“People don’t see” A plea for empathy

I normally make it a point to not talk too much about politics online. Simply put, I don’t have the energy (or maybe emotional fortitude) to get into arguments with strangers. With everything that has happened over the past week, however, I thought I would somewhat break that rule for today–at least long enough to hope my own experiences may help anyone else struggling out there.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I grew up with a very (here comes that p-word people hate) privileged childhood. My father had a very good job that paid well, and while he worked very hard to get to where he was, I never had to witness that struggle. By the time I was old enough to understand things like money, we had reached a point where it wasn’t a struggle. My mother was able to stay home with us. We owned a house (eventually a house and a vacation condo). We lived in a great school district, got to go on great trips, didn’t have to worry much about crime (“turn the alarm on in case someone tries to break in while we’re gone” was about the extent of my worry about criminals as a child/teen). From having my horizons broadened now, I know that I was very, very lucky (and continue to be so. Not everyone has the safety net I still do—even as a self-sufficient adult).

At the time, however, that was all normal. Everyone I knew had the same things we did to some extent. Sure, maybe that family owned Hondas instead of a Lexuses (Lexi?), but they still had a well-running car. Likely two. Maybe even three if they had a teen driver. Maybe so and so was going to Palm Springs this year rather than Hawaii over Winter Break, but they were still going away for the week to have a good time. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian… everyone living in my little sphere seemed more or less the same.

While that in some ways is great (I never saw any blatant racists in my neighborhood, I was never told to not play with X or Y children) it is also part of the problem. I never saw any racism, and thus to younger me, it didn’t exist.

I recently finished the book Polarity in Motion by Brenda Vicars—which turned out to be rather timely, as far as subject matter, this week—and one line truly stuck out to me: “I guess people don’t see their own way of seeing.” There are people, I’m sure, who are far more qualified than I am to speak about issues of poverty and race and justice and whatever else than I am, but from all I have learned, that quote perhaps sums up what I have learned the best. It is difficult to see issues when you haven’t experienced them.

Was anyone a racist in my neighborhood? Maybe. As a little blond girl, when would I have really seen it? Though I had friends of multiple races, the demographics in my neighborhood were almost a fifty/fifty split between White and Asian, so when going through all of my friends from back then (White, White, Asian, Asian, White…) I can’t even say I spent much time speaking to anyone who was a true minority in our neighborhood. Thinking back on high school, I honestly could only talk about three Black students by name (two of them mixed race) and that is because I knew them from classes we shared. I didn’t make a conscious decision to stay away from Black students, there just wasn’t a large number of Black students to start with, and I never would have thought to try to become friends with someone specifically because they were Black. That would have felt racist.

What I most remember about the end of high school, though, when it comes to these issues—and the thought that so often pops up when I see Facebook arguments about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, etc.—is my gut reaction to affirmative action as a high schooler. With absolutely no knowledge into what it was other than “it takes race into consideration with admissions” I hated it. Sure, racism was something we learned about in school, but that was in the past. There were plenty of races at my high school! Sure there were only a handful of Black or Hispanic students as far as I knew, but they were there, and they were doing just as well as I was. They all lived in the same neighborhoods as the rest of us. They all went on the same vacations and had the same cars. Making it easier for them to get into college over me felt like racism against me. It took several, several years of expanding my horizons and meeting people who didn’t grow up like I did to understand what programs meant to overcome the problems built up over centuries of institutional racism were truly meant to do.

And that’s why I can never think too harshly of people who claim saying “Black Lives Matter” is racist. Because that used to be me. Before I left my own little bubble, it would have been perfectly simple to continue thinking that racism wasn’t a thing. That poverty wasn’t that much of an issue. To think that most people lived the way I did. Everyone I talked to certainly did, after all! It is a nearly impossible thing to see how you see. There is a reason things don’t seem like problems when you aren’t the one experiencing them. As much as I try to read about other people’s experiences now (as an author, I think it’s part of the job description, trying to learn how other people experience life outside of me) I know that I will never fully understand their problems the way they do. Similarly, they will never understand mine the way I do (because all of us do have problems). I can’t claim I have all the answers. I can’t claim I have even a single answer. I can just say I wish people would step back from their gut reactions and talking points long enough to understand that just because they don’t see X doesn’t mean that X isn’t a legitimate issue.

