Monday, December 29, 2014

2014.

I haven't blogged a lot in 2014. A few posts have sort of buoyed up this blog, going viral and making me seem more legit than I actually am. But I really haven't written much in this space this year.

Part of that is because my year has been supremely lopsided. This space is intended for my "professional" thoughts - the things that occur to me while writing, or about writing, or anything even tangentially related to my non-personal life. Usually, my personal life and my public life are in balance, and this blogging space is a happy place for me to share my public thoughts.

This year, though, my personal life was more than overwhelming, and my brain-space and writing-time for public things was almost non-existent.

I've had a very difficult pregnancy this year. Usually I am physically fit and active and happy during pregnancy, but that has not been the case this time. I've had preterm labor and major contractions and pains all through the pregnancy. We finally pinpointed the source of my extreme dizziness and fatigue: I'm "super anemic" (doctors actual phrasing). While I'm glad I know what to do in order to fix it in time for the delivery (hopefully), it doesn't erase the months of tears and desperation.

My husband and I had a failed adoption earlier this year. It was a time of great pain and confusion and I'm not really able to talk about it openly yet. Partly because I still don't know how I feel about it or how I will ever feel about it, and partly because it's not my story to share.

My husband's business failed, leaving us in a financial crisis I could not have imagined. On this front, perhaps, we've been the luckiest, though. He was able to find other employment after only five months of no income, and we escaped total disaster. We are still rebuilding, though, and probably will deal with the fallout of this for years to come.

As we finish out this calendar year and look forward to a new one, I am happy to leave 2014 behind me. The new year brings with it a new baby (hopefully healthy!), settling into a new job, and a new sense of possibility.

I hope your 2014 was better than mine, I hope your 2015 is brimming with possibilities and hope and love.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why I Wrote My PitchWars Novel

It's all over.

I've submitted my PitchWars entry and now I can do nothing but wait for the agent round to determine my fate.


In the meantime, I've decided to participate in this little game everyone else is playing and tell you all about why I wrote my PitchWars novel.

Back in 2012, I got the idea to tell fairy tales from the villains' perspective, but not in a way that I had seen before. I'd seen retellings in which the villain tells the story, remaining truly evil, losing in the end, making for a very dark and sinister story. I'd seen versions of the story in which the villain just narrates the hero's story, again losing at the end, remaining evil throughout and just really giving us an outsider's opinion on the whole thing.

I didn't want to do that.

I wanted to know why these people (women, usually) would do something so terrible. What makes a woman want to kill her stepdaughter? What makes a woman want to abuse, neglect, and treat her stepdaughter as a slave? What makes a woman curse a young girl into eternal sleep?

Yes. I know. We had the old answers: jealousy, grief, vengeance.

But those answers are so overly simplistic and just... evil. 

And a villain is a hero in his own eyes, right? I mean, every "evil" character thinks what they're doing is right, or they're justified in doing the wrong thing. I wanted to find those justifications.

The benefits of telling the stories this way ended up being plentiful. First, these became adult stories. The mistreated princesses in our favorite fairy tales are young, lending themselves to YA or even MG retellings. But the villains are adults, with an adult voice and adult perspective and adult problems (a fifteen-year-old princess isn't likely to know the pain of losing a child or a marriage falling apart).

Second, these stories remained inherently feminine. The villains are so often women; stepmothers, usually. These are women fighting against other women, without it devolving into petty soap operas.

Third, I had to dig deep. For a woman to be willing to kill (or try to kill) a young girl? There has to be a good reason, there has to be more to the story than you ever knew or expected. These women are fighting for more than just their own pride, and I love that I get to make such complex motivations come to life.

And so, SANDS OF IMMORTALITY was born (well... first was a Snow White story, and then Sleeping Beauty, and then that Sleeping Beauty story took on a life of its own and became SANDS OF IMMORTALITY).

During the process of querying my first novel, the Snow White retelling, I had an agent tell me he loved the book. Just... could I rewrite it to be less feminine and more like Game of Thrones, please?

I will not. I will not remove the femininity from my story. I will not make my story into one full of gory violence and graphic sex. (Martin is incredibly talented, and there is a place for that kind of fantasy, and I love it, but it is not my story to tell and I won't force myself to tell it.) 

That's why I keep writing these stories. That's why I wrote this one the way I did. Because these stories have another side to them; a side that's more mature, more complex, and more interesting than we ever imagined, and it's time these women had a chance to shine in their own right, for better or worse.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Quidditch is a Metaphor

Talking to some friends on twitter, I mentioned how quidditch is a metaphor for the entire Harry Potter series, and they asked me to expand on that thought. Since I don't blog often enough and I certainly don't blog often enough about Harry Potter, I figured this was a good opportunity.

First, let's talk about how quidditch doesn't make a lot of sense. The snitch is worth 150 points and as soon as it's caught, the game is over, regardless of what else happened. The obvious criticism here is that everyone should just look for the snitch, get it found as quick as possible, score the quick 150 and be done with it. So there's obviously something more going on with this silly game. Let's look at it more closely. 

The Keeper
The keeper functions like a goalie in muggle sports, except that they are sort of expected to fail. Most muggle sports with a goalkeeper have very low scores. Soccer and hockey commonly have scores of 1-0, for example. But quidditch often has combined scores in the hundreds, meaning an awful lot of those ten-point quaffles go through the hoops. So the keeper doesn't really stop the other team from scoring, they just stop the other team from scoring too much

The Chasers and Beaters
These guys are where the action is. Their job is to basically fight with each other and score as often as possible. They have weapons. Despite the fact that there are 700 ways to commit a foul in quidditch, there seems to be very little controlling actual gameplay. There is strategy involved, and they have preplanned plays, but for the most part, quidditch is barely-controlled chaos. 

The Seeker
The seeker is the position of glory. Front and center in team photos. Cheered for when they catch the snitch. Players in this position are elevated to celebrity status multiple times in the series. The seeker's job is to just catch the snitch. It doesn't matter what else is happening. They don't help score goals. They don't help guard the goalposts. They don't get involved in anything else. They're small and light - often the opposite of what we think of as an athlete. 

Krum and The World Cup
In GoF, Krum catches the snitch at the wrong time. The game ends, but his team loses. Even though the seeker did exactly what he was supposed to do (he tricked the other seeker into injuring himself, he stayed focused, he caught the snitch), he did it at the wrong time and his team lost as a result. 

Harry and his Quidditch Record
If Harry plays and finishes a game, his team wins. Rowling does a good job disguising this by giving Harry disappointments in other forms immediately following some of his wins (like losing all the bones in his arm, or getting a lifelong ban from Umbridge). If Harry plays, but doesn't finish the game, his team loses.*

Now the Metaphor
Harry is the seeker in the series. At first glance, he's unqualified for the job. He's young, raised in the muggle world, and more than a little unstable. He's the opposite of what most would picture as a wizarding hero. His job is not to get involved in the main conflict - the barely controlled chaos of the fight against the Death Eaters - but to seek out the horcruxes and destroy them. He has to finish this job, or his team will lose. We also find out that he has to truly finish the job by sacrificing himself; if this is done at the wrong time (say... if there were still five horcruxes out there), his team would lose. 

To take it one step further, Ron is the keeper. I don't think it's a coincidence that he actually plays keeper for Gryffindor, very poorly at first, but then grows in both skill and confidence, after years of wishing he could be on the team. Ron does the same at Harry's side. He wants to be there but gets knocked out by a giant anthropomorphic chess piece, gets blocked out of the chamber of secrets with Lockhart, has his leg broken by Sirius-as-a-dog, and is merely an observer of the Triwizard Tournament. Eventually, though, he fights at the ministry, he battles Death Eaters when they infiltrate Hogwarts, and he fights the good fight throughout DH. He's imperfect, he fails a lot, but he does his job well enough that the other team doesn't do enough damage to stop Harry from winning in the end. 

Without Harry doing his job, and doing it right and finishing it, the anti-Voldemort movement has no chance. Even Dumbledore couldn't resist the lure of a horcrux when he tried to destroy it, and it nearly destroyed him. Harry, the seeker, is the only one who can win the game. And he can only do it if he has a full team of people and their weapons fighting the other team, keeping them at bay just enough for him to finish his job at the right time. 

