Rise of the mythfic: Why purity is a construct

As a bookseller at an independent bookstore specializing in new releases, I get a hands-on sense of how book market trends work. And lately I’ve noticed a resurging interest in mythology.

Not just original myths, but refreshing retellings like Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (though to be fair, many of us readers will read anything by that man, who is a literary god unto himself). I’ve seen titles like Find Your Goddess and Legendary Ladies pop up on the shelves.

This seems to be an emergent pattern for other media, as well. Superhero lore is a kind of modernized mythology, as in the Marvel and DC films Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Guillermo del Toro just won Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, which is essentially a fanfic of Creature from the Black Lagoon — and horror is a kind of mythology, too.

Whether mythology gets retold, modernized, or subverted, the old school has become new again, and it’s becoming popularized in unexpected ways.

When asked what my novel is about, I’ve often said “it’s based on ancient Roman mythology,” because at least that gives the asking party a conceptual framework to understand the plot.

But if I were being completely honest, I’d say my novel is basically an AU fanfic of Roman myth. I don’t usually say that — not because fanfic is necessarily stigmatized — but because if I did, a lot of folks would go, “huh?”

“Featuring werewolves,” I might add, further complicating things, as werewolves are wont to do.

 

If we can believe feral children founded Rome, we can believe they were werewolves, right? Because they totally could have been. There is so much wolf symbolism in Rome. Try putting more werewolves in things, it’s fun.

 

I can’t stress enough how much The Soft Fall is only loosely based on ancient Roman mythology, inspired by it, or is a reimagining of it. It is not even set in ancient Rome, but a fantasy world that has shades of ancient Rome. In this way it is not like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, which directly characterize the Roman pantheon in a modern context, or Madeline Miller’s latest Circe, set firmly in the Greek Odyssey.

Certain things about The Soft Fall will feel familiar to readers familiar with the traditional Greco-Roman canon: the veiled references to lares, the Oracle at Delphi, the Rape of the Sabines, Palatine Hill. My characters’ names differ from the Roman counterparts that inspired them, albeit slightly, so readers might catch on to that too. Remus and Romulus become Ramus and Remetus. Orion becomes Oryaen. Diana becomes…well, Dianna (see that? The extra ‘n’ is to denote that she is, in fact, her own character, thank you very much).

Not only as an author, but as a person in the world who is legitimately concerned about intercultural relations, the story ideas I borrow from other cultures, and whether or not something constitutes as cultural appropriation, I have to be careful about how I recontextualize mythology. I’m by no means an authority on it, or a classics scholar (Mary Beard is, though, and I highly recommend any of her works). I’ve traveled to modern Rome and read about ancient Rome as a part of my research, but my capacity for research is limited by the very fact that I am not Italian.

But here’s the thing about Roman mythology in particular: it is, in itself, borrowed from the Greeks!

For the record, Diana herself was likely an indigenous woodland goddess, but became associated with the Greek goddess Artemis (and by proxy, Selene and Hecate). Some might call themselves Dianic “purists,” believing the goddess must be interpreted a certain way according to one of her many portrayals. But how can such a thing be claimed if we don’t know which portrayal is “accurate”? Purity is a construct.

As Cicero noted, there are many Dianas, many ‘faces’ or ‘roads’ by which this mighty Goddess was known and worshipped.

– NovaRoma on the festival of Nemoralia

There is much debate regarding her orientation in particular, because of the obsessive emphasis on her celibacy in stories. I just roll my eyes at the “virgin goddess” trope (again: purity is a construct). Some readers argue that the goddess was asexual because of her celibacy, should it be part of her identity rather than simply her preference. Some argue that she was actually a lesbian, because she is frequently depicted with a posse of nymphs who shield her from men’s prying eyes. And most don’t argue that she did love men,* because lesser-known versions mention the hunter Orion as her sole beloved.

