Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Never to Say at the Airport... But Want To!

O Port of the Flying Metal Ships, with thy groping workers and lines as lengthy and lifeless as a politician’s string of promises!

I just returned home from a trip to the Southwestern branch of my family. This meant engaging in battle with my lifelong nemesis, the airport: its oozing lines; its cranky, perpetually-overworked and poorly-paid employees; its utter lack of personal and possessional privacy; its cramming of persons of all shapes and sizes into 17-inch-wide seats; its creepy, 1984-esque PA announcements to report suspicious persons; its adult touches after irradiating people via naked scans*. All this, plus the additional burdens of flying while fat: having to shoulder everyone’s terror at being the one who (gasp!) might have to sit next to us, knowing most folks believe the BS that fat folks are the reason they pay more for their tickets. Heck, with the exception of traveling at 500 mph and, well, knowing that the same invasive and embarrassing technology and procedures that rather needlessly humiliate millions of Americans daily have also resulted in more American jobs, nothing about flying doesn’t suck.

I’m not going to talk here about what it’s like to fly fat; others have done it with great eloquence elsewhere (although I did write a soon-to-be-published poem called “Not Moving” on the topic). Instead, I’m going to jot down a monologue that pops into my noggin every time I fly. I’m normally a pretty easygoing, happy-go-lucky person; just add airport and the bruising of my fourth amendment rights, stir, and suddenly, I’m desperate to recapture some of my individuality and dignity by immaturely thumbing my nose at this ineffective, needlessly invasive, and dehumanizing process of homogenizing, preserving, canning, and delivering two million sardines Americans every day.

All that said, here is the script that runs through my head while standing in one of the many, many slow-moving airport lines.

“So, hey, what about that Peter Jackson? I swear, that man’s career is a TICKING TIME BOMB. So sad his last movie BOMBED, amiright? It BOMBED big time, in spite of his CULT-like following. Not too difficult to believe, though, since he HIJACKED so many conventions that worked so well for the Lord of the Rings trilogy but just don’t translate well to non-fantasies. You bring those to another genre and ANARCHY reigns. That kind of image and concept SMUGGLING kind of DETONATES my temper a bit, I don’t mind saying. On the positive side, it had lots of things that go BANG. I dig a movie with a lot of EXPLOSIONS and WEAPONS. Well, and it was kind of deliciously scary. Okay, it was the TERROR-EST thing I ever saw. What? Is too a word, and I most certainly don’t appreciate you policing my language. Maybe you’re a TERROR-IST: you know, one who discriminates against uses of 'TERROR.' It’s unfair how you go GUNNING for people who speak differently than you. Oh, hey, don’t cry. I’m sorry. Here, take some eye drops; I SNUCK THEM IN VIA MY SHOE.”

Kinda cathartic, really. But, kids, please don’t try this at home—or, more specifically, at the airport. And if you do, don’t mention my name.

Happy travels!

* You, like me, may be thrilled to know the TSA is phasing out the naked scans. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Good, the Bad... the Ex

Oh, old fling, how you serve us romance writers. Might you be the experience from which our hero learned invaluable lessons in love? The romantic foil, who steps in during the blossoming stage of the new romance to offer some romantic tension? Or might you be the story’s hero, emerging fully developed from the shero’s past, ready to admit your historic idiocy and woo her back into your manly arms?

No doubt about it: the old fling is a powerful stock character for us romance authors. And like most stock characters, The Ex™ should be used sparingly.

Although all of the incarnations of the ex deserve extensive discussion, it’s the last trope I wish to address. To put us in the mood, imagine this: We’re introduced to our shero (it could be our hero, but the male ex is more common), whose life is all right but, you know, inevitably bereft in a few ways. She tries not to think of the ex, whose long-ago betrayal sent her spinning out of his arms and into the cold embrace of a him-less future. And then… He re-enters her world. She hates him, spurns him, closes the door in his handsome, repentant face. But no, he shan’t be thwarted in his pursuit of redemption. The beat of their unresolved romantic tension pounds throughout the story until the very last chapter, in which the hero reveals the true circumstances behind that long-ago betrayal. His past victimization laid bare, his heroic sacrifice of their love for selfless purposes exposed, the couple rejoices in their transcendent love. They zip to the closest major department store to start a wedding registry.

