, analyze why they’re saying it.

“They” is important—have at least three people read your story (and don’t just send your story around until you find the one person who agrees with your own opinion). It’s best if one of them can tell you technically why your resolutions aren’t working (if they aren’t), even if you have to pay a professional editor to get that information. If you’re not reaching the goal of trustworthiness, that’s when you’ve got to rework the changes in your story.[3]

Being a trustworthy author is this important. As with me and the author who’s book I hated, if you mess with this, you risk losing readers not just for that one book, but for life.


[1] Private email exchange

[2] The Husband’s Secret is an amazing example of satisfying resolution without a happy ending.

[3] Note: The feedback telling me my HP story wasn’t going to work was based solely on the first chapter. This is why I chose, to a certain extent, to ignore it. By the end of the novella the feedback had done a 180, so I made the right choice, but it was a risk.

Dec 04

Hey! It’s 1725! or Two Techniques to Add to Your Worldbuilding Toolkit

One of the first books I ever wrote takes place on a pirate ship in 1725. The 1725 part is important, because that was the end of the Golden Age of Piracy and several countries were combining their efforts to hunt down the last of the big-name pirates; specifically, one of the pirates in my story. As a first-time author, I struggled in my attempts to let my readers know this important worldbuilding information. Some of my early tries basically boiled down to:

The Captain reached the end of his letter: “We are not able to careen at Tortuga,” he wrote. “As you know, I’m being viciously hunted down. 1725 has certainly has had its challenges!”


“So, [name of character], here we are in 1725, and we certainly are being viciously hunted down, are we not? That is because I am a very important pirate.”

*delete with extreme prejudice*

You absolutely 100% had to know this picture was coming.

You absolutely 100% had to know this picture was coming.

The problem is I was dropping information in without any motivation for it—creating the notorious “info-dump,” where the author basically stops the story dead and tells the reader a bunch of information. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear your readers rolling their eyes while they put your book down.

So I spent a lot of time studying this aspect of the craft. To this day, I still look at how other authors handle the balancing act of letting the reader know the when, where, and why-it-matters of worldbuilding without “telling.” Three techniques I’ve noticed effective authors using over and over are:

a)    To avoid “telling,” write information in such a way that it sets up story questions the reader will ask and then reveal world information that answers them.

b)   When possible, use concrete, world-defining objects to answer story questions.

c)    To keep readers reading, keep raising immediate story questions and answering them, but only to raise more.

Eric Nylund’s book The Resisters is the first of a YA science fiction series, which is, in my mind, possibly the most difficult worldbuilding situation you can find yourself in. Here’s how he uses these two techniques to show me his world. These are the first three paragraphs of his book:

1) Ethan Blackwood prepared for battle.

This seems straightforward, at least at first. We know battles mean some kind of war. So Ethan is involved in a war.

2) In the months to come, Ethan would look back and marvel that there could be a fight in which someone didn’t get hurt…or his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk.

Rather unexpected, yes? And so Kick Ass.

Rather unexpected, yes? And so Kick Ass.

In (2), Nylund presents a brief inner flashback. Although it might appear to be, Nylund’s flashback isn’t “telling.” It’s a response to the question raised in the first sentence: “What battle is Ethan preparing for?” But I have no way to contextualize the information the flashback gives me and so it raises more story questions—“in which someone didn’t get hurt” [wait, so the battle Ethan’s about to be in has no casualties? What kind of a battle is it where no one gets hurt?] and “his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk” [WHAT? The entire human race? And why isn’t his life at risk in this battle?].

3) At the time, though, he did think of it as a battle. No one ever thought of it as a game—not when you strapped on six hundred pounds of nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit.