*Yes, his team sometimes wins without Harry playing at all. I say this is a function of  Rowling trying to tell an interesting story. They have to play a certain number of quidditch matches each year for the sport to make "sense" to us readers. Yet she finds a lot of ways to make sure she doesn't have to write the actual scenes on the page, since she admitted to hating the task of doing so. 1. Why include the sport if you hate writing it? Must be some other reason for it to exist... 2. Having Harry sit out multiple matches provided a lot of character conflict, helped with pacing, and relieved the monotony of sitting through what is basically the same thing over and over again as a reader. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ten Tips for Twitter Pitching

With WriteOnCon underway, and PitMad coming up, tis the season to be honing those twitter pitches. I've participated in several of these twitter pitch sessions and have had a good amount of success with them. Across two manuscripts, five twitter pitch sessions, I've generated over 80 requests. I joked the other day that I am better at twitter pitching than I am at writing books, and nobody disagreed. Even the people who have read my books. So. 

Of course, twitter requests won't automatically turn into full requests, and especially not representation or a contract if your book isn't ready. Like, ready-ready. I can't help you with that. 

But I can help you with your twitter pitch. 

1. Use correct grammar. A "complete" pitch won't help you if it's incomprehensible. Consider the following: 
In order 2 sav the wrld Lydie needs 2 work against the evil overlord with a plan. WerewolvesNVampiresNGhosts get involved with her #PitMad 
This looks unprofessional, thrown together, and lazy. Skipping punctuation can be okay, especially if it's just the period at the end of the sentence, but don't sacrifice clarity to find a couple extra characters in your tweet-space. Do NOT substitute "your" for "you're" and don't you dare use numbers in place of words unless you're replacing the spelled-out-word. "2" is acceptable if you are replacing "two" but not "to" or "too." 

2. Your pitch MUST fit on one tweet. You cannot tweet two- or three-part pitches and expect someone to keep up. You cannot write a blog post and tweet "Click here for my pitch". Make room for the hashtag. Try to include your category or genre, if possible. If not, make those clear in your pitch itself. 

3. Use genre code words. Your space is limited and "fantasy" "sci-fi" "thriller" "romance" and such all use up valuable space. If you can manage to encode your genre in your pitch, you save valuable space. Compare the next two tweets: 
Her mother's cryptic journal. An ancient spell. A prince on the run. Waking Sleeping Beauty was simpler when it was just a dragon. #PitMad
When Nadina finds Tav, she convinces him to cross the desert with her in order to save an old childhood friend. #PitMad 
Both pitches reference components of the same story, but one is very obviously fantasy. The first uses "spell" and "dragon" - both are pretty definitively fantasy. Arguably, "prince" and "sleeping beauty" help to underscore the genre. The second could literally be any genre, any age category. In fact, using the word "childhood" implies (at least to me) that it's YA, or that it's literary and we're delving into Nadina's past. 

If you're writing sci-fi, use "droids" and "cyborgs" (if they're in your story), romance can be conveyed with "steamy" and descriptions of the love interest, YA contemp can use more slang, and so on. Dig in and find ways to logically work these into your pitch. 

4. Write it out, then re-write it with more powerful words. Consider the same tweet from the example above (this tweet generated five requests from agents/editors): 
Her mother's cryptic journal. An ancient spell. A prince on the run. Waking Sleeping Beauty was simpler when it was just a dragon. #PitMad
"Cryptic" started as "mysterious" - which was too long and too vague. "Ancient" wasn't in the first draft of this tweet. I'd called him a "handsome prince" the first time, and didn't include that he was "on the run". And instead of comparing this version of Sleeping Beauty to previous versions ("simpler when it was just a dragon"), I'd originally just said it was Sleeping Beauty they were after. 

So it looked like this: 
Her mother's mysterious journal, a spell, and a handsome prince to keep her company while they try to wake up Sleeping Beauty. 
YAWN. 

Use punchy, descriptive, unusual words whenever possible. Don't go nuts with your thesaurus... just be different. This helps in query writing, too. 

5. Watch the hashtag and adjust accordingly. Every pitch session, a different kind of pitch will come into popularity and you want to NOT use that kind of pitch. Here are the most common types of pitches I see: 
  • The checklist. "Private lessons with Dumbledore. A new teacher with a fondness for fame. Teenagers in love. A dive into Voldemort's past." 

  • The X-meets-Y. "Zombie apocalypse meets Jane Austen." Note: in order for this pitch to work, make sure your juxtapositions are actually juxtaposed. "Buffy meets Veronica Mars" isn't a good pitch because those two things are too similar - both blonde, pretty teenaged girls, mixed up in dark, dangerous work that should be way out of their league. Similarly, don't say "Buffy meets fairy princess." Buffy IS the juxtaposition in and of herself. She's a cheerleader, and a petite, pretty girl that you don't expect to be slaying monsters. Crossing a pretty girl with a fairy princess isn't really a cross. 

  • The rhetorical question. "What if Buffy went down the rabbit hole instead of Alice?" This is a pitch that L.L. McKinney has pitched, and it's a perfect example of this type of pitch. You know automatically that you're looking at a YA horror-ish story, with a fantasy/retelling type of twist. It's pithy and it paints a very vivid picture right up front. 

  • The when-and-then. "When Lucy finds a hidden world inside a wardrobe she and her siblings are put into a war against a witch and her eternal winter"
There's nothing - I repeat: NOTHING - wrong with any of these formulas. In fact, they are excellent starting points when writing your pitches. Just watch out for being one-of-many using the exact same formula during the same contest.

6. Watch the hashtag and adjust accordingly, part 2. Also avoid using words and terms that pop up a lot on that particular day. Sometimes, Buffy is used in about half of the pitches, it seems. Other times a phrase or word gets bandied around a lot. One time, I was pitching a Snow White retelling, and for some reason there were about forty other people using the word "princess" in their pitches. I had to avoid it, lest my pitches blend in with all the others.

7. Don't use more than one character name, two tops. We don't care who all these people are. "Bek and her BFF" is better than "Bek and Alyssa". First, it shows that Bek is unequivocally your main character. Second, it's voicey. And arguably, third, it gives category and possibly genre. Sometimes a second character name is okay, but definitely not a third. Just give their function: evil overlord, half-giant teacher, droid sidekick, etc. 


8. Lean toward shorter sentences. They're just easier to read. The stream moves quickly and you don't want to lose someone's attention for something silly like long sentences. 


8b. Use simple sentence construction. It's a continuation of the same rule, but deserves its own mention. This cuts down on punctuation, which saves you space. And again, the stream moves quickly and you want people to be able to read and understand your pitch in just a few seconds.

9. Use industry-standard abbreviations. There are enough writers, agents, and editors on twitter that some common abbreviations have developed. These are perfectly okay to use in your pitch and don't violate Rule #1. Some of the abbreviations I know of: 

  • LI: Love Interest
  • MC: Main Character
  • POV: Point of View
  • SFF: Science Fiction and Fantasy
  • CR: Contemporary Romance
  • PB: Picture Book
  • YA: Young Adult
  • MG: Middle Grade
  • NA: New Adult
  • UF: Urban Fantasy
  • PNR: Paranormal Romance
  • HEA: Happily Ever After
10. Mix it up. These pitch events usually last for twelve hours or so, and you're allowed to pitch twice per hour. That means you have twenty four opportunities to catch an agent's attention. DON'T waste these by using the same two pitches over and over. Despite the timeline moving quickly, those two pitches will look stale by the end of the day. For my Sleeping Beauty manuscript, I crafted thirteen different pitches and kept track of how effective they were. I counted retweets and favorites, and especially tracked favorites from agents that I specifically wanted to work with. 

Bonus 11th tip that I thought of later: Don't try to "capture" your whole novel. Your novel is something 80-100k words. You cannot possibly capture its entire essence in a sentence or two. Don't try. Look at the examples I gave for HALF-BLOOD PRINCE and THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE.


Private lessons with Dumbledore. A new teacher with a fondness for fame. Teenagers in love. A dive into Voldemort's past.
When Lucy finds a hidden world inside a wardrobe she and her siblings are put into a war against a witch and her eternal winter
Do we mention the allegory embedded in Lucy's story? No. We didn't mention the titular lion, either (though the witch and the wardrobe both make an appearance). And for crying out loud, we didn't even mention the half-blood prince in the pitch about the half-blood prince. 

Your job in a twitter pitch party is to catch an agent or editor's attention. PERIOD. 

Don't lie. Don't sell your book as something it's not. Don't even misrepresent your story. But don't stress about how "this pitch is missing this really neat part/aspect/character!!!" It doesn't matter. Craft another pitch that does capture that really neat part/aspect/character. The bottom line is it needs to attract attention, not encapsulate your entire work in a sentence. 

Now that you know how to do it, go check out The 7 Rules of Twitter Pitching (an etiquette post). 

