Why Mental Heath Matters in Fiction

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When I was twelve, a well meaning adult asked if I could live one of my favorite books, which would I choose? In a true moment of epiphany, I realized just how horrible the lives of book characters were.

Authors put their characters through hell. It’s not cruelty. The journey to hell and back is a long established station along the heroes journey. To see a character arc progress, you have to see a character at their lowest.

But the YA books of the past only showed the journey, not the effects. The character’s were “resilient” and “strong.” They could pick themselves up off the floor, put on a cheerful smile, and carry on with their lives as though pieces hadn’t just been ripped out of them.

I know now that this was a trope left over from the days of Victorian children’s literature, when a child’s innate goodness was enough to spare them, if not from the cruelty of the world, than from its lingering effects. Female protagonists in particular have long been expected to “rise above” the worst.

But rather than inspiring twelve-year-old me, I remember feeling this moment of intense defeat. I could never be that person. I knew I wasn’t the type of person who was “strong enough” to survive the life and trials of a protagonist with a smile on my face.

I found myself chasing flawed protagonists. And not the kind who overcame their flaws and became literal angels and paragons of goodness (looking at you Vampire Diaries), but protagonists with flaws that spidered and cracked when pressure was put on them, but didn’t break.

I wanted to– needed to– know it was possible to survive protagonist level changes without being perfect. Because my much more minor problems were changing me, only I didn’t like who I was turning into. In fact, I kind of hated her.

I was needy and desperate in a way my protagonists never were. I was lonely no matter how many people were around me. I craved attention in a way no heroine ever had. And I felt like I was breaking in a way no protagonist ever would.

Twelve-year-old me might not have been dealing with the fate of the entire world. But I was dealing with a hellish school environment. I had two friends, but they weren’t normal friendships. They were toxic, co-dependent things. The result of being friends, not due to common interest, but because we were backed into the same corner by a popular group that routinely wrote us notes explaining how much better the world would be if we freaks would just kill ourselves.

Or each other.

Whatever, as long as we were gone so they didn’t have to look at our ugly faces anymore.

They called us poor and verbally ripped to pieces everything we wore, every hair cut, every tiny thing we might have enjoyed choosing, they called us lesbians because we sat too close together, they called us weird because of the books we read, they called us traitors because we weren’t from the south, they called us hideous and flinched every time we looked at them straight on, they never put hands on us (because the one time a boy snapped my bra strap, my friend drop kicked him), but they spent every moment of every day tearing us down.

And it wasn’t making me a better person. I wasn’t smiling through my trauma, minor in comparison though it was.

I didn’t find my refuge in books. YA hadn’t matured yet to that point, yet. I found my solace in Sailor Moon. The reason I loved her was because she was allowed to have flaws. She could cry and be a brat and it never got better. She had the same kind of weird, love-hate friendship with Sailor Mars that I did with my friend. The same kind of strange hero worship friendship with Sailor Venus. For once, I could see myself in fiction.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it saved my life.

It couldn’t have just been me who saw this lack, because over the next few years, there was a shift in young adult fiction. When Harry Potter saw Cedric die, his newly awoken determination to destroy Voldemort wasn’t a healthy thing. He was obviously traumatized, and he dealt with it by lashing out and getting angry.

Katniss Everdeen experienced PTSD after a situation that would give literally any human PTSD.

Holly Black’s characters dived into the nitty gritty underworld and let themselves enjoy the escape from the hell that was their normal lives.

These characters would have made such a difference to me growing up, so when it came time to write my own stories, I knew my characters had to deal with their trauma in authentic ways. Even if it was hard to write.

Persephone survives the events of her trilogy, but she isn’t left unmarked by them. She has nightmares, she has issues she needs to work through. Aphrodite has panic attacks. Tess experiences disassociation and traumatic flashbacks. And in my work in progress, Celeste struggles with uncontrollable outbursts of anger and depression. Their issues are not the story, and they don’t get magically resolved by the last page. It’s just a part of who they are and it influences how they deal with the events of the story.

It wasn’t easy to write characters who found realistic ways to cope with their trauma. It took time and research and frankly, a mental toll. But I will never forget the day I didn’t feel “strong enough” to be a protagonist in the books I read to escape my day to day life. And I never want my books to be the reason someone feels that way.

So, dear readers, please know that you are not weak if you don’t pick yourself up off the ground, force a smile to your face, and radiate positivity. You are not less if you aren’t a never ending fountain of kindness and good feelings, even to, or especially to, those who have hurt you. You are not failing if you reach out for help.

Thank you so much to Eva Pohler for including me on this World Suicide Prevention Day campaign. Please check out the rest of the stories that will be posted over the next several days. And come by and talk with myself and the other authors in our live facebook event on September 10th.

We’d love to talk to you.

