How do you explain this to a five-year-old..?
I recently began writing the second book in the series about Valerius and Evander. Let’s be honest, it’s only really a series if you have more than one book, so duh, given that we called it a series, I needed to continue writing about the two princes whose love story was at the core of book one. I see Valerius and Evander as a way to use to “tool” of a fairy-tale to tell young kids (as a bedtime story) about diversity. Reception of the first book was really great, from both parents, librarians and some of the kids themselves. My son loves it (which is the most important praise.)
The second book deals with becoming parents. A challenging topic for every grown-up. I mean there has to be a reason we invented the stork, right? We use it because we feel uncomfortable talking about sex with children. And because it is difficult to explain the whole eggs and sperm concept to children.
To be honest without overwhelming children (or bore parents)
At first, I had this idea to explain all the various ways in which a gay couple (Valerius and Evander) could become dads. I introduced a Lesbian couple to explain the womb and IVF and surrogacy and suddenly I felt lost. I can barely grasp these concepts myself, from a medical point of view, even though I’ve done it myself in real life and wrote a book (primarily for my grown-up son, but also for adults interested in surrogacy and IVF) about it. However, this is all so very difficult and complex that I finally ended up abandoning the concept. The two queens are still in the manuscript (for now), but they might yet be bumped, as their presence fills no real “need” purely from a storytelling aspect.
Writing for kids, particularly very young children is challenging. As an author, you want to make it fun and exciting while at the same time tell the story and convey whatever lesson the book is meant to tell. Children’s books tend to be a bit on the educational side, and whenever I talk to schools and libraries, it’s what they tell me: we need this or that, we have no books on this or that.
Front cover of my coming children’s book The Dragon Princess, releasing September 20, 2018
Focusing on the child, the story, rather than the procedure
What I ended up doing was just writing. I subject Valerius and Evander to a challenge, or two, and then help them figure it out. In this particular case, it’s an orphanage. In the realm of the fairy-tale it’s workable, even though in our modern day and age, most societies don’t have orphanages anymore. We use foster care instead. To use children in an orphanage allowed me to talk about the plight of children who most commonly end up in LGBT families: orphans or abandoned kids.
To talk about why some parents can’t raise their own kids isn’t easy, and this is the most difficult aspect of re-writing and editing right now. I have enough text to fill the book, but is it the right text? The right words? It’s about teaching the kids new words, but also help them understand societal phenomenons and to enable a discussion between parent/teacher and child when reading the story together. In a way, I have to go back to being a teacher and use pedagogy all over again. Fun, yet difficult because in my daytime career, I used to work with adults. The irony…
So what is Valerius and Evander 2 all about?
The story highlights the wish of our Princes to be parents, that which we label as involuntary childlessness. While recognized and part of the medical profession’s arsenal when it comes to het parents, for gay couples, this is still a territory mired with discrimination and–frankly–lack of understanding and deeply rooted homophobia. That’s where the book starts. Easy, right? It then moves on to show how children are a natural part of society and how they are literally everywhere: in towns, on meadows and even in the forest. To use animals helps to keep things grounded for the kids.
That’s when the orphanage comes in and gives the two princes something to sink their teeth into, but as they busy themselves with helping those kids, their own needs are put on the backburner, which, eventually, leads to the big conclusion of the story, and a chance encounter… To find out what that is, you’ll have to wait for the book to be released.
I still feel that I’m a long way from being done with this. The first book in the series took almost three years to be done. Oddly, it’s so easy to write down the story in a rough draft, but incredibly hard to rewrite, to make sure it’s understandable, relatable and on par with the level of understanding we can expect from a four-, five-, or six-year-old child. Once the text is finalized, edited and proofed, I’ll contact Felicity for the illustrations. That’s when the real magic happens…
Are you looking forward to it? Any other topics you would like to see Valerius and Evander to tackle?
Throughout history, few authors were successful enough to be financially independent
As a resident of the Kingdom of Sweden, I am days away from receiving the “invitation” from my government to file my taxes for 2018. As for most of us, a somewhat sensitive topic. As a full-time author, I don’t have much to look forward to. With little to no income, I don’t really pay taxes and I never ever see tax returns, obviously. I don’t mind paying taxes, but these days, my financial “well-being” is on my mind. Income is so much more than just taxes. I’m lucky to live in a country where much of our social services are offered equally to everybody, regardless of income (or lack thereof.) But other things, such as my future pension, aren’t.