EDIT: The rules of how often you can pitch have changed. Please follow the new rules on Brenda Drake's profile. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

PitchWars Mentee Bio

About Me: 

I am a homeschooling mom. That takes up the bulk of my time. I have five children - all boys - two of which we just adopted from the foster system. Three of these children have special needs. Some of this is the natural result of two and a half years in the foster system, including five different placements, but the reality for us remains the same: The kids all need a ton of attention all day long. So that's what I do. I teach. I do physical therapy. Speech therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy. And then I clean up afterwards.

Lest you think I've thrown myself to the wolves, I have a master's degree in early childhood development and education, with a certificate in autism spectrum education. No. It did not all fit on my diploma.

I've been married to the funniest guy I know for eleven years. He's awesome. He's also an attorney, so a favorite game of ours is to watch TV dramas and yell about how inaccurate they are (Veronica Mars, we are most definitely looking at you).

Other than the mom-thing, and the wife-thing, and the reading-and-writing-thing, I really, really love to cook and bake. I don't get to do it enough because life just gets in the way, but the kitchen relaxes me. As long as I don't think about dishes.

I also eat a lot of burritos and wear a lot of really high heels.

My Writing: 

I write adult fantasy. I wrote one YA/NA romance (before NA existed as a category, really). It was cheesy and made me realize I really didn't enjoy writing those kind of books, and I should leave it to the people who love them.

So fantasy it is. The novel I subbed to PitchWars is WAKING BEAUTY, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. It's part of a larger series of novels in which the traditional villains are actually the heroes.

This idea came around by combining two ideas:

1. History is written by the winners. Snow White "won" her battle, and so she tells the world what her stepmother was like, and we all believe her.

2. Every villain believes themselves to be the hero of their own story. Maybe that "evil" stepmother had a totally legitimate reason for trying to kill her stepdaughter... did you ever stop to think about her feelings in this whole thing?

WAKING BEAUTY is set in a desert kingdom, inspired by ancient Persia, but by no means is it actually ancient Persia. The characters are all dark-skinned, ranging from what we would consider Middle-Eastern to Sub-Saharan African skin tones. I did this because when considering the desert setting, I recognized that the indigenous peoples of hot desert climates are overwhelmingly dark-skinned. It would have been disingenuine to pretend otherwise.

The stories, from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty and all the others that are planned, are all part of a shared universe. The events intersect, but each book stands 100% on its own. You need not read Sleeping Beauty to understand Snow White, and vice versa, even though they share a continent.

What I'm Hoping For: 

I am hoping for that oomph. The je ne sai quois. My last manuscript (the second I wrote) received lots of full requests, each ultimately rejected for a different reason. There is no fatal flaw, except that nobody really connected with it. I want help figuring out how to fill that gap.

I'm willing to change just about everything. Pacing, specific events, characterizations, dialog, magic system, creatures, even the "twists" along the way. I'm willing to change it to present tense, if somebody really thinks that will work. Character names, the title, all of it is up for grabs.

I won't consider changing the POV or format, even though it's unusual. I won't change my ending, even though it's not a Happily Ever After. It has to be bittersweet. It won't work any other way. I tried. Three times.

I'm hoping for a mentor that will read it, give me notes, and be willing to discuss them a little bit afterward. Then possibly read through a tricky scene or two when it comes time to actually, you know, pitch the darn thing.

What I'm NOT Expecting: 

I'm not expecting to get in, honestly. We have, what, a 6% chance of getting in? Them's slim odds...

I'm not expecting someone to shower praise on me.

I'm not expecting a lot of feedback if I don't get in. Crossing my fingers and hoping for a "I didn't pick you because of this one thing you can fix, sorry". That would be amazing.

I'm not expecting someone to hold my hand through these revisions. I'm not expecting someone to do a ton of copy-editing and proofreading for me. I'm not expecting someone to read my book four times between now and November.

So that's it. That's me.

Thank you for doing this, for giving of your time and your talent, for helping others get better. The hashtag has been exceptionally helpful, seeing tips and hints for how to improve. I'm so grateful to everyone who has put in their time to make this contest happen. Even with a 94% chance of not getting in, I've had one heck of a time thus far :)


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bad Query Contest

Dear Agents,

In a world where magic has been almost completely eliminated, I am Soozziey, a sorceress hiding in plane sight from those who would do me in. I have a problems that can only be solved by one person who's name is Chahruls - The Chosen One.

Have you ever wondered what would you do if you had to convince someone to help you when they have no reason to help you at all?

Chahruls and Soozziey travel through the kingdom of Farafel, escaping from legions of Scrapellium soldiers and meeting the Grungle creatures of the Redoin Realm. Jyssyie and Eric are there too for some reason. And summer is coming.

As we go about our adventures we run into all kind of trouble and problem and we sort of get attracted to each other... I don't know its confusing. You'll have to read the book to really know what I'm talking about LOL.

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE TRUE STORY OF HOW I FINISHED MY QUEST - A FICTION NOVEL is an adult fantasy romance western adventure story and is complete at 47,561 words. This is book one of a five book series.

I would say this book would probably appeal to readers of all kind, but mostly to fans of HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT, THE DA VINCHI CODE, and GATSBY, the movie, not the book because I didn't read that book LOL.

I am currently completing the revisions ofthis novel but will gladly send you chapters as I finish them, one at a time. I have attached the first five chapters, each one in there own pdf documents. I know your submission guidelines says three chapters, but I have finished five and you're definitely gonna want to see all five that are so far done.

Please call me when you have time to discuss this and negotiate your roll in making this novel a bestseller and then someday a movie that stars Charlize Theron.

I have been writing since I was two-years-old and have taken, like, five community college classes on writing, if you count my English 101 class.

Thank you and godspeed.

- Gina Denny
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This terrible query has been brought to you by the Best Bad Query contest hosted by Sharon Bayliss. Head over to her blog to see the other entrants

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I met Brandon Sanderson and was a huge dork.

I went to Storymakers in April, and it was awesome (and part of me is sure I'll get around to writing a wrap-up post about it... sometime).

Part of the conference was an enormous book signing, including two of the biggest guests in attendance: Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson.

I got to meet Orson Scott Card for a brief moment, but I was not a huge dork. My friend Ruthanne was... but that's not really my story to tell, so I'll let her tell it if she wants to.

I did, however, meet Brandon Sanderson and let me tell you this, it was spectacular. For you all, I mean. Not for me. Here's the story:

I bought STEELHEART and stood in line to meet Sanderson. I decided I was gonna play it cool and not be a big, nerdy fangirl. So, you know. Just "I'm a fan." No claims of being his "biggest fan" or gushing or anything like that.

So, I sidled up to the table (cuz I'm cool, remember?), handed him my book and let him do his sharpie-marker-thing. We exchanged brief pleasantries, he marked up my book, and then the following conversation happened:

Me: "I'm a big fan of Writing Excuses."
Sanderson: "Oh really, that's great!"
Me: "Yeah."
Sanderson, looks up at me, makes a finger-gun sort of gesture: "You're out of excuses..."
Me: "Uh... ah... it's time to write."

*headdesk**headdesk**headdesk**headdesk**headdesk**headdesk**headdesk*

In case you're not a fan of Writing Excuses, the signoff goes like this -

"You're out of excuses, now go write."

Sanderson has been saying this at the end of each episode for, like, seven years or something. So that's literally hundreds of episodes that I've listened to with that tagline. And when I had the chance to exchange lines with the creator of the tagline...

I blew it.

I not only said it wrong, but I hesitated, and I used multiple vocal pauses before I said it incorrectly.

So much for being a "big fan of Writing Excuses" eh?

Tell me a time you did something dorky, make me feel better. Please?


Saturday, May 24, 2014

#YesAllWomen

Trigger warning: Sexual violence and everything related to it. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Every time there is a heavily publicized act of violence against women just for being women, there is an inevitable backlash of "Hey, come on. Not all men..."

"Not all men are jerks."
"Not all men treat women that way."
"Not all men are violent psychopaths."

And the resounding answer is always: DUH. 

We all know that NOT ALL MEN ARE ______________. We know. But the reason we need to talk about violence against women is because even though not all men are violent psychopaths, all women have to learn the difference between a violent psychopath and a regular guy. 

That's how the #YesAllWomen hashtag started. It tells the story of how every woman has been subjected to the actions of this small, minority group of men. Those who are jerks, those who do treat women that way, and those who are violent psychopaths. 

Hashtag Slacktivism rarely accomplishes anything. In fact, it almost always accomplishes nothing. But in this particular case, it accomplished exactly the thing it set out to accomplish. 

It shared our stories. 

Because every woman has a story about being a victim. Every woman has a story of a time when she needed to decide between fight and flight. The statistics on sexual violence are disturbing, but the biggest problem is that (to some people) they are still shocking. 

There are still people who DON'T BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. 

