Heroes Vs Villains

There is a saying that no villain really knows that they are a villain. We are all heroes in our own minds. But in fiction, it is also often true that heroes don’t know they are heroes. They resist the title. They push back against the events that would take them to heroic destiny. The good ones, the ones we relate to most, never really feel heroic so much as overwhelmed by the circumstances they face.

I have broken the main rule of the Internet: never read the comments. In reading the comments I find, over and over again, people so opposed to each other, they resort to insults, each side assuming the other is the biased one, the stupid one, the one who refuses to get it (or is incapable of getting it). Each side has painted theirs as the one full of heroes, the other the one full of villains.

How can this be?

It is enough to give me pause and wonder how I see myself, how I live my life, even how I write my characters. How have I decided what is heroic and what is villainous? What criteria was I using and why was I so sure I could tell the one from the other?

Maybe it was just circumstance — the heroes had the most bad things happening to them. Maybe it was just perspective. The heroes are the ones that get the most time spent on their thoughts, feelings, and motives. Heroes are the ones whose pain audiences are supposed to relate to, their reactions more justified, their mistakes made smaller with familiarity. They are allowed remorse, guilt, shame, and insecurity. They are the ones fighting for hope.

Or maybe it’s just about likability. Heroes are the ones we like — they have the charm, the talent, the special magical ability to make audiences want to find out more.

If I can’t say for sure which characters I have created are truly heroic, how can I say which people in life are truly villainous? Particularly when people on both sides are so determined that theirs is the side to be on?

After much thought and consideration, I finally came up with the only definition (and a working one at that) which could even start to help me make sense of the world: heroes are the ones that are willing to admit they are wrong, and they are the ones most likely to change and grow over time. Heroes are the ones looking to be redeemed, in whatever way they feel they need to be. Villains are the ones who aggressively refuse to change.

It’s not a perfect definition, and the distinction between heroes and villains, as much as there is one, is, I’m sure, much more nuanced than can be contained in one simple line (or three). But I need some measure, some way to determine if I actually really am on the right side, something that isn’t an appeal to authority or tradition. I need to know that flawed people can be heroic, and that not all villains have to stay that way.

Because the truth is that things in the world often feel very overwhelming. Life often feels full of obstacles I feel less than equipped to overcome. And I don’t feel like a hero. Yet I also know my thoughts and views have easily painted as me someone else’s villain. It gets murky, here the middle, in the real world, away from fiction (and non-fiction) organizing events to make one side seem better than the other. It’s hard to know what side I stand on, and I suppose throughout my life I will flit from the heroic to the villainous and back again, depending on circumstance, perspective, and context. Just because I think I’m right doesn’t necessarily mean that I am.

I’m prepared to be wrong though. And I think that is a good sign that maybe, just maybe, I lean toward the heroic. At least, that’s what I hope.

Radical Self-Love and Pride

I first became an activist in 2008, when, on the night of Barack Obama’s historic win of the presidential election, Proposition 8 passed in California, my home state, voters declaring that same-sex couples shouldn’t have the right to marry. I happened to be watching the results with a good friend and her girlfriend, on the day of my friend’s birthday. Her tears moved me to action, and when she looked for ways to get involved and protest Prop 8, I went with her.

That was also the first year I went to the Pride Parade in Los Angeles. It was the first time I became fully aware of the multitude of rights LGBTQ folks were being denied because of the bigotry of others. And it was the first time I understood what an ally was — and started the long process of learning to be one while confronting my own privilege.

A lot has changed for me since 2008, including earning a masters degree in social work, and working in the field for almost five years post-graduation. My understanding of privilege and being an ally has continued to evolve. It has not been an easy process, and in fact, I often find myself frustrated both with the multitude of battles for equality that still need to be fought, and the various ways I have, both specifically and generically as a white woman, been called out. I am reminded daily that I need to  be called out in order to grow — and that it is up to me to work through my frustration in order to be an effective ally.

June is Pride month in many places across the US, including NY (where I am now). It has also been a very challenging month. It was the one-month anniversary of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It had the devastating results of the case against the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile (acquittal). It was yet another month full of terrorist attacks against Muslims, both here in the US and abroad. My social media feeds continue to be filled with heartbreaking story after story. Most of us are still reeling from the reality of living in a post-Trump world, and all the hatred that has emerged with it.