I have deep respect for literary archetypes. They form the basic outline of our craft, much like notions of closed bottoms and open tops help potters shape their wares. But, well, is it just me, or is this one just the slightest bit overused?

I get the purpose of it. This trope packages up a whole host of literary conventions in one small character. Thanks to the ex, the romance comes largely developed (we need to just clear away that little misunderstanding from twelve years ago) and the plot’s source of tension arrives ready-made. The rest of the book practically writes itself!

As a reader, though, I have to admit to usually feeling a little cheated when the book uses the straight-out-of-the-box Tragic Betrayal incarnation of The Ex™. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I honestly wonder what romantic could find it satisfying to read through a romance that appears before us fully formed. I don’t know about anyone else, but I like seeing the romance blossom. I dig the internal dialogues as characters wrestle with what love means to them. I cherish the awkwardness of the first kiss.

In short, I want to see them fall in love, and introducing a prepackaged romantic couple only separated by misunderstood and tragic circumstances robs me of that.

As a writer, I find myself frequently exasperated with this trope because it requires little creativity. I think of it as one of those tubes of chocolate chip cookie dough; just because you’re the one that scoops the goop onto the baking sheet and slides it into the oven doesn’t necessarily equal homemade chocolate chip cookies. Plus, the story often lacks, since the major source of tension, that unresolved act of betrayal, is one small, rather transparent curtain separating the pair; we readers wait with (if you’re me) impatience while the characters remember how to unblock a window. One little conversation, and the entire book’s dance of evasion and impassioned anger (probably, but not requisitely, including heaving bosoms) becomes pointless. The day is won.
I can understand authors of novellas, those travel-sized novels, strategically employing this trope in hopes of saving some space. And perhaps some talented authors can breathe fresh life into the archetype. But the rest of us might benefit from veering away from these ready-made, boxed, and sealed characters. If not for our own creative sakes, out of respect for our readers.

And hey, maybe a little for our characters, too, who just might like a little more room to grow and breathe.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Confessions of a Sex-Scenes-Challenged Author

Recently, a dear friend asked me to read and provide feedback on her novella. In her email containing the file, she hemmed and hawed a bit before admitting something to the effect of, “It has some sex scenes. Feel free to skip as needed. And wow, are those hard to write.”

I slouched in my computer seat, shocked and immeasurably grateful. Sex scenes, hard to write? Darn tootin’! For the most part, they’re an exercise in pain and embarrassment. And after years of sucking it up, I could finally rest a little easier, knowing I’m not the only one.

My name is Elle, and I hate writing sex scenes.

Truth told, come time to pen sex scenes, I wish I could put brackets in the story that say “And sex ensued, and it was good.” Okay, well, maybe I’d add something like, “And it was mutually satisfying sex that involved orgasms for all involved partners but without involving overdone literary devices like simultaneous orgasms and overly colorful and euphemistic descriptions of orgasms as kaleidoscopes. Oh, and not just missionary. With lots of foreplay. And emotional validation. Use your imagination.” Somehow, though, I think Romance Writers of America would revoke my membership – provided I had one.

I’m not sure why it’s so painful. Perhaps it’s the tension that comes from trying to realistically portray mutually satisfying sex without turning it into a sexual blueprint (“Item A should connect with a snap into item B. Then, holding it at a 24-degree angle, place item C alongside item D until item E comes into play.”). Add in our sexually repressive culture that leads to the fetishization of, well, everything, and even talking about sex means shouldering a heavy cultural burden. Just within the story, sex is supposed to move my protagonists’ relationship to a new romantic level, provide a space for exploring the dynamics of their interactions, straddle the line between tenderness and empowerment, and introduce my characters to tons of pleasure, or at least meaning. No pressure!

Gender inequalities, increasing questions about the boundaries of heterosexuality, living in a culture only a few generations from the Victorian era’s guilty, conflicted prurience: writing about sex lands me smack dab in the middle of a cultural quagmire.

