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).

I'm still here: taking care and trying for quality over quantity

Authors are just chock-full of advice about writing and publishing and commas.

Okay, we don't know shit about commas.

BUT we can swing a mean panel discussion on characterization, story-building, marketing your book, and how to manage a write-until-you-drop work schedule. As a matter of fact, push ... Push ... PUsh ... PUSH ... is mostly what you hear us say. And it is true that we often have to manage grueling schedules to get our work done.

What we don't talk about enough is self-care, which should be part of your writing routine.

I'll tell you a story--no, really, this one is true.

I went to the doctor recently for my annual checkup. My blood sugar was up, along with my weight, and all the things that come after a certain point in adulthood. I was exhausted all the time. I felt bad all the time, but I couldn't pinpoint the source of my malaise.

Some nights I went to bed at eight o'clock. My diet consisted of cereal at breakfast, and at lunch, of a sandwich, chips, and a candy bar. Often we had healthier fare at dinner, but I would either consume too much of it, or I'd be too tired to fix dinner, and we'd wind up going out to eat.

Last year, my doctor let me off with a warning. This year, he said I had to get it together. So I've been eating healthier food (cut out the chips and candy and reduced the carbs), and I started walking on a regular basis.

The walking takes time away from--you guessed it--writing. Yet I'm getting more quality writing done.

How does that work? you may ask.

And you may.

I'm staying up later in the evenings, because I have more energy. My brain is sharper, and I don't feel exhausted all the time.

Although taking care of myself has cut into the quantity of work in terms of blog posts, it has enhanced the quality of my writing. Please don't take this to mean that people who write quickly, or who produce a lot of works in a short amount of time aren't quality authors. There are an incredible number of factors that go into how much and quickly someone can produce a work. Some authors can easily produce two good books a year and several short stories.

It's just that I'm not one of those authors. Partly because of many factors beyond my control, but also because of the way I write and how I tend to edit as I go. Some days I can easily pump out four thousand words, and on other days, I consider it a victory if I manage some editing and two new sentences. It also helps me to step away from a manuscript or story for at least two weeks, maybe more, before coming back to it for the final edits.

My novella In Midnight's Silence was written at the end of 2014. During 2015, I wrote two novellas at approximately 33,000 words each, or the equivalent of a 90,000 word novel. Those words came quickly, because I already had the novellas mapped out when In Midnight's Silence sold to Harper Voyager Impulse. Those 96,000 words do not account for blog posts, interviews, and shorter works of fiction that I produced in order to promote both In Midnight's Silence and Without Light or Guide.

Things I didn't factor into my deadlines: a month of edits on the front end of a new novella and a month of promo on the back side of the gig. However, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't have scheduled them differently. I wanted about six months between each work and with the help of Harper Voyager, it worked out beautifully.

Now that The Second Death is out in the world, I've been focusing on promotion and a new novel. All of these things consume a lot of my energy. Which sort of brings me back to taking care of myself. My free time is short, so I have to manage my time very carefully, and factor in that self-care. I do that by focusing on projects that pay, or projects that help me promote the novellas (i.e. blog posts and interviews). Since I am also involved at The Supernatural Underground, you will sometimes find my monthly post over there rather than here.

The point of all this is: I can't do all the things anymore, so sometimes those things, such as they are, will get quiet here at the blog; although not for long.

All this eating right and exercising more has helped my mental health, too. Walking is wonderful and frees my mind. I'm able to burn energy and quiet the voices in my head long enough to achieve a little peace and serenity in my brain. For me, that is a necessary and pivotal part of my mental health. My brain tends to run in overdrive 24/7 and I need to remember how to slow down and listen to the quiet.

I've also been reading more of other people's works, and that, in turn, helps me produce more quality work. Since I'm more alert, I've able to read more analytically. I learn by writing, but I also learn by reading quality books. I'll be talking about some of those books later. For now, I am enjoying them as a reader and a fan. I also want to write a Goodreads review for each book, because I think it is important to support other authors, and reviews, even a couple of sentences, can help someone else.

So that is where I have been and what I've been doing. I'm also working on a short story with the Los Nefilim characters, maybe one with Rafael since he is so many people's favorite. I've no shortage of ideas percolating in my busy brain, but I'm going to take care of myself so I can be around to write them.

On cons and business and accessibility

After a Twitter discussion about cons and the need for authors to attend, because writers are business people and conventions are where business connections are established, I said something about accessibility for the hearing impaired and silence ensued. It's this magic thing that I can do--like a mike drop--it's amazing except when it isn't.

Don't get me wrong: cons are great to make business connections if you know someone who can introduce to someone important, but don't go to a con thinking you're going to be accepted into every clique. It doesn't work that way, because we're humans, and we don't always click with every person we meet.