The future looks bleak
“Garantipension” is a thing here, it’s a minimum pension paid to those who haven’t saved enough to warrant a higher pension through contributions (by working.) Our current pension system relies heavily on employers diverting a certain amount of money every month. No employer, no savings. As an author, I’m my own employer and without an income (to speak of), I have little resources to save for the future. But this isn’t just about me. This is something a lot of artists share. But what income sources can we tap into?
Looking back in history
Historically, authors have relied on rich patrons, usually royalty. Every court that could, would employ a bard to entertain nobility at festivities. It’s how we were afforded the great plays, dramas and comedies alike from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and I have a hunch that circumstances were similar elsewhere in the world.
Patrons, these days in the re-invented Patreon-version, have always played a huge roll in the life of artists. Just look at how Italian and French nobility supported Leonardo, Machiavelli or Michelangelo. Many of these artists died in poverty despite their fame today. Nothing changed until books became a thing for a broad mass market. Suddenly you had authors who became celebrities, who sold books by the millions. Reclusive or not, they were famous and rich. But how many of them were there at any given time, globally?
Grants, stipends, crowd-funding or patrons
Few! Very few. But their visibility served like a beacon of light to the hundreds of thousands of authors who self-publish on platforms like KDP today. Of all those people, a handful per year, at the most, land a bestseller and a contract with one of the big houses who long ago abandoned niche literature for the benefit of celebrity literature, books they know will make them money.
So what do poets, authors do to pay their mortgage? Their utility bills? Groceries? Most of them work daytime and write at night. At my age, finding work is becoming increasingly difficult. My value on the job market is equal to the likelihood of global warming being a hoax. Some authors chase grants or stipends, spending many hours researching what is available and submitting proposals. For a shot at a few hundred dollars, these people spend days and weeks.
The advent of the Internet has not only changed publishing forever but also how we can earn money. Asking for donations online, Patreon (see above) or crowd-funding platforms are all ways to make a buck. One thing is certain: the only winners are the platforms… Oddly, the more famous you are, the more books you sell, the more likely you’ll attract money, whereas those who need the money most, they go without.
The Swedish Academy debate
In Sweden, we’ve recently had an interesting debate around income for poets and writers. With Katarina Frostensson offering to leave the Academy (her husband was convicted for raping women on two counts and has been suspected of using his relationship with her to gain financial benefits and access to many of the women he allegedly harassed sexually.) Frostensson refused to leave without financial compensation, having made millions on her “chair” every year. Most other poets make a tiny fraction of that money.
There is an interesting discussion going on in artist circles and in public access media about what an artist should make, what the value of a book is, etc. I think this is a valuable discussion. No doctor treats a patient without pay, the milkman won’t let you take his product for free, and no carpenter will make a table and chairs for you for free. Yet artists are often expected to give away their books, music for free. If nothing else, we expect to find them for free online.
Sometimes, people suggest a basic income. This has recently been tested in Finland, but not to a specific group of people and the trial has yet to be evaluated. The general idea is to supply every citizen with a base income above the poverty limit and to remove all other subsidies instead (housing, social welfare etc.) Some claim that a base income would be less shameful and would free up a lot of resources from the government (as the entire administration of pensions, welfare, etc. would cease.) Others call it a socialist vanity project. Personally, I’m on the fence.
It would certainly help artists and it would remove the angst of having money for the most basic aspects of life. As long as it would also count toward our pensions, all the better. But is it fair to ask for the working population to support artists? Would people still work? Are artists necessary for society to work? Do we add value? Or are we simply lazy leeches? Interesting questions that deserve looking at in more detail.
How much did I sell last year? What will I sell this year?
Sadly, my book sales have dipped in recent years. The first half of 2015 was my best-selling year, and while I had “bestsellers” on various lists in Canada, Australia, and the UK over the years, those books weren’t on the list long enough or the country too insignificant to warrant any major income. I don’t know how many books I’ve sold last year. Like all authors, I always dream that “the next one” will be my breakthrough, will be the one to propel me to the NYT bestseller list and a steady income to allow me to pursue my writing without turning each penny. It’s a dream all artists share, most of us being aware that we’ll never get there.
