Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ways to help people who are grieving

Yesterday I wrote a post on ten things not to say to someone grieving a loss, and I’m thankful to everyone who commented and shared their experiences.

I think one reason people say unintentionally hurtful or dismissive things in response to a death is because they feel they have to fix things. They see you’re in pain, and they want to make it better, so they tell you that your loved one is with the angels now, or that it will all work out for the best somehow.

The problem is, if someone is grieving—whether it’s for a parent, child, spouse, friend, pet, anyone—you can’t take away the pain. Period. It will lessen over time, I know that from personal experience, but there’s no quick fix to apply right now. And that can make people feel pretty helpless in the face of grief.

So here are a few things that could be more understanding and helpful towards a grieving person, and I hope they make a difference.

1. Don’t feel you have to come up with something new or profound

“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful person, and we’ll miss her.”

That will never go down in the books as amazingly quotable. It’s not the kind of statement which makes anyone redefine their worldview on death and grieving.

But it is by far the best possible thing anyone could have said to me. Sometimes, acknowledging grief is all the support that can be given under the circumstances.

2. Share a memory

If their loved ones are prepared for it or would welcome it, talk about the person who died. Keep it positive, but depending on the situation, your recollections could go from positive and heart-warming to hilariously off-color. Either way, it shows that the dead person hasn’t been swept under the rug.

3. Books and poetry

It’s best to be careful about this, but I had to include poetry, because after my mom’s death, someone sent me a poem about bereavement. I’ll always remember one line of it

“I promise to hold you in my heart
As a cupped hand protects a flame.”

That is exactly how I felt about my mother, about all my memories of her and my love for her. As long as I’m here, the flame won’t go out.

But as I said, be careful. My mom’s devoutly religious friends knew I didn’t share their beliefs, so they didn’t send me any books written from a Christian perspective, and the poem came from someone whom I’d talked to on a discussion board for non-believers. Either way, the poem or book should benefit the grieving person, not the person who gives it.

A truly wrenching and sensitive book that could be given to a non-religious person is Michael Rosen's Sad Book. After his son died at 16, Rosen wrote this, an honest exploration of his loss and grief, and the things he does to deal with them day by day.

There’s a beautiful moment of hope at the end, but it’s not “I’ll see him again some day and he’ll be fine” hope. It’s more the sense that things will slowly get better, and that all we can do each day is light a single candle against the dark.

4. Other gifts

Speaking of candles, I read of this gift : a scented candle with a note attached, saying, “When you miss her, light this.”

I would have liked that. No, it won’t make any practical difference to light a candle, other than making the room smell of gardenia. But it acknowledges that, yes, you will feel grief, and here’s something you can do about it.

Personally, I’d have more difficulty blowing out the candle, and would soon need a new one.

That was all I could come up with, so please feel free to share your suggestions!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ten things not to say to someone grieving a death

This day, ten years ago, my mother died of cancer.

I still miss her. I didn’t want to write a blog post about her or the illness—too personal, sorry—but when I thought about what happened after her death, then there was a lot that needed to be said. My mother had extremely religious friends, one of whom had exorcised the demons of cancer out of her a few days before she died, and some of the things they said to me, I’ll never forget.

1. “You’ll get over it.”

Or what I got, which was minus the “you’ll”.

Especially if the death happened recently, the person may be deep in grief. They need to work through that at their own pace. They don’t need to get the impression that there’s something wrong with their pain, so other people are looking forward to that being over and everything going back to normal.

2. “She’s in a better place.”

Firstly, not everyone believes in an afterlife.

Secondly, my mom’s place was with her family. Period.

So each time I heard that, I thought the person saying it didn’t know my mother at all, if they believed she could be happy without her children and her home and her busy, cheerful, productive life.

3. “She’s watching over you.”

