Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rallying



Here I am at the Rally to Restore Sanity. Getting the chance to take part in the Mythbusters "Wave" experiment" was very awesome. How was it, you ask? Here's the view from the Metro station:




Totally worth it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Manhattan Adventure #9






This month marked my fourth visit to New York City this year, a new record. This time I went with my BFF Hillary from Oregon, who had never seen the town. To confess something that's not much of a secret, I have issues with the notion of being a tourist in NYC. Much like I am, in my mind, a smoker who never took up the habit (thank God), I imagine I am a Manhattanite who does not actually, in the specific meaning of the phrase, live there. I had plans to, but then I married this DC firefighter and the commute was a bit much for him.

So in most of my sojourns to the city I make an effort to be local. Last month, when I took my daughter, I made a concession to her childish fantasies and trotted her through Times Square. This time, with Hillary, I decided to indulge her with a trip to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. You can imagine the surprise I felt when it was awesome. The view! Of course that's the whole point, but the view! My city, ALL THERE!

While we were in town, we visited Ali Baba Turkish Restaurant and the FIT museum to see the Japanese fashion exhibit. I was in Becky heaven there, looking at all the Gothic Lolita and anime-inspired clothes and living out my other fantasy life of being a thin, fashionable, permanently young Japanese girl. We then peed at Tiffany's (on the other side of the world, yes; walking is healthy) and stopped at the Macaron Cafe to pick up a half-dozen French macaroons. If you have not tried those things, please make an effort to correct that problem as soon as possible. The flavors-- French vanilla, cassis violet, matcha, dark chocolate, raspberry-- are so pure and perfect that, at $2.25 each, they make me suspicious that ALL rich people food tastes this good. I'd rather stay in denial about that and continue to pity them for missing out on the deliciousness (truly) of canned hominy, properly fried up.

Hillary had a great time, as did I. I don't expect I'll be back to Times Square or the Empire State Building again anytime soon, but I already miss the city. On the upside, my publisher has moved my book's publication date forward (i.e., closer) by six months, and with it my excuses to visit for book signings. If you ever see me signing my book at The Strand, be aware that I am on top of the world.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Her Victim: Where I Screwed Up

Yesterday I posted about my experience being bullied by my college roommate, Melisa. As I woke up this morning thinking about what I posted, it occurred to me that what I ought to add to that post is a critique of my own actions along the way. After all, nobody is going to look at a bullied kid and say, "You know, hon, you did a lot of things wrong." But I'm a writer. Critiquing is part of my business, and by talking about all the ways I facilitated my own bullying, hopefully I can give victims-- and their parents-- some insight into how to make it stop.

First, I was nice. Much too nice. In all the "let's all get along!" lessons I had learned in school along the way, nobody had mentioned that with certain people it's appropriate to look them in the eye and say, "You're an asshole." At least when I was a kid, the anti-bullying "advice" centered around "Just ignore them. Take the high road." It also focused on, incredibly, compassion for the bullies. "People act like that because inside they're very insecure." "You need to feel sorry for people like that because they were probably badly treated growing up." I even got a lot of this from my RA (and RD) when I went to them for help. They kept repeating how it was hard for Melisa to be away from her family for the first time and what an advantage I had because I had lived here all my life. This kind of thinking gives bullies a huge advantage. Think about it: even as they're dehumanizing you, you're being told to give them extra sympathy for their human frailties. If you're the victim of a bully and you happen to be reading this, I officially give you permission to have no compassion for that individual. You are excused from it. In singling you out for abuse, the bully has declared war. So rise to the challenge: now is not the time for the friendship skills you learned from "Sesame Street." Now is the time to call that spade a spade.

What I should have done-- and what any victim of bullying should do-- is to treat the abuse strictly, and dispassionately, as a legal and criminal issue. Under the law, I should have been protected from what happened to me. The biggest mistake I made was in not getting my resident director, Lisa, fired. In going to her, I felt that I was going for the "big guns" and that she would surely help me, and when she didn't, I felt I had exhausted my options. This could not have been less true. I should have known my rights well enough-- in this case, the UMCP's nondiscrimination policy-- to understand she was violating her terms of employment. I should have gone into the Resident Life offices, asked for the name of her supervisor, and demanded an appointment with that person. I should have called, or threatened to call, the ACLU and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund. At the very least, I should have made myself everybody's very big problem so they would be motivated to put my issues to rest.