I know that some of you think this is my first time through this dog and pony show, but I was attending cons back in the eighties. My hearing was better then, and I had my own circle of friends who helped introduce me to others in the business.

I've seen editors, agents, or well-known authors tense up with the oh-god-i-don't-know-this-person flinch. It's slight. Barely a twitch before their professional face slides back into place, but it's there along with the "save me" arrangements made with a friend (for example: If I'm talking to someone and they start to bore me, I'll raise my drink twice in rapid succession, and then you come and engage me in conversation.)

I know these things, because in those days, I went to cons and hung with the popular kids. Then I decided that drinking was more important than writing, and then I almost died, and so I had to stop drinking, but even through all of that, I didn't forget cons. So when I decided that I wanted to write again, I knew it meant going to cons without that buffer of friends I'd had in the beginning. I also knew I wanted to do things differently.

Now I'm back with a different name, but the games at cons don't seem to have changed very much. Barcon is mentioned often, and the parties are very much the same. Hanging out is great, because that is how we make business connections--in the hopes, that is, that the person we were talking to the night before didn't get so plastered they had a blackout and forgot all that terrific bonding.

My hearing, which has never been good, is now almost nonexistent, so barcon (due to low lighting and loud music) is really a waste of time for me. I can't read lips in the dark, and I do need a certain amount of sound to comprehend speech. Hearing people are usually patient for a few minutes, but soon it's kind of a pain in the ass for them to keep me in the loop of rapid fire conversation, so I usually fall back and just watch.

And trust me: if you think it's a pain in the ass for you, you should try being me.

But! You say, because I know you will. There are panels!

Right. During the day, I try the panels, because if I can get some good information, at least my money is well spent. But the panels don't have assistive listening devices and the microphone spews sound all over a room with poor acoustics. No seats are saved for the hearing impaired near the front, or the dias is so high, I'm looking up everyone's noses, which places lip-reading out of reach. If I can't hear, then the panels are useless to me, too.

So let's look at this from a business perspective, since we are talking about cons strictly from a business sense, and the return on my investment (ROI): I have spent anywhere from $200 - $2,000 to attend an event. I made precious few business contacts at barcon (see above), and the panels gave me no useful information, because the con didn't have accessibility for the hearing impaired. I have lost a weekend that I could have spent writing, which would eventually give me a return.

Based on those factors, cons are a bad business investment for me unless I have an advance, or I'm making enough in royalties to cover the cost. Cons are like exposure, except instead of just time, I am also forking over money for registration, lodging, and food.

For most authors, cons are a loss on the profit/loss margins. Other writers, either through their book sales, their publishers' promotional efforts, or other means entirely, are wealthy enough to take the hit, but they, too, usually go into the red on cons.

When are cons a good investment for the author?

When I have a new release in print. If my publisher can get me on some panels, my time isn't completely wasted. Even with a new release, if I can't get on a panel (or two or three if I'm traveling out of state), then due to my hearing and the lack of accessibility, the ROI isn't sufficient to cover the cost of going.

A con is also a good investment if it is close to home and the registration fee is within reason. I don't mind paying $25-$30 to drive over to the next city and attend a nearby con. That way, I get to meet new people, drop a few bookmarks and business cards for a small investment.

Cons should be fun--a positive experience--for the attendees. If you, the author, are miserable at one, for whatever reason, then the fans will pick up on that. Remember I said I wanted to do things differently? I made a conscious decision that this time around, there would be no signals. If a fan or an aspiring author wanted to talk, I would give them as much time as I had. If you suffer from social anxiety issues--and many people do--you might want to reconsider whether or not this is the best way for you to enter the business.

A lot of authors will tell you how they broke into publishing. The stories are as varied as the genres. Some did manage to get contracts by going to cons and talking to people. I didn't.

I have yet to lay eyes on my agent in person. We met online, I queried her, and we have spoken by phone several times, but we did not meet at a con. As a matter of fact, Marlene rejected my first novel, and accepted me as her client based on a later work.

Likewise, I have never met David Pomerico in person. He rejected not one, but TWO of my novels before he offered me a contract with Harper Voyager for my Los Nefilim series. He liked my story and thought it was a marketable idea, and that makes me feel good. I have always wanted to be judged on the most important thing to me: the quality of my work.

So I just want you to know that you can get an agent and a contract without going to cons. Being an author is a business, but you have to tailor your business to your means. Always evaluate what other authors are doing, but know that not all techniques are feasible for all authors.

Conventions are a lot like Clarion: they're great if you can afford to attend, but you don't need them, especially if they're not accessible to you.

