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Self-Exploitation

I was listening to a podcast today about upcoming movies for the year, and the podcasters went off on a tangent about a dad’s memoir about his son, and how this dad has also written powerful essays about things he and his son went through. (I’m being intentionally vague here. Why should I shill for this guy and his movie? Though I’m sure it would be easy enough to find out which one I mean.)

It’s natural, I think, to feel that prick of jealousy when some [other] author is being touted. And of course I can’t help thinking, Sure, and of course it’s a man and his son, because their stories are valued. But then I have to ask myself whether I’m willing to pillage my own history for the attention it might win me as an author. And the answer to that has always been: No.

The truth is, I don’t want to be known for some of the things that I would become known for if I did that. If I decided to write about some specific aspects of my past—things I prefer to keep quiet; things I would rather not rehash or relive—I would then walk around with a label on my forehead. And I don’t want that. I don’t want the first thing people think of me or associate with me to be XYZ. I’d rather be taken on my own merits, even if they are mediocre.

Also, if I start talking about them, everyone will want me to talk about them. And I already don’t want to talk about them.

This has been a conscious decision all my life, so I can’t really be annoyed when someone takes the other road. After all, it does take a kind of strength to share these personal things.

Sometimes I’m told that I owe it to society to share my past, that to do so would help others. But I’m not convinced of that, and I don’t think I bear that burden. I’ll share my stories in my own way, in fictitious ways. I will plant the truth like seeds in my make believe. That is enough for me. That is as close as I want to get to opening up my chest and exposing my heart.

And whether anyone else likes my stories, which are my garden, and whether anyone else notices the sprouts of what has been planted, well . . . That’s rather beside the point, I think. A good story stands on its own, regardless of its creator’s history. A beautiful garden is best viewed in the absence of the cultivator.

Guest Post: Kai Raine

My Stumbling Block in Writing: Forgetting Heteronormativity

Preface

About a month ago, I wrote a short literary story titled “Valence.”

“Valence” is about a character who has trouble discerning emotions: she can feel the strength, or valence, of an emotion—without necessarily being able to identify what said emotion is. It’s the story of how she falls in love with a man named Victor who doesn’t return those feelings, and they maintain a very close relationship before, during and after. My protagonist fails to notice when the love turns toxic and comes closer to loathing—and so it ends in tragedy.

The story is written in first person, entirely from my protagonist’s perspective. It jumps back and forth between her past with Victor, and her present, where she’s on the opposite end of the same thing, as a friend of hers named Victoria mistakes a toxicity in their relationship for romantic love.

The Cycle of Bewildering Feedback

I wrote a draft, edited it, and sent it out to beta readers, feeling pretty happy with the story. When the first beta reader said she liked it but was confused about the perspective shift between Victor and Victoria, I figured she simply hadn’t understood the story. It happens sometimes. I told her that the perspective was neither Victor’s nor Victoria’s, but a nameless third person, and went back to my manuscript to make a few minor edits.

To my surprise, she began to argue with me, insisting that the perspective did shift between characters. She could see that there was a third person there near the end, she said, but this was definitely a story about how Victoria and Victor had a convoluted relationship and Victoria killed Victor. Why was there a third person there? And why was the end so confusing? And did I know that I was using past tense sometimes and present tense at others?

I realized my mistake: because I jumped around in time, only one of the eight segments of the story referenced both Victoria and Victor near the end. Most of them had only a “me” and a Victoria, or a “me” and a Victor. I added a few more mentions of Victor in the Victoria segments, and felt satisfied that I’d solved the problem.

Yet my next few beta readers said the very same things as the first. They liked it, but were very confused by the sudden appearance of a mysterious third character near the end. One even mentioned that she was confused about why Victor occasionally seemed to refer to himself in the third person.

I resigned myself to giving my main character a name. I named her Chen (an androgynous Jewish name more often used for girls, pronounced “Ken”) and inserted her name in one strategic place. I added references to her background that would distinguish her from Victoria.

Imagine my frustration when my next reader was still confused.

