Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Confronting Writer's Block . . .for Good!

As an editor, I can't tell you how often I hear writers talk about "writer's block". Over several decades of working with writers, I have come to believe there is no such thing. Rather, "writer's block" is a collection of issues that are usually very easily resolved. In particular, an editor you can trust comes in handy when you are trying to sort out why you can't seem to progress in a writer project. Furthermore, when a person doesn't seek help and/or is unable to resolve the conflict, they often put the work aside and it never gets finished. I wanted to take this blog to talk about some of those issues. I hope it proves helpful.

First, understand that every writer gets stuck. It's a normal part of a healthy writing process, and the mark of a writer who truly cares about the quality of their work. Discovering the cause sometimes takes some firm self-talk and some exploration into the subconscious. There are tricks to get to that. The brave, professional writer accepts that these temporary stalls are normal, and determines to work through them with the same enthusiasm applied to the actual writing itself.

Let's separate the chaff from the wheat: there is a proportion of "writers" who use "writer's block" as an excuse for laziness. These are those people who like to proclaim they are writing a book, but have no real idea how to do it, and more importantly lack the drive, commitment, and love of writing to get it done. They are the people who like thinking of themselves as a "writer" despite the fact they have finished nothing - they are after the adulation they imagine writers get; they want to be thought of as a special, creative sort of person with a terribly complicated inner life.  I have little patience with such people, not only because it's so phony - I feel they distract and subtract from what a real, dedicated writer does. Their posturing and pretense is insulting to the craft.

And writing IS a craft. It has to be practiced and honed, to be done well. I find that the best and most industrious really like the process of writing: they love the rush that comes from having written a passage and knowing it is well-done. They love counting their words every morning and evening and measuring progress, and watching the piece as it is molded into something with a life of its own. Mixed with feelings of triumph upon its completion, is a little sadness at letting it go out into the world. These people understand the process of birthing a book. I am addressing these kind of people - those who, despite loving the process, find themselves stuck without a clue why or how to get out of the rut.

These are the most common issues for a writer who can't move:
  • The plot structure is non-existent, sloppy, or simply needs reworked. 
  • The characters are not well-developed, and so the writer is unsure about their motivation.
  • The characters are very well-developed, and want to take the work in a different direction.
  • The narrative needs to be in a different voice. 
  • The wrong character is in the lead. (This is related to the point above.)
  • The spirit of your grandmother/parent/boss/spouse/Joe Public/God is reading over your shoulder.
  • You feel in over your head with a sex scene, a violence scene, or in the case of historicals, in terms of authenticity. 
Plot structure is a big one. The fact that your plot feels messy to you is a good thing: it is proof that you know enough to know a messy structure when you feel it. I'm not a big believer in "pantsing" - a word I really detest as an editor. Inevitably, when I work with a new writer who says they are a "pantser", the work is structurally a mess. (Experienced writers can get away with a little more chaos, because they know how to do the outline in their minds.) Again, writing is a craft. If you understand that as a writer, you respect that craft, and your own skill, enough to at least rough out an outline before you start. When you do, you see whether you actually have a plot or you need to work on the idea a little more. Although your outline will be altered as you work, its very existence from the beginning keeps you on track structurally. Often, when your structure starts to crumble, you give up a little and get stuck. If you don't see the road ahead, you stop, confused. The solution is to put the work aside and refer to your outline to see what isn't working. Or make an outline if you haven't. 

Characterization is a big issue in being blocked. I know several experienced writers who actually write out short bios of their main characters before they begin: even if they don't use all the material, they themselves have a good solid feel of who the character is as they write, and thus don't hesitate over motive. They instinctively know what this character wants and would do in a situation. When you try to push and pull and prod characters into directions that are illogical for them, you get stuck, and the work doesn't ring true.

Conversely, a very well-written character takes on a mind of his or her own and can insist on taking the writer in an unexpected direction. This happens commonly with experienced writers. The solution is to let them go. Fighting a strong character is a very common reason for a writer to feel stuck. "But that will change the whole plot!" So what? The end result could be brilliant, and will likely be better than your original plan. Trust your characters to take you in the right direction. If they are well-conceived to begin with, they will never be wrong. Think of it this way:  A great writer has deeply-developed characters from Chapter 1, then merely gets out of their way and lets them tell the story on their own terms. 

Wrong narrative voice.  I am currently working on a novel where I have changed voice four times. A lot of work? Absolutely! Frustrating? You bet! Enlightening? You have no idea. I don't regret a minute of it. This was my dilemma: First person lends an immediacy that took my reader into a past era in a very intimate way. On the other hand, limiting the voice to first person kept me from exploring other scenes involving other important characters in depth, since every scene has to come through this main character's perceptions. It's a complicated trick. I have her describing her brother's first experience in battle - and have to explain how and when and why he told her about it.  Ugh. I switched to third omniscient (too cold and removed), to limited third (better but still impersonal), back to first. I may end up in a sort of double first - switching voices between two characters. 

I have worked with dozens of writers who were struggling with a work. After talking to them about the story, I suggested they try another voice. When it works, it's magical. Sometimes when you feel you are struggling with a story - when it's hard to maintain the fire and care about the next chapter - when it all feels like a chore - you simply need to change voice. You should always feel the prose singing along. 

Wrong character in the lead. Oh boy. This is related to the above issue. Sometimes, the wrong character is in the lead role. Simply switching the point of view throws you into a new reality and that prose starts singing. Don't fight this idea - rewrite the first two or three scenes from a new character and see if it feels good.Try it. 

Critic over your shoulder. Even an experienced writer can fret over what people will think or say when the newest book hits the public. I have a golden rule for writers: Get it on paper, then worry about it in the edit. Just let that critic float away, and write from your soul, with the idea that not everything you write has to make it into the final draft. You'll be amazed how freely creative you will be. Chances are, when it comes time to remove some of it, you'll be so pleased with how it turned out that you'll risk the questions from Grandma. Or go to Plan B: Use a new pen name and Grandma won't know a thing! 

In over your head. This happens to the most experienced writers. With new writers, it's because once you begin to write a scene that is highly erotic, or very violent, or even very emotional, you have no idea how to come up with something that "sounds" remotely authentic. The truth is that these scenes are tough and take practice, and sometimes take guidance from an editor and/or experienced writer. 

I know a case in which a very experienced, talented writer, was confronted with writing a highly erotic scene in a novel because the plot demanded that it be shown. Her decision was a good one. Problem was, she wrote it - about two-thirds of the way into the book - like a porn scene. A bad one. Lots of dirty terms, moaning. You know what I mean. It was jolting to the reader, because up until that point the book had avoided eroticism. Plus, as I said - it was just bad. 

Now I have a theory as to why writers stumble over sex scenes: they are uncomfortable with it - and it is tough to do without some knowledge as to how to do it. I have another entire blog about writing sex here that you might check out. There is a way to do a graphic sexual scene that feels real, isn't porny, and doesn't hurt the quality of the book.

