In Defense of the Octopus: A Meditation on Animals in Fiction

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/edmondlafoto-7913128/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=3262715">edmondlafoto</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=3262715">Pixabay</a>

Okay, this is kind of a random and weird one. Are you ready?

So I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, the classic series by Rod Serling from the 1960s, and naturally as a longtime devotee I’ve been devouring the remake by CBS that started last year featuring writing genius Jordan Peele (sometimes to my delight, and others my disappointment). However, last night I watched a new episode that rubbed me the wrong way and got me thinking about an intriguing subject: how animals are portrayed in Hollywood in general, and not always in a good way.

This particular episode, “8”, wasn’t even a particularly strong entry in the series. Not only was star Joel McHale’s comedic talents completely wasted on this dry, more horror-themed story, but I found the “villain” of the piece a bit problematic. Said villain wasn’t human: it was an octopus. And this particular octopus was no ordinary cephalopod. Apparently the scientist characters had been secretly searching for this particular breed of octopus to exploit it for the company they work for due to its unique abilities of camouflage, genetic variation, and so forth. Of course, the creature ends up being much smarter than its captors and sneaks out of its tank, slowly offing them one by one in increasingly gory ways, eventually somehow learning how to operate a cell phone and human computers and escaping back into the ocean with a genetic formula to create an army of super-octopuses that can climb onto land and kill all humans.

Yeah, I’m not kidding.

Look, I’m always a fan of a good creature feature, and it was kind of satisfying in a twisted sort of way to see these stupid scientists underestimate their eight-armed captive and get what was coming to them. However, besides the obvious, glaring factual inaccuracies of the piece, including the reality that an octopus can’t live for long out of water (this one was walking around on dry land for like half an hour!) and they definitely don’t seek to murder people, I took a bit of issue with the overall message of the story: in that an evil animal is out to destroy humanity and dominate the world.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, right: in pretty much every other movie ever made. When you think about it, animals are villainized a lot in Hollywood: Cujo made us all terrified of rabid dogs, an unfortunate but very real fact of life. Jaws gave us all shark phobia, including me: I’m still a little nervous about going in the ocean after that movie scarred me as a child. And countless other films about monstrous bugs, spiders, snakes, and various animals have scared the pants off us time and time again. But are we doing the animals, and ourselves, a disservice?

Don’t get me wrong: the classic conflict of man vs. nature is at the heart of many great stories, including my guilty pleasure film franchise, Godzilla. However, there’s a big difference here: Godzilla is a giant, radioactive, fire-breathing lizard. Obviously not something that can happen in real life. Some of the other films I’ve mentioned, including the recent Twilight Zone episode, are using very real creatures in ways they would never, ever behave, and putting fear into us to no adequately explored reason. I know not everyone may share my fascination, but honestly, I think octopuses are so cool and interesting. I’ve always been intrigued by animals, and the more bizarre, the better: I’m one of those people who will watch spiders or slugs go about their business rather than step on them because they’re just so different. So naturally, I felt a little defensive about this evil octopus as portrayed in “8.” Why not some kind of weird alien creature? This is The Twilight Zone, after all. All I can think is that someone, somewhere, in the writers room decided arbitrarily that octopuses are creepy and would make for a good horror creature. And that’s my problem.

Why an octopus, of all things? Or for that matter, why a shark, or a spider, or a snake, or any of these villainous animals in the last century of movies? The only answer I can come up with goes back to a simple principle, one we’re becoming all too familiar with in the world today: things that are different scare people. All we have to do is turn on the news to see how skin color, religion, or any number of factors can translate into irrational, unfounded hatred of our fellow man. How much easier is it to hate and feel revulsion toward a gelatinous, boneless creature from the deep sea with eight arms and no real face to speak of? I know a lot of people who are afraid of snakes especially, and while I’m not trying to deny that any or all of these animals can be dangerous given the right circumstances (and would I want to find a giant spider in my bed? Hell no), none of them are actively out to get us or have hatred in their hearts toward humans–at least, as far as we know.

I’ll give you another example. Everyone can agree monkeys are cute, right? Or at least entertaining. We love monkeys because they remind us of ourselves: we can more easily ascribe human behaviors to what we see from them. But suddenly, take away a few arms and legs, or add a couple limbs and eyes, and our compassion gets a lot shakier. Do you have second thoughts about pouring water on an anthill or swatting that spider on the wall? Would you do the same if a monkey happened to swing in your window?

My point here is that I don’t think it’s fair to villainize any animal, from an octopus to an ape, for the purposes of entertainment and clearly slot them into narratives they don’t have any need to be in. “8” would have worked entirely fine if the creature in question was some sort of bizarre alien, but instead, we have an extremely negative and stomach-turningly creepy portrayal of an amazing animal that never did anything to anyone. It’s a microcosm of our fear and loathing toward things that are different than us, and it does harm because entertainment shouldn’t be about cheap thrills: it should be about raising each other up and understanding ourselves and the world we live in. Especially from a series like The Twilight Zone, which has a long history of incisive social commentary and a moral justice imperative, blatant fear-mongering of that which is different like this falls flat and seems to be contrary to the very basis the show was founded on.

Come on, guys. We deserve better. Leave the poor octopus alone, already.

How Teaching Changed My Life

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=597238">Gerd Altmann</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=597238">Pixabay</a>

Today I thought I’d talk about something that’s become very near and dear to my heart over the last few years: teaching. More and more I’m discovering that I have a passion for teaching and helping others learn, whether it’s in an academic or physical sense, and I get a huge satisfaction from working with others and imparting some kind of lessons or wisdom to them. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be an aspiring teacher one day, I probably would have thought you were crazy. I would have told you I’d never have the patience to be a good teacher and that it was too unfulfilling and time-consuming to be dealing with a bunch of snot-nosed kids who’d never listen to you and just make your life miserable. But of course, I’ve discovered my thinking was very wrong. How? Let me explain.

