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.

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.)

 

Pouring

Sometimes I think the only way to write is by pouring one’s heart into the story. I inject not only compassion I feel for people I know, but also very personal experiences from my own life. I pour myself into my work.

Sometimes I feel like readers can recognize these bits of my truth about pain and longing and hope. I feel like they read what I write and deeply connect to the story. These feelings are validating and make me want to continue writing from my heart.

But sometimes I feel like I have poured my heart out and people look at it and think, “What a freakin’ mess that is. Step carefully around that, dear. Don’t get any on your shoes.”

Different days bring different ways of seeing it. I try not to make major decisions about my future based on either of these ideas. But lately I just don’t want to write anymore. So I don’t. I cut fabric into tiny squares thinking I might sew some patchwork dogs to give to special education classes next December. I cut squares because they are precisely 2.25″ x 2.25″ but each varies slightly by pattern. I cut squares because it is repetitive work which requires very little thought. I cut squares because I’ve acquired so much fabric over the last two years and am ashamed to have  left it neglected so long.

I cut squares because I’m avoiding writing.

I don’t think there is a story left to be written by me which is more intimate, important, or heartfelt than Winter Seedlings and Silencer. What could I say more? At the moment, not much. I am still empty from pouring myself out into all that work in such a short period of time. The issues presented in those works were things I had rolled over in my head for ten or twenty years. It was everything poured out at once.

So, what kind of writer am I that I can’t just type up a love story, or a documentary, or a quaint tale of Appalachia? Am I a writer at all if I can’t write daily, even to type up a blog post? Successful authors should be able to do at least that much.

But, I’m not that kind of writer, I guess. I don’t want “it” bad enough. “It” = anything. I just want to be quiet until I see a space to make a difference, whether it be with a patchwork dog or a new novel. I don’t want to pour myself out for nothing, or worse, to be stepped around. There are plenty of other authors to read in the meantime.

Diverse Books & Myths of Success

People will tell you that all it takes to be a successful (as in lots of people have read your book and paid you decent amounts of money to do it) author is to tell a great story. They will say to you, “Authors cannot claim readers won’t support diverse books. Readers will support any well-written story.”

Why do people tell us that all we need to do is write a “great story” when in reality that’s absolute bullshit?

  1. Willful ignorance. They’re afraid to see it any other way. They might screw up their worldview about how all people (readers especially) are not bias. “Bias isn’t a thing. Anyone telling you bias is a thing are just making excuses for their crappy work.”
  2. Profit. They are self-promoting and optimism sells better than the truth. Telling authors that everything is going to be fine gets more RT’s and less vitriol in response.
  3. Manipulation. They want authors to write diverse books, so they’ll say whatever makes that sound like a good idea.

Just a reminder: I write diverse books. I have written and published books with many different characters: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, Black, White, rich, poor, autistic, and with mental illness. I do not like to write expected, cookie-cutter stories. I prefer to write about interesting people with lives not usually represented in fiction. This is a choice I make because I *want* to write these stories and am privileged not to need book sales to feed my kids. I do not write these stories because I believe every reader will welcome them.

I have been booed whenever I’ve said, “If you want more diverse books, you have to be willing to read books that are not about you. Authors can not afford to write books if only people like their main character will read them.” I get told “That’s a cop out.” Well, I’m not copping out of anything, am I? I am actually still writing diverse books. I am actually doing the thing people beg authors to do. And I promise, my own experience shows that some people refuse to even read my books because “two girls together doesn’t do anything for me.” Well, uhm… I guess if the only reason you read a book is to get turned on, then… I mean, what is there to say to that?

So, I know first hand what happens when you write diverse books. People who identify with the main character read them. My friends read them, friends who usually never read LGBT fiction. They loved my stories and it didn’t matter that the characters were gay (or whatever). So, it is actually true that a great story will be great regardless of what label is attached to the character. I do not dispute this part of the argument. But in order for someone to know a book is great, they have to be willing to read it in the first place.

Getting mainstream readers to buy diverse books is a challenge when bookseller categories already ostracize such books into their own little group. LGBT fiction gets put into a category all its own, often with subcategories separating gay from lesbian as if books can’t have both. These are categories most straight people seldom wade into. There is an idea that LGBT characters are written for LGBT readers, each letter for itself (L for L, G for G, etc). Sorry, but my books aren’t written that way. They are diverse in their entirety. So, where do I place them? Can I convince gay men to read my story with lesbian characters? (On rare occasions, yes I have). Can I convince lesbians to read my story about bisexuals? Do Whites think of books with Black main characters as “Black books” for “Black people”? There are many questions just like these, just interchange the labels. We are a society of separations and booksellers make it easier to keep the walls up than to tear them down.

