Right now, me and my muse are in discussions about future projects, which I suspect will cause even more people to hate me as my squicky releases pile up. But our discussion is not a debate so much as a reaffirmation of the reasons why I chose to to write in the first place, and a recognition that editing and revising have often diluted my stories.
First, I’ve been reading a lot these last few months, and a lot of what I’m reading is still relying on the same formulas. The hero that nobody talks to suddenly becomes the most important person in the world. The fate of the world hangs on the decisions of one person, or on a small group of people. Everyone always has the right answer to lead to an obvious conclusion. Morals are usually starkly black and white on these conflicts, and the conflict is typically resolved with someone being killed. Might makes right, and revenge is always the right answer. The hero works in a kitten orphanage, coaching crippled kittens to use mini-wheelchairs while the villain eats puppy stew every day for lunch…after strangling the puppies himself and saving the wrung out blood for the soup stock.
I’ve read so much of this stuff, and I’m sick of it. Lots of people aren’t, and some people will be buying new versions of the formula without knowing how old or overdone it is. Lots of people will love it, and the publishers will keep cranking out more of the same. I get that. So if I want something different, instead of complaining, I have to write it myself. Which is easier said than done, and just writing the stories doesn’t mean I can sell them. Writing a story isn’t a big fucking deal, but writing a good story with a great pitch to catch readers with? That’s not so easy.
I want to bring up a painful truth, which will upset some of you. When I was 14, I had a 6-year-old girlfriend, one of two sisters, who had been a part of my life for fully two years. She’d caught me with her older sister, who I was seeing because my little brother blackmailed me into seducing her. So the younger sister insisted that I do the same things with her, or she would tell her mother. To my credit, I balked, but she called her mother and got right up to point of saying we were naked before I grabbed the phone. I was stuck with her for two years, and it was only the last six months that I felt anything for her besides revulsion.
This was not a happy childhood, for any of us. In gym class, I used to listen to boys brag in the locker room about what they’d do if they had a girlfriend, and I had two, neither of which I could talk about, because I’d been blackmailed into these relationships and couldn’t stop them. It only ended after the girls were moved far, far away from us. And once they were gone, I was both grateful and very, very lonely. I also felt constant guilt for ruining the girls’ lives, and resentment at my brother for treating me as a cog in his plots. He was lousy at crime, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near him when he got caught again. (And he did, over, and over, and over.)
This is not the kind of childhood you see depicted in fiction. You won’t even find one of the stereotypical bad kids in mainstream fiction acting anything like me. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few seven-year-olds who could send a story to Penthouse about having two babysitters in bed with me and have it be a true story. But even at seven, I also understood that no one would publish the story of a seven-year-old making out with his teenage babysitters. Sure, looking back now, I can admit they abused me. But I was beaten by the boys daily for the way I walked, talked, laughed, ran, skipped…everything I did was too girlish for guys, so they beat the crap out of me. And yet, at the same time, I was a little stud-muffin, and I was doing things with my babysitters that the older boys could only wish they were doing.
But if I write about my life as a seven-year-old and tried to publish that, people would have a shit fit and claim I was trying to warp the fragile minds of all the precious, precious children. Just as I couldn’t send a letter to Penthouse when I was seven, I still can’t brag, “So there I was, seven, and slathered in baby oil at the foot of the bed…” (Which is a shame, because compared to my later sexual encounters, I actually got a lot worse for a while, not better. Oy, I was a lousy lover to way too many people.)
Kids in books and movies are sacred, and there are rules about what topics one can cover in the life of a fictional child. Roughly 80% of my childhood life isn’t fit for mainstream fiction. It isn’t all sex, but I was never a good kid. Unlike fictional kids, who react to bullying by becoming the heroes of their own story, I turned into an abuser myself. I became a shoplifter and a scam artist. I took drugs whenever I had a chance, just to see what they would do. I reacted badly to my upbringing, in other words.