But we still hope. Thus I hope that 2019 will be a better year, with more sold books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Meanwhile, I enjoy the great reviews my books garner. They may not pay invoices, but they inspire me to work even harder on the next book.
How can you help?
If you are a reader, there are many things you can do to help an author you like. Apart from buying their books (thank you!), often at the cost of a large latte, you can help them at no cost:
- Tell your friends and acquaintances about a book you enjoy, and why.
- Write a short review. Tell people why you liked the book. Preferably not just on Amazon or GollumReads, but also on another site, e.g. Apple, Google, Smashwords et al. All those sites have sales, but very few reviews. Your review might make a big difference.
- Follow, like and share social media posts. Unfortunately, many of the social media sites and their algorithms only care about those metrics and will promote (i.e. make more visible) posts that are “popular”.
- Attend signings and readings. Often, those are instances where authors can sell books and/or are paid to attend.
The mighty power of words
A few days ago, I was invited to join Pen Sweden, a club within Pen International. I was deeply honored to be considered for membership of such a prestigious organization. As a writer, my pen, my keyboard and the words they create are my way of changing society for the better. I have always held a deeply felt conviction that we must speak up. Speak up about injustice, speak up against prejudice, persecution, speak up against racism, homophobia, misogyny. Pen International takes all of our pens and turns it into a powerful force to be reckoned with.
I first heard of Pen…
I will never forget the first time I had heard of Pen International. Salman Rushdie published the Satanic Verses and as a result, some priests in Iran were in desperate need of a diaper change. To have, as they believed, Islam sullied on the day of their greatest triumph was considered blasphemy. Shortly after that, a fatwa was issued against Mr. Rushdie. Mr. Rushdie deserved, the claimed, death for his words. That was in 1989. I was twenty-two years old at the time, I was working as a banker in Zurich and had never heard of Mr. Rushdie before. Yet somehow I noted the strong and global reaction by the literary community and the strong condemnation of the fatwa by Pen International.
Around the world, authors and writers rushed (no pun) to his defense and that was the first time I heard about Pen International. I have held this organization in the highest regard ever since, for speaking up in the face of death threats, and I have followed their work from a respectful distance. This is particularly true considering how some authors and some literary organizations with power, e.g. the Swedish Academy, who awards the Nobel Prize for literature, acted. They refused to speak up which led to some of the members to leave the academy. The final “empty chair” wasn’t filled until late last year when the last of the “Rushdie” members was finally allowed to officially leave the academy and a replacement was voted in. Almost thirty years later.
There is a risk associated with speaking up
To speak your mind, to exercise our “freedom of speech” is not without risk. Maybe the Swedish Academy was afraid of what might happen if they spoke up. Terrorist regimes, like the one in Iran, do not shy away from using violence against dissidents, even abroad. Just last fall, Scandinavian police forces stopped a plot by the Iranian secret police to kill exiled Iranians in Denmark. 2018. Iran is not the only country that has little regard to our human rights: Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi, China and Gui Minhai, the Swedish author and publisher who was abducted in Thailand and taken to China against his will, Dawit Isaak, a Swedish journalist who’s been imprisoned without a trial in Ethiopia and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, the list is so much longer.
A few years ago, I spoke up against the human rights violations in Russia, particularly for the LGBT community on this blog. Suddenly, I noticed that I no longer had readers in Russia (even though I had many Russian readers in the past.) It seemed that my criticism of the Sochi Olympics and the horrific treatment of its queer citizens had scared the government there into blocking my blog from reaching Russia. As feeble as my pen may be, it had stung someone somewhere.
Things in our society are far from perfect, but…
Last night, my husband and I had a discussion with our godson about equality in Sweden, and while we may be frustrated with the lack of progress here and there, and rightly so, our life here is still infinitely better than that for many other people elsewhere. Personally, I see no conflict between working to improve things locally with speaking up for those who are infinitely worse off elsewhere.
- In Sweden, we lament the lack of progress in fathers taking their six months of parental leave. In most countries of the world, the concept of paternity leave is completely foreign.
- In Sweden, we are frustrated by the fact that we still haven’t had a female prime minister. In Saudi, women can’t even leave the house without the approval of a male.