Shortly after my mother died, an acquaintance of hers phoned up to tell me this. She also claimed my mother would always be with me and if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask my mom. After I got her off the line, I shouted to the empty house that my mother was d-e-a-d, dead! and as a result, she wouldn’t be hanging around like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

If people are helped by the belief that their lost loved one is now their guardian angel, that’s wonderful for them.

But please. Don’t assume that everyone shares this belief, that everyone wants to share it, or that everyone needs to hear it about their own loved ones.

4. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Every time I hear this I think, “Yes. Sometimes the reason is that shit happens in this world to people who don’t deserve it. Wonderful reason, that.”

It’s great if people take comfort in the conviction that there’s meaning and/or a good outcome in grief and loss. But again. Please don’t assume that everyone shares this viewpoint, or that others will appreciate the idea of their loved one’s death being planned so something special can take place.

5. “She wouldn’t want you to feel like this.”

Even if she wouldn’t, the fact remained that I did. Piling guilt on top of everything else isn’t likely to help.

And I just wished the person saying this wouldn't try to speak for my mom.

6. “At least she isn’t suffering any more.”

Yes, the reason she’s not suffering is because she’s dead. Er… yay?

7. “She wasn’t such a great person, really.”

After my mother’s funeral, my father’s cousin started to tell me about a flaw in my mom’s character. I immediately interrupted to say I wasn’t interested in hearing it and never would be interested in hearing it. My mom was not perfect, and I’m well aware of that, but no one gets to criticize her to my face.

Slamming a dead person to someone grieving the loss of that person is an especially low blow. It’s not going to produce the result: “Maybe I should stop feeling sad.” It may, however, lead to: “Maybe I shouldn’t speak to you again, so I don’t feel worse.”

I can only imagine what such people say when someone dies of a drug overdose or through not wearing a seatbelt. Keep the judgments to yourself, please. The dead person’s relatives don’t need to hear them.

8. “It was meant to be.”

I don’t have to explain why this is hurtful and unproductive, do I?

9. “I will do this and that and the other thing for you.”

Which is lovely if you mean it.

But there was a couple in my mom’s church who (at social functions) kept saying what they would do to help me, without ever actually doing anything. After the first couple of letdowns, I wised up.

Maybe they felt good to say this, maybe it was like “let’s get together some time” or “I’ll call you in the morning” or maybe they got brownie points from the people at church who overheard but who didn’t know they never followed up.

10. “What a saint she was. She never doubted. She never said a word of complaint.”

She never said a word to you. Maybe because she knew you wouldn’t want to listen.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The importance of the inciting incident

Why not start a story with… oh, let’s say a day in the life of a poor family? That will give the writer some time to develop the characters before the first turn in the plot, and it won’t be devoid of conflict. The fact that this family is struggling to feed themselves should be gripping.

When a manuscript with this start was offered for critique, the question of the inciting incident came up. It made me think about whether such an incident was necessary, and if so, why.

First, imagine three scenarios:

1. Poor family struggles to earn enough to buy food.
2. Poor family which struggles to earn enough to buy food finds out they've won the lottery.
3. Dad gives up and walks out on poor family.

The first story can be made compelling. I love Anita Desai’s The Village By the Sea because it describes life in a rural Indian village beautifully, evoking sounds and smells and colors. But this start essentially tells a day-in-the-life-of story. The family was struggling yesterday, they're struggling today and they'll be struggling tomorrow.

Until something significant changes, the setting and characters and style have to hook the reader and carry the story. Whereas with the other two scenarios, there are inciting incidents. Things change, either for the better or for the worse.

I was hooked like a fish at the start of The Thorn Birds. That has long, long passages of exposition and description, but it starts with an inciting incident: the only daughter of a poor family gets something expensive for her fourth birthday. It doesn't start with "here's another day for the Clearys".

The writer whose manuscript we were critiquing was concerned that if the story leaped into the major conflict, there would be no reason to care about the characters (and no chance to develop them). But the inciting incident doesn’t need to lead directly into the overarching plot. It can be a small conflict instead, and it can bring out the characters as well as their background.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s my critique of the start of The Thorn Birds, with my comments in blue:

On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday. Sets the tone: there’s a sense of 'this is how it all began'.

