Ditching the nudity, but not the sex

by Sandra Hutchison

I’ve been contemplating bringing THE AWFUL MESS: A LOVE STORY (2013) in from wide distribution to Kindle Select, where various promotional opportunities can give it a boost. But the cover was a problem. Because it had a naked lady on it, sort of.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Still widely distributed, without any recent promotions, I get the occasional foreign sale through Kobo and almost nothing in domestic or foreign sales from any of the other retailers except Amazon. About one in five Kindle purchasers of THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE (2014), which is in Kindle Select, also buy THE AWFUL MESS, which is nice, but will never get it ranking high on its own.

As indie authors with any experience know, if I go back into Kindle Select, even for a while, I can more easily try to goose those sales a bit. (This will indeed hurt my ranking at the other sites, but as noted above, I don’t have really have one.)

However, there was little point in going back into Kindle Select if I couldn’t at least promote it on Amazon from time to time. And so I had an exchange with Amazon about their AMS marketing standards and whether this cover would meet them. (Thankfully, they were willing to consider the question.)

No, I was eventually told, there could be no nudity. Not even tasteful, blurred nudity.

Evolution of a coverSo I tried going back to a more professional version of my first (homemade) cover. But sales fell during that test, so I returned to the naked lady.

Next, I tried drawing a blurry underwater bathing suit on that naked lady. That was pretty funny.

Then I decided to try to cover up her blurry naked behind with a nice blurb. 500x700theawfulmess_ebookyellowquoteWould that be okay, I asked Amazon? Nope, that was still no go. Even if we couldn’t see it, nudity was being suggested. (The helpful representative told me that standards have toughened a bit recently — even a male nipple disqualifies AMS marketing nowadays.)

I suppose this sensibility may also explain why I’ve had a harder time getting BookBub and other slots lately. Who knows why, though? My books are getting dated now, definitely backlist, so that’s a possibility. I won’t shut up about the current election, or race issues, or whatever, so maybe they think I’m too outspoken. Or maybe they blacklisted me for my post “The Five Stages of Grief of Being Rejected by BookBub,” even though it was free advertising.

Making your opinions public as an author or any small business person is always a risk. But so is publishing a book, right? I’d rather err on the side of telling the truth as I see it than tip-toeing around.

Of course, I’m not depending on my writing to pay the bills, so I get to make that choice from a position of privilege. Many others cannot.

Besides the really beautiful design by Damon Za, what I like about that semi-nude cover is that it signals the book might include some racy stuff. Which it does, in two short sex scenes. Some readers have an issue with that, which is understandable, although I could wish they would read the whole product description before they start reading.

Meanwhile, of course, other readers are disappointed when I don’t have any explicit sex, as I’ve noticed with my beta readers on BARDWELL’S FOLLY. It has some bedroom scenes between heroine and hero, just as RIBS does, but getting graphic about slot A and tab B in the two of them didn’t, to my mind, serve any non-prurient artistic purpose.

Occasionally I’ve thought of excising the explicit aspects from THE AWFUL MESS, too. But I feel those explicit scenes do add something to the characterization in that novel. And anyway, what’s done is done (except, cough, with covers and typos).

I do still, sometimes, toy with bringing back the clean PG-13 version, much as MM Jaye did with a recent romance, but since my clean version sold a total of two copies back in the day I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

tugboat-cover-for-the-awful-messIt’s not as if a novel addressing misogyny and gay rights is suddenly going to find great favor in Amazon’s Christian romance market. The only reason I still toy with the idea is that I’d just like to try marketing it as a progressive Christian novel. Many Evangelicals are more progressive or at least less prudish than you might expect, and there are plenty of Christian readers like me who are quite liberal.

Anyway, I just recently purchased from Tugboat Design a pre-designed cover of a fully dressed woman that I hope gives at least a suggestion of sex while also, perhaps, hinting at the theme. I really like it, even though I personally envision Mary having slightly darker brown hair and even though I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in this photo. (What do you think?)

As long as I was investing in real design work, I had Deborah at Tugboat clean up my design for BARDWELL’S FOLLY, and get the paperback cover done, an effort I was procrastinating figuring out for myself. Hopefully this means the ARC will be ready next week to start going out for review. (If you’re a blogger or reviewer, feel free to request one).

bardwells-folly-tugboat-designIf you’re a writer who includes bedroom scenes that are more or less explicit, how are you handling that issue in your cover design and marketing?

Or, if you’re a reader who has strong opinions one way or the other, I’d love to hear from you. Do you think explicit scenes usually add to your experience of a novel, or get in the way? And even if you don’t mind them yourself, does it keep you from recommending a book?