My first steps toward teaching came when I moved back home to the Philadelphia area in 2018 from an extended stay in New York. Because I was back in my hometown, I had the chance to resume a lot of activities that I had to put on hiatus: namely, my karate training. I’m currently a second-degree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art, and have been training for going on 11 years in my local karate studio (having stuck with it on and off through college and my years away). Perhaps I’ll delve more into my martial arts career in some future post, but for the time being I’ll just focus on the renewed responsibility I had when I returned. In our studio, as is tradition in most other martial arts institutions, becoming a Black Belt carries with it certain responsibilities and expectations, including that you help pass along your knowledge to younger, less experienced students who are working their way toward Black Belt rank. I was reluctant to do so at first for all the reasons I already explained, but when an opening for an assistant instructor opened up in one of our classes (taught by the very Master under whom I’d trained for years prior to my moving away), I took the opportunity because I felt it would be the one that would be the most manageable and least likely to irritate me.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) always roses and sunshine. Sometimes I go home frustrated, wondering whether I got through to any students at all, annoyed at them for not paying attention, and wanting to pull my hair out. But more often than not–a surprising amount of the time, really–I found I actually enjoyed helping my students learn night after night. There’s something intensely satisfying about seeing someone picking something up that you’ve tried to help them learn and eventually performing well on their own while you look on and have the pleasure of knowing that you’re responsible for helping them get there. While I don’t think any one person can take credit for teaching someone something, I definitely feel that way. Plus, while the kids I work with in karate classes are mainly on the younger side, between 8 and 14 years old, it’s actually surprising how much they understand. I thought when I initially started teaching that I wouldn’t be able to relate to my young students or talk to them on a level they could understand, but kids are smarter than you think they are most of the time and can pick up on things I never thought possible. Since that time, I’ve grown to take teaching opportunities in karate whenever I can get them, frequently assisting with classes and maybe even hoping to run my own someday. I’ve even got my first official mentee (another Black Belt privilege), and I really can’t tell you how great it feels to have someone looking up to you and asking you to help them out with things, knowing that you care about what happens to them and want to see them succeed as much as they do.

In terms of academics, I got bitten by the teaching bug in my first semester of graduate school, when I took a class called Rhetoric and Composition. Basically it was a class about how to teach an introductory college-level English class, and involved writing syllabi, coming up with assignments, grading systems, how to engage students with activities, and teaching tactics. All of which, I was shocked to find, I didn’t think were tedious and boring at all: I actually loved them! It was perhaps just a natural extension of the positive experience I’ve had with Tang Soo Do teaching, but I was suddenly possessed by the desire to be in a classroom, teaching students much like myself about how to write and tell stories. I don’t think I’d be willing to be a public school teacher, or even a private one, who has to work with middle or high-school-aged kids: I’m not sure a lot of them are really ready to learn or have an adult conversation of the kind that I’d like to have with people. But college students…there’s a possibility. Or even better, being a guest graduate school professor who maybe teaches a special class every other semester on a topic of my own interest? While I know it’s difficult to make a living solely as an adjunct professor, I’d love to do it while supplemented by other income–perhaps a day job in marketing or maybe even as a writer. And with my MFA/MA degree, I think I may just be able to do it!

So what’s next for me in teaching? Like I said, I’d love to perhaps be an adjunct guest professor for a grad school program in a low-pressure kind of academic environment. As for karate, I have a bit more ambitious dreams. In another 10 years there’s a real possibility, if I keep up with my training, that I might be able to earn the rank of Master, and as such be able to open my own karate studio. Again, if you told me I’d be thinking about starting my own business, especially a gym for physical activity, five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But again, if I’m able to supplement that income with other things like academics or writing, maybe it could work.

Whatever the outcome, I’m excited to see what the future holds now that I feel I’ve discovered one of my true passions in life: educating others.

Back on the Road with “The Road to Ithaca”

It’s over! It’s done!

As of the end of last week, my first-ever novel, The Showstopper, is through its edits and off to be checked out by an actual proofreader. It’s just another step on my quest to republish the novel this fall with a sharp new look and some updates that will not only keep it fresh, but will also be far more polished than it was the first time I published it as an inexperienced college graduate over five years ago. Very much looking forward to getting it back looking as professional as possible…but also to having a much-needed break from that novel.

However, there’s no rest for the weary, so I’m on to another project this weekend: my long-on-hold adult contemporary novel, The Road to Ithaca. And this time, it’s especially important because as of the end of this month, I’m starting my creative writing MFA thesis course. It’s only one of two theses I’ll be responsible for (I also have an MA in publishing one to do at some point), but I thought now that I’m done with The Showstopper, it’s time to go back to the novel I’ve been working on for most of my grad school program and that I’ve basically ignored for over a year now.

So what is The Road to Ithaca, you may ask? Here’s my summary so far:

“Odysseus Wyatt Turner–Wyatt to his friends, of which there aren’t many–is lost at sea, stuck at a dead-end job with no prospects and no future. But that’s about to change when he gets a letter from far-off Ithaca, New York, informing him that his estranged father has died and left him something in his will. Wyatt knows he has to act fast, or risk having whatever that something is yanked away by the rest of his no-good, selfish, greedy family.

His solution: enlist a motley crew consisting of his aloof ex-girlfriend and surfer-bro buddy on a wacky road trip across the country to claim what’s rightfully his. They’ll face many obstacles on their sometimes perilous, sometimes hilarious, and always ridiculous journey through the heart of America, including a grudge-bearing gang of women bikers who want Wyatt’s inheritance for themselves. But Wyatt will find the biggest thing standing in the way of his moving forward might just be himself.”

This is a story that was born out of a lot of different things and ideas. First and foremost, I love The Odyssey. The classic Greek adventure myth is one of my favorite stories of all time, and of course it’s archetypical: we see the same ideas used in uncountable stories the world over. I was fascinated by Greek myths when I was a child, but especially so this one, with its battles with cyclopses, ensnaring by witches or islands of mellow stoners, shipwrecks, homecomings, revenge, and justice. I also love a lot of the spin-off stories that have come out of it over the years, especially the Coen Brother’s Depression-era odyssey O Brother, Where Art Thou? Because of this, I’d always wanted to write a story that was my own unique take on The Odyssey, and a trip to Sicily a few years ago on a school retreat reignited my desire to do something with the idea.

In addition, people who know me well know that at times, I struggle with depression. My feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness have come and gone over the years, sometimes worse than others. I have my good days and bad days, as many other people do, and the support of my family, friends, and the other people in my life who care about me really help. However, at one particular time in my life a few years ago, I was for many reasons at the end of my rope. I was stuck in a deep depression, feeling hurt and angry much of the time, and I lashed out at the people I loved, driving away some friends and even family. Since that time I’ve worked hard to be a better person and tried to make amends, but I felt that my “quarter-life crisis” was an experience shared by many other millennials of my generation. Frequently, people my age feel lost in the tumultuous and confusing modern world, and often when we leave college and are confronted by the realities of our situation, our lives take turns we never thought they would–and not always for good. While I’m on a much better path now and am feeling happier than I have in a long time, I still remember my dark days and know that there’s many other young 20-somethings out there feeling the same way I was. I also know that most fiction that’s hot today is either catered toward teens and younger kids, or toward adults who are maybe 30 or older. The 20-somethings are a long-forgotten demographic who don’t seem to have a ton of people representing them (aside from the vague “new adult” genre that’s failed to take off in any meaningful way, industry-wise) and that’s something I resolved to do with my story. Even though many of my grad school classmates encouraged me to rewrite the story as a young adult novel so it would be more popular, I stuck to my idea, as I really do believe I can speak to this group of people and let them know they’re not alone in the world.