- In Sweden, we are frustrated about the red tape that queer families have to cut through to legalize their families and children. In fourteen countries, simply being queer incurs a death sentence and in another eighty or so, it will land you in prison. Marry? Children?
- In Sweden, I may be frustrated by angry and pointless letters to the editor. In many other countries, such letters are inconceivable, dangerous.
I add my voice to the chorus
The work of Pen International and its national chapters is incredibly important. We speak up for those who have been silenced. We speak up for those who have no voice, and we are a constant reminder to those who oppress, discriminate and hate, that they are seen and recognized for who really they are and what they do. “Freedom of speech” is such a treasure and the very foundation of a free society. And never before has it been more threatened than before, by novel concepts such as AI, fake news. Coupled with state disinformation campaigns, blatant political lies they become a real threat to the fabric of our societies. I can only hope that my pen will continue to be an annoyment to those who deserve to be annoyed by it, as tiny as the sting may be.
The art of photoshop or how to get to a great book cover
Most authors will subscribe to the need for a great cover for their books. It attracts the eye of a potential buyer, gives a visual clue to the book’s genre, maybe even what the story is about. All in the blink of an eye. That’s what a great book cover does for you. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing cover artists over the years, from Christopher Allen Poe to Natasha Snow. My latest cover which I want to talk about today, the one for Deceit, was both easy and difficult to get to.
The cover for my new novel Deceit, book two in The Golden One. Cover by Natasha Snow.
I wish I could show you all the steps…
Alas, due to copyright questions, I can’t show you all the iterations from the very first concept that Natasha sent me to the final product shown here.
I love this cover, it’s almost exactly what I had envisioned in my mind. When I began writing books two and three, I ordered the two covers at the same time. I usually have an idea of where I want the cover to go. Sometimes, Natasha surprises me with something that completely blows my mind, sometimes we go through ideas I bring to her. Different from book to book.
For Deceit and the coming one, Reckoning, I had visions, with the one for Deceit more clearly formed in my mind than the one for Reckoning.
There was a dream…
In the book, there are a couple of dream sequences, where our hero, Jason, has a dream where he sees a couple of eyes approach from the background, coming closer and closer.
I wanted that on the cover. But to find the right image proved to be difficult. I have a friend in New York who’s an amazing photographer, and I knew that she had African models. I reached out to her, but we drew a blank. The images she had available didn’t have the right look, not evil, but inquisitive, peering, staring intently.
I began to look online, going through various sites for stock photography, as I often do to find material to visualize my ideas. I sent Natasha a bunch of pictures and she picked the three or four she liked the best. In the framework of the title and the color scheme she’d chosen, some just didn’t work out. The look–or stare–just felt wrong.
Back to stock photos…
A basketball player is holding a basketball and is looking intensely at the camera. Copyright: iStock by GettyImages
I was almost giving up, considering alternative scenarios, e.g. an “evil” cat that is also a part of the plot. But then I found a picture that I thought might work:
Can you see it? Yeah, he’s the guy on the cover, or at least his eyes. Thanks to the magic of Natasha, which included aging, removing the sweat and incorporating them into the cover, we finally had this amazing cover above.
It was funny because when I saw the photo with the basketball, the sweaty forehead, I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to pull it off, but I just knew that there was something in the way he looked into the camera that was perfect: determination, curiosity, but no malice or anger. Those were the exact qualities I was shooting for, pun intended.
I’m really happy about this cover, and early responses from my readers seem to prove me right.
Based on that book cover…
The book cover is important to the author and the publisher. We need it for advertising and marketing purposes. We create banners, use it for posts on social media etc.
I also love to create a short video trailer for my books, and I’m particularly proud of this one. Grant you, I’m an amateur, but I still like it. Given that I’m learning more about how to use various elements of the cover’s adobe files in my video program, I can create more visually appealing trailers.
To end this post, I leave you with this. Deceit will drop on March 14, and preorders for the ebook are available on all relevant sites. The paperback and audiobook will be available come release day, although no guarantees for the latter. ACX is always a bit of a hit and miss when it comes to release dates.
Can we have a serious discussion about aging without reducing it to stupid expressions and hollow statements?