 

 

 

Romance author offers both “clean” AND “spicy” versions

Sandra Hutchison interviews indie author MM Jaye

MM JayeMaria, you’ve recently tried something that I tried and failed with back in 2013 – publishing a new book that has both a “spicy” (NC17) and “clean” version. I had done that with fanfiction in the past, and I thought it would be nice to offer two different versions since THE AWFUL MESS has some progressive Christian themes, but the two explicit sex scenes might be too much for some religious readers. Your book doesn’t appear to have any Christian appeal per se, though. What prompted you to try offering both a spicy and clean version?

I’ve seen a number of Facebook and Goodreads groups that feature “clean” books only, and since my stories are a lot more than just the physical attraction between the protagonists, I thought I’d offer a version of the story minus the sex scenes to appeal to those readers as well. Later on, I discovered that there are also a lot of bloggers who are willing to host only PG-13 books and covers on their blog, and in author exchange posts, having a “milder” version proved useful.

How did you actually go about it?

It was fairly easy. I wrote the spicy version, then went back and deleted the sex scenes and some heavy foreplay and also toned down the language in certain parts. (I decided against including “f” bombs in the clean version just to be on the safe side.) The only challenge was rounding up the parts where I deleted a scene, so that the story flow was seamless.

At this point, I’d like to note that I feel there’s a difference between “sweet” and “clean” stories. “Sweet” romances have a more wholesome feel with an inspirational theme, whereas “clean” can be sassier reads (in my clean version, the protagonists have pre-marital sex), just without the “which part goes where” bits. I don’t think I could turn the spicy version in a “sweet” read, bearing the above distinction in mind, simply because I’d have to write a different story.

I notice you use the same title, but different subtitles, and beautiful covers that are related but noticeably different. What was your thinking there? Did it cost twice as much or did you get a break on the pricing?

Thank you for the positive vote on my covers. Luckily, my cover designer didn’t charge more for the “clean” cover. I bought all images myself, used the same background for both versions, so it was just a matter of placing two different images on the same background. Same fonts. No extra charge.

Fate Captured spicy (small)Fate Captured Clean (small)As for the concept behind the covers, since this is a series, I chose a stunning backdrop with a predominant color (green for FATE CAPTURED, orange for FATE AWAKENED, the upcoming Book Two in the Greek Tycoons series) and then chose a portrait image of a girl that bears resemblance to my heroine for the “clean” cover and an image of an intimate couple for the “spicy.” The tricky part was finding a girl in the couples’ image that looked like the girl that would go on the “clean” cover, but browsing those stock photo sites is fun.

When I tried doing this with my debut novel back in 2013, I slapped a “PG-13” burst on the cleaned-up version and added that as a subtitle, but despite the separate ISBNs, Amazon ultimately decided to list both editions together on their site. I felt that led to some confusion for readers. Have you managed to avoid that so far? Would it bother you if it happened? Did you have any discussions with Amazon or other authors as you undertook this dual publication?

I had no problems with Amazon. The covers are different, and I made sure the titles (not subtitles) were different as well. FATE CAPTURED (CLEAN ROMANCE) and FATE CAPTURED (SPICY ROMANCE). I guess since the covers and titles were different, Amazon saw them as two separate books. I also used different keywords. Naughty, naughty words for the spicy version, milder and more generic (no bad boy alpha male) in the clean one.

With my book I discovered that very few people seemed interested in the clean version vs. the more adult one. I think in its first month the difference in sales literally ran 25 to 1. Have you noticed a difference in sales between the two editions?

I have had the exact same experience. Just a trickle of sales for the clean version. But, to be honest, I don’t promote it as much as I do the spicy one. It helped me a lot when author friends wanted to review my book and didn’t feel comfortable with explicit sex scenes, so I had something to offer to them, and I also offer the clean version to blogs that host only PG-13 books. So I feel that the clean book helps more with marketing and connecting with other authors rather than with bringing income. Oh, and, of course, I have something to show to relatives. Let’s not forget that!

Which sells better, clean or spicy? Two indie authors' experiences. Click To Tweet

Your price point on all your books right now seems quite a bargain at 99 cents. Do you have any thoughts about pricing and promotions based on your experience so far?

Well, both FATE CAPTURED and my Gothic mystery romance, HOUSE AT THE EDGE, are under 50K words. They’re borderline novellas. That’s why I priced them at 99 cents. FATE AWAKENED, which stands at 80K words, will get a $2.99 price tag. But the group of authors in the World of Gothic series (atmospheric mystery romances in exotic locations around the world) I’m a member of are currently discussing raising the price of all novellas to $2.99 as it better reflects the quality of the work involved in releasing the titles, and I agree. FATE CAPTURED will remain at 99 cents as I want it to be an attractive lead-in for my contemporary romance series.

Do you feel that indie publishing is getting easier, or harder?

