Where the Strong Lose

Subtitled, “An imaginary conversation between Strength and the World,” or “Why I wince when people thank me for writing strong female characters.”

I attempt to write realistic characters, but I would never set out to write strong ones, because being strong sucks. Being strong means never getting the cake, and who wants that in life? What cake, you ask? (Reasonable question.) It comes from a scene in one of the earliest episodes of CSI, when a character made a sad observation that stuck with me. “I’m not the guy who gets a cake in the break room on his last day,” he said, “I’ll pack up and leave, and no one will even notice I’m gone.”

Some folks get cake and backslaps and farewell hugs but some aren’t missed at all, even if they’re perfectly well-liked and accepted, admired, respected, part of the team, and so on. Bear with the analogy here. The strong don’t get cake. Not on their last day, not on their birthday, not on their lowest days.

Cake is for nice people. Soft people. Positive, cuddly people who enjoy big celebrations and hugs and bright happy things.People who can prove they need cake because they look right, talk right, act deserving of it.

The strong say to the world, “Why shouldn’t we get a little love and cake too? Assertiveness and brashness only mean we are practiced at hiding weakness. Disdain for convention is a surrender to the painful knowledge that we can never achieve it. Effective defenses are an ingrained response to assault. We are soft beneath the armor.

Too bad, the world says. You appear self-contained and self-assured, and so you will be judged. You need nothing from others, and so you will get nothing. (Proud, some say. Stuck-up. Know-it-all. Argumentative, even. Uppity. Strident. Pushy. Negative. Critical. Bitter. Oh, yes. There’s a whole thesaurus of flaws that trail along behind strength like a sticky fringe.)

The strong say, “Those adjectives are the bricks of the walls we stand against. They expose how seldom we have the luxury of trusting anyone at our backs. We were denied until we were exhausted with the asking, until we learned to do without. That does not make us strong. It makes us lonely. We are as vulnerable and damaged behind our defenses as any human who ever lived.”

No, the world says. You don’t get to be vulnerable. The role of the strong is to brace up others. To hold, not to be held. The soft need care and nurturing and support. You do not qualify.

The strong say, “But everyone needs support. Why must some scrape for what others are given freely? Are we not all human? Do we not all bleed the same?”

No, the world says. The soft, the cuddly, the sweet–their cries for help are answered because they are who they are. For the strong to declare itself weak is a betrayal. Strong people who cry for help are selfish, lazy, attention-seekers, not soft. You’re strong and selfish. Strong and lazy. No one likes a whiner. Stop crying. Buck up. Put on the happy face. When you ask for help you taking away time and energy from those who really deserve it.

It’s a horrific paradox. Strong people can never be anything else because they never can be anything else. The sickest part is that “strong” in this sense is an external label. It sits right between the shoulder blades like a fucking target.

I was labeled strong before I hit puberty, but in truth I am about as strong as a bowl of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately I’ll never get rid of the damned label, because externals are all that matter. For me to get any help when I need it, I must lay out specifics explicitly and frequently, and insist on assistance. No one will ever just notice, and reach out. I know this from painful experience.

Being strong means no one helps without being asked–and asked, and asked, until the asking sucks all energy from me. Even then, only a few even are willing to offer support. Because why would I need it? I’m strong. I can take it. So many people say, “Be yourself!” but as long as I’m true to myself — strong, hard, negative and all the rest — I will be un-nurtured because I don’t deserve nurture.

Are you seeing the circular argument there? This is why I sometimes abandon the world for the cold solace my own company. Limping along by myself, injured and hurting, is less painful when I’m not surrounded by people who are helping each other…and not me.

Why does it happen? Maybe most people are conditional about acceptance even when they swear they aren’t. Maybe it’s easier to turn away than offer a hand when there’s no ready reward of soft, sweet gratitude. Yeah. Maybe.  I like cake, dammit. I’m starving for it, some days, and it pisses me off that cake is reserved for people who “behave like they need it.” And I’m not afraid to say so.