 

 

 

Book Lover’s Unite for World Suicide Prevention Day

The first annual Book Lover’s Unite for World Suicide Prevention Day Tour will kick off on Sunday, September 1st and will culminate in a twelve-hour Facebook Live Event on World Suicide Prevention Day, Spetember 10th.

The purpose of this event is to spread mental health awareness among the book community, eradicate the stigmas associated with mental health, share our individual journeys in an accepting community, discuss books that effectively represent mental health issues, and raise money for the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Here is our exciting tour line-up (Tap the images):

September 1st:

 

September 2nd:

Description Writing Challenge

bloom blooming blossom blur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Before we could talk too much about description and imagery, we had to have descriptions to pull from. Writing Excuses’ Mary Robinette Kowal had a great prompt, that, while sometimes infuriating, is an absolute must for any writer to try.

The campers were taken to a garden on campus, and had to write a description of our setting for thirty minutes non-stop. Pens moving across the page the entire time. The first five to ten minutes are pretty easy, but after that, you need to dig deep, expand your senses, and really get creative.

It’s a fantastic exercise that feels a little like running. It’s not so bad when you start, then halfway through you hit this moment of “I’ve got nothing left,” but when you push through it, you hit your stride and discover an entirely new layer to describing things.

I would recommend any writers take the time to do this for each setting their manuscript or short features, because it will give you vibrant, less obvious descriptions to pull from throughout your story.

In all seriousness, give it a try.

Using Blocking to Change the Meaning of Dialogue

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Yesterday, my creative writing campers practiced writing a short story entirely in dialogue. Good dialogue should tell you more than the words the character is trying to say. It should give us insight into the character, their situation, their setting, and their relationship to the topic and the person they’re speaking with. The voices should be distinct enough not to require tagging (in a dialogue only story).

Tagging is great, but often writers rely on it to convey how something is being said, or to provide redundant information.

“What did you say?” she asked provides absolutely no additional information compared to… “What…” she whispered, murder gleaming in her eyes, “do you mean?” where we get mood and inflection.

Like all things in writing, variety is king. Sometimes, you just need a , she said, to move the conversation along and clarify who is speaking. But when every line of dialogue ends the same way, you have a problem.

Ideally, every bit of exposition added to the dialogue should convey more information or new insight. Consider the difference between.

“I’m just hungry.”

And

“I’m just hungry,” she sobbed. She couldn’t seem to take her eyes off the pulsing blue vein on the softest part of his neck.

In addition to getting insight into what the character is feeling, suddenly the words take on a new meaning.

So today’s exercise was to take their dialogue only story, and use blocking (how the characters move within their space and what they interact with) to change the meaning of every single line.

I had some amazing results. Want to try? Share your exercise in the comments below.

Stories Told in Dialogue

Dialogue

This week’s creative writing camp is all about economy of language. I’m hoping to teach my students to give every word multiple jobs.

The most overt example of this is dialogue.

Good dialogue should tell the reader more than the words the speaker is saying. You should be able to tell who is talking, what they think of who they’re speaking to, how they feel about what they’re saying, and get a feel for their personality while they’re at it.

For an example, we looked at the story “They’re Made Out of Meat,” by Terri Bisson. Without a single description or tag, the Bisson constructed a rudimentary setting, goal, worldview, and character dynamic. We know the two beings speaking are co-workers, we can tell one out ranks the other, but we also know they’re friendly beyond their work roles because of the way they speak to each other.

Of course once they read a story entirely in dialogue, they had to write one of their own. Every student wrote their own story, and the students had to guess the setting, who was speaking, relationships to one another, and attitudes toward their topic.

Want to give it a try? Post your dialogue story in the comments below.

 

 

Random Plot Generator

Writing Resources, #amwriting

In Creative Writing Camp today, my students were challenged to firmly ground the reader in the story in three sentences that convey the setting, goal, and character.

It’s a super fun exercise that everyone should try (credit to the idea from Writing ExcusesMary Robinette Kowal who had a tweet about healthcare go viral this week).

Step 1: Go to Random Plot Generator

Step 2: Choose a Main Character, a Setting, and a Situation

Step 3: Set the scene in three sentences.

Step 4: Change only the setting and write it again

Step 5: Change only the character and try it again

Step 6: Change only the situation and try it again

Here were mine from today.

Scenario 1: A foolish man in his thirties at the fair being left for good.

So maybe he should have told her about the motion sickness before sitting next to her on the tilt-a-whirl, but how was he supposed to know it would both tilt and whirl? 

“Forget my number,” she snarled, slinging chunks of his birthday dinner off her designer dress.

Whatever, it was still an improvement from his thirty-second birthday when he’d gone scuba diving with the piranhas. 

Scenario 2: A foolish man in a castle being left for good.

The young king watched impassively as his wife bared her neck for the guillotine, trying to figure out why she looked so upset. If she’d given birth to a son instead of a daughter, this wouldn’t be happening. Next time, he’d find a woman approaching her forties; with age came wisdom, and with wisdom, sons. 

