Seven Lines

Okay, I’ll bite. There’s a Twitter game going around, #7Lines. The rules: Go to page 7 of your current WIP (page 7 of chapter 1, for those of you who, like me, start a new document for each chapter). Count down seven lines and post the NEXT seven lines (i.e., lines 8-15). Then tag seven writers to do the same.

I went a bit over, just for context. But here are seven lines from page seven of The Mist-Covered Mountain.

“What kind of trouble?”

My steps had faltered and my stomach had dropped into my toes as his words caused the past months’ vague unease suddenly to manifest. I’d prayed it never would. He’d been doing so well.

“What happened last winter…it’s preying at my mind, ken. It’s gnawing at my soul.”

I’d noticed. In the six months since our daughter’s birth, he’d grown less spontaneous, more meticulous, as if making plans and following them to the letter reassured him.

I tag Jennie Davenport, S. A. Hunt, Louise Gornall, Krisitne Wyllys, Marie Hogebrandt, Luther Siler, and Katie Bailey.

What Has Happened, What I Knew, What I Learned

When I was a preschooler, because my mom worked, she arranged for another woman to look after me in the afternoons, until my mom could pick me up. This woman, Mrs. O, had a little boy about my age. We played together and mostly had a good time.

Sometimes, another little girl who lived in the neighborhood joined us. Those times were not so good for me. The little boy liked her better than he liked me. They were preschool “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” The little girl teased me, because she wanted to make her primacy clear. The little boy joined in, because he wanted to impress her. It hurt.

I knew hurting me meant nothing to them.

I learned people who claim to be your friends can be cruel.

Later, when I was in third grade, my school merged with another school and I met a whole new group of children. They were also cruel. They teased me about my weight, about my haircut, about my nonconformity. It hurt even more than the old teasing, because it was relentless, every day. I wanted to stop hurting, so I tried to get help from adults. Remember, I was eight years old. The adults said, “What did you do to bring it on?” and “Suffer in silence,” and “Just don’t let it get to you.” They said, “If I try to stop it, it’ll only get worse.”

I knew these were all bullshit excuses. I knew the adults didn’t care and couldn’t be bothered.

I learned to endure. I learned my pain didn’t matter.

At about twelve, I started experiencing periods of depression and suicidal thoughts. When I was fourteen, I started to self-harm. I was afraid and wanted help.

My mom said, “It’s just a phase.” She said, “I’m not taking you to a psychiatrist because they’ll just say I’m a bad mother, and I’m not.” She said, “You’re just trying to get attention.” She said, “How can you do this to ME?” She said, “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

My dad said, “Why do you treat your mother like dirt?”

When, after over a year, I did see a psychologist, she said, “You’re a normal teenager with normal teenage problems.” She said, “You just need a boyfriend.”

I knew self-harming was not normal. I knew a boyfriend wouldn’t help. I knew I wasn’t having depression and self-harming to get attention, or to punish anyone but myself. I knew it was NOT “just a phase.” I knew it was real. I have always known it is real.

I learned people are uncomfortable with and afraid of mental illness. I learned people are ignorant and don’t listen, because they’re too uncomfortable to hear it. I learned these things apply even to those who are supposed to be treating mental illness. I learned no one knows more about my feelings and my experience than I do.

I learned to keep quiet and become small, because when people are uncomfortable, they take it out on the thing causing their discomfort. And the cause of the discomfort was me.

I was the grain of sand in the oyster. The grain of sand causes the oyster to secrete a substance to protect itself from discomfort. This is how pearls are formed. A grain of sand, quiet and small, acquires a nacreous coating, which, ironically, makes it much bigger, more valuable, and harder to ignore.

Later, I got fed up with being quiet and small. I got fed up with people abusing me instead of facing their discomfort. I vowed I would speak my truth and take no shit, and anyone who didn’t like it could go straight to hell. I refused responsibility for other people’s dysfunction. I’ve strayed from keeping this vow many times, but on the whole, I’ve lived by it. It’s been freeing to say, “This is who I am.” To say, “I have no responsibility to read your mind when you won’t tell me the truth.” To say, “Help me or don’t; I don’t care. But don’t blame me for the choice you make.” To say, “What I do is what I do. I won’t let you take what small power I have by making it about you.”

It took me twenty-five years, a lot of therapy, and a huge amount of introspection to be able to say these things.

Yesterday, a British news site posted an article about how the mentally ill are not considered a “vulnerable population” unless they have an accompanying physical illness. A friend of mine responded with the #InShadowSelfie campaign for mental health awareness. I am rather in awe of the power of this idea and the huge, positive response. At the same time, I am absolutely aghast that it’s necessary in this 21st century. I’m horrified at how being small and quiet about mental illness is habitual, even compulsory, for so many people, STILL.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed was full of my friends talking about how unsafe it is for them to speak about their depression, or anxiety, or mania, or other mental health problems in certain corners of social media. How friends and family members respond with all the same, old bullshit I heard forty years ago and more. “You’re being too dramatic.” “You just want attention.” “Don’t be so personal!” “Suck it up and deal with it.” All that shit. How they have to keep small and silent because for some reason they can’t get away from these people. Can’t get away from the negative messages, that they then internalize. Now sometimes, they even try to change to be more what other people want. To make other people more comfortable.

I wrote this post for those friends of mine to tell them the people who tell them all that bullshit are oysters. They tell you to shut up because they’re uncomfortable. You have every right to be loud and to take up space. To express your feelings wherever you like. To say what you need to say. You have every right to block harmful words that diminish you and encourage you to stay quiet and small. To divorce yourself from all that crap. Yes, even if it comes from family members and people you love. You have every right to tell them to take their discomfort elsewhere, keep it out of your space. You have every right NOT TO BE HURT FURTHER by people who don’t understand you and have no desire to do so.