Delicious cakes. I want more.
Writing Advice

Writing Emotionally Pt 1: About the Feels

This blog is my space for exploring random ideas with words. I blog about writing and life, and the way one interacts with the other. It isn’t advice. It’s how I roll, and you’re welcome to come along for the ride. Today’s topic: emotions.

Emotions are essential creative tools. A successful writer can communicate the feel of feelings and craft behaviors that ring true for readers, and the key to writing characters with depth is understanding what lurks beneath the surface. Writers have to feel and feel hard, and that isn’t easy to do.

Know yourself: that’s the first step. Feelings are private. We all have faces we show the world, and faces we show no one else. (Billy Joel wrote a whole song about it.)  Know your own emotions. Accept them. Feel them. It looks so simple, right? Following those little two-word directives can be the most difficult trial any creator ever faces, but it’s necessary. Until you can peel back the layers of rationalization we all use to hide ourselves from ourselves and face your own motives head on, your characters will have the emotional depth of dolls. They’ll do stuff. They’ll go places. Things will happen. Yawn.

Self-awareness and acceptance don’t mean “love yourself.” Not in the typical sense. My soul is rooted in anger and dark things. Cuddly, lovable and warm are words that do not describe me. Sure, I wish I was the kind of person who inspired hugs and back pats and warm fuzzies, but I never will be. I wouldn’t change even if I could. My bitterness, resentment, anger,  even the ingratitude–they make me who I am, and I like myself.  Getting wistful, when I see affection showered freely upon those who have the ineffable qualities I lack–that’s just another human emotion that I have in surplus. That’s self-awareness.

Empathy is step two.  Observe, absorb, and learn to respect and anticipate all the myriad ways other human beings respond to the world and the people in it. Ponder their motivations. Dig into their whys. As much as possible, look for resonance within your own emotions. You won’t get it until you get them.

True self-awareness came late for me. I remember to the second the moment when I first recognized, at the level of gut-punch revelation, that the way I thought of myself differed from the way others saw me, and I was eighteen. When it arrived, it came in strong, and I’ve always had a firm sense of self. Empathy remains more difficult for me.

One barrier is that personality I listed earlier. I know how to be courteous, and I play as nice as I can, but it’s work. It’s exhausting. (I sometimes dream of tracking down and pie-facing all the people who blithely insist that “Just be yourself” is great advice.  It’s shitty advice. Dangerous. Honestly, I wouldn’t like me, if I wasn’t me. But that’s another post.)

ANYway. socializing is hard work, which limits chances for, you know, observing people. It’s also terrifying. That’s a bit of a barrier. Most people have no idea how shy I am, because I also inherited thrill-seeker genes. I’ve worked with the public for decades. I despise many of the things I do well professionally with a deep abiding hatred that never, ever dwindles. Unexpected conversation never fail to make me jumpy. My hands sweat when I use the PA. My heart rate still soars, making phone calls. After decades.

(I do not react politely to being pushed towards new activities with the any variation on the theme, “If you want to grow as a person, do things that scare you.”  I do things that scare me every single day. On purpose. Seriously. Endorphin rush.)

Last, everything I know about the way others think comes from rational, conscious analysis. Yes, everyone learns by observation, but most have a stronger instinctive foundation than I do. I can’t pick my own baby picture out of a lineup. I routinely flunk, “What expression is this?” image tests. I do not recognize people out of context. Everything I know about recognizing emotion, I learned by trial and error, guessing wrong and building on my mistakes. Constantly analyzing tone and and unspoken messages, reading postures and glances…these are the only means I have. 

Getting a feel for what other people are feeling is a survival skill. I’m a survivor. I’ve become an expert, over the years. It isn’t natural, but I make it work, and I put it in my writing.

When empathy and self-awareness meet inside your skull, their magic will infuse your work. Your characters will do things because reasons, and that makes all the difference. They’ll go places out of duty, or for love or in desperation. The what happens of the plot will grow thick and strong, tied together by motives and driven by choices that make sense. People are story, no matter what happens.