I also was very conscious of making my story another Percy Jackson or similar fantasy story, as The Odyssey is ripe with magical elements and monsters that could never happen or exist in real life. Besides, I’ve always felt the most dangerous monsters are the ones inside ourselves and that we create out of fear, anger, or regret. Because of this, my retelling contains no fantasy elements of any kind. While some of the adventures and misadventures of my characters may be trippy, weird, or otherwise out there, all the fantastical elements of the Homer myth have been replaced by more believable, real-life counterparts. Instead of sirens singing ships to their doom, I’ve created a casino scene in Las Vegas where the addictive nature of gambling is explored. Instead of a cyclops, I placed a one-eyed biker gang leader in the position of my primary antagonist–though you’ll hopefully find “Polly” just as compelling a character as Wyatt.

Finally, I want to challenge my audience with Wyatt’s character, and I don’t want him to be an easily likable guy. Identifiable, definitely, but likable? Not at first, for sure. Like me years ago, Wyatt is stuck in a rut in his life and doesn’t know how to get out of it. Because of this, he’s aloof, irritable, and sarcastic toward pretty much everyone around him. It’s obvious that he’s smart, and deep down that he wants other people to care about him, but he pushes them away at every opportunity because of the hurt he believes he’s suffered at the world’s hands. While some of that hurt is absolutely real, a great portion of it, as I’ve said before, actually comes from his own insecurities and fears, and his overcoming them is what this story is all about. Of course, there’s a fine line between creating a difficult but still solid main character that people want to like and root for, and creating someone whose bitterness seems to defy the logic of the story and make the audience not care about his problems. That’s the struggle I’m having as I try to reach a happy medium of depicting the stunted person Wyatt is and the brilliant, caring person he could potentially become. But let’s remember, Odysseus was far from perfect himself: he was stuck up, self-centered, and hopelessly brash and vain. Yet he made it home, and Wyatt will too–although what he finds, I can’t tell you just yet.

If you follow me on social media, stay tuned for some further sneak peaks of The Road to Ithaca as I start in on my second draft over the next few months. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me (including applying a year’s worth of beta-reading comments and edits to the manuscript), but I’m confident I can reach my destination and I hope you’ll enjoy the journey with me!

A “Horrifying” Short Story Idea

For those of you who’ve followed me a while, you’ve probably gathered that one of my favorite genres of literature (and film for that matter) to consume is horror. I’m a huge Stephen King devotee (I’ve read pretty much every book he’s ever written), am fascinated by the work of Lovecraft and other proto-horror writers, and find good thriller storylines with bizarre twists and scary monsters super entertaining. Because of this, I’ve always wanted to write a good horror story, and recently I think I’ve come up with a great idea for one: a short story, no less!

In fairness, I’ve been down this road before. This winter, while I was on a trip to Morocco with a graduate school class and writing retreat, the desert scenes and eye-opening living conditions I encountered gave me the idea for the short fiction piece that eventually became my “submission” for the retreat. It was set on a desert-like alien planet, where human colonists are about to unjustly execute a man for a crime he supposedly committed, but when they do, the alien dust (which turns out to be remnants of a long-dead civilization and still conscious, having infiltrated the bodies of all the colonists), brings the dead man back to life under its control and proceeds to kill them all for the injustice they perpetrated. It was a bit horror-esque, but mostly sci-fi, and while I still like the story (and hope to do more with it at some point), I thought I could still do better.

Fast-forward to this past week, when I’ve been re-watching one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Twilight Zone. If you’ve never seen any of this classic series, I highly recommend it: some of the best inspirations for my fiction have come from the darkly comic moral lessons the show teaches its flawed and self-absorbed characters. In particular, one episode features a woman at a bus depot who becomes convinced a doppelgänger, perhaps from a parallel universe, is trying to steal her life. For those in the know, this episode prompted Jordan Peele (a huge Twilight Zone fan himself and host of the show’s recent revival) to make his film Us, featuring a similar storyline about people’s “evil twins” trying to take over their lives and kill them off.

I’m also a big Doctor Who fan, and my favorite episode of all time also gave me a lot of inspiration for this. In this Peter Capaldi story, the Doctor becomes convinced that no one is ever truly alone: that there are creatures, unseen and unknown, that stalk every living being in the universe and only allow themselves to be seen by those who won’t be believed. It’s the reason for people talking out loud or feeling watched when they know they’re alone, or find objects mysteriously moved despite never having touched them–or, most unsettlingly, the common dream many people seem to have had of a hand grabbing them from under the bed. I know I’ve had that dream, and every time I think about this episode it sends shivers up my spine.

Bearing all of this in mind (and of course knowing I have about a million other writing projects I probably need to work on before this one), I’ve jotted down a rough plot summary of the story itself that I wanted to share with all of you! I’m using a female main character because I’d like to start writing more of them in my stories, and decided to go for a college setting to possibly appeal to a younger demographic as well as iron out some potential story issues.

“Alex Barnes, shy college freshman, is convinced by her much more outgoing roommate Nadia Chaudhry to go to a house party hosted by popular football team player Oliver Mack. When there, Alex awkwardly tries to blend in, but Oliver notices her and chats a bit, showing interest in her but backing off when he sees she’s uncomfortable. Alex does like Oliver and feels ashamed at her awkwardness and drinks more, but ends up getting sick very quickly and passes out in the bathroom.

The next day, she walks home to her dorm room and Nadia congratulates her on letting loose during the party, including taking Oliver into a bedroom for sex of her own volition. Alex denies it ever happened, but can’t remember anything from after she went to the bathroom. Alex goes to see Oliver and at first accuses him of taking advantage of her, but Oliver insists she was the instigator of the encounter and that the experience was incredible. He admits, though, that he was drunk and he’d like to get to know her better, but Alex leaves, disturbed. After some investigating, another person at the party shows her cell phone video of her taking Oliver upstairs, but Alex instinctively knows it’s not her. She starts to notice small things in her everyday life that are wrong: talking to herself when she’s alone, feeling watched, objects moving when she didn’t remember touching them, people’s deja-vu upon seeing her, being in different places at different times, and most of all, remembers a “nightmare” from when she was a child about another her hiding in her closet.