There are still people who don't believe that one out of six women 

ONE OUT OF SIX WOMEN 

will be victims of a rape or rape attempt in their lifetime. 

This doesn't take into account any of the other forms of sexual assault. Cat calling is sexual assault. Following a woman, shouting sexual advances at her is sexual assault. Uninvited sexting is sexual assault. Groping is sexual assault. Forced kissing is sexual assault. Sexual intimidation is sexual assault. Sex by coercion is sexual assault.

Most women and girls who experience these attacks never tell anyone. 

In addition to the countless (literally, I cannot count high enough) times I've been cat-called, followed, and groped, I was physically assaulted at the age of nineteen. I was lucky. It wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been, and I felt grateful for my "escape" from my "date" even then. Do you know how many people I've told before now?

Three. 

My husband knows my life, but before I ever told him, I told my parents. I downplayed it to them the night it happened, the night I came home disheveled, crying, and my face covered in angry red marks. "It's not a big deal," I told them. "I don't need to talk about it. I'm fine."

Look at that sentence: 

"It's not a big deal."

And frankly, it isn't. Not technically. It's so common, it's so normal, it's boring. Nobody cares, nobody wants to hear. When I sit in my book club, and there are twenty women in the room, odds are that there are at least two or three others in the room who have experienced worse than what I experienced. That's how not-a-big-deal-it-is. 

But even though these events are so common and normal, there are still people who think they don't even happen. There are people who think women are blowing things out of proportion, or that our fear is unfounded, that it can't possibly happen to anybody in this neighborhood or on this campus. 

BUT IT DOES. 

It happens all the time, and it happens in every city, every town, every college campus, every bar in this country. Nothing protects us from sexual violence. Nothing makes us exempt. 

But something can give us a voice. 

The #YesAllWomen hashtag showed all women everywhere that they are not crazy. They are not alone. They are not "dirty" or "broken" for experiencing these things. Women are not wrong for thinking of their own safety and they are not wrong for trying to protect themselves in mundane situations. 

The #YesAllWomen hashtag showed all men everywhere that this stuff does happen. If you're one of the men who doesn't perpetrate the violence, great. Wonderful. Superb. I'm not being sarcastic when I say: THANK YOU. 

But being not guilty isn't enough. You need to know that this is true. You need to know, when a woman confides in you, tells you the terrible thing that happened in her past, that she's not lying. You need to know that when your girlfriend comes home, trembling with fear because she was followed, her fear is rational. You need to know that this happens, it happens a lot, and we have every reason to be afraid. 

Not All Men are jerks. Not All Men treat women that way. Not All Men are violent psychopaths. 

But all women have lived their lives in fear of sexual violence, or retribution for not being interested. 

#YesAllWomen have dealt with the repercussions of sexual violence. All of us. 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I didn't create this hashtag, I don't want to take credit for it. It was started by my friend, Kaye, who is seriously wonderful in many ways. This topic surfaced as a result of one particularly heinous act of violence, which was a result of many factors (mental illness playing a big part, I have no doubt), but this topic should be at the forefront of our discussion all the time. This should not be shocking. No one should feel dismissed when their fears are justified.

EDITED TO ADD: This isn't necessary to the point of this post, but I want to be sure everyone knows that my parents disagreed with me. They thought it was a very big deal, and they were 100% on my side. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Frozen and the Female Psyche

Along with most of America, we bought FROZEN on DVD a couple weeks ago. Once at-home viewing was possible, a lot more men (dads) were seeing this movie, and many of them took to the internet to express their displeasure.

I'm pretty sure I know the reason: They aren't women.

Stay with me, this isn't a "girls like sparkly dresses and cutesy songs" thing. It's a lot deeper than that, and Disney deserves a lot of credit for finally tapping into the thing they've tapped into here.

In case you're part of the tiny population who doesn't know, I'll give you the short version (Spoilers... just in case): Elsa has a magical power to create snow and ice with her hands. She's young and can't control it, but she's told to hide it at all costs. Literally, all costs. She locks herself in her room, never speaking to anyone or doing anything because she's terrified of letting anyone see who she is or what she's capable of.

Eventually she cracks, putting on a dazzling display of power, creating life (sound familiar?), and proclaiming that she doesn't care what others are going to say.

Here's why I think men don't really see the power of this metaphor:

These men have never been told to pretend to be incapable.*

They've never been told that they'll be more attractive if they are helpless.

They've never been told that being smart is intimidating and nobody will want to date them if they're too smart.

They've never been told that their feelings are completely irrational and should be hidden at all costs. Yes, men are encouraged to appear "strong" and keep their "girly" feelings hidden... but that in and of itself should say something: Hide your girly feelings. Girly feelings are bad. Imagine if all your feelings are girly. 

I've heard all these things. I've done all these things.

I've pretended not to know things because I didn't want to appear contrary, even though the guy I was talking to was so stupidly, epically wrong, it took actual physical self-control to restrain myself.

I've pretended to be totally helpless because I could tell the guy felt good about being able to "teach" me how to use a Dremel. I wanted him to associate good feeling with being with me, and so I pretended not to know what I was doing.

I've pretended not to know my way around a gym, a music store, or a mosh pit (I was an expert in all three).

I've pretended to be weaker, stupider and more vapid than you can imagine.

And it worked.

Every time, it worked. Every time I pretended to be weaker than I was, it drew more men to me**. Not creepy, rapey sort of men. Nice guys, the kind of guys you're willing to take home to mom. Every time I pretended to be stupid, people liked me more. Men and women both are much, much nicer whenever I pretend to not know answers and say "I just don't get it" or "I don't understand."

This is why FROZEN speaks to women on a level that most men can't understand. The lyrics to "Let it Go" speak very specifically to our experiences and every one of us has to have Elsa's breakthrough at some point. We all have to actively decide that we are going to be strong, smart, and not care if that means we're alone.

This is what Disney finally tapped into and this is why women are reacting to this movie more strongly than men are.

* I know this won't apply to all men, but that it applies to those who don't "get" FROZEN. 


**I'm very lucky. My husband is not one of these guys. He knows what I'm capable of and he loves me for it. He knows how smart I am, how much I value learning, and he encourages me and is my partner in this. He's wickedly smart in his own right and isn't the slightest bit intimidated by a woman knowing the answer to a question he asks. 



Click the picture to be taken to the artist's site.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Disappointing Endings and Who Owns the Creation

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER ended this week. I'm sure you heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth, no matter where in the world you were.

Last fall, ALLEGIANT, the final book in the DIVERGENT trilogy was released. And again, you probably heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth over that one, too. Though it probably wasn't as concentrated; a book takes a little longer to consume than an episode of a television show.

Both stories ended with a somewhat controversial ending, and ending that some said was inevitable, and others said was no better than a trick. A trick based on a lie. A trick based on a lie with the intent to mock the audience's pain.

I disagree.

Both stories delivered on the promise they made at the beginning.

(Spoilers abound. Not little ones. Big ones. Turn back now. I'm not kidding. I'm going to ruin both of these things for you after the jump.)




HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER promised us that Ted would get a happy ending. They gave us a happy ending. Twice. Ted got everything he wanted out of life, more than most people get. Yes, there was sadness mixed in (some even say it was a tragedy), but the actual ending was happy. A happy ending, following a big personal tragedy? That's definitely more than most people get.

DIVERGENT promised us that being a divergent was really, really dangerous. They gave us danger. So much danger that the divergent girl dies.

These may not have been the promises you wanted them to fulfill, and they may not have been the ones you had envisioned for yourself after waiting years for them to come to fruition, but they are the promises made by the storytellers themselves. These writers wrote the stories they envisioned, in the way they envisioned them.

And I'm going to tie this all back to Harry Potter.

Back in February, Rowling made some comments to the effect that she would change the ending of Harry Potter if she had the chance. Again with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Everyone just about lost their damn minds because she was trying to change the story that was already out there. Rowling was trying to mess with what she had already put to paper, what she had already signed off on and said "DONE" to.

It's not dissimilar to what George Lucas is hated for.
Lucas created STAR WARS, put it out into the world and then came back twenty years later and changed what he'd put into the world. He tried to alter what was already in existence, tried to take back what he'd given us.

But it was too late. STAR WARS and HARRY POTTER already belonged to the public by the time their creators tried to amend the stories, angering their fans.

But HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and DIVERGENT were still in the hands of their creators. Until that book is published, until the tv show airs, until the movie premiers, that story belongs to the creator. Period.

You can hate it.

But it's not wrong. It can't be. It's what the creator envisioned for it. Ted's story ended exactly as it should have, as did Tris's. If the creators of these stories come back in five or ten or thirty years and say "I should have done it differently," THAT is when I am going to get mad. Because now the story belongs to us. It's out of their hands, and it belongs to the public.