(3) answers one question raised in (2)—why this “battle” isn’t a battle (it’s a game)—but it raises another immediate question: “What time period am I in?” Nylund doesn’t tell me, he shows me, in (3), by introducing a concrete, world-defining object—manned robotic exoskeletons used to play sports. He could have just told us about the exoskeleton: “Ethan put on his six hundred pound, nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit and charged out onto the field, ready to play.” “Oh really?” the reader says, “It’s six hundred pounds, is it? And it’s nuclear powered? Well, thanks for telling us that, Mr. Author! I see we are not in 2013.” EYE ROLL. We have this reaction because there is no story question driving the description. It’s just dumped in there.

But the appearance of that suit is motivated by the question “Why is this game, whatever ‘it’ is, considered a battle?” This gives us a totally different encounter with the world-defining exoskeleton: “Oh holy crap! Why are they wearing those? What is this ‘it’ they’re playing?”

Now let’s get back to (1), and its apparent straightforwardness. (2) and (3) make us we realize we no longer understand what “battle” means there. In fact, that battle now appears to be some kind of game! And that’s how we get to the story question: “What is this game, this ‘it,’ which is considered a battle and requires Ethan to strap on a six-hundred-pound metal suit?”

Nylund’s given me so much story information in such a short amount of time without me really even noticing. My attention has moved from story question to story question and so I am fully engaged as a reader—I want to know why Ethan’s life and the whole human race are in danger, and I want to know more about this mysterious game/battle and these suits. I also want to know what battle Ethan’s headed for, and whether or not I’m on earth, so I’m motivated to keep reading. But most importantly, not an eye-roll in sight because all the information was generated naturally from story questions Nylund led me, as the reader, to ask.

And now back to those pirates…

Nov 03

Writing Romance as a Radical Act

“Hey, girl! Break free of the chains of the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy and get in touch with your power and sexuality! Um, you’re ultimately going to have to die for it. But you’re OK with that, right?”

This is the way it was in literature (and sometimes in life) for women for a long time. Any spark of power, either of the self-determination kind or the sexual freedom kind, in a female character had to end with the woman in question either returning to her “natural” place in the social order through a complete rejection of what she’d done as evil or, if she refused to repent, through death. This served as a warning to any woman who dared, in real life, to try and follow her literary sister’s journey.

There has always been the dichotomy of Angel and Devil, Virgin and Whore, in the history of women’s roles. Even in our “modern” society, we still look down on women who refuse to suppress their natural, healthy sexuality. We view them as shameful and the new name we have for them isn’t new at all: ho. And god help the woman who is authentically assertive; the name we give her has been around for centuries: bitch.

This history is one reason why the romance genre is so ground-breaking and something we would do well to keep in mind as we create our heroines. But to get where we are, we had to break free from where we were.

In a recent presentation, Sara Hackenberg[1] dissected a very specific, and interesting, manifestation in the history of women in literature: the rebirth, in Victorian literature of the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, of the lamia. A lamia is, for all intents and purposes, a female vampire. Whether she is sucking away another’s speech, life energy, or blood, the traits of the lamia are thought-provoking—she’s beautiful, powerful, and powerfully sexual, both with women and men. She is the ultimate uncaged female unleashed on the world.

Lamia, by John William Waterhouse (1909)

The beauty of the lamia is that she isn’t just a manifestation of the Devil/Whore. She is much more powerful and romantic than the traditional “fallen woman.” There have been versions of her in every sacred tradition in history and in her Victorian incarnation, her self-determination and sexuality echo the women-centric religions found in ancient Egypt, Greece, and other pre-Christian societies, as well as modern sacred cultures in India and Asia. And she’s immortal, so she doesn’t have to die for the “sin” of being an actual woman with actual self-will and sexual appetites.

Her re-emergence at that time is interesting. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and the political and social suppression of women’s innate will in this time period is legendary. It was also an age in which women were told “it was permissible to take part in physical intimacies within marriage, so long as it was done ‘without a particle of sexual desire’”[2] and oft-quoted men of science made statements such as “I should say that the majority of women are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”[3]; is it any wonder this über-female arose in response? The lamia is one hell of a reaction, exploding the suffocating strictures within which women were expected to live. The time was ripe for the vengeful spirit of women’s suppressed power to burst out on the page (and it’s interesting that men wrote of lamias as well).  The lamia gives voice to, and flaunts, women’s power and sexuality.