Alex tells Nadia and Oliver about the odd occurrences, but they both explain them away. She finally agrees to go out to another party with Oliver, but walks outside for some air and finds herself locked out of the house. When she finally manages to get someone to let her back in, everyone is awkward around her and Oliver is furious, insisting that she made out with another guy in front of everyone and humiliated him. He angrily breaks things off with Alex and leaves. Distraught and feeling as though her life is being stolen, Alex leaves Nadia at the party and runs into the woods, where she is finally confronted by her doppelgänger. The other Alex explains that all people have a “shadow” that follows them their entire lives who, like her, is an “anti-them” opposite in every way: she is confident, worldly, and assertive where Alex is meek, modest, and sheltered. She can’t explain what she is or where she comes from, but she hides in plain sight just like others of her kind do throughout their counterparts’ lives, managing to really live only when the situation provides it, such as when Alex was drunk or otherwise absent. However, Alex’s double says she’s tired of watching Alex make a mess of things and miss out on all the opportunities she could have. She brutally murders Alex and takes her place.

Back in the dorm room, Nadia is getting ready to go to bed when Alex’s doppelgänger walks in, still covered in Alex’s blood. Nadia begins to question her, but Alex’s double seduces her, saying she’s now been freed to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants.”

Creepy, right? I hope you see how all the inspirations I talked about sort of play into this, but I like to think I’ve given it my own unique spin. And yes, I did kill off my MC at the end. I’m that kind of writer.

Anyway, I’d love to know if people would actually read this and like the idea! I’m thinking this would be a short story rather than a novel, but looking at my notes I feel it might be a long short story. Of course it’ll probably be a while before I get around to this one, but for now it’s a fun one to think about for the future.

How I Try to Include Diversity in My Writing

If you watch the news, read the paper, or pay pretty much any attention to the world at all today, you’ll know that diversity is one of the biggest issues we face as a world community: how to address it, respect it, and most of all, represent it properly in writing. One need look no further than the last few months to find a multitude for stories about representations of diverse people gone bad in publishing, from Barnes and Noble’s disastrous diversity book covers for classics to the misfires of hotly-debated novels like American Dirt. The conversation about which people can write what stories and whether people of different races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities can accurately depict the struggles of others at all seems to be in question. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I have any earth-shaking insights on how to deal with it all. But I figured now might be a good time for me to talk about how I approach adding some needed diversity to my own work.

I’ll admit it: as a straight white male, there’s a lot I’m sure I don’t understand about other peoples and cultures. I like to think that I’m more open-minded than most, and that traveling the world pretty extensively has given me some insight that others might not have and made me a better and more understanding person. But nobody’s perfect, and I’m always terribly self-conscious in my writing, worrying about whether I’m representing my black, Asian, female, or other groups of characters fairly and accurately. It really does keep me up at night sometimes. However, I do believe that deep down, with all their cultural and other background differences aside, people are basically the same everywhere you go and that you should always follow the golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. People have the same basic desires, wants, and needs, and will respond positively to other people treating them well. While I’m not trying to deny that there’s probably a vast gulf of difference between how I live my everyday life and how, for example, someone in Japan does, not to mention how each of us perceives the world we live in, values systems, etcetera, all in all I like to believe that people are people and I try to focus on the ways we’re alike rather than the ways we’re different.

When I wrote my first novel, The Showstopper, I’ll admit that diversity in my story wasn’t very high on my list of considerations. It takes place in New York City during the 1920s, and while New York was of course a city full of all different kinds of people, even at that time, I had a very clear idea of who my characters were and what the story would look like. As such, the furthest I got into diversity was discussing the plight of Irish immigrants during that time period, and as a descendant of those immigrants myself and having grown up on stories about them, I figured that was pretty non-controversial. However, afterward I was painfully aware that, country of origin aside, pretty much all the characters were white, and only one of them was a woman (who I felt could have probably played a much more fleshed-out and important role in the story had I given it a bit more thought). I’m definitely my own worst critic, but I think going forward from that, aiming to better myself and do more in my next work was a reasonable goal.

Enter Camp Ferguson, the first novel in my YA series. Unlike The Showstopper, I always tell people Camp Ferguson is more character-driven than plot-driven, and I had the personalities of all the different characters worked on in my head for years before I found a story to give them a home in. This is how I construct most characters I write about, and I didn’t even consider what their physical appearances might be like until well after I started writing the book. I quickly realized that pretty much all the characters, once again, were white. I don’t really know why. Maybe because that’s my identity, I’m just kind of hard-wired to imagine people that way when I read about them unless I’m told otherwise? In Harry Potter, I’m fairly certain nobody ever discussed the color of Hermoine Granger’s skin, for example. J.K. Rowling claims she was meant to be a black character, and despite her history of diversity revisionism I honestly I don’t know if there’s any textual evidence to refute that. I just always kind of imagined her as white, and Emma Watson’s portrayal in the movies just solidified it. I may be wrong about that, but I’m just trying to give an example of this kind of cultural lens bias that I think a lot of writers struggle with.

So anyway, I took a step back and looked at my Camp Ferguson characters again. Did they really all have to be white? Of course not. And in that case, could this character here be black? Sure, no reason why not. Could this other character be gay? Yeah, I could work that in. And so on and so on until I felt I had a pretty diverse cast of characters on a wide range of spectrums. I’m working in future books to include depictions (sensitive, of course) of those with developmental disabilities and other differences, as well as writing more female characters (still something that keeps me up at night). Having diverse representations of characters in my writing is really important to me, and representing them in a fair, accurate, and sensitive way is key. Sure sensitivity and beta readers and other outside help can be useful to that end, but it all starts with making sure the way YOU write your story is mindful of including diverse characters.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that you could make an argument that by not assigning a whole lot of importance to the identities of my characters, I risk having my representations be of poorer quality and making diverse characters more “token” representations of whole groups of people than actual, realistic people themselves. I think that’s a fair and valid point, but I would counter with the same argument as I’ve already stated about people in real life: a person’s identity, whatever it may be, is not all that they are, and at their core most people are more alike than different. I think it would be a different conversation if the focus of the story were about exploring that character’s identity, but in Camp Ferguson, that’s not really the case. It’s mostly just about a group of kids together having a good time. I’ve worked very hard to give each of my characters their own personality traits and distinctive voice: their physical appearance or other lifestyle choices are just another thing about them that can make them stand out from the crowd and make them feel like unique, fully-formed people.