And for the record - I really like how both ended. They were - excuse me, they are - the right endings for those stories.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Signs you need to stop reading YA

I love me some YA fiction. John Green, Cinda Williams-Chima, Suzanne Collins, Tahereh Mafi, Dan Wells, Robison Wells, Scott Westerfeld, Lauren Oliver... this list could get long. Young adult fiction - fiction aimed at teenagers, and specifically high school students - captures a very exciting time of life. Good YA fiction deserves all the accolades and attention the category has been receiving over the last several years.

If you've been scoffing at YA, dismissing it all as "Twilight Wannabes", you might want to check it out.

But most people who are reading this blog aren't on the YA-scoffing-bandwagon, and I think it might be important to note that there might be signs that you need to take a break from YA fiction.

And this is a totally serious list. I'm tired of being at book club or a mom's group and hearing people insult a whole category of books for reasons that are not the books' fault.

- You get annoyed when characters make impulsive decisions. You know what kind of decisions sixteen-year-olds make? Impulsive ones. Seriously. Think back to when you were fourteen or fifteen years old, and think of your favorite memories. Disgusting games in a diner? Chinese fire drills? Ditching history class? Drawing on your sneakers? Coloring your hair purple? Jack-in-the-Box trip in your pajamas? Now tell me how much planning and thought went into each of those moments.

- You're annoyed by insta-love. I know. I could probably put the word love in sarcastic air-quotes and call it insta-"love". Because you're right, an overwhelming majority of those teen couples won't last the year, much less a lifetime. But I had my first boyfriend at sixteen. From our first kiss til we broke up and stopped speaking to each other forever, the entire relationship lasted a little over four weeks. And yes. It felt like a real relationship. It was dramatic and generated a lot of gossip and I probably thought I was in love.  So a teen character falling in "love" after only a few weeks of knowing someone... not so weird.

- You think the vocabulary is childish. Guess what? You have a Master's Degree in Psychology. The average target audience for these books? Yeah, they haven't taken their SATs yet. They don't know what "pedantic" or "erudite" or "antediluvian" means. This isn't an insult to teens, it's just a fact that most teens don't have a vocabulary to rival an adult with a postgraduate degree. If the "childish" language bugs you, the problem isn't with the words, I can pretty much guarantee that.

- You hate that the parents are always "missing". I'll admit: I want the parents/adults to be missing for a logical or plausible reason. But if the story is about a teen, then a teen needs to solve the problem in the story. She can't turn to her mom and get her mom to fix things.

- You think it's all derivative. If you've read LORD OF THE RINGS eight times, and the BELGARIAD twice as many, then you probably thought ERAGON was a rip off. But you know who hasn't yet read those 30-60 year old books? Teenagers. ERAGON introduced a whole new generation of kids to a genre that they might otherwise dismiss as "old" and "dull". You know why they keep remaking the movies you loved as a kid/teen? Because kids/teens today don't want to see old movies. They want to see new movies. And they want to read new books.

So, if you read DIVERGENT or TFioS or THE HUNGER GAMES and found yourself saying... well, all of these things, then maybe you're just not into YA. And that's okay. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

Here's what you're allowed to say when asked: "I didn't enjoy it. YA isn't really my thing."

Here's what you're not allowed to say: "It's so stupid. I don't understand why any sane person would read that junk. I mean, COME ON...<insert rant about the existence of a genre here>."

If people ask why you don't like YA, sure, you are welcome to talk about all the reasons it's not your bag. But please recognize that those reasons are your reasons. I don't read romance, just as a general rule. There are a dozen reasons why, and none of them make the genre "bad" - they just make it "not the genre for me".

So, hey, don't go bagging on a whole section of the bookstore just because it's not your thing. After all, you wouldn't insult every Italian restaurant in the country just because you don't enjoy tomatoes, would you?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Leave it Out

There's a pivotal scene in the second season of the Gilmore Girls. This scene is a catalyst for the shifting of some major relationships over the next several months, and the repercussions of this scene are felt directly by most of the main characters for the next twenty episodes or so.

In case you aren't a Gilmore Girls aficionado, let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up:

This is Rory:
Rory is a good kid. Straight A student, never been in trouble, thinks gin is brown, stuff like that.

At the time of the scene in question, Rory is dating Dean:
Dean is Mr. All-American. Plays multiple sports. Builds cars. Uses shop class to make jewelry for his girlfriend.

But Rory has a crush on Jess:
Jess also likes Rory. A LOT. Jess is also a Bad Boy. Skips school. Fights. Mouths off to authority figures. Listens to punk rock really loudly. But when it comes to Rory, he's a different guy. Around her, he's witty and intelligent and thoughtful.

Jess is the nephew of Luke:
Luke puts his neck out for Jess and it comes back to bite him in the butt. A lot.

Luke is friends with Lorelai, who is also Rory's mother:
Lorelai hates Jess. She hates him for all the reasons that mothers-of-teen-girls hate Bad-Boys-who-like-teen-girls.

While Dean is out of town, Rory is tutoring Jess. He doesn't need tutoring, he just wants to hang out with Rory. And she enjoys hanging out with him. They go for a drive. During that drive, he acts like a normal teen boy, driving competently but carelessly. Rory plays along and asks him to keep driving, instead of going back home to finish their homework.

And then they get into an accident.

But here's the kicker: We don't see the accident. 

We, the audience, don't even see the moments leading up to the accident, or a police officer describing the scene, nothing. We are given after-the-fact accounts from Rory and Jess, and we are given reactions from Lorelai and Luke.

You, the viewer, are forced to invent the narrative for yourself. You are forced to take what you know of the characters and sort out the truth and decide how you feel about everybody in the situation as a result.

You could believe Rory, who doesn't lie and says Jess didn't do anything wrong. But she's biased because she likes him.

You could believe Jess, whose story not only matches Rory's, but it also very plausible. But he has a vested interest in - and a history for - lying.

You could take Lorelai's side because she has a point: Jess is reckless and arrogant and dishonest and there's no real reason to believe him at all, ever. But she's sees nothing good about Jess, no matter what evidence is placed before her, and frankly, she felt the same way about Dean at the beginning, too.

You could take Luke's side because he knows Jess better than anybody else, but he also has been wrong before.
This scene puts a wedge between Lorelai and Luke, Lorelai and Rory, Rory and Jess, Rory and Dean, Rory and Luke, and Jess and Luke. It changes the way these characters all interact with each other for months and months, it sends Jess away from their town, it's the catalyst for every major relationship change over the next year.

But we never see it happen.

So what can we learn from this?

Sometimes you need to skip over the "important" parts. Sometimes that's what serves the story best. Harry kissing Cho. The "morning of" in GONE GIRL.

I'm sure there are more scenes like this, but they're hard to think of because their absence is just so... right.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bonus Think: Guffs and Snuvs in literary fiction