Mastering the art of expression and motivation isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. There’s no wrong way to know yourself, and no point when we can stop observing and say, “Done!” It’s a lifelong challenge as we grow and change. Everything we learn about our hearts, the more we watch and struggle to understand others — it all improves our stories as well as our lives.

This comic is here because it speaks to me.  It illustrates excellent self-awareness and zero empathic understanding. Like Calvin, my coping mechanism is a sharp, prickly shell of defensiveness. Unlike Calvin, I understand exactly why no one recognizes my hints. That’s why I don’t expect hugs, support or warm fuzzies, and mostly fear them being offered, because responding “properly” to unasked peppy cheer-up advice is a grueling exercise in restraint.


My Brain Is A Cranky Toddler

I could also call this “About Last Week.”

Rational Brain knew book release day would be an emotional swamp. Rational Brain remembered, through the haze of concentration and the rising excitement of seeing my projects go live, that after the test flight usually comes the crash. Rational Brain laid in supplies for hibernation and made sure the den was clean and cozy. Rational Brain cleared the calendar of all emotionally-draining obligations.

Rational Brain knows it’s absolutely not appropriate to sit down and start singing the worm song while watching TV. But I prepared for that contingency, because it’s only wise to prepare for a storm when the radar shows one heading straight at me. Experience is a good teacher.

And sure enough, frustration and aggravated unhappiness are what I felt all last week. Just like the last time I released a story. And the time before that. The experience has been wretched, every single time. Within 24 hours after posting a new piece of writing online, I am sure that I will never, ever find a readership that includes people who don’t pity-purchase copies to “support” me.  I am certain that the reason no one I don’t know reads my stories is that my writing is awful.

I know that’s an irrational conclusion to draw, I know emotional letdown is normal, but the rational explanation of oh, that’s a normal feeling is so danged unsatisfying that it makes me want to scream and kick like Verruca Salt.

I want to be happy when I complete projects that consumed my attention for hours, days, even weeks at a time over the last year. (Has it been that long since I started writing Joining in the Round? Yes, it has. Huh.) I wanted that happy this time. And I was happy, for about 12 hours.  Then I turned as mopey as a kid left unpicked when the class chose sides for a kickball game. Like clockwork, I went from elated to disgusted with my work–in less than one day, after making one announcement on one social media platform, no less. Ridiculous, yes.  Expecting any kind of response from that kind of “release” is much like expecting a wishing well wish to bring me a winning lottery ticket. I KNOW THIS. I don’t expect acclaim, public attention or hell, even much in the way of sales. It doesn’t matter.

Rational Brain keeps me fed and housed, it ensures that I stay moderately employed, and (so far) it’s prevented legal trouble. It does a lot, but it isn’t in charge. Toddler brain is the one that rules the mental roost. Toddler brain wants more than instant gratification. Toddler brain wants lots of gratification instantly, even when Rational Brain knows it’s illogical.

When it comes to achieving professional success in a creative field, I  do All the Things Wrong.  (That’s a whole ‘nother blog post.) For now, suffice to say that I chose this course, I know I’m choosing obscurity. Since I don’t expect much,  it would be nice to skip the misery that descends after the well-deserved high of saying, “Done. Finis. It lives.  Fly and be free!” It would be nice to have a way to appease Toddler Brain. That’s all I’m saying.

Someday I hope to release a title and get enough immediate, positive response that mentioning it to others feels like sharing happy news instead of harassment. Someday, I would like to skip the part where I go from excited to embarrassed so fast it gives me whiplash.

How much response would be enough? I’ve given the matter some thought, as it happens, and the answer is this: sales to strangers. At least one a week, of any of my titles. That’s what it would take. I’ve considered myself, and my work, and that is what does it for me. That’s my personal litmus test for success.