An example of my inexplicable obsession.
Or maybe it’s my Pentecostal upbringing and my childhood obsession with, well, Victorian literature. I like to imagine myself a world-wise sociologist, feminist, and author, but let’s be honest: my favorite movie is still Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and my favorite book Little Women. Heck, my favorite pastime is clicking through those Cheezburger cats.

I know many authors don’t share my shyness of sex scenes. For the few out there who do, though, I wanted to offer a literary fist bump. Authors who tremble at the thought of writing sex scenes, unite!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Simultaneous Orgasms and Other Annoying Literary Tropes

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I’m all over female orgasms. While I’m not necessarily convinced we should make sex as orgasm-centric as we do, I’m nonetheless a big fan of folks valuing women’s sexual pleasure. Heck, in my opinion, unless a woman says otherwise, I think pursuing her orgasm should be a given.  

Peeps haven’t always been so big on women’s orgasms. In fact, Freud popularized the rather – how should I put this delicately? – dumbass notion that women have two orgasms, clitoral and vaginal, and that only vaginal ones are truly adult, mature, and womanly. Mature women, he noted smugly, should only climax through penetration. Heck, even that malarkey was a step up from the Victorian belief that sex was one big, necessary evil step in securing procreative orgasms. Well, men’s orgasms, anyway.  

Convenient, that.

Given the cultural history of orgasms, – or, more precisely, the devaluation of feminine ones -- I dig how most romance novel sheroes almost always achieve orgasm during lovemaking. Go, Team Woman! It’s definitely a step up from this 1894 advice to young brides: While sex is at best revolting and at worse rather painful, it has to be endured, and has been by women since the beginning of time.”

However, I can’t help but think if we’re finally writing about female orgasms, we also might want to do women a favor and not dress them up in fairy tale princess clothing. Sure, many women reading these novels want an escape from partners whose knowledge of female orgasms remains confined to the squawking and flapping of actors with names like Mandi Rugmuncher. But hey, wouldn’t it be kinda cool to provide some escapism along with enough reality to empower women to acknowledge their right to genuine sexual pleasure?

The first thing I want to nix in romance novels is simultaneous orgasms. I have three main problems with them:

1. In romance novels, they usually happen during intercourse and without any extra stimulation, which lends itself to the tired myth that most women (as per Freud) can or should have vaginal orgasms. Truth time: 75% of women cannot achieve orgasm without clitoral stimulation. Sorry, folks – women have multiple sites of pleasure below their belly buttons. 
2. It continues the tired cliché that intercourse is the ultimate act, the home run, the point of no return. For many women, penetration is merely one nice platter in the sexual buffet.
3. Simultaneous orgasms? How often does that really happen? I mean, honestly?*

I get it, I do: Simultaneous orgasms give writers a shorthand for symbolizing the perfect coming together (yes, you may groan at the bad pun) of physical and emotional intimacy. Also, I imagine, especially for writers like me who hate penning sex scenes, it allows us to represent sexual pleasure without breaking down the acts into a mechanical lesson on how to please one’s partner. It’s difficult, at least for me, to straddle the lines between sexual intimacy and porn. In this way, simultaneous orgasms can act as an abbreviation for sexual soul matery.

Except, well, they just don’t happen in real life. Or not very often, anyway. And it’s not a matter of lack of emotional intimacy; as mentioned above, it’s sheer biology. Given all the cultural craziness surrounding women’s jollies, why would we want to saddle women with even more ridiculous expectations?

While we’re at it, can we also eliminate mentions of feminine orgasms during intercourse? As I mentioned above, vaginal orgasms are actually pretty rare, and women have historically suffered when they couldn't achieve them (read: the dreaded “frigid” label). I think we authors could become superhero activists by realistically representing women’s sexuality, including reminding our women readers that they have the right to demand their partners get to work and make sure everyone in the bedroom finds equal satisfaction.

Studies say 68% of adult women fake our orgasms. I would like to think that my novels don’t contribute to the cultural pressure for women to put their partners’ needs above their own.