After the breakfast dishes were put away her mother silently thrust a brown paper parcel into her arms and ordered her outside. “Thrust” and “ordered” sound cold, at best—and from her mother, on her birthday? Her mother doesn’t want to watch her opening her gift? Wow. Also, the present parcel is wrapped in brown paper, not anything pretty.

So Meggie squatted down behind the gorse bush next to the front gate and tugged impatiently. She’s four years old, but she’s already so used to her mother’s cold commands that she doesn’t find them unusual. I’m getting a hint of the family dynamics here.

Her fingers were clumsy, the wrapping heavy; it smelled faintly of the Wahine general store, which told her that whatever lay inside the parcel had miraculously been bought, not homemade or donated. Sensory appeal here, and we see why the gift was wrapped in brown paper—the family is poor.

All that information in one paragraph at the start. Plus, after reading that I had to keep going, to see what Meggie got for her birthday—and what her family is like, and why she was given something new. The rest of the chapter unfolds with lots of description of a typical day for the Cleary family, but because I was hooked (and because it was a well-written slice of life in the past), I enjoyed reading that. But what I remember most is the inciting incident.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cover art for The Coldest Sea

Check it out on A Writer's Mind, courtesy of Sky Purington. I'm spoiled when it comes to covers, because Kanaxa outdoes herself every time, but I think this one is the loveliest so far!

There's also a writeup about what I wanted on the cover and how that ties into the story, which I'm busy editing now. So this is a wonderful way to start the week. :) Hope you're also having a great Monday!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Five ways authors reacted very badly to reviews

1. Spat on a reviewer

After nursing a grudge for two years, author Richard Ford approached a reviewer at a party.

…at a March 2 party in New York for Poets & Writers magazine, Whitehead says, Ford approached him and said, “I’ve waited two years for this! You spat on my book.” “Then he spat on me,” says Whitehead.

2. Sent a book and bullets to the reviewer

Richard Ford, again. I must make sure I never read anything of his, because he seems frighteningly unbalanced. Apparently Alice Hoffman, she of Twittergate fame, gave him a poor review. So both he and his wife fired a gun into one of Hoffman’s books and then sent that to her.

His comment on the general reaction?

“But people make such a big deal out of it - shooting a book - it's not like I shot her."

3. Took legal action—against everyone

He claims Mr Jones wrote damning reviews of his book on Amazon September and October 2010, which he had published under the pseudonym "Scrooby." Mr Jones also revealed his true identity.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation published an article by the reviewer, so the author sued the reviewer, Dawkins, the foundation and Amazon. Lawsuits for everyone!

4. Mailed dog shit to the reviewer

This fecal matter had been wrapped in a piece of paper on which had been printed out language comparing me to the infamous Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I recognized the comparison. It had appeared on an author’s blog accompanied by my full name, an entertaining little video snippet from the film, a considerable amount of rather hostile language and a threat to name the villain in her next novel after me.

This was all because I had read the author’s debut novel and disliked it intensely.

5. Offered a bounty on the reviewer

Last week, Jaime Clark, a first-time novelist who was reviewed negatively in P.W., decided to take matters into his own hands: In an e-mail sent to a list of literary editors, Clark offered to pay $1,000 to anyone who would tell him the name of the reviewer. “You need not reveal your identity to collect this bounty,” he assured his potential Judas, “but you must be able to substantiate your information.”

This made me want to pull a Quint. “Ten thousand, for me, by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writers arguing with readers

There's been a lot of author-behaving-badly news recently - from Kathleen Hale's stalking a reviewer to Richard Brittain hitting a reviewer over the head with a bottle. Compared to that, the worst that's ever happened to me is an author calling me at home to ask me to take his name off my blog.