I’m a new author. I feel it’s getting easier for me to write stories because gradually I’m getting faster (and hopefully better), and there are a number of nifty tools available out there to either help your writing (Scrivener, Grammarly), or to boost awareness of your work (from bloggers willing to host new authors and Facebook groups to Thunderclap and Headtalker campaigns which help spread the word). However, the competition is getting tougher and although the availability of tools is great, reaching a larger audience is becoming more difficult. I have friends who have earned serious money from writing romance, using Facebook ads as their main advertising tool, who told me recently that Facebook ads seem not to work anymore because of the staggering number of marketers using them. So, to sum up, it’s easier to get things done but harder to make money from indie publishing.

In addition, I’d love to share a great free tool for creating beautiful landing pages for your books. I’ve noticed that adding the URL I get from this app to my Twitter posts (instead of my book’s Amazon page) sales have increased. It’s a free app for an iOS device (Adobe Spark for iPhone or iPad) but it’s also available online: https://spark.adobe.com/. It’s basically drag-and-drop easy. Here’s the landing page I created for my Gothic romance: HOUSE AT THE EDGE.

Comment on this post and you could be the lucky winner of your choice of the clean or spicy ebook FATE AWAKENED. (Please check back by next Saturday to see if you’ve won, unless one of us already knows your email address.)

More about MM Jaye and FATE AWAKENED

Fate Captured spicy (small)In FATE AWAKENED, a meddling thriller writer ruins the career of a Greek shipping heir then tarnishes his family’s name and faces his inevitable wrath—because to fix him, she needs to break him first.

MM Jaye’s mother claims that she spoke her first word at the age of six. Months. As a kid she would record fairy tales in her own voice, play them back, and then re-record, adjusting the pitch and tempo. Later, she used her voice to inspire young adults and teach them the art of translation. But there came a time when life took a turn for the worse, and her voice temporarily died out. That’s when she turned to writing. FATE CAPTURED is the first book in her Greek Tycoons series, set on the Greek island where her husband proposed. MM Jaye lives in Athens, Greece, with her husband, daughter and Kindle.

Learn more at:

Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/MM-Jaye/e/B00OX44NSO
Blog: http://mmjayewrites.com
Facebook: https://www.fb.com/MMJayeauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MMJaye
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/mmjaye1/
Google+: https://plus.google.com/+MMJayeauthor

 

Another technique for finding new readers on Twitter

One of my more popular blog posts here is “The fine art of Twitter stalking,” which explains how you can use Twitter to essentially hand-sell to people who are following authors like you, and/or describing themselves as avid readers.

I’ve refined that a bit in the year and a half since that was posted, so I’m going to share what I do more often now. I should warn you that, just as before, it’s laborious, and it won’t work for long unless you have something like the free app Crowdfire (formerly JustUnfollow) in your toolbox.

Step 1. Make sure your front stoop looks nice and is ready for business

Make sure your Twitter profile is attractive and offers a call to action. It should…

  1. Explain who you are clearly and positively without getting obnoxious (in other words, don’t fill it up hard sells and hashtags)
  2. Have reasonably attractive graphics. This does not have to be anything crazy. Go to another wonderful free app at Canva.com and you can create something just the right size that looks pretty darn good. (Pro tip: The less design knowledge you have, the more you should rely on their attractive templates.)
  3. Include a link to your web site under your info (or use a link to your Amazon author page if you’re exclusive to Amazon in mostly one country — I’m not, so I don’t).
  4. Mileage varies a LOT on this one, but personally I try to make sure I haven’t been loading up my Twitter stream with promos. This is the number one reason I don’t belong to some otherwise appealing writer’s groups. Their authors may be doing much better than I am, though, so do whatever works for you.
  5. Here’s the selling part: Include a pinned post at the top that could at least potentially lead someone to do something you want. Include one call to action with a key link. If your own blog page doesn’t tend to convert people, or you don’t have one, use your Kindle author’s page, or product link, or whatever would work best where your readers live. (Obviously, you might want to play around with different options here.)  I probably have my best luck when my free little romantic comedy is pinned to the top, but I will vary it depending on the audience I’m going after.
    TIP: Canva is great for creating just the right size Twitter graphic, too, like this one. I’ll vary the actual buying link, but the others are right there in the graphic, so people who are intrigued can go look it up at their favorite retail site.

twitter promo exampleThere are surely ways to track this and and improve my performance. Finally figuring THAT out might be one of next year’s resolutions.

Step 2. See what other authors your readers are buying

As noted in the original twitter-stalking post, Amazon’s author pages make this easy. Just go to your author page and look at the links under “Customers Also Bought Items By.” You still have to use your judgment, and results will be skewed if you’ve recently been promoting (the authors promoting at the same time are the ones who will show up most) — but dig down and you’ll find authors who appeal to the same readers who should like your stuff. For indie authors, your best bet will almost always be other indie authors, because their readers already know that we don’t all have cooties.

detail from author's page screenshot

If your book has gotten a bit moribund, or you’ve already hit up everybody on your also-bought list, you can dig down even further and check out the also-boughts for those authors.