There aren’t many books about kids like me, who reacted badly to bullying and parental neglect. Even if there were more books like that, a lot of people would turn their noses up at those kinds of stories because they think the act of writing encourages the readers to do the same deeds. The act of writing isn’t about sharing a darker perspective on life, or about shedding light on how the other half lives. It’s all about “promoting a lifestyle.”
With all due respect to people who come to that interpretation, I disagree. My point isn’t to say “Isn’t this kind of life great? You should do it too!” My point is to say, “This is how some people end up living.” Still, you’d be surprised how many people have suggested that I write stories like Peter the Wolf because I want other kids to be abused the way I was. It wasn’t my intention to promote Peter’s mindset as healthy, though. On the contrary, I wanted to show how the abuse he suffered had corrupted him and left him incapable of making the right choices.
I bring this up, because the muse wants to do a story about another pair of young lovers with a large gap in the ages between the two. That age gap is slightly larger than the one between Peter and Alice, which means it will make people uncomfortable even if they don’t read the story. The fact that it exists at all will upset them. I can’t say at this point if the story will get written, only that the muse is pushing the idea. But the muse is insisting that this story isn’t so important as the whole point of why I’m writing. It isn’t to make another book about a chosen one who saves the world. That market is saturated and full, and I’m writing these stories because not too many people want to speak about how “the other half” lives.
Which brings me to the next point, sex. When I first got started writing, I hated my own sex scenes so badly that I went out and bought a book, How to Write a Dirty Story by Susie Bright. I’ve hated a lot of sex scenes in fiction because the writers seems to be describing the scene with their hands covering their eyes. I didn’t feel like I could get a handle on how to write sex just by studying examples in the wild. So I got this one book, and ever since then, I’ve not once shied away from a chance to write a sex scene…in the rough draft phase.
I decided that unless there was a very good reason not to, I would write sex scenes to give some kind of idea of what was actually going on instead of just doing a fade to black. I don’t just mean taking stock of the limb and torso positions, but also trying to account for how the characters react to being touched. I don’t always write scenes with consent given. Some sex scenes are meant to be exciting and titillating, while others are meant to make the reader feel awkward and uncomfortable. But I try to let word choice and dialogue explain the mood. So even if a scene is “bad,” I want to cover it because it’s still a part of the story.
How then, to cover a positive sex act between consenting minors, without making it feel like an endorsement for real kids to engage in the same activity? Make it creepy and awkward on purpose? Or write the scene the same as one might handle an erotic story? (Which would make the story creepy to most adult readers anyway.)
This is where I’ve ended up diluting my work most often. In the original Little Monsters, there’s were a number of intimate scenes between Misty and Cora, and between Misty and Danny. Miguel’s relationship with Terry was also part of the book, though I think that was only for their first time together. The point is, when I say that I cut 100K of sex scenes out of Little Monsters, it’s not an exaggeration.
What happened was, I felt like the sex overpowered the story, which made it hard for anyone to see the characters. So I opted to cut out all intimacy that didn’t relate directly to the plot of the story. Both of those remaining scenes are between Linda and Jarred, and while everyone else is still having sex, their intimate moments happen off screen because they don’t add much to the story.
This dilution is a good thing, making the story less awkward for readers because it takes a great deal of the awkward moments off-camera. It also dilutes the story and robs it of its ability to make people uncomfortable. Because those scenes would have also shown readers emphatically, no, these are not good guys. They’re just a better class of abusers than the men the girls had first lived with. The story would have been far more troubling, but fewer people would have been able to get to the final chapters, where the deaths of two characters causes everyone else to fall apart.
But it’s a conundrum, you see? While the central question is still there, it’s been blunted so much by dilution in editing and revisions that it reads like an effort has been made to say “these guys aren’t so bad.” And that’s missing the point. They are bad, and their story doesn’t lead somewhere positive. That’s why it’s called a tragedy. But stripping out all the sex also removed a lot of the emotions that would have made that ending so much more of a gut check. Then, people could have understood the emotional connections shared between the characters. But the trade-off would have been that a lot less people would have been able to read halfway through the book. Losing the sex meant gaining more readers. Did it diminish the story? Yes. But it lowered the number of reader gut checks required.