There is also a great way to do violence without making it sound overly-gory (thus amateurish - this isn't a video game for fourteen-year-old boys, after all!) or forced. But that also takes some knowledge and confidence, and perhaps guidance. 
People get into a lot of trouble with highly emotional scenes, particularly scenes with arguments or scenes with romance. The first ends up sounding illogical and forced and phony. The second can result in some hilarity: a scene between thirty-year-olds that plays and "sounds" like two fourteen-year-olds at a school dance.  

Sometimes you will feel stuck when you lack the background knowledge that you know will make the scene sound authentic. There are two things to do in this case: 1) Keep writing. Don't worry about how it plays right now - just get the bare bones of the scene written with the tools you have. You can add historical, forensic, or other details later when you have them. Then, 2) Go back and do the research, slowly and thoroughly. Enjoy it. Get excited about how you can work detail into the scene to give it an authentic feel. It isn't a chore to fill your head with authentic detail; rather, it's a fun challenge to make another world come to life for the reader. Watch how much the richness of that scene multiplies as you place those details here and there. Enjoy the process! 

In conclusion, let me say again as an editor and a writer, that when the method is sound, and you have given yourself great tools - organized plot, developed characters, researched setting, the correct narrative voice, freedom for the characters - the piece will write itself easily. It will sing along and you will enjoy the process of writing. This is how you should feel when you are working in a sound, healthy fashion. You should wake up in the morning thinking you can't wait to see what your characters can do next. If you find yourself hesitating to write forward - what we call "writer's block" - remember that you are hesitant for a reason. Don't feel defeated, but be proactive and out what that reason is. 

There is truly no such thing as writer's block - not in the sense that it is some magically paranormal roadblock suddenly thrown up in your way, and that you just can't conquer. NONSENSE!  You create every block for yourself by not using sound methods. Every. Single. One.  Knowing how to explore which of the above issues could be getting in your way is the road to taking control over your writing process, and throwing away the crutch of excuses so that you can really enjoy writing that book, beginning to end. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

When Abusive Women are Heroes

I've lately become hooked on the NBC show "Chicago P.D.", and during the past two months I've binge-watched six seasons of available episodes.  This is crazy for me, because I truly don't watch major network TV. At all.  But this show has been a pleasant surprise: great writing, great performances, grittiness without pandering to gratuitousness or smut - just good television.  Reportedly, real police advisers participate in all episodes to make sure the raids and shoot-outs look as amazingly realistic as they do. You all know me - I'm a sucker for action done well.

One character in the latter seasons, though, is keeping me up at night - and not in a good way. The character of Hailey Upton - a tough young cop who was meritously promoted to detective after a year on an undercover assignment (as opposed to by time on the job and/or conventional experience). She is the newest addition to the team.  Unfortunately she's also the most arrogant. The writers seem to have failed to give this decent actress the opportunity to flesh out a character - as I saw one astute fan online put it, she has three dimensions: angry, angrier, and bitchy.  And that's about it.  Is that what the writers think a strong woman looks like?

What disturbs me about the Upton character is two-fold:  I see a fan-base of millennial-age women cheering her as "ass-kicking", tough as nails, some sort of female hero icon; secondly, I see a societal trend toward some forms of abuse being acceptable by virtue of one's gender; like so many societal shifts, it is first illustrated in things like music and TV shows.

Hailey Upton, played by Tracy Spiridakos. 
Let me explain. This character is not a nice person. She's self-centered. She's rude. She's conceited. She is not a team player. Actually, she embodies a lot of the traits that we in the real world know would get us fired pretty fast.  I can hear the objections now: "But she's a Strong Woman!"  I would argue that she isn't that at all.  I think too many young women nowadays - as judging from their social behavior, the people they profess to admire, and the entertainment media they react to - think that excessive rudeness - particularly toward men - is being a "strong woman".  Call me old-fashioned, but I'm pretty sure that being a strong woman has something to do with things like self-control, generosity, compassion, humility and self-sacrifice, simple kindness.

But those traits are traits we traditionally think of as feminine. And because traditional forms of
feminine identity are now frowned upon, these traits aren't "cool" enough. That means that in place of things like self-sacrifice, compassion, empathy, self-control . . . young women have put aggression, intolerance (for anything they themselves deem not in keeping with their kick-ass view of things), controlling, self-aggrandizement, and impatience. They see a TV character who screams at men, "puts them in their place" (never mind that, as in the case of Hailey Upton, the men are usually just good men trying to do right in the world), and aggressively pushes her own agenda in peoples' faces, as the ideal woman.

Upton, no doubt bitching out Rusek (Patrick John Flueger) as usual. 
This is the most disturbing aspect of the Upton character:  the young male detective she is sleeping with - Adam Ruzek - bears the brunt of most of her abuse. She has zero patience with him, she reminds him of her superior rank, she insults him and his family members, she constantly browbeats and berates him at every turn. She displays no respect for him. The few moments she attempted to show any compassion for him were weak and nearly humorous, given her excessive bitchiness any other day of the week. A few episodes back, we have her pursuing him through the hallways, biting at his heels like a tenacious chihuahua, shrieking, "You're going to tell me what is going on RIGHT NOW!"  There just has to be a more mature, respectful way of communicating with a colleague than that.

The writers have not offered the male character so much as the opportunity to say to the little witch: "Look, your rank be damned, you speak to me like that again, this is OVER."  No.... he is simply expected to shake his head and take it.  Over and over and over.  I am angry about it as a fan, because it is so disrespectful to his character - who really would not take this. He's a gentleman - he'd give her the benefit of having a bad day the first time. But after that?

And this is my larger point:  Upton continues to perform what amounts to real emotional battering upon Ruzek, week after week.  And I guarantee, if we had a male character emotionally bash a female with whom he was sleeping, week after week - there would be a huge fan outcry.  He would not be seen as a "strong male".  He'd be seen as an abusive jerk.  And that is exactly what Hailey Upton is. But in the modern PC up-is-down  male-is-female wrong-is-right culture we are in, we can have a character abusing another and make a hero out of the abuser - just as long as the genders are arranged correctly. 

Dawson and Rusek, about to surprise some perps.
How have we come to a point where a woman who displays all the characteristics of a batterer, is a hero?  And that a man who is emotionally battered by her is expected to man up and take it?  This is progress? Seriously?  Again, call me old-fashioned, but abuse is abuse.  I don't enjoy watching it either way.  In my fan fantasy, I have Ruzek telling her off good and kicking her to the curb until she learns some manners.

Chicago P.D. is part of the NBC "Chicago One" series of shows, which also includes Chicago Med and Chicago Fire.  All three air Wednesday nights consecutively, with Chicago PD bringing up the finale. Chicago P.D. seasons 1-6 are all available on Amazon, and current episodes can be seen on HULU.  Visit Chicago P.D. on Twitter for episode updates, cast info, and more. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

One American Man’s Thoughts on Britain’s "Day For Freedom"

We are excited to welcome guest blogger Jamie Horan! He is insightful, smart, and will give you something to think about. Jamie is an American and a Philadelphia native. He's married with four kids, owns his own business, and finds time to think and write about the important stuff. He started writing as a youth when spending days ditching school and hanging out at the public library. Apparently, it worked for him - he has a fine mind and a gift with a pen. 