I had to take a step back and take a long, hard look at the story. The story never made sense if it was from the perspectives of Victor and Victoria; it was even worse now, after all my edits. There were so many plot holes, so many inconsistencies if the story was interpreted that way. So why did people keep insisting on reading it that way?

The Source of the Problem—At Last

My greatest weakness in writing is knowing exactly how much to say in order for my meaning to be conveyed to the average reader. Too often I’ve written stories where beta readers are confused because they missed one line somewhere early on, and the information from that one line was crucial to their understanding of the whole story. This is to say nothing of the passages that I’ve written with one meaning in mind, only to learn later that they are most often read with a very different meaning that makes less sense in the context of the story overall. I’m much better at catching these and compensating for this than I used to be.

“Valence” proved that I’m very much still learning, because when I finally realized my mistake, it was astonishingly simple. Victor and Victoria were of opposite genders. If I’d made both of them men, or both of them women, this would never have been a problem. But because they’re of opposite genders, it simply doesn’t immediately register with most readers that there could be one person having these convoluted relationships with both of them at different points in time. The easiest, most natural reading for most people is that these two characters of opposite gender have a convoluted relationship with each other.

I inserted Chen’s name in prominent parts of conversation in the first scene with Victoria, and the first scene with Victor. I inserted headers over each part, dividing the story into 4 segments:

0. Before Victor
1. The Beginning of Victor and Me
2. The End of Victor and Me
3. After Victor

Surely now, finally, there could be no more confusion.

My first beta reader after this change was still confused, and I nearly despaired. I went so far as to linearize the storytelling to make it as clear as possible. But as I was doing this, I got feedback from a few more beta readers, overwhelmingly positive and with comments that made it clear that at last they had been able to follow the story.

I went back to the a-linear storytelling structure, reassured.

“Fray”: My Experimental Story

My difficulty with “Valence” is actually not the first time I’ve had this sort of problem with people’s interpretation of a work of mine. The difference is that last time it was entirely on purpose.

About five years ago, I wrote a short story that I called “Fray.” At the time, I used to regularly enter my story into consideration at Sixfold. (In case you are unaware: Sixfold is a literary journal without an editor choosing which stories make it. When you enter your story into consideration, you also commit to reading, rating and reviewing 6 stories each for 3 rounds: a total of 18 stories. If you miss the deadline to rate the stories you’re assigned for any of the rounds, your story is pulled out of the running. You rate the stories by ranking: you rank the 6 stories that you had to read from your favorite to your least favorite. You can also offer the author feedback if you like; something I always tried to do, as this was the reason why I liked submitting my work here.)

For some reason, I never submitted a normal, simple story to Sixfold—not that I write many normal, simple short stories to begin with. But I always submitted the weirdest things I had, the most bizarre writings of mine that I was nonetheless ridiculously fond of. (If you’re interested in seeing what I mean, the stories “Maple Wood” and “Flight” are among ones I submitted to Sixfold.)

I don’t know what made me decide to deliberately screw with my readers.

I had this little short story called “Fray.” It was about a closeted bisexual man and his out-and-proud best friend. This protagonist has been dating a woman he doesn’t really care for, and at the start of the story their relationship falls apart. He takes comfort in his best friend and finally admits his dirty secret: he’s in love with him. The best friend, in a loving and committed relationship, is sympathetic but unreceptive. The main character accepts the heartbreak but finds that perhaps because of his new self-acceptance, his strained relationship with his family isn’t as difficult as it once was.

So here’s what I did: I took “Fray,” and I removed as many gender indicators as I realistically could.

The only person it was impossible to make un-gendered was the best friend. He was too central to the story—trying to avoid using pronouns for him would have been entirely unnatural. It was in first person, so the protagonist’s gender was already obscure. The girlfriend at the start and the best friend’s boyfriend were given gender-ambiguous names and never referred to using pronouns.

For the final touch, I added one solitary reference to the protagonist being a man: this line I placed at the end of the middle, where the relationship dynamics of all the characters are already clear.

Then I stuck it into the running at Sixfold and waited and watched.