I am back to wondering what it is to be an ally, and what it means to make space for pride in my life, not just as someone who feels more queer than straight (though isn’t sure how to identify as queer without a strict label to go with it), but as someone who constantly spends time with others who take pride in the very identities that they are prosecuted and attacked for. Pride is a radical act of defiance in the face of oppression. Pride is about daring to celebrate, even in the midst of all the reasons to mourn. Pride is about radical self-love, and radically loving others.

So I am sharing with folks several websites that have become my go-to spaces for helping me grow as an ally, and celebrate the concept of radical love and pride all year long:

The Body is Not an Apology: founded by Sonya Renee Taylor, the mission of the website is to “foster global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human love and action in service toward a more just, equitable and compassionate world.”

Everyday Feminism: founded by Sandra Kim, the mission is “to help people dismantle everyday violence, discrimination, and marginalization through applied intersectional feminism and to create a world where self-determination and loving communities are social norms through compassionate activism.”

Wear Your Voice Magazine: is an intersectional feminist magazine “run by women and femmes of color who are trying to make more room for marginalized voices away from the white, cis-centric, heteronormative, patriarchal gaze.”

PEN America: part of PEN International, it is an community that works together to “ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others” with a specific focus on “the intersection of literature and human rights.”

And finally:

Pajiba: a community of movie and pop culture reviewers and commenters that is my favorite corner of the Internet, and who I have been reading for so long, I have added all the writers as social media friends because I feel like I know them that well. Radical self-love is also about connecting with community, and I have been part of this online community (if often as a lurker) for as long as I can remember.

The Good Parts

I have a confession to make: when I read books, I tend to skip through large swaths of text. It started when I was a kid, reading fantasy novels. I adore fantasy novels. But without fail, every fantasy author I have ever read has spent a tremendous amount of time describing things. Now, when you are creating a world mostly from scratch, there are a lot of new things to describe. World-building takes a lot of time (as I am learning, since I am now writing a contemporary fantasy novel), and authors want to make sure that effort shows in their book.

And while I know there are readers who really appreciate those long, detailed passages that describe all the unique things of that magical new world, I am not one of them. I find myself skimming, searching out the gist of whatever is being described — the character likes fancy clothing or the home is drafty and cold — and then move on to dialogue and action. Sometimes I have to go back and actually read something I’ve skimmed through because I’ve missed something important, but mostly I can get away with skipping entire paragraphs without missing anything significant.

This is not just a fantasy and science fiction problem either — I have ready plenty of mysteries where characters are described like the author is working with a sketch artist, and romances where the heroine’s wardrobe has gotten more page-space than the love scenes.

I should say that I have never not enjoyed a book because I skipped over the long descriptions — in fact, some of the best lines I have ever read have been in those passages (when I have read them). They just tend to interfere with my primary driving force as a reader — to find out what happens next.

Now that I am trying to create a new world, I find myself writing those same long passages that describe everything. And honestly, I have been wondering just how much I have to actually include — and how much I can get away with leaving out. It is an essential question for every writer — how much can you trust the reader to fill in the blanks?

I know there is no one-size-fits-all level of description that will satisfy every reader, and certainly I may be on the far side of the spectrum in the number of scenes I gloss over. And while there probably are more writers not writing enough vivid description, I also don’t want to be one of those writers that overdoes it either. But it’s a hard balance to achieve.

But, since I am making my confession, I should also make my apologies. To most every author I have ever read, even the ones I loved — I am sorry for not actually reading all the words you wrote. I am sure they were amazing words. Gorgeous descriptions. Pure poetry. I likely skipped your best lines.

But I probably loved your book, anyway.

Fall is the Time for Book Giveaways!

October is one of my favorite months and Halloween one of my favorite holidays. It’s no secret to anyone who has read my book Perfect Likeness that I am a fan of the supernatural, and having an entire month dedicated to exploring the edges of humanity and playing in the great “what if” just makes me happy. I break out the glitter pumpkins, the purple and orange string lights, and the creepy LED candles (which are much more cat-friendly than actual fire), and then enjoy an entire month of baking, soup making, and pumpkin spice having.

Fall is the perfect season to cuddle up on the couch and read, which is why I am super excited to announce a book giveaway from my publishing company Blue Zephyr Press. By clicking the link below you can enter for a chance to win a $75 Amazon Gift Card, one of three print novels (Exile by Karen Harris Tully, An Unseen Current by Bethany Maines, and Perfect Likeness by me), or a package of five ebooks: Exile and Inheritance, books one and two in the Faarian Chronicles series by Karen Harris Tully; the San Juan Islands murder mystery An Unseen Current, and supernatural romance Wild Waters by Bethany Maines; and of course, my own romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, Perfect Likeness. The contest runs through October 30th, 2016, and if you tweet about the giveaway, you can win extra entries!

Click on the image and/or follow the link for a chance to win!

Or

>>ENTER CONTEST AT RAFFLECOPTER<<

Embracing the Change

 

Like many other writers, I have a day job. I am a social worker and have spent the last four years working in child welfare. While this can be a very rewarding field to work in, it is also a very draining field to work in. Self-care is a constant challenge due to the demands of the job. When you rarely get time for lunch, it is even harder to make time for writing — which has not been good for me, or my publishing schedule.

It’s not just the hours, which are long, or the paperwork, which even the most prolific of writers would find daunting to keep up with — it’s that the constant stress leaves you so little mental energy to dig into character and conflict. Writing is work, of course, but it began to feel like more work than it ever had before.

Every writer, regardless of their outside life, struggles to fit writing into that life. Writing is a very time consuming enterprise, and much of that time is spent away from other people, and away from the maintenance of every day living. It’s hard to write and do dishes at the same time (though so easy to get dishes done when you are avoiding a particularly challenging writing session). Time spent writing is time AWAY. You have to have the time to spare (or the ability to create it).  I was running out of away time to dedicate to writing (or laundry, which was piling up on the regular). Something had to give.

So I sought out and found a new job at a mental health clinic — I will now be working as a therapist full time. What I am hoping this means is that I will have more time — and energy — for writing.

And yet, change is hard. Change makes people very uncomfortable. (As someone who helps people change their lives for a living, I can attest that most people find it at best, a frustrating experience). So even though I’m very excited for this change, I am also nervous. What if this doesn’t work out the way I hope it will? What if I start to feel burned out again? What if I don’t make time for writing in this new schedule?

Change comes with risk — it invites the unknown into your life. It leaves variables on the table that only time and experience can solve. And at this point, I’m still not sure what X will turn out to be.

It feels very much like sitting down to write a new story with only a vague outline in mind, and no real idea how it’s going to end. So you’d think I’d be used to this feeling, used to facing down the unknown. The very act of writing is the act of embracing change over and over, solving for x time and time again. Writing is meant to be uncomfortable and challenging, or else it wouldn’t also be rewarding. Change, like writing, is hard every single time. It also is the only way that something new, and potentially amazing, can happen.

Here’s to opening the door and inviting in the amazing!

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on September 8th, 2016.

The First J.M. Phillippe

Earlier this month, Bethany Maines shared the question so many authors struggle with: “what other authors are you like?” As the Olympics finishes up this week, it’s pretty obvious that comparison is inevitable for anyone in the public eye — particularly women (as the journalists covering the Olympics seemed to only know how to talk about female athletes in relation to male athletes). This is why Simone Biles is my new favorite role model:

 

Because when it comes to describing my writing style, or even trying to find the right mixed-genre combo to describe my first novel, Perfect Likeness, I am often at a loss. “I write like me,” I want to tell people. Unfortunately I am not a household name yet and thus can’t compare myself to only myself. (I may need some writing equivalent of gold medals first.) I have to try to find someone that is writing like me, who people like, to compare myself to. Preferably a best selling author so that people think “oh yeah, I love that person!” and then, you know, buy and read my book.

We can’t all be Simone Biles. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or “put your Big Name Author here”. In fact, most authors I know in real life are pretty happy to be in the competition at all. We’re not looking to medal — we’re just hoping to get one or two (hundred, if possible) devoted fans.

The other big issue with “who are you like?” is that it taps into one of my biggest insecurities as a writer: that I don’t have a unique voice (or a unique story). Look, at this point, three out of five people I talk about my plots with pipe up with something along the lines of “it’s just like that other book/that movie/that video game/that song/that esoteric piece of art I did my PhD thesis on.” (Okay, maybe not that last one, but wouldn’t that be cool!?!) The “It’s All Been Done” record (go ahead and cue the Barenaked Ladies song) playing in my head is responsible for at least 60 percent of all my anxiety-filled blank-page moments.

The LAST thing I want is to write something just like any other book, or just like any author (yes, even the best selling ones). I have fought long and hard with myself to come up with something that didn’t sound to me just like everything else I’ve read. In fact, the biggest reason I write is because I don’t feel like I have read anyone else quite like me.

Which sounds great — all the way up until you have to market your book and someone asks you “what else is this book like/what other author are you like?” Because unlike gold medalists, there are A LOT of different authors and books, and people want some sort of sense of what they are going to get themselves into before committing 300 plus pages to a story.

What this means is that the writer part of myself is often at odds with the marketing part of myself. The writer part of myself wants to jump genres and experiment with writing style and format. The marketing part of myself wants to create a brand that people will recognize so that they can say, “oh, that’s a J.M. Phillippe kind of book.” The marketing part of myself knows that it takes more than a single event to make a gold medalist; there are years of dedicated practice behind that moment. There are hours and hours (and yes, even years) of constantly working at it for most writers to become Big Name Writers. And an essential part of that work — however much we may hate it — is creating a Big Name Brand.

I don’t have a good answer for this constant push and pull between these two sides of myself (but I do have a great recommendation for a comic by Nick Seluk called The Awkward Yeti, featuring Heart and Brain, which basically sums up my eternal struggles against myself perfectly):

 I think the struggle is going to be a constant one. And nothing brings it to light more quickly than someone asking me what other kind of writer I am like. I always have to fight the urge to say “I’m the first J.M. Phillippe.”

But maybe someday, I will be the author that others compare themselves to.

This blog post is from The Stiletto Gang blog, posted on 8/16/16.

The Vortex of Public Opinion

I have this phrase stuck in my head: “thrust into the vortex of public opinion.” It is a misquote from a long-forgotten class I took while studying journalism. I know it’s a misquote because thanks to that degree (and everything I learned about citing sources), I knew I couldn’t just repeat that phrase and not look it up. Thus, I slid down the Wikipedia rabbit hole on the definitions of libel and defamation, and more specifically, what makes someone a “public figure.” I won’t bore you with the court cases —Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974); Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967); Associated Press v. Walker (1967), and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988) — or the actual quote (I was pretty darn close for a 15 plus year memory), but why I keep thinking about it: in the modern era of social media, is it time to update the definition? Are we not all, to our friends/fans lists in the hundreds (if not thousands, if your social media game is really on), “thrusting ourselves into the vortex of public opinion”?

Because as various news stories break, everyone seems to jump in to say…something. Sometimes what we say is very personal, and very connected to the big stories trending on Facebook and Twitter. And sometimes we don’t know what to say — so we say that we don’t know what to say. Sometimes we push forward a quote or meme and let that speak for us. But it seems that once we’ve entered these semi-public (or fully public, depending on your privacy settings) spaces, the one thing we can’t do is not say anything at all. Not just writers or journalists or other actual public figures — most everyone seems to feel this need to weigh in, one way or another.

And yet, weighing in is fraught with its own peril, thanks to comment sections and reposts. Many celebrities have learned this the hard way, and none too few private citizens as well, as they have actually been fired over things they have posted. Other people have found friendships ruined over social media posts (with online unfriending translating to real world unfriending), and still others have found themselves living the reality of the quote:

With all of that in mind, I often find myself hesitating before also entering the vortex of public opinion. I have become increasingly aware over the years that we are all on the cusp of being actual public figures — and as a published author, I likely have already, legally speaking, crossed that line. What we say has real world consequences, and the more we enter the public space, the less protection we have thanks to laws designed to preserve freedom of speech.

Even more than the legal ramifications, I worry about becoming a target. Online harassment and cyber-bullying are very real, and if someone garners the attention of certain groups, they may face extreme levels of it, including doxing (having your personal information such as phone numbers and addresses posted online), and even swatting (sending police or other officials to someone’s home through anonymous tips about bomb or other threats).

More, there is that thing that happens where our online interactions with people often out-number our in-person interactions with people, and what you post is also what people assume you are. I often find myself trying to view my various online spaces through the eyes of an outsider and try to figure out who they might think I am. From a marketing standpoint, I want to make sure that my public persona is “on brand.” From a safety standpoint, I want to make sure I am not opening myself up to the vortex, to that crazy unknown where one post or share could send me whirling in a direction I could never have imagined going in. I am responsible for my words, sure, but while I can own my intentions, I have no idea exactly how what I write may impact my readers. More often than not, I find myself not posting anything at all.

But the thing is, a huge part of selling a book is about selling yourself as an author, and not posting doesn’t actually help me. I should post more — I know that. But it’s a scary vortex out there, and I find myself teetering on the edge, hand hovering over my mouse, taking a moment before I hit “post.” Because the Internet never forgets.

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on June 20, 2016. 

Fit to Write

In 1988, a group of advertising execs created possibly the greatest, most influential fitness campaign slogan ever:

An entire generation, MY generation, has been living by these words of wisdom ever since. Or, at least aspiring to. Want to get good grades in school? Just do it. Want to learn to play guitar? Just do it. Want to see if you can eat an entire bag of cookies in one go? Just do it. Whatever it is you want to do, just go on out and do it.

Do an internet search on writing, and you’ll find much the same advice:

Writer’s write. The end. Want to be a writer? Write. Want to become good writer? Write more. Want to become the greatest writer that ever lived? Write, write more, and then write some more after that.

The doing makes you the thing. Runners run. Swimmers swim. Competitive food champions eat lots of food in really short amounts of time. Writers write.

If only it actually were that easy.

What the ad execs were getting at (in an attempt to sell shoes and other various fitness apparel) is that there really should be no excuses between you and the thing you are setting out to do. “Just do it” cuts through any possible block you could put up. “I don’t have time” becomes “make time.” “I don’t have the right equipment” becomes “get the right equipment.” “I don’t know what to say” becomes “say anything, keep saying anything until it becomes something, and then say more about that.”

There is — or there should be — nothing that keeps writers from writing. Like running, swimming, and sure, probably competitive eating, daily practice is the key. Just do the thing. Just write.

People obviously underestimate just how creative writers can be in coming up with excuses why they can’t, in fact, just write.

I have had some of the best naps of my life starting about 20 minutes after I sat down to write, because something about the process suddenly makes me super tired. The amount of resistance I have to the actual doing of writing is tremendous, so much so that it often takes a Herculean effort to even sit in front of my computer for ten minutes. It’s as if I am a beginner runner trying to convince myself I can make it through this one lap, or this next minute, without stopping (or actually dying from an acute inability to breathe). In fact, I have gotten in better running shape with more ease than I have gotten through certain sections of a book — and I am not in any way, shape, or form, someone who has ever actually enjoyed running; running, like writing, is something I have only ever enjoyed have had done.

I have never been a particularly disciplined writer, relying on the sheer terror that a looming deadline evokes in me to get me through that giant cloud of resistance so that I can actually write. I don’t have great writing discipline, or, really, any writing discipline, and it frankly shocks me every time I actually finish any piece of writing. It’s almost as though I finally force myself into a fugue state, after which I have something I can maybe sort of push and prod into something else that I feel mostly okay having other people read. At some point, despite all my best efforts not to, I finally do in fact, just do it. I write.

This is less than ideal. I would love a daily writing practice. I would love to get to the point where I can sit down in front of my computer and get to work without a certain tightening of my chest, a sudden thirst or hunger, or a desperate need to just rest my eyes, just for a few minutes, and then I’ll totally knock out some pages. It’s not like I don’t know what I have to do. Nike has been telling me what to do for the past almost 30 years. Just do it. Just. Do. It.

And I’m totally going to.

Starting tomorrow.

 

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on May 17, 2016.