That’s also not to say I don’t think more deeply about diversity issues in my writing, either. In the sequel to The Showstopper I have on the back burner, I’d be very much getting into some thorny historical issues of representation. The novel would take place in New Orleans in the 1930s, and in such a diverse community I don’t think I could even set a story there believably without talking about issues of race and inequality, especially in the case of black Americans during that time period. I definitely don’t feel comfortable writing about that until I do some major background research, and that’s more of a task than I’m feeling up to at the moment. In addition, one of the new characters I’d like to introduce is a bisexual female character who’s also a Secret Service agent. Pushing the believability envelope for a female Secret Service member is pretty big on its own, but how do I depict and out and proud bi woman in the 1930s? Can I even do that? I love this character I’ve built up in my head (think the female version of Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who), but I’m not sure if she can believably fit into this narrative I’m trying to create. Thus the reason why this particular work is shelved until such time as I’m more comfortable in my ability to tackle these problems.

I really hope I haven’t managed to sound totally ignorant in the course of this article: I don’t think I have, but one can never be totally sure when writing about the experiences of people who aren’t like you, as I’ve said. What I’d love is for this post to spark a constructive conversation about diversity in fiction, or at the very least for other writers to talk about how they approach fitting diverse characters into their books and whether my method has merit or needs work. If you’ve got ideas, I’d very much like to hear them. No one should ever stop learning.

The Best Book to Movie Adaptations to Watch in Quarantine (Plus a Bonus!)

Since a lot of us continue to be largely stuck in our homes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and if you’re anything like me, the printed page and the computer/TV screen are turning out to be the main source of entertainment on a daily basis. As some of you may know, along with my developing writing skills I consider myself a bit of a film buff. Because this is a writing blog, though, I decided I’d challenge myself when making recommendations–which actually didn’t end up being that much of a challenge. There’s just so many great movies that have been made from books!

I know the “popular” opinion is that movies are always worse than the books they came from for various subjective reasons, but I personally don’t find that to be true. In many cases, films (and I took a whole grad school class recently that drives this point home) actually offer opportunities to expand on elements of the books they come from, or summarize and contract less important details the audience may not need to sit through. Here are just a few of my quarantine recommendations, in no particular order, for your viewing pleasure!

#1: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption has been, and continues to be, my favorite movie of all time: maybe not the best adaptation ever (though it is pretty darn good), but just a great, great film. If you’re not in the know, you might be shocked to learn this relatively uplifting movie about a man unjustly imprisoned and seeking escape while trying to make the prison he’s incarcerated in a better place is source from a Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Yes, Stephen King writes things that aren’t horror! Of course not all of the story is good–there’s definitely some cringe-worthy parts detailing the dark, awful realities of life in a corrupt prison system–but overall the moral of the story is that hope conquers fear, and that’s a feel-good lesson we all could use right now.

Plus, Morgan Freeman’s crack about his nickname Red being “maybe because I’m Irish” has to be the greatest book to movie inside joke ever (the character Red in King’s short story is a white Irishman, and Morgan Freeman is, well, not).

#2: The Shining (1980)

Okay, NOW it’s time for a classic King horror story. Historically, Stephen King’s horror books haven’t made great movies (I refer you to the lackluster It and the downright awful Pet Sematary, among many others), but Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, one of King’s best novels, is the exception to the rule–probably because of the liberties it takes with its source material. King is famously critical of Kubrick’s movie version for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that the film alters the character of Jack Torrance from a deeply flawed but relatable man driven insane by forces beyond his control to a psychopathic, willing participant in the mayhem (and when he’s played by Jack Nicholson, come on, what did you expect?).

However, regardless of how you feel about the novel or the differences between the versions, the movie is, like many Kubrick projects, a work of art. It might be the best horror movie ever made. It’s got just the right balance of the gruesome and the psychological scares and every bit of the filmmaking goes toward the singular goal of making you jump when you least expect it, and that’s the hallmark of great creative work. In this case you kind of have to divorce the different stories in your mind, but it’s well worth it.

#3: Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

If you like high fantasy (and you’ve got, like, a LOT of time on your hands), it doesn’t get any better than this. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the greatest example of book-to-film adaptations that has been or will ever be. Led by a fantastic all-star cast, spanning incredible vitas and epic battle scenes as well as heartfelt character moments, and cutting all the unneeded jargon of Tolkien’s works (great as they are) for pure, unadulterated spectacle, Lord of the Rings is well worth you time if you want to make an investment in this time of quarantine.

#4: Arrival (2016)

In this movie, an extremely high-concept sci-fi story is brought a bit down to earth and turned from a meditation on a bunch of cool ideas without a whole lot of narrative tension into a gripping and compelling story of alien visitation/invasion (I’m not going to tell you which one it is!). Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” which examines a bunch of scientists attempting to communicate with aliens who don’t perceive time the same way we do and really gets at that universal barrier: language. How would we actually even begin to communicate with another race that is unlike us in pretty much every way possible? And then, add on the movie’s dilemma of what the military will do when they decide those aliens are a threat to our way of life.

Much as I like the original story, Chiang’s short lacks any real dramatic hook to pull me in, and if you’re not a mathematician like him a lot of the concepts might go over your head. Arrival brings it all together in a nice, neat, easily-digestible and meaningful package that still is a welcome relief from the usual “let’s go fight some aliens” sci-fi movie.

#5: The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Speaking of grounded, this is about as real as it gets: a rogue Russian submarine captain barreling toward the United States with a cargo hold full of nuclear missiles. The Hunt for Red October, based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, is the first appearance of Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan (played here by Alec Baldwin) on the big screen, and it doesn’t disappoint. For those who find Clancy’s novels a bit dry and overstuffed with military-speak, the movie version distills it all down to pure, uncut drama and action, with suspense, gunfights, submarine combat, and political intrigue all adding up to an awesomely entertaining movie.

Not to mention the legendary Sean Connery plays Captain Marco Ramius, who may or may not be trying to defect from his home country–his Russian accent is pretty bad, but I promise the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

BONUS: The Expanse (2015-present)

I was on purpose trying to avoid including things that aren’t movies in this list, though there are many TV shows out there based on books that are pretty great (see Hulu’s Catch-22 and Little Fires Everywhere adaptations for reference on this), I had to mention at least one if you’re looking for a longer series to really sink your teeth into: the sci-fi epic The Expanse. Yes, it’s based on a long-running book series that’s like Game of Thrones in space, and honestly I can’t tell whether the show or the books are better most of the time. The series takes place in a retro-tech future where humanity is spread out across the solar system and political intrigue has the powers of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt in a state of cold war. All it takes is one spark–a police investigation that stumbles onto a conspiracy of universal proportions–to light the fire of a war that will change the lives of all the characters involved.