There are some who would tell me that as soon as I reach one goal, my needs will change, that no success is ever enough. To them, I say, “Do you even know a toddler?”  I know some people are never satisfied, but my toddler-brain is pretty easy to please. I’ve never craved fame, and I don’t want money for money’s sake. Toddler brain wants lots of gratification right now, but it’s not a sophisticated kind of want. Toddler brain does not need blockbuster success. It never will. It will be just as happy with every little plushie toy and a binkie as it would be with a mansion.

That won’t change. Some things don’t, not from the time we’re born to the day we return to the earth. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I enjoy material comforts but not enough to commit myself to gaining them. I’ll be happy with affirmation. Acclaim would be a bonus, I won’t lie, but affirmation is the sucker after the shot.

I’m slowly accepting that when Rational Brain crashes and leaves Toddler Brain in charge, I need to go ahead and cry. I am blessed with many patient friends kind enough to hand me suckers and hold my hand through the rebound tantrums. I cannot adequately express my gratitude, but I’m learning to trust in that safety net. It isn’t easy, but I’m learning.

All I can do is keep writing.


What Silence Says

Silence says, “Apathy wins.”

Before I elaborate on that, let me share a comment I received today, the day I released a new story to the usual resounding lack of interest. It went more or less like this: “You’re a published author. That is so incredible. I don’t buy that kind of thing, but it’s not like you need my support.”

This is the kind of remark that hits me like a kick to the solar plexus. It inflicts an instant, desperate, breathless panic. There is no quick snappy retort for it, no ready defense against it. There is no suave way to say, “Whose support do you think I have? I need all the fucking help I can get.” Instead of snarling and snarking, I smile tightly and change the subject.

(And then I remind myself that I am supported by some wonderful, generous people who unfortunately do not share geographic proximity. I have a fan base of 15 readers. Pathetic perhaps, after a year of publication, and not the numbers my outrageous ego believes my writing deserves, but it’s what I have. I cling to a sense of gratitude even while drowning in an ocean of zeroes.)

I am not here to shame the speaker, who was only being honestly apathetic out loud.  I’d like use that experience as an excuse to  talk about the importance of advocacy. And, yeah, I need to rant, because I was frustrated and hurt and infuriated by that reminder of apathy’s lethal power.  I could have responded today. One doesn’t, if one is polite, but the opportunity existed. When people send the same message with silence, there’s no fighting it. Apathy wins. Art loses.

Silence says, “Sure, I know you, but I wouldn’t cross the street to help. You matter less than, well, anything. I cannot be bothered to spend one minute of my precious time on you. Not even to admit how little I care.” Silence destroys more creators than harsh reviews ever will.  Silence is the assassin of creative energy. It smothers ideas in their cribs. Silence whispers, “Why bother?” in the most poisonous of voices.

Independent creators all need help, in oh, so many ways. The delicious irony of it all is that I’m not talking about financial support. Buying things is the last and least important point, not the first and foremost. I periodically have to squelch a nigh-irresistible urge to shun everyone I know who can’t put a checkmark against any action from the following list:

  • offered a compliment/asked a question about the content of my work rather than its existence.
  • voted for positive reviews or voted for my profile page on Amazon or elsewhere.
  • shared a promotional link or shared a link to my blog or my Amazon sales page
  • written a review anywhere (this includes offering to review for a free copy)
  • asked their library to buy a copy of the work or suggested that a retailer to carry it.
  • bought a copy for someone else as a gift
  • bought a copy to own

Guess how many of my surprisingly extensive social circle would have to answer “none of the above, ever?” Yup. That many. My Amazon page has 22 likes, because people can’t be bothered to go online and click a flipping button. Is it any wonder I’m becoming a bitter cynic? Is it any wonder that I am regularly wracked with doubt about the quality of my art? Is it any wonder that I suspect most of the people I know just don’t give a flying fuck whether I exist, or would be happier if I didn’t? (No. It isn’t.)

