The measure of success; or, there is more to life than Amazon rankings

I suppose we all have different ways to measure our success as authors. Some gauge Amazon rankings or sales figures, others assess the number of fans or followers. Some might use awards as the yardstick for accomplishment while others look to the bestseller lists.

I measure mine by the fulfillment of my goals. With Los Nefilim, I wanted to have my writing accepted for publication because the story was well-written and entertaining. That happened with Los Nefilim--a fact that I marvel over each day, because it wouldn't have occurred quite the way it did if people weren't vocal about representation.

You see, when I first envisioned the character of Diago several years ago, he was a stereotypical gay man: a caricature, not a person. Fortunately, I was online and began to read discussions about representation on blogs and through Twitter chats. As I did, I realized that my initial depiction of Diago was not only wrong, but also harmful.

Unsure how to proceed, I asked Robert Dunbar for help, and he most graciously made a place for me to ask questions in his Goodreads group. Then he went one step further and asked some of his friends to help--members of the LGBT community, who answered my questions and overlooked any faux pas I might have made in the discussion. With patience and understanding, they guided me with their words, and here is what I learned:

When it came to representation in novels, gay men were often defined as being constantly on the hunt for sex. Or they were seen dying from suicide, or suffering from depression simply because they were gay. The not so subliminal message in these works is that one cannot be a gay man and be happy.

Yet neither of these portrayals were like the men I knew, who had healthy relationships with their partners and with the people around them. Likewise, my friends who were single were also emotionally centered and enjoyed their lifestyle. So I understood exactly what the people in Rob's forum were saying when they told me their biggest request was to see a gay man (or any member of the LGBT community) represented as a whole person, and not simply defined by one aspect of their character.

I spoke to other people, and they said they were tired of seeing gay men ridiculed in film and novels. Their issues with these portrayals wasn't because they didn't have a sense of humor. But when someone is seen as nothing but the joke of a story, then the joke becomes a myth of its own making and strips people of their humanity by lampooning them. Done long enough, the jokes become insidious and color our perceptions of others until we only see the satire, not the human being.

Recently, Laura M. Hughes reviewed Los Nefilim on her blog. Out of all of the kind things she said about the series, this was my favorite part:

... the heroes of Los Nefilim are deep, fully-rounded characters who are far too complex to be defined simply by which master they serve; or, for that matter, by their sexuality. Issues of gender are neither downplayed nor dwelt on, and the fact that Diago and Miquel are both men is but a natural part of the story.
(In fact, the author’s egalitarian approach to gender holds up a mirror to our own lives in the least patronising way possible. Simply put, Frohock shows us a society where men are just as vulnerable as women, and often suffer in silence because of unequal and arbitrary gender expectations. She shows us a society in which men are just as likely as women to experience rape, and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment – a fact we all need to recognise and empathise with.)
On the surface, Los Nefilim could also be regarded as a moral tale about overcoming intolerance: the Nephilim’s secret war does indeed serve as a clever analogy for how homosexuality was stifled beneath the stigma of a god-fearing society. But while this is without doubt a huge part of the story, in my opinion it’s actually far subtler than that. Great speechifiers and glorious martyrs our protagonists ain’t: they are heroes of necessity, not intent. And Frohock doesn’t idealise Diago and Miquel’s relationship so much as naturalise it. Their connection is shown through understated dialogue and non-verbal interactions, and by the gradual emergence of both men’s paternal instincts as they work hard to create a harmonious family unit for Diago’s son.
For me this was a huge relief. In the past I’ve pointed out more than a few female writers who draw on shallow stereotypes of sexual promiscuity and unequal partnerships in an attempt to portray same-sex male couples. Thankfully, Frohock avoids this entirely: she doesn’t ‘write gay characters’; she writes characters who happen to be gay. Contrary to stereotypical beliefs – and exactly like couples of any orientation – Miquel and Diago don’t hump like rabbits, nor are they joined at the hip. And their relationship might be the pivot on which the events of Los Nefilim turn . . . but no one can accuse the story of being ‘too romantic’.

Hughes' analysis of the series has been echoed by other reviewers. Hers simply went into more detail. 

And what I realized, as I read her review, was that while Los Nefilim might not be the most talked about series of the year, I had succeeded in doing what I set out to do. I wrote a good story, which is an entertaining read, and it sold on the strength of my writing. My gay characters weren't secondary: Diago is the protagonist, and his partner, Miquel, is featured heavily in each of the novellas.