Recently, advocates for freedom of expression/speech in the UK, against the government's increasingly censoring "hate speech" laws - a completely subjective phrase - held a rally in London. Although liberal progressive news media called it "dangerous" (The Guardian was most ridiculously alarmist - Heaven knows, when those who don't toe the company line get uppity, world chaos might ensue!) and estimated the crowd from 2,000 to 4,000, many who actually attended put estimates at 10,000 to 60,000.  Speakers were an international assembly of the cream of the anti-globalist crop: Tommy Robinson, Milo Yiannopolis, Lauren Southern, Anne Marie Waters, Raheem Kassam. Although one progressive liberal article cynically pointed out that the speakers, while decrying censorship, stood and said whatever they wanted to - it ignored (or was too ignorant to know) that several of these people have been arrested for just that: speaking. What follows is Jamie Horan's account, and some astute thoughts. - LC

May 6th was a hot day in London.  Though I wasn’t there personally, I could see it on the faces of throngs of British Citizens gathering for what they called “A Day For Freedom.” A festive event in many respects, but with an object no less important than the reclamation of the dignity of free expression earned for them by their forebears, and taken from them slowly but ceaselessly over their lifetimes.

"Freedom of Speech" has only one meaning. In the United States it is codified in writing as the first item in the Bill of Rights. Our constitution would not have been ratified without it. Its main operating principle is that our government shall make no law which respects or restricts the following four things: 
  • Religion
  • Speech
  • The Press  
  • Peaceable Assembly by people to redress grievances with their government. 
Although she enjoys no such codification**, Great Britain provided the basis and the inspiration for each of these four items. I won’t bore you here with my thoughts on how it did so, but suffice it to say that without Great Britain, we wouldn’t have this language in our founding document.

For some years now, I and I’m sure many like me in the states, have watched the happenings in Europe, and particularly in England, with increasing alarm: the demographic slide into malaise; the lame-brained reactionary social policies foisted upon people by those in power (in many cases unelected);  the dangerously under-thought importation of the labor Europeans and Englanders alike failed to produce at home. We watched as the governments of these nations moved in directions opposite their polity and watched with particular disbelief as the polities bought the big lie, that economic security is more important than individual liberty. As it happens, that’s not  just wrong, but demonstrably and completely wrong. 

But then, in June of 2016, Great Britain gave us hope when she voted to leave the EU. It appeared that
once again, the She was rising to save Europe by example and not rhetoric. Millions of Americans were ecstatic at this outcome. Predictably though, the backlash began before the vote was counted, as those who bought the lie, and those in power who perpetrated the lie, sought by many means to soften or even erase the decision compelling them to throw off the lie. They haven’t finished.

Many very bright and thoughtful people continue to resist this effort by the political elite to mislead the people, and have made their positions known over the years. They did so on major news networks and television shows, in debate halls and on social media, and all too often in direct opposition to mobs of indoctrinated pseudo-intellectual, virtue-signaling imbeciles, themselves holding advanced degrees in stupidity of one type or another. As an outsider I watched these bright people eviscerate these infants on countless occasions, but knew and still know, that change happens on the ground and by the people who live there. You see, a listing ship is never righted by men in conning towers alone, but always it is righted by those on and under her decks. I waited, I watched, I wrote what I could, noticing here and there ground-level groups organizing around one type of flawed approach or another, but who always aimed toward the same objective: the refusal to cede ground on the basic human dignity enshrined in and carried forward by the freedom of expression.

Then it happened. Some young guy from Luton Town, later to be named as Tommy Robinson, decided to take the fight directly where the fight needed to be: not in the clouds where the educated debate the lofty ideals of democracy, tolerance and free speech, but in alleys and on the streets of his little town where the fight for his family’s future was much more visceral.  He was fighting the real fight - the fight to resist the tacit imposition of blasphemy law, a draconian system of control long thought to be dead in the West, and which had risen from the bowels of the massive importation of a poisonous ideology by the above-mentioned infants. I watched as he was castigated and marginalized as a far-right racist extremist, imprisoned, beaten, battered, conned and indulged - but unsurprisingly, not silenced. He’s not glib, or posh, or privileged. He’s just a young man who won’t abide the encroachment on the rights of his children in order to appease a coddled and abhorrently violent subculture in his town.

On May 6th, I saw this young man put together a gathering of what I could see as about 60,000 people. These people would remain standing for hours in the heat right in front of Whitehall, the seat of British government. There were numerous speakers who’ve gained fame in social media circles, and whom I’ve enjoyed for years, but my favorite was the first guy. His name, as I recall was “Inman.”  He wasn’t posh or privileged or glib, either.  He was the guy who fights the battles; the guy who rights the ship. He’s the guy the elected lean to when they’ve got themselves into something they’re not equipped to handle, and wouldn’t know where to start. Further, he’s the guy who knows there is no such thing as “pooled sovereignty.”  He knows that just as a nation, an individual is either sovereign or he is not. He‘s an Englishman, and like Tommy Robinson, a classic bull dog in every respect. 

Standing before him in the crowd were so many like him. They were of all stripes, men and women, old and young, gay and straight, etc. who considered this event important enough to attend in person. What they seemed to me to have in common was the need to physically demonstrate that they’ve just had it -  that they’re done being told by their elected officials, their media, their police, and so on, that their priorities are unimportant; that they and their progeny are no longer needed for the future of Britain, you know the one that they and their forebears built. They’ve had it with this new, less free Britain where their concerns are subordinate to the priorities of a significant, but simple-minded minority who have never built or had to defend anything at all. Had I been able, I would have stood there with them with an American Flag in one hand and a Union Jack in the other.

I tweeted recently that “there are none more dangerous than a free people compelled to silence.” I am bewildered that after alarming events - for many, in living memory - the political class in Britain and elsewhere seem not to know this. The trend in British Government has been toward this incremental silencing, electronic surveillance and other Orwellian methods of censorship for so long now, these simpmletons convinced themselves that it’s all okay. In fact, it’s not. No trade of liberty for security ever does what it is intended to do - namely, protect citizens - and always does what it was not intended to do - harm citizens.

It is astonishing to me that the mere mention of a critical thought of one protected group or another (of which are so many now) can land a British citizen in court or even prison. Worse still is the tendency toward hate crime law, a thought to me as an American so abominable as to be akin to national suicide. So damning a trend has this become that now London is arguably not British. This is not for its cosmopolitan composition, but for the failure of its leadership locally, and its parliament nationally, to stop their casual and incremental abandonment of the rights, will and traditions of British citizens. What this group did on Sunday and will undoubtedly continue to do, was to let their elected officials know that they’re just there to hold a place for them; they are there to move the ball for them - make what is already there better for them, and to my mind they did that. One after another, the Youtube stars and the bulldogs alike let the tepid houses of Parliament and the prime minister know that their Britain still is Great Britain, and they’re not going to see it taken from them. 