When people say, “I need diverse books so that my Asian son can see himself as the superhero.” I understand this need. I agree that such a book, (actually many books), should exist for him. But the math is fairly simple here. If you write a book with a minority main character and the only people who buy the book are people within that minority, then the profits are going to be very small. To be a “successful” book, readers of all races must want to read it. Regardless of our wishful thinking, it isn’t going to matter if the story is good or bad if a large portion of readers will not even pick it up to give it a shot.

People in minority groups have been reading characters unlike themselves all of their lives. I don’t need to tell that Asian mom that she should be willing to read characters unlike her son in order to support the diversity movement. She already does. And so do members of the LGBT community. They read the books that big publishers publish, which are mostly centered on white, straight, cisgender characters.

Of course not every reader does this. There are readers who read a variety of characters and appreciate the diversity. Of course this is not meant as a scolding of “all you people”. I’m only pointing out that there are things society needs to do better. Honestly, if you have found your way to my blog and are even reading this, you probably aren’t the problem.

So what *is* the problem? The problem is that expectations are too high, both writers’ and readers’, and frustration ensues. Writers think that because “Diverse Books” is such a big movement that they are going to find a huge readership waiting for them if they just write a great story about a minority character.

Readers, for their part, want books with characters like themselves to be more than simply written. They want those books to be bestsellers, to win awards, and be in the hands of their peers. They don’t want to have to sift through an ocean of books to find the indie-author writing what they’ve asked for. They want the book they want, but they want it to be popular, easy to find, and mainstream. Authors alone cannot make that happen, not even with a kick-ass story.

There is a lot of work involved in changing our world into one with diverse books. Authors begin that work by creating the stories. But that is only a tiny part of what happens next. The people holding the most power are the readers begging for diversity. Our success depends on whether or not they are willing to seek out, support (as in pay money for), and promote the stories they want. Are they willing to suggest a book with a minority character to someone not in that same minority? I hope so.

I hope we all grow as readers. I hope, as an author and a reader, I push a few hesitant folks into enjoying stories about characters not like themselves. I hope more authors will create diverse worlds in their books, worlds which reflect our own reality. I hope this movement grows until there is no longer under-representation of any group.

But I will not lie to you and say good stories will sell no matter what. I will not tell you, readers, that you have no role to play here. Slowly, we authors will gravitate toward diversity as the mainstream audience slowly comes to meet us halfway. It takes both of us and it won’t be easy for either. But we’ll get there.

The Departed – A Christmas Gift to Readers

The Departed is a Paranormal Romance novelette of only 8000 words. It begins on a subway platform. It is Christmas Eve night. Orin has just left his sister’s Christmas party. He is ready to go home where he can resume mourning the death of his wife which occurred nine months prior. He isn’t thinking about the possibility of encountering a strange woman who will enter the train in a mad dash to save her own life. He isn’t thinking about what he would do in such a situation. But soon he will have to decide.

This new release is now available for download at Openbooks. It is free to download and free to share to any device, including those you are giving as Christmas gifts. There will always be an option to pay what you think it was worth any time after reading it.

Here are ways you can help support my work at Openbooks:

  1. Simply going to Openbooks to download my book(s) is showing that my work is desirable.
  2. Writing an honest review after you read it also really, really helps by getting it onto the Top Rated list. The Departed can’t even be on that list until it receives at least two reviews. So, even if you don’t like it (which I think you will, but it’s ok if you don’t), please consider letting me know why with a review.
  3. Paying any amount, however small, helps The Departed (or whichever book you choose) move up the bestseller list. It also lets the people at Openbooks know that their investment in promoting The Departed, or any of my work, is worth their time.

Authors keep 70% of every payment readers make. This is a very generous amount. Authors are able to access their portion of those funds almost immediately. So, your contribution (though not necessary) does help the authors. This is an excellent opportunity to accept some Christmas love, and to reciprocate simply by accepting it.

The Departed by Julie Roberts Towe

The Departed by Julie Roberts Towe

 

 

The Departed Cover Reveal

I just uploaded my new short story (which is actually more like a novelette at almost 8,000 words) to Openbooks. It is *only* being released through their site.

Openbooks has invited authors to submit their Holiday themed stories to be highlighted during the month of December. (I’ll keep you updated about the actual release day, which should be December 1st.)

For now, I’m only going to tell you a little about the story and reveal the cover (which was designed by Mr. Brown).

The Departed: A paranormal romance novelette

Orin is a man in mourning, waiting for the subway on Christmas Eve night.
Natalie is a woman running for her life.
Someone is following her.

The Departed by Julie Roberts Towe

The Departed by Julie Roberts Towe