But there are more subtle ways a writer can antagonize readers, and arguing with them over something they didn't enjoy is one. This is how it happened to me.

I once saw a thread on a discussion board about tropes readers were tired of. That reminded me of a certain twist in a fantasy I’d just finished. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of a twist—more like a feeble wriggle—so I posted on that thread.

I didn’t mention the book or the author, only the particular twist, something like, “I’m tired of the Big Reveal where the villain is the hero’s father. This isn’t original and when I read it in a recent fantasy novel, it just came off as a dull cliché for me.”

The author of that book saw what I’d posted. I hadn’t said anything identifying the book, but the fact that I’d complained about a twist she’d used seemed to upset her. She sent me a private message asking how this was a cliché. When I named other novels which had driven that cliché into the ground, she posted in the thread to defend her use of it.

She said she hadn't read the novels I’d referenced, and her editor hadn't said anything about her twist either. "So how does that make it a cliche?" she asked. "I can't read everything. If you're wondering why a writer would use such a trope, they, and their editor, have not read the books you have." (Italics hers)

I ended up apologizing in an "I'm sorry if I said something offensive" way, just to calm her down. But I also decided I would never again read anything she had published. The twist alone wouldn’t have put me off, because I’d enjoyed other aspects of her book, but her defensive attitude is something I can't forget.

So writers haven’t read the books I have? That’s fine. But I have read the books I have, so if for the nth time I read a certain plot twist, maybe it does look like a cliche to me. What am I supposed to do under those circumstances—tell myself, “Well, to the author of the book, this must be really fascinating, therefore I shouldn’t say anything”?

Plus, the thread was about cliches, so people were posting on it about cliches. Lots of them. This particular plot twist was just one in the crowd, so it wasn’t like I had specifically started a thread to criticize this author’s book. God alone knows what might have happened in that case.

Complaining about a plot twist =/= singling out a book, even if a book uses that twist.

It also doesn’t mean that the reader hates your book in general. Not at all. I don’t like the rape scene in The Fountainhead. That’s still my second favorite book. I can’t stand the protagonist of Confessions of a Shopaholic—but the book still ended up being a keeper, because there are other things I enjoyed about it.

A reader complaining about a plot twist might still try another of your books.

A reader whom you have argued with to defend your work? That’s a different matter. Even if you’ve won the argument—and the author I mentioned might well believe she’d won, since she got an apology of sorts—in the end, you haven’t gained a fan. You’re more likely to have made someone avoid your books on principle.

Even if someone said they hated fantasies set on ships, and that Robin Hobb’s Liveships novels had the last word in this and that he/she would never read such a book again, that's not a personal commentary on my work. I'd stand to lose more by getting defensive about this than I would from letting it go and allowing that person their opinion, rather than trying to argue them out of it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I’ve always been fascinated by alien races which parasitize humans.

This never gets old, because it can be written in so many ways—the aliens could be like the souls of Stephenie Meyer’s The Host, and genuinely believe they’re in the right. They could be like the creatures in the Outer Limits episode “The Surrogate”, which change pregnant women from the inside out. The sky’s the limit.

What intrigued me about Octavia Butler’s short story "Bloodchild" was the painting it inspired for a cover:

Children, being specifically targeted by the aliens. That was new. So once I found a copy of the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, I settled in for (what I thought would be) a chilling read.

The premise is simple. Humans live on another planet in what’s called the Preserve. They coexist uneasily with the natives of that planet, the Tlic, who have multiple limbs, stings and a lower body temperature. They’re intelligent, but they’re wonderfully different from humans.

T’Gatoi whipped her three meters of body off the couch, toward the door and out at full speed. She had bones—ribs, a long spine, a skull, four sets of limb bones per segment. But when she moved that way, twisting, hurling herself into controlled falls, landing running, she seemed not only boneless, but aquatic—something swimming through the air as though it were water. I loved watching her move.