For Tommy, I recommend he take the next rally to Buckingham. It is, after all, Her Majesty’s government. For the elected, I recommend what they themselves like to call Active Listening, because although this group numbered in the thousands, they exist in the millions, - and frankly, the elected are running out of time.

**  Although Great Britain previously held law that protected the right to speak out against specific things like religions, this coding was abrogated by its adoption in 1998 of the European Convention's Article 10 into the domestic Human Rights Act, which contains numerous exceptions to free expression - many inherently vulnerable to a changing subjective interpretation. As of 2017, two major news outlets in the UK said that an average of nine persons per day were being arrested for violations of the law through online speech, and that of these five on average were convicted. Big Brother has at last come to Great Britain. 

Tommy Robinson's books can be found at Amazon

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Open Love Letter to Men

Dear Men,

Recently, a female acquaintance commented that I seem to bowl better in my Thursday night mixed league than in my other three women-only leagues. I told her that year to year, I have the highest average (not to mention the most fun) when I bowl with men. She seemed perplexed, perhaps naturally, so I hastily blurted, "Well, I just enjoy the company of men more, present company accepted, of course!"

Truth is, I bowl better with you guys. I like the no-nonsense approach you have. I like the way you incessantly analyze the ball trajectory against where you stand against the current oil pattern. I like how you exercise your minds until the world makes sense. I like how you keep the cattiness down and gossip to a minimum - it might interest you, but not for two hours like it does the women.  I like the way, when I throw a gutter ball, you look me in the eye and say, "What the hell was that?"  Without smiling. I don't want to be coddled; I want to be expected to get my shit together by the next turn.

The world does make better sense around you men. When it's ugly, you know exactly why. Sometimes, you're the cause of the ugliness, but if you don't own up, you do manage to make each other pay in the end. I like the way you confront each other. Women smile to one's face while plotting his future pain just because they don't like the color he wore yesterday. But a man? He'll make you miserable right on the spot, without apology (at least not immediately - that would be pointless), and he'll have a damn good reason to do it. A reason that is, well, reasonable.

Men are rarely intellectually lazy. They can't afford to be, because they have to earn a complete living. The least educated knows his way around an engine, crop fertilizers, a meth lab. Men take real joy in a bit of verbal sparring - some annoyingly have never learned to combine that urge with self-control. But all that jousting forces them to use their brains. Constantly. They don't give each other an inch, or a break. Just a good hard contest.

Men value things like integrity and honor and courage. Check out some novels written by women - they also present some higher ideas - often love, sacrifice - but it will be those written by men who contain sweeping and profound truths about the human condition. Men ponder these things - with regularity. Men tend to contemplate and comprehend patterns of the universe, realities of war, subtleties of affection, hope, loss . . .

Men spend a lot of effort and time shielding their loved ones from difficulty. I see this a lot - and it often goes unnoticed. Their female companions take it for granted. Women whose fathers, boyfriends, brothers, husbands all protected them, rarely note the ways in which they are shielded from too much hardship - or even too much inconvenience. Those of us who have had little such care or protection in our own lives, though, notice it all the time, everywhere, with so many men.

Women often have some shield to hide behind, some safety net to catch them. Most men don't. So you men have to be brave - there isn't another choice. And you are brave, so often, and often in quiet ways. Every once in a while, one of you will do something spectacularly and idiotically cowardly - being men, you always go big - but when that happens, your fellow men call you out on it loudly. You don't get to pretend it didn't matter. It will always matter if you behave as a coward, when you're a man. For that reason, you must be terrified when fear comes. Women fear other things, men fear themselves most. That's what I would guess.

Men don't pussyfoot around. They insult you, they tell you off, they acquire disgusting habits. With men, you get exactly what you see in front of you. There isn't a lot of secrecy, manipulation, backbiting. It's all laid out on the table. When I was 30 years old, I informed a doctor that I liked to be given the respect of being told the truth up front. So he looked me in the face and told me, two days before emergency surgery, that I would be wise to "put your affairs in order this weekend", because my life as I knew it might be over. Or simply very literally over, actually.  I trusted him from that moment. Here was a person who put sentiment aside and prepared me for reality to hit. My mom on the other hand told me, "I know everything will be all right, honey."  I wanted to scream, "NO, YOU DON'T!"  I did not trust her advice, believe me. Even today, when a female friend coos, "It'll be all right."  I feel little but rising disgust at her disingenuousness - but I know that downplaying of pending disaster is a learned trait in females.

I like the way you smell. I love your cologne, and your skin. I love the stubble on your chin. I love the ease with which you swing an ax - and the joy you have in doing it.  I love the way you set a fencepost straight and then pound it in. I love the way you hold fast to the rope and squint up at the rearing horse above you, knowing your brain will keep you from being trampled. I love the way you love that suicide bike you refuse to sell. I like the way you snap the briefcase closed and swing it off the desk. I love the way you smile at your daughter across the table. I love the way you throw a baseball. I love the way you smooth your hair back and turn your face up into the shower after an exhausting day. I love the way you plan surprises, and how you worry about whether your wife, or kids, or grand-kids will have to pay too much tax on your holdings when you die before them.

Oh, I know some of you cheat, many lie, too many of you walk around thinking your dick is bigger than it actually is - both figuratively and literally. I know some of you are inexplicably and unforgivably selfish to the core. I married one of those once, and that difficult twenty years was enough to last a lifetime - believe me. But I know I might have been very lucky had I chosen a different one of you - I wish with all my soul that I had another lifetime to get it right.

In today's world, too many of you are being maligned. You're blamed for that which isn't your doing. You're shamed for carrying testosterone. Your natural instincts are treated as threats to be suppressed. Today we refuse to acknowledge that your hunger for progress built empires, your beautiful curiosity and need to conquer brought technological innovation, your soaring spirits brought the biggest piece of the world's great literature, art and music; your tendency to protect what you love fought and won wars for peace we take for granted now. How many of you willingly ran toward a sword, a spear, a fire, a gun, a bomb, for something you understood was far greater than your one tiny life?

Yes, over a beer, or a bowling alley, I do love your company. I love the candor, the stumbling lack of finesse, the mental gymnastics, the uniquely male insight on the world, the instinct to protect or to conquer. I know that so many of you are bombarded daily with reminders that you as a gender have somehow failed your species. I'm here to tell you that's hooey.

You're wonderful and glorious and beautiful to look at. You're strong. You're good for the world. And ultimately - no matter what you're made to feel - you are necessary. What you were on the day you were born, and what you have grown into, will always be exactly what you are supposed to be. In my book, that's pretty damn wonderful.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Protecting the Vile

I had a disturbing encounter this evening with a person who mistook one of my comments. This person was a conservative, someone who knew nothing about me and the fact that I have written on the dangers of radical Islam for over a decade, extensively, under a pen name.