I should have been whinier. I should have gone to the University Health Center and complained I was having panic attacks because of what I was dealing with at "home." Even if I hadn't had physical symptoms, I should have claimed I did-- sometimes that's what it takes to get people to take you seriously. If it had reached this point, I should have been willing to get on a bus and go far, far away, because it's much better to be a missing-person case than a dead-student case, and then you can guarantee someone will pay attention. Let me remind you: the goal, in the cases we're talking about here, is to survive the abuse. I'm not offering advice to the average person who's upset or being picked on a little bit. I'm talking about circumstances where the situation is intolerable and help is not forthcoming. People in that situation need to know: there is more than one way out. Sometimes, in issuing a cry for help, you just need to cry louder.

Finally, I should have scrounged together the perspective to see what a small, pithy little person Melisa was in the whole scheme of things. This gets back to Item #1, but here I'm not just talking about how I interacted with her-- I'm talking about how I thought about her, because I'm the one who let her have a throne up in my mind and she was glad to sit in it. I remember calling my mother in despair and panic after Lisa the Resident Director pulled her homophobe routine on me, telling my mom that this was the RD, the highest person I could go to, and even SHE was against me. In probably the best thing my mother has ever done for me since actually giving birth, she said, "Becky... she's nothing but some dinky little low-level campus employee making $30,000 a year. She doesn't know anything and nobody cares what she thinks." I was stunned by this, because in my mind I had apparently blown her up to being somewhere between the President and God. What my mother said was true, and having that perspective gave me comfort in a time when there was precious little of it. I should have applied similar thought to Melisa: to realize there was nothing special or exceptional about her at all. Not just in terms of her relationship to me, but in general. Her only "special power" was a particular skill for treating people badly.

There's a channel on YouTube called The It Gets Better Project, in which LGBT adults talk about how their lives have improved since their difficult youths. I haven't made a video, but my thoughts here are in the same vein. What happened with Melisa back then would never happen to me now. These days I would look at somebody like her and roll my eyes, knowing that small people sometimes come in big packages. If these blog posts made it back to her, it would surprise me not at all for her to pull out the same tired rhetoric about why I suck, why she's innocent, and-- in the way people like her do-- to enlist her friends to jump to her aid to put me down. I seriously doubt that a bully ever changes. That is exactly why the rest of us need to come armed with self-assurance and knowledge of our rights, so we can grow up to live good lives in spite of bullies like her. Because I'm here to tell you, it's a lot better on the other side.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bullies Like Her

This is a hard issue for me to talk about. I've kept pretty quiet about it for about sixteen years now, up until this past week when the suicide of Tyler Clementi, who was bullied by his roommate because of his sexuality, and of other gay students made the news. Now I'm hearing about a school district in Ohio being sued because of four bullying-related student suicides. Well, as the kid who DIDN'T jump off the bridge when it was me in their shoes, I feel compelled to write. And it's not easy.

Nobody was ever more excited about going off to college than I was. I had been dreaming of it since the summer after eighth grade. Junior and senior year of high school I spent lots of time on the University of Maryland campus, just sort of wandering around absorbing the wonderfulness. Even now, being on that beautiful campus fills me with a sense of well-being paired with a good dose of longing. I think the longing remains because I never had the opportunity to gratify it by actually enjoying college.

At 18 I was thrilled beyond words to go off to school. Even though my parents only lived a couple of miles away, they allowed me to move into a dorm so I could get "the full college experience." Thanks to luck of the draw I got an extra-large room on the sixth floor of Hagerstown Hall, then the most desirable building for freshmen. My roommate, Melisa-- her real name, although I'll withhold her surname out of the kindness of my heart-- was from Kansas, and for the first few days she seemed like a nice enough girl. We spent a lot of time talking and bonding to get our friendship off to a good start. During this time I told her something that was no secret to anyone who had known me in high school: I identified as bisexual, and although this was pretty much immaterial given that I'd had a boyfriend for two years at that point, it was worth knowing in terms of explaining some of my politics and sense of humor.

