Something Like… a Book Review

I started reading Jay Bell’s Something Like Summer on June 11 and I finished it that same day, which for me is quite remarkable. I had searched through the gay fiction category because I had questions in my mind as I was writing my next novel where a young teenage boy begins to question his sexuality. Certain things were happening in my character’s life and I wasn’t sure, given his age, if these things would seem shocking or within reason. So I wanted to find a book that portrayed the coming of age of a gay teen – written as literary fiction and not erotica –  about what experiences are normal for boys just coming to realize they are gay and at what age certain acts begin to take place.

Something Like Summer had many good reviews and seemed to fit everything I was looking for. So, I bought it. As soon as I started reading, I was immediately sucked into the story of Benjamin Bentley. He is such a well-developed character that I’m not convinced he isn’t real. He is witty, passionate, quick to act in ways that seem brave but are actually rooted in lack of restraint, self-aware, and determined to be happy one way or another.

Benjamin has been openly gay since he was 14 at a time when this was a rarity (mid 1990s). The book begins in the summer before Ben’s Junior year in high school. He encounters a new guy in his neighborhood who takes daily runs through the park. Ben makes a point of secretly watching (stalking) him. But when school begins, it becomes evident that Tim Wyman is not gay and he is quickly becoming friends with the people who bully Ben. Most boys would give up, but Ben is tenacious and willing to take risks which might pay off in the long run (or might get him into a world of hurt).

The only problem is that Tim Wyman isn’t as willing to take risks, perhaps because his family isn’t nearly as loving as Ben’s. Tim has been raised very differently, the consequences of which neither boy at age 16 can fully appreciate. They each push the other to change in ways that would make it easier on themselves, not the other. The result is disastrous but completely understandable given their circumstances.

As a reader, I wanted things to work out for the two of them. I wanted it to be obvious and easy because that’s what we all want when it comes to love. But nothing about this story was obvious or easy. But it still kept me reading, not necessarily because of the love story, but because I wanted to know what would happen to Ben.

The Something Like… series is written more like a collection of biographies than a collection of love stories. Yes, romance happens, sex happens, break ups and patch ups happen. But Jay Bell writes about the lives of very distinct, realistic characters, which span a decade or more. Each book in the series is about a character which has already been introduced in the other books.

In Something Like Summer, I wasn’t sure if I really liked Tim Wyman or if I believed him. Early on in the book, Tim mentions leaving Kansas after a girl falsely accuses him of raping her. As a woman, I tend to doubt men who make this claim and see them as potential rapists. I wanted something to come out in the story to reassure me that Tim wasn’t capable of doing such a thing. But, Tim is revealed in Something Like Summer to have moments of aggression. I just never was sure, even by the ending.

So, after finishing Something Like Summer, I picked up Something Like Winter which is the story of Tim Wyman’s life as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Something Like Winter begins in Kansas and directly addresses the rape accusation, which is revealed to be a completely false  accusation by a very manipulative girl. I was relieved because that meant I could trust Tim a little more. But generally speaking, I don’t like it when authors portray rape accusations as lies because in the real world already places so much doubt on legitimate claims of rape. But, my activism aside, I realize that this *can* actually happen in real life and perhaps is more likely to happen to someone like Tim with the kinds of people who find their way into his circles. Tim has a big problem when it comes to figuring out who deserves his friendship and attention and who does not.

Both books were very good, but there was a lot of overlap. Most of Tim’s story I already knew from reading Something Like Summer. But what I didn’t know about was Tim’s character. In Something Like Winter, I came to deeply understand Tim and how his experiences caused him to act the way he did. I enjoyed seeing Ben through Tim’s eyes, and I found out what Tim had been up to in the “missing years” of Something Like Summer.

Now I will probably read Something Like Autumn, which is the story of Jace. I already know how Jace’s story will end, but I do not know how it began.

Jay Bell writes in a very fast-paced, candid, and affectionate way about growing up gay and finding love. I enjoy his stories while I read them and cannot stop thinking about the characters when I’m done.

If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can get Something Like Summer for free right now. Maybe Jay Bell has it permanently set as free, I don’t know, but it’s worth so much more than that.