TheAwfulMess_3DAn example of using my judgment about also-bought authors: “The Awful Mess: A Love Story” crosses over into religion and spirituality, specifically, into progressive Christianity. Some of my also-boughts are Christian “sweet” romance authors. I have to be careful there, because the category “Christian fiction” runs conservative and some of those readers will be offended by the cover, let alone the content. Other authors in my also-boughts are mystery writers. Would their readers be interested in my women’s fiction? It’s probably worth trying.

Step 3. Search Twitter for “by [author name]

This gets you to tweets posted by people who have read and/or reviewed on Goodreads or their own blogs. (At least for now it does. All of this is subject to change. Amazon, for example, no longer gives people the option to tweet their purchases.)

Step 4. Follow people who appear to be genuine potential readers

Check out each potential reader to make sure he or she is:

  • A real human rather than a fake spam account
  • Still active on Twitter
  • A relatively kindred spirit

Bloggers probably expect most books to go to them free, so they are not your best prospect. However, you might want to think of them as a potential reviewer and take note accordingly — you might create a list of them, for example.

And just because their counts may suggest they never follow back doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow people — remember, the goal is to entice people to check out your book, not to get them to follow you back. (Though that can be a nice bonus.)

Out of a dozen or two dozen people you follow, maybe one might be interested enough to actually purchase your book. You’ll have to decide for yourself if this labor-intensive approach is worth it. Note that it will also help you build your Twitter audience, however. And you might just find some good reading for yourself along the way.

Step 4. After a week or so, unfollow the people who’ve shown no interest

No, you’re not being a jerk. You don’t hang around outside of people’s doors when they don’t call you after a date, do you? And this wasn’t even a date.

Besides, Twitter won’t let you keep following new people if your ratio gets out of whack. And once you get past a few hundred people, you’re certainly not hurting for material to read in your Twitter stream. So unfollow people. Crowdfire makes this easy. (There is a daily limit if you’re doing it for free, but I almost never reach it.)

Personally, I usually follow everyone back who doesn’t appear to be a spammer, marketing something I have zero interest in, of dubious integrity, obnoxious, or impossible for me to translate enough to figure any of that out. This is a social medium. That means it should be a two-way street. So if you’re not following me back, you’d better be a celebrity or extremely informative about something valuable — and for that, to be perfectly honest, I can put you in a list instead of following you.

All of this could change at any moment, of course. There’s talk of Twitter going all Facebook on us. Which it has the right to do.

Want to add any tips of your own, or tell me where I’m going wrong? Please do!

Living out loud, or why I don’t hide being self-published

Publishing expert Porter Anderson had an interesting post recently, asking if it might be time for self-publishing to get over itself. He points out that:

  1. Yes, obviously, indie publishing has become a respectable option for a number of writers, including many who were once traditionally published.
  2. Readers have never particularly cared who publishes books.
  3. Why call attention to it (or, worse, get militant about it) when you could instead put that energy towards writing more books?

It’s a valid question.

My answer to him (literally — I commented on the blog post) was this:

…I have a friend who asked me why I didn’t just fake it, since my books could “pass” for traditionally published. And he had a point. But I’d be nowhere without the helpful information provided by indie authors who went before me (and are still figuring things out faster than I am). So I feel an obligation to participate as well, to the extent I can, as a matter of paying it forward. I also find it genuinely interesting. (I have a background in traditional publishing, so I find the whole industry interesting.) I do think it is unfortunate when self-publishers get militant about their status. I understand the temptation, but I think it’s rooted in insecurity. There’s nothing inherently evil about traditional publishing. Or about agents. Or about bookstores. How many of us would be writers today if we hadn’t benefited from that low-margin book industry all our lives? Yeah, it can be corporate and risk-averse, and some of those contracts bear close examination. But the Big Five are not in a deep, dark conspiracy to ruin authors’ lives. If we care about literature, we should hope that they and bookstores continue to prosper, and that we all find our way to eager readers.

(He responded, if you want to check it out.)

Now, my personality is part of this equation. I compulsively truth-tell for the most part — sometimes unpleasantly so. My mother practices the fine art of being a polite Southern lady, but I think I have taken after my journalist father — we’re both prone to occasional crankiness and self-righteousness. (Yes, Dad, I said that.)

Over a decade ago I remember telling an agent at a conference that I wouldn’t self-publish because “that way lies madness.” And in those days, that was true. Self-publishing was largely the realm of crazy people utilizing vanity presses, stocking boxes of books in their garage, and hand-selling to everyone they knew. Then Amazon and print-on-demand technology changed all that.

I do remember still feeling an inhibiting shame about self-publishing, even after I’d decided it was something I would probably enjoy doing, until I came up with the name Sheer Hubris Press. That gave me the freedom to just do it. Yes, people, it says —  Yes, I’m publishing myself! Yes, I think my stuff is worth reading!