I’m telling you, check this show out, like, right now. Even if you’re not that into sci-fi, if you like hard-core character drama and bizarre space fight scenes, this is the series for you.

My Journey with Self-Publishing

If you’ve paid attention to my social media presence or read almost any of this blog, you probably know by now that I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and indie authors in general. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: since I became actively involved in the online writing community via Twitter and other social media about three years ago, I’ve read indie authors’ works that were better than most of the currently available trade paperbacks out there, and they don’t get nearly as much exposure. There are definite advantages and limitations to self-publishing, it’s true (and maybe I’ll go more in-depth into what those are in another post), but I’ve found it’s a great potential outlet for your work if you’ve been frustrated by traditional publishing or just aren’t ready to take that step. However, if there’s one thing I can impress upon other potential self-publishers, it’s that you shouldn’t go into it without a plan. That’s been something I’ve had to learn the hard way over time–though I’m hoping to have more success in the future.

I wrote my first novel, The Showstopper, during my high school and college years, and when I graduated in 2014 I was chomping at the bit to publish it. I’d always wanted to have my name in print as an author, and in the cursory research I did on self-publishing options, Amazon’s CreateSpace (now KDP) was mentioned as a common and low-budget place for indie authors to get started. I had contemplated trying to get my book traditionally published, but back then I hadn’t gone to grad school for publishing and writing yet and had no idea how the process worked. Self-publishing seemed like the far easier road, with the added benefit of maybe spending less money and having more control over my novel. So The Showstopper was published in September 2014, relying on edits by myself and a few other trusted friends and cover art I whipped up myself with Amazon’s free cover creation software (a passable, if not inspiring, altered template cover). I made it available in both e-book and paperback format, knowing e-books would probably sell more but wanting more than anything to hold a copy of my book in my hands. I also gave very little thought to the formatting of the book at the time: while the template Amazon provided frustrated me with inconsistencies in formatting, I reasoned that it wouldn’t really matter than much to people reading the book and just plowed on ahead. I did a couple of readings at a local bookstore and got them to carry the book, selling a few copies here and there, but overall got very little interest in it. It was something nice to talk about at parties, but no more.

Of course, my attention was distracted from the lackluster reception because at that point I was deep into planning my second novel, Camp Ferguson: the first in a planned YA fantasy series I was working on featuring the hijinks of adolescent wizards at a government training camp. Never mind that I still didn’t really know what I was doing with this one and not well-versed as a writer in the ins and outs of YA either, but it was a stark contrast from my dark and gritty first novel and something I just wanted to have fun with. Again, with some editing help and beta reading from some friends and family, I put Camp Ferguson out on Amazon in late 2017, temporarily satisfied by my self-promotion via Twitter, which I had just started to become involved in, and the small events and attention I once again received locally. I spent very little money, but made very little in return, and for Camp Ferguson even hand-drew and digitally designed my own cover art for the book–a corny design that I nonetheless enjoyed.

Two things, however, ended up changing my views: firstly, my growing involvement in the online writing community, and secondly, grad school. In 2018, I had quit my first job and my life was in turmoil: I was directionless and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. The last place I had really been happy was as a student in school, and I regretted having passed up a chance to study writing to go into the more “practical” field of journalism. So I finally decided that, no matter what the cost, I wanted to go back to school. The graduate publishing and creative writing programs I became part of opened my eyes to so many things about being a writer, from the research and work involved to the ways of the publishing business and the professional standards writers have to meet in order to be taken seriously–especially in self-publishing. Furthermore, my growing interactions with other writers online just solidified this understanding for me. While everyone I met was lovely and some even supported my work by buying and reviewing it, the more examples of actually successful indie authors I saw and the more I learned about the craft and business of writing in grad school made me rethink many of my previous assumptions. I’ll admit, I was more than a little embarrassed as it became clear to me how much of a rank amateur I was and that I really hadn’t taken the time and effort to put my best work out into the world. It was a humbling, and at the same time, invaluable experience.

With that, I decided it was time to make a change. If there’s anything I’ve concluded from everything I’ve learned over the past two or three years, it’s that in many cases, indie authors have an even harder job ahead of them trying to prepare their books for release because the standards for them are so much higher than for traditionally-published work. It’s so easy for readers to dismiss an indie novel out of hand for the smallest of reasons, so we have to work doubly hard to make sure we don’t give them those reasons. And because we’re doing everything ourselves, we often have to recognize that we don’t have the requisite skills to make our works a success–this involves checking your ego at the door. While I loved my handmade Camp Ferguson cover art, for example, I realized something much more polished and professional was needed to catch readers’ eyes and not turn them away. Since I wasn’t capable of doing this, I’d have to look elsewhere, and that would cost money.

Yes, I’m sorry to say that being an indie author is not cheap. Finding affordable prices for editing, cover creation, formatting, and a plethora of other services can be extremely difficult, especially if you’re on a tighter budget. That said, the beauty of the online writing community is that you can make connections that enable you to find people who will offer you better deals and whose interests and vision align with yours much more closely than any publishing house. I took my first steps into this new reality by pulling both my books from Amazon. Don’t worry, they’ll be back! Just in a much more polished form than before. I’m currently working through edits for The Showstopper before submitting them to an actual editor (even though I think I’m a great editor, I’ve learned that we writers often aren’t the best critics of our own work) for final proofreading perfection, and I recently got a new cover for Camp Ferguson from a talented grad school friend that brings my characters to life and is better than anything I could have hoped for (watch my social media over the next few weeks to see the reveal!). I haven’t put a hard date on the latter, but right now I’m shooting to relaunch The Showstopper later this year (also with a new cover that’s TBD at the moment).

My point is that, if you want to be a successful indie author, you may have to recognize that it’s not going to be as easy as you think, and you’ll need help if you want your work to be the best it can be. You don’t want to be one of the reasons self-publishing gets a bad name. But with persistence, devotion, and perseverance, you can still have the book release of your dreams while maintaining a much higher degree of freedom and control over your work. It’s a worthwhile path that many new writers may want to explore.

A Little Get-to-Know-Me Break!

With the current pandemic keeping many of us cooped up in our homes for the foreseeable future, this week I figured I’d take a little break from talking about writing to do the next best thing: talk about myself!