I am lucky that, overall, my problems aren’t too difficult to handle. I consider myself equally lucky now that I can see that that isn’t the case for everyone. Change won’t happen while people are busy digging in their heels, all trying to yell about their problems being the real problems. Being out of work because the factory you worked in for forty years in rural Arkansas is a problem that needs to be addressed. Not being able to feed your children in the inner city is a problem that needs to be addressed. Black men ending up dead as they have this week is a problem that needs to be addressed. Cops ending up dead as they have this week is a problem that needs to be addressed. Pointing to the other side as being the problem and not being willing to help them because no one is helping you is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed.

As I said, it is not an easy thing to see outside of your own experiences. It has taken me over a decade of listening to accounts on all sides to understand as much as I do, and even then I’m sure someone suffering in any situation could school me on what their life is really like. I can only hope that people try to get past their gut reactions and try for empathy on all sides. Until we stop viewing the other side as idiots who don’t understand, nothing will happen outside of the shouting.

Historical Fiction and Etymology

Today’s blog post is hosted by the wonderful blog Pure Jonel about one of the downfalls of writing historical fiction/historical fantasy… period word use. Read more at:  http://purejonel.blogspot.ca/2015/12/JD.html

etymology-dribbble-333x250

Source: voxy.com

I’ve always been interested in etymology. Learning where (and when) words originated has appealed to both the writer and the history buff in me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have more than one instance while writing my newest novel, Raining Embers, where I wished I was writing something contemporary rather than set in a fantasy world based loosely on the High Renaissance—it would have saved quite a bit of time trying to find period-appropriate words to use.

While I probably spent more time than was healthy going through etymological dictionaries to check words while working on Raining Embers, a few words/phrases I would have liked to have been able to use still come to mind:

1. “Cavalier.” Circa 1580, cavalier wasn’t too far outside the time period, but as it didn’t come to mean something more pejorative—as I meant to use it—until the seventeenth century, it seemed like a little too much of a cheat to work properly in the narrative. Read More…

 

POV Bloat

There are plenty of reasons to pick a specific Point of View (POV) when writing a story. How close (or distant) you want the reader to be to the characters, how many plot lines there are going to be… there are quite a few things to consider when deciding if a story should be written in first, third, or–rarely used–second person.

It is not exactly a closely guarded secret that I strongly prefer third person–not least of all because I often have stories that are best suited with multiple POV characters. While it is possible to have multiple first person narrators, third makes switching off between people much simpler.

Of course, that isn’t always a good thing. A couple of years ago I touched on the issue of head jumping, which comes from poorly controlled POV in third limited (where a single scene slips between a number of characters’ POVs), but even with head jumping taken care of, some stories can still suffer from POV bloat–or simply more POV characters than the story can easily handle.

Now, there are some stories that need a large case with a lot of POV characters–especially epics with several plot lines happening in several different places. As with any other writing advice, “try to stay away from several POV characters” is not meant to be cardinal law. Once you start creeping above four or five POV characters in one novel, though, it is generally a good idea to step back and make sure that all of the POV switches are necessary.

Why? Because POV Bloat starts to have many of the same problems as head jumping–the narrative can become disjointed, and it can become more difficult for the readers to connect to each character. After all, as more POV characters there are, the more heads the reader has to acclimate to. Fewer heads allow for more depth, which in turn allows for the reader to become more deeply connected to the characters telling the story.

So, what should you do when you think you might be suffering from POV Bloat?

1. Make sure all your POV Characters are necessary.

As stated before, sometimes 5, 10, 15 POV characters are necessary for the story you are trying to tell. Often times, though, they aren’t. It is not necessary to get every side of a story to have a story make sense. Pick out the most important characters you have for each plot line and then determine if you can tell the story using just those people. Limiting yourself can sometimes actually make the story stronger since it means you will have to show things that imply how other characters are feeling/have your POV characters interpret other characters’ actions rather than jumping around to tell the reader everything that’s going on/relying on internal monologue.

2. Try to keep transitions smooth.

Short scenes are sometimes work well. When switching POV characters, too many short scenes can feel like head jumping the author is trying to get away with. This is especially true if there is one overall “scene” happening (one event happening in your story) and the reader is being jerked back and forth to both sides every few paragraphs (Character A is doing this. Character B is doing this. Now Character A is…) The jumpiness might work in visual media (where the camera is covering everything that is happening) but since third limited relies on placing the reader in a character’s head, it actually damages the flow of action to continuously pull them out and force them back in on either side.

As always, do what is right for your story, but also remember sometimes less really is more.

————————————————————————————-

3122464_orig

News Alert: the release of Raining Embers is now less than a month away–which means pre-marketing is in full swing. If you host a book review or writing blog, consider signing up for the Raining Embers Virtual Book Tour here: http://www.sagesblogtours.com/raining-embers.html 

Release Day: Off Book

After months and months of edits (and at least three different title changes) the long awaited day is finally here. Off Book is now for sale!