This story was inspired by one of the "Thinks" proposed by Dr. Seuss's "Oh the Thinks You Can Think!". If you are unfamiliar with the book, you can find an online version of it here. Every day from now through February 15th, I'll be posting a short story or poem based on one of the "Thinks" in the book. Enjoy! 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Back in my own room, I slam my fist into the wall. The wall may as well laugh at me for all the damage I have done.
My phone rings and I slide it from my pocket, hopeful.
It’s not Mullins, but I smile anyhow.
“Bennett! You’re home?”
“Almost. I’m ten minutes out on Highway six, headed your way. Want me to pick you up?”
“Oh God, please do. Everyone in this town is nutballs and I’m afraid it might be catching.”
Bennett is my boy best friend, the chromosomal opposite of Chrissy, but otherwise very like her. I used to think they should date, what with their similar interest in saving the world, but I’m glad it never happened. How would a break-up between the two of them affect my friendship with them both?
“Nutballs? Is that British?”
“No, it’s not bloody British.”
“Bloody is though. Bloody is bloody British.”
I laugh, and it feels good. I don’t think I’ve laughed once since my Mom called the Gladbury’s. 
“Priss, you need to sit down,” she’d said.
“I am sitting down,” I’d lied.
But then, she told me, and I wished I hadn’t lied. I wished I had sat down, because my legs went all wibbly wobbly and Mei had to shove a kitchen chair under me before I fell.
“Put on some make-up, and wear heels.”
“What for?”
“Because I’m giving up a night at a frat party with more hot college girls than a man can dream of to come home and take care of you. The least you could do is put on your hot chick costume for me.”
“You are such an arse.”
“British. Definitely British.”
Oh Bennett, I think. I am so glad you’re you.
It takes me fifteen minutes to change clothes and to dab on eyeshadow and lip gloss. That is about as made-up as I get. I do slide my feet into a pair of silver sandals with extra high heels. Honestly, the majority of the fifteen minutes is spent setting the new world record for fastest shaving of legs ever in the history of womankind. And not one nick on my pale skin. I don’t tan in the best of circumstances and London wasn’t exactly the best of circumstances sun-wise. 
“Bye,” I says when I walk past my brother’s spot on the couch. He’s still engrossed in his racing game, so he doesn’t actually look up, but I wave anyhow.
“I’m going out,” I call through Marly’s still-closed door.
No answer. I’m sure she’s disappeared back into her sad songs and mystery-tears.
Downstairs, Mom is sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by fabric swatches, her laptop open on a chair.
“I’m going out with Bennett,” I say to the back of her head.
“Have fun,” she replies. 
I wave at yet another person who doesn’t look up to see.
Dad isn’t home. Surprise surprise. I picture Investigator Mullins at home tonight, sitting at the dinner table with his wife and daughters, laughing. Rodney never knew how good he had it.
It’s not quite seven when I step onto the front lawn. It rained yesterday, releasing the grip of humidity just the tiniest bit. The grass is tall and the dirt is damp. My heels start to sink as I cross the grass to check the mail.
Nothing.
I hear Bennett’s car turn onto Gosling Circle, my street, and wave. For once, I get a wave in return. At least I’m not being ignored by everyone tonight.
As he pulls to the curb, he rolls down the window. “Hi, pretty lady? Going my way?”
I laugh and snatch the door open.
“God, it’s good to see you,” I say, planting a quick kiss on his cheek.
When we were little, Bennett and I thought we were cousins. He called my mom Aunt Abby and I called his mom Aunt Jillian, but we aren’t actually related. By middle school, we figured out that our mothers were sorority sisters, not biological sisters, both having been Chi Os in college.
“I’m glad you’re back in the states. An ocean is way too much water between us.”
“I should just be flying home today,” I remind him. 
“I’ll have to think Chris for bringing you back early.”
“That’s not funny.” My smile dissipates.
He frowns. “You’re right. Too soon.”
We go to the mall and land in the bookstore. This is another thing Chrissy and Bennett have in common. They’d both rather be rambling about a bookstore than doing just about anything else. No matter how many frat parties Bennett jokes about attending, he’s a nerd. He’s a rather well-built, green-eyed, perfect-skinned, ex-football playing nerd, but a nerd nonetheless.
“What’s that?” I ask. He’s holding a children’s book that’s been left behind on a shelf between volumes of poetry.
“Dr. Suess.” Bennett grins. “Remember this one?”
I step close enough to smell his Stetson, a scent I like to make fun of him for wearing, even if it does smell pretty good. He wraps his arms around me, pulling my back to his chest, and opens the book so we can both read.
“Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!” I find my smile again.
Doing his best impression of Morgan Freeman, which is pretty spot on, my friend reads to me from a childhood favorite. An elderly couple walks past and the woman has this soft sappy expression on her face, like she looks at us and sees her husband and herself a hundred years ago. It’s not like that though, Bennett and me. For starters, we thought we were related, remember? By the time we realized that was incorrect, Bennett had turned into one of the most handsome boys in school, only a year ahead of me in grades but lightyears advanced in getting through puberty. I’m not sure he ever had an awkward stage. By the time I noticed Bennett was a boy, every other girl in Iniwa had got there before me. For about a year, I pined silently, too afraid to even hint that my friendly feelings might have changed. And then I met Rob, and we spent most of high school as and on-again off-again couple, with a couple of other short relationships tossed in for good measure. I never loved any of them, no, but we had some fun times, and I’m glad I never ruined my friendship with Bennett over stupid middle school hormones.
“Remember the gruff?” The real live present day Bennett interrupts my memory of Bennett.
“The gruff?”
“My halloween costume, when we were kids.”
I look down at the open page. “Oh, yeah, everyone thought you were a teddy bear.”
“Yeah, I think it was a teddy bear costume, actually. Mom just made some additions and called me a gruff.”
“And you insisted I wear a yellow dress and pink gloves.”
“You were a snuv.”
“And no one had any idea what a snuv was. I was so mad at you, because I wanted to be Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz but Mom thought your idea was too adorable.”
“It was too adorable.”
“Don’t say that too loud. People might thing you’re not manly.”
“I’m super manly,” Bennett says, deepening his voice. “I’m the manliest man.”
Resting my head on his chest, I flip a page in the Dr. Suess book and remember how Chrissy was a kitten that halloween and she got to wear pink ears and a tail.
“How did my pink kitten friend become the Deadly Diva?” I almost gag on the nickname.
I feel Bennett’s whole body tense behind me, and then he sighs.
“I wish I knew.”
“Did you see her at all? While I was gone, I mean.” I step away to look at his face, and he drops the book back onto the shelf, towering over Emily Dickinson’s collected works.
“Yeah, a few times. I promised you I’d check on her, so I did.”
“And? What was she like? Was anything off?”
“Not at first, no.” Bennett takes my hand and leads me down rows of books toward the cafe at the front of the store.
“But, eventually? Something was wrong?”
“Yeah, I guess. I mean, there was nothing I could put my finger on. But she’d broken up with Morgan and she kept saying it was because he bought a gun, but that just seemed ridiculous.”
“Which part seemed ridiculous? Morgan owning a gun or Chrissy breaking up with him over it?”
“Both, honestly. Morgan’s changed a lot too, yeah, but he’s still Morgan. And I can’t really picture him shooting with anything but a camera.”
“Since when is Morgan into photography?” I pick a table in the back corner and sit down. The chair is wobbly, the back right leg loose or broken.
“He’s not. It’s just something I heard someone say… shooting pictures, shooting movies, never shooting people.”
I rest my chin in my hands and watch Bennett arrange his thoughts. It shows on his face when he’s thinking deep thoughts. His eyebrows are thick and dark brown and they go crinkly like lightning when his brain is hard at work. His eyes look darker too, the brown around the edges of the pupil thickening.
“I hate guns as much at Chris does… did. But, I wouldn’t end a relationship over gun ownership. I mean, it’s not like Morgan ever shared her views to begin with, right?”
I close my eyes and remember Chrissy in her red and gray stripes in the interview room yesterday, that unexplainable crown of golden hair.
“I don’t know, Bennett. I don’t know anything anymore.”
He reaches across the table and touches my arm. I open my eyes and sniffle, not willing to let go and cry right now. Not here, in front of strangers. And classmates. I can see at least three kids from school trying to watch Bennett and me without getting caught. I haven’t wanted to go out a lot, for this reason. I’m the Deadly Diva’s best friend, so people want to gawk at me. One lady even accused me of being an accessory to the crime. According to one source, the news says, Chris Corbett and undisclosed others planned to start by blowing up the school and then move on to the rest of Iniwa. Right. There weren’t any bombs in that school. The police have found nothing to suggest Chrissy had any plans beyond what she actually did. And, she turned herself in as soon as she was out of bullets.
“People are idiots.” I say.
“Yes,” Bennett offers a sad smile. “That much we know for sure.”
“Can we go back?”
“Back where?” 
“In time.” I watch while he plays with my fingers. I really need to take off the chipped blue polish. 
“To when?”
“Three weeks ago?” I suggest. “Three years? I don’t know. Forever. Until you are a gruff and I am a snuv and Chrissy is one in a million pink kitten costumed girls at the church fall fest.”
“It was easier being a gruf than a college student. I failed a class this semester.” 
“It was easier being a snuv,” I agree. “It was easier when pink kittens didn’t shoot guns.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Heather Truett writes literary fiction, poetry, and other things with deepness and feelings (I fear that sounds sarcastic, but it's not - her words are beautiful). She blogs at Madame Rubies and Middle Places. She lives in the deep American South where she's labors tirelessly to raise her children to be even half as awesome as she is. She tweets and you should tell her that her butt looks good in jeans. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Think #20: Left, Right, Low, High

This story was inspired by one of the "Thinks" proposed by Dr. Seuss's "Oh the Thinks You Can Think!". If you are unfamiliar with the book, you can find an online version of it here. Every day from now through February 15th, I'll be posting a short story or poem based on one of the "Thinks" in the book. Enjoy! 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            
The hallways of Rockford Asylum were as sterile as they were hushed.  The orderly, a huge bald man with a crease where his neck met the back of his head, marched Simon past closed door after closed door.   Room 18, 20, 22.  Judging by the hallways they were taking and the absurdly late hour, they were going to the behavioral ward.
           
Again.
           