She proclaimed loudly that restricting women to angelic, and powerless, roles was a form of violence in itself. Many lamia stories play out a confrontation between the “ideal” version of women and a more real (albeit hyper-real) version, where the “angel” is sucked dry by the lamia, symbolizing, in part, how draining the angelic role is. If the angel had been at all empowered—if these two aspects had been balanced—she could never have fallen prey to the stronger side of herself.

So yes, the lamia represents female power out of balance. But when the pendulum swings, it destroys everything in its path as it screams toward the expression of the repressed side. And as is the case with all extreme expressions, it needs to be re-integrated.

And this is where the romance genre comes in. This lamia is, I am willing to argue, one root of our romance heroines. She is one of the underpinnings of our genre, and shows how what we are doing is so very, very radical in the history of literature.

Our female protagonists are the synthesis of the explosive power of the lamia and the nurturing nature of the angel. Both sides have something women need and we are weaving them back together by creating women who are a balanced mix of the lamia and the angel—they are self-willed, caring, have great sex, nurturing, and are in charge of every aspect of their lives, even down to which men they will and won’t have sex with and even what kind of sex they’re going to have, and they are not only allowed to live at the end of their stories, they are expected to go on having interesting and exciting lives and great sex. In the process, they do not suck others dry because they have the balancing aspects of the angel. They make it OK to be real women, not caricatures. What a radical premise!

The words of Dr. Maya Angelou. Nobody argues with Dr. Angelou.

This, my writer friends, is nothing short of a revolution. It may well be one reason why “the romance genre” is so maligned in our culture—we might be hearing a cultural echo of the censure against self-determined women interested in owning their power and their sexuality. Nice women just don’t do that! No, instead, romance must be some silly genre we should all look askance at as we proceed to the Literature section of the bookstore.

Where you can find all the books where women have to die for trying to live the very lives we create on paper every day.

So I’m all for bringing the knowledge of the history of women’s roles in literature to the forefront so we can consciously integrate the lamia and the angel into the souls of our heroines. It shouldn’t be a radical statement to create such characters, but it appears there are still many reasons why it is. So I raise my glass to all of us, who are showing, every day, that the new femininity is the radical notion that being a real woman can, and should, include both nurturing and sexual and personal power—and live to tell the tale.

[1] Ph.D., Stanford University 19th C. British and American literature; narrative mystery; popular and visual culture.

[2] Mary Wood-Allen, in her popular and influential book What a Young Woman Ought to Know, published in 1913, as quoted in Bill Bryson’s book At Home.

[3] Sir William Acton, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life, Considered in Their Physiological, Social, and Moral Relations, first published in 1857, and quoted in Bill Bryson’s At Home.

Oct 16

Why Stories Matter

This month I found myself, in the midst of reworking a story, wondering why I bothered. There are times when this feeling surfaces in me where I think of the long hours I put into my art, my craft, and wonder if the balance of a story’s existing is worth the effort. Wouldn’t my time be better spent volunteering at a women’s shelter or writing non-fiction articles about issues I’m passionate about? Is my writing fiction just a way of softening the edges of the injustices and suffering I see in the world around me (or in myself), a way of couching dirty realities in pretty language paintings?

For these moments, I have two notecards covered with quotes. I take those cards out and read them when I start feeling like this, like there is just not a story in the world that could possibly matter more than teaching starving people how to grow food. What they remind me of is that stories are, in their own right, a very necessary kind of food—a food without which we cannot live any more than the kind of food we put in our mouths.