About Off Book:

Twenty-year-old Eloise has learned all she can from the School, where characters live until joining their novels. No one knows genre and plot structure better than her, but despite her knowledge, she’s yet to be assigned to her own story. All her friends are off starting their lives with their authors—and if Eloise doesn’t get assigned soon, she’ll fade away, forgotten by all.

When she is suddenly offered a job at the Recording Office, she takes the chance to write her own future. Suddenly living among the post-storied, Eloise meets Barnaby Fitzwilliam, a former romance novel hero who hasn’t lost any of his in-story charm. But just as their relationship begins to get serious, everything Eloise has been taught gets turned upside down when she’s sucked into a novel she was never meant to be part of.

Now, caught where the only rules are made by the authors and truly anything is possible, Eloise must find her way back home—or else her life might end before she ever gets the chance to live it.

Set in a world dictated by Authors, OFF BOOK explores the story beneath the stories we all know and love, taking readers and characters alike on an adventure just waiting to be written.

Get your copy today!

off-book-V2

-isms and Society

*Trigger Warning: Isla Vista shootings/gender-based violence touched on below.*

Relatively often, I have been asked if some of my characters are meant as “feminist heroes” The first few times I heard it, I entirely admit I was caught off guard. Certainly not because there is anything wrong with someone wanting to classify them as so, but because I simply had never really considered it. As a character-driven writer, I tend to focus more on the characters as people than as any sort of statement. My female characters included. Looking over things after the fact, some would strongly identify as feminists. Some wouldn’t think about it. Some live in worlds where ‘feminism’ as a term would just confuse them. Much like I don’t think of someone as “The Black Character” or “The Christian Character” women in my story are people first, their sex/race/creed second. They can be strong, smart, dumb, passive just like any other person in real life. Their background and opportunities change based on who they are and where they live, but they are none of them are meant to be political statements over actual people.

That said, gender relations do play a large part in many of my stories. Whether it is a major theme or not, characters experience things as their society trains them to, and that can be both a mix of privilege and detriment. For the women of the historically based Broken Line series, this pops up quite a bit–they are upper class, generally wealthy (and thus taught that they are better than those who socially rank lower) but they are also women, and that governs what society allows them to do. Some find this yoke more confining than others (raging like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace”); some find ways to use this double standard to their advantage (like Adela‘s, “Men often underestimate a woman with a pretty face”); but all are products of their society.

For the most part, I do my best to stay away from current events/politics in this blog–it is a writing blog, after all, not meant as my personal soapbox. With the events last Friday around UCSB setting me along this train of thought, however, I would beg reader’s indulgence for today. For those who, for one reason or another, haven’t heard, over the weekend a 22 year old named Elliot Rodger participated in a drive-by shooting leaving himself and six others dead by the end of it. On the way to this shooting (which he termed “retribution” in a posted Youtube video) he also emailed a 141-page autobiography/manifesto outlining his life and reasons for doing what he was going to. The document, in its entirety, now posted online, I spent a good part of last night reading it. Why? Primarily morbid curiosity, I have to admit. As a writer, I have always been interested in how others’ minds work–even severely damaged ones–and while I have not yet gotten to the worst of the ravings most have understandably reported (he spends a large amount of time recounting his “joyful” childhood before slowly devolving toward the racism and misogyny on which the papers have focused) it is a fascinating, if awful and tragic, head to peer into.

After reading what I have, would I say Rodger had mental problems? Obviously. I don’t think anyone truly has to read any of his manifesto to conclude that. Mentally sound people don’t generally decide to shoot complete strangers before taking their own life. What is fascinating, however, is to see everything that came together to this tragedy. Was he disturbed? Obviously. Is he an unreliable narrator? Of course. But you start getting a much deeper insight into his psyche than the news stories report. Was it mental illness? Misogyny? Racism? Honestly, it was a little bit of everything.