Tlic males mate and die, but the females live to adulthood and lay eggs. Here’s where the humans come in, since the eggs have to be laid in hosts, and the size and strength of the resulting Tlic depends on the kind of host. Having the eggs introduced isn’t difficult, since the Tlic females release a fluid that relaxes the host, but what’s painful, terrifying and potentially deadly is the hatching. The grubs eat anything except the flesh of the Tlic who laid them, so if they’re not removed from the human in time…

This could have been an excellent horror story by itself. What makes it deeper and more intriguing is T’Gatoi’s relationship with Gan—the human narrator—and his family. His older sister, Xuan Hoa, wants to be a host. His mother is torn between her friendship with T’Gatoi and her need to protect her children. And T’Gatoi tries to balance her biology, the demands of other Tlic, and her fondness for Gan’s family.

This is one of those stories that can be read again and again. I loved the dual meaning of “host”, the complex ever-changing interplay between humans and Tlic as groups, and the different attitudes to being parasitized. I liked how Gan grows up in the course of the story. When he refuses T’Gatoi’s eggs and uses a rifle to show how strongly he feels about it, she makes it clear this has to be his choice.

“How could I put my children into the care of one who hates them?”

The utter alienness of the Tlic is beautifully balanced out by this, and the ending is quiet but emotional. I only wish Butler had written more stories set in this world.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Five great things that happened last week

1. Signed a contract with Samhain for Christmas Yet To Come, a paranormal historical romance featuring the third ghost from the Dickens story. Silent faceless terrifying wraiths need love too!

That story will be out in time for Christmas next year, so watch out for it.

2. Signed a contract with Loose Id for Marked by You, a multicultural fantasy romance set in the African savanna. Which I have always wanted to visit but could never afford, so at least I wrote about it. That one will be out early next year, and I'm really excited about it - it's probably the hottest thing I've written yet.

3. Won this in Lenora Bell's giveaway to celebrate her debut novel being sold. Just in time for the cold weather, too!

4. Discovered a really interesting blog for writers, with a high emphasis on fantasy : E. L. Wagner's Umbral Musings. Exactly the kind of thing I like to read while I'm having breakfast or dinner.

5. Oh, and speaking of food... Thanksgiving. Celebrated that yesterday. Roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing with raisins and olives, wild rice, ham, mashed rutabagas with grated cheddar, pan-fried baby potatoes, broccoli and carrots, tourtiere, pumpkin soup with cornbread, apple pie with ice cream. This was the best meal of the year.

So it's been a very productive week.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Always Chaotic Evil protagonists

This isn’t a main character who’s a loveable rogue, or a sexy bad boy, or a tortured hero, or an anti-hero, or someone due for a redemption arc.

This is an evil protagonist. Completely and irredeemably evil, with no positive qualities whatsoever. So the story is about all the loathsome things he does.

I’ve come across two such manuscripts being offered for critiques, and they were… interesting. But that’s interesting to discuss, rather than to read. In both cases, I was so turned off by the protagonists’ amorality, casual murders, sexist attitudes and cowardice that I couldn’t read much further.

“The characters are supposed to be hateful,” the writers said in explanation.

Which is all very well, but hateful =/= interesting.

It’s certainly unusual to have the main character be a psychopath. It might even be edgy and dramatic, because some readers will be hooked by a character who tramples on all of society’s rules, who rapes and murders her way through the land without anything so cumbersome as a conscience.

The question is whether there’s enough of a line attached to that hook. If the character doesn’t have a solid, interesting goal, then the story might come off as gore porn. If the character isn’t smart enough to see the consequences of openly killing people (because intelligence is a positive quality, and she can’t have any of those), then the story's likely to end soon unless other characters take on the responsibility of protecting the psycho.

“Well, yes, he’s stupid on top of being self-centered and cruel,” the writers said. “But that means readers will be eager to find out how he's defeated in the end. He’s like Joffrey!”

I think one reason Joffrey never got a POV of his own was because he didn’t even have the fig leaf of enough sense to consider the consequences of his actions. It would have been difficult if not impossible for him to carry the story on his own.