I have a few tips for any concoms that might want to expand accessibility for the hearing impaired:

  • Check out the SFWA's Accessibility Checklist (it's a great place to start);
  • Have a line on your registration form that asks if an attendee has special needs. This way, you can assess what, if any, special needs are going to require your attention;
  • Have an accessibility subcommittee, or a member responsible for accessibility on your concom;
  • If you have an ASL interpreter, that is a marvelous thing, but don't assume all hearing impaired people understand ASL;
  • Most hotels have assisted listening devices available. Check with your host hotel about availability and cost. It will be impossible to have an assistive listening device in every panel. Small meeting rooms that seat twenty-five or less won't need an assistive listening device, but a large room that requires a microphone will.
  • Not all hearing impaired people benefit from assistive listening devices. Place seating for hearing impaired people to the right and/or left of the podium. When you place seating for the hearing impaired directly in front of the podium, the microphone often blocks the speaker's mouth.
  • Check out CART or Real-Time Captioning. CART stands for Communication Access Real-time Translation. The service might not be financially feasible for your con, but if you have a large number of hearing impaired people attending, it might pay off.
  • Ask presenters who are using PowerPoint to design their presentation with the hearing impaired in mind. This is easily done by adding pertinent information into the slide.

Ask around. I'm sure there are other concoms who have handled these issues, and they might have some advice and contacts for you, too.

For me it's a business decision, and accessibility for the hearing impaired is one of my major criteria in terms of which cons I sign up for, and which ones I avoid. I am more likely to spend extra money to attend a con in the midwest, which is accessible to me, rather than attend a nearby con, which is not.

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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on being a professional writer and being okay

This shall be one of my rare writing posts. I don't often write about writing, because the whole writing experience is extremely subjective and personal.

However, I have been seeing the phrase "professional writer" bounced around a lot lately by a lot of folks who have different interpretations as to what being a professional writer entails. My personal interpretation of what it means to write professionally can be summed very succinctly:

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a writing contest for Mark Lawrence's Liar's Key and a brief interview with me

I am joining Mark Lawrence, Myke Cole, T.O. Munro, David Jackson, and Marc Aplin (of the Fantasy Faction blog) in judging the Liar's Key Writing Contest. For those of you who follow me on a regular basis, you know I did this last year, which is like last century in Internet time. However, I remember it was a lot of fun so when Mark asked me to participate this year, I didn't hesitate to say yes. Several of the contestants put their best writing chops forward, and after a winner was chosen, we went back and provided a few critiques of the finalists and told them what worked for us and what didn't.

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for writers...when the rainbow gets to be too much

Another case of a writer blowing off steam in the wrong venue has come across my feed. Angry fans are angry, and penitent author is penitent, perhaps too late, but that's what happens sometimes. Although the post has been deleted, hard feelings will remain for a while, I'm afraid.

I'm not saying which author had the latest meltdown or where I saw the flash, this is not about author shaming. I'm telling you that I understand the individual's feelings even if I didn't appreciate the way those feelings were stated.

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Musings, writing, and a gargoyle ... (#SFWApro)

I might still be scarce around the old blog for a little longer. I'm on an August 1 deadline for a novella, which I'm working on now. Summer has officially begun and with it comes grass and gardening and stuff. Mostly stuff.

With the novella, I am suffering from my usual first draft blues, but those should abate soon. I enjoy using my outdoor gardening time to let my mind drift and work on the story. A few things clicked into place yesterday. Nothing as polished as a first line yet, but I'm getting there.

It's sort of like this weird little garden I have at my backdoor. When we first moved here, there was hardly anything in at all. Now it looks like this:

That is Edgar in the center of the garden.

Here is Edgar up close and personal:

Looking good, isn't he?

Now that the backdoor garden just takes some minor weeding, I've turned my attention to the front garden, which is three times bigger than this small patch.

As you can see, I've already started working around this plot. The hostas came from the giant hosta in the lower right-hand corner. I've spent the last couple of years breaking them up and moving them around. The camellia in the middle was there when we came here, so I've been designing the rest of the garden around it. There are three hydrangeas there now (one is hidden by the hostas) and some phlox. I've still got some minor weeding to do, but considering that everything to the left of the camellia was filled with grass and weeds yesterday, I'm feeling fairly accomplished today. It doesn't look like much now, but I'm hoping that in a year or two, this side will be as full of green and color as the backdoor garden.

It is a challenge to coax something from nothing, to take a blank canvas, and render it alive with color, or sound, or words. I enjoy it though. I've just learned that everything doesn't have to be done all in one day. Growth comes from sustained effort and nurturing.

Which leads me back to my novella. I want it to have a fairytale quality, but I also want it to have a little horror on the side. The challenging part is getting through the first draft and laying out the characters and the plot. Once there, I can fine tune it and bring it to life. That is my favorite part: the final edits.

Yesterday, while my hands worked the ground, my mind worked on the story.

So if I'm not here, then I'll be writing.

Watch for me.