Los Nefilim isn't the only novel out there with a gay protagonist, but Diago is mine, and I am incredibly proud of his story. Meanwhile, I feel like I've honored the good men that I know--the same men who still face prejudice and hate simply because of who they love--by writing a series that doesn't add to the list of stereotypical portrayals of gay men.

And that, my dear friends, is success.

Fiction and Abandoned Children with a new introduction

I had a nightmare, wherein my husband drove us through Greensboro, and he was chatting about this one and that one and the things they had done. The weather was foul, full of wind and thunder. A tornado appeared four streets away from us and roared from west to east. Good backseat driver that I am, I tried to direct him into an empty lot, but more tornadoes were forming there. He indicated the tornadoes and asked if I wanted to die. I told him I wanted to feel safe, and then I awakened.

I suppose that is what we all want--to feel safe, especially when we feel like the world is collapsing all around us. A lot of people take that feeling for granted without realizing it. Abandoned children never do.

I’ve put off this post for a couple of reasons. The first is simply because it is a subject that can occasionally be painful to me. I keep it at a distance most of the time and try to view the past through an analytical lens. I keep perspective that way.

The other reason is because people tend to have very strong feelings on the issues of orphans and adoption. These strong feelings generally result in passionate arguments for or against … well, concepts, and not necessarily children. People dislike having their expectations challenged, and in some cases, feel guilty; although they have, in actuality, done nothing wrong.

Emotions are funny like that. Our brains tell us one thing, but our hearts say something different.

So today, I am going to talk about abandoned children–the perennial favorite of most authors–and these children’s special needs. As an adoptee, I am highly sensitive to themes of abandonment in both film and literature. The casual way in which abandonment is treated has always bothered me about a lot of the myths and stories I remember from my childhood. In these stories, the young hero is abandoned at an early age, but never suffers a single identity crisis. Complicated creatures like mothers and fathers are held at arm’s length, or cast into the shadow of the grave.

In real life an infant knows its mother’s smell and moods. Both the mother and father produce chemicals, such as oxytocin and vasopressin to name merely two, that help facilitate bonding with the newborn infant. Through the great cocktail of chemicals in the human body, all three–mother, father, and infant–nurture one another through sight, smell, and sound.

When an infant is permanently removed from her biological parents, the child is not only deprived of these beneficial chemicals, but stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are produced in greater quantity. Cortisol and adrenaline prepare the body for flight or fight in response to either psychological or physical danger. In some children further imbalances in serotonin and noradrenalin can reprogram the child’s brain to remain in a constant state of readiness. Combined, these imbalances can result in physical issues such as high blood pressure, easy startle response, and instantaneous explosive behavior–symptoms which are consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Even when a child is transferred from an abusive environment into a loving home, the brain remembers, and the child perceives the world as an unsafe place. Children who have experienced early trauma also have attachment issues, suffer from the inability to focus, and possibly night terrors. They are impulsive and tend to exhibit defiance, aggression, and rage. In a subconscious effort to self-medicate, some of these children will become dependent on drugs and alcohol in adulthood.

Welcome to my world. Having experienced all of those things, I can assure you there is hope.

A nurturing environment coupled with parental patience and adults who are aware of the issues involved can mitigate many damaging experiences, but it takes time. In other words, while adoptive parents can’t magically wipe away the past, they can teach their children coping strategies that will enable the children to survive and sometimes thrive.

What does all of this have to do with writing science fiction and fantasy?

With my Los Nefilim series, I have two individuals who were abandoned at very early ages: Diago and his son, Rafael. Diago suffered tremendous abuse, and still deals with the fallout from his early childhood. Rafael, meanwhile, was abandoned at an earlier age and lived in an orphanage before Diago discovers him.

I didn’t need to research the effects of abandonment on either Diago or Rafael–personal experience was already under my belt. I did do some research into how to mitigate the effects of abandonment on children. By looking at the problems and solutions that the adoptive parents of Russian orphans placed in American homes experienced, I was able to see tactics that failed miserably and others who experienced success.