A Writing Affair

For six months, I hated everything I wrote. I think I’ve said that here before, so I’ll spare you any rehashing of the sad details. Instead, let’s talk about now. Over the past couple of weeks, suddenly, I am writing a new story I really like with characters I obsess over.

“What is your story?” I find myself asking her. “Why did you leave home and never go back?”

She doesn’t answer immediately. She tells me she’d rather talk about that guy she just met, the one dragging her back into her old patterns and keeping her mind off the very question I keep asking her.

I think about her multiple times a day, every day, even when I’m not writing. The feeling is amazing. It’s a feeling I worried I’d lost for good.

But if your main character won’t yet be coaxed into revealing all the details of her past, it’s hard to write 2,000 words a day on her story.

So, while feeling optimistic, I opened up an old work I’d put aside months ago. You might remember I mentioned a novel about a genderfluid autistic boy. I put that project down when I panicked over getting the autistic boy’s voice right. That was one of the many recent projects I came to abandon, only this one had made it to 50,000 words. That’s a lot of words to just throw away.

I discovered, when I opened that project again, that the story moved me and I didn’t hate it. I heard the characters’ voices in it, even the autistic boy’s, and I connected again with the idea driving its creation. I fell in love with it all over. I already know how this one ends. I already know what these boys will go through. I just need to get the voice right and type it out to the finale.

From the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, I now have *two* stories on my mind. It’s almost like an affair. I should be dedicating myself to just one of them. But, strangely, it doesn’t feel like cheating. They just ride alongside each other like siblings in the back of a minivan with their earbuds shoved in their ears. They’re content to go together, but have no interest in communicating with each other.

That analogy kind of falls apart when considering the age difference of the characters in each of these stories. But you get the idea.

I have no idea when either will be finished, or *if* either will ever be finished. I have no plans to jinx this joy by giving myself deadlines. I’m just happy to again be writing something(s) I love.

Sweet Signs of Empathy (Autism)

Facebook shares memories of our posts from the past. Today it reminded me of a post I made in 2013 when my autistic son was 4 years old. The post was made only a month after we moved 900 miles from our old home in Tennessee. My son was still adjusting to his new school, but most of his fears were carried over from the school he had just left. He was afraid of the sound of whistles at recess. He was afraid of an alphabet video his teacher played during snack. Every morning was a struggle to get him to go to school because these fears were all-encompassing. He couldn’t see past them to the fun he would have. His teachers knew of these fears and took measures to not blow the whistle or play the video, but my son was still afraid. So every morning I said the same reassuring words to calm him.

On the day of the Facebook post, I had had something bad happen. I don’t remember what it was, but it had to have been bad because I was crying. I seldom get pushed to that point these days. But there I was lying in bed, crying to the point of sobbing. My son climbed onto the bed with me and pulled the blankets up so he could get under. For a while, he just stayed very still and looked at me. I probably looked strange to him with my face and eyes all red and wet from crying.

He never was one to stare, so I let him for as long as he needed to. As it turns out, he was trying to think of a way to help me stop crying. He put his hands on my face and told me the exact words I told him every morning when he didn’t want to go to school. Then he asked me to tell it back to him. We took turns saying it until we both were giggling.

“They will NOT blow the whistle today. They will NOT play the video you don’t like. They just WILL NOT do it.”

It was an amazing moment in our journey. Never believe that autistic kids do not have empathy.

 

A Friendship to Build or Burn

It was 1990. My BFF and I had reached that point in every long-term friendship where paths separate and each of us wonders if they’ll ever again converge. She was into things I wasn’t. I was into things she wasn’t.

She was dating a friend of my boyfriend. They hung out together at parties, parties I wasn’t invited to because I wasn’t into the things that happened there. My boyfriend saw her about as often as he saw me, yet she and I rarely saw each other. I was mad at her for being in that circle. I wanted things to be like they were the year before when we watched movies together and complained because no one invited us anywhere. But just like the time in 8th grade when we ran the mile together, she found a way to move ahead and I decided I didn’t care about winning that race anyway.

