Today, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.
For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.
A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.
So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.
How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.
Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.
(You can tell I’m between books, because here’s another blog post.)
This morning, I received an email from a friend asking me to blog about being genderqueer. First, let’s get some taxonomy out of the way. Genderqueer is a blanket term for having a gender identity that doesn’t fall neatly into either male or female. I believe the scientific term for this is non-binary. Other types of genderqueer are genderfluid, gender***, gender-neutral, third gender, and probably some others that I can’t remember at the moment, but I’ve only had one cup of tea today, so please forgive me. Genderqueer falls within the trans community. Basically, the trans community encompasses trans women, trans men, and non-binary people. Here’s a link to a wonderful diagram that explains the difference between gender identity, gender expression, biological identity, and sexuality.
Genderqueer is my preferred term to describe myself. Non-binary seems too sterile. Genderfluid, from what I understand, is where a person feels more masculine sometimes and more feminine at others. This doesn’t describe my experience. I’m pretty much blended all of the time. My perception of myself could probably best be defined as intersex. Intersex used to be called hermaphroditism, and describes a person born with both male and female sexual characteristics. Biologically, I’m female. In my head, I’m both male and female. I lack male sex organs. We’ll get back to that.
As a kid, I always felt different. I didn’t like dolls. I played with plastic or stuffed animals. Later, I liked boy’s action figures. I wasn’t really a tomboy. I wasn’t athletic or outdoorsy. My friends were usually soft, nerdy boys, and we meshed beautifully. Middle school and high school were absolute hell. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn’t attracted to most men. Straight (the fun term now is cis sexual) men actually turned me off and sometimes angered me. The more alpha male a guy was, the more I wanted to punch his sack. I loved lesbians, but I wasn’t really sexually attracted to them. I loved gay men, but they weren’t sexually attracted to me. My teen and young adult years were confusing and lonely.
In my early twenties, before I met my husband, I worked as a stripper. I did all of the glitter and high heels and whatnot for work. During the day, however, I often dressed as a boy. When I went out with my guy friends, I sometimes passed as a boy. I don’t know that I was fluid then, because the stripper garb felt like playing dress up. It was a role, not something I was.
I met my husband when I was twenty-six. He looked like a perfectly normal straight guy, but I could smell the weird on him. I knew something was up. At this point, I had never heard of all of these terms. I didn’t know what I was. I knew what I wasn’t—a ‘normal’ heterosexual woman. So, here comes L., all six foot three of him, tall and broad and looking like a young Colin Firth. And he was deliciously strange. We clicked immediately and have been inseparable ever since. I always scoff when I hear people criticizing “insta love” in romances; it totally happens.
A snapshot of our relationship dynamic could be a time when we went to an antique mall. We stood in the checkout line, me with an armful of Incredible Hulk action figures, him with a Depression glass candy dish and a decidedly feminine Victorian desk set. We were getting things for our home offices.
These days, I basically look female. I dress female—more or less—sometimes I pack, but under skirts and dresses, so no one knows but me. I sound female. I use feminine pronouns. All of these things are mainly because I’m lazy, somewhat cowardly, and don’t want to upset the people who are used to seeing me as female. In the bedroom, however, I wear a strap-on. The first time I wore one, I felt whole for the first time ever. Finally, my body made sense. There’s a fetish called pegging where straight women wear strap-ons and have sex with straight guys. I don’t peg. I use a prosthetic. I make love. I’m not using a toy; I’m making my body look and function more the way I feel like it should. That is my preferred way to have sex and has been for about twenty years.
That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing m/m romances. Romantically, I have more in common with a gay man than with a straight woman. I’ve written one erotic romance with a straight couple and struggled with the erotic parts. I don’t think it’s a bad book, but I think my gay romances have a more natural feel.
In a perfect world, where surgery was free, painless, and carried no risks, I would get surgery to correct my body and make it fit my mental image of it. I’m okay with things not being perfect. I’ve found love and happiness, I more or less accept and like who I am. I didn’t hear the term ‘genderqueer’ until maybe ten years ago. I immediately loved it and embraced it. I didn’t realize that made me part of the trans community until a few years ago when I went to protest the bathroom bill in Texas and a trans male doctor explained the trans spectrum. The information moved me to tears. I wasn’t a complete weirdo. I was part of a community.