Apparently, in some cases, the adoptive parents weren’t prepared for the emotional issues of their children. They expected love and discipline would be enough. One example that remained with me was that of a young Russian boy who had been adopted by an affluent family. The mother and father tried everything in their power to do all of the things they, as parents, felt they should do. In other words, they employed the parenting tactics their parents had used on them. There was a schedule, and rules, and expectations for behavior, which the youth was unable to fulfill (and this is not to fault the family or the child–they did everything the doctors and psychologists told them to do).

Due to his own fears and abuse, the child could not meet these parental expectations. In frustration and fear, the child lashed out. The family became afraid and got in touch with the adoption agency. The agency placed the child in a different home.

The second couple had a lot of experience with abused children. They had a more relaxed regimen. For example, in his previous home, the youngster would want to eat all the time. Food deprivation in the orphanage was a factor in this behavior. The first adoptive mother wanted to establish regular meals that fit the family’s lifestyle. When the youth disobeyed her, she would, in turn, become frustrated, impose more restrictions, and this would only intensify the youth’s misbehavior.

In his new home, he was supposed to be present for meals, but if he wasn’t there was no retribution. As the family continued to sit down and eat at regular times, the youth eventually joined them. This took a great deal of time and patience on the new adoptive parents’ part, but as I said, they were used to dealing with abandoned children.

The difference between these two homes weren’t the difference between “good” parents and “bad” parents. The major difference was in the parents’ expectations and preparation for the child’s issues.

For adopted children, a perpetual cycle of questions remains lodged in the back of the adoptee’s mind like splinters in the subconscious. Who am I? Where do I belong? Are there people who look like me, think like me, somewhere else in the world? Will I know them if I see them? And, more importantly, will they know me?

All the while, I loved my adoptive parents, and my father especially went out of his way to say that I was loved. Even so, there was a constant tape playing in my heart that said: I’m not good enough to keep; no mother rejects her child unless something is wrong with it; if I want these people to keep me, I have to do better, be better; I’m not good enough, not good enough, not good enough …

Remember what I said earlier: our brains tell us one thing, but our hearts say something different.

A child’s brain may parrot the assurances of the adoptive parents and society as a whole, but the child’s heart bears a different pain, one they are not always able to articulate. Feelings aren’t rational–they are simply there, lurking within us and waiting for the right trigger to stimulate them into existence. Some adoptees eventually learn to reconcile the facts of their circumstances with their feelings, others may become swallowed by the world around them.

One of the reasons I loved Jessica Alba in Dark Angel (a science fiction series from 2000) was the adept manner in which both the writers and Alba handled the protagonist, Max Guevara, who was an genetically engineered super-soldier, but with a missing piece to her life … the mystery around her mother and her birth. They managed to convey the trauma of Guevara being separated from her mother at birth along with Guevara’s constant yearning to find her mother and the story of her beginning.

This is why I find stories with children who are spirited away from their parents into new circumstances hard to swallow at times. Infants don’t roll into the world as a blank slate. Our experiences in the womb are embedded in our psyches in order to prepare us for survival.

The child who is taken from her poverty stricken parents and raised by royalty doesn’t automatically adjust to these new circumstances flawlessly. The clash of parental attitudes versus the child’s hidden traumas don’t need to be explored in depth in every story, but a cursory acknowledgement of known behavior patterns between adults and adopted children are preferable to none at all.

To concede these issues exist by fairly representing them in our stories is the difference between … say … the adoptive parent who tries to modify her child’s special needs to her expectations and the parent who knows his son’s hunger is driven by fear. One is governed by the intellect, the other by the heart.

If you want the abandoned child in your story to be whole in body and spirit, march the head and the heart in tandem. Then do what every parent does: push your story into the world and hope for the best.

_____

This post originally appeared on SF Signal's Special Needs in Strange Worlds (January 20, 2016).

Artistic expression as opposed to works written to market

A common fallacy in publication, and in music to be honest, is that artistic expression does not sell. I'm not here to give you polls, facts, and figures, but instead I want to give you a very tiny sampling of the differences between the two forms of expression so you can read them and see which appeals to you. I don't want it to appear as if I'm punching up or down at other authors; I'm going to use music lyrics to show you the difference in form.

The thing to remember here is that the more artistic song lyrics were bestsellers and so were the songs that were written to market. Neither style is right or wrong, because both styles are simply geared toward different audiences. 