From an early age, Rodger reported himself being a ‘jealous’ person. Friends wanting to play with other children, other’s getting positive attention–especially attention he felt he deserved–set him off. This “innate” jealousy and sense of entitlement (be it narcissism or another disorder, I don’t pretend to have the credentials to say) slowly began to morph as he got older. Craving attention, Rodger began copying “the cool kids” trying to be one, picking up hobbies he didn’t care for and dropping ones he liked to try to stay with the trend. As he reached middle school, the “cool” thing was to “be popular with girls”. A late bloomer, Rodger claims to have had no interest in girls yet, in fact claiming the idea of sex was repulsive to him (whether this is the truth or a later manifestation of his anger around the idea, I can’t say). Still, he wanted to be popular, and so he wanted to be popular with girls too (his own words stating that men who could “acquire” girls easily were more respected). Combined with what seems to be an anxiety disorder and discomfort with talking to women in any capacity, he found that “girls” was not a hobby he could simply pick up like skateboarding or Pokemon. From there, it seems to have become a perfect storm. The longer he went without a girl he “deserved” the angrier he got. The angrier he got, the more awkward he became around women, to the point where he fully admits to never approaching women other than to yell at them about speaking to men he found “less worthy” rather than him. Amazingly enough, this did not do much to get him a girlfriend. Still, he entirely shifted the blame for his depression, loneliness, and anger to women for not throwing themselves at him rather than considering it something he could likely fix if he just went up to some people at a party and started talking to women like human beings.

So, was it mental illness? As I’ve said before, yes. Narcissism. Anxiety. Chronic Depression. Some spectrum of Autism. I will leave the official diagnosis up to his former therapists, but there was very obviously something wrong. It would be remiss, however, in my own personal opinion, to discount these actions simply as one disturbed boy rather than one disturbed boy who grew up learning that he deserved a girlfriend (a “hot blonde” girlfriend at that) simply because he wanted one. Grew up learning that women, specifically pretty women, are a status symbol. Is society responsible for the entirety of Rodger’s actions? Of course not. Is it others’ (men or women) fault that he went to this extreme? I don’t believe so. No one gave him the gun and told him to start shooting. No one gave him mental issues. Is there a problem somewhere deep in society that he could get these ideas in the first place and find people online who agreed that “b*tches had it coming”? There, I have to say, is a resounding yes.

I will be the first to admit I do not have a “fix all” solution. All manner of inequality are a deep hurt that run centuries back. Some people were elevated, some oppressed, perhaps simply rising from the fact that there are limited resources on the planet. For the most part, things are slowly heading for progress. I was never made to feel inferior for being a girl in my group of friends and family growing up. I was able to pursue a college education. I was never sexually assaulted while attending said college (though probably being six feet tall in my stocking feet was a bit of a deterrent there as well). I know many people, men and women, who go about their lives as respectful, good people. I have also been harassed on the street. Have friends who are survivors of rape or attempted rape. Know better than to go to some clubs without a man in the group to “stay safe”/ward of men who think simply being in a club gives them the right to grab women who don’t wish them to. And that’s not okay. Society is changing/has changed and for that I am grateful. Grateful for all the wonderful men and women I have met throughout my life. Writing examples like this off as “just a damaged guy” however, just because it is unpleasant to consider what wounds the past has still left on society, is counterproductive.

Characters are a product of their society. We are a product of ours. Good. Bad. Somewhere in between. It affects us, and ignoring that doesn’t help anyone. Both in fiction and in life you sometimes have to face the unpleasant truths for anything to get better.

Personal Experiences and Author Inserts

Thank you to Emma Aveston for hosting my blog today on her site. Pop over to “in a thousand blades of grass” to see posts like this and Emma’s own writing.

Guest Post: Writing with Personal Experiences and Author Inserts

I think it is nearly impossible for writers to keep themselves out of their writing entirely. Personality, life experiences, even friends work their ways into stories—purposefully or not.

That said, I have done my very best to keep much of my own life out of my writing. I fully admit my first novel—now safely hidden away in the depths of my computer—included an author insert. Worse, a Mary Sue (an idealized author insert). Only being fifteen at the time, I do my best to be too ashamed of it, but it did teach me that it can be dangerous putting too much of yourself in a character. As much as it can be fun to put yourself into a world where you can control everything around you (or “your character”) that doesn’t make for especially good story.

Of course, just because I do my best to keep “me” characters out of my books, that doesn’t mean parts of me don’t make it in now and again. There are just a few rules I try to stick to:

1. Don’t change your world for a character
One of the major problems with Mary Sues is that the character is wish fulfillment, and thus the character is able to do things that wouldn’t happen for anybody else in the world you have built. Whether it’s an author insert, a …Read More

“Plot Device” Disorders

Last year, for Mental Health Month, I touched on writing characters with mental disorders. As far as I can tell, mental problems have always been something writers have liked to use in their stories, and it makes sense. “Normal” is not what tends to make for a good story. A perfectly happy character who wakes up, goes to school/work every day, watches some TV, and then goes to bed is pretty boring. Stories are based around conflicts, desires, and the way characters overcome some sort of adversity. As mental disorders present their own sort of challenges, they can make for very interesting characters/stories.