* Okay, I did a brief Internet search and discovered this very unscientific poll that found 11% of women report having experienced simultaneous orgasms.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sex, Politics, and Shemar Moore: Writing Appealing Blog Posts

I’ve been monitoring my blog stats, and in spite of my tireless attempts to get my name out in the world this past week, my latest post didn’t earn much more than a public yawn. Hmm. On the other hand, my post about Internet Use Disorder, provocatively titled “Trapped in Internet Use Disorder, or, My New IUD,” has one of the highest hit counts of all my posts.

What’s in a name? A boatload, apparently.

Don't make me pull out the political stops!
More like this could -- gasp -- follow!
The blog posts in which I flex my political muscles also seem to get some attention. I lovingly blame this on surrounding myself with highly political peeps. I’ve mentioned this before, but before submitting Hunted to a publisher, I read heaps and tons of advice on the Interwebs. Much of it varied, but one thing stood out: Especially if you’re a romance writer, don’t be political. It’s kinda like those tepid pop songs on the radio: few love them at first, but no one can hate them based on their universally trite, militantly vacuous lyrics.*

Of course, I scoffed at those warnings when plotting The Tithe, my latest novel, which is unfortunately and currently moving along at a glacial pace. Its basic premise includes delving into some cultural effects of Abrahamic religions and dis/abilities. I’m a laugh riot like that. And yeah, I’m also pretty invested in cutting my own authorly throat.

But to get back to my meta-blog-post navel gazing, I find myself at a crossroads. Should I pen more political posts? Believe me, that wouldn’t be a problem. Or, in the hopes of appealing to an ever-expanding group of readers (one can dream), should I keep the politics fairly light in this blog?** 

Regardless of the answer to that question, I have internalized one lesson: Use sexy names for the blog posts. In that spirit, here is a smattering of proposed future blog titles (warning: rather tasteless language and images): 
Shemar Moore serves no purpose in this post.
Really, though, does one need a reason
to post Shemar Moore?
  • “Glistening, Shirtless Pirates Rub Up against Visual Stereotypes” 
  • “Doggy Style, or How to Include Animals in Your Novel” 
  • “Shemar Moore Inspired Reed in Hunted Dreams” (actually true)
  • “Ableism SUCKS… But at Least I Reached 75K in My Latest Novel!"
  • “Follow Unceasingly the Course of Kindness, or How I Give a FUCK” 
  • “Sex Scenes: Does Every Author Hate Writing Them as Much as I Do?” 
  • “Are My Heroes Really Butch Lesbians, As Some Have Claimed?” 
  • “Racial Tokenism in Mainstream Novels” 
  • “Simultaneous Orgasms in Novels? PUHLEEZE!”

Um. Is it so wrong that I now actually want to write most of these?

* In the spirit of honesty, and in spite of my political, literary, and musical backgrounds, I’m an enthusiastic fan of pop music. Don’t judge. 
** My form of politics usually involves identity politics, not pleas for or against particular political candidates. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hunted Dreams: Chapter 2, scene 1

The two most important ingredients for writing:
A keyboard and a support system
Hi, all, and welcome, new follower! I'm starting to feel like a real author with followers and blog views and everything! If I were more nimble, I'd dance a little jig, but I'm not, so I hope y'all are satisfied with a chest pop.

My sister, Lauri J Owen, whose seven more years have cemented her in my brain as Older-Sis-Who-Knows-Everything, tells me I should post scenes from my book so peeps can catch the flavor of my writing. Little sister shero worship requires me to comply. Below is the scene in Hunted Dreams where our shero first meets our hero, although they don't technically speak to one another for at least another chapter. Happy reading!