By the end of the day Melisa was no longer speaking to me. Not only was she not speaking to me-- she acted as though she didn't even see me. If she left the room and I was still in it, she turned off the light on her way out. If she passed me in the hallway, it was as though she could detect no human presence nearby. She turned on her stereo loudly when I was studying, shoved my stuff out of the way in the refrigerator to make room for hers, and let the elevator close as I was walking toward it. Oh, but I knew she knew I was there. Another pair of roommates from my floor told me she had approached them, as she was making her rounds of the floor for this express purpose, to tell them to watch out for me because I was bisexual. She got her friends to mock me outside our door, and she talked about me on the phone, while I was in the room. At this point you might ask, "Why did you put up with this?" The answer is because it floored me. I had never faced any sort of negativity because of the way I described my sexuality back then, and I had no emotional or verbal tools for handling it. I also had lousy self-esteem to begin with, and the more she acted like I didn't exist, the more I started to believe her.

My father refused to support my on-campus living if I left the extra-large room he felt I had been lucky to get, so I went to the Resident Assistant for my floor and begged him for help. A couple of times he tried to mediate between myself and Melisa, but she just barraged me with accusations that, among many other things, my clothes and food "stink up the room" and that I was looking at her while she got undressed. (For the record, I had always dressed and undressed only in bathroom stalls to avoid this as an issue, but there it was anyway). She left nothing about me uncriticized, and when she ran out of ideas, she made things up. I remember her once telling the RA that I had expressed intense jealousy of her and said to her, "Can we trade lives?" I had no idea how to defend myself against all this because she was simply lying. I was prepared to address issues I knew about, but not ones she was making up out of thin air. Still, I tried to correct the situation by being nicer and nicer. During one of the sessions with the RA, I pleaded with her to just fake liking me and maybe in the process of faking it she would find a way to get along with me. (Yes, I really said that). She shook her head adamantly. When I said to her that we should get along because we really had a lot in common, she retorted, "Well, I've never been bisexual."

With the RA not able to do anything and the situation (and my mental state) deteriorating by the day, I went to the Resident Director for the quad. I pled my case to her to intervene, but as I then found out to my dismay, Melisa had beaten her to the punch. The RD came after me like a pit bull, telling me that Melisa had issues with me because she wasn't used to being around people with morals as low as mine. That she was a "nice girl" (read: virgin) and so I made her uncomfortable. The RD then followed me to my dorm room and pointed to my calendar up on the wall, where "LGBA"-- the name of the LGBT student group at UMCP and the only support group I had-- was written on every Wednesday block. "Look at this!" I remember the RD yelling. "LGBA, LGBA, LGBA! You're flaunting it! No wonder she's so uncomfortable around you!" She then told me in no uncertain terms that it was my fault I was having all this trouble, and she left.

In the days after that I fell into complete despair. On the weekends I escaped to the house of my boyfriend, and his friendship was the only thing that kept me from going under. How vividly I still remember Sunday nights, when he would have to take me back to the dorms, and in my mind I felt like a toddler clinging to her mother's leg, begging, "don't make me go back there!" I had panic attacks as the building came into view. I never knew when Melisa would end a fit of completely ignoring me and go into one of her screaming rages, but I knew that shoe would always drop when I least expected it. By now I had isolated myself from everyone on the floor because, during her screaming fits, Melisa had assured me they all hated me. How weird they thought I was. How annoying they found me. She referred to me as a "hermit." Around this time I wrote a poem, which I'll post at the end of this entry-- the first time I've ever offered it for anyone to read.

I survived that time without jumping off a bridge because I had one friend-- my boyfriend Dabe. That is the one reason. There is no other. My family didn't understand, my high-school friends were all scattered and absorbed in their first months of college, and the University of Maryland's employee-- who was entrusted with the care of the students in her quad-- flagrantly violated the school's nondiscrimination policy and in doing so joined forces with my bully. To say I feel enormously for all of these bullied-to-death students, and the LGBT ones in particular, is an understatement. I know exactly how they felt. I understand why suicide seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution, and in fact the only solution. I have been through some rough stuff in my life-- prior to this college experience, I had lost my sister to cancer. But even from the vantage point of sixteen years later, the misery of Melisa's bullying is still so vivid it makes my hands shake to write about it. I have no history of mental illness and have never even been on an antidepressant, so my experience can't be blamed as circumstantial stuff around a deeper problem. I got out when I demanded emergency housing just before Thanksgiving, knowing that I had to risk letting my father pull his financial support (which he didn't, not that year) because I simply couldn't wake up in that room one more day. And as soon as I was out of that room, I never felt that low again. Not any day since.