One major side point: advocating for art isn’t a one-time achievement, any more than an artist only creates a single piece in a lifetime. (Harper Lee and other one-hit wonders aside) Don’t pat yourself on the back if you wrote one review ever, or mentioned your artist friend once. That gets you off the shit list. It doesn’t make you clean. (edit: just in case, let me clarify that I’m using “you” in that second-person universal sense, not a personal one. I am unreasonably lucky that you who support me at all, support me fully. That’s not common in this community of creation. Not in the least.)

Oh, sure, there are other ways for us artists to interpret silent apathy. “People are busy,” is a popular choice, followed by, “I know they’ve been meaning to,” “It’s on their list,” and my personal favorite, “They don’t know how.” Because saying, “Hey, I want to be supportive. How do I do that?” would be cheating? Uh-huh. My bullshit meter just hit maximum too. We’re making your excuses for you. We accept your excuses. They’re still excuses.

Life makes demands on everyone. Art doesn’t happen. It takes time too. If anyone you know creates art, they’re pouring heart and soul and time into it. The least you can do is sacrifice a little time of your own to appreciate their effort, even if the final product is not your kind of thing.

And a postscript:
Advocating for someone without sharing your efforts with the beneficiary is like writing a text and forgetting to hit send. Messages that don’t reach the recipient are as silent as those never written.

My cat approves this message.
Authoring Writing Advice

Books are pyramids

Bear with me here.

I’m not saying that books are literally solid geometric forms with five sides. I’m not proposing a radical change in book formatting.  It’s a metaphor. A simile, really, with a silent “like” lurking within the statement. If you’re in the mood for a little thought experiment, come with me ona tour through the idea of book creation as pyramid-building.

1. Story

Story is the solid base of the structure. Without a good foundation, your work fails, crumbling into the jungle soil and vanishing without a trace. You need a good story. The tricky part is defining the word “good.”  Your heart and the audience should be the sole arbiters of merit, but historically, the economics of publishing did not allow everyone to put written stories in front of an audience. Thus was the  publsihing industry born. Neal Stephenson provides a fascinating analogy for the publisher’s role in his answer to the second question in this slashdot interview.

Story is the element most often dismissed by gatekeeping editors and agents. Publishers know what sells now, and they want what they know. There’s little room for originality. New ideas and marginal topics get filtered out. Changes in “what sells” occur in faddish surges. This is the element that has been washed clean by the flood of self-publishing. Fir the first time in decades, possibly centuries, a huge variety of stories are being made directly available to an audience eager to judge them.

Story is only one element, though.  A trite, cliched, clumsy story can be a bestseller. There are four more elements that must be built and polished before a story can–or should–be called a book. They are all important, they all rely on each other, and they all work together to create a singular result. As long as the story works, it will hold up the rest.

2. Craft

Inspiration, imagination and ideas are the bedrock of the work.  Now I’m talking about the mechanics of writing, and this craft, it’s a complicated mining engine. A writer digs around in her imagination, pulls out ideas, and then crafts them  into a series of words that the mind of another person can use to rebuild the same idea. Think about the miracle that is communication, and be awestruck. We reduce concepts like eternity to four syllables, confident that our readers will divine the same meaning from the same construct. It’s a miracle, really.

Spelling, grammar, and structural guidelines are tools that make miracles happen. Know your tools. Treat them with care. Learn to use them properly before you get creative with them.  Then get creative. I drive screws using a power drill with an accessory rather than a screwdriver. That’s my choice.  I mix metaphors with abandon when writing the POV of a character who dissociates her emotions into animal form. That’s my choice too. I can also accurately use it’s and its, there, they’re and their, just as  I know how to use that power drill without putting out an eye or gashing myself bloody.

If you haven’t mastered noun-verb agreement, if you can’t place a period where a full-stop should occur, if you are shaky on tenses, then you are not ready to publish. You are ready to write, to discover, to explore your ideas in text– all this, yes, please do– but be aware of this unhappy truth: when presented to others, your work will slump like concrete made without gravel and collapse beneath its own mass of errors.  (Am I milking the building metaphor for all it’s worth? You betcha.)