I just can’t fake anything, and I don’t want to have to. Yes, I know there are things that are definitely Too Much Information or too cruel to say, and I’m not recommending you tell your boss you can’t stand him or her before (or even after) you have another job lined up, but for the important stuff, the stuff that gives life meaning, I want to be my genuine self.

There is still sometimes an element of shame involved. For me the worst shame was discovering that my proofreading of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire was not at all up to snuff. Fixing that meant sitting with perhaps the most visceral feeling of shame I’ve ever experienced — literally, I put off the work for days because of the awful feeling I got in my guts. I had prided myself on being a better publisher than that.

So, yes, sheer hubris can lead to spectacular failure. Except… so what? Ultimately, it was just another hard-won lesson along the way. The book has been fixed (mostly — there are at least three typos left, which I’ll fix when I add the information about the next book). And it’s doing well enough critically to make me happy, even though I doubt its sales will ever match The Awful Mess, which has the great advantage of crossing over into romance.

As I once told a library audience when presenting about indie publishing, there are people who will react to a self-published book as if someone in the room just farted but they’re too polite to say anything about it. What I didn’t say is that I don’t give a flying **** about those people. They care more about status than whether a book has something valuable to say.

"The dog did it ... I swear!"There’s enormous joy in living your life the way you want to live it — living out loud — and sharing what you’re good at with others. If you can accept that publishing is hard work if you plan to do it well, puts you out there where not everybody will be kind, and is extremely unlikely to result in fast fame or riches, then you’re going into this with your eyes open. If, knowing all that, you still feel called to do it, go for it.

One of those 2015 resolutions: building my email subscription list

Jo-Anne Kern won the first quarter’s $20 Amazon Gift Card for being a member of my email list. (This is not the same list that gets you this blog sent to you in your email, just in case you’re confused about that.) If you’d like to be entered for the next quarter’s drawing, subscribe. You’ll need to confirm your subscription for it to really take. I send out occasional news and give you access to bonus materials and stories.

I’ve been investigating how to build the email list. There seems to be a whole industry of authors who claim to have the magic secret of doing this, which they’re happy to tell you about (and you can learn more for only $____!) One of them involves adding annoying pop-ups or slide-overs to your web site. I may yet try this, but I’m not at all convinced it would help. I click out of those sites fairly often.

One thing that would help would be having a web site that is actually up and running fast enough. Bluehost has been letting me down this week. Sorry about that.

A signed-copy giveaway

I decided to run another Goodreads giveaway for a signed copy of Ribs (for US readers only). Naturally, I just read a book promotions expert saying that you should never give away books unless you can get an email address in return. (On the other hand, giving away books is exactly how I managed to do quite well with The Awful Mess.) If you’d like to enter for this, here’s the information:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra Hutchison

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends April 30, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

So you need to write a literary analysis…

This week I’m borrowing from the other side of my life, the English professor side.

I’m hoping that putting this post out there will help a few students avoid those “free essay” web sites or CliffsNotes they might otherwise be tempted to borrow too much from. (In case you’re not sure: YES, that’s considered plagiarism. It’s not as if you were planning to cite them, right?)

I know how bewildering it can be to face a literary analysis assignment. A lot of professors and teachers have their own unspoken preferences about how a book report or literary essay or critical essay should be constructed. If you pay attention, you can tell what they are, because all their lectures about literature you read in class will do exactly that.

Seriously. I once took an undergraduate poetry class with a poet at UMass. Every single lecture pointed out the homoerotic qualities of whatever poems we were reading, or at least what they had to say about being a man. I assume there must have been some female poets represented in his syllabus, but I can’t remember any. And don’t get me started about the creative writing professor who just had to do a public Freudian analysis of everything we wrote for his class.

Your high school English teacher probably pushed you to do Formalist or New Criticism — to analyze the piece in terms of its literary techniques: characterization, plot, setting, mood, foreshadowing, irony, symbolism, and theme. Doing that helped you learn those terms.

Of course, I fear this is also how we get students who think that authors spend their days cruelly plotting ways to “hide” obscure things in their writing. That’s not really how it works.*

So how do you figure out what to write? In my college classes, if I ask for a literary essay I just want you to use evidence to argue some point about the text. You must find textual evidence in the piece — and possibly in criticism or historical sources or biographical sources that you will also cite — to make a case for some interpretation or another.

In other words, pretend you’re a lawyer trying to make a case that a piece is this or that (“Pride and Prejudice is not just a romance, but a critique of women’s economic status in Regency England”). Or think of yourself as a detective uncovering certain aspects of the text that others might not notice (“Mansfield Park suffers from Austen’s own ambivalence about vitality vs. propriety”). Instead of forensically investigating a crime scene for clues to the perpetrator, you’re forensically examining a text looking for clues to what it means, why it matters, or why it was perpetrated written.