Aging. It happens to all of us, yet living in a society (Sweden) where youth is everything, growing older sometimes makes you feel at odds with how you see yourself, compared to how others see you. Aging is a thing, whether we accept it, or not. And it’s something we must deal with, one way or another. To grow older is neither good nor bad, it simply is, as inevitable as the earth spinning around the sun in the vastness of space. So why this post? I think a lot about aging, and no, I’m not “obsessed”, I think about a lot of things, twist them and turn them, look at them from various angles. I’ve also written about aging in more than one of my novels (e.g. Last Winter’s Snow, Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm or Jonathan’s Promise.)
Aging is more than “Seventy is the new Fifty”, “You’re only as old as you feel” or “Age is just a number”
The author at the age of eight.
No to all of the above. 🙂 With all due respect, but I can’t wait for the day when we finally dispense with repeating these stupid statements as if they were some Buddhist mantras. Society changes, norms change and people today act differently than they did ten, twenty, fifty years ago. Oddly, this only ever becomes a thing for the older generations. I’ve yet to year 3 is the new 7, even though there may be as much truth to that. But people obviously aren’t as obsessed with just how much more kids today know compared to what I did some forty-five years ago. And no, one isn’t as old as one feels, because there is always another side to that, how one is viewed by others. In this post, I would like to focus on aging from a couple of different angles. At this point, if you believe that I’m “obsessed” with age or if you think that I’m suffering from a mid-life crisis, then this might not be for you. Neither is true, but I acknowledge willingly that I have no desire to debate with a closed mind…
Speaking of a mid-life crisis. I did have a life crisis, but that was a long time ago. I was actually approaching my thirtieth birthday, and I recall feeling frustrated by that fact, no longer being in my twenties. After many months of feeling sorry for myself, I finally got to the point where I accepted the “inevitable” and enjoyed a great birthday and moved on.
Age is only a problem if you’re afraid to die
Author Hans Hirschi in Lower Manhattan, January 2019. Photo: Alina Oswald
This is one of my core beliefs. I think most people are afraid of the inevitable, death. And while we can’t change that outcome, we can at least pretend that it’s not happening yet. Strangely (I’ve just read another article about that), we seem to do little to stop us from aging prematurely and many of us let our general health lapse with crap diets, too much alcohol and sugar, and not enough exercise. And we’ve spent the past x-thousand years of human society to build elaborate religious systems (the extent of which is really mind-boggling if you think about it) creating fantasies around eternal lives and/or reincarnation. Simply because we cannot accept that life ends when we exhale our last breath. Now picture all the oppression, all the genocides, all the atrocities, the persecution and the hatred that follows in the footsteps of religion and you quickly realize that age and death are probably the biggest “thing” in human culture. So yes, we DO need to talk about it…
I never really counted how much time I spend contemplating aging or my death. I spend little time on the latter, as I can’t know when or how I’ll die. What I can think about is how I live my life, the kind of life I want to live. I also have very specific ideas on how I want my body to be disposed of after my death, something my husband and I discuss at times, to make sure we both understand each other’s final wishes. But ever since I realized that religion truly was “opium for the masses”, I’ve not had any issues with my own mortality. Therefore, aging is not an issue for me. Sure, I’d like to live to be very old (I’m a curious person), but only if I have my physical and mental health to allow me for a meaningful life. That view might change of course, as my aging puts new limitations on what I can do (physically) as the years progress. I no longer jump over fences as I used to and I do wake up every so often with my sciatica reminding me that I no longer have the spine of a teen.
There’s this weird dissonance between mind and body
I’d love to have that body back… Alas. I’d lose much of what I honestly value higher: experience, wisdom, knowledge
Sometimes I look in the mirror and I see my brother, or my dad, not me. This is weird and only lasts a fraction of a second before I recognize that the aging face staring back at me in surprise is, in fact, my own. Sometimes my behavior doesn’t reflect my exterior appearance. Just yesterday, we were on a walk and I was strutting along the path we were on, holding hands with my son (he’ll be six next month.) Some of the people we met were looking at me as if something was seriously wrong with me: “why does this old guy strut like a child?” I still love roller coasters, and the way I dress hasn’t changed much since I was twenty-five. I still prefer jeans and t-shirts/polos. But most importantly, I still ‘feel’ as if I were twenty-five. I don’t feel that I’m more than twice that age, and it goes without saying that this dissonance is growing bigger for every year.