Diana’s sexuality or lack thereof is just one of her many contradictory aspects. She has been known to have a wrathful temper, which could easily be an exaggeration, given that basically all the gods are marked by wildly wrathful behavior in some way or another. She is called a protector of women in childbirth as swiftly as she is called a murderer of them — simultaneously relieving disease and the pains of labor as well as bringing sudden death with her arrows. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Netflix series Myths and Monsters both describe Diana’s fateful encounter with Actaeon, a herdsman who merely glimpsed her bathing and, as punishment, was turned into a stag and devoured by his own hounds. So using this example and her apparent chastity, many have codified her a misandrist, as well.

Yet there is a tenderness in her personification that is rarely mentioned. The painting Diana and Endymion by Francesco Solimena depicts the story of Diana’s unrequited love for a handsome mortal shepherd. According to the legend, she fell deeply in love with Endymion, but her love remained unfulfilled due to her vow of chastity. Instead, she would visit a mountain where Endymion guarded his sheep each night, bestowing a kiss upon him while he slept. Occasionally the young man caught a brief glance at her, but believed her lovely face a dream — and enjoyed seeing her so much that he came to prefer sleep over his waking hours. The painting’s Wikipedia page says that “through Diana’s love, Endymion was granted eternal youth and timeless beauty.” That doesn’t sound like misandry to me at all.

Nothing can control how we personally interpret such mythical figures, and perhaps that’s as it should be. The beauty of fanfic is that we can create our own narratives around a character, ones with which we ourselves might strongly identify. Writing Diana not as a one-dimensional virginal misandrist, as she is often labeled, but as a fully realized sex-positive feminist like myself, was my attempt at brushing the dust from her history and adapting her for a modern audience.

I embrace the possibilities of interpretations. But I absolutely take umbrage with the specific argument that Diana must be interpreted a certain way. If we could trace her back to her very first recorded appearance in history, her true origin story, only her creators would know their intentions. Just as if Diana were to somehow exist in ancient history, only the people who knew her would know who she “really” was.

Diana, being a mythical figure, transcends and eludes our complete certainty of her. Myths are derivative, dynamic, and fluid, just like fanfic. And that’s what makes them interesting to us, time and time again, in all of their iterations.


*Spoiler alert: she is, in fact, bisexual in my version. And if that isn’t clear enough, it’s fully revealed in the sequel, because the general consensus is most stories are simply better when we don’t give everything away at once. Yay for character development!

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A peep into writing critique

I was introduced to a long-established local writing critique group in the summer of 2016, fresh from finishing a recent draft of The Soft Fall. Upon that first meeting, I was terribly anxious.

What if my genre (fantasy, primarily young adult) didn’t appeal to them, or my themes (war and slavery, religious oppression, and other crimes against humanity) were deemed offensive? Would they perceive me to be, as the youngest member, too inexperienced? What if my first piece didn’t make a good enough first impression to go on? I’m sure the group had just as many reservations, letting a stranger into their midst.

But the one thing I wasn’t worried about? Being critiqued.

It’s ironic, having social anxiety — which can be seen as a fear of being judged — and not having any doubts about joining a critique group. After all, the point of a critique group is judgment, right?

But it’s not the kind of judgment that hurts your self-value, the kind that social anxiety conditions you to fear. No one is going to take a look at your piece, crumple it up, and tell you your work is garbage and you should never write again. That’s not critique; that’s dismissal.

Real critiques don’t negate the value of your work, but rather see the value in it, whether hidden or overt. A “bad” piece of writing isn’t inherently bad; it’s “bad” because it’s underdeveloped. If a critique is authentic, it’s not the kind of judgment that will make you feel worse. It will make you want to be better.

A critique group is a collaborative effort, with every member united by the common goal of improving their own writing as well as the writing of the other members. And it is so important.

Donovan, who invited me to meet the group, is editor extraordinaire at Bloomsday Editing & Proofing. His writing has a naturally polished, consistent quality that seems effortless, despite the hard work we know it to be. And that attentive thoroughness of his own writing on every level — from character to prose to plot — carries over to his critiques. Since he’s also a poet, he recognizes the literary devices and thematic intent in a piece.