Stories aren’t just passive entertainment. We turn to stories to tell us how to make it through those times we don’t think we’re going to make it through. In college I needed to see Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary live through loving the man they couldn’t have (in my case, the man I couldn’t get back). Sometimes I need to watch Holden Caulfield and Beloved wrestle with their versions of despair so I can contextualize mine. And sometimes when a darker emotion has me in its sway, I want a story full of sparkle and sass, a life raft from the shadowy depths of my internal ocean, reminding me there is a surface, after all.


That’s perhaps the most important reason to write—stories are our collective wisdom regarding how to make it through any and everything. There are endless reports of rescue workers in the depths of war zones and the scenes of natural disasters holding frightened children close and telling them stories. Yes, they’re also providing life-saving care, but stories are a part of that care. They help knit together shattered safety. Stories can help us form a context for understanding what’s happened to us.

Stories also help us explore, or discover, who we really are and what is at the root of our struggles. The meaning we ascribe to a story reflects this perfectly. To me, Hamlet isn’t about hesitation—it’s about what happens when we let our intellect overrun our heart. “Being too much in your head” is one of my biggest challenges and Hamlet reminds me of the cost of living there. And that’s why a good story isn’t just a fun read—it’s a journey of self-revelation: how many times have you been reading and thought “I’m totally like that” or “I’m nothing like that” or the ever-popular “Oh crap, I didn’t think I was like that, but really I am”?

A good book will hit you like this–out of nowhere.

I read a book recently about a woman who was in a great marriage…and then an ex-lover showed up. I love my husband, he’s amazing, but I learned a lot about my own longing from that book, and the way I can get trapped in a fantasy world just like that woman did, imbuing past lovers with magical qualities when my husband and I aren’t connecting the way I think we “should.” Danger, Will Robinson! Note to self: watch the gossamer-myth spinning. It distracts from what I need to pay attention to in the present.

And that’s why I have those quotes. When I forget the power of our collective storytelling, my reminding factors poke me and say, “Stories help us live, and make sense of, our lives. Keep writing.”

Sep 07

Tell Me A Story

To say that I was surprised when I first heard the audio book market was exploding would be an understatement. Who would listen to a book when you can read it? And where are all these people listening to these books?

Turns out everyone, everywhere. Whether CD or audiofile, more and more people are choosing to listen to their stories. According to BookStats, numbers compiled by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, which “includes data from about 1,500 publishers, including the six major trade houses,” audiobook sales keep going up and up.[1] “‘You’re seeing an evolution in terms of the way that people are accessing content,’ said Dominique Raccah, a former chairwoman of the Book Industry Study Group and the publisher of Sourcebooks, a midsize publishing company in Naperville, Ill., outside Chicago. ‘Audio downloads are up, e-books are up. There’s a migration in format clearly occurring. Customers can now access books in a lot of different ways.’”[2]

You would think it’d be six of one, half dozen of another between carrying a book in your bag and carrying a mobile device. So what’s pushing sales of the audio book, this strange hybrid between print and technology? “Publishers attributed the increase partly to the widespread use of mobile devices.”[3]

I read that line and immediately felt it missed something bigger. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with what a friend of mine said during our discussion of this very topic[4]—we want to be told stories. But what really goes on when we hear, as opposed to read, a story?

Thank you, Rita Marlier, for memorializing such a wonderful feeling.

My dad read books to my sister and me when we were children, and when I focused in on what it was about those times that felt different from just reading the book myself, I remembered how he read with different voices for different characters, how he used inflection and accents and brought the emotion of stories alive with his voice. I remember when I started reading stories to my own child, how important I felt it was to do the same. I thought about how we, both my father and sister and me and my son, would act out pieces of story to each other after, laughing until we cried. Why? It’s clear we were adding something to the story by the way we read it aloud, but what?

And then I thought about all the stories we tell each other at parties and just hanging out, to our friends and families and, sometimes, even complete strangers; stories that make us scream with laughter, or clutch our chests while we try to breathe normally, or press tissues to our eyes.