The first thing she noticed was the heat. It felt almost like a living thing, crawling along her body and sizzling the words from her mouth. Her lungs drew in grateful gasps of air, even as they seared her tongue.
Flames surrounded her. Not literally—or, not exactly. She simply saw flames everywhere she looked. They didn’t seem to burn anything; they simply appeared—in clumps, walls, and towers, as far as she could see. The sky, or whatever it was, curved in a black bowl above her, and the ground beneath her feet shone with the same opaque blackness.
The sound was shockingly loud. How could fire, not even a solid substance, hiss and crackle so noisily? And if nothing fed the flames, why did they sizzle?
The woman took a few steps, wondering if the flames would follow or surround her. They merely continued burning, emanating gross amounts of heat, singeing the hairs on her arms. Her mouth had dried and her lungs begged for cooler air. She walked steadily, hoping to find an end to this nightmarish landscape.
Where—? She stopped, because she wasn’t so sure she really wanted to know.
Waves of air, as hot and sulfuric as the breath of Cerberus, blew her long brown hair into her eyes. As she walked, or, more realistically, proceeded forward in tiny steps, she wondered briefly about taking off her clothes to avoid catching on fire. Looking down, she saw bare, white breasts and the soft rolls of her belly. Oh, good.
She didn’t worry about her hair attracting the flames. That just wouldn’t happen.
The woman waited for the landscape to resolve itself, to begin forming into discernible objects. It never happened. She wondered about the ground beneath her feet, which should have burned her but felt pleasantly warm against her soles. Around her, never more than three or four feet from her body, bodies of flame snapped and lurched.
She tried to distract herself from the thought, but it kept wriggling back into her brain: Where were the demons? When would they be back?
Don’t think it! Thinking calls to It!
Sure enough, to her right, she heard a sudden hoarse, groaning noise, different than the papery sounds of flame. They’d come.
Her head swiveled and her eyes darted in their sockets, trying to soak in every visual detail possible. Her legs trembled with the need to run, to move, to carry her far away, but what would she be running to?
It’s not as if they couldn’t find her. She looked for something to defend herself; other than the blackness and the orange sparkle of flames, she had nothing.
She noticed she had taken two steps back. Not only was she uncomfortably close to a campfire-sized blaze, but she didn’t want to retreat. Legs wobbling only a little, she reclaimed those two steps.
And waited.
After a few moments, she’d finally grown tired and strained enough to end the standoff. “Who are you?” she yelled.
“Come and get me!” she called. Oh my god, was she insane? “I’m right here!” Crazy, without a doubt.
Suddenly, no more than twenty feet from her, staring at her over the winding ribbons of fire, she spied a face. A human face. Broad, light brown, and handsome. The flames obscured much of his body below his naked chest, but he looked tall and wide, like some kind of athlete—maybe a football player. The man stared back at her for a long, silent moment.
“Who are you?” she demanded again, as loudly and fiercely as a naked woman amid flames can be.
The man moved his mouth, but no sounds emerged. He continued staring at her, eyes dark and intense.
She bared her teeth at him and growled—actually growled. “I won’t let you hurt me,” she hissed at him.
With a snap, the man’s head swiveled on his shoulders until he looked behind himself. The darkness, the pure, smooth blackness of sky and ground, had begun closing in on them. One by one, the flames extinguished as the darkness claimed them.
The woman watched the black wall move with blank, silent speed toward the two humans. Her companion looked as startled as she felt, but she couldn’t believe him. She turned to run and even moved a few feet before deciding once again not to let herself fall victim to the terrors of this place, wherever it was.
She halted, turned back to the man, whose eyes had widened. The shadow, as tall and impersonal as the heavens, swept toward them. She bowed to him.
Gobbling up fires and leaving only darkness and absence in its wake, the blackness continued toward them. It drew closer and closer to the man. His mouth worked furiously, silently spitting out words, as the dark wall swallowed him whole.

Reed jerked awake. Man, crazy dream. As he lurched over onto his left side, thumping his pillow into a feathered brick, he heard himself mutter, “Gotta find her.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Not-So-Modest, Rather Desperate, Pleading Proposal

I. Need. Help.

No, seriously. I need help. Like, bad. Like, way bad. Like, as bad as horror movies need plot lines. As bad as capitalism needs a desperate and disenfranchised workforce. As bad as politicians need term limits. As bad as my oldest cat tells me he needs canned cat food RIGHT NOW, woman!

Neil Gaiman gets it. 
See, here’s the deal: I’m a writer. A shy one. Well, maybe not shy, exactly, but severely introverted. Know how to bump me into panic attack mode? Shove me into a crowded room for an extended time or, worse yet, make me talk on the phone. Oh, dear lord. Happy place… need my happy place. Anyway, what should introverted, writerly types do all day long?

Exactly – write.