Donovan

Beverley is the group’s matriarch, who graciously provides the church meeting room where we convene. She has a keen sense for word choice and line editing — catching phases that don’t sound right to the ear or read clearly on the page — and her wry observations are both utterly brilliant and often hilarious. I must remind myself to jot some of them down next time.

Beverley

Ann Marie is a force of nature, believing in everyone’s best. She is the queen of morale, often bringing treats to share with the group. Her extensive work in counseling shows in her balanced critique style, blending both enthusiastic encouragement and tough love when it’s needed. One of my favorite mottos of hers, when something doesn’t ring true? “I believe you can do better.”

AM

Jason, worldbuilder and fellow fantasy fanatic, doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is. If something didn’t work for him, he’ll not only explain why, but offer an alternative. He enjoys dark humor and a bit of gore in his action sequences, and homes in on sensory detail in descriptive passages. To determine this, one of my favorite methods of his is the “smell-o-meter.”

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Margie is an incisive voice of reason. Nothing gets past her, and when I receive my critiqued piece from her, I can tell she spent a lot of time on it. I can always count on her to ask all the right questions and point out anything that needs clarification or restructuring.

Margie.jpg

Dean’s critique style is quieter, yet I’m most often surprised at what he finds in the piece either in doubt or in praise, since it’s something I least expected. If in doubt, his comments are direct, and if in praise, he’s never stingy with triple plusses (which we use to ascribe to passages we really like).

Dean

Sheila is incredibly humble. In her childhood memoir writing, her memory is sharp and her details meticulous. Similarly, she is detail-oriented in her critique approach. I always gain a little extra wisdom from her overall takeaway of the piece.

Sheila

As for me, I tend to focus on characterization and emotional weight, because that’s the reason I read. I like going under the surface of a piece of writing, seeking out the beating heart. What does this line convey? What is a better way to show conflict? What is this character thinking and feeling in this moment? And so on.

When I first met the group, I needn’t have been worried about how different I might have been from them, and indeed, how different I am. It’s our differences that strengthen us. Each of the members brings unique skills, tastes, and opinions to the table. Collectively, their insight inspires and educates me. They are my writing family.

In writing as in life, even though one person begins and ends the journey, it’s the people you share it with along the way who enrich the process. Going it alone could never be as fulfilling. Creating doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the more perspectives that can helpfully contribute to shaping your writing, the more well-rounded it will be.

Being seen

I try to be careful before making any kind of announcement. I like to let the news sink in first. To make sure it’s official and in writing. To not get too excited because anything can change at any moment. Nothing is guaranteed. Life isn’t guaranteed. We are all just motes spinning on a mound of dirt in a vast cosmic abyss. I am simplifying things but maybe you know what I mean.

I’ll allow myself to get excited just this once, though.

YOU GUYS HEY WOW.

THE SOFT FALL is getting published by Ellysian Press.

(Distant yelling in the background.)

Getting to this point has been a wonderful, complex, eye-opening journey that made me a better writer and person. While querying the manuscript I received several agent requests for the full, but ultimately the offer from Ellysian Press came at the right time and seemed a good fit.

This is one success as a writer. It is not the only benchmark for success. The work is never over, just as an education is neverending. For me, the real benchmark is speaking it into reality.

The real benchmark is this: I’ve had social anxiety, or some form of it, for as long as I can remember.

Social anxiety is rooted in fear, of course. It’s a fear of the inauthentic, or appearing inauthentic. But it’s also about desire — a desire to be seen for one’s true self. A desire for genuine connection (meatspace interface) in a fast-paced, hyper-connected, social media-fixated time.

When we read another’s writing, we are experiencing that genuine connection. The reader is participating in a conversation with the author. Writing is how I speak to you. The stories I tell are parts of me.