To my amusement, one of my reviewers was outright frustrated. He couldn’t tell which characters were what gender, he said, and that was distracting and frustrating. Another reviewer left me a stream-of-consciousness review that showed me that he was frustrated through most of the story—until he hit the mention that the main character was male, at which point he had to go back to the beginning, apparently fascinated by the “gender-bending” and now concluding that they all must be gay men.

I smiled to myself. I thought, “How interesting,” and went on with my life. This story was discarded and forgotten until recently, when I decided to try submitting it to journals for real. (Fingers crossed that it gets published in the next few months!)

Conclusion

Even in this day and age, readers don’t see gay and bisexual characters unless your writing forces them to see it. Perhaps this is obvious to people who are not me, but it’s already surprised me more than once. It’s a recurring anthropological lesson that I keep on forgetting.

Most recently, a short story of mine where sexuality wasn’t even an issue (I thought) got a teasing comment from a reviewer. After the death of a woman, her widower marries a man—not a big event, just something that happens in the background—and a beta reader commented on how he hadn’t been open about his sexuality until that point. I snarked back at her, referencing the Kinsey scale. She apologized, saying she didn’t know why she found the character’s bisexuality jarring in that story, when she hadn’t had that problem in another story of mine.

The problem was simple. I hadn’t introduced this character as bisexual in the text at all. So when the character formerly exhibiting heteronormative behavior suddenly exhibits homosexual behavior, a reader doesn’t have to be homophobic to find it jarring.

There are many writers who forget to humanize a gay or transgender or colored character beyond personality traits that are somehow related to those things. I have read many such stories. I’m in the opposite camp: I keep forgetting that this is still not quite a societal norm, so I must ease my readers into it—or at least make sure that everything is explicitly stated.

Does this mean I’ve been doing something fundamentally wrong, that I’ve hit this one stumbling block multiple times from different angles? No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, I’m a little happy to discover that my brain apparently has been living in a world where heteronormativity is an oft-forgotten afterthought. However, as a writer, I feel that I must be able to convey my meaning to people whose minds don’t necessarily work the same way as mine. I might choose not to do this from time to time; but most of the time, I want a story to at least be comprehensible to the average reader. So I have a lot more learning to do.

About the Author

Kai Raine is a writer and cognitive scientist who believes in thinking outside the box and questioning assumptions. Kai reads and writes to experience lives and opinions and possibilities beyond her own. She has lived a relatively nomadic life, being born in the US, then growing up mostly in Japan, and spending most of her early adult life in Europe. She has a BA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and MScs from the University of Trento and the University of Osnabrück. Kai is the author of the fantasy novel These Lies That Live Between Us. Visit her at http://www.kairaine.com/.

Faebourne Cover Reveal!

I’m so excited about the beautiful cover Elena at L1graphics has created for Faebourne! I seriously want to blow it up to poster size and hang it in my office where I can look at it every day. It makes me so happy!

And thank you to everyone who voted and sent me comments on the various cover designs. It seems most of you liked this one best, but I think I would have chosen it regardless. The moment I saw it, I swooned—and that’s the reaction I’m hoping readers will have too!

Without further ado, here it is:

About Faebourne:

When unassuming Duncan Oliver is kidnapped by the Milne brothers, his usually tame life takes a turn for the bizarre. The Milne family is rumored to carry a peculiar strain of insanity—or could it be true that they have fairy blood in their veins? Either way, the lovely Adelia Milne appears to have cast a spell over Duncan . . . An enchantment that, the longer Duncan stays at Faebourne, the more reluctant he is to break.

Publication day is August 7!

It’s Raining Rejection

Rejection is a part of the writing process. Precious few writers don’t suffer it in one form or another: rejected queries, rejected manuscripts, or the rejection of the reading public (often in the form of one-star reviews).

Today I received this rejection from an agent who’d done me the great good service of reading my entire manuscript:

This is an original concept and you’ve done a great job creating a novel with a strong voice and engaging characters. That said, after careful consideration, I just didn’t connect as strongly with this project as I would need to in order to represent it.

Arrrgh! (No, not a pirate. Frustration.)