I realized what’s happening during all those separate events is people are creating relationship. We’re getting close to one another in ways that can only be done through the medium of voice. Listening to someone speak is an intimately human experience—we open ourselves up through hearing a human voice. We drink in the nuance, allow the tone and resonance to evoke emotions, literally let another person live with us in our heads. It can create an incredibly intimate space in a world more and more stripped of intimacy.

All this explains why reading aloud to someone has such power, and revealed why my own first experience into audiobooks was so strong. My son and I listened to a book narrated by Brendan Fraser. Our only CD player was in the car (curse you, digital music! And yes, I know I could have downloaded it to my computer, but honestly, this was much more fun), and we were so hooked we would invent any excuse—“We’ve only got three-quarters of a loaf of bread left!”—to jump in the car and drive 50mph on the freeway to the furthest-away store we could find so we could listen to as much as possible. (Because, of course, you can’t just sit in the car in front of the house. That would be weird.) The story was great, but really it was Fraser’s voice, his inflection, his accents (just his accents alone cracked us up!), the way he brought the characters to life—the book was bursting forth from my speakers, alive in the air around us. It was Fraser’s voice that drew us, again and again, to my car.

Brenden! Brenden! Oy! Oy! Oy!

When we listen to a story, we are entering into a relationship with the person we’re listening to. There is such power in the human voice and whether conscious or unconscious, audiobooks are tapping into this longing for connection. As far as I’m concerned, that is a bigger factor in audiobook sales than what device we have in our pocket. So presenting our stories in spoken formats might be a good marketing strategy, but it’s much more than that; it’s a deeper way to connect to readers, a way to create an intimacy that can never be reached through words on paper. We are storytellers, after all—let our stories be told.

[1] www.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/business/media/e-book-sales-a-boon-to-publishers-in-2012.html?_r=0

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Thanks to Karysa Faire, whose discussion on this topic sparked this article.

Aug 07

In Which Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction Square Off

I read a piece by Joyce Carol Oates[1] in which she mentioned Charles Dickens’ essay “Night Walks,” about how, when he had an ongoing and intense bout of insomnia, he walked through the streets of London until dawn, and how this profoundly unsettling state of “night-restlessness” led him to rename himself “Houselessness” for the course of those evenings. Oates observed: “No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens, so wrongly interpreted as a dispenser of popular, soft-hearted tales.”

“Yes,” I thought immediately, “I know that intoxication.” I closed my eyes and let myself fall, for just a moment, into that delicious 3a.m. hush, when thoughts charge through our brains unrestrained, and words curlicue like smoke from our souls. Worlds end at 3a.m. Lives are unbearable and yes, desolation and near-madness can lick up around the edges of our minds, and the blood surging through our veins at those moments turns our pages red.

Even Shakespeare agrees! And who argues with Shakespeare?

Wait, what? The “romance of desolation”? The “ecstasy of near-madness”? And then there is “dispenser of popular, light-hearted tales.”

This is the lit fic rallying cry.[2] It embraces the idea that writers write because we can see the demons everyone else ignores, and we cannot rest until we wrestle them down onto paper, over and over, forever. Writing is our barbaric yawp, and we send it out over the rooftops, hoping to help dim the bedlam of lives lived in the vicious grip of the mundane. Anything less is inauthentic.

I hear the siren call of this idea, and I know it lives deep inside me. And yet my brow furrowed over Oates’s words. I know writers for whom this is not necessarily the state of their souls. They aren’t carving out pieces of the collective subconscious and nailing them to the page. They write about nice people who have all the trouble they need trying to get together with a person they’re attracted to without having to face an existential crisis on their way to dinner. These writers scoff at this idea: “That’s ridiculous! You don’t need to court madness and desolation to be authentic.”

I think both responses are correct. But how can that be, when they’re fundamentally opposed?