It may be difficult for those without this kind of anxiety to understand it, because living in the digital age, making aspects of your life public, has become the norm. Social media invites us to share as much as we can of ourselves. But being vulnerable is about publicizing the work that would otherwise go unseen.

I just finished reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work! today, from which I took the following quote:

Remember what writer Colin Marshall says: ‘Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.’

If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.

That is why the biggest success for me, no matter what happens now, is sharing my writing at all.

When everything inside you is screaming at you to withdraw from the world, sharing your creative work is an act of bravery.

Where have all the werewolves gone?

All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.

All of them?

Sure, he says. Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”

– Margaret Atwood

It happens occasionally, browsing through the agent profiles in The Writer’s Market or on #MSWL tags in Twitter. Not often, but often enough to realize it’s a hot button issue in the writing community.

The agent is looking for high-concept or speculative fantasy, with diverse characters and a strong female MC, a unique retelling of a fairy tale or myth. As I read along, nodding, I internally give myself a high five. I wrote some of those things!

Until I reach the end of the paragraph:

“No paranormal or supernatural,” the agent firmly stipulates. “No werewolves.”

That clinches it for me. I cut my losses. I put my tail between my legs and mope.

awoo

I understand the werewolf backlash, I really do. It’s not so much backlash as collective industry and cultural burnout. From a marketing perspective, werewolves are viewed as a trend. At a certain point, a trend saturates fiction and is thereafter declared “dead,” and it is assumed nothing else can be said on the topic that either a) hasn’t been done before or b) will make anyone bothered enough to care about it again.

Anything that explodes in fiction will fizzle out pretty fast. The crushing enormity of popular books like the Twilight series obviously inspired a renewed fervor for the vampire/werewolf feud (why do they always have to be pitted against each other anyway? Can we all move on from that too?) and spawned numerous bandwagon iterations.

And I will say nothing more on that particular take, except that it could have benefited from some serious interventions with a red pen.

I, too, am burned out on werewolf fiction. But not for the same reasons as agents. Agents look at it, shake their heads, and say, “Not this again…Been there, done that.” I look at it, shake my head, and say, “Not this again…There is so much more to do.”

And whether you’re pointing the finger at Twilight or Teen Wolf or any other modern interpretation of lycanthropy, remember that they weren’t there first. You’ll have to go back further than Teen Wolf (the original) or An American Werewolf in London or more obscure cult films like Ginger Snaps, further than Harry Potter, further than the novel series by urban fantasy mavens Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn and Patricia Briggs. Furrrther.

goltziuslycaon

You’ll have to go all the way back to Lycaon. Remember that its roots lie deep in a centuries-old European folkloric tradition, and older still if you trace the etymology to ancient Greece. Stories of shapeshifting and anthropomorphic beasts are found in cultures worldwide.

And yet, even though there’s nothing conceptually new about it, we keep treading the same ground: the “alpha male,” silver bullets, super-strength, lack of self-control, nudity for the sake of convenience. At least, these are all the touchstones of werewolfery that are given the biggest dues.

Growing up, I’d always loved the mythology of werewolves, and wolves in general. But the two were strangely incongruous in fictional portrayals. They took the hierarchical structure of wolf packs — essentially a single breeding pair, sometimes accompanied by an adaptable auxiliary family of relatives and strays — too literally, insisting on enforced roles of dominance and subjugation. And of course, the werewolves must always be big, bad, and bloodthirsty. Nevermind that actual wolves rarely attack humans and have a high tolerance for periods of famine.

Werewolves were always howling at the moon for no apparent reason other than to make a spooky sound, even though it’s a highly nuanced means of communication between gray wolves. There was always one male alpha werewolf, aggressively claiming “females” and territory against “outsiders,” as if the wolf is an excuse for toxic masculinity. Wolf patriarchies aren’t a thing.