I really, really want to take consolation from that first line. But . . . If the novel was good, why doesn’t she want to represent it? And since she doesn’t give me any specific feedback or suggestions, I can’t help thinking the manuscript must be unsalvageable. Like, if she thought I could do something to make it better, she’d at least give me an R&R, right?

[For the uninitiated, an R&R is a “revise & resubmit.” Agents and editors sometimes offer that if a manuscript isn’t quite there yet but they see potential.]

There are a couple other agents still looking at the manuscript, but all the rejections thus far have been of that same ilk: “Really good, but didn’t connect.” At this point I don’t know what I’m going to do with this book. Burn it? While I try to decide how to build a suitable bonfire, I’ll focus on finishing Faebourne. That one I’ll publish myself. (Already have a gorgeous cover, so be on the lookout for it in a future post!)

Please Vote!

I’m getting cover designs for my new Regency romance Faebourne and I need some help narrowing things down. Click here to see and vote. Which of those covers makes you want to pick up the book and read it? Thanks for your input!

(P.S. I know two of the covers look almost exactly alike, but the font and color of the title is different. So if you like one more than the other, let me know that too!)

It’s Not Yours

Yesterday I read this article in which Martin Freeman, who played John Watson in Sherlock, rants a bit about alternate readings of the text. Namely, he insists that there’s nothing gay in Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, it was never played that way.

My initial gut reaction was, “Wow, that’s a really strong and seemingly homophobic reaction.” But what I think really bothered me about it was the suggestion that the however many viewers who read the text differently had somehow done it wrong.

The moment a book or film or television series meets the public, it no longer belongs to the creator(s). Not the writer, not the actors, not the director, etc. It becomes the property of those who engage with the text. They get to read it and interpret it however they want. It may not be what you intended, and some interpretations may be a stretch, but there is no right and wrong.

One of the first things they taught us in Radio-Television-Film courses at uni was “encoding” and “decoding.” This is the fundamental of all communication, from speaking to writing to filming. You say something, or write something, or perform an action, and the listener/reader/viewer takes that information and decodes its meaning. Some messages are fairly simple. There are only so many ways my son can interpret, “Clean your room.” But if I want to be really clear, I might break it down into: “Put all the clothes on the floor in the laundry basket and make your bed.” Otherwise, his idea of “clean” and mine might not be the same.

When dealing with books or film or television, however, the author of the text is not there to explain the work as the reader or viewer engages with it. Nor would we want them to be. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie with someone explaining everything as things happen. Part of the joy of reading and watching shows is extrapolating information for ourselves. Our brains like having to work.

Look at all the fan theories for various shows, the online communities. People love taking things apart, breaking things down. And the choices they make for that process—the lines along which they break things, the metrics they use—are going to be wide ranging and, at the same time, very personal.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a queer reading of Sherlock is par for the course. There is a grand history of queer readings of all kinds of things, and to stomp your foot and say, “No!” is childish and naïve.

When I’ve been asked about—or sometimes told—things that appear in my books and stories, I don’t say, “You’re wrong.” (Well, maybe if they have a detail or fact incorrect.) I say something like, “That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way.” Or, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind at the time, but I see where you might read it that way.” There’s room for everyone and their ideas, after all, and I’m just flattered they’ve taken the time to think that much about it.

Thing is, I know I can’t control how people will receive my work. I know that, once they’re holding that book, it’s no longer mine. It’s theirs, and they will interpret it however they want, in whatever ways work for them. To throw a little tantrum over it would be unprofessional to say the least and smacks of dictatorship at the worst.

The only way to make sure people read your text the way you want them to is to never write or film it at all.

Six Years: A Reflection

Six years ago today we put our six-year-old, our three-year-old, and our two-year-old on a plane and came to California. Although my husband had visited the state for the job interview, I never set foot in it until it became my home.

That was nothing new, actually. I had a history of moving to places sight unseen. I’d taken a train to Boston for graduate school, never having been anywhere on the Eastern seaboard before, and on the first day of class I met the man I eventually married. And while I didn’t love Massachusetts, it seems there was a destined reason for my having gone there.

Still, twelve years later I was more than ready to leave.

California is, in many ways, easier to love. That’s why so many people live here, I suppose. Which is one of the things not to love: the traffic. Massachusetts had that, too, but it’s worse here.

California does have an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables all year ’round. And it only has snow if you want it. (Here they “go to the snow,” to which I say, “no thank you.”) Of course, it also has droughts, or at least it has in recent years. And earthquakes.

Ever since I was young, I imagined I would live in California some day. I had the opportunity to go to school here, but I couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition. I was offered an internship that I had to turn down because, again, I couldn’t afford to move and get a car and live on no wages. A producer I worked for asked if I’d like to work in the L.A. office, but I foolishly said I’d rather finish my degree. (Maybe not foolishly; I would not have met my husband if I’d taken that path.)

Still, I had faith I’d get here. That I was meant to be here. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right all those other times. Or maybe every path was different and this is just the one I ended up on. Maybe after twelve years of seasonal depression and panic attacks in the Northeast, I’d finally earned this reward.

Well, I didn’t earn it, my husband did. He works hard, and when I finally broke down, he acted quickly to move me to a place that would be better for me mentally, emotionally, and physically.

We landed, six years ago, at 9:00 p.m., which was midnight Eastern time. The kids refused to sleep on the plane ride, so they were punchy and cranky as we made our way to the rental car counter. And we were all hungry. It turned out there was an In-N-Out Burger near our temporary housing, so our first official stop in California was the drive thru.

Now, every year on Pi day, we get In-N-Out and then eat pie. It’s a happy tradition, something we all look forward to. And I look forward to many more happy years here, too.

Favorite Books on Film

I saw this post on another blog (sorry but I don’t remember which one), and it got me thinking: Which book-to-film translations have I enjoyed? Sure, we all [usually] think the book is better, most likely because there’s a lot you can do with words that is difficult, if not impossible, to film. Inner dialogue, for example. But some books have translated pretty well to the screen anyway.

One I see on many lists—and yes, it’s on mine too—is Pride and Prejudice, in particular the BBC miniseries. Yeah, I love that one, too. Though it took me a while to warm to it because I had a college roommate that watched it over and over again. At that point I was avoiding her and the series, so when I finally did sit down to watching some years later, I found it was quite charming. And I do love Jane Austen.

Another book whose movie I enjoyed is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I saw the movie first, though, and then felt compelled to read the book, which was wonderful as well. There is a prequel I’d like to read as well, though I always hesitate when an author revisits a scene after a long break. (See: Anne Rice’s most recent vampire novels, which I just could not get into.)

I’ll admit I liked Interview with the Vampire, too. I have no excuse for why except that maybe it came out at a time when I was receptive to Tom Cruise as an overacting blonde and boy does Brad Pitt look pretty in that movie.

1939 — British actress Vivien Leigh on the set of Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell and directed by Victor Fleming. — Image by © Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Gone with the Wind is a favorite movie of mine as well. I used to lay on the couch and watch it whenever I was home sick from school. My freshman year of high school, we had to read the book. So, again, this is a situation in which I’d seen the movie first. And I know the romanticization of the Antebellum South is problematic, but Scarlett is such a vivid character that I can’t help enjoying both the book and film.

Another book/movie combo that makes my list: The Ghost Writer. Robert Harris both wrote the novel and the screenplay, so that probably goes a long way toward the two hanging together well. And you know I can’t say no to Ewan McGregor.

Finally, an oldie but goldie: The Haunting. I mean the 1963 version. I love, love, love Shirley Jackson’s novella “The Haunting of Hill House,” and this movie did it justice. Of course, maybe that’s because my friends and I stayed up late one night to watch it and scared ourselves silly. Fond memories can color one’s perception of how good a book or movie really is, I suppose.

What book adaptations have you enjoyed? Maybe later I’ll post about some terrible ones. I think it can be tricky to capture a book well on film, which is why good screenwriting is so important. Some day I still hope to see St. Peter in Chains make it to the screen . . . If and when it does, let’s hope it turns out well!

Hello!

Every now and then I like to say hello to the visitors from far afield. So this is for you: Scunthorpe and North Shields (UK) and Culverden (NZ). Hope to see you back again soon.