And I've read books where I wanted the main character to fail - The Day of the Jackal was the first of these - but the MC usually had some quality that made them interesting (and I don't mean qualities like sadism and stupidity). The Jackal was extremely smart, competent and fearless. Hannibal Lecter was brilliant and sophisticated and had his own moral code, such as it was.

Another problem with characters who are Always Chaotic Evil is that they’re predictable. If you always know how a perfect saint will act in any given situation, then you also know exactly what a sadistic coward who hates women will do. This rarely makes for a engrossing experience.

Finally, if these characters are meant to be frightening—for me, personally, they aren’t, because they’re usually so over-the-top in their vileness that I find them difficult to take seriously. Whereas if the evil character has even a spark of humanity, one point of contact, it can make him much deeper and more disturbing. One of my favorite moments in Misery was when Paul saw what Annie might have been if she wasn’t murderously insane. In other words, he recognized that spark of humanity.

It didn’t make him any less determined to get away from her. But it did make her something more than just her madness.

Likewise, one improvement that Game of Thrones (the TV show) made to the books was to have Ramsay Snow Bolton eager for his father's approval. I still want him to die. But I can understand him, and I find him much more interesting than I ever found Joffrey. It also helps that he's smart in his own way - he'd be hopeless as the public face of House Bolton, but he's clever enough to make his own gains on the side.

There's room in fiction for characters who are roast evil with stupid sauce on the side, but if they're to take center stage and carry the story, they need more than just that to go on.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wild Oats

The first interesting thing about Jedwin Sparrow is that he’s a mortician. The second is that he wants to sow some wild oats—and there’s only one woman, a divorcee five years his senior, who might be prepared for some… planting.

Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats, set in the early 1900s in the small town of Dead Dog, Oklahoma, kicks off the romance with a great start. Jedwin makes the most endearing indecent proposal ever; not only is he nervous, but he offers some financial compensation. Since the divorcee, Cora Briggs, clearly doesn’t receive any money from her ex, Jedwin suggests he repair her fence and provide her with a “modest stipend” for her “discretionary use”.

Cora is nowhere near the scarlet woman the town believes her to be. She could use the money, because she barely manages to feed herself by selling preserves to the local shopkeeper—who knows she has no choice but to accept a pittance in return. But she does have her self-respect. So as Jedwin stammers out what he hopes to receive in return, she begins to tell him to leave her house.

And then she changes her mind. Because Jedwin’s mother is one of the respectable matrons who spread nasty rumors about Cora after her divorce, and although she’s not a malicious person, Cora imagines how horrified Mrs. Sparrow will be if her precious little boy has anything to do with the town harlot.

Cora won’t seduce him, of course. She’ll just play along. So she tells him she’ll allow him to court her, because even women like her enjoy flowers and poetry prior to seduction. What she doesn’t expect is for Jedwin to take her up on it. As the mortician, he’s learned how to preserve flowers, and his attempts at poetry are funny but genuine. She begins to like him, and Jedwin soon feels something deeper even than attraction.

But one by one, the townsfolk slowly suspect a harvest of wild oats is growing under their noses. And Cora knows the dalliance can never come to light—not least because of the secret she has to keep from everyone, the truth about why she was divorced.

Pamela Morsi’s Americana romances tend to be feelgood reads, and Wild Oats is no exception. Her characters are down-to-earth, flawed but good at heart; I especially like the fact that Cora’s ex-husband is not demonized. He didn’t abuse her or leave her unsatisfied in bed; he just, for a good reason, was not in love with her.

I liked everything about this book, from Jedwin’s unusual profession to the fact that Cora was curvy, older and more experienced. Not to mention determined to manage for herself, even if she had to scrimp and do without. This isn’t a heart-wrenching romance, but it’s a very pleasant read and I hope I find the sequel, Runabout, so I can visit the town of Dead Dog again.