In response to a call from someone to ban the Muslim advocacy organization CAIR (Center for Arab-Islamic Relations), I had suggested that banning wasn't the answer, since banning organizations starts us down a dangerous road, as Americans. The conservative in question jumped on me, shrieking that I was defending an organization of "pedophiles" who believe in beheadings and female genital mutilation. When I explained that they had in fact misunderstood my tweet, they screamed that I was being condescending and repeated the accusation that I was defending the likes of CAIR.

It got me thinking about something that has become more and more disturbing as the country's political stances grow further apart, and the rhetoric gets hotter and hotter. There seems to be a trend amongst young people - with the best of intentions - to "ban" anything they don't agree with. We have to ban organizations, ban houses of religion, ban publications (the Koran), ban even ideas. These people are the product of an educational system that has failed to help them understand why our First Amendment exists, and specifically what it protects. Furthermore, they seem to have no comprehension of a world where we have tossed that most important amendment away.

Out of this zeal to ban what we don't like, rises movements like the current Antifa movement and its droves of indoctrinated, wide-eyed and loud-mouthed eighteen year olds, who storm the buildings and auditoriums hosting conservative speakers at college campuses. For two years, those of us who do understand the value of the First Amendment have cringed to watch these incidents, and grown nauseous at each failure of school administrations to stop it. This casual determination to allow the silencing of speech - and thus ideas - is terribly dangerous to our entire way of life. But how do you communicate that to an entire generation that never learned the concept of freedom of expression? They have grown up free to speak their minds - they never had to pause to question that ability. Worse, they have never had to stop and consider the real potential evil of forcibly taking it from another person.

It was a small light in this dark, turbulent political night we have been living in, when this week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against censorship of freedom of expression, stating that no right exists to prevent another person or entity from using a brand name that others may find offensive. Apparently, a pop band made of Asian musicians, which calls itself "Slant" was sued by some social justice warriors who just had to point out that the name could be interpreted as a racial slur; they appointed themselves the PC police and took the poor kids in the band to court, with the attempt of actually forcing them to change their name - something the band has stated they use with a sense of pride. (But never mind how the people with the slanted eyes actually feel about it. What has that to do with anything, in this world where we must correct others for thinking the wrong thoughts?) The ruling of SCOTUS is an enormous pro-First Amendment statement. The owners of the Washington Redskins, to name just one nervous entity - not to mention their many fans - are breathing a hopeful sigh of relief.

This is not about allowing anyone to be insulted. It isn't about supporting an offensive slur, gesture, or book. What it is about is freedom and respect. It's about giving each other the respect to back off and allow another to decide what is right and wrong for them; it's saying that we cannot appoint ourselves to be the thought monitors of other people.

I have been more than a little disturbed by the public celebrating this past week when a conservative journalist, Laura Loomer, rushed the stage at a Central Park, Shakespeare in the Park performance of Julius Caesar in which the lead character is a Trump lookalike, and of course undergoes the inevitable assassination. Conservative talk show hosts were cheering Loomer right and left, for standing up for civility. But from where I stand, she was simply lowering herself to the same tactics the Left has been using for two years, and somehow doesn't understand the hypocrisy.

In this political climate, it's always going to be the other side who is wrong. It's always their hypocrisy when they perform exactly the same act that we ourselves might feel morally justified in doing. That's why it is so imperative that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. The problem is, we lose all legitimacy to complain about protesters interrupting conservative speakers the next time that happens, when today we applaud the likes of Laura Loomer, who did exactly the same thing. Remember, the 1st Amendment doesn't exist to protect speech we like, it exists to protect the most vile of speech. If we start censoring this thing... why not that thing, and the next and next?

Then it gets very messy, because the question becomes - who decides what speech is going to be acceptable? The Left? The Right? No... THE GOVERNMENT. And then there we are, in Big Brother territory. We just can't condone the actions of Loomer, if we want to stand for Freedom. It's true that the First Amendment comes with exceptions - but these are inevitably exceptions that have to do with imminent public safety - never with censoring ideas. Never.

Some might argue that when the protected speech has to do with killing our president, it's gone too far. There have been cries of "inciting violence" - a totally inaccurate application of that legal concept (the violence in "inciting violence" must be under very specific conditions, and it must present immediate public danger). But actually we have already said as a nation - through previous rulings of the Supreme Court - it hasn't gone too far. We allow for example the burning of a flag - an act that so many of us find so vile and heartrending that it is almost beyond words. But because it doesn't pose immediate public threat, it is protected expression. We have decided as a nation, that the expression of a passionate political idea - no matter how disgusting - is more important than is stopping the expression of that which some may find objectionable.

Laura Loomer is wrong. If she wishes to complain about students banning conservative speech on campuses, she must allow a Julius Caesar Trump, and furthermore she should allow the audience the respect to view the play and make up their own minds. (It is worth noting that the play's entire theme is anti-assassination and anti-violence; the assassination scene is intentionally performed as tragic and emotionally alarming). And those who want CAIR banned are wrong. CAIR is suspected to be a funder of Hamas, and has been declared a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia. But in this country - where we don't regulate the thoughts of citizens - and where CAIR has yet to commit a violent act - we don't ban organizations for their ideologies.

We have to start correcting our younger generations when they talk about "banning" what they don't agree with. Our forefathers - and in cases like my father, our ancestors - shed their very blood for the idea that a person should be free to express themselves politically as they choose. We can't let these commitments to the First Amendment change, if we want to remain America.

Monday, August 15, 2016

REVIEW: "Polarity in Motion", by Brenda Vicars

Genre:  Young Adult, Coming of Age, Whodunnit
Publisher:  Red Adept, 2014
Length: 266 pages

This book was recommended to me as being an especially good representation of the genre. I almost never read young adult novels - they just rarely interest me, and so few are well-done. So it was with a little reluctance that I began Polarity in Motion.

About ten pages in, I was hooked. The opening was expertly-written, immediately grabbing the reader as it should. As I read, it occurred to me that I would like to use it as an example to beginner novelists I am working with as a mentor and/or editor, as I try to instill in them the terrible importance of a great opening to a novel. At that point, I double-checked to see how many books the author had under her belt; I was surprised to find out that this was her first novel.

The next thought I had was that she had an excellent editor. Not only was the text clean (I think I found two typos and one grammar error - this is present in any novel, no matter how thoroughly edited), but the book was structurally extremely sound. This wasn't an easy task for a beginning novelist: the book is at its core a mystery, and with that type of book plot structure must be near-perfect: in order to keep the reader wondering and the story flying along, a writer has to do some painstakingly careful plotting. Foreshadowing must be continuous but not overwhelming; tension must be maintained to a high degree; most importantly, all the strings of plot must come together neatly at the end. The reader must be surprised by the ending, and yet satisfied and not surprised at all by what they learn. This book, for the most part, accomplished that.

Polarity in Motion is about a young girl caught up in a sexting scandal at a high school - one in which she is victimized. We follow her as she is removed from her school and home, and - during the impending formal investigation - becomes a temporary ward of the state. I really liked this section of the book, because I think it deftly illustrated the confusion, helplessness and anger of a child in such a situation. The main plot revolves around the discovery of who set her up, where the photo originated, and how it came to be a tool of bullying as it was disseminated among the peers in Polarity's social and academic world.

This book is entertaining and suspenseful and would entertain anyone from 12 to 80. It contains a lot of teen angst, crazy teachers, annoying parents, bullies, cute boys and a little romance. It really is a bang-up debut young adult novel, and is far above most others out there in terms of both quality of writing and of story.

As an editor, I did have one reservation about it, and it is one particularly interesting for me to bring up because it concerns all beginning novelists. This book makes one mistake that is very common in first books: it wants to be too many things. It hovers between being a mystery novel and meandering into various social issues that really have little to do directly with the plot. Although these passages do build layers of character and add atmosphere, they are a bit clumsy and neither advance the plot nor affect the outcome of the story.

I want to take a moment to speak about this in general terms, for the benefit of writers. Oftentimes, first-time novelists try to work a social issue that is near and dear to them personally into their story. This is perfectly fine, as long as the issue is shown within the plot of the story and has some effect on the plot's outcome. Too often, a new novelist wanders occasionally from the narrative of the plot to get on a soapbox of some sort. In terms of the technique of writing there are a few problems with this:

1 - It slows down the tension of the plot. In some cases pontificating about some moral concern goes on for paragraphs, in the middle of what should have been a continuous build of dramatic tension. The new writer will justify this as "well,  but the main character is talking about it, so..."  I appreciate that it is worked into the character's thoughts or dialogue, but that isn't enough. It still has to advance the plot, and be directly related to the story.  Otherwise the impatient reader is skipping those passages in frustration.

2 - A reader is satisfied by a well-defined theme. A great reading experience requires that the book know what it's about. As I said above, this problem is so common with beginning novelists - especially the intelligent, involved, engaged people who have real passion about a cause - and I often find myself saying to someone I'm editing, "Do you want to write a good novel, or do you want to do some real research and write a good non-fiction book about this issue? Because you need to pick one." When the narrative is interrupted by paragraphs of moralizing - even when it is part of the characters' thoughts - and that moral message doesn't directly affect the plot or move it along, it causes the reader to get an overall sense of disorganization in terms of theme. It's very hard to explain to someone inexperienced with writing that a novel is not the place to lecture the reader about social issues. Which brings me to my next point...

3 - Readers don't like unsolicited lectures. The reader of a novel is in it for two reasons. The first is enjoyment. An uninvited, unexpected lecture on a moral issue can be annoying and takes away from the enjoyable experience of being told a story.  But secondly, some people like to learn something as well from a novel. It may be argued, in fact, that the greatest novels in literature explore the social issues of the day. I would absolutely agree with that. But I guarantee you that every one of those great novels presents that social issue in a way that it is 1) incidental to the fabric of the story (that is, it never interrupts the flow or reads like a lecture to the reader) 2)  completely and intricately woven into the plot itself: that is, the social issue is the primary cause of tension, affects the plot, and affects the outcome.  It takes some very experienced writing to deftly work a moral lesson into the weave of a good story, and the best writers learn to do it well... which brings me to the last point...

4 - Readers don't need to be beaten over the head. Especially not with the author's life philosophies. Not outright, anyway. Ask my editing clients how many times I said to them, as we worked on a first novel, "Less is more. Less is more."  What I mean is, if you are going to work in philosophizing - and you certainly have the right to as a the author - work it in subtly. Most beginners don't understand how smart the reader is going to be, and how much a reader likes to work things out for themselves. Do you remember when you were a child how your mom used to tell you the same thing over and over to make her point, and how annoying that was?

Beginning authors explain way too much about the meaning and morality of the tale. They need to show it, not tell it. Too much telling - in this case talking about this social or moral issue or that (regardless of who is doing the talking) - feels to the reader like being hammered over the head with a moral. Especially when there are several (let's define that as three or more) places in the novel where that happens. I would argue it doesn't ever need to happen in a well-written novel, because the moral message should be conveyed subtly by the very action of the tale alone, and never have to be stated outright.

In the case of Polarity in Motion, the moralizing is separate from the plot. There is a lot of talk about race, and a lot of talk about inequality of privilege as regards race. But within the story this point is not illustrated: all the kids at the school seem to have the same opportunities for success, and successful individuals are presented in all races. Consequences for characters have everything to do with action, and nothing to do with race. Everything that happens in the story could have happened regardless of what color everyone's skin is. There is some suggestion that only kids of color end up in juvenile detention, which anyone who has worked with teen offenders knows is hooey  (I can say from personal first-hand work experience that many are white). There is suggestion that the kids of color are less often guilty of the charges that put them there - but it is never shown positively that this is true. And again, it's a side-plot.

One disturbing element was Polarity's many descriptions of her love interest's skin color - so many that the reader wonders if the girl is a bit obsessed with him precisely because he is black. Which would be in itself, of course, a type of racism, wouldn't it? And that would be a subject for a whole different story and possibly a legitimately interesting plot it itself. But it doesn't belong here - because in the end his skin color has nothing to do with anything.  I think this feeling comes, again, because the reader is being beaten over the head by the fact his skin is brown - the implication being isn't it cool that this white girl can fall for this great black guy. But I think most modern 13-year-olds already know that.

At the end of the book, to her credit, the author valiantly tries to tie together bullying, racism, economic under-privilege (of white "trailer trash" and blacks), and then other various notions about inequality, all together... but it ends as a jumbled bit of yet more philosophizing (not to mention some bad poetry - such as that our 15-year-old character would in fact write) and it ultimately feels out of place - because there is too much effort to make it fit neatly in to a package. The mystery story works well, and would have felt more organized, if this moralizing had all been left out or had been worked into the actual plot with subtlety.

I don't mean to seem to pick on this book - I want to state again that it is overall well-done and an exceptionally competent first effort at a novel. I simply want to clearly illustrate for potential writers who read my blog how easy it is to get caught up in trying to convey one's personal passion and political philosophy; and without the skill to do it right, you can end up lowering the quality of the novel for the reader.

I did some research on the author of Polarity in Motion after reading it, and find that she has an extensive background in secondary education. This was apparent in the book, in which the reader is taken into the inner workings of high school administration.  Ms. Vicars has openly stated her passion for questions of inequality among teens, and I'm sure that it was tempting to try to work some teaching into her novel.  I really hope to see another novel, and perhaps some of these sub-themes worked in again, but less blatantly and more closely with the plot line.

Polarity in Motion is widely available and can be found at Amazon, where I posted a portion of this review.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Me, He, and She: A Writer's View on Infidelity

So I'm sitting with a long-time friend recently, chatting about our mutual lives and people in them, and she alludes to something that causes me to glance up at her in astonishment.