As I said, genderqueer is a blanket term. It’s rather nebulous. It means different things to different people. This is what it means to me. I guess I’m rather nebulous, so I like it.
To be perfectly honest, as a writer, I sort of hate Goodreads. Why? Because readers can leave ratings without leaving a review explaining why they rated it that way. I also hate them because GR has no way of verifying that the reader actually bought and/or read the book. For example, there is a user who goes by Wendy on GR who rates something like four or five books a day (I’m not exaggerating) and rates them all one-star. “She” only “reads” LGBT books. To me, this looks like an obvious troll. However, after I and many others complained to GR, they responded that she isn’t violating their policies and there’s nothing they can do. She is one of GR’s highest rated reviewers. I’m not kidding. I truly wish I were.
However, there are many normal, honest, real readers on GR that also leave low ratings. This used to irk me. I wanted—no, desperately needed—to know why they didn’t like my book. This still bothers me, but not to the extent it once did. I have four strategies for dealing with this. No, they don’t involve wine or chocolate, but those do help.
Look at the reader’s profile.
This is done simply by clicking on her portrait. You can (usually, sometimes profiles are private) see what other books the reader has read and how she rated them. If you recognize some of the books and/or authors, this might give you some insight as to what she didn’t like it. Maybe she mostly reads YA and your book is definitely not YA. Maybe she prefers plot-driven books and yours is character-driven. Maybe she’s just rather harsh and gives most books a low rating. (This is different from our troll, Wendy, who only gives one-stars and “reads” unrealistic quantities of books.) My new release received a two-star rating from a guy yesterday and I was momentarily devastated. When I looked at his profile, I saw that he also recently gave two stars to a book by an author I admire. An award-winning author. Obviously, this guy just has bad taste in books. Heehee.
Realize that the reader isn’t you.
Okay, that sounds elementary to some of you, but it was a revelation for me. I don’t rate/review books the way most people (apparently) do. I see books as works of art. I love and respect them—even if I don’t enjoy them. Because I view them as works of art, I see them as having inherent value—some artistic merit apart from whatever my experience is with the book. (And yes, I adored literature classes.) I don’t know if this is a writer-thing or just how I was raised. I’ve never left a negative rating or review of a book. I will give it three stars and say some things I liked (there are always things I liked), things I didn’t like (without dwelling), and who I think might actually like it. Or I don’t review it at all. I leave negative reviews of hospitals if they overcharge me and restaurants if they’re dirty or a business if their customer service is horrible, but books get a pass.
Most readers DO NOT think this way. For them, books are entertainment. If a book fails to entertain, it’s crap. I was sneaking about on a reader message board the other day and someone said if a book contained a certain element she didn’t like, she’d dropkick it off a cliff. This horrified me. If someone talked about kicking kittens off a cliff, I would have had a similar visceral reaction. Most readers aren’t literary scholars who will examine a book from different perspectives. They’re people looking to escape the daily grind of their lives. They want something that meets their needs, whatever those happen to be at the time, and if your book doesn’t meet them, well, off the cliff it goes.
For me, this was an ah-ha moment. It gave me a better understanding of my audience and even some empathy for them that I didn’t quite have before. Sometimes, if they dislike something, they just…didn’t like it. They may not even be able to articulate it. So, they leave a rating. However much I dislike ratings, I have to respect that.
Revel in the good ratings and reviews.
I guess I tend to be a negative person. When I first started publishing, someone could write a beautiful review and I would be on Cloud Nine for a of couple of hours. One low rating and I was in the dumps for days. Now, I try to fully appreciate good ratings and reviews. I roll around in them, reading them several times. I try to imagine the people who left them (okay, I snoop around in their profiles) and send them good wishes and good vibes. I’m not just grateful to them, I love them.
