Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Author's Crossroad

Stained glass butterfly....

When I decided to write seriously, I stood at a crossroads—not on what to write, but on how to write. A delicate balance, especially since I wanted to write in the Young Adult genre.

Raised with a heavy religious mantle on my shoulders, at first I felt compelled to write to please instead of to write for pleasure. I felt the pressure of my dead grandmother looming over my shoulder, gasping at every unsavory word or scene, worried about the judgmental eyes of those in my small community, not to mention the mantra my mother drilled into me throughout my informative years..."Don't do anything you wouldn't do in front of me." Sound familiar?

I delved into my teenage romance, full of enthusiasm with the story my characters told, until one of my characters wanted to do something I didn't morally agree with. I tried to write a "bleached out" version, changing all the "gosh darn" words, shoving my hero's wandering hands into his pockets while placing a chaste kiss on my heroine's lips. Even altered their attire from the normal low riding jeans and cropped tees, to outfits that made Amish kids look risqué. I created the "Stepford Teens." When I tried to write their story in their new "appearance" it became as lifeless as they had. My characters fell silent and their story stopped. At that point I realized I'd written to please.

Then I attended a seminar where the very subject of characters who broke unheard of rules, scoffed at our moral upbringing, pretty much doing as they damn well pleased, was discussed. I mingled with authors who wrote bizarre sci-fi stories, erotic romances, and bone-chilling slasher-thrillers. Normal people who lived in normal neighborhoods with spouses, kids and pets—who wrote amazing "moral defying" books.

These brilliant authors who wrote dark works based on murder, rape, drug addictions, and sex, were not their characters. Just because someone creates a story based on a stalker who kills and dismembers innocent people, doesn't mean that person is constantly thinking those thoughts—that they may commit the heinous crimes themselves; or the romance writer who creates scenes full of mind boggling sex that makes your blood sing when your read their words, spends all their time "in the bedroom" so to speak. Not so.

Authors are storytellers. We're "secretaries" to our characters. We write what they tell us, casting aside personal hang-ups and bringing their lives to written form. We write for pleasure.
My books will not grace the shelves of religious bookstores. I decided I liked my colorful, gritty characters, who can make me blush (personally, I think they like the 'shock factor'). I know some eyebrows waggled and a few gasps taken when my friends read Riley's Pond, but there was no "bleaching out" the story. It would have stripped the essence of the characters—killed the story. Not all my books are as racy, but they border an edgier line—sometimes nibbling forbidden fruit. Depends on how much my characters want to share. But…that's the way I decided to write. No apologies offered.

Tonight, one of my neighbors approached me. She'd read Riley's Pond, which surprised me because very few people in my neighborhood know I write, or my pen name. She wanted me to know how much she loved the story. "You had me from the first paragraph and I hated turning the last page, knowing it came to an end." When I dared the question for her opinion on the racy context, she told me any other way would not have been Riley's story. She also expressed a hope all my books held a pinch of spice. (She was one of those I worried about!)

Now that's writing pleasure.


Wendy S. Hales said...

Diversity in characters is crucial (you did phenomenal writing in Riley’s Pond!). I’ve had people balk about my characters electing to sacrifice their chance for a child in Immortal Becoming, the assault scene in Shadowed Magic, The bi*** mother in Mayan Lover, and the blood slave torture in Shadow Revealed. Yet … the majority understands that is ‘the story’. Internal fortitude, conquer, be strong … that is the definition of real people and story characters. I have never met or created a single person that hasn’t faced some type of trial in their life. Stories come to life ‘because’ the reader/author gets an inside view of the trial on a level they might never have unless they personally experience it.
Never temper your voice Harley Brooks. Your characters and stories are AMAZING!

Lisa Deon said...

I love you, sister and I feel your pain.

I was not brought up under any type of religiosity, and also wrote what my characters dictated. But when entered in a contest judges by the owner of a conservative publishing, did I get slammed. But the thing that bothered me the most was this: the contest wasn't a conservative one, but the judge was. Why was she unable or unwilling to set aside her own moral compass and be unbiased and open? So I shrugged that off and went the self publishing route after not liking the conditions offered by a small publisher.

Now I have learned that one of my co-workers, who happily purchased my book (supposedly for his wife to read) has systematically gone through the manuscript and, using a sharpie, blacked out all the words he feels will shock or offend her.


That puppy is going to look like a declassified CIA black ops file.

But, I guess while it irks me, I will have to live with it. He did purchase it, it's his copy, and if he wants it to look like a Rorschach test that's his prerogative.

I love the quote (who I cannot remember it belongs to) "A writer's job is to tell the truth." And like you, the little voices in my head are not happy substituting Fudge and Sugar for what they really mean.

Write on, partner in crime. And be true to your characters. And as for those love scenes you think might be too hot for conservative folks to handle, remember this: despite the toe in the dirt scuffing, eyes to heaven whistling, hands angelically wringing behind their back, no human was ever found in a cabbage patch or delivered by a stork.

Joelene Coleman said...

I bow to the "masters." Thanks! Really? There's no stork?

Patricia said...

Really great advice on following your own personal thoughts about what to write instead of following someone else's ideas.
Good for you.

PJ Sharon said...

I totally get the underlying urge to write what we think will be "acceptable." With my YA stories, I wanted to be true to my character's experiences, but also felt a certain responsibility to promoting positive messages to teens. I think I found a balance that I can live with, and that was the bottom line for me. Being true to myself as well as my characters.

Joelene Coleman said...

PJ you've done an awesome job of finding balance and writing believable characters. Thanks for sharing!