Simon yawned and stared up at the back of the man’s head.  He was so tired.  It would be so easy to make it all stop.  He shook his head, rubbing the long cut on his hand.  No.  That wasn’t the answer.  He couldn’t let them win so easily.
           
They turned down another bland white hallway.  51, 53, 55.  He spotted the same scuff on the door of room 55 that had been there for months.  It was odd, that in this compulsively sanitary building, that stain had been left for so long.  Maybe it was supposed to be a reminder.  A warning. 
            
Or maybe the janitor wasn’t getting paid enough.   
            
“So, are you taking me to the beach?  Or, no, I got it, to see the circus?  Man, I’ve always wanted to see the elephants and stuff.  Idiots sticking their heads in lion’s mouths?  Awesome.  I bet you’d be good at it.”
            
The orderly snorted, and the movement pinched his neck roll above his crisp white collar.
            
“So, you must be into some messed up stuff,” Simon continued, stifling another yawn.  “I mean, you knowingly allow a fifteen-year-old boy to be psychologically tortured for like twenty hours a day, every day.  That’s jacked up, man.”
            
The orderly tensed.  They were almost to the end of the hall.  Almost to the Think Room.
            
“But you don’t have to keep doing this anymore,” Simon pressed.  “You can just stall.  Give me five minutes, and I promise, I’ll make it worth your while.  You know I can.”
            
The giant stopped so suddenly, Simon crashed into him.  It was like crashing into a squishy wall, but a wall, all the same.  The guy started walking again, but Simon caught a low chuckle. 
            
You dick.
            
The orderly opened the solid, white metal door and grinned at Simon.  He had two wicked-looking cracked teeth beneath his dull blue eyes.  But he didn’t scare Simon.  If anything, it was the other way around.  Simon glared into the orderly’s eyes until the man’s smile shattered.
            
“Get in,” he said, shoving Simon into the room with a rough hand.  The door closed, leaving him with his eyes tightly closed, alone. 
            
Alone in the Think Room.
            
It didn’t matter that he’d been sent to this room nearly every day for the past two months.  The Think Room had a way of making him thankful that he’d already taken his daily dump.  It had a way of making him wish he were still in whatever nightmare he was having before they woke him from his allotted three hours of sleep.   
            
He was so tired.  He’d give a kidney for a single night’s sleep.  But he had to open his eyes.  Because he knew he was being watched, and if he showed weakness…
            
He forced his eyes open, and he was instantly bombarded by color, by screaming patterns and bold, terrible optical illusions.  And everywhere, the subliminal message beneath it all was so blatant to Simon, so loud, it may as well have been written in an enormous black sharpie on a plain white wall. 
            
THINK.
            
He looked all around the room, like usual, but it was the same thing everywhere.  Left and right, low and high: think, think, think, think.
            
Worst of all, though, was that stupid, decades old motivational poster on the back of the heavy door.  It bore the sinister, smiling faces of children whose eyes had been clawed out by the room’s previous victims.  And in cartoonish font, a word bubble came from the children’s mouths in an awful chorus Simon could almost hear.  “Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”
            
Oh, just end it all, already, the stowaway voice inside his head told him.
           
Shut up, he told Stowaway.
            
The speakers crackled, then a voice filled the room.  The distraction was almost a relief.  “Hello, Simon,” the voice said from everywhere at once.
            
Simon plopped to the padded floor, cross-legged.  “What’s up, Douche-Butt.”
            
The speaker tsked.  “Such language.”
            
“What do you expect when you kidnap a teenage boy?  I could scratch myself and fart for you instead, if you’d like.  And you would like that, wouldn’t you, Perv-Bag?”
            
Speaker didn’t take the bait.  “Simon, you know we didn’t kidnap you.  Your mother admitted you for the safety of your family.  Do you need me to remind you of what happened to your father?”
            
A drunken, enraged howl filled his mind for only a flash.  Simon winced.  He closed his eyes, blocking out the room, suppressing the sound of Stowaway’s cruel shouts and crazy, hateful laughter.
            
“Simon,” Speaker said, pulling him back.  “Haven’t you wondered about your mother?  About your poor sister?”
            
Of course, Simon thought.  What else can I do in this hellhole?  It’s not like you let me sleep—
            
“Your mother has told everyone that you died in the same, er, accident that took your father.  But you suspected that.  The day she admitted you, you felt her relief that she didn’t have to lock you in your room any longer, that she wouldn’t have to cry out in the night for you to spare her.  You knew it then, didn’t you?  That she wished you were dead?”
           
With his eyes shut, sitting in blackness, he could almost let this go.  Could almost let the words bounce off of him and be all I’m rubber, you’re glue.  But the taunts increased. 
            
“And your sweet sister, Pippa.  Well, I’m sorry to say that Pippa may have some of your…talents.  She was admitted for observation at one of our sister facilities.  Your mother thought it best.”
            
“My mother is weak!” Simon yelled, instantly cursing himself.  But it was true.  If she hadn’t been so weak, always letting the worthless drunk come home, cowering in the corner while he yelled and cursed and kicked—
            
Stop it! he ordered himself.  But just thinking of him made Stowaway’s voice rise again.  He was shouting at Simon.  Raging and roaring and fighting to be heard.
            
“Si-mon,” Speaker sang.  “Oh, Si-mon.” 
            
Simon’s eyes flew open, and the room seemed to attack him.  For a brief moment, he didn’t know where or when he was.  He didn’t know if he was at home, getting wailed on, if he was tripping on some horrible drug they’d dosed him with, or if he was having a vivid, Technicolor nightmare.  “Si-mon,” Speaker said again, invading his hell. Simon clung to the voice, letting it drag him back to safety.  Back to the Think Room.
            
How had he let himself go down that rabbit hole?
            
He shook his head.  “Enough.  We go over the same thing every day, and every day, I go back to my room.  And. You. Lose.  You must have had a lot of practice with rejection in high school to be at this for so long.”
            
“That’s cute, Simon,” Speaker said.  “But we’ve only just begun our fun together.  If you think you’re tired now, just imagine what more we can do to you.”
            
“See?  Here you are, flirting again.”
            
Speaker laughed.  It was a hollow, yet tinny sound that was neither high nor low.  It circled all around him, sounding genuinely delighted.  “Wonderful,” Speaker said.  “Such resilience.  I’ve never seen a mind like yours before, Simon.”
            
“Buddy, you still haven’t seen a mind like mine.  You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
            
“Oh, but I do, Simon.  I do.”
            
The tone was too earnest.  Almost breathless.  Simon shuddered and adjusted his legs under his butt.  “What do you mean?” he asked, wishing he didn’t sound so…nervous. 
            
Speaker chuckled.  “I’m not sure you want the truth here, but then, you aren’t like other children, are you?”
            
A chill ran up Simon’s back.  He stared at those mindless, eyeless kids on the back of the poster.  No.  I’m not. 
            
“How did you get that cut on your hand, Simon?”
            
He frowned, looking at the exposed gash. From the floor, the subliminal THINK screamed at him.  From his mind, Stowaway yelled.  He flinched and rubbed his sandy eyes.  “My dad.”
            
“That’s right.  Your sister thought maybe your father cut you with a broken bottle when you tried to protect her.  Is that what happened?”
            
If only, Simon thought, but he growled out, “Yes.”
            
“Does it hurt when you touch it?”
            
He refused to give Speaker the satisfaction of an answer.  But, yes.  It still hurt, whether he touched it or not.  It hurt all the time.
            
“Why hasn’t it healed, do you suppose?  After so long, what keeps it sore and festering?”
            
The walls were getting louder, the swirling and spiraling illusions trying to turn him, trip him, drown him. “Maybe it’s me,” Simon said, low. “Maybe I don’t want to let it heal.”
            
“Why would you do that to yourself, Simon?”
            
He shook his head, trying to stave off the visual assault.  But the message was so loud.  THINK.
            
“Why?”  Speaker’s demanding voice besieged him.  The question echoed, bouncing off the already deafening walls.  But instead of fading, it just kept getting louder.  “Why, Simon?  Why?  WHY?”
            
He jumped to his feet and turned around the room, yelling at Speaker from all sides, like Speaker did to him.  “Because maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to heal, okay?  Maybe no one who’s done what I did should!”
            
The room went silent.  Simon looked up, and gone were the images on the wall and floor and ground, replaced by something far, far worse.  Covering every inch of the ten-by-ten room was one word, scrawled over and over again:
            
THINK.  THINK.  THINK. 
            
It was written in tiny, scribbling letters and huge, blocky ones, slanted, semicircular, downward and up. 
            
And it was all written in blood.         
            