All told, it’s exactly what the horror genre is going for: an angry, scary monster that’s only vaguely wolf-like, if only in namesake. And sometimes, in the literal physical sense (no offense to Buffy’s gorilla costumes; they did their best on a low budget).

I couldn’t help but wonder where real werewolves had disappeared to. These modern characters were so different from one of their earliest manifestations: the Faoladh.

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The Faoladh of Irish mythology would be considered an anomaly in the horror/supernatural canon because it subverts the mainstream preconception. They can shapeshift at will into your average-looking wolf. They are considered guardians of children, the sick and wounded, and lost people. According to multiple sources, their predatory behavior reflects that of typical wolves. They sometimes live as wolves for seven year periods. They were recruited by kings during times of war.

Werewolves with true duality and morality. Now that was a mythology I could get behind.

The Faoladh was an inspiration for The Soft Fall by proxy, because its lore was exactly what I’d been missing from werewolf stories. That, and plenty of other unexplored terrain.

I wanted to write female and gay werewolves, because the theme of transformation and self-control and identity is ripe for metaphorical possibilities thus far overwhelmingly limited to male violence.

I wanted to write werewolves making found families that more accurately depict pack dynamics, all the playfulness and depth of caring for other members in the emotional context of internalized accursedness.

I wanted to write about the impact of werewolves on their environment — having as-yet-unexplained magical powers over the earth — to reflect the value of wolves as keystone predators on the ecosystem.

“It’s a very serious story about werewolves,” I would say to that agent that is not looking for them, given the chance. “In all fairness, my manuscript never mentions the word ‘werewolf’ once. And it hardly qualifies as paranormal romance, but I still feel the need to apologize about that, thanks to a certain popular book series with a certain contentious love triangle. Sorry.”

(Not really sorry.)

My critique group is reading it right now, and I can’t wait until they find out the werewolves were the good guys all along.

So you’ve written a novel. Now what?

My friend and fellow bookseller/writer emailed me recently with a great question.

I had a customer come in today and ask about what his next steps should be after completing a book. He says he has had people read it for him, but he was wondering what he should do next.

Do you have any advice for would-be published authors? How did you go about sending in your work? Where did you send it? How did you decide where to send it? Do you have someone helping you figure all of that out or are you basically on your own?

While I certainly don’t know all the answers, I can share my experience from the first draft to submission-ready:

Read as many books as you can.

Read nonfiction about the writing process. Decide what rules seem reasonable, then stick to them. Decide what rules seem questionable, then break them. Analyze the classics in depth. Read genres you wouldn’t normally read. Read stories completely different from yours. Read stories that seem uncannily similar to yours. Read good technique and learn from it. Read bad technique and learn from it. Go on a blind date with a book. Judge books based on their covers, then pick them up anyway. Get a thorough feel for your likes and dislikes — it will make you more confident in your own style.

Start by talking about writing — but not too much.

A magician never reveals their secrets, and in the same way I hesitated to talk about my writing out loud for a long time. I didn’t want to “ruin” the magic. I didn’t want to seem pretentious about making art. I wanted to have something to show for it, and I didn’t. Not yet.

First, you must decide when you’re ready to talk about the writing. Know that others will ask you what you write about, and be prepared to answer, but always keep a part of it secret. Know that others will ask you to read your writing, but don’t always say yes.

Don’t share your first draft.

Ideally, not the second or third either. Make one exception if you must, for someone who has been there since the beginning and knows you and your writing style well (my husband has offered his edits and commentary on everything I’ve written). But be selective in choosing your beta readers. I also recommend asking as diverse a sample of readers as possible, to get a wider range of perspectives.

When I felt ready to “test run” the manuscript, I sent copies to a small group of trusted friends who were interested in beta reading for me. If you or your friend have never done this before, it will be daunting. You’ll feel you won’t know what to expect, that it’s a huge favor to ask, that people have busy lives and won’t really have the time. Your friend will wonder how brutally honest they should really be. That’s okay — you’re learning together.