Before I left off with some general advice about writing a character that has a mental disorder while not being insulting (namely doing your research and making sure your character isn’t one-dimensional/only their disorder). Today I’d like to retouch on the topic looking a little further into what I’ve come to call “plot device” disorders.

Now, there are many, many mental disorders in the world. The recently released DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordersfifth edition) contains 17 categories for various disorders–ranging from Anxiety Disorders to Sexual Dysfunction–with several different specific disorders inside each. While I’m sure it is possible to find stories using a full range, certain disorders are much more “en vogue” for use in fiction. For example, it is simple to list famous characters who are presented with disorders such as psychopathy (Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Dexter Morgan from Dexter); DID (Norman Bates from Pyscho, Susannah Dean from The Dark Tower, the narrator from Fight Club); and OCD (Adrian Monk from Monk, Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets) it’s a bit less common to see characters with pica, adjustment disorder, or central sleep apnea (all listed in DSM-V). While it might simply be more “fun” to write about certain disorders over others, it leads to certain issues for writing when a disorder becomes trendy to use in plots.

What brought me to this topic to start today was finding this post in a writing forum today:

Could anybody just tell me more about it [dissociative identity disorder] in general? Because I know very little about it.”

While the question is generally pretty innocuous (they were provided with a link to WebMD with the basics) what worries me the most about seeing questions like this on writing sites is the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,” and that was the end of that. Hopefully the asker of the question is planning on looking further into the disorder and (if s/he decides to proceed does a fair deal of research) but with different disorders so prevalent in fiction, it becomes so, so easy for writers to decide X disorder would be an awesome plot device and jump into using the movie/book/TV show’s portrayal as the basis for their entire character.

Why is that such a problem? Because often times works of fiction still get disorders wrong on a very basic level. And by taking that version of the disorder at face value to throw in your story you’re simply going to perpetuate all those issues. A bump on the head causing, and fixing, amnesia? Not going to happen. Not all psychopaths are going to be serial killers (or are even likely to be). PTSD doesn’t mean you’re going to be acting out flashbacks in real life. From a storytelling stand point, it makes sense why we see these things. It makes for easier or more hair-raising scenes, but that doesn’t make it anymore correct. And with the amount of misinformation surrounding mental disorders, it can be damaging to perpetuate these “facts”.

So, how do you keep from falling into these “plot device” traps?

1. Know movies/TV/novels often get it wrong. Watching a movie with a character with X disorder does not mean you suddenly are set to write about the same disorder. Some media does do a very good job of representing certain disorders (the beginning of Silver Linings Playbook is actually very well done in displaying a manic episode in bipolar, for example) but far too often, disorders (especially popular disorders) are incorrect. Look to real-life accounts rather than fiction for what living with a disorder is actually like (Dangerous Jam has a very in-depth account of one girl’s experience with PTSD and her tips for using it in fiction here. I highly recommend it if you intend to use PTSD in a story).

2. Figure out what the mental disorder is adding to your story. Perhaps one of the most amusing questions I find on this Mary Sue Test is:

Does your character have any of the following psychological disorders or conditions for the following reasons?

  1. Antisocial Personality Disorder – to explain your character’s Jerk Loner personality? 
  2. Split personality/multiple personalities – so your character can do “bad” stuff, yet still have a claim to innocence?

If your entire reason for using a mental disorder is for an excuse or because you intend to use it as a plot device, rethink and do more research. Because…

3. Think about how the disorder would affect your character outside the plot. As I stated before, people with mental disorders are not entirely defined by their disorder, but mental disorders do affect many things in everyday life when you are dealing with one. Pulling out a mental disorder just when convenient for an excuse or your plot will 99.99% of the time come off as incorrect and/or insulting. “Having X” is as much of a personality trait as “she doesn’t like apples” or “he’s hot headed”. Pulling a disorder out only when convenient or just for plot is as jarring as having a character gain or lose any other trait they have.

4. Research, research, research. Really, I can’t stress this enough. You don’t always have to “write what you know” but you should only write that which you are willing to learn about. At least if you don’t want to seem like you’re clueless or to stick your foot in your mouth. There are great resources for first-hand accounts, you can ask in a forum (many people are actually rather open with sharing their experiences if you ask, I find), and you can talk to mental health professionals. There are many great depictions of mental disorders in well-rounded characters out there, you just have to be willing to put in the legwork to get there.

——————————————————————–

Want to carry this and other posts with you wherever you go? Download Write, Edit, Publish for free today.