Simon backed up against a wall, then recoiled.  Because when he brushed up against it, the blood from the words rubbed off on him.  On his white shirt, his pants, his bare arms.  Blood was everywhere.  He screamed and wanted to fall to the floor, but it was there, too.  He was stepping on it with his bare feet. 
            
“Why are you doing this?” he cried, his voice seeming to split.
            
“Why are you letting us?” Speaker asked softly.  Its voice sounded almost sad, like it was trying to soothe him.  To help him.  “Why shouldn’t you be allowed to heal, Simon?  You killed your attacker.  You killed the man who beat you and your sister and your mother.  You did nothing wrong.”
            
Tears burned his eyes.  He stared down at his hands, covered in the blood of a million murderous thoughts.  But not the blood of his father.  A chuckle escaped him.  A low, menacing laugh that sounded nothing like his, but one he couldn’t quite stop.  Not even now.  After more than two months.
            
“Is that what you think happened?  You think I killed him?”
            
Speaker sighed.  “We know you did, Simon.  We saw the crime scene, the autopsy reports. And poor Pippa told us what you did.  He was hitting her, and you hit him to lure him away, into another room.  And then, well, we know what happened.  At first, we focused on how you…threw your bed through the roof.”
            
Stowaway’s heavy presence filled Simon’s mind, wanting to laugh again.  Wanting to call Speaker a fool, to say there was so much more to it than that.  Simon breathed, straining to keep Stowaway’s voice buried. 
            
“Yet, the odd part,” Speaker continued, “was that despite the fact that your father must have outweighed you by what, eighty pounds?  You didn’t have a single scratch or bruise apart from the first one he gave you, the one from the bottle…a bottle we never found, oddly.  Even odder, though, is that your father’s body was fine, too.  Completely unharmed.  But his mind…” Speaker gave a ragged exhale.  Was that excitement?  “All that, on top of the other reports we had on you from your school and neighbors, stories of strange things happening, things moving…”
            
Simon bowed his head and rubbed his temples.  He was so tired.
            
“I didn’t kill my dad.”
            
“Enough lies, Simon.  You didn’t harm his body, you left him brain dead.  Your mother may have pulled the plug, but you killed him.”
            
If only, Simon thought.                      
            
Stowaway bellowed at him, mocking his naïve longing.
            
Shut up, Simon said. 
            
“We know what you are, Simon,” Speaker said.
            
“Do tell,” Simon muttered.  His face was in his palm, and he was still massaging his temples.  He had to stay calm. 
            
“You’re a Stochastí̱s,” Speaker said in an awed tone.  “A Thinker.”
            
And Simon laughed, then.  A sharp, barking sound that was all his.  “You’re right.  I am a Thinker.  But you’re wrong, too.  I didn’t kill my dad.”
            
“Simon,” Speaker chastised.  “Where do you think you are?  Who do you think you’re talking to?”
            
“I’m at Rockford Asylum, and I’m talking to a creep from some military agency, if I had to guess, who has a thing for teenage boys.”
            
“No!” Speaker yelled.  Simon smiled.  He’d finally gotten to him.  “Do you think this is some kind of game, Simon?  That we’re just playing around?”
            
“Aw, are you saying you don’t like me?”
            
“Enough!” Speaker roared, and the room itself seemed to shake.  “Show me.”
            
A trickle of sweat ran down Simon’s cheek.  He dropped his voice.  “Show you what?  What really happened to my dad?”
            
“Whatever you want.  Show me what you can think up.”
            
A chill ran over him.  He walked in a circle with all the bravado he could muster, sneering and clapping to the camera.  “Bravo, man.  Really, well done. I expected a few weeks, but two months?  You should have gotten to the point a long time ago.”
            
“Enough blustering, Simon.”  Speaker said, sounding harsh and commanding.  “Show me.”
            
Suddenly, the whole room came back to life.  He was drowning in illusions, suffocating on colors, choking on patterns that seemed to be around him and over him and in him.  He crouched down to the floor, covering his head with his arms.
            
“Show me!” Speaker roared.
            
“THINK!” the walls screamed.  “THINK!  THINK!  THINK!”
            
And Stowaway let out a brutal, taunting laugh that made Simon scream to shut it out.  To keep it in.
            
The world was too loud.  There was too much going on.  And this full body cacophony, this assault on his senses…he had to make it stop.  He could end it all.  He had to end it all.  Had to shut up the violent laugher in his head.
            
Simon exploded to a stand.  “Stop!” he screamed.  He stared at the roof of the Think Room and blew it clear off.  Gone. 
            
Fresh, cool air caressed Simon.  “Wonderful,” Speaker gasped.  “We hardly dared hope for such power.”
            
You want power? Stowaway laughed.
            
Shut up! Simon thought, looking up at the clear sky and breathing.
            
The stars winked at Simon.  Stowaway didn’t shut up.  This raw burst…Simon wished it was enough.  But it wasn’t.  It never had been.  He never could control the hunger for power that overcame him.  Not when his dad taunted him and threw things at him and told him to think up beer and money and drugs for him.  Simon had thought the power trip was the biggest drawback of his “gift.”  But he was wrong.  He’d learned that the hard way just over two months ago.
            
And now that Simon had tasted it…that surge…he wanted more.
            
And Stowaway’s psychotic laughter just grew louder.
            
“More, Simon,” Speaker said.
           
 “No,” he begged, forcefully restraining his will.  His desire. “You don’t know what you’re asking.” 
           
 “Show me more, Simon.”
            
Yes, show him, Simon, Stowaway dared.
            
He was just so tired.  And so…hungry.  The room wouldn’t shut up.  Speaker’s voice wouldn’t shut up.  And now Stowaway wouldn’t shut up, either. 
            
Show him, Stowaway goaded.  Like you showed meHe wants to see it.  He’s begging for it.
            
“Please,” Speaker breathed, sounding reverent.  Perverted.  “Show me, Simon.  Then we’ll let you rest.”
            
Simon looked up at the stars, a slow smile creeping across his face.  “Are you sure?”
            
“Yes,” Speaker whispered.
            
“You want to know what I can think up?”
            
“Yes.”  It was almost a prayer.
            
“You.”
            
Speaker fell silent.
            
Then through the intercom, Simon heard the distinct sound of a body crumpling on the floor.   He took a long, deep breath, humming with pure, unadulterated power.  It was beautiful. Then a laugh burst from his mouth.  A new laugh, though one he recognized. 
            
He closed his eyes and breathed, quelling the glee, the mania that threatened to bubble up and take him over.  Sorry, pal, Simon thought.
            
With so much power expended, he wanted more than ever to sleep.  Holy hell, did he want to sleep. 
            
The temptation to blow off a little more power, though…eh, he’d just sleep better if it was spent.
            
He opened his eyes, and looked at the door.  It burst open.  Not just open, it smashed through the opposite wall, exposing the hallway to the sweet night air.  Simon smiled and left the room to see the orderly standing agape.  He looked like a jackrabbit, one too fat to bolt.     
            
“Go,” Simon Thought.  The orderly’s body lifted into the air and was hurled into the Think Room.  Simon Thought up a new roof and wall around the man. 
            
“Yeah, suck it,” he mumbled.
            
He walked through the hallways, Thinking the stain gone from room 55.  Clean.  He liked that.  Then he Thought all the walls in the asylum gone.  The doors stayed, though.  Just random doors with no walls.  No, there shouldn’t be a roof, either.  No roof, no walls.  Just floors and doors.  Ha!  He rhymed!  Floors and doors.  Nice.   
            
He turned the hall, spent, but reveling in the cries and squeals and prayers of shocked inmates as they awoke to freedom.  Everywhere, people ran around their doors, scattering past him into the night as he took the moonlit path to his room. 
            
At his door, he reached a hand out to turn the knob, and he saw a long, fresh cut on his hand…right below the first cut.
            
Wonderful, the new voice in Simon’s mind said.  Speaker’s voice.
            
Don’t act so impressed, you idiot, Stowaway said.
            
Simon sighed.  Speaker, meet Stowaway.  Stowaway, this is Speaker.
            
Stowaway growled.  Is that anyway to introduce your father?

Shut up, Simon told him.  Both of you, just shut up.
            
Simon stumbled through his exposed room as the sound of dark laughter bounced around in his mind.
            
He fell down onto his bed.
            
And slept.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Katy White is a Janeite, Muggle, Whovian, foodie, and BYU fanatic who writes ridiculously cute YA contemporary and YA fantasy.  Although Canadian, she loves watching BBC shows that help her perfect the nuances of her Mancunian accent and Suffex dialect.  She has eaten haggis but has only just learned how to order Mexican food.  She lives in Arizona with her pasty skin, freckles, and adorable daughter and husband.  She contributes to Mormon Mommy Writers and occasionally tweets.