Don’t let a negative anything affect your love of writing. If you find yourself unable to focus on writing because you’re hung up on a negative rating or review, block it out. You might want to take a break and do something nice for yourself—take a hot bath, go for a run, visit with a good friend—whatever makes you happy and puts you in a positive headspace. And then dive back into your work. Don’t let anything get between you and your art. Ever.
Being able to accept criticism as a writer is vital if you want to have a writing career. People love being critics. They love having opinions, often regarding things they know nothing about, and they especially love knocking other people down. A writer who wants to be published has to be resilient. But why are writers so sensitive?
In my case, it’s because of what writing entails. Isn’t writing a book just like crocheting an afghan or baking a pie? You just make something—right? No, not at all. Writing is opening up a door in your soul and carving people out of whatever you find there. So, when someone criticizes your work, they aren’t saying they disliked some nouns and verbs strung together in Arial or New Times Roman—they are saying they looked into your soul and found it lacking.
Recovering from a blow like that is hard. I think if/when this happens, your book simply hasn’t found the right audience. It’s like falling in love. Sometimes the people you get involved with are complete idiots who don’t appreciate you. If you’re lucky, you find someone who does.
Another reason I’m sensitive about my works is that the characters are real people to me. It’s like if someone put your best friend in a beauty pageant and judged how she walks and looks in a bathing suit. Friends have positive attributes that go far beyond bathing suits. I take long walks with my characters, having meaningful conversations with them. Often, I lean on them when I need support.
Although I write faster these days, produce a different genre of books, and have learned to pay more attention to things like story arcs and plot outlines, I spent years writing my epic fantasy books. I don’t regret the time I spent with them. I was learning how to write. More importantly, I needed that world and those characters at that particular time in my life. Lycian helped me cope with the deaths of my cousins who were like my brother and sister, the death of my grandmother who was primarily responsible for raising me, a miscarriage, and the deaths of two familiars. He was a kind, quiet companion. Aside from my husband, he was my best friend during that period. I needed him, and I’m glad I had him.
Currently, I’m working on a new m/m romance (it’s a mystery romance!) and am absolutely in love with the main characters. Even as I lose myself in the bliss of writing, I’m preparing for how my characters will be judged, how my world will be reduced to so many stars, and how some people will simply not understand it. That’s okay. I love the characters; I like the work (so far), and I know there will be some people out there who will enjoy it. I’m writing it for myself and those people.
I keep trying to think of amusing things to write for this blog, since working on my current book doesn’t seem to be happening today. I want to encourage you to read Zen Alpha. (I’m offering free reviewer copies if anyone’s interested. Just email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.) I want to talk about my two favorite cats, who are in my office today, Loki and Bruce Banner. Bruce is sleeping in the middle of the floor; Loki is trying to tear the curtains down. I want to tell you about the book I’m writing and how scared I am that it won’t be received well.
But I’m not. All I’ve been able to think about today is my son. I don’t know where he is. He’s an adult and moved to California earlier this year. He lost the job that brought him out there; he lost the job after that. He’s bipolar (as am I) and he keeps having problems with his medications. I suspect the main problem is he stops taking them. Every time I talk to him, I urge him to stay on his meds–even if he feels better. That’s what worked for me.
He doesn’t seem to have his phone anymore. We message each other on FB. The last time I heard from him, last week, he said he had been suicidal and that only knowing how hurt I would be and wondering what would become of his cat kept him alive. Now, I’ve left messages and heard nothing. I feel like he’s all right. He’s a survivor. But I miss him and can’t help worrying.
I wish I knew the magic words that would make him better. I wish I could tell him a story that would fix everything. I’m lost. Each time, I tell him my own story, what saved me–seeking treatment, taking it seriously, staying on my medications despite upsetting side effects. Nothing, I’ve decided, is more important than mental health.
So, this is what I’m doing now. I wait for his response with my cats mirroring the poles of bipolar disorder, one crashed on the carpet, the other climbing the walls. I try to write my little gay romance about opposites who attract–one taciturn, one grandiose. And I wish with all of my heart that whatever benevolent forces might exist attend my son and keep him from harm.
And I hope you–whomever you are, wherever you are–are in good mental health. Nothing else is more important.