Scenario 3: A naive old man in a castle being left for good.

The king was flirting with his wife again, but Old-Man Bob wasn’t worried. His young, beautiful wife had a stable life without all the problems riches brought with them. Surely she’d reject the King’s advances. 

Scenario 4: A naive old man in a castle giving a dog a home.

Old man Bob squinted his eyes at the puppy dragging an elk out of the castle moat. “Here boy,” he whistled as the puppy bared teeth the size of his arm at him and left out an earth trembling growl. “Let’s get you in out of the cold.”

Want to give it a try? Post your 3 sentence scene in the comments below.

 

 

Blood and Other Matter is LIVE!

Blood and Other Matter

Red Moon Rising

Derrick Hernandez and Tess D’Ovidio have been best friends forever. There’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another. But their childhood bond is put to the test when Tess shows up on Derrick’s porch covered in blood…

Tess has no memory of what happened. She’d gone to a bush party with one of the football players. She remembers the bonfire…and then, nothing. Working backward, Tess and Derrick learn that she and seven other players were the only ones to make it back from the party alive.

During the next few weeks, each of the survivors is plagued with nightmares that reveal fragments of memories from the horrific night. But when the young men start dying under mysterious circumstances, Derrick can’t figure out if Tess is next—or if she’s somehow responsible. All he knows is that he has to save his best friend—or die trying…

Blood and Other Matter is live now. Order it Today!, and check out a free sample here.

 

 

 

Blood and Other Matter is Available for Pre-Order!

Blood and Other Matter

Red Moon Rising

Derrick Hernandez and Tess D’Ovidio have been best friends forever. There’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another. But their childhood bond is put to the test when Tess shows up on Derrick’s porch covered in blood…

Tess has no memory of what happened. She’d gone to a bush party with one of the football players. She remembers the bonfire…and then, nothing. Working backward, Tess and Derrick learn that she and seven other players were the only ones to make it back from the party alive.

During the next few weeks, each of the survivors is plagued with nightmares that reveal fragments of memories from the horrific night. But when the young men start dying under mysterious circumstances, Derrick can’t figure out if Tess is next—or if she’s somehow responsible. All he knows is that he has to save his best friend—or die trying…

Blood and Other Matter releases on April 17th. Pre-Order today, and check out a free sample here.

 

 

 

Review: Worthy of Love by M.M Kin

Worthy of Love by M.M Kin first edition book cover, Hephaestus, Kabeiro, Hades, Persephone, Aphrodite, Ares, Hera, Zeus, Greek Mythology RetellingBefore I begin this review, let me give a quick disclaimer. Worthy of Love is not a YA book. It includes adult content of the sexual variety. So, if you are not an adult or do not read adult books, read no further until you’re older.

We good?

Good.

Worthy of love is an adult Greek mythology retelling that focuses on Hephaestus’s life. We see his birth, his tragic fall from the mountain, his childhood, and his love life. Other mythological figures like Aphrodite, Hera, and Kabeiro play major roles, and still more like Hades, Persephone, Ares, Hermes, and Zeus have brief cameos.

One thing that I love about reading other Greek mythology retellings is that we authors have all looked at basically the same source material. We’ve studied the same myths, read the same stories, and we all came away with completely different characters and stories. A side note in my research (Heph and Kabeiro) is a major plot point for hers and vice versa. In her story, Heph, Hera, and even Zeus (sometimes) can be viewed through a sympathetic lens, but Aphrodite and Ares can most certainly not. My take is almost the exact opposite, I’ve read other stories that meet somewhere in the middle, and we’re all looking at the same myths. There’s so much room in Greek mythology for creative takes that are all completely accurate.

I finished this book fairly fast and really enjoyed seeing another interpretation of the marriage of Hephaestus and Aphrodite. I do wish Aphrodite had been a bit more multi-dimensional since she’s such a focal point in this book. Kin does acknowledge the double standard in the way Zeus is viewed for being promiscuous and the way Aphrodite is viewed, but Zeus was fleshed out enough that it wasn’t his only character trait. Aphrodite was just a shallow, petty, whore, and apparently a terrible mother. But I also recognize I have a bias when it comes to Aphrodite.

One thing I really appreciated was Kin setting this in ancient Greece but not doing the whole ‘my characters are going to randomly speak in stilted, Victorian English thing. I know the modern dialect puts off some readers because it’s not historically accurate, but if Kin was going for complete accuracy in her dialogue, the characters would in fact be speaking ancient Greek, not stilted, old English. If a reader can assume the characters are speaking Greek, but the story has been translated to English for our sakes, then can’t we also assume the idioms have been translated as well?

Thank you Kin for the review copy. It is always a pleasure to read another take on the Greek myths.