I was stumped until I started looking at it from a completely different angle. If you want to understand a culture, one of the biggest sources of information is that culture’s stories. What a bonanza the explosion of story forms in the last two centuries has been—among them commercial fiction, graphic novels, comic books, movies, and video games. And that got me thinking…

Amazing insights can be found by using all these stories to dissect, for example, what a culture fears, how it loves, and what it thinks is possible. Crime, horror, and paranormal, romance, and science fiction do just that. And lit fic, which is busy analyzing and digging into the underlying darkness of the psyche, gives the cultural sleuth an intentional glimpse of the gritty machines grinding away behind the beautiful facade people try so hard to preserve. And with those statements you can already see how this perspective makes murky the line between the two sides—there is just as much commercial fic that gives this glimpse as lit fic that fails to.

See how similar they look? Let’s face it–they’re both badasses.

This broader view gives us the objectivity to look at fiction as existing on a continuum of human experience. This continuum goes from dark to light. And since no shadow can be thrown without light and no light can exist without creating shadow, there is no way to have sides. Even in a book without shadow we notice its absence, just as much as we notice the absence of light in a book consumed with shadow. The question, therefore, becomes not “What kind of book is this?” but “Where on the continuum of the human psyche does this book fall?” This question invites the reader to engage every book they read on a much deeper level.

If we’re honest, we, as writers, exist on this continuum, too. So what should matter most is how our story answers that second question, because we’re creating roadmaps of the human psyche, whether we’re aware we’re doing it or not. Our duty, collectively, is to provide as many different roadmaps as we can, not dismiss one story or another because of an imaginary literary fistfight. Only through all our approaches can we capture enough variations to get a glimpse of the true play of light and shadow in the soul, and this could lead to the deepest insight of all: When I look at you, your lights and darks, I see myself.

[1] “Running and Writing,” from The Faith of a Writer

[2] I’m not saying this is Oates’s intention. Everything that follows is my exploration, sparked by her observation.

Jun 10

My first Snippet Sunday post!

Tools of a trade Kelly never thought she’d pursue.

Kelly Hannow knows she has to get away from Chax. The question is, how?

For Major Camden Williams and Major Devin MacGreggor, Green Berets, after what they survived in Iraq, it’s nothing to them to catch a burglar. But when they see Kelly’s scar, the dark rage that burns hot beneath their surfaces is kindled, and just sending her on her way is no longer an option. Teaching Kelly defensive strategies takes an unexpected turn when the heat of battle turns to a very different kind of heat. Now the only question is, what kind of future can three lost souls possibly find together?

Here they are, the first ten sentences of my WIP, Breaking In.

Thanks to Karysa for such a cool idea! And thanks to all who read. I really appreciate it!


Breaking and entering was not on the list of things Kelly had hoped to accomplish when she graduated from college. But she also wasn’t one to run from good fortune when it decided to shine on her, which had been damn little in the last few years, and not at all in the last month. Breaking and entering posed the most welcome opportunity she could imagine at the moment.

Music bellowed from the speaker mounted on the ceiling and she let her mind create patterns in the dusty spider webs vibrating with the bass. Across the dingy pub Chax shoved crumpled, sweat-damp bills around on the bar. “Adam! Christ, you gonna give me change or what? No way I’m leaving you four bucks tip.”

She rubbed her thigh, a habit she hated and needed to break, even though finally her touch wasn’t met by a hot sting. She lifted her glass to her mouth and gin smoked its juniper tendrils toward the back of her throat before she swallowed. The familiar hollow feeling, like her chest had been emptied out, began to spread.


Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out the other authors who are posting for Snippet Sunday.

Jun 02

Reader Expectations–The Good News…and the Bad

There are hundreds of types of fiction, but, arguably, they all boil down to three: literary, genre, and crossover. I’m forever interested in the distinctions between those three (and why those distinctions exist in the first place), but recently I had a conversation about distinctions from a completely different perspective—the reader’s.

I know, you’d think I would have understood the influence this perspective has on these distinctions a long time ago. I did, to a certain extent, but it was more along the lines of “Hey, reader, come on this journey with me! Maybe it won’t be what you expected, but I promise it’s going to be worth it!” It wasn’t until I saw, and understood my reaction to, the movie Pain & Gain that I really got that what I was saying wasn’t taking into account the power of what a reader brings to our books before they even pick them up off the shelf or download them. I’m talking about the power of expectations.