It's hard to talk about this for several reasons. First, because I am a happy person, and it acknowledges my lowest low. Second, because it gets into issues of sexuality that don't feel relevant when I'm thirteen years into my marriage, and I don't want my kids to get bullied by people like Melisa because I posted this. And finally, because I feel like it sounds silly. "My college roommate bullied me." How could something so crushing sound so whiny? So I'd rather not talk about it. Because nobody would. That's why they jump off bridges and hang themselves. Because there's a word for feeling bad about feeling bad, and it's "shame."

And on that note, I'll close with the unedited poem I wrote in September 1994. This was once her bullying was well underway and long before it stopped.

welcome to college

scratchy sound of my fork
(brought from home) against styrofoam
yellow green bean grease
limp turkey, tidy wedge of pie
and the squeak of the straw against
the cup cover so loud
so loud in the empty room
if I've learned anything so far
it's that this is the sound of
alone alone alone

another night another styrofoam dinner
solitude's okay when you
can't hear the b-ball players six
stories down or the laughter,
the piercing laughter of the
sorority chicks down the hall

or worse the tone of my phone
that means no new messages
a blank message board on my door
and my styrofoam takeout dinner
on a stool by the rent-a-fridge
getting cold, stomach's too full of
loneliness, sluggish metabolism
knows there'll be no knock no
"ya hungry?" tonight, again

I don't know what's worse
the sounds of loneliness or its silence

always liked to be alone but that
was back when I had an option

told the RA the sniffling was allergies
(pathetic bitch) damn that crummy insulation, uh huh
as I closed my door stared at my computer
idly fancifully composing another
suicide note in my head
hey guys, hey God, forgive the RA
wasn't his fault I'm a loser

guess that's all tonight,
time to go out and pretend to be busy
act like I'm going someplace and
give a big broad smile, it's
the only way to hide the
shame

-Rebecca Coleman 1994

Keurig




I have something shocking to tell you. In case you are reading this blog post in an awkward place, like from an iPad while walking on a treadmill, you may want to sit down.

I wrote my first three novels without benefit of coffee or alcohol.

For that matter, I didn't even drink tea. At the time I was a member of a church that banned these substances. Before I joined said church, I drank alcohol here and there, but because I had my first child at age 21 and was pregnant, nursing, or Mormon for the next nine years, it put a bit of a crimp in any drinking I might do. Hunter S. Thompson would be horrified, I know. But I stand in defiance of the stereotype that true creativity comes from being high or hammered. It can also be achieved by being exhausted to the point of delirium.

Once I stopped being Mormon, I started dipping my toes into the waters of beverage-based sin, but very judiciously. A beer at a barbecue, say. A mocha frappuccino at Starbucks. My kids were a little freaked, but they adjusted. At age 34, coffee was an exotic mystery to me. Growing up, my mother drank the stuff constantly; she should have owned a Mr. Coffee Intravenous Drip Machine that she could drag around behind her all day. I tried to drink it at "poetry slams" once I started college, but wondered why people enjoyed this dirt-flavored hot water prettied up by some vanilla syrup, a sprinkling of chocolate shavings, and an Italian name. So I stuck to Diet Pepsi, which has been my singular addiction for the past fifteen or so years.*

But I wanted to like coffee. There's a whole culture of it. People seem to derive great pleasure from it, and to be quite frank, it made me feel like a bit of a hick to be so ignorant as to why. So I worked on it, and after a year of various froufrou Starbucks drinks and McDonald's mocha frappes, I came to a conclusion. I wanted a Keurig machine.

For those who may be as out-of-the-coffee-loop as I was, a Keurig machine is a coffee maker that produces individual servings of coffee by the use of teeny little foil-sealed cups of whatever it is you want to drink. You can even get a plastic carousel on which to display the selections. It's as though a group of executives sat down and said, "Let's see, how can we convince Rebecca Coleman to buy a coffee machine?" See, I have this thing for sampler platters. If there is a sampler/combination/buffet option, I will take it one hundred percent of the time. It's not that I'm indecisive. On the contrary, I have decided I want EVERYTHING. So when someone comes up with a coffee machine that says, "Rebecca, this lets you try all one hundred and seventy options," well sir, you have yourself a deal.