So it was 1990. My boyfriend at the time said to me, “She slept with the guy that raped you.”

I cried. That’s what happened first, anyway. This information made no sense to me. My heart broke because I could only see it two ways. Either she slept with that guy because he did to her what he did to me, or she slept with him because I had her all wrong and everything I had gone through and shared with her meant nothing to her.

But as I cried, my boyfriend said, “I know you’re upset, but she just isn’t a good person. When she found out I knew about it, she told me not to tell you. She said if I ever told you, then she would tell you I had smoked pot.”

I stopped crying. Despite being notoriously emotional, I was still an observer at heart. It was so unlike my BFF to do what he was saying she did. But it was not unlike my boyfriend to smoke pot.

The next day I made a point to visit my BFF, whom I had not spoken to in weeks. I drove to her house and asked if she wanted to go to Arby’s for curly fries and a cup of cheddar. While we drove down the four lane, I said, “So, did you sleep with T___?”

She scrunched up her face in repulsion and said, “What the hell?” like I’d just slapped her with a warted frog. “No!”

“I didn’t think so,” I said. “So, tell me about my boyfriend smoking pot.”

She laughed, “Yeah, I see him over at _____ all the time and he lies to you about it. I told him I was going to tell you and he said you’d never believe me.”

That confirmed what I suspected. I let the subject drop. We had fun that day. I imagine I was happier than the outing itself warranted, because I was aware of just how close our friendship came to dying but didn’t.

What if I had believed him? What if I had never asked her point blank if what I had heard was true? That happened 26 years ago and in that time she and I have been through the best and worst times of our lives together. We went through new loves and breakups and marriages and even pregnancies together. I could have lost it all if I had never confronted her back then.

People sometimes do desperate things when they think something they’ve done will ruin a relationship. My boyfriend thought I’d leave him for smoking pot. I didn’t. But I did eventually leave him for being a liar and the type of person who would pour salt in my wounds for his own benefit. Everyone has a different moral compass. Sometimes people believe all it takes is a little white lie to set things right. But that white lie, the stone that can roll out of control down the hill, is not what breaks up other people’s friendships. The nail in the coffin is our own silence, not asking, and not communicating our concerns. If I had not been willing to doubt the accusations, ask and listen to the very person I suspected to have hurt me; I would have lost her for good and would still believe her to be something she never was.

Our lives are full of relationships built and burned on what other people say. Hold the match until you’re sure.

 

Make Room for Disagreement

All my heroes are problematic.

All my enemies are loved by someone.

I struggle to know who the villains are. Activism, at least the successful kind, almost always requires a villain be named. We define ourselves and we label the opposite “evil”. I see this in politics on the right and left. I see this in conversations about poverty, disability, race, education, gender, status, location, and diet. If we come to a conclusion about what is “right”, we no longer feel a need to listen to anyone with a different opinion.

I don’t share (as in literally click the share button) a lot of other people’s disgruntled posts, blogs, or commentary. The usual reason is that, even if I agree with it 90%, there  are moments when the opposing view is misrepresented. If we can make the opposing view seem really, really, really terrible then we have an easier time convincing people to agree with us. And doing this is not a calculated plot by manipulative people. This exaggeration of the “bad” guy is internal. We do it subconsciously because it simplifies right vs. wrong. We feel comfortable knowing we’re on the right side, so the broader the line between the two, the easier we will rest in self-righteousness.

You know, sometimes people really want to uplift the downtrodden. But they also want to throw some punches just to be punching. It’s easier to lash out when you have dehumanized an entire swath of people you’ve never met based on a single label.

Vilifying others is effective, both mentally and socially. But it is a foolish thing to rely on. It prevents us from reaching consensus, growing individually and collectively, and it discourages others from critical thinking.

So many people are afraid of “seeming” a way if they engage in discussion. We are afraid to point out one flawed part of an otherwise perfect idea for fear we will be labeled the “bad guy” or one of “them”. We put people on pedestals because their outrage is so passionate and persistent. We become convinced that, yes, finally this issue has no gray area. It is clearly black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, pick a side and block the other, it’s time for war. Then no one is allowed to question these people on high. Discussion dies. It becomes an arena where we shout “amen” and “yes” and if someone in the room dares to demonstrate doubt about *anything*, we punch them in the face.