You don’t have to do any of these things because I say so. But you do have the right.

And remember, you are more than a grain of sand, causing irritation. You are a pearl in the making. And one day, you will leave the darkness where you grew. And you will shine.



Lovely review of The Unquiet Grave from Luther Siler. He’s a smart man, and you should listen to him.

Get The Unquiet Grave at any of these links:

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Welcome to infinitefreetime dot com

41-X1K0SW+L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve said this before, many times: I read books in print.  I have a Kindle Paperwhite, and the iBooks app on all of my various iDevices, but I read every single day and 95% of my reading is on paper.  This wouldn’t be terribly notable except for the part where I’m an independent author, and the vast majority of us make our money pushing ebooks.  In other words, I sell something that I don’t regularly use, and worse, when one of My People writes a book, frequently the sad truth is that I’ll happily purchase and download your book but it’s entirely possible that it’s gonna spend a long time languishing on my Kindle before I have an excuse to get to it.

Not that I’m always super prompt about paper books, mind you, because I have a backlog like every avid reader.  But at least with my print books…

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I Complain About Stakes

It’s common wisdom for writers that an effective story contains three things: Character, plot, and stakes. A person risks something to accomplish something. An author works hard to make queries, pitches, and blurbs reflect all three in the least number of syllables. For example, “When (Character) discovers (Plot Point 1) she must (Plot Point 2) or else (Stakes).”

I’m going to come out and say it: I hate working with stakes. As far as my technical ability goes, it’s probably the thing I understand least and do the worst job of. For a long time, I thought I was worst at plotting, but I was wrong. A plot is simply what happens. It can be any sequence of events: “I went to the store, and the store was closed, so I got on the bus and went to another store. I bought some orange juice, because I like orange juice.” That’s a plot. But it’s not a very good one, because there aren’t any stakes. As far as we know, there is no risk to the narrator. There would be no consequence of NOT getting orange juice, except, possibly, mild disappointment.

I have a hard time with stakes partly because of my world view and partly because of my writing process. For me, writing is an attempt to express a gut feeling or mood; at least, I began that way. I usually start with a character and try to put them in a situation that evokes the mood for which I’m aiming. In my teens, I wrote a lot of pieces–I suppose they might qualify as prose poems–that spoke of smells and sounds and sights and memories without anything actually happening. When I branched out into longer fiction, I knew something had to happen, but for the most part I inserted random events that seemed like they would be “cool” without being able to link them in any coherent fashion. Or else, I stole plots from other authors. I generally ended up with a bunch of still slides of emotional high points, through which my characters moved without much rhyme or reason. Stuff happened because I said it happened. But my characters didn’t make a journey or evolve.

In fact, it wasn’t until much later, when I started querying and pitching, that I ever heard anyone refer to stakes. It gave me a kind of “slap my head” moment: “Oh, of course, that’s the hook. Duh.” But then, when I considered my work, I couldn’t find the stakes to save my life. I thought they were there, but they often were very subtle and only rarely did I articulate them in any coherent way. Sometimes I did all right. “Unless she finds a way to heal him, both will lose their souls.” Those are pretty good stakes (in my opinion). Other times, not so much. “Unless she interferes, the world will be changed.” Um, okay? Mostly I think, “So what? Why is that a bad thing?” And I have a hard time answering. Especially in a 140-character pitch.

I even have a hard time finding the stakes in other authors’ works. Or caring about them. “If he doesn’t make the basketball team, he won’t get the girl.” So? Why don’t you find another girl who doesn’t require you to become someone you’re not? Which is another novel altogether, I suppose. Maybe choosing between trying to change yourself to suit someone else and learning to accept yourself and eventually find the way to happiness would make a good story, but what are the stakes there? I don’t get it. How would you turn that into a hook?

In Fantasy–in other words, in my genre–stakes are often huge: Death, Dismemberment, Apocalypse. I have a hard time caring about those standard tropes. Everyone dies, and the world as we know it won’t last forever. I’m interested in smaller things: personal trials, family problems, past trauma. Okay, maybe those aren’t categorically SMALL, but it’s hard to convey them in a few words. You have to care about the characters FIRST. THEN you’ll care about their experience. This is a difficult thing to express in a pitch or a blurb.

An early reader of She Moved Through the Fair told me she didn’t think Caitlin had a good reason to get involved in the plot because she wasn’t personally attached to the murder victim. There wasn’t any threat to her if she didn’t personally solve the murder; in fact, getting involved created the threat. I thought about that for a long time. Caitlin got involved because magic was the murder weapon and she was the only person aware of that fact. If she didn’t look into it, no one else would. In the end, I decided that was good enough. Her character, her sense of responsibility toward others within her particular field of expertise, was enough. Besides, the book isn’t really a Whodunnit. It’s about a load of other things, like wishes, and consequences, and desire.

I get tied up a lot because I don’t like making antagonists EVIL. Usually they have valid desires of their own; it’s their methods that are problematic, or they make stupid mistakes that put people at risk. The one time I invented a really evil antagonist, the whole time I was writing the book I kept thinking, “This is so stupid.” It’s my most popular novel so far.

A lot of authors take positive delight in doing horrible things to their characters. I don’t. I’ve gotten good mileage out of traumatizing my male protagonist, but I can’t keep doing that forever. I know I need to so something awful to a secondary character people care about soon, and I don’t want to!

I still haven’t found the stakes for book seven. I have a vague idea of something I might do, but once again a part of me is thinking, “It’s so stupid. I can never pull that off.”

Maybe that means I’m on the right track.