At the same time, I can also readily admit that other parts of my mind do age. I am less tolerant of anti-social behavior (stupid expression, I know, but it’s the best I’ve got) such as feet on chairs, loud music on public transport, people walking on the wrong side of the street, etc. than when I was in my teens and twenties. I just wish everyone could behave properly. LOL I know, this does make me sound ancient…
What I don’t like about aging…
There are several aspects to growing older I don’t like:
- my physical limitations grow, my body decays
- the perception others have on what I can do, cannot do
- society’s views on my age cohort
The most annoying feature of growing older is, of course, my physical decay. When you get an x-ray done and the doctors tell you that your spine is “normal” for someone your age, waking up with back pains every day, my sciatica, how stiff I am compared to how I think I should be, how easily I seem to put on weight these days etc. Those are really annoying things. Oddly, I’m probably in better shape than I’ve ever been, working out regularly, with a diet healthier than ever before. Unfortunately, the sins of the first forty-nine years cannot be undone completely, and they are a constant reminder of not making them again. It’s also not very nice to see how my hair is getting grayer and grayer, or that my skin is beginning to sag. Then again, compared to others my age (or much younger), I can’t complain. Looking after yourself does wonders!
But much worse than my physical aging is how I am perceived by others. Finding a job at my age? Forget about it. I’m either over-qualified (HR code for “too old” and “too expensive”) or I don’t even hear back. It’s catch twenty-two: apply for a job you’re overqualified for but that you really should land and they’ll be right to claim you’re overqualified, apply for a job that might actually challenge you, and find one every year or so…and get no response. Sadly, for every year, this gets worse. I live in one of the worst societies when it comes to ageism. Here, things start to quickly go downhill as soon as you turn forty. At fifty plus, I might as well give up.
What I like about aging…
Horsing around with my son is still loads of fun. Despite the gray hairs… Photo: Alina Oswald
This is really the fun part. I love all the things I know, the experience I have, the countless things I’ve learned and the wisdom of knowing that I still don’t know shit. I’m also happy that I still remember what it was like to be young and to be dismissed because of that. I also remember vividly that I held very strong views of “I know everything!” when I was younger. Not sure when that changed, but I thought that I knew it all and that I was pretty much invincible until I was at least twenty-five.
It’s quite relaxing to acknowledge that I don’t know it all. Which is different from being right. I like being right at any age. LOL And as I grow older, it’s easier to admit when I’m wrong. There’s less ‘shame’, less sense of losing face associated with that. I am more relaxed about a great many things, simply because I’m not in the same hurry, I feel more patient (even though I still like to get things done quickly.)
Just the other day, a friend and I were talking about the eighties, the advent of PCs at work, fax machines and how slow work life was back then. You sent a letter and then you had to wait, two days, sometimes longer, for a reply. Bank contracts had to be typed up and mailed. No email, no fax stuff, no electronic signatures. It was a slower time, and the pace of life was different. Mind you, not better, not worse, but different. I find it a valuable experience to have in our world today. Just this weekend, I once again realized how fast our world is changing when our son failed to realize what live TV is. We hardly ever watch it, and when he had to go to the bathroom, he asked us to pause the program, in all seriousness. No can do. How do you teach such basic concepts such as time, when kids no longer have to be in front of their TV at a given time, every day, to watch their kids’ show? The way I had to at six pm every Saturday? They turn to Netflix or YouTube any time, pause, resume at their leisure. Not better, not worse, but vastly different.
When you forget…kids are there to remind us
Let’s face it: we all forget stuff. I do, too. I’m lucky though to have a child to remind me of things, from playing to just simply remembering the various stages of childhood. And I am in awe of today’s kids. They know so much, so very early in life. They learn so much. My son dives into learning with gusto. He’s strong-willed and very independent, in many ways the opposite of me, and I’d like to believe that I may take some credit for that. Where my parents were over-protective, I keep him on a much longer “leash”.
I love being out and about with my son because of his viewpoint, his perspective. He sees things so very differently. Sometimes funny, often wrong, but still, it reminds me of my own youth. But more importantly, the constant reminder that different perspectives complement each other. When I was a child or teen, my point of view didn’t matter. It was only the views of the older that mattered.