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating just because you wouldn’t hurt a fly. But, people in groups do things people as individuals would not. People representing social righteousness and/or religion behave a little differently than people representing only themselves. The internet has made it very easy for us to form these groups, and the formula for becoming a prominent spokesperson in them is pretty simple for anyone to follow.

I engage in this behavior sometimes. I am flawed. I see that I have done the exact thing I am complaining about now. But every day I do it less. I realize that the people that have been in my life longest have not been there because they agree with my activism. They have been there all this time because despite our very different opinions, we see the good in each other. We see the other person’s heart first and filter their ideas through what we know of their heart. I want to surround myself with more people like this, and give less credibility by default to people only wanting an echo. Maybe that means my circle gets smaller. I’m okay with that. Actually, it may be exactly what I need.

Prince and the Beautiful Ones

Most people who knew me in high school only knew me for one thing: I loved Prince. I dressed like Prince. I wore my hair over my eye like Prince. I wore clothes with Prince’s face on it. Maybe in some corners of the world, this isn’t so rare. But in small town east Tennessee in the late 1980s, I was the only one openly obsessed with the Purple One. Very few of my peers even knew anything about the real Prince. As it turns out, neither did I.

My feelings for Prince have changed over the years. But inside me there is a brokenhearted teenage girl, sad not only for the death of her idol, but also because the “Beautiful Ones” really do smash the pictures. He was an amazing musician with an intoxicating, beautiful body & style; but he was not so kind to the women in his life. I wish he had lived long enough for me to reconcile this ambivalence I hold for him in my mind. But as it is now, I feel like I am mourning a dream I once I had, a very colorful and exhilarating dream.


“Paint a perfect picture
Bring to life
The vision in ones mind
The Beautiful ones
Always smash the picture
Always every time”

lyrics from “The Beautiful Ones” – Prince

 

 

Not Every Love Story

Mind if I think out loud about love and writing?

A very strange thing is happening this year. Last year, I wrote and published a number of books. This year, all I seem to be able to do is write half-novels because I start something new before they are finished.

Do you know how people will say, “I don’t know what their problem is”, but they actually *do* know what their problem is? It’s just that the real problem is a lot more difficult to face up to. Maybe this is me.

In just two years, I wrote and published a three book series, two novellas, and a novelette. I told myself that if I kept putting new stuff out there (different genres and different lengths) eventually I’d hit a chord with most avid readers. I believed that people reluctant to read one of my books would find another of mine that would be more to their taste. That was my plan and I saw it through. But nothing really changed.

During that process, I learned how to focus my efforts on giving readers what they want. I focused on keeping my stories “between the lines”, not pushing readers too far outside their comfort zones. It’s strange looking back. When Winter Seedlings first came out, I bragged about making grown men cry. I marketed it as a book designed to touch every emotion, twist you up inside until you could never fully untwist from it. Readers would remember it always. These are things I was proud of. But somewhere along the way I became ashamed of this aspect of my writing. I listened when I shouldn’t have to people saying they always need a happy ending. I listened when people said they couldn’t read my books because they were triggering. I listened and I tried to change my writing, to write less triggering subject matter and inject it with more happiness. The last book I published was The Departed, which was supposed to be a tame and sentimental story. Despite my intentions, The Departed was still considered by reviewers to be a good, yet melancholy work.

It feels good to see a book sell or a review written. I tried to think of a story that would sell even better than Winter Seedlings. I tried to think of a story everyone would want to read but would also be important to the world. My definition of success had shifted from creating a work that is important to a couple of people to actually making a decent profit. From a business perspective, this isn’t such a bad focus. Most people can’t afford to lose money on their work, and so why would anyone expect that from authors?

As it turns out, I’m terrible at marketing. Making money is just not something I know how to do. It isn’t why I started writing. It’s depressing to think about it. But we’ll leave that as another subject for another day.