"You knew I had a boyfriend, right?"

I burst into astonished, semi-amused laughter. "No, I did not know that."

This friend has been married for nearly thirty years to the same man. They were married very young. I have never asked, but knowing their background, I would say that they probably got married because everyone expected it, and were too young to really have a clue about anything beyond puppy love. Four kids and several grandkids later, things have soured. Her husband has health issues and a problem with erectile dysfunction. Despite her pleading with him to seek medication and/or marriage counseling, he has refused to show any interest in fixing the problem. The problem being not so much that he can't get it up, but that he doesn't want to, and she is a good-looking, red-blooded and often horny woman. This isn't a novel. This is a real adult life.

My writing buddy recently asked how my new book was coming along, and as I heard myself enthusiastically relay some possible plot twists I had considered, it occurred to me that I am again writing about - and maybe obsessing about? - infidelity. It's a subject that is so interesting to me that I can't stop working it into my plot lines.

As a writer, I have learned a lot about the subject of infidelity; I have learned more as a writer, perhaps, than I did years ago as a cheated-on wife. Now, there is something I never would have thought possible.  I thought you all - writers and others - might like to hear about some of that.

My book Gentlemen's Game involved quite a bit of cheating. Some of it was mindless "for fun" cheating - where the spouse doesn't find out and the perpetrator feels no guilt.  Some of it was "I'm cheating because you have given me no choice by your behavior".  I think that it took many years for me as a person to understand that sometimes, there is justification.  Sometimes, as in much of life, the issue isn't all that black and white. I had to laugh at the many reviews for G Game that mentioned the infidelity, usually in the vein of "there is cheating, but . . ."  and some praise of the book as a whole.  People really, really don't stomach infidelity easily.  And I noticed more than once that it is the young, the more recently-married (say less than ten or fifteen years), who are the least tolerant of the notion.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that infidelity as a concept should be morally acceptable! I'm saying that for me, there was a point in life where I realized that cheating is common (more than it should be), that all who cheat are not pigs, that people can be good spouses and still cheat, that people can be good people in much of their lives, and still cheat.  It's more complicated than we want it to be.  I am speaking about tolerance of the notion in the sense of a writer - that when one has the maturity to tolerate the thought of infidelity enough to try to understand it and allow one's mind to explore it, a given book might be more enjoyable and more of an enlightening experience than simply an emotionally difficult one.

Infidelity in the publishing world is interesting. In literary, mainstream fiction, it's acceptable.  In the romance genre, it most often isn't; publishers' guidelines will state outright that infidelity is not to be presented. Most interesting to me, many publishers of erotic romance - the most X-rated - also don't like to publish infidelity, unless it's a group sex thing where the spouse/significant other is involved. This is amazing to me:  so often the conflict of relationships, in real adult life, involves some sort of infidelity, whether strictly emotional, or sexual. And yet it makes readers of romance so uncomfortable that publishers are shy about it.

I confess that I was once one of those readers. Well, I never could stand romance novels - haha! - but I was that kind of person. I could not read about infidelity. I could not watch a movie about it. I was terrified. I did a lot of thinking about why I was terrified (I'm a writer, it's what we do - obsess about the whys of human behavior).  This is what I believe:  I could not allow my mind to go to a dark place where everything I wanted to believe in would be rendered, perhaps, null and void.  I was afraid the book or film in question would present cheating in a sympathetic light. And then what would that mean for my beliefs and my views of the world?  Would it suddenly have to be a place where The Cheaters were not so bad, and we - the ones who would never cheat - were doomed to be deceived, lied to, hurt? What kind of backwards Hell would that be?

If you've read this far, I'm going to reward you with a juicy personal story. I want to tell you the story so that you understand how my feelings about cheating evolved as a writer to a point where I can write a sympathetic character that happens to be cheating. And there will be a point to all of this, I promise. Here goes.

I was about thirty-five or so. I'd been married for about a dozen years by then. I was fairly attractive, I had a lot of friends. As a wife I was fun, kind, if a little bullheaded. My husband was not so kind, not much fun, and I had married him too young to know that someone who is egocentric doesn't get better through the years, but worse. But I was raised with some old-fashioned values, which is probably why I hadn't walked out years before, and as long as he was faithful, I was committed.

He had a colleague and best friend, whom I'll call Mark. He often hung out with us. I didn't care much for him.... he was fairly young, maybe late twenties, and he had a high-school level locker room style humor that often offended me. And I had nothing in common with him. Plus, my forty-year-old husband acted like an immature ass when they were together. But Mark never knew my feelings. His maturity level wasn't his fault. And they had known each other and worked together for several years by then.

The day came when Mark suddenly got married, to a girl from his hometown he'd known for a few
years and dated off and on. He said his parents didn't like her - I wondered why - and didn't explain further why the relationship hadn't been more on than off.  But at any rate, now they were married, and he brought her to our area to live and work.  My husband met Angela, came home and mentioned how gorgeous she was. She was from another country and culture originally - not unusual in our circle, since my husband was also foreign and many of our friends were immigrants.

They married on Valentine's Day.  Within a month, the four of us were spending a lot of time together. Angela was also much younger than I was, and I had little in common with her either. She was nice enough, but a little full of herself. I chalked it up to the age and maturity level, and did my best to help her feel at home in a new place. She adored me. She used to bring me little gifts, tell my husband how wonderful I was. I liked being looked up to.

Meanwhile, my husband insisted we spend a lot of time with them. Maybe two evenings a week, plus time on weekends. I gradually started to resent it. Before, we had always had Friday as a "date night". Now the date was always a double date. Always. When we weren't with them, he was talking about them. I started to go a little nuts with it. But the months went on, and I didn't say a lot. After all, Angela was getting used to being married, in a new place, and she often sought my advice.

 Once, she confided in me that she appreciated my friendship, because she had never had a lot of female friends. "Women don't like me. They always think I will steal their boyfriends." She laughed. I thought it was a rather arrogant thought on her part. But I couldn't argue, she was a very pretty and very, very sexy girl. She was from South America, and displayed an easy physical sensuality that so many Latina women have. In addition she was funny and charming, and had just finished a law degree. I imagined she might invite a lot of jealousy from women.

And advice she needed. They both did. The fights were often, and childish. My husband and I spent not a few evenings with them indulging in a bit of impromptu marriage counseling. But they seemed to be a good match, and Mark certainly loved the girl. I never could quite figure how she felt about him, but I didn't want to judge something so personal.

I spent early evening of Halloween at their apartment. Angela had summoned me there, saying she was in some crisis and needed to talk. I remembering listening to her and wondering what the issue actually was. She rambled on about the usual, her frustration with Mark, their fighting. But I didn't get a feeling of crisis and wondered why I had had to drop everything and drive over there. It was weird, and I felt rather manipulated. Mark and my husband arrived at some point, and things were even weirder. Mark seemed oblivious. My husband seemed annoyed. Have you ever had that feeling that something is definitely going on in a room, but you haven't been made privy to it and can't put your finger on it?