But first, Pain & Gain. I love Mark Wahlberg and pretty much trust, at this point, that the movies he’s in are going to be of a certain caliber. The trailers for Pain & Gain, at least the ones I saw, portrayed it as a comedy. I was all on fire to see it. When my husband and son went on a camping trip together, I eagerly bought my ticket and a great big box of Reese’s Pieces and claimed my seat in the exact center of the theater.

THIS is the movie I wanted to see! This is FUNNY! Hey, *I* want to wear Swagger now!

True to the trailers, when the movie began, it was very funny. But as I sat there in the dark, munching tiny peanut butter spheres, it became harder and harder to maintain my laughter. In fact, as the true awfulness of the situation became clear, I stopped laughing all together. These horrible things had really been done to a real man by the real main characters.

This was not a funny story—not at all. In fact, it was horrifying.

Fast forward to my discussion with other writers about reader expectations.

I’ve always maintained that, as long as you write a good story, your readers will come along for the ride. I’ve done my fair share of genre-twisting, running on the far side of a “rule,” playing with the tropes and definitions of our genre. And, to a certain extent, I think those are good things to do.

But the lesson I learned from Pain & Gain was this: if you tell your audience you’ve written a certain kind of story, in a certain genre, they come into it with certain expectations. And those expectations can be a good thing. They prime the pump of your audience, predisposing them to like your work.

On the other hand, if you lead them to believe your story is one thing, and it’s really something else, those same expectations are going to sink you.

For example, you can write amazing romance, absolutely knock that ball out of the park, but if your cover blurb, Amazon description, and jacket copy try to sell it as lit fic, you are going to get bad reviews. Because your story is bad? No! Because you failed to meet the readers’ expectations—they aren’t expecting romance, and won’t recognize your efforts in that genre. (And vice versa!) They’re looking for lit fic, and they’re not getting it, and they hate your book because of that.

I’ll say! And as far as expectations go…..

…that’s really, really a bummer.

I hated Pain & Gain because it wasn’t funny (whether or not it is a good movie at all is a different discussion). I couldn’t change my expectations half-way through and re-imagine the movie as whatever it was trying to be, because I was too busy being horrified by the subject matter, which certainly didn’t meet my expectations.

Ultimately, we can write whatever kind of book we like. We can tweak and twist the “rules” of our genre every which way (and this can be, in part, the definition of “crossover”). But it’s also our responsibility to understand the expectations of our audience. There are rules to our genres and sub-genres, and when we write, whether we like it or not, our stories are going to be judged, in part, on whether or not we met the expectations of our audience, based on those rules. Does this mean we’re locked into tropes and the like? No. But if we’re going to push the genre, we need to be clear exactly which direction we’re pushing in. We can’t just presume our readers will love the sushi we serve them when they very clearly ordered lasagna.

May 23

Plagiarism or Inspiration?

On October 2, 1998, the movie Antz was released to great fanfare and critical acclaim. This was Dreamworks’ first animated movie, and they were entering a powerhouse genre, going head-to-head against heavy-hitters Disney and Pixar. Antz was a huge success, making millions for Dreamworks.

Then, on November 25th, only a little over a month later, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life was released.

There was no question someone had copied someone else. The only question was: who had copied whom?

At least this time, there’s an answer.

Turns out, John Lasseter, who was friends with Jeffery Katzenberg at the time, had told Katzenberg all about Bug’s Life on a visit to L.A. in the fall of 1995. In his battle to undercut Disney, which distributes Pixar films (and now owns them), Katzenberg began production on Antz, intentionally planning on getting it into theaters before Bug’s Life.[1]

That sure as heck was copying. But was it also plagiarism? And why am I making that distinction?