So I took my 20% off coupons to Bed Bath & Beyond and bought the machine-- and the carousel, of course. Then I got it home and was faced with a unique challenge. I needed to prepare a cup of coffee, something I had never done, not once, in my thirty-four years of life. I am pleased to say I accomplished the task and felt very successful until the next day, when I purchased this stuff called "Coffee Mate Non-Dairy Creamer" and found that the instructions read, "Pour or spoon COFFEE-MATE into prepared coffee, tea, or cocoa. Stir and enjoy!" Pour or spoon how much? A teaspoon? A tablespoon? A quarter of a cup? I faked it, and I suppose I did all right because it tasted like, you know, coffee.

So I like my new toy, and the whole experience makes me feel pleasantly youthful. It's nice to be a babe-in-the-woods about something once in a while. And besides-- if I can already stay up until 3 a.m. writing, fueled only by Diet Pepsi, imagine what I will be able to do on coffee! I may never need to sleep again!




*Yes, even when I was Mormon. Contrary to what most people seem to think, it's okay to drink caffeine if you're Mormon, just not coffee and tea. Anyone who tells you otherwise is misinformed, even if they ARE Mormon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Inked



Since I just changed the name of my blog, I figured I'd better put up this post to authenticate it: here's my Milton tattoo. It's a swan wing with a quote from Paradise Lost: "So lively shines in them divine resemblance." I've loved Paradise Lost for many years. If you're one of the 24 or so people who read "Desperado City," you know I somehow managed to channel my love of it into what's effectively a YA novel. To pull a single quote out of that beautiful epic poem was quite a challenge. The art itself was done by Charon Henning at Marlowe Ink in Fairfax, VA. Charon's quite a character. She and I go way back to when I was Wiccan (you know, like Christine O'Donnell) as a teenager, and we hung out with the same people. Now she tours the United States in an Airstream trailer, with two sphinx cats, as the sword-and-fire-swallowing Odd Angel, "The Most Dangerous Beauty Alive". Also, she tattoos.

The wing makes for an interesting Rorschach test. My Facebook friends gleefully shared their first impressions about what it is. I found these to be wonderfully revealing, and I'm tempted to get something phallic on the other arm just to make people uncomfortable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

LOST: A Reflection



Last night I attended a LOST series finale party at a friend's house. From the beginning I loved the show, but then I stopped watching the show around season.... five.... or six.... because it became too many plot threads for me to keep track of. There was this giant stone foot, and a smoke monster, and a polar bear, and a cult, and and and.... I threw my hands in the air and decided I'd catch up with it on DVD one day. But with everyone in the world (read: my friends on Facebook) buzzing about the finale, no way would I miss that party.

As they ran the recap of the previous seasons, I began to feel very nostalgic. It was not long into the first season when I started writing "Desperado City," having fallen in love with this concept of a large cast of disparate characters thrown together by circumstances that force them to become interdependent. While theirs were adults on an island, mine were teenagers in a failing mom-and-pop theme park. From this LOST-inspired experience, I learned several lessons, one being that elements which work visually (i.e., a cast of two dozen mostly-attractive individuals) don't necessarily work as well textually. The most common gripe with "DC" is that readers have a hard time keeping the characters straight-- a factor I'm sure wouldn't be an issue if they were actors on a screen, so live and learn.

When I read query letters that newer writers post for critique, they very often say their story has "screen potential." I think this speaks to how most writers' process works, in the mental sense: we see the story playing out in our minds, and translate it into words on a page. Sometimes-- often, even-- this process can be very intense. When I was in high school we read a story called The Veldt, in which the walls of a home's nursery become a virtual-reality setting for the children's imaginations and, at the end, manifest a pride of lions that devour the parents. While I haven't yet killed anyone with my imagination, the act of imagining a story-- bringing the characters to life in one's mind-- has the power to evoke intense emotion from the writer, great sympathy for people who don't even truly exist, great longing that is often the source of the inspiration. We're in the veldt, and we act as translators to turn all that into simple English.