Right now, the thing bugging me is how and what I write. I have started six books in four months. I even have one half-novel with 50,000 words. I abandoned it two months ago. Yesterday I stopped working on a 22,000 work in progress that was going really well and out of the blue I started another new story. This is where I tell myself I don’t know what the problem is, but I’m lying to myself.

This is the lie I tell: I want to write a love story with a happy ending so people will love it and talk about it on social media. I want to write a love story so I can be in a romance writers’ groups and laugh about inside jokes and talk about chocolate and the next hot couple I’m shipping. I want to be able to say “I’m writing about an honestly represented bisexual woman” and have people say “Oh, that is so needed in today’s fiction! I can’t wait to read it!” And then everyone will read it and love it and I can earn back the money I spent for the cover art.

But this is the truth: I can’t write about love like a noun, like people get *it* one day because they deserve *it* and now they have *it* and everything is fantastic. (*it* = love). I don’t want to admit to you that I don’t believe in *it*. That is a very, very sad thing to have to say, but it’s true. I don’t believe there is a love that can be given and held onto like a set of milk glass doves. Love is work. It’s work that might not feel like work, but it definitely is an action that is performed, not an object that is received. Sometimes love takes place even when it hurts, even when there is no joy, even when the end is near.

“But books are supposed to be an escape from all that misery. Happily ever after can happen in a book and it will feel real and that’s why we need these books so much.”

I understand. I do. I agree. Please stop beating me up about it (note: I know you aren’t beating me up, I’m doing it to myself). If you want happily ever afters, there are entire publishing companies dedicated to giving them to you. Want the romance genre to be more diverse? I would love to help you with that. As a matter of fact, I have tried because I know it needs to happen, I know it’s the right thing to do, and I know there are readers waiting.

But I can *not* write it. I can’t. Maybe you can, but I’m throwing my hands up.

Every time I sit down to write romance, I end up writing a thriller. My main character is not looking for love. She’s look for an escape. She isn’t trying to find happiness, she’s trying to find freedom. She isn’t looking for acceptance, she’s looking for inner peace. None of it comes easy. Everything has a price and there are no guarantees.

I don’t want to admit to the truths this might tell about my life. But writing any other tale feels like lying.

I have two stories I am actively writing at the moment. One is abstract and hard to keep from derailing. That one is about the space between life and death. A love story was intended to take place in that in-between world, but I am complicating (sabotaging) it by giving my main character some very persistent flaws. It’s getting ugly.

The other story, the new one, is meant to be about a woman who leaves a mean boyfriend and hits the road with nowhere to go. She was intended to end up forming a very healthy, loving relationship with another woman she meets miles away. I am 2,000 words in and have already changed the mean boyfriend to a literal kidnapper who has held her hostage for over a year. Instead of meeting a nice person after escaping, she has met her captor’s brother who will trick her into being returned to the evil guy. This is what I do to things.

I try to think about what readers want and a tug-of-war happens between one side wanting sweet romance and the other side finding everyday life very dull. My daughter laughed at me, perhaps because of the desperate tone, when I asked if it was over-the-top for me to have my main character searching for loose change in the beat up car she stole and have her end up grabbing a snake.  I explained, “I just don’t want the reader to get bored.”

Seriously. I can *not* write romance. I give up trying. My books are psychological fiction. They are disturbing but in a very real, get inside the pain of a person, kind of way. I never meant to be Stephen King (and I’m still *not* like Stephen King). But my real life has been something you’d be more likely to find in his books than a romance novel. I’m just writing what I know, what it means to love even when it hurts (the hurt part is the center of my comfort zone).

My writing is evolving. I tried to push it to be sweeter and more optimistic. I tried. I’m not trying anymore. I’d rather write a terror of heartbreak with a satisfactory ending than start writing a hundred books I can’t force myself to finish. With the ocean of other authors in the world all trying to write the next big seller, I’m not really needed to pretend to be something I’m not. Someone out there already is what I’ve been trying to be. (May the universe bless them with recognition.) But no one else in the world can be me. I’m owning it. (Universe, please bless me, too.)