With a fresh box of buttered popcorn in my lap, I watch the seemingly endless loop of Twitterati YA scandals unfold, laughing at the absurdity while nursing a paranoid thought about when they will come for me. As a horror writer, I’m guilty of many of these Twitter mob’s narrowly defined transgressions. Just recently, I learned that my use of gay male protagonists in not one but two of my horror novels is not me embracing my own vision of the characters I created, but fetishizing gay men. I wonder what they would say about my victim with Down syndrome being tortured in the basement of my short story, Traci. And I’m certain the two-faced (literally) hermaphroditic killer in my story, Janus, is some reprehensible affront to inclusion.
Just recently the mob turned on one of its own. The author, a gay black man, was initially praised for his #ownvoices narrative until someone posted a bold-typed “review” pointing out that his novel’s setting during the Kosovo War was insensitive to the people who actually suffered during those events, that the author’s views on it were too western and privileged. Apparently, expatriate narratives are no longer allowed in this ever-moving target of acceptability. Frantic attempts at damage control by the author begging “friends” to up-vote his book to temper the storm was met with further shunning by the YA “community” until the author (ironically one of the major stone-throwers during the Blood Heir scandal) decided to “pull” his book from publication, and issue a prostrate apology with the usual promise to “do better.” You’ll hear this mantra a lot whenever one of these scandals erupt, and there is something eerily sinister about it, more frightening than a Richard Laymon panty fetish.
While members of the YA book “community” are donning their red pointy hats in preparation for the next auto-da-fé, we horror authors are high-fiving each other for writing that flesh-flaying scene in exquisitely gruesome detail. We may swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh, but you’ll never meet a nicer bunch of folks. In my one year on BookTube, I’ve had fellow horror writers give shout-outs about my channel and my work, publish my stories in their anthologies and zines, and send me personal emails offering support, reading suggestions, or just a friendly hello.
I have found most horror writers (myself included) to be shy introverts, with a few nightmares of their own they’re trying to keep at bay with their fantastical visions. For whatever reason, we found balm of Gilead in horror. Barker’s Cenobites soothe us; real life generally does not.
If you care to traverse the rabbit hole of the latest YA controversy, Jesse Singal’s exposés are a good place to start. He was called a Nazi (he’s Jewish) by a YA writer on Twitter for even covering this topic. Scary times indeed.
If you are an aspiring author and all this is making you wary about your own writing endeavors, consider coming over to the dark side. Our stories may bite, but we don’t.
Something my husband and I have often discussed is how hard it was to have personal boundaries when growing up in a household with a lot of kids (he is one of twelve so he should know). As one of four kids I may not have had it so bad, but I still struggled with trying to establish an independent identity within a tight, at times dysfunctional, but mostly loving family dynamic.
When I was a little kid I was (like most American children at the time) a huge fan of the Monkees. I only got to experience the tail end of the Beatles just when they were breaking up—I went to see “Let it Be” in the movie theater when I was too little to really dig it. The older kids may have had who’s your favorite Beatle? , but we had a similar who’s your favorite…
Like many of us this past weekend, I watched the shitstorm go down when new YA author Amélie Wen Zhao decided to pull her debut novel Blood Heir from publication, the first in a three-part series for which she received a six figure deal from Delacorte, after being accused on Twitter for her book’s “problematic” content. The alleged offending material depicted in her novel’s fantasy universe included the concept that oppression can be colorblind, a scene of a slave auction in which a “tawny skinned” character dies in order to advance the plot, a line lifted from Tolkien’s The Two Towers, and getting a few Russian names messed up. To read in detail how it all went down, it’s best to start HERE.
Blood Heir was slated to be released this June, but after advanced reader copies were scrutinized for “problematic” content by a bunch of literary Carrie Nations looking for anything challenging their very narrow scope of what’s appropriate, the tempest in a teapot started brewing. What’s shocking about the allegations (and they were nasty, one tweet referring to Wen Zhao as “a racist-ass writer”) is that these came from other YA writers. That’s right, her own competitors. What started as a “whisper campaign” exploded when the author wrote a classy statement explaining her decision to pull her book from publication due to the outrage.