But the reader's process is to translate in reverse. The words must turn into pictures in their minds, and so, much like putting a foreign phrase through translation software and then back again, the end product is often different from what you entered in the first place. If one writes well, it's an innocuous issue-- the debate, for example, on whether actor Robert Pattinson really looks like the Edward of "Twilight," or nothing like him. The relevant aspects of the story remain intact. But as we excitedly envision our wonderful stories making their way to the big (or small) screen, it's important to remember that what is being produced right now is a novel, and a novel is a script for the story for which reader's mind ultimately acts as "producer." It must be written with that in mind, and the words we choose must pay homage to that process, which is not visual but imaginative and subjective.

As far as the series finale is concerned, I wasn't delighted with how its writers chose to end it. Was it what its fans wanted? Well, I'll have to catch up with the series on DVD to decide that for myself. After all-- much like the characters in "Desperado City"-- I couldn't keep everything straight. Maybe some elements are just too confusing, no matter what your medium.

Friday, May 21, 2010

On Mood



Today a Facebook friend posted about how the "mood" of a certain song brought on a feeling of loss and longing. I found this intriguing because-- maybe due to the fact that I'm not someone who knows much about music-- overall "mood" isn't a subject I think about very often. I think about craftsmanship or nuance and subtext (that, quite a bit), but it's rare that I step back and think about mood.

Yet when I consider what was on my mind as I wrote "The Kingdom of Childhood," mood has a major role to play in that. Several long and critical scenes are set in Bavaria in the 1960s, during the protagonist's childhood, and many reviewers commented on the "magical" feeling evoked by the time and place. I gave credit for that to Bavaria itself-- naturally magical-- but upon consideration, of course I painted it that way on purpose. While framing up the scenes I thought back to my own childhood experiences in Bavaria (in the '80s, not the '60s) and pondered how I could capture the feeling of that place-- the fairytale wonder of it, with both the mystical overtones of the area's deep Catholicism and the darker ones of history and of the Black Forest.

That's mood. Everything I put into those scenes needed to pay homage to that overarching feeling I needed for it to have. I don't think it was a terribly conscious decision, but without it the book would lack a solid core.

"Loss and longing"-- why, my friend asked, do we feel these things about a past we can't relive? Usually we know the feeling is deceptive-- that the past as we remember it is not the same as how we lived it. And yet we feel that longing anyway.

At the top of this post is a photo of me in Berlin in the summer of 1992. I was on an exchange trip with a group from my high school, and the picture was taken by a boy I befriended on that trip and then barely spoke to again once we returned to the States a few weeks later. In it, I'm wearing a shirt I had bought within the past couple days, and would lose at the house of a friend-- under circumstances that would make for a hell of a story in and of themselves-- within a couple months of returning. So the elements of the photo alone capture a singular moment in time: a foreign country, an article of clothing, a smiling gaze on a person who passed in and out of my life in a matter of weeks. But what you can't see, and I do, is the overarching mood of that moment in my life-- of the summer I turned 16. At the moment this photo was taken, I was caught up in more toxic relationships than I could count on one hand; I was lonely and profoundly insecure; I was hurting people, some of whom have never quite forgiven me, and being hurt by them, some of whom I have never quite forgiven. It was, objectively speaking, awful. Yet do I feel longing for it? Of course I do. Not to return to those days and repeat those experiences-- oh, no. But for the girl being formed right at that moment by that place and time, tied to the woman today by the fact that we both want to be writers when we grow up? Well, how could I not?

Without longing, I doubt we'd have fiction. Fiction is composed of all we have ever suppressed and hoped for and wished could have come out differently, polished up, glossed over, tweaked here and there until it looks a little less crooked. Fiction is us wading out into the water of what we've longed for and feeling glad to have it swirl around our ankles for a little while. And if we're lucky-- and we do it right-- we channel that into an experience the reader takes away as "mood."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In Praise of Profanity



This morning I read about Joe Biden's apology to a Kentucky teen for dropping an F-bomb about the passage of Obama's healthcare bill (to wit: "This is a big F-ing deal"). The kid, Brandon Halcomb, had written an open letter criticizing Biden for his language. Kudos to the teen for standing up for what he believes in. That said, I would like to say a few words in defense of the one that starts with F.