Which brings me back to a future project featuring minors in a long-term affair. I’m sure a lot of their intimacy could be handled off-camera, and that does help to make the story more approachable. But it also cuts me off from being able to explore and describe that internal tug of war between desire and shame, of need and instinct versus lectures and social programming. People sneer when they hear of children having sex, but they do it to stop thinking quickly about that reality, that some kids grow up a lot faster than others.
Mainstream fiction is full to the rim with seventeen-year-old virgins who are just meeting the person of their dreams and gosh-golly-gee-willickers, they ain’t never even been kissed before! In all fiction everywhere, there are virtually no seven-year-old non-virgins who have long-term affairs with someone who they shouldn’t be with. Fiction doesn’t often explore that kid, the one who makes a terrible mistake and stays silent, and who lets the abuse go on because to them, eh, it’s not so bad.
That kind of thing sets in over time even if a person doesn’t talk about it, because every day, someone will invariably bring up childhood sexuality as being the most devastating, crippling, awful, heinous deed ever. And it doesn’t matter what the victims feel for their encounters, because all the non-victims dictate the terms of how abuse is discussed. Child sexuality, then, in all forms, is the grossest, nastiest, most dreadful thing that any person can ever talk about, regardless of their intentions. Why? Because we’ll either A) encourage more kids to do it; or B) encourage some adults to abuse kids.
I feel like these questions about whether or not to describe sex miss the point. I’m not writing speculative porn to sell to children. Even though Peter the Wolf features a teen main character, it’s not a YA book. It’s YA-ish, at best. The scene of Peter molesting Alice takes it firmly out of the YA market. I don’t have regrets about keeping it intact in the final release because that one scene tells you a lot about how messed up Peter is. No, a proper hero wouldn’t have done that to a young girl. But Peter isn’t a proper hero. He’s a monster, and he’s a monster you should feel uncomfortable watching.
And obviously, if I’m planning to write about a 14-year-old boy having a months-long affair with a much younger girl, my target audience isn’t teen boys or young girls. You won’t find me submitting my stuff to Scholastic or some other kids publisher. But who is my market? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never known that. I can’t even find a niche in the indie market, making me so niche I can legitimately claim to be alternative-indie. I only know that I’m writing because I’m tired of seeing the mainstream erase everyone else. In my time making words at this keyboard, I’ve written about many people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in fiction, because the mainstream isn’t interested in looking at fictional worlds from these perspectives.
Much as it irks me to admit it, my muse has a point. Aside from Peter the Wolf, nothing I’ve written has dipped into the dark and worrying pool of experience I had forced upon me during my childhood. When I try to talk about my past, people will do everything they can to make me stop talking. I’ve been complimented and insulted by the same people in the same conversation, and all their words are efforts to derail the discussion and move on to “nicer things.”
People like to filter their world now, and when most mainstream readers realize my fiction is probing at topics they never want to discuss, they will shut me out and shun me. They will say I’m trying to teach kids to misbehave. Or they will say I’m trying to train new perverts to attack kids. But what I’m wanting to share isn’t meant to be a training session for the next generation. It’s to look back on those confused moments in my childhood, when there were no easy solutions or rescues from bad situations. It’s to look at characters who don’t have any grand destiny to seize, but who instead live in an ongoing tragedy which most people would find depressing or appalling.
I wanted to write the sad stories about people who probably shouldn’t be together, but are because…because. I want to write a little bit closer to real life, to that sense that a lot of things don’t have to make sense, because real life is under no obligations to explain why this ration of shit got dumped at just this moment in time.
Part of this bugs me, but not because of what I write being taken as offensive to someone reading it as an instruction manual. I can’t help how some people will interpret the work’s “hidden agenda.” (There is an agenda, yes, but not that one, and it isn’t very hidden.) It bugs me because while this exactly what I want to write, I still have no clue who to market this shit to. Obviously adults who like spec-fic, but beyond that it’s not so easy to break down who I’m looking for. I just know I’m not for everyone.