Really at a loss? Try reader response. Just relate aspects of the piece to your own life or beliefs in whatever way you want. The nice thing about it is that you can’t be wrong. You may not be particularly right, either — and personally I tend to bar my students from this one because it’s just too easy to bullshit and I’m trying to get them ready for higher-level courses.

Anyway, I had the great fortune of actually taking a class in literary criticism with the wonderful Prof. John Sitter at UMass, so by the end of that I was at least dimly aware of what was possible. Years later, in an effort to explain all the major options for my students without spending a whole semester on it, I came up with the attached downloadable quick guide to the most common critical approaches. You are welcome to use it or share it in your own classroom or studies, assuming you’re not an educational publisher who’s planning to make some moola with it. Just copy it as-is, please.

Ways to analyze a literary work

This is just an image -- download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

This is just an image — download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

Hope it helps. And if it does, I’d love to hear about it.

*Oh, and about that idea that authors are hiding things on purpose…

I suppose some authors might quietly plot to stuff things into their books to torture future English students, but generally speaking I think authors are more interested in 1) making whatever point they’re trying to make, and 2) selling books.

If authors do use symbols, for example, it’s not out of a desire to be difficult, but because things generally considered “symbols” tend to crop up unconsciously as they write. Or, they might use symbolic elements very deliberately, but only because they are hoping it will help you “get” whatever point they’re trying to make.

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

For example, you could do a whole literary analysis of the symbolic role of water in my first book, The Awful Mess. Was I thinking about this possibility while I wrote it? Hell, no.

I knew I wanted the river at the beginning to be going the ‘wrong’ way, and, yes, I knew those two characters in the first scene were going to head the wrong way, too. But mostly I’d just always thought the Contookut River in Peterborough, New Hampshire was kind of charmingly funky that way. (It flows north, which I hadn’t realized some rivers do before I moved there.) Was that a symbolic connection? Yeah, maybe, vaguely, but it was more to do with exactly where I had first imagined that scene taking place.

Not until after I’d gotten quite a ways into the manuscript did I realize that water sure was popping up a lot. And water is sometimes used as a metaphor for sexuality … and life … and rebirth, as in baptism. And so, yes, once I saw it was there I did play with it a bit, and that’s even how I found my ending. I even got the point that I wished somebody hadn’t already used the title A River Runs Through It. But did I plan it that way from the beginning? Nope. Sadly, I’m not that clever. (My original idea had nothing to do with water as metaphor. It had to do with an arcane principle of web design that nobody knows as metaphor. FAIL!)

Anyway, at least I know I don’t need to worry about The Awful Mess ever being taught in high schools. There’s far too much sex!

Quick reminder

At the end of the month, a random member of my subscriber list gets a gift card. So if you were thinking of signing up and haven’t yet, now’s a good time. Though if you win, it will be a bit like the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rules for dating my daughter

Some time ago this t-shirt made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter, and met with general approval from the wild-eyed feminists I tend to hang out with:

feminist dad t-shirt

From https://www.facebook.com/rhrealitycheck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I certainly approved of it as an antidote to some other much more macho versions I’ve seen, like this one:

rules for dating my daughter -- macho version

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest

 

Talk about being hostile and possessive. (Though I totally agree with the doorbell thing.) It all seems to amount to this, really:

Rules for dating my daughter you can't

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that’s just about as patriarchal as it gets. Also, I’m the mother of a teenage son, and I don’t really appreciate these sentiments being directed at him. It’s as if these guys were all such sleazes in their own dating days that they expect the worst from every other young man.

Not that I’m going to suggest typical young men — and quite a few older men — are not highly, highly motivated to get some.

Which is, of course why there are risks out here for young women who are dating (or just trying to get a meeting with Bill Cosby). And my novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire demonstrates at least one of those risks fairly dramatically.

But how many people would really be willing to apply “She makes the rules. Her body, her rules” to their own teenage daughters?

The heroine’s arguably wacko feminist mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire DOES hold this philosophy and actually puts it into practice at a key moment …. and plenty of women I consider feminists react to that moment by saying “WHAT? She said WHAT?”

Not without reason. The 17-year-old may be legally of age (in Massachusetts) and unusually mature, but she’s recently survived a harrowing ordeal. And the fellow she wants to make her own rules with is a much older man who is messed up in his own way, though I don’t consider him a predator.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to try to support the idea that SHE makes the rules, because I don’t have a biological daughter, and my stepdaughter is now safely grown up (though we had plenty of nail-biting moments), and I myself avoided most of the dangers of immature sexual experimentation by being a total nerd for a long, long time.

But I was a daughter. And while my childhood was thankfully not much like Molly’s, I do remember how I felt about being protected from my own opportunities to grow up: I resented it.