Once the story reached the mainstream press with the Guardian and the New York Times writing stories, the Twitter boards blew up, and a very toxic “community” was exposed. This isn’t the first time a few loudmouths shouted down an author whose work didn’t measure up to their standards of acceptability, a moving target of mostly minority and LGTBQ fairness issues. Perhaps the author, a Chinese immigrant picked from a publishers’ call seeking “own voices” narratives, tried to get too creative with her retelling of the Russian Anatasia story. By coloring outside the lines, she offended the YA content police, the loudest of whom just happen to be YA authors themselves. Of course they claim they are protecting the children from hurtful narratives. Isn’t that their parents’ jobs? Sounds like the only thing they were protecting were their own self-interests.
Regarding social media, Wen Zhao advised to “Set out with good intentions. Be enthusiastic, be positive, be supportive, cheer people on — all those things you’d want to find in a real-life friend, be those things online and in the writing community, too.”
That was her first mistakes. Writing is a solo act. It’s rare to find a truly supportive community, and one certainly isn’t going to find it on Twitter, especially in this YA cesspool of paranoia and neuroses. One tweeter offered “hugs” to Wen Zhao as a compensation for the loss of her six figure publishing deal. Others assured outraged free-thinkers entering the fray that once Wen Zhao vowed to “do better” and “to learn” she would be back and they would all cheer her on. Sounds like classic deprogramming to me. The think-speak is so convoluted one of the original accusers (formerly accused herself for a previous transgression) called Wen Zhao tone-deaf then apologized in case any hearing impaired people were offended by her tweet. She didn’t want to be seen as “ableist”, another charged leveled at the author for having only one character using a cane. You can’t make this shit up.
For a much needed voice of reason in all of this, check out BookTuber, Francina Simone’s response.
I’m hoping that Wen Zhao has an ace up her sleeve, that this is all some awesome publicity stunt. Since the story went down a few days ago, people have been fighting it out on Twitter while the original accusers’ pages have gone dark so they can presumably do some self-care in the wake of the Twitter storm now being turned toward them.
The stories and characters may change (or not, what’s with all these retellings anyway?), but jealous bitchery is one trope that always rings true.
So, I’m at the final stage of editing the third book in my YA paranormal series, The Dark Hollow Chronicles. Because I’ve been through this about seven times now (and made many mistakes), I thought I’d share what I learned from the process. And I’m also taking a break from a three-day editing marathon. Anyone out there feel my pain?
Here we go…
Set a Deadline
If you’re an indie like me, you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck (if only), so it helps to give yourself a deadline. I use Amazon’s pre-order option to act as the ticking clock attached to the bomb. The first time I listed one of my books for pre-order, I made the classic rookie mistake of missing the deadline (48 hours before the release date), so the e-book my customers received was my shitty first draft and not the polished final copy. I was able to re-upload it eventually, but that was an embarrassing goof that I will not repeat. If you use this option, make sure you note the final upload deadline, not just the release date. Amazon does send reminders, but it’s best to post it in bold type on a hot pink sticky note somewhere at your workstation.
The Screen Edit
Because I wrote this particular story on Wattpad first, it has already gone through at least one edit, from first draft to Wattpad draft. But errors always seep through; and I love it when my readers find them. They act as my beta readers for this book and the other ones in the series. If you’re not on Wattpad, you should check it out. It’s great for readers and writers.
Next comes the screen edit, meaning I pull up the word document on my computer screen and read through my story without stopping to fix any errors (painful). When it comes to writing, I’ve learned that clarity is rule number one. Ask yourself if the events in your story make logical sense in space and time? Ditto for the world in which it takes places. Is it easy to understand? Can a person with a middle to high school education (my audience for this book) follow it? Is the vocabulary appropriate for that age group? Is the plot engaging, or can it use a few tweaks?