As a writer, I vaguely want success in definable terms. I want to write a story like Twilight, something that captures the interest of a lot of people. I want to write something popular that maybe spawns a movie series that makes me cringe every time it’s brought up. I do want that kind of success, yes, but not if it means I have to write a story I don’t feel anything for. I also don’t want to make this one mainstream heteronormative story that everyone loves, but then they turn around and shun the rest of my work as “too squicky.”
So, for the foreseeable future (like, say through 2014 or so), I think I’ll be stuck in this low sales slump. The types of characters I wish to write about are not easy to sell to the readers. They don’t save the world, and they may have trouble even saving themselves. They lead uncomfortable and embarrassing lives, certainly not the kind that they would brag to their friends about.
Is there a point? Well sure, but it’s to give voice to characters who most people don’t want to think about. It means that by choice, I’m admitting that I write the unpopular characters; the lowest nerds of the literary world, where even other nerds will pretend like they don’t know these nerds.
I want to write Lolita from the perspective of Delores, and I want to be bluntly detailed. Why? Because it’s a story that needs to be explored, that role of a willing victim, one coached into early sexuality who thinks, no, believes, that this is really what they want too. I want to write about people who make mistakes, but believe they are doing these things with the best of intentions.
Readers can take this many different ways, and a lot of them won’t be positive interpretations. My desire not to cover my eyes while describing sex will make me seem like I’m writing a training manual. But what I’m trying to do is show what is going through these characters’ minds while they are in the midst of making their biggest mistakes. Some stories are written to highlight the protagonists’ greatest moments. Others are meant to examine the pieces of a life gone wrong. Only, I feel that very few writers use speculative fiction to explore “bad characters.” It’s easy to sell a hero, or even an anti-hero, in a fantasy setting if the story is easy for readers to grasp. So, saving the world is popular, because who doesn’t want to save the world? It’s not so easy trying to convince them about reading a fantasy where the plot is a teen werewolf trying to keep his dirty paws off of his underage girlfriend.
Well I don’t want to save the world, fictionally speaking. I want to make my stories about more personal concerns. I want to make my conflicts more personal, even if they risk making the reader feel awkward or uncomfortable. There was a time when readers were more willing to explore sad stories, or stories of characters making bad choices. There was a time when a character self-destructing could be a story in itself. That’s the kind of story I’m wanting to write more of, and maybe the cycle will change again, and a few people will eventually try my books out. Or maybe I’ll forever remain obscure because my choices of topics are just too awkward for the average reader.
Either that, or eventually the muse will give me a character who trips onto the mainstream by accident. What I’m saying is, I know I’ll continue to write objectionable books. I just won’t be all that surprised when they only move 10 copies. Yes, I wish it weren’t this way. I long to wake up and discover that ha-ha, you’re all kidding and today I’m really famous, and 10,000 copies of each of my books has sold over-night. But that’s the path of the mainstream writer, and where I’m going, even the literary nerds go “hrmmm…I dunno.”
And, that’s okay, I guess. I’ve got sales. I’ve got a few reviews. I’m never going to win an award, or get invited to a con to chat with my adoring fans. I have better odds of winning the lottery without buying a ticket than I do getting a six-figure advance for one of my series. My next four books in the publishing queue are all going to flop, badly, and after that, my muse wants to write another five or six flops about shitty kids behaving badly. I’m sure that if I play along, they’ll be stories in between with adults behaving badly, and those won’t be nearly as squicky or awkward.
But this is what the muse insists is my “brand.” I’m all over the genre spectrum, but the underlying theme for so many of my stories is, the main characters are typically victims of abuse. Some of my characters react to abuse better than others. Some are almost good people. So my intention isn’t to bring you into contact with a new best friend you’re going to love right away. My characters might make you wish they weren’t so messed up, or that they didn’t make so many lousy choices. But what I’m writing about is the path less explored in fiction. It won’t be popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s without value.
Which in theory means I’ll be bitching less with each consecutive flop. Kind of like with the current flop. Okay, I’ve rambled enough, so I’ll shut up now.