My old Clearwater High School friend Gayle recently posted on Facebook about how I had a “purity of purpose” in high school, whereas she was obsessed with boys. The reality was that I just kept my obsessions quieter. Yes, I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age sixteen. And yes, I was enthralled by him (a Southern liberal! It was such a refreshing concept!). But a lot of that effort had to do with the fact that I was canvassing with the lovely young Michael Billiris. (He never laid a finger on me, I’m sad to say, though I’m not sure I would have had the slightest idea what to do if he had.)

When Carter won, Michael and I were of course invited to the local campaign party to celebrate, and that was when my dad said no. My father was a local journalist and he knew what those parties were like — probably not at all a safe place for a naive 16-year-old. Even though I know this now, that “no” still rankles all these decades later. I worked on that campaign, damn it! And Michael Billiris was going to that party!

Maybe Dad saved me from some horrible trauma. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to all that stuff I was always waaaaay behind my peers.

The thing is, learning how to handle sex is part of growing up. For girls as well as boys. There’s fumbling around and figuring out what the deal is, especially since everybody has been trying so hard to keep you from learning it.

There’s learning how to cope with people who want it from you — perhaps especially if you don’t want it with them — or to cope with people who don’t want it with you when you desperately want it with them.

There’s crappy beginner sex, getting-better-with-practice sex, and, hopefully, some really great sex. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s all with the one great love of your life. Most of us aren’t that lucky. (And do people that lucky actually know how lucky they are?)

The thing is, you can’t ever just check sex off your bucket list as something you’ve done. All your life, you’ll be affected by your own and your partner’s (or partners’) libido. You are going to have to cope with the sometimes heartbreaking difference between sex and love, between sex and actual emotional intimacy, between sex and commitment. You may be faced with betrayal or boredom or disability. You may be one of those sad people who compulsively pursue sex even against your own best interest (see Bill Clinton, or Arthur in The Awful Mess).

As parents, we’d love to make sure this area of life always goes well for our kids, along with everything else. Hopefully, we teach our sons and daughters to respect themselves enough that they won’t do things they don’t really want to do just to be accepted. Hopefully, we teach them to respect others enough that they won’t wreak horror on someone just because they can.

And perhaps fortunately, there’s a sort of natural limit after which it becomes creepy to the rest of the world if we don’t let go and let our children make their own decisions about it.

Their bodies. Their rules.

But, oh Lord, please help them get them through it safely.

As I told a reader at the Sand Lake Town Library this weekend, if reading The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire keeps just one young woman (or young man, for that matter) from getting drunk at a party and paying the price for it, it will have been worth everything I put into it.

And if it prevents even one person from judging someone harshly for a youthful misstep in this area, that will make me happy, too.

What about you? When do you think “her body, her rules” kicks in?

Cleaning out: the slightly traumatic upside of moving

Usually at this time of year I’m starting veggies and dreaming about the next garden. But this year I’m getting rid of stuff and reorganizing what’s left as we prepare to put the house on the market later this month.

It’s all bringing back memories of putting our starter home in New Jersey on the market back in the summer of 2002. We had done a lot of painting and carpeting and such when we first purchased it, especially to the former smoker’s apartment upstairs. We also covered up ugly old asbestos shingles with new siding, and I landscaped with a passion.

But we didn’t really do anything with the cranky little kitchen. We didn’t take out the moldy carpet in the basement or even dump all the junk that had come with the house, like the cabinets from the one-time upstairs kitchen — not until the real estate agent told us we should.

Then when it was done and everything looked better, we wondered why we hadn’t done it earlier. We could have done a great deal to make life in that little bungalow more pleasant while we were still living there, and not all of it would have required big bucks.

The truth is that I’m just not HGTV material. Once things become so much of a part of everyday life that I am no longer actively annoyed by them – even clearly unacceptable  things like the white poster board we used to cover gaping holes from a burst pipe in the kitchen ceiling — I can live with them for just about forever.

I think of this as I check Zillow periodically to see what’s selling in our area. I can often guess just how old the sellers are (or were, in the case of estate sales), by the decor in their homes. A lot of the houses in my price range clearly haven’t been touched since the 70’s or 80’s.

And I can relate.

(This is also something I have in common with Mary in The Awful Mess, obviously. She  fails to redecorate her tiny little house. Later, Winslow shows what a sweetheart he is by taking charge. In real life, I suspect I’d be totally annoyed by that.)

In late 2002 when we moved into this lovely house, it had just been freshly painted almost wall-to-wall in Baltic White. And until last month, it still was. I finally bought paint with some personality back in 2006, but I never got around to doing anything except the downstairs bathroom, which had suffered from a leak from the upstairs toilet and therefore had to be done. I told myself I’d get the rest of the house painted every summer. I never did.

Now we’ve been forced to paint by the necessity of moving, and it’s amazing what clean, freshly painted walls can do for a room. (We hired a guy – it would never have gotten done otherwise.) The paint I’d bought in 2006 was still good (here’s a shout-out for Sherwin Williams Duration paint in plastic cans), but few of the colors were safely neutral enough for a house about to be put on the market.