A very brief note about the four selections: I'm writing this really fast, so I haven't explored all of the variations on this musical theme; however, the four selections are all men. Many, many female artists will fall on either the artistic or written to market side of the fence (see Beyoncé for artistic form as opposed to Donna Summers' 1980s and 1990s catalog for the lyrics to some of her highly marketable works).

The reason this sample is all male is because it is easier to search "boy bands," whose songs are almost entirely, without question, written to market.

As you read these, think about your own prose. This is, sort of, a self-test for you to take in your head. Ready? Here we go:

Artistic expression:

Dig if you will the picture
Of you and I engaged in a kiss
The sweat of your body covers me
Can you my darling
Can you picture this?

--When Doves Cry, Prince

Written to market:

Oh, I just wanna take you anywhere that you would like
We could go out any day, any night
Baby, I'll take you there, take you there
Baby, I'll take you there

--Kiss You, One Direction

Artistic expression:

Well you're dirty and sweet
Clad in black, don't look back and I love you
You're dirty and sweet, oh yeah
Well you're slim and you're weak
You've got the teeth of the hydra upon you
You're dirty sweet and you're my girl

--Bang a Gong, T. Rex

Written to market:

For all the times that you rain on my parade
And all the clubs you get in using my name
You think you broke my heart, oh, girl for goodness' sake
You think I'm crying on my own. Well, I ain't

--Love Yourself, Justin Bieber

So now that you have this information, what do you do with it? Again, think about your own prose and decide which kind of writer you are. In determining your style, you can better find and market your work to the appropriate audience. There is a market for artistic expression, and while you might have to work a little harder to get noticed, you can make your work artistic and marketable. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

changing the tapes we hear in our heads

This post isn't in response to any particular post, but rather a reply to several different posts and conversations I've heard around Twitter and the blogosphere about self-worth (or the lack thereof), both as an author and a person. The conversations have reminded me about a particular therapy session I once attended.

Therapy--for those of you who have never attended a session--is usually about changing behavior. In order to modify destructive behavior, we must first recognize our thought processes, discover what is wrong, and then move in a proactive manner toward correcting our behavior by changing the way we think about ourselves and the people around us. This is accomplished by exercises designed to teach us about ourselves.

I had an excellent therapist, who knew a lot of neat tricks. In one exercise, she gave us five minutes to write down ten negative things about ourselves. Our pencils whirled and most of us finished long before the five minutes were up. Then, the therapist asked us to write down ten GOOD things about ourselves.

Everyone just stared at her.

It would have been comical if it wasn't so pathetic. Eight broken people staring at one therapist as if they were all gutshot. She took one look around the room and prompted us with things like:

I'm a good cook; I'm a good driver; I'm an understanding person; etc.

Pencils moved, but at a much slower rate. Some of us, myself included, were proud to have managed five good things about ourselves. Once we completed that portion of the exercise, she then told us that we needed to write the good things about ourselves on index cards and post them on the mirrors in our bathroom where we would see the message every morning.

Needless to say, all of us thought that was stupid. However, she justified the exercise by explaining that when children grow up, they hear certain messages that become the tapes we play in our heads as we become adults.

I'm stupid; I'm not good enough; I'm unloved; etc.

Our jobs were to change those self-destructive tapes into positive messages about the kind of people we really were, or more importantly, the kind of people we wanted to become. Fortunately, I was so emotional beaten at the this point, I was willing to try anything to feel better.

So I took my positive messages, taped them to my mirror, and read them to myself every morning. And, lo and behold, in spite of years of conditioning, I managed to gradually change the destructive tapes in my head to positive messages about myself.

Like any broken record, my brain sometimes reverts to those old tapes, but when that happens, I can change the record. I have that power.

And so do you.

Change the destructive tapes in your head into positive messages. Become the person you want to be--take it one day, one hour, at a time. It isn't an easy task, but nothing worthwhile ever is, so don't be in a hurry.

Great works of art are cultivated and shaped over long periods of time, and you are worth the effort.

How to Write a Good Story--Part II: Know Your Story

[Note: If you are one of those people who refer to themselves as pantsters and just make things up as you go along, I have no help for you. I cannot write a story on a deadline using that technique, so I've abandoned it. Feel free to move on to another site, I'm cool with that.]

Now that we have, more or less, decided that no one really knows the true definition of "good" as in "How to Write a Good Story," let's just discuss some ways to make the storytelling process easier on your audience and you.

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