I'm in complete agreement with those who bemoan the abuse of that word in everyday conversation, in the media, etc. I don't like hearing it all the time, or in polite company, either. Because the F-word is a word of marvelous potency. Unlike most words in the English language, it sounds like exactly what it means. An angry swear. An order. Coarse and guttural, with a hiss at the beginning and a clipped, abrupt end. Used sparingly, it manages to pull into itself a much greater atomic weight than its four letters would naturally possess, and in a single use can convey the depth of frustration and aggression and anger. Or immensity, or urgency. Four little letters that can do all that. I use it a lot when I write, only when I need it, but always when I need it. It's a wonderful word.

A while back I read a study about how profanity can inspire teamwork. If you save your swear words only for people with whom you work closely, then they function as social cues to let the other person know you let your guard down with them; they're part of your in-club. Should Biden have sworn with his mike on? Well, no, but he got his point across better in a succinct five words than any television pundit did in a thousand. We knew he meant it off-the-record, so it carries the function of "teamwork swearing" in terms of letting us into his private little moment of happiness.

I hear comments all the time from people who don't like to see profanity in novels. Sometimes they'll even haughtily say, "Just use another word. Sheesh." Curse words can be distracting in large doses, and are sadly overused by many writers as a way to substitute for real use of voice. But sometimes there is no other word. Characters are supposed to talk the way people do, but with less stammering and more brevity and precision. And while some readers might wish people spoke in the language of prime-time television characters of the 1970's, as a writer I'm not willing to fog my lens for you. So if my character tells me to tell you he's fuckin' exhausted, that's what you're going to hear. But rest assured, it's the writer's job to make every single word on the page earn its keep, and the F-word is no exception.

And so on that note, let's all work together not to spoil the potency of our very small store of serious curse words. Please don't put them on bumper stickers where my kids can see them. Please don't grate on my listening ear and finer sensibilities by using them in line behind me at the pharmacy. Save them for your friends, and for when you really, really mean it. Because unlike most things politicians say, you can count on those few little words to, as the caterpillar exhorted in 'Alice in Wonderland,' "say what you mean."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Janice Hardy's "Seven Deadly Sins"

A couple weeks ago I did a library presentation called "Novice to Novelist" that focused on how to polish writing for publication. In it I included a list of "don'ts," such as "stick your character in front of a mirror," "assume you'd make a great protagonist," and "begin with a scene in a confessional." YA author Janice Hardy (THE SHIFTER) has nailed that and more with her fabulous post about how *not* to write a first chapter. Here's her list of cliched openings:

"Someone waking up in the morning.
Someone looking in the mirror and describing themselves.
Someone getting a "message," be it a phone call, letter, or arrival of a mystical person with information.
Someone leaving on a trip.
Someone writing in a journal to "tell you about what happened."" (from her blog)

I admit I've toyed with these things myself (there is-- I'm sorry to admit-- a mirror scene in my first novel, "In Stereo Where Available"). And sometimes some of them can work, like the "going on a trip" one, if they're done well. But originality is crucial, and there's no way to overstate how important it is to really nail those first ten pages if you hope to attract an agent's attention. When my Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest excerpt made it to the quarterfinals and became a downloadable Kindle item, I began getting one review after another in which people said, "Good writing, too bad nothing happens in it." At this I was a little miffed, so I went off to my office-- also known as "a nice hot shower"-- and thought, "what do I need to do to get their attention, have my protagonist spit in the face of a corpse?" I thought about that for a moment, my mind blustering in full Yosemite Sam mode, and then I thought, "Not a bad idea." So I changed the second scene to my protag spitting in the face of a corpse. After that, I got an agent.

With regard to first chapters, the one bit of advice I'd add is not to agonize over it too much in the early stages. Get past it and write the rest of the book. Your first chapter needs to show your "A" game like no other in the whole manuscript, so you're better off refining it once you're done-- when your skills are at their most practiced to date, and you have a full knowledge of what Chapter 1 needs to do to prepare the reader for what's in store. Write everything else, then come back and rework the beginning. And for the love of all that is good, don't start it with "Dear Diary."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Secret Anatomy of a Young Girl



"The Secret Anatomy of a Young Girl" by Elsita. She is a Cuban-American artist whose work is available at her Etsy store. This amazing, evocative image hangs on my living room wall.