Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Harris_Daisyby Daisy Harris

One of the hardest things I’ve had to grasp as a writer is how things that occur in real life sound unreal if you try to put them in a book. My life is a series of awkward missteps and Threes-Company-worthy misunderstandings, yet many of those—sometimes the ones I think will make the best stories—don’t translate in fiction.

For example, one time when I was young and still dating, I mistook an obscene phone caller for my ex-boyfriend. Worse yet, I labored under this delusion for a week until I confronted my ex-boyfriend who explained to me that it had not been him on the phone. If you wrote this into a story, it would seem totally fake. I, the heroine, would be dubbed “too stupid to live” because how on earth could someone hear heavy breathing and infer that the person on the other end of the line was the dude she broke up with six months earlier?

Well, the reason is because in life, crazy things happen. People misunderstand each other in ways so intense it’s like they’re not even speaking the same language. In fiction, though, your book is supposed to be cohesive. Even though we may be writing in deep third person, it’s understood that the author is always the narrator.

Take characters who say off-color things. In real life, good people make crass or tasteless jokes all the time. Hopefully, it’s rare, but I’m sure some of us know the sweet and cuddly brother or husband or uncle or grandpa who we love to death but who every once in a while makes us cringe.

That guy needs to be way toned down to sound right in your book. Real people are complex; characters, however, are simple. If you write romance, like I do, the goofy uncle or brother or father-in-law is going to be a side character, without a lot of room for detail. They can have foibles, they can even make mistakes, but they can’t be exactly like Grandpa Earl who drove little old ladies to church but also liked to terrorize the kids by threatening to kill the dog. In real life, this person exists. In fiction? Not so much.

downloadThe worst is when you write a setting or a character who is based on a real place or person. Hooyah, you won’t want to change your story even if your betas, your editors, and even your readers complain. I know I’m going to get blasted for my upcoming book, Nothing But Smoke, because my character’s Catholic mother is too religious.

Nicky’s mom in Nothing But Smoke is the kind of old-school Catholic who likes having statues of saints and angels all over the house and likes to watch mass on TV. I know she comes off like a caricature, but I can’t seem to stop myself because I wrote her based on a member of my family who was very important to me.

I can still picture the little, cherubic, hand-painted angels I got as gifts as a kid, and remember how terrified I was of the statue of St. Peter, especially once he lost his right hand in an accident involving my brothers roughhousing. Best, I remember a statue of the Virgin Mary with little doors that opened that I got as a teenager. When you closed the doors the whole thing looked disturbingly phallic.

You can’t write a dildo-shaped Virgin Mary statue into a novel. Or boys playing football with St. Peter’s head. You can’t write things that are simultaneously hypocritical and meaningful, holy and profane. Unfortunately, in fiction, you have to make choices and stick to a simple path.

In the end, I’m leaving Nicky’s mom as the person she is—because I knew that person in all her complexity. Maybe it’s bad writing, but I tried to do justice to a personality who was more than just the sum of her parts.

But don’t try this at home, children! Life doesn’t make sense but fiction is supposed to. In fact, that’s why we read fiction. To get the sense that everything falls into place. That funny thing that happened to you that you just can’t wait to put in a book? Don’t. I mean, you can try it, but don’t be surprised if the thing that sounds funny in real life just seems stupid once it’s committed to the page.

The trick in writing is to make sense of things. Stuff happens, people fall, but it all comes together in the end. If only life were that simple!

Daisy Harris is a retired party girl and science fiction enthusiast who spends most of her time writing sexy romance and plotting the fall of Western civilization. She is the author of multiple gay romance novels including From the Ashes, After the Rain, and the Men of Holsum College series. Visit Daisy’s website.

Alternative Medicine

Kimberling_Nicole_150x150by Nicole Kimberling

It’s a scene everyone has read. A weary soldier (we’ll call him Captain Brutus) returns from the war/prison camp/besieged lunar colony unable to cope with the horror/cruelty/massive decompression event he has just witnessed. Sick from experience and worn down by the weight of the world he does not know if he can ever return to the life he’s once known.

Captain Brutus even doubts he can get down with his beloved—let’s refer to this guy as Dr. Binky for now.

The scene goes much like this one:

Brutus sat heavily in the worn armchair, face cradled in his hands, shoulders slumped in defeat. Binky hesitated at the doorway. He saw that now streaks of gray shot through Brutus’ dark hair. His uniform, though clean was patched and mended. It hung on his starved frame.

Binky stepped cautiously into the room, but quiet as he was the moment the first floorboard creaked Brutus’ head snapped up. In a split second Binky looked down the cannon-like barrel of Brutus’ blaster.

“It’s just me,” Binky’s voice shook in spite of himself. The expression on Brutus’ face was one Binky had never seen before. Blank, cold, staring right through Binky as though they’d never met.

Brutus blinked and then very slowly lowered his weapon. “I’m sorry. It’s your lab coat. I thought you were one of them.”

Binky didn’t have to ask who they were. He’d seen the streams. He’d watched day by day as the hideous truth had been revealed. The corrupt executives at LunarCorp has used the soldiers stationed at the Mare Tranquillitatis in bizarre and horrifying biological experiments. He wondered what scars Brutus hid beneath his now too-large uniform.

The scarred survivor trope is such a well-worn standard among romance heroes that he’s practically become mandatory for many readers. And there are lots of reasons why it’s a standard go-to for many authors. Scarred survivors are obviously experienced. In addition to providing ample opportunity for inter-personal conflict, their moodiness makes them seem deep.

Done correctly, the scarred survivor requires little additional characterization so a word-thrifty author can get a lot of mileage out of his grim silences and thousand-mile stares.

The author now has two options. She could use the hero’s interior conflict to tell us all something about life. She can painstakingly show that the love of Brutus and Binky is strong enough to weather all manner of storms.

Or she can, in a moment of weakness, take a short cut and cure all by a liberal application of sexual healing.

Despite the popularity of sexual healing in fiction I found scant proof that intercourse cures any ailment, physical or psychological. Though I did manage to locate some anecdotal evidence that suggests guys who are bummed out can experience some relief of symptoms by making a booty call. Witness the testimony of the legendary Marvin Gaye:

Sexual_Healing_posterWhenever blue tear drops are falling
And my emotional stability is leaving me
There is something I can do
I can get on the telephone and call you up baby, and
Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me
The love you give to me will free me
If you don’t know the things you’re dealing
I can tell you, darling, that it’s sexual healing

I think we can all agree that Gaye really nailed it, in terms of establishing the parameters under which we can expect a positive therapeutic result from sex.

But there are always authors seeking to push the envelope and now we have stories where sex seems to be the only line of defense against a wide variety of psychological as well as neurological and even physical ailments.

And what is wrong with this? Well, to illustrate I’ll share an incident wherein Dr. Binky attempts the cure.

As per his morning ritual, Brutus sat at the breakfast table, leafing through the morning paper. Though in most respects an early-adopter of technology, he found that news itself felt more real when delivered on newsprint. A fit of coughing sounded from upstairs and Brutus glanced toward the bedroom.

Brutus’ beloved, Binky, had not been a joy to sleep alongside the previous night. His lithe and normally naked body had been hidden beneath flannel pajamas. He’d been hot, then cold, then at approximately four a.m. had commenced upon a snore so prodigious that Brutus was forced to don the earplugs he normally reserved for the firing range.

“You okay, babe?” he called.

Binky made no immediate vocal response. Then, from above came a thud, followed by a slight shuffling noise. Eventually, Binky slumped down the stairs. His face was puffy; his blond hair disheveled and matted. He held the duvet from their bed close around him as he crossed the kitchen floor, coming to stand, swaying before Brutus.

He said, “I think I have strep.”

“You’re not going to work at the hospital today,” Brutus pronounced. “Unless it’s as a patient.”

Binky shook his head, then winced as if the slight motion caused him almost unbearable pain.

“No antibiotics,” Binky whispered. “I found a better way online.”

“You’re not going to try and gargle it away, are you? I don’t know if there’s enough salt water in the sea.”

“Not salt water.” Leaning heavily on the back of the dining room chair on which Brutus sat, Binky lowered himself to his knees. “Open your pants.”

“What? Now?”

“I’ll do it.” Binky lifted his shaking hands and began to paw ineffectually at Brutus’ fly. Brutus caught him by the wrists. He gazed down at Binky’s flushed cheeks, his glassy unfocused expression.

sex_rx“Have you taken your temperature recently?” Brutus asked. “I think you’ve got a fever.”

“No, I’m just horny.”

“No you aren’t,” Brutus said. “You’re barely awake.”

“Don’t struggle. I need sperm to kill the streptococcal.” Binky tried weakly to pull his hands free. “It has antibiotic properties and can also cure depression.”

“What the hell have you been reading?” Brutus pressed his hand to Binky’s forehead. His skin felt as if he’d just stepped out of a sauna.

“The internet wouldn’t lie to me,” Binky said. 

“Baby, I am not going to stick my dick anywhere near your throat.”

Binky’s expression crumpled with confused hurt. Then lit again, with weird hope, “Would you jack off on my face then? I’ll hold my mouth open like in a porno. I just don’t like to swallow pills.”

“I’m taking you to the hospital right now.”

Oh no Binky! Why would the cruel author force you to use semen dosing when better solutions were available? Doesn’t she know the efficacy of sperm versus penicillin is practically nil? And what about all those other Binkies out there who have been forced to treat their various neurological and psychological problems with a course of cock alone?

Don’t their authors know that in 2009 a Norwegian scientist (Dr. Bønky of the Kinsey Institute) performed a double blind study, which proved that dyslexics treated with cock injections actually fared slightly less well than those treated with a dildo placebo?

I’m not asking authors to stop using the natural life drama created by illness, both physical and mental, in their stories. Far from it. Illness affects us all in one way or another. But I suppose what I would suggest is that perhaps a little sensitivity would not be misplaced. Try to remember that things like agoraphobia and epilepsy are not imaginary afflictions invented solely for the purpose of creating tension in fiction. Make an effort to respect the real-life sufferers by not demoting their struggle to the equivalent of a case of blue balls.

Over and out!

Nicole Kimberling is the author of various speculative fiction titles as well as a contemporary romantic mystery series set in the Pacific Northwest. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. She is also the editor of Blind Eye Books. Visit Nicole’s website.

Self-Publishing: The Dirty Truth

Harper_LouBy Lou Harper

Self-publishing is the latest gold rush. There’s news of riches to be made but the reality is far grittier. During actual gold rushes the most reliable road to prosperity wasn’t finding gold, but selling food, equipment, and sex to the prospectors. According to Galleycat almost 80% of self-published authors make less than $1,000.- a year, and only 5% make more than $20,000.- a year. Those are sobering numbers.

So who should self-publish? It offers the best profit-to-risk ratio to established authors with a large fan base. However, for the majority of first time authors it’s far more beneficial to go with a reputable publisher, but there are always exceptions. Between those two extremes there are a lot of authors for whom self-publishing can prove beneficial, possibly alongside the traditional route.

There are pros and cons both to going with a publisher and the alternative of publishing your book yourself. A reputable publisher will provide you with editing, cover, and at least some promo. They can also do many other things for you, like taking print copies of your book to trade shows, or making sure that your book is featured prominently on the home page of an online retailer. On the other hand, self-publishing gives you higher royalty rates and control over all aspects of your book, but it also means you’re responsible for everything.

Even if you don’t care if you make money on your books or not, you’re putting your book out there to reach readers, and your chances are far better with a professional quality book. There’s a very good reason why self-publishing has such a terrible reputation, and why so many readers refuse to touch self-published books. Before jumping into this endeavor, you need to know what’s involved in producing your own book. Nowadays anyone with a word processor can upload an ebook to Amazon—it doesn’t make you an author. That title demands commitment and professionalism.

There are four main stages in turning your finished manuscript into a book: editing, copy editing/proof reading, cover design, and formatting. They are all necessary and they all cost money. You might be able to do some of them yourself, but nobody can do them all.

Editing

There are many reasons to self-publish, and not all of them good. Possibly the worst one is: “I don’t need an editor to tell me how to write.” There are two things with this statement. Firstly, that’s not what editors do. Secondly, we all need help. Writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, but once that first or second draft is done, it’s time to solicit some feedback.

Beta readers and critique partners go a long way to improve your book, assuming you listen to them. The good thing about them is that they are free. You can collect them from the ranks of your fans and fellow writers. A good beta reader is on a similar wavelength as you, understands what you’re trying to get across, and thus can tell you if you come short. They are not always right but you should consider every comment carefully. As Neil Gaiman said: “…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Content editors are professionals, going on far more than gut reactions, and thus cost money. Their job is to make sure your story doesn’t have giant plot holes, character inconsistencies, awkward dialogue, and a bunch of other things affecting the story as a whole. Yes, the process is often painful, but in the end it can mean the difference between a good-enough and an as-good-as-it-gets story. Finding a good editor is like finding that vein of gold.

These days many content editors also do copy editing, i.e. making sure everything is factually correct, checking that foreign words are spelled right and mean what you think they mean, ensuring you don’t include anything that could get you in legal trouble, etc.

Proof reading

A proof reader, aka a line editor, checks the manuscript for grammar, spelling, typos, punctuation, homonyms, etc. Skipping this step is one of the worst mistakes a self-published author can make, yet it happens all the time. Readers will forgive the occasional typo, they occur even in novels from mainstream reputable publishers. However, too many errors will throw most readers out of the story, ruining their experience.

It’s easy to think that with all those content editing eyes on it, the manuscript must be flawless by this point, but it never is. The recurring story is: Author has checked the manuscript umpteen times and is convinced it’s perfect. Author publishes book, and soon reviews start flowing in with complaints about the errors. Author finally sends the book to a proof reader, and it comes back full of red ink. Author makes corrections and uploads the new version but unfortunately the damage is already done.

Cover design

Unless you have a background in graphic arts, don’t make your own cover. Professional designers have spent years learning things like composition, color theory, typography, etc. Picking up a couple of Photoshop tricks won’t get you the same results. Yes, you’ll think your design is beautiful, but it probably isn’t, and the friends you’re asking for their opinion on it won’t tell you the truth either.

Formatting

This is probably the easiest thing you can do yourself, assuming you’re at least a little bit technically inclined. Formatting might be as involved as making multiple ebook formats for multiple vendors, or as simple as making one format and uploading it to a single aggregator, like Smashwords and Lightsource. Both options have their pros and cons. If you like having maximum control, the former is better. If you want the least amount of work, the latter will fit you best.

However, if looking at the formatting palette in MS Word gives you a headache, you should hire a professional. There are many internet companies offering formatting services for a reasonable fee.

In conclusion, if you decide to go the self-publishing route, you should do it right, but doing it right will costs you time and money. Look at it as an investment in your writing career.

Coming Next: A Practical Guide to Self-Publishing

Lou Harper is an author with numerous m/m titles and A Rainbow Award under her belt. She has published several books with Samhain Publishing, but also puts out a few books on her own, and she intends to keep on doing both. Visit Lou’s website.