I also cut and paste difficult passages into Grammarly (I have the subscription, and it’s worth it) to tease out that dreaded passive voice that continually pops up, as well as other problems. A word about Grammarly and other correction apps: it’s a tool, but it’s not infallible. It’s not the computer’s job to catch your mistakes. It’s yours (or an editor’s if you’re lucky enough to have one).
Make sure each sentence is grammatically correct, but remember that fiction prose is more flexible than nonfiction. Most fiction writers will have a sentence fragment thrown in to quicken the pace or create tension. Grammarly would read that as incorrect, but sometimes it works. For example, I just opened a Stephen King book (The Stand) to a random page and read this: “Silence from the floor.” Should King have added a verb there? No. But sentence fragments should be used sparingly and only when it serves the story.
“Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought.” Stephen King On Writing
Once my work passes the read-through, I go over it again on the screen, fixing errors, searching for character name misspellings, and other types of embarrassing egregiousness.
Then, I format the text for printing. Putting something in print is a bold move. I don’t publish it right away (thank God, I haven’t made that mistake yet). I order the proof through Amazon and use that as my final working copy, which leads to the….
Hard Copy Edit
Seeing one’s work in print is both exciting and terrifying. The clock is ticking for my final upload, and the pressure is on. Holding the proof copy in my hands makes it very real, but the biggest reason I recommend the hard copy edit (you can use a printer too) is that the mistakes jump off the page.
It also helps is take your hard copy to a quiet location away from your workstation. I often work in a carrel in my local library. Surrounded by all those published books, I am inspired and challenged to have my work be just as good. The isolation of the carrel forces me to focus. We live in a world of distractions folks, and if you think you can simultaneously edit your book while half-watching a YouTube video on a small window in the upper corner of your computer screen or listen to your favorite podcast, you’re dead wrong. Get away from all screens! Now! You’re studying for your final exams. This is serious business. Your life depends on it.
I prefer to do my hard copy edit a few chapters at a time. I find if I try to do too much, my mind wanders and my eyes start to cross. So after demolishing a few chapters with my pen, I return to my computer screen and fix the mistakes. Some passages will need to be rewritten, and those passages will have to be checked for errors. You’ve reached the tear out your hair stage, but it’s also when you find your work beginning to reach a level of flow finally, and that’s a great feeling.
The Final Pass
For the final stage, I pull the edited chapter up on the screen, blow up the text, and slowly read it aloud. Many writers recommend this. Again, mistakes will come out of hiding and bop you over the head. You’ll notice how that alliterative passage feels forced, how a better word choice there would improve the flow, etc.
I read my story as if I’m trying to hold the attention of my audience. If I get chills from what I’m hearing, if I’m dying to know what happens next (even if I already know), then I have done my job. I’m starting to feel good about what I’ve accomplished, that all that obsessive hard work was worth it.
Perfection is impossible, but you have to aim for it. I’ll go over my manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and still mistakes will seep through. It happens even with professionally edited books. At some point, you do need to let go. But before you hit that publish button, you want to make sure that you’re putting forth your best effort. Then you can move onto the next book. And that’s a great feeling too!
But for now, the clock is ticking. I need to get back to work on my final edit. Good luck with yours!
Last night, while scrolling through Jezebel on my phone, I came across a story hot off the digital presses that immediately sparked my interest: a young poet named Ailey O’Toole, nominated for a Pushcart award (never heard of it, but it’s apparently quite an honor in small press poetry circles), was discovered to have plagiarized a good section of her work from several other poets, including an understandably pissed-off poet named Rachel McKibbens. Not only had O’Toole lifted lines nearly word-for-word from her work, she had the audacity to have one of those lines tattooed on her arm for a cool Instagrammable moment. Whoa! This takes it to a whole new level. It’s worth reading McKibbens’ Twitter response about the entire fiasco. O’Toole’s own Twitter page, alas, went poof overnight along with her other social media. Once the scandal broke, the one-star reviews and general vitriolic “reviews” of her work on GoodReads came down hard and swift. She lost her award nomination and the small press pulled her book.