And then there’s all the clutter we’ve been living with, like…

  • The kitchen cabinets I somehow managed to over-stuff even in a dream kitchen that has more cabinet space than I will ever have again for the rest of my life. I’m talking dishes used twice a year, uni-purpose kitchen appliances, enough wine glasses for a wedding reception, and bulk-buy pantry goods that not only filled the cabinets but spilled over into the dining room and the basement.
  • That basket of menus and phone books. Who even uses phone books anymore?.
  • Binders and binders of gardening articles and notes from lectures and such that I spent hours neatly tearing out of magazines and organizing and then never looked at again because googling that stuff is way easier.
  • The workbench in the basement so piled with miscellaneous tools and junk that no one can ever actually work on it.
  • At least three large boxes of electrical supplies, cables, chargers, extension cords and power strips – enough to electrify a village. And at least half of these were probably purchased only because we couldn’t find the ones we already had.
  • Boxes and drawers and shelves of gardening crap. Yes, I did use a lot of it — but did I really need ALL those recycled yogurt containers, newspapers for mulch, panty hose to tie up tomatoes, blankets to cover plants, old milk cartons for winter seed sowing, plastic produce containers and pie pans for drip trays, and old feed bags once used to haul horse manure? (No, clearly I did not.)
  • Scores of Tidy Cats yellow plastic kitty litter buckets, enough to fill multiple station wagons with free wood mulch from the town. A dozen of these buckets: Handy. Thirty: Obsessive-compulsive.
  • Bathroom detritus: I thought I was keeping things pretty neat, until I tallied up all those old toothpaste and dental floss samples from the dentist, make-up I’d never wear again (never even wore twice, in many cases), expired medicine, band-aids that fell out of their ancient wrappers when I touched them, weird medical devices I hope none of us will ever require again, and enough ivory soap bars to last a decade.
  • The chest freezer that I’m still too afraid to empty out. Yes, it allows me to save my tomatoes for winter cooking, and put away meat when it’s on sale. But the good buy I got on Price Chopper butter did not turn out to be very cost-effective two years later when it happened to taste just like freezer.
  • Clothing. My husband hoards clothes. Our basement is full of them. It doesn’t help that my friends at the thrift store save ugly Hawaiian shirts for him for the sheer joy of hearing my reaction later.
  • Art, photos, and photo albums. I still have old negatives and slides from when I first started using my dad’s old Miranda SLR at the age of ten. Jaime and I managed to take apart a few old albums that needed to be divided between us, but that still leaves three boxes of neatly organized albums for me to lug around, plus two more boxes of loose photographs. It’s ridiculous, really. Let’s not even discuss all the framed and unframed art.
  • CDs and DVDs. At least changing formats made it easy to decide to dump ALL the old VCR tapes and record albums. Yes, I could probably scan all of what’s left into digital files that I could carry around in a purse. I’m sure it would only take a year or two of my life to get it done. (I did at least get rid of a ton of old books because they are now free for downloading off the Internet.)
  • Writing stuff. In a way, foreseeing this day helped me make the decision to publish. I figured it was a way to not have to lug around piles of manuscripts anymore. But I still have the urge to lug them around, if only because I know that famous authors sometimes make big bucks selling their papers. Of course, my chances of ever being famous are probably right up there with pigs flying, but a girl can dream. When I’m in a more practical mood I use old drafts to mulch the garden.
  • Other files. Ugh. I still have six file cabinet drawers to go through, and that’s AFTER weeding through my teaching materials and office supplies. Then there are the boxes of records in the basement…
  • Baskets. They are everywhere. What is it with me and baskets? I’ve managed to let go of about half of them at this point. That still leaves at least twenty, only half of which are actually in use. And I’m still tempted when I see new ones at the thrift store.

As we clear each room of excess furniture and stuff, it becomes so much more pleasant. Check out the difference in just one room:

BEFORE:

 photo Originalroom_zpsc5bb2c9e.jpg

AFTER:

 photo 9843e977-f652-4f6d-abf4-b43694ecf53a_zps0377e8af.jpg

Probably we should do more. I’d hang the art over the sofa back up, but it’s heavy and I don’t want to make a hole in the new paint. And that tall shelf perhaps should go, too. But I hope this shows how clearing stuff out of a room can help make it more appealing. Which is why moving is very useful, really. Even if I manage to stay put in the next house, I think it would be a good idea to pretend I’m moving every five years or so, just to keep the place in good condition.

Jaime is doing even better at divesting than I am, since he’s moving to an island. Anything he takes either has to fit in his luggage or has to be mailed over, and then he has to find a place to put it on the other end. Sometimes I think I should pretend I’m moving to an island, too.

Are you in control of your clutter? If so, what are your secrets?