Today, the opposite seems to be the case. I wish we could see more balance. It pains me that we e.g. seem to forget the lessons of the great wars of the previous century. Let the older generations remind us of that, but maybe we need to let the younger generations tell the story? So that they capture the minds and hearts of the generations that need to heed the lessons?
What are your experiences? Thoughts? Let’s hear it… I for one will continue to ponder this for the rest of my life, as I learn new things, and maybe even unlearn some dear old habits that aren’t really helpful… Have a wonderful week.
Hans M Hirschi
Authors are not unlike readers, we’re not Chucky (Exceptions probably apply)
When memes kill off your favorite conversations…
I stumbled across this meme on a friend’s wall on Facebook the other day. I commented on it with a GIF because why not. Since we seem to be conversing with memes others make for us, why bother replying with words…
It’s a stupid meme for starters, exaggerating things beyond any measure of what could be considered appropriate given the topic we talk about: books. Words like “murder” and “hate” feel weirdly over the top. This is after all not your children or partners we talk about. I think most readers realize that unless they’re Annie Wilkes in Misery. I know for a fact that my friend is not. Alas, memes… Nuff said about that.
Let’s forget the stupid meme and focus on the topic it seeks to highlight:
- – The loss of an important (main/secondary character in a book
- – The reaction from the writer
- – The reaction from the audience
As a rule of thumb: a book where no one dies isn’t fiction, it’s fantasy (not the genre)
As the writer of seventeen full-length books, I know a thing or two about writing. Books mirror life in general and as such, they have to relate to life. If you happen to write instruction manuals for self-sealing stem bolts, this does not apply to you. Death is the ultimate consequence of life, its culmination. If life were sex, death would be the orgasm. You just can’t have life without death. (Yeah, no, the sex metaphor just died a painful death here…) If you write a book that plays out during a very short period of time, e.g. a day or a week or two, maybe even as long as a year, you can get by without anyone dying within the framework of the book.
But more often than not, books look back, they look forward, they cross decades, span across generations and they get to the point where death becomes a necessity. In my first novel Family Ties, nobody actually dies in the book. It plays out in just twenty-four hours (plus the epilogue) yet death is omnipresent, as a funeral is the spark that ignites the story.
I have been criticized by some who strongly dislike (to avoid the term above) the epilogue in Jonathan’s Hope (don’t believe me? Head on over to GollumReads and check out the reviews… I dare you.) They claim that Dan’s death at the end of the book did nothing to further the plot (as we authors often claim) and that it was utterly unnecessary. They must’ve have read a different novel altogether. And that is fine. Allow me to explain the misunderstanding.
There’s a reason for everything authors do, particularly when they do away with an important character…
You can read a book in many different ways. You can apply feminist glasses, a hermeneutic approach, a biographical one, a queer one, etc. Or you can try and squeeze a book into a genre and read it as such. You can read Romeo & Juliet as a romance novel, but you’d be disappointed with its ending (as it defies the romance genre’s call for a happily ever after.) Or you can read it as the drama that Shakespeare intended it to be and work through all the heartache and get to contemplate the many layers of subtext and the social criticism the play is laced with. Far too many lessons in his play are valid to our days. Alas, since forbidden love is still a thing, the “unhappy ending” makes a lot more sense than that which might make us feel good for the moment but wouldn’t make us think about what the author is trying to say.
Escapism genres tend to be shallow, and there’s nothing wrong with that (you’re probably not escaping fluff on cloud number nine), but if a book, a story, shakes you to the core, chances are the author is trying to tell you something (and no, I’m not about to debate exceptions, because that’s what they are.) In Jonathan’s Hope, there is a very good reason for the epilogue. The book’s title alludes to it, hope. Four letters, but they fuel the very life we lead. Without hope, it is questionable if we’d be able to live in the first place. For Jonathan, the epilogue is hope materialized. The hope of finding love, the hope of building a family, being happy, living a fulfilled, meaningful life. That is what the seventeen-year-old dreams about as he faces what seems certain death in the early pages of the novel.
As an author, I try to provide hope in my writing as well, and the book, despite the “death” of a main character, does provide hope anew. Looking around himself, beholding his family standing all around him, fills Jonathan with renewed hope and the knowledge that life is still worth living.
The death of a character is not something we do easily, the pain is quite physical
Yes, we sometimes have to let a character die. Yes, the plot demands it. My novel Last Winter’s Snow would be utterly meaningless without Casper’s death, the very premise of the book, how do you survive the loss of your partner. It’s what the novel is about. There are countless examples in literature of death being at the very core of the plot. Allow me to mention two from the LGBT world: Death in Venice and A Single Man. Remove death from those stories and consider the truncated stories and the impact they would’ve had on world literature. None whatsoever.
No writing project has ever caused me such pain as the death of Jonathan.
When I began writing the sequel to Jonathan’s Hope, I promised (sic!) myself that the novel would end with Jonathan’s passing. I had one important reason: I didn’t want to write a series around him and Dan, and I thought (naïvely, I admit) that writing a novel about the autumn of Jonathan’s life would ensure that. Alas, what sounded like a great theory was quite a different thing when I finally got to that point in the novel, when I was sitting at my laptop (as I am now), writing the actual words.
I hadn’t really planned for how his passing would come about, had no idea how or when it would occur. Suddenly (probably nudged by the word counter and the setting of the previous scene), I realized that the premise of the book was fulfilled, and that final chapter began to magically pour onto the screen. I remember it all too well. It is one of those moments in my life I will always remember vividly, similar to 9/11 or the Challenger disaster. Before I was done, my view clouded and as the tears were flowing freely from my eyes and onto my glasses. I was barely able to finish it, and the book does end rather abruptly. Quite unusual for me (hope anyone?) I just couldn’t go on.
Now, this isn’t exactly something to brag about, but I suffered a nervous breakdown, sobbing for hours, curling up into a ball of misery in my writing corner. I was utterly devastated. Jonathan, as fictional as he may be, had been a very close companion of mine for two years, and he’d nestled himself into my heart in ways I had not anticipated. It took me hours to pick myself up from the gutter, after long discussions with both my publisher and my husband, before the realization dawned on me: I had to press on. I had to write another book. Not for my readers, just for me. I had to fix it. I had to make it right. I needed to provide closure. Jonathan’s Legacy is probably my ‘sappiest’ book, with the happiest ending ever. So much for us authors killing for fun!
What about readers? Don’t you care about them/us?
There is probably a difference between “artsy” authors and “crafty” writers (and this is not a qualitative distinction.) The latter write primarily for money, but I’d say even they care deeply for their readers, even if it may be for different reasons, aka “I can’t afford to piss them off or they won’t buy my next one…” Needless to say, such books tend to stay clear of the strongest emotional expressions, they won’t deal with the darkest aspects of humanity. Those topics just don’t lend themselves to the business of money-making.
This book strikes a special note with many readers because as painful as it may be at first, it is strangely cathartic for many.
I’m definitely an “artsy” writer. While I like my books being bought (thanks to those who do!), that is not my driving force, or I would’ve taken that hint a long time ago and moved on to more lucrative pastures. Instead, I write the books that I have to write, I explore the topics I must because my brain is strangely wired, which is why I write about losing a child because I’m a parent, it’s a real-life fear of mine. Ask ANY parent. It’s why I wrote Disease because Alzheimer’s is a thing in my family, etc. It’s why I wrote that book about losing your partner, or love at old age or, or, or… Those were all questions that were on my mind in my very personal life at some point or another. Writing allows me to consider the pros and cons in a safe environment. Cynics might say I’m being paid for my own therapy sessions!
Am I aware that it might hurt readers? I’ll be honest, it’s not a concern when I write because I have to do what I have to do it in order to write the story that needs to be written. But I’m not some cold-hearted bastard who shrugs at the emotions felt by people who read my books. Quite the contrary. Readers’ tears are my silent applause. And since I’m not paid much…they keep me going, and I strongly believe that emotions are a good thing. However, and this is an important caveat: I will not allow anyone else’s emotions (or vision or views) influence my writing as it happens, at least not consciously. It is my story after all, and I will tell it the way I feel (strongly) it must be told. I hope that makes sense to you. If my subconscious picks up on stuff is a different thing entirely. Even the stupid meme here did–after all–prompt this blog post and much contemplation on my part.
I look forward to hearing your (side of the) story. Authors, how do you go about writing death? Readers, have I missed something? Let’s have it and please use your words… This is a writing blog after all.
Hans M Hirschi