This incident caused me to reflect on other great literary scandals. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Tomi Adeyemi and Nora Roberts
UPDATE: Looks like it’s a big week for lit scandals. A few days ago Tomi Adeyemi made a impulsive tweet that I’m sure she is regretting now (since deleted). In it, she accuses veteran bestselling romance writer, Nora Roberts, of stealing her title and cover art for Children of Blood and Bone. Nora Roberts’ dignified response to the accusation is worth reading.
JT LeRoy, was invented by a woman named Laura Albert, an artsy San Francisco housewife who couldn’t get a break. Albert was a talented writer, and a bit of a grifter. Between gigs as a sex chat phone operator, Laura wrote stories under her pseudonym and alter ego, JT LeRoy, a pretty blond teenage boy who was turned out by his truck stop prostitute mother and was now barely surviving on the streets of SF. Agents and critics were intrigued by his backstory as well as his gritty and sexually raw prose (a thing in the 90’s). LeRoy got a publishing deal and a legion of celebrity fans with whom Albert, using her sex chat skills, chatted regularly on the phone. She also recorded the conversations. To use as potential blackmail when the shit hit the fan? Albert kept the balls in the air for years by employing her sister-in-law to act as JT’s avatar, and even helped produce a film of the work, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. You ain’t kidding. Not even star and director of the film, Asia Argento (with whom the fake JT allegedly had an affair) knew the truth. This scandal comprises an enormous rabbit hole that rewards the deep dive.
How wonderful to have your book included in Oprah’s book club and get featured on her show! How horrifying to have it exposed as a work of plagiarism, then having to appear along with your pissed-off publisher on the same show for a public flogging. Thus was the fate of James Frey, whose 2003 “memoir” A Thousand Little Pieces about the author’s drug addiction, criminal past, and triumphant recovery, earned Frey the Oprah seal of approval. The glory was brief, however, when it was revealed that he exaggerated some of his “real life experiences.” He returned to the Oprah show with his publisher to offer an apology. The host and her mostly female audience fell on him like the Bacchae on Pentheus, tearing him to shreds. The beating was so severe that Frey ended up garnering some sympathy. Eventually he bounced back into literary obscurity. He still writes and probably continues to earn a decent living. One wonders if the scars have healed.
Romance novelist Faleena Hopkins was doing so well with her Cocky guy book series that she apparently bought the copyright to the word “cocky” and tried to sue other writers who picked up on the trend because Alpha sells. The entire thing blew up in Ms. Hopkins face and she was forced to retract her lawsuits and offer a sorry not sorry apology. I would post one of her many shirtless buff guy covers, but I’m afraid she sue me. Use your imagination.
Which reminds me…
I’ve been meaning to watch Can You Ever Forgive Me starring Melissa McCarthy about a literary forger. Girls gotta make a living.
The gal in the latest poetry scandal looks pretty young (dare I say millennial?). Hopefully she’ll take some time off, draft a few groveling apologies, find a good tattoo remover, and quietly work on her craft (or find something else to do) until it all blows over. Perhaps in her recovery journal she’ll write (in quotes!) the famous words of Stanislavski: Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.
October 31st is horror fans’ official holiday. This year I’m celebrating by dressing up as my favorite screen character, Baby Jane Hudson. I guess I’ve entered my Grande Dame Guignol years. I embrace it. I look forward to scaring the children on my doorstep this year.
Below are a few of my favorite Grand Dame’s, proving that they still got it past their prime (youth).
Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson
According to B.D. Hyman’s exposé My Mother’s Keeper, Davis showed up at the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane still wearing her make-up from the previous day’s shoot and just added more. Davis’ willingness to take her performances to the extreme without any regard for her vanity is impressive. But her famous counterpart held onto her glamour with her manicured nails for dear life. For that reason and others, she’s my personal favorite.