Because it appears that while plagiarism is illegal, copying isn’t. The law states that no one can legally protect an idea—only the implementation of an idea. If we apply that law here, then the idea “an ant with individual ideas uses them to save his colony” isn’t protected. And the way that idea is implemented in Antz and Bug’s Life is, indeed, different, so there is no legal problem, and, therefore, no plagiarism.

But the issue at hand is much bigger than this simplistic distinction implies. Legal or not, there is the whiff (and perhaps more than that, a downright stink) of the dishonest in what Dreamworks did. Individual implementation aside, there’s no way to see the two movies without knowing, in our bones, that, indeed, “someone copied someone else.” We sense the moral wrongness of what Katzenberg did, regardless of whether it is legally allowed.

In the writerly world, consider 50 Shades of Grey. This book originated as Twilight fanfic. Indeed, the main characters still retain the exact physical and emotional characteristics of Meyers’s, with the exception that the male protagonist is no longer a vampire. It’s impossible to read the two books without noting the blatant similarities—even, overall, in aspects of their plot arcs.[2]

Fanfic has a long history of drawing its inspiration from existing, copywrited works, and I’m not knocking it in the least. But when it goes on to its own publishing life, something goes creepy-crawly up my spine because of that copywrite on the source material. Again, this doesn’t fit the legal definition of plagiarism. But there’s no denying that something ain’t right there, and the literary world agreed, diving into the ethical considerations of publishing 50 Shades.[3]

But it gets more distressing, and confusing. Because in thinking about the roots of fanfic, I realized the real question in these cases is about much more than copying.

Which brings us to the case we discussed at a writers meeting I attended, where author Kelly Rucker brought a suit against Harlequin, alleging that they stole her idea for a novel. I’m not so interested in the outcome of this case, or even the actual particulars, but instead, in the implications. Because the real question raised by all these examples is: what is the role of inspiration in the creative life? And when I realized that was the actual question, I got nervous about my reactions to both Antz and 50 Shades.

In the case of Kelly Rucker vs. Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. the real accusation is about the source of the inspiration for the Harlequin book. Did Rucker’s book, How to Love a Billionaire, inspire The Proud Wife? In that case, does phrasing the question as “Did A Bug’s Life inspire Antz?” change our feeling about the issue of those movies?

I am a devotee of inspiration. I would wield a sword against the strongest opponent to protect our right to be inspired by others’ ideas. But is inspiration a different animal than plagiarism? Or does the very idea of inspiration contain within it the notion of plagiarism?

Do we feel better if we call it a tribute? This is from the point of view of designers. Very interesting.

Indeed, plagiarism asks real questions about what we are, and are not, allowed to do as artists. If we read a story that inspires us to write (Twilight), are we now, ethically, allowed to make (and publish) of that inspiration whatever we like (50 Shades)? How much must be changed before we can be morally comfortable calling the idea our own? If Katzenberg had changed the characters from ants to water buffaloes, would that have been enough to rid the movie of its suspect morality?

What are the rules? Do we want there to be rules? If we do, how strict do we want them to be?

The law as written and put into practice falls clearly on the side of those who wish to copy—who wish, in what to me feels like the true spirit of the word, to plagiarize—because of the inherent looseness of the idea of “implementation.” Are we happy with the distinction between “idea” and “implementation” if it allows instances like Antz/Bug’s Life and Twilight/50 Shades to happen?

On the other hand, if we eliminate that distinction, if we win cases against the Antz and 50 Shades and Good Wifes of the world, have we now hamstrung ourselves from being able to be “inspired” at all?

I don’t know the answers. I’ve had amazing and valuable conversations with a variety of people about this, some who believe there’s a real problem and some who don’t.  There isn’t a clear resolution. Should there be?

[1] www.businessweek.com/1998/47/b3605013.htm

[2] For a good list of them, see fiftyshadesofplagiarism.blogspot.com

[3] A fabulous one: smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/50-days-of-50-shades