3. Cover

Until we stop being a visual species, humans will make initial judgments by sight. Every book needs an associated image that says to each passing reader, “C’mon, look at me. Touch me.” Some books shout that message in bold words on fields of stark color, some flirt with bared bodices and naked torsos, some whisper it with a subtle swirl of pastels, but the message is the same: “PICK ME, PLEASE!”

If you can’t buy or create professional designs, stick to a simple cover with minimal graphics. Less can be more. Less is definitely better than Bad. Your cover doesn’t have to be dazzling. It simply has to avoid sucking. Your blurb comes under the aegis of “cover” even though it is text.  You’re not trying to explain your book with the blurb. You’re creating a brain image that tempts the reader to engage. Clickbait the heck out of it. Humans respond to specific phrases as if they were enticing images. I wrote an article about that once. More views than anything else I’ve ever written, and it’s about nothing.

4. Components

Once a reader opens the book, the cover’s work is done. The job of the book has barely begun. There’s more to the text than the content. If you distract, disgust or confuse your readers, they won’t stick around long.

Getting to know all the parts and pieces of a book beyond the body of the story takes a whole ‘nother skillset. As with the cover, either hire a good workman, or collect your own tools and practice with them. Ignore the traditional forms at your own risk. You can make stairs without banisters, but people are more likely to fall. Let me outline a few of the safety features readers expect to find in Your Book  2014 edition:

  • A font that sets the mood for your book and smooths the way for a reader’s eyes to reach past letters to meaning. Typography is worth a post in its own right. I’ll write it, I promise.
  • Appropriate front matter — include at minimum a title page and copyright statement, and if you want your book in libraries, you’d better know what cataloging information to put into that space.  Do you need a table of contents? Maybe, maybe not. Do your research.
  • Running page headers and page numbers within the story. These are the wayfinding signs and guideposts for your reader.
  • Chapter & section decorations. Too much fancy stuff distracts from the story) but little touches make your pages unique & more appealing.
  • Back matter: that’s what comes after the story ends, material that encourages further reading & engagement. (An “about the author” paragraph. Notes about the world you created. Properly paginated appendices. All that jazz. Look at traditionally published books for ideas.)

I love electronic publishing because so many safety features come standard with the vehicle. Page numbers? Pfft. They don’t exist. Running headers, tables of contents and font choices? Generated automatically. Huzzah! I can concentrate on the essentials!

That said, I love flourishes and decorations and dropped capitals when done right. They make a book more than a sterile string of words.

If you’re killing trees for your creation, treat their sacrifice with some visual honor. Using default screen fonts for print publishing is like wearing flip-flops to a friend’s wedding. Sure, she’ll understand. She knows you. She might even think it’s funny. It’s still a sign of disrespect, and she’s not the only person at the event. Sloppy front and back matter content flags your book as an amateur production.  You insult your readers by refusing to polish your presentation. If you don’t care enough to dress up, why should they care enough to come to the party?

4. Criticism

To avoid having gaping holes in your final monument, get all your work assessed and evaluated by others before publication. This last side makes the structure stable. It brings everything together.

Some forms of art are more participatory than others. Storytelling is impoverished by isolation. Book publishing is crippled by it. (In my humble opinion.) I won’t say writing without an audience lacks purpose.  Writers everywhere know the deep satisfaction of writing for an audience of one.

In most cases, however, stories improve on being heard, and writing improves on being read. Books improve on being seen and their errors corrected.  No one is an island. No artist can view their work with the same clarity as an objective observer. Get advice and feedback on all aspects of your book: story, craft, cover and components. You can do it all yourself. You can go it alone. Your work will likely be the poorer for it.

And now we’re done.

That’s a base and four sides that diminish as they rise, leaning against each other to form the sharp, clear point. I described each piece individually in an order, but it’s normal to work on several sides simultaneously, building toward the top as you go along.

As you create, you work first on one element, then on another, then the next, until you reach that final peak. And the view from the top is stupendous.