I kid, of course. I’ve never really been one to toot my own horn, which is part of why I have such trouble marketing my work effectively. But especially right now, I think it’s important to get any kind of human contact we can and put a softer face on my usually professional and somewhat more reserved writer self to give you a closer look at who exactly you’re reading about every week. Specifically, I wanted to talk about what some of my other interests are and what you can find me doing when I’m not writing!

So what kinds of things occupy my time, outside my fictional endeavors? Well, I work, of course. Right now I’m a content and social media manager at The American College of Financial Services in the Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., doing all kinds of marketing-related work in pushing out new content for financial advisors and corporate communications. It’s not something I thought I’d be doing, especially since I graduated with a journalism degree and never loved dealing with numbers, but it’s a great job and I love working there!

Outside of work, I’m also an ongoing graduate student at Rosemont College, studying for a dual master’s degree in creative writing and publishing. I’ve always liked being in a classroom setting with people with similar interests and discussing writing with fellow creative people, and going back to school to pursue my passion two years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I probably have another year or two as part of the program, but I’m in no rush. It’s been hugely beneficial to my growth as a writer and a person overall.

Speaking of personal growth, the most important thing in my life outside of school and work is my training in the martial arts. Specifically, I study Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art, but mostly I just shorthand it to “karate” so people know what I’m talking about. I started Tang Soo Do at my local YMCA when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old because I wanted to learn how to defend myself, get in shape, and gain self-confidence. It took my parents by surprise because I was never a very physical kid, but they supported me as I joined and here I am, 12 years later, still doing it! I took classes all the way through college and moving away to a different state for a few years, and just recently earned my second-degree black belt. I currently help with teaching younger students in several classes (even digitally through Zoom!) in addition to my normal training routine. I honestly can’t overstate what a wonderful influence karate has been on my life and how much it’s helped me become the person I am today. My instructors and fellow students are like a second family to me, and the discipline, self-control, and confidence karate has given me is something I think is invaluable in this day and age.

On the subject of physical activity, I also love (when the weather cooperates, of course) to get out and hike! Long walks either solo or with others through some remote wilderness area are one of my favorite pastimes, and traveling to new places to do it is even better! A few years back, I actually went backpacking alone across the Irish countryside for two weeks, walking 8-10 hours a day and staying in B&Bs overnight. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done and I’m dying to go back and do it again. I’ve been to over a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, and most recently to Morocco for a grad school writing retreat. Experiencing new places and cultures is something I’ve been doing with my parents since I was little, and I think it’s given me a much broader perspective than a lot of people have: something I’m immensely grateful for.

In my down time, I’m an avid gamer of all kinds: board games, card games, video games, you name it! I can be more than a little competitive, I’ll admit, but anything that involves testing my wits and skills against other people is something I can’t live without. For whatever reason, I can’t play games solo though. I know lots of people who can spend hours and hours in some kind of enormous open-world video game, but for me, that kind of thing gets old after an hour or so. I can’t really explain why, but video gaming especially is a social thing for me and I can’t get into it unless other people are actually in the room playing with me.

Finally, as many of you may know from following me on social media, I’m super into music as influence for my writing: most of my works have soundtracks I’ve created for them, and I just like good music in general. Back in middle and high school I used to be heavily involved with both music and theater in my spare time, and while theater eventually phased out of my life, I stuck with music, including piano and guitar playing and vocal performance, well into my college years before I realized, well, I wasn’t actually that great at it. That said, I still belt out my favorite songs loudly in the car where no one can hear me, and I’m getting more comfortable with singing and playing along on the guitar. Stay tuned (no pun intended) for some fun videos where you’ll get to see me “let my hair down,” as it were.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little get-to-know-me session, and I’d love to get to know you as well! If you’d like to talk writing, music, travel, or really anything else, the most reliable place to find me for some conversation is on Twitter @krobnovelist.

Till next time, stay safe out there!

New Month, New WIP…Hooray?

Wow, April seemed to go by fast, didn’t it? At least it did to me. Finishing up my grad school semester, along with keeping up with my work-from-home job, virtual karate lessons and instructing, and everything going on at home really kept me pretty occupied. But now that my semester of school is over, I made up my mind to focus on my current WIP: revising the very first book I ever wrote, The Showstopper. Little did I know fate had other plans for me…in the form of a brand-new WIP that’s been on my mind for the last week. Guess I’m not going to get anything productive done after all, although I suppose that depends on what you call “productive.” I’m certainly writing regularly again, which is an accomplishment in itself, so I guess that’s a victory!

What’s this new WIP, you may ask? Well, I can’t say too much about it right now because honestly I’m still largely working this one out. What I can tell you is that I’d classify it as “high fantasy” or somewhere between that and sci-fi. Maybe a combination of the two genres. Think Lord of the Rings crossed with The Terminator. That’s basically the short version.

You want a little longer description? Okay!

As some of you may know, one of my favorite pastimes is playing Magic: The Gathering (yes, the trading card game. Everyone’s got to have a hobby), and I also enjoy following the game’s storyline, involving different planes of existence, wizards that travel between them, and magic (obviously) of all kinds of inventive varieties. Recently I had an idea I thought could be a decent new storyline and world for the game, but the more I thought about it, the more ideas I got, and I slowly realized, “You know, if I could kind of disassociate this from an established product, it would actually make a pretty cool story!” So that’s what I’ve resolved to do, and I’m about eight pages in so far!

The story takes place in a fantasy world (not sure of a name yet) populated by humans along with other magical beings, like elves, dwarves, goblins, etc. The world was a paradise for many years, but eventually this society committed its greatest mistake: using its technological skills to create artificial intelligence which then rose up against them. The war between machines and “organics” has lasted hundreds of years by the time the actual beginning of the book rolls around, and has devastated much of the world. The handful of survivors hide away in underground bunkers plotting guerrilla attacks against the machines that rule most of the land. Whole races have been made extinct, oceans have been bled dry, and the land rendered uninhabitable by the machines’ weapons, but the remaining organics keep holding on, hoping something will come along that helps them defeat the machines once and for all.

I see this as a multi-POV story, similar to something like The Expanse or Game of Thrones, with different chapters written observing different characters. The main ones I see so far are: a female lead, who’s one of the human survivors and a warrior against the machines, but not super skilled with magic or artifice; her sister, the leader of the survivors who she constantly feels the need to compete with; the MC’s elf boyfriend, a cocky and suave master spy; maybe a dwarf engineer and goblin warrior character; one of the machines, an independent program who runs their military forces; a renegade mage from another world who sees potential in the MC and decides to bring it out by whatever means necessary; and a big bad guy lurking in the shadows, manipulating everyone in his grand design.

So far, I’ve been writing random chapters from the machine perspective because that’s the part of the story I see most clearly right now, and also because I just like a challenge. Writing as a machine is interesting because I have to be careful how I communicate their thought processes: while some of them may be independent, I don’t want them to have emotions or to resemble my non-mechanical characters too much. Even so, it’s fun to play around with their machine society group dynamics and find out how to “push their buttons,” as it were. The machine character in question may be a military commander of sorts, but he’s also the low man on the totem pole in machine society because the other factions present see him only as a tool to be used and don’t include him in planning. To make a long story short, he (I think of the program as a he, but he’s really an it) is first introduced dissenting from a new plan among the machines to wipe out organics, as it puts too much risk on them (in his opinion). Through the following storyline, he comes to suspect there is a conspiracy within the machine society and digs at the inconsistencies he finds until he discovers he and the organics he is programming to kill may be actually victims of the same enemy.

Interested? Would you like to read more of this story? Let me know! I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep my inspiration train going with this, but I plan on writing until I run out and have to stop and actually maybe outline this thing in a logical way. Either way, I’m dying to know what people think!

The revisions can wait, I suppose. Good ideas don’t come along every day. Onwards and upwards!

#IndieApril Reads: Getting Real

Welcome back to my last post of the month for #IndieApril! It’s been great to be able to talk about just a handful of the amazing indie authors present in the writing community whom I’ve gotten to know, and whose work is so good it’s honestly a lot better than many of the trade paperbacks I pick up at the bookstore all the time. I’ve talked about romances and fantasies so far, so this week I’m going to get a little more real.

Not that these works don’t still have elements of those things in them: far from it. But the reason I call this post “Getting Real” is because the issues addressed in these books, from morality to identity and even addictions and abuse, are the real crux of the storytelling and the characters and they do so well what almost every story tries to do: address real-world issues in the form of fiction. And they do it in ways that will both surprise and excite you, as well as tug rather painfully on your heartstrings. So without further ado, let’s meet the authors!

 

Brooklynn Dean: The Word of the Rock God

Likely inspired by Supernatural and other dark fantasy hits, The Word of the Rock God is a biblically-themed, grunge-tastic look at the nature of fame, the importance of having a moral code and being your authentic self, and the responsibilities that recognition brings. Young rock band frontman Max lives by a strict, religiously-motivated moral code: he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t chase women as he tries to use his music to reach out to people and show them the love he wants to feel for himself. But even though Max is a pretty good guy, temptation can strike anyone and find the cracks in anyone’s armor.

Max is much more than just some wannabe rock star: he’s a prophet, and that means the forces of heaven and hell are each out to recruit him and his influence to their side. But often the path of righteousness can be difficult to walk, while the one of sin is much easier and more appealing. Soon, Max finds himself caught up in a bizarre relationship with a girl he knows deep down is trouble, but he can’t pull himself out of his shame and self-pity to do anything about it. The fate of his soul and maybe the world rests in the balance.

I honestly found this book so fascinating not only because of the strength of the characters, who from heaven to hell and everything in between are multi-dimensional and well-constructed, but because of the super-cool spin on traditional religious belief that comes into this world of rock and roll. It’s a great reworking of the classic temptation tale in a way that young readers these days would, I think, find very appealing and meaningful. Sure, there’s a good deal of sex, drugs, and…you know…but the core message of the story–how important it is to know who you are–is one I think we can all get behind, and it’ll keep you guessing right up until the end. If you think you know how this story’s going to end, you’re wrong.

 

L. Costevelos: Wanderlust

Speaking of not knowing how things are going to end, look no further for a twisting, turning, strange land and funhouse-type thrill ride than Wanderlust, but L. Costevelos. A fresh new take on the always-fertile ground laid by Alice in Wonderland, this book finds the young female protagonist, Raine Black, under investigation for the gruesome murder of her abusive husband. But did Raine really kill him, or is there something else going on?

Nothing is as it seems. Through Raine’s eyes, we see how an encounter with a monster leads her literally through the looking-glass into an alternate universe called Wanderlust, populated by bizarre creatures, rife with dangerous and deadly magic, and ruled by a lonely king who Raine finds herself drawn to more and more. But as her fantasy world and the real one increasingly collide, Raine is torn between them, two relationships, and whether or not she can ever find where she is truly happy.

Part crime thriller, part psychedelic head trip, and all fantastical adventure, Wanderlust is one heck of a thrill ride. Imagine Alice combined with a police procedural and that’s what we’ve got here: and I promise you, it’s pretty awesome. The incredibly emotional depiction of Raine’s failing marriage and her conflicted feelings about Nicholas, the king of Wanderlust, is so vivid and real I almost teared up a couple of times–and that’s saying something. I don’t think I’ve read many books that were as impactful as this one, and if you’re looking for a totally engrossing page-turner, I’d highly recommend this one.

 

Chelsea Lauren: Underneath the Whiskey

I promised one of thees would be totally real-life and normal, didn’t I? Well even if I didn’t, Underneath the Whiskey is definitely the most grounded of the books I’ve talked about, and possibly the most emotionally raw and revealing.

Ben Jacobson does pretty well: he’s the owner of a local coffee chain, married to a loving wife, and has great kids who he’s totally devoted to. But that’s not all he is, and it’s driving him crazy. For years, Ben has hidden his real self from his family, and a secret that could tear everything in his life apart: the fact that he’s actually gay. But after years of repression, painful conversion therapy, and enduring society’s hostility toward him, he’s all but given up on truly being happy. Everything get’s upended, though, when Caden, a new bartender at his shop, walks into his life and makes Ben feel things he hasn’t let himself feel in a long, long time. Driven to drink by his overwhelming misery and intractable situation, Ben drives those he loves away as he sinks deeper into depression, and soon he faces a choice: can he climb out of the bottle and do what he needs to do to finally be honest with himself and others, or will he continue on a path of self-destruction?

I know it’s become a touchy subject these days who can write what person’s story, but if there was any doubt in your mind that a female writer could expertly depict the mindset and character of a closeted gay man in a believable way, leave them at the door now. This book was so powerfully authentic that it left me totally overwhelmed, from the delightful interplay and heated drama between the characters to the very real issues it deals with, and especially how it addresses people in similar situations and what they can do to get help when they need it. This is one of those stories that I think everyone should read, and I don’t say that kind of thing lightly. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is always an educational experience, and this book is no exception. Be prepared to be heartbroken, but also to be enlightened.

 

Well, that about does it! Happy #IndieApril everyone, and please help our self-published authors out by following them and buying their books!