Joan Crawford in Strait Jacket & Berserk
Wearing a fright wig reminiscent of her Oscar winning role in Mildred Pierce, Crawford’s post Baby Jane turn as a hatchet wielding harridan in Strait Jacket is a grande dame guignol classic. Unfortunately it’s not a very good film. Still, it’s fun to watch at least once, and I have to admire Joan’s dedication to maintaining her girlish figure at 60. Even more impressive is how glamorous she looks in the 1967 British camp classic Berserk. With her perfect make-up and hairstyles, Joan plays a sixty-something carnival barker who not only still looks good in fishnet tights she sets the carnival hunks’ hearts (and other anatomy) ablaze.
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic may be the start of of Grande Dame Guignol cinema. These were the days when the mere thought of a fifty-year-old woman (and Swanson looks incredibly good) making it with a handsome young guy in his thirties was enough to generate horror. For the record, I’ve always found Norma Desmond much more desirable than the young and perky Betty Schaefe, and fortunately my husband agrees. I think there are plenty of men today who would “take the Vicuna.”
And finally, we can thank the ABC Movies of the Week from the 1970’s for some other great examples of Grande Dame Guignol, where older movie stars found work in television. Below are some fine examples. If you appreciate camp (and some damn good stories), you’ll find much to enjoy here. Many of these are available in low res on YouTube.
The other night my heart thrilled at the sight of an enormous harvest moon making wavy gold streaks on the river’s surface. I smelled the crisp scent of burning leaves in the suddenly chilly air and knew my favorite season had returned at last. In Pennsylvania we get the weather extremes, and as much as I love the hot summer nights, fall is my favorite and it’s here at last. To celebrate the season of the witch, I’ve put together a reading list to hit the sweet spots of Halloween haunts, #Victober (a cool BookTube trend of reading Victorian era books during the October month), some true crime thrown in to keep me up at night, Gothic romance because I’ll find any excuse to read those, and a crusty 80’s era horror paperback from a recent thrift shop haul.
The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. I have about 200 pages to go. This is a re-read. Halfway through this nearly 1000 page tome while I was reading all about the Mayfair Witches history in the Talamasca file that goes on forever and ever, I kept thinking why? Why did I do this to myself? This book is such a commitment, but yet I couldn’t abandon it. It slowly seduces as much as Lasher and the city of New Orleans does. Yes, I will reread the subsequent books in the series, Lasher and Taltos. And yes, I’ll ask myself why the entire time. Can someone please make a TV series of this already so I don’t have to read it again when I feel the itch?
Small Sacrifices by Anne Rule. Again, why do I do this to myself? I must have read this book three times since it came out in the late 80’s. Some video about Diane Downs came up in my YouTube feed the other day and the next thing I knew I was loading up the book in my kindle and for the past few days I could barely pull myself away. There is something about the way Anne Rule writes that elevates hers from other true crime books. She not only reports the facts, she finds the drama and digs in deep.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. This Gothic romantic classic was written in the Victorian era so I suppose it counts for a #Victober read. This is another reread, but it’s been a while. Also, I just got myself a beautiful Easton Press leather-bound copy: perfect for cozy reading by the fire (or space heater) with a cup of tea.
For a less literary Gothic romance choice, I plan to read Volume Two in the Dark Shadows book series. They’re super short and I can knock one out in a day.
For my 80’s horror paperback pick, I’m reading Soul-Eater by Dana Brookins. I have no idea if this is any good, but the cover is fantastic. Let’s hope the story lives up to it.
And finally. I plan to finally finish Mr. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood that have been withering in my kindle for months. I just completed volume five and the stories contained within were my favorite so far. Now onto volume six. I can do this.
So, here are my best laid reading plans that will probably so awry, but what fun are plans if you can’t break them? Happy reading.