But sadly, in this day and age when it seems just about everyone is publishing their life works and small publishing companies with no marketing departments or promotional clout are giving little nobodies like me a big opportunity to get published, I’m not only supposed to write but to – gulp – market myself.

Just to be clear, I don’t want to market myself. I want to park my large and lovely bee-hind in front of my computer and peck out a percussive song on my keyboard. I’m not big on socializing, don’t love the idea of making myself into a commodity, am not a major fan of the capitalist advertising system. I've tried protesting this. I've tried not doing it. I've tried holding my breath and pouting till someone does it for me. Sadly, for me, none of this matters, because if I want to sell at least enough books to elicit more than a yawn from the IRS, I need to get to it, get over it, and start promoting.

So, okay. I’ll do it. Except, well, I don’t know how. And this is where my three faithful readers come in. I’m throwing myself on your mercy and begging for advice. How, how can I promote myself, get my name out there, do something to attract attention from peeps who aren't my beloved sisters?

In exchange for help or advice or whatever it is you give me, I’ll do something nice. I don’t know what that is. Write you a poem, maybe? Name a character after you? Donate to an animal rescue in your name? Give you help and advice on any of the topics I've mastered: sociology, feminist theory, academia, progressive activism, punctuation, cats? Name my firstborn after you? (Just kidding, honey! Ahem.)

Consider this a back alley, and consider the left half of my jacket open, offering you all the worldly delights you can imagine for the low, low price of your help or advice vis-√†-vis authorial marketing. It’s the gen-yoo-wine article, my friend, and can be yours today.

So, um, help? Pretty please?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Textiquette for a Sexy Fatty

Ever have the problem of describing yourself to someone you've never met but are about to? Yeah, me, too. I mean, what do you say? “I’ll be the one wearing red.” “Look for the 38-year-old lass with a sparkle in her brown eyes.” “I’m the brunette with the nose stud.” Yeah, those work great.

Today I met someone introduced to me via text. (Oh, technology!) A few days prior to meeting her, I texted, “I’ll be the sexy fatty wearing a Hello Kitty tee.” The woman wrote something smooth back, but a mutual friend told me my phrasing thoroughly perplexed and, yes, even scared the textee. I’m not sure why. Did she think I was coming on to her with my mention of sexiness? Does she think college instructors should eschew clothing manufactured by Sanrio? Or was it, as I suspect, my use of “fatty” next to the word “sexy”?

Don’t think I didn't very carefully craft that text or ponder it at embarrassing length. In fact, it’s a question I've faced a number of times in the past when meeting colleagues I've never encountered in the flesh, coming for a physical interview after telephone ones, or meeting for Internet-arranged romantic dates.

See, here’s the thing: I’m easy to pick out of a crowd. I’m a fat, 38-year-old brunette who dons bright colors and carries Hello Kitty paraphernalia. I’d love to say this to everyone; actually, in the past, I have. Several times. The typical response to my description goes something like, “Oh, don’t worry – I can stand to lose a few pounds, too!” or, like the woman today, trepidation.

Here's a picture of my hand.
You can now find me in a crowd, right?
But, ya know, I don’t stand to lose a few pounds. I dig my physicality. There is no inherent apology in mentioning my body size or in my proclivity for bright pink, cartoon-festooned garb. How unfortunate that we live in a place and time where a simple descriptor like “fat” is regarded as an admission of failure or a plea for reassurance. Knowing this and wanting to avoid confusion about my attitude toward my body size, I added “sexy” before “fatty,” which is perfectly in keeping with the size acceptance movement’s focus on celebration of body diversity. Unfortunately, not many peeps are members of the SA movement. So, in spite of my best wishes and my hopes for avoiding awkwardness and confusion, my verbiage, my pairing of “sexy” with “fat,” confused, even frightened, my now-new friend.

So what’s a 5’7”, brown-eyed, curly-haired fatty with pink and red toenails supposed to do when describing herself to a stranger? Exactly. And now you understand why I spent ten minutes debating before sending that text. And what will I do when I have to describe myself next time? Probably say the same darn thing.  

Incidentally, when the woman met me, she instantly recognized me. “It was the Hello Kitty t-shirt,” she said.

Yeah, sure it was.