Make sure to mention there’s no pressure to finish it, but you may be pleasantly surprised.  The majority of friends did end up not only reading, but offering feedback (and in some cases, extensive feedback) to give me a general idea of what worked and what didn’t work for them.

Gathering those opinions, then I was the one who got to decide what worked and what didn’t work for me. Give each comment serious consideration first, but some will be minor nitpicks. Those can be taken with a grain of salt. But if you get a major consensus on something, it’s fair to say that thing should be changed.

Find your writing tribe.

When you have a polished draft, now is the time to really start talking about it. Try blogging. Look to your community for other writers. Take a writing workshop class, join a local writing organization or chapter, attend author events, and engage in discussions about writing through social networking or online forums. Follow literary agents on Twitter and subscribe to writing newsletters that appeal to you. Learn from others’ mistakes and victories.

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to join a writing critique group, and something remarkable happened: I learned that the seemingly solitary craft of writing, when taken seriously among peers, becomes a deeply social experience. I learned I wasn’t alone.

Write your query letter. 

Get thee to a library, bookstore, or credible Internet source, and research how to write a solid query letter. Create masterlists of ideas that inspire you and advice that compels you. Look at examples by other authors.

Put your book in good hands. 

Pick up a copy of the Writer’s Market for the current year. If it’s a novel you’ve finished, there’s a Novel and Short Story version. These volumes give the most up-to-date information on the industry, including literary agents, presses/publishers, and contests you can submit to.

Note which ones are looking for work like yours and which are open to unsolicited submissions. Follow any specific guidelines to the letter. Be professional, concise, and humble (but not desperate) in your approach.

Wait for it…

The query process is a waiting game. Agents have piles and piles of slush to work through. By the time they get to yours — even if they like it — there’s no guarantee an offer means publication. And if publication is on the horizon, that alone takes time.

You will get rejected. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the quality of your work, and sometimes it does. It’s dependent also on the timing of genre trends, marketability, and an agent’s particular taste.

Have patience. Have heart. Above all, keep trying — all it takes is one “yes.”

 

Get to know the author

Here are a few things you can know about me that aren’t in the About Me section!

  • I grew up in the woods. Literally. Across the street from my family’s house was a small wooded area they called the greenway, broken by a paved bike path, a playground on the far right end, and Tickle Creek. One tree there grew at a perfect right angle. I’d spend countless hours in those woods, looking for four-leaf clovers and digging for neat rocks and nibbling on honeysuckle and imagining fantasy stories. Somewhere there’s video footage of me, age five or six, marveling at some skippers in the water from when the local news covered a story on the creekbed. I was certain those woods were magic.
  • I have social anxiety, which I like to describe as not a fear of being open, but of inauthentic relationships. More often than not, I prefer the written word over the verbal. I can be talkative when I need to be, but small talk doesn’t come easily. Neither do things most people find simple: holding eye contact, making phone calls, going out to eat by myself, sometimes even going out at all. These are things I work on all the time.
  • I consider myself a feminist housewife/domestic goddess, and cooking is my alchemy. My husband and I support our local farmers market every week, are part-time vegetarians, and are really into urban foraging — hunting for birch bolete mushrooms at his workplace, or picking figs from a neighbor’s tree (with permission, of course). My favorite challenge is finding creative uses for the various edible flora he brings home, like strawberry tree fruit (this past week it was turmeric fronds). Our long term goal is to have a small sustainable farm of our own, living off the land, with a cow dog and a vegetable patch.
  • Love is my answer to most everything. I’m just a hugely passionate softie who believes in the power of love and emotional connection. And I think more than anything, whether they know it or not, people just need someone to listen to them. If you’re feeling sad, I will sit down and listen to you and make you hot tea from my ridiculous assortment of loose leafs. If there’s anything I want written on my headstone, it’s “she was a lover whose heart beat so strong it couldn’t beat forever…” Or something like that. In a poetic way, of course.
  • A few favorite formative books: every Harry Potter book ever, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Frankenstein, The Call of the Wild, Cloud Atlas, the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Millennium Trilogy, and far too many others.
  • A few favorite modern films: Ruby Sparks, Moulin Rouge, Princess Mononoke, Beauty and the Beast, Lost in Translation, The Fall, The Princess Bride, Lord of the Rings, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wonder Woman, and still far more.
  • A few favorite modern albums: AM / Arctic Monkeys, Guero / Beck, Every Open Eye / Chvrches, Random Access Memories / Daft Punk, Hot Fuss / the Killers, Fantasies / Metric, Black Holes and Revelations / Muse, My Love is Cool / Wolf Alice, and far, far more.
  • Random facts: I love going to libraries, coffee shops, 24-hour gyms, thrift stores, and other places in which to get lost and found. My hobbies include camping and mountain hikes, listening to NPR, and crafting homemade gifts for friends. Driving tends to make me nervous so I will avoid it whenever possible. I wear copious amounts of black eyeliner to look more like 27, since I look maybe 12 without it. I’m left-handed, a Taurus, a Gryffindor in name but a Hufflepuff at heart, and I swear like a barmaid (especially if in casual company, especially in private, and especially if wine is involved). Other than getting published, my future dreams involve learning to play guitar, traveling to Japan, getting my first tattoo, and world peace (2018, please).

The “right” way to write romance

It’s said that the effectiveness of a story lies in the storyteller’s unique approach to revealing a fundamental truth of the human condition. By nature, writers must ponder a provocative array of existential questions, draw sketchy conclusions at best, envision a stirring character monologue about the death of consciousness mid-shower, fail to get dressed as the slow realization that this may be a poor vehicle for exposition descends upon them like an albatross, waste precious time thinking about the precious time they’re wasting, envision an omnipresent goat, burn their tongue on hot coffee while experiencing an epiphany, return to the drawing board, and frantically type eleven pages before breakfast.

I mean, what? I have never done this.

But few things about the human condition fascinate me more than the psychology of love.

I consider myself agnostic, a strong supporter of science, and a deeply passionate person. In fact, I’m a hopeless, bleeding heart romantic. But these traits aren’t mutually exclusive.

And I can’t describe my outlook on love and romance without telling the story of the first time I fell in love.

I met my future husband at age 16 at an outdoor summer concert in our Central Oregon hometown (Beck was playing), upon introduction by a mutual friend who I arrived with.

Up until that point in my adolescence, I had only pined for crushes in monk-like silence, as though if I channeled my feelings through osmosis they’d magically pick up on them. The few times we did have conversations, I resented always being the first one to make a move (little me and adult me are similar that way). So something about this guy was especially disarming, because we actually managed some mutual awkward flirting before the show started. At one point, he asked if I was able to see over people’s heads.

“Not really,” I said.

He asked, “Do you want me to make you tall?”

I replied in the enthusiastic affirmative, and he hoisted me up above his shoulders, literally sweeping me off my feet, reader. I gazed above a small sea of hipsters and watched the sound techs checking the equipment on stage as the sun set.

About halfway through Beck’s set, my concert-going-pro friend had slyly noodled her way up to the front row (I would learn later that this was a deliberate move, and the whole thing was a set-up. As far as I’m concerned, I owe this clever friend a life debt).

By the time night fell, a mosh pit had broken out among the rowdier attendees, causing the two of us to lose our balance, toppling into bystanders and each other. An unanticipated circumstance (this was a Beck concert, after all), but nonetheless, there we were.

In the throes of those sweaty bodies, pot fumes, and Beck’s sweet sweet crooning (seriously, we’ll never remember how the moshing began), future husband took it upon himself to gently scoop me into his arms to prevent potential bruising or trampling. There was no grand romantic intention — he just thought, “There is a petite girl here and I’m going to keep her safe” and did the thing.

Lucky for both of us, I thought it was romantic as hell, and proceeded to cling to him for the remainder of the entire evening. He didn’t let go, either, even after everyone around us calmed down. Instead we just kind of hugged each other, both avoiding eye contact while looking at the stage. (It was hard not to look at this cute boy, though, and that’s saying something as Beck had a back-up band of puppets. Puppets.)

I’m not going to pretend this wasn’t anything short of meet-cute cliche. This was a scene straight out of a Cameron Crowe rom-com. This was a summer night, two strangers in the middle of a crowd feeling like the only two there, and as the haunting strains of Beck’s “Broken Drum” echoed in my bones while my head rested on future-husband’s chest, I knew I was having A Moment. I like to think I knew right then, because even if love itself doesn’t exist at first sight, the possibility of it felt very real, and is basically the same thing.

We’ve been together ever since (11 years), and yeah, he proposed at the same place too. Surrounded by our friends. With a ring he had made from his mother’s diamond.

I’m telling this story to illustrate the point that love can be entirely unpredictable and entirely like some love stories lead you to believe. It can be both, and that doesn’t make the romance less valid.

That’s why when I read a romantic narrative that others complain of being “forced,” “unrealistic,” or “cliche,” I hesitate to be so critical. If you’ve ever fallen in love, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve loved long enough and hard enough you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes it’s not a problem of characterization, but of personal preference, which is why readers ship different pairings and love what they love. It’s all good.

But don’t confuse my romanticism with a rose-tinted outlook. I’m also one of the quickest to challenge the things society romanticizes — superficial and performative “romantic” gestures, the patriarchal roots of institutions such as marriage, the white/heteronormative/cisgender/monogamous narrative most often imposed on us by the media that neglects so many beautiful ways to love.

Other love-related tropes in stories I roll my eyes at (and occasionally viciously skewer with my pen of justice):

  • “Marriage is a prison that will make your life miserable.” I mean, your mileage may vary, but why is it culturally accepted that married couples hate each other? Why is it so difficult for media to portray a married couple that isn’t just functioning, but is actually respectful, playful, healthy, and passionate?

I’d just love to read a story about a married couple whose marriage isn’t the main source of conflict. I just can’t relate to that constant level of drama, but beyond that, it’s a pretty damaging way to view relationships.

  • “Romantic love is superior to platonic love.” The concept of the “friendzone” is often painfully sexist, reducing women to being valued only as romantic partners, and reducing the inherent value of friendship. Conversely, I’d like to propose the concept of “defriendzone,” when a man who was once friendly toward you, upon realizing you’re in a long-term romantic relationship (or the value you place on it, as if you can’t simultaneously value male friendships), effectively denies your very existence.

Now tell me what’s worse for your self-worth: being told “I don’t want to date you, but I’d like to be your friend,” or being told “a man has claimed you, so I, a man, cannot acknowledge that you, a woman, have any value to me.” This used to hurt my feelings when I was younger — now I just say, “Cool, man — be careful not to slam your massive dick in the door on the way out!”*

*Sorry to any easily scandalized folks, parents, or professionals who may be reading this.

  • “Men want sex more than women.” This one is interesting because the consequences seem far less insidious. It is through stories that we are conditioned to laugh at the porn-loving perv, to nod our heads sagely at the womanizing philanderer, to feel sympathetic toward the overbearing father whose teen daughter has been discovered by boys. The message is that men desire sex, as if desiring sex is an exclusively masculine inclination. Men are the gatekeepers of sexuality.

Wow, where do I begin with this one? Sex is a human function? Women are humans too? Women don’t always have sex to procreate, and sometimes have bigger libidos than men? Or the most shocking truth of all: Women who love sex and own their sexuality aren’t morally corrupt?

I’ll just be over here then, burning at the stake.*

*Again: I’m so sorry, easily scandalized folks, parents, and professionals. So sorry again, for that.

I also can’t talk about romantic narratives without mentioