Pondering

Okay, I’m wondering if any other authors have noticed this. I follow a number of agents on Twitter. In particular, I add them to a private list when they’ve requested materials from me so I can sort of see what they’re thinking and get any updates on their slush piles. Lately, though, I’ve noticed a lot of agents and agencies running bootcamps and workshops. And every time I see it, I think, But aren’t they already too busy?

Agents have their clients to look after: sending out manuscripts, reading new ones, etc. And they have a bazillion queries coming at them, plus they need to wade through any materials they’ve requested. We all hear about how swamped they always are, and that’s why it takes them forever and a day to respond to queries. So when I see that they’re also helming bootcamps and workshops, I get a little frustrated. Because I know it means I’ll be even less of a priority, and I was already at the bottom of their lists.

Then I start to wonder why they’re doing this. Are they not making enough money for and from their clients, so they need to supplement the income? That’s a bad sign. Or are they simply looking to part hopeful authors from their money? That’s a really bad sign. And I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe agents are truly doing what they think is best for new authors. Trying to help them succeed. But with the hundreds of writing conferences and whatnot out there, these agents and agencies are not filling a need. There’s no hole in the industry as far as workshops go. So again I wonder: why?

Meanwhile (and not entirely unrelatedly), it looks more and more likely that I’ll be self-publishing Hamlette. But I’ve done pretty well with that route. Check out the feature in yesterday’s BookLife newsletter:

There’s Brynnde! And Faebourne is on the way! 7 August. Mark your calendar!

Author Diversity

The other night my writing group had an in-depth discussion of diversity in the writing and publishing world. As we’re all writers, we mostly focused on that aspect: the push for more authors of diverse backgrounds.

There are a lot of parts and pieces to consider when discussing this topic, and I don’t mean to make light of any of them. If I skim over something, or fail to consider an angle, I’m happy to hear your thoughts.

I am not a person of color, nor am I LGBTQ+. The most I can say is that as a child many people mistook me for Latina (and sometimes still do if I’ve been out in the sun). People will come up to me and start speaking Spanish until they interpret my blank expression as lack of comprehension. I am French Creole, and I do speak that language (very rustily now), but in the eyes of the world at large, I am Caucasian and privileged.

This is, I think, the fundamental starting point for a discussion like this one. I can identify as French Creole, but I did not grow up with as much of the oppression as many other people of color. (Though I did find Adam Sandler’s Cajun Man extremely offensive when I was younger.)

I won’t lie. I do sometimes get frustrated when I see so many calls for books by diverse authors. I want to ask, “Aren’t my words worth something too? Even if my skin is ‘white’ and my sexual orientation is hetero?” But I also understand WHY it’s so important to get a variety of perspectives into print. Readers need to see themselves represented, and the world needs to hear stories that go beyond what we’ve had for the past 400 years. In all that time, literature has been dominated by white, heterosexual characters penned by white, mostly male authors. It’s long past time to change that.

One of the reasons that literature has skewed in favor of white authors is that those were often the people who had the means to sustain themselves as writers. Writing was an elitist hobby, something rich kids did for fun and sometimes profit. There weren’t many wealthy people of color who had the time or education to sit down and write novels. Even now, the publishing world depends largely on interns who can afford to live off their parents, often in expensive cities, while attempting to learn the trade. And there’s no lack of nepotism either. Recently a literary agency has had to deal with backlash because the founder’s son became an agent who, to put it bluntly, screwed over many authors.

So here we are in a world where it can be difficult to get people of color to write. Not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the time or means to do it. The result has been a rise of scholarship type programs to help those would-be authors.

At the same time, I find myself wondering whether an agent would have signed me by now if I’d come from a more diverse background. That’s probably me making excuses for why I haven’t landed an agent, though—I recognize that. I know that if my writing were truly great it wouldn’t matter what color or sexual orientation I was. So don’t rage at me. I’m just trying to be totally honest in this post and voice my doubts and fears.

The flip side of all this is the ever present discussion of whether authors who are not from a diverse background can/should write characters from those backgrounds. As someone who writes a lot of gay characters, I certainly hope that’s permissible. And I hope I haven’t offended anyone in doing so, or gotten too much wrong. I do talk to my gay friends for perspective. The spread of sensitivity readers speaks to writers’ desire to get these things right. That said, sometimes it does feel as though one cannot win. If we try to write incorporate diverse characters in our writing, we’re “pandering” and told we can’t write these stories because we haven’t lived the right experiences to tell them—we’re “whitewashing” characters, or making them tokens so we can fulfill a checklist. Yet if we write stories about all-white, heterosexual characters, we’re not being inclusive. Short of only ever writing in collaboration with a minority author, I don’t know what a white, hetero author can do to meet the conflicting criteria.

And AGAIN, I’m not angry or putting anything or anyone down. I’m just saying that I’ve heard all these different arguments and I don’t know the answer. Or if there even is an answer. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

Writers use their imaginations for a living. If men can write women characters and women can write men, it’s not so farfetched to me that a hetero writer can possibly imagine an LGBTQ+ character, or a white one can imagine someone of color. I do think it’s important to get feedback from those quarters. Don’t write blind. Writing, really, is a blend of experience, direct intel, and imagination. An author can make something up, something fantastical, but for it to have impact it must speak to the reader in a way that the reader nods and says, “Yes. I know that feeling.” And that feeling may not be, “I know what it’s like to be gay,” or, “I know what it’s like to be black,” but it can often be, “I know what it’s like to be other, an outsider. I know what it’s like to want something I can’t have. I know heartbreak and joy and love and hate. I know what it means to strive and fail. I know fear, and stress, and frustration, and relief.”

Anyway, this post is really just a collection of thoughts on the subject of author diversity. I’ve endeavored to be open and honest and cover a variety of angles, but as I said, if there’s something I missed, please let me know.

Good News/Bad News

Yesterday evening I found out my screenplay 20 August made the Top 20 in the Fempire Screenplay Contest. The news came in a rather surprising way, actually:
 
 
 
 

So that was fun.

I’ve been trying to get 20 August made for years now. I’ve had indie directors pick it up and then wander off to do other stuff, which is a bit frustrating. I’ve been told I should just make the movie myself, which is also frustrating. If I could—and if I really wanted to—I would. But I’m a writer. And yet, in the indie world, it seems that’s not enough any more. Indie directors mostly write their own material now and aren’t looking for outside content.

The Good News: 20 August has been recognized yet again as a good screenplay.

The Bad News: I’m not any closer to getting it made.

I’ve often heard, “If you wanted it badly enough, you’d figure out a way.” But life doesn’t work like that. We can want things badly—need them, even—and there’s sometimes no way. People who say there is always a way are the same people who say that if you work hard enough you’ll succeed. And that simply isn’t true. You can work your ass off and still fail. That’s life.

I’m not even sure why I still send 20 August into competition. I guess I keep hoping someone will see its potential and magically pass it up to someone able to make it happen. With the rise of indie Oscar winners like Moonlight, I fantasize that my little movie could also be a winner. But the truth is, I write very few screenplays any more. It’s too difficult to get a “yes” from all the people required to say “yes.” Hell, it’s too difficult to get the damn thing in front of the people who have to say “yes.” Books are simpler.

Still, I had an indie director contact me the other day asking me to write a script for a specific location. Um . . . I’ve written stuff for this director before and he has yet to do anything with it. So is it a waste of my time? I’ll probably never see any money for all the work I’ve already done, not only on stuff for this director, but any of my screenwriting. It’s a losing proposition.

Yet I won’t rule out writing something. Hope springs infernal, after all.

Romanticizing Darcy

So I read this article today about how Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy is a less worthy hero than Bhaer from Little Women. I’ll admit here and now that I love Jane Austen and never could get into Louisa May Alcott, so I’m probably biased from the get go. But I also am not the type to enjoy “bad boy” stories, alpha male romantic interests, etc. And so I think this article misses the mark.

One of the fundamental assumptions of the article is that Mr. Darcy changes personality over the course of the novel—Lizzie changes him. I agree that in fiction I find the woman-makes-him-a-better-man thing annoying and problematic. But I’ve never read P&P that way. To me, Darcy doesn’t change. He’s always himself. He just has a really hard shell and a gooey center. Lizzie doesn’t change him, she cracks him open in a way only those close to him have ever been able to do.

Take it from Darcy’s side. Here is a man who (a) must fend off women on a regular basis, and (b) also has a young sister to worry about. He has many responsibilities and a lot on his mind. One can hardly blame him for knowing Mrs. Bennet for who and what she really is—a grasping mama. He’s surely dealt with his share of them before coming to Netherfield. He’s learned to be wary, and he’s put up necessary defences that make him standoffish and seemingly rude. But that’s a matter of self-preservation, really.

I’m probably making excuses because I so adore the book, but I still believe my argument is valid. On the flip side, I do prefer nice men to dominant alphas, which is why there are scads of books I don’t read. I don’t find the alpha male trope hot or romantic. Which is why you won’t find them in anything I write, either. And yes, I think it’s possible to write a nice guy character that is still interesting. (Well, they’re interesting to me, anyway. But maybe I’m alone in that.)

What do you think? Darcy: yea or nay? Is he just a Georgian-era bad boy? Who are your favorite romantic heroes?

Thank an Author?

I’ve seen a resurgence of posts saying some variation of: “The best way to thank an author is to write a review!” I’ll admit I’ve even (re)posted these from time to time.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think readers are looking to “thank” authors.

I’m not saying readers are ungrateful. I just don’t think couching it in terms of gratitude is useful. An author does his or her job by writing what hopefully is a good book. A reader then purchases that book. To many readers, that’s the end of the transaction. Readers figure that when they buy our books, we’ve made our money. They’ve done their part. And then we go and ask for additional work from them and tell them they should be grateful we’ve done our jobs and entertained them.

You don’t see posts saying, “The best way to thank an actor is to write a review!” Or, “The best way to thank a band is to write a review!” Why do we do this for authors then? Do we really think it will motivate readers? In my experience it doesn’t.

I would very much appreciate more reviews. But I’ll equally admit that, after closing a book, my first thought is seldom if ever, “Gee, I wish I could thank that author!” In fact, it’s human nature to be more likely to write a review complaining about something bad than one praising something good. We expect good; we feel entitled to it, particularly after spending our money. When something isn’t good, we’re angry and want others to know it.

(I do write reviews, btw. I post them on my spooklights blog and on Goodreads. If I were a better person, I’d also post them on Amazon. For some reason I can’t seem to ever remember to do that. So I guess I shouldn’t complain when others don’t do it for me either.)

The big question is: How do we motivate readers to leave reviews? We can try explaining the importance of those reviews—that without them, authors can’t afford to keep writing and publishing books. So if you like an author’s work and want more, show your support by reviewing. I don’t know if that would work, but I do believe people like to believe they’re helping, that they’re contributing to a worthwhile cause.

Then again, even without reviews, there will always be authors writing and publishing. So readers aren’t going to lack for books if a few under-reviewed authors fall out of the machinery.

Asking for applause is a tad gauche. And that’s what reviews are: textual applause. (Or boos, if the reviews are bad.) How can authors instill the habit of reviewing in readers? We all know to clap after a live performance; sometimes we even give a standing ovation. But theatre has been around for centuries, and when watching something live, we can see the hard work going into the show. How can we help readers appreciate the same for writing?

I don’t pretend to have answers. I just think it’s worth posing the question. In order to get more reviews, we need to examine the culture around writing and publishing and reading—we need to figure out how to add that final step of reviewing to the chain so that it becomes a regular part of the cycle. And to do that, we need to understand how people read and what motivates them. If and when they review, why? Only when we have a clearer picture can we hope to make better progress . . . and get more reviews.

Luck & the Ladder

This morning, author Chuck Wendig posted a really nice Twitter thread about maximizing your luck as an author. Here’s the first tweet:

If you click on it, you can then read the entire thread.

Chuck (if I may be so informal) makes a lot of good points. Writing isn’t a meritocracy. You can work really hard and still not succeed. In a society that has shown us again and again in movies, television, and yes, books, that hard work always pays off, this can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Luck plays a pretty significant role in success . . . of any kind, really, but we’ll stick to writing for now. But as Chuck also notes, you can maximize your chances. Write a really good book, or better yet, write several.

Now, I’ll admit I always bristle just a little when an already successful person tries to pat me on the head and give me advice. I suppose they think it’s helpful, but it’s a little too diffuse to be truly useful. “Go write some more” isn’t some great kernel of knowledge. Still, I know Chuck and his ilk mean well when they hand down their opinions and musings like gods spitting peanut shells from their thrones in the clouds. So I try to take it in the spirit it’s intended.

One piece of advice he gives, however, is to write more. And besides the fact that pretty much everyone gives that advice, it only serves to kick people like me—slow, deliberate crafters of tales—in the gut. I write 1-2 books a year. I know I should write more and faster, but I simply cannot. It’s not for lack of trying, but you might as well tell a fish to climb a tree. It isn’t going to happen.

Does that make me a bad writer? It’s an honest question; I have no idea.

Chuck also points out that writing to market rather than writing what you want to write is probably not the best choice. And he talks about helping other writers by talking about them and their work, introducing them to agents and editors, building community . . . But I’ve written in the past about how a bunch of new writers can’t really help each other much. They need established authors, editors, agents to reach down the ladder and pull them up a bit. And yet it seems like once someone gets a few rungs up the ladder, their interest in helping those below wanes. There are a few reasons for this. Some people, once they’ve made it over the hurdle, feel like others should have to do it themselves. I did it and no one helped me, so why should I help anyone?

Others feel like it’s a zero-sum game. They think if they help anyone else, they’ll lose their chance at making it all the way to the top. They’re afraid helping others will pull them back down a rung. They’re afraid of losing the tenuous position they’ve worked so hard to establish. They begin defending their territory rather than opening the borders.

And some are just frightened and overwhelmed by the cries for help. I imagine it looks a bit like a scene from a zombie movie. Say there’s a mass of people trying to make it to the ladder that leads to safety. They’re swarming around the bottom of this ladder, desperate. And if you make it partway up, and you look down into this mass of humanity, it looks pretty scary. You wouldn’t even know where to begin to help any of them. If you reach down, they’ll hungrily grab at you, may even rip your arm off. As it is, they make break the ladder before you can get to the top. So maybe this feeds into the previous observation, that need to defend your space lest you be dragged back down.

Then again, maybe you build more ladders. Maybe you throw some ropes over that wall so lots of people can climb.

Actions, amIright? I know we’re writers, but sometimes we still have to do instead of relying on our words.

It’s one thing to post a long Twitter thread cheering people on. That’s nice and all, but even if the thread is true and reasonable and posted with the best possible intentions, it’s no ladder.

It’s fair of you to ask at this point, “Okay, so what do you do to help other authors?” Well, I’m not all that successful yet, but I still try to help those coming after me, or even my peers. I give workshops on the writing and publishing process. I let fellow authors know of opportunities I think they may be interested in. And I’m an editor, so I help my selected writing groups by giving feedback that I’d normally charge for. I do what I can, and hopefully one day I’ll be in a position to do more. If the zombies don’t get me, and so long as no one pulls up the ladder before I can get there.

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.

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.

Proust Questionnaire

I came across this Proust questionnaire that Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) answered. He admits on the questionnaire itself that he was “jaded” at the time. So I decided to try answering the questions myself, or at least some updated ones I found on Vanity Fair.

__1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Not having anything I have to do and being free to do only what I want to do.

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

Oddly specific, but it’s being trapped in a car that has gone into the water.

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Selfishness.

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Similar selfishness. Really it’s the way others don’t take anyone but themselves into account.

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

. . . ??? I’m not sure I admire anyone.

__6.__What is your greatest extravagance?

Being a writer.

__7.__What is your current state of mind?

Open.

__8.__What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Exercising and eating healthy.

__9.__On what occasion do you lie?

To spare feelings. Not lie, exactly, but soften the truth.

__10.__What do you most dislike about your appearance?

My jawline. I think I will want a facelift some day.

__11.__Which living person do you most despise?

Donald Trump.

__12.__What is the quality you most like in a man?

Gentlemanliness.

__13.__What is the quality you most like in a woman?

A lack of jealousy.

__14.__Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Sure.”

__15.__What is your favorite color and flower?

Indigo; daffodil.

__16.__When and where were you happiest?

London. Just wandering the city on my own.

__17.__Which talent would you most like to have?

The ability to draw.

__18.__If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

My dependency on others.

__19.__What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Raising good kids. (I hope.) If that fails, at least I’ve written some decent books.

__20.__If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A cat of some sort.

__21.__Where would you most like to live?

Abroad.

__22.__What is your most treasured possession?

My laptop.

__23.__What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Rejection.

__24.__What is your favorite occupation?

Being productive.

__25.__What is your most marked characteristic?

Laziness.

__26.__What do you most value in your friends?

Loyalty. I like people who value me as much as I value them.

__27.__Who are your favorite writers?

Tana French, Kate Morton, Ben Aaronovitch, Shakespeare, Jane Austen

__28.__Who is your hero of fiction?

Peter Stoller. I know I created him, but that makes him my hero.

__29.__Which historical figure do you most identify with?

No idea. Which is impressive since I love history. But at the moment I’m drawing a blank.

__30.__Who are your heroes in real life?

The everyday ones: police, firefighters, etc. People who do real work that matters.

__31.__What are your favorite names?

Alexander, Evangeline, Robert, Elizabeth

__32.__What is it that you most dislike?

Spiders.

__33.__What is your greatest regret?

Missed opportunities. So many times I said “no” when I should have said “yes.”

__34.__How would you like to die?

I wouldn’t. But if I have to, in my sleep, please.

__35.__What is your motto?

I like the line from the Tabitha’s Secret song: “All is nothing in moderation.”