Next morning, my husband nervously told me he had to tell me something. I remember him shaking as he told me - sitting there on the side of the bed, this man who usually didn't care what I thought about anything - that he and Angela had been having an affair since May. Since two months after her marriage. He was having an affair with his best friend's wife.

Now... this is where it gets really interesting. Because this is where I started learning what infidelity really is, and what it really means.  It isn't about someone having sex with someone. That is just a tiny detail in the end.  It hardly matters. (Believe me, it doesn't.)  What matters is that your judgement failed you.  You failed to see the signs. Your mind failed to protect you from your worst nightmare. You were deceived by the person closest to you. Everything you believe about yourself, and the reliability of your intelligence, explodes around you. He would not have told me because of an attack of conscience, mind you. He told me because they had quarreled and she had threatened to tell me. He had merely beat her to it.

I didn't scream. I didn't yell. I was numb. He asked if I was going to leave him. I told him I didn't know. I cried a little.  It was immediately apparent to me that this man who was often so cold, so arrogant, so dismissive of me, was now shaking, so small and terrified that he would lose me. I wondered if he was surprised too. (Looking back, I know he was. He never saw her again. Hilariously, after that day the fun of it was gone for them. The sneaking around made it interesting. They didn't even like each other much as people, and both were painfully aware of it in the end, much to my great amusement. Last laughs, poetic justice, all that, you know.)

And then as I watched him sitting there wringing his hands, I said something that surprised me as much as it did him. And I am proud of it to this day, because I learned how terribly strong I was, and I knew in that moment that of the four of us, I was the strongest. And I knew he knew it too.

I said, "I don't know what will happen. But I will tell you this: you have 24 hours to tell Mark. If you don't, I will."

He said quietly, "You would do that, wouldn't you?"

I said, "Try me. He deserves to know the truth about his life and what he is married to. He deserves better than her. And better than YOU."

In the end, he told Mark, after begging me to be present. He told him like a man, apologized like a man. A few hours before, Angela, forewarned, had gone crazy. She begged, threatened, cried to me, "You don't understand! Mark isn't like you! He isn't going to understand and he'll divorce me."

Tough cookies, little girl.  You made this bed.

Not like me?  Who said I wasn't going to leave?  What did she imagine I was? A saint? I was no saint, but I was no fool either.

Mark surprised me, moved me, and humbled me by his reaction. He was calm, he didn't try to kill my
husband. Within weeks, he'd forgiven him and they were working out together. He did file for divorce the very next day.  I didn't feel sorry for her one bit.  I did feel sorry for Mark. He did deserve better. Anyone would.

I stayed in my marriage for several years, but I should not have. It took time to get my mind to stop obsessing over the deception.  Because that's what you obsess over. It isn't flashes of possible sexual rendezvous. It's memories of the moments your partner looked you in the face and lied. And questions about how you were so easily fooled.

Here was another surprise. A revelation. It took a while to come to me. But finally one day I said to my husband, "You know... I have a feeling that Angela's sleeping with you had something to do with..."

"... fucking you?  Of course it did. It wasn't about me at all."  He finished the thought for me.

Infidelity is ultimately a terribly selfish act. It's the deliberate deception of the person who relies on you to keep them emotionally safe in this emotionally brutal existence we all share. It's the ultimate betrayal from the ultimate friend. It's ugly.

It's also selfish on the part of the co-cheater. Angela wanted to stick it to me: someone she couldn't be. She called me, in fact, a few months after the divorce. "Mark and D-- are still friends. Why can't we be friends?" she whined.

"Are you crazy?  You fucked my husband. That is why we are not going to be friends. I have no respect for you. Now get the hell off my phone."  I knew that she knew I was a bigger person than she was. That was enough for me. I hope she grew from it, but I really don't care. She was a big girl, she destroyed a marriage and nearly two. She knew what she was doing. Now for the rest of her life she gets to know what she did and regret it.

When I was younger and more innocent, I thought infidelity was always unacceptable. I don't believe that now, despite the ugliness of what Angela and my ex did. I think of relationships, particularly marriage, as a literal contract. You screw me, prepare to be screwed.  I used to tell my husband in those latter years, "I guess you owe me a freebie."  Meaning that I could, without guilt, sleep with a man of my choice for a few months. At any time. I enjoyed watching him squirm, wondering if I'd do it.  I never did. Because in the same way he chose to live deceptively, I chose to live honestly.  Like I said before, I should have left him immediately after. But I was young and dumb. Marriages may survive infidelity but they are never the same again. This is the bottom line: A person who is capable of that level of deception will always be capable of it. Each individual has to chose whether living with such a person and the fear of the havoc they can wreak in your life, is really worth it. When I did leave him finally, he knew that I would always deserve better than he had been. Because I never would have done to him what he did to me.

Characters are never interesting if they are saints. Sometimes good people do bad things. Selfish things. Maybe even unforgivable things. The wounded party, after an affair, understands this as no one else can. All of this makes for multi-layered relationships, real multi-layered characters, and interesting stories. Affairs are common. We all know the stories. We all can predict every scene and the ending.  But can we all understand the emotions? The nuances of the experience?  I think that is where one can weave a unique tale. And we are all individuals, certainly experiencing infidelity differently, both as the offender and the offended party.

I do believe that some philanderers have good reason - or at least an understandable reason. Coming up with those reasons as a writer is the fun part, and does allow me to reflect and invite the reader to reflect, on some of the more difficult aspects of human behavior.  Jack Miles, in Gentlemen's Game, came to believe he was in a terrible, bad marriage, to a selfish person, and strayed to explore who he really was. Jack was basically a good man who did some bad things.  In my story Frozen, Ethan is a selfish man who keeps a young gay man on the side, masquerading as a straight and happily-married man with small children.

My friend, after bowling me over with her announcement that she had a boyfriend on the side, quickly explained that her husband knows and doesn't seem to care.  I listened for half an hour, and at the end of our conversation, I said, "Good for you, Girl!"  And I meant it.  Her boyfriend is also married, his wife knows, and this works for all of them. Divorce for either couple would affect children and many lives, and isn't the best option. For them it is not a moral one.

Life is messy. People are messy.  A writer that is afraid of looking at messy never gets their hands dirty, and misses a lot of fun playing in the mud.  Okay, my writing buddy Becky is the Queen of Metaphors and I'm not, but you get my point.  Wallow in the mud, Writers!  Figure out the real whys of why people do what they do.  Putting all behavior in a "this is good" and "this is bad" box is cowardly for a writer, and will stifle your voice and imagination. Don't be afraid of exploring the darkest places.

You are not your characters.  I would never do what Jack Miles did. I would never live as Ethan's piece on the side.  I am infallibly honest to my friends and lovers.  But then . . . I'm much less interesting than my characters are. ;)

Gentlemen's Game and Frozen can be found at Amazon.com and other online retailers. See reviews on this page and at lichencraig.com .