Rhonda Hopkins said...

"We're "secretaries" to our characters." Great way to put it, Joelene. I know when I try to force my characters to go in a direction that's not right for them, they balk and let me know about it. I've worried about the language in one of mine. But my bad guy just wouldn't say "gosh darnit". :-) My mother has read a little of it and she said, "Do you have to use that kind of language?" Well, yes...that particular character does. She's supportive of my writing though and says she can't wait to read the rest. Aren't moms great?

S. L. Rowland said...

I love that you're true to yourself in your writing.
Doesn't feel good to be validated for your work. I'm glad that you had the positive experience.

Joelene Coleman said...

The first time I typed the f* bomb I shuddered. It's not my natural language. I tried to substitute it and the character got in my face immediately with "are you f*ing kidding me?" I tried and failed. While not riddled with the word, it is sprinkled throughout Riley's Pond and I'm finding a couple of other characters in new WIPs also taking verbal liberties. **rolls eyes and sighs**

Wendy S. Hales said...

Think of it as a 'colorful adjective', s'all good, LOL

Christina Wolfer said...

I, too, struggled with this from a religious standpoint, but ultimately knew, I wouldn't write if I couldn't write what it's my head. There would be nothing to write if I didn't listen to the characters.

And since I'm in the middle of reading Riley's Pond, I thrilled you stayed true to the characters. Absolutely love this story.

Loretta said...

I go through this battle most of the time, because my writing colors outside the lines. For the most part though, I've been able to just keep typing, and ignore all the miles and miles of tapes in my head.
I don't know that it ever gets "easy" but it does get "easier" over time.
Like you, I have many people in my life that would be upset, but, deep in my heart I believe a writer has simply got to write it as they hear it in their head.
I've finished Riley's Pond, and I wouldn't change a thing, Joelene:) It was accurately written...tell those who don't think so, to go sit beneath the stands at a football game. It's eye-popping and mind-boggling!:)
Hugs, Lo

KRBailey, Author said...

Love your blog. It is so true for all of us. I was uneasy because my first story (written under a different penname) was erotic, but I still love the story. My next story started out as erotic and I toned it down but its still spicy enough to raise some eyebrows. But I finally decided I'll write what I want. I've criticism. I've had people tell me the stories were pretty spicy. But I also have them tell me they like what I write. So you go for it girl.

Joelene Coleman said...

"Riley winks shamelessly at his fans." Thanks for the great input and words of encouragement. We also write what we like to read and I don't mind if my eyes get "steamed up." Besides, if food tastes better with a little "spice" why wouldn't a story? After all, our mind deserves a little treat too!

Anonymous said...

I use the "f" word in "The Lunch Club" which may surprise my Sunday School class...but it was a realistic reaction to the situation and I stand by it. I think people will accept a little spice when it's inherent to the story and not just added for shock value.

Ruth A Casie said...

I still worry about what my kids will say. I cringed when they read my story and it had a moderate sex scene in it. I know, they are all grown and out of the house but they still treat me with an air of 'not my mother.'

*Sigh* I'm not quite ready to tell all. I'm not certain I ever will. I do know that you are absolutely right. I must stay true to my characters, write what works best for the story, and write to please others.

Thanks so much - I love your blog.

... Ruth

Calisa Rhose said...

I so feel your pain and relief Joelene. I worry about the lovely people in a church I went to nearly ten years ago. These people watched my daughters grow from pre-teen to adulthood, motherhood. Of course I worry and appreciate their opinions. My first book had very little spice, but that was how my characters preferred it told. My next book is slightly more racy and the sexual tension is higher. Oh dear. The church people loved Home. How will they react to Risk Factors? Do I car that much?

Loved this post Joelene.

Joelene Coleman said...

My hope is that if someone doesn't care for my book's content, that they at least acknowledge I have a great imagination!

Diane Burton said...

Good for you, Jolene. You have to follow your heart and write the characters as they appear to you. All the best.

Anonymous said...

As a Christian, I often had the same problem when I started writing. It's hard to have your foot in two worlds. Ultimately, you have to go where your heart leads:-) . . . just stopping by from YARWA!

ladystef said...

Hi Joelene, I flagged this so I could come back and read it when I had a chance. I am going through this also. As an active LDS woman I am worried about the love scene in my story. And as I am about to self pub I worry about the reaction from the hubs extended family, but I had to be true to the story so come what may it's there. Wish me luck.

Harley Brooks said...

Thanks to everyone who's stopped by! I am so glad to know I'm not alone in facing such dilemmas. Family and friends acceptance is so huge when you're starting out, but in the end, they're not your readers. They'll always be your fans, but you have an audience you want to reach and if that means landing you in the doghouse with Grandma, then make sure you've got a comfortable blanket and access to electricity so you can use your laptop inside the kennel!

Sonya said...

I'm a Christian too and that 'good girls don't write trashy books' mantra was always the unspoken and at times spoken 'rule'.

But I had to realize that I'm not any more my character (though he/she can be shaped by my life's events) than a doctor is his stethoscope. It's simply a tool he uses to do what he wants/feels called to do.

My characters are mere tools of this writer's life.

And Lisa, your comment about the CIA black ops file is too funny!

Suzanne Lilly said...

How wonderful to hear those affirming words from your neighbor. I understand your starting out writing to please. I too, was raised in a very strict religious environment. It took me years to get past the self-imposed boundary of "What will people who know me think?" Now I have a thick enough skin that it doesn't matter. We write what must be written to bring the story to life and make it come true. I'm glad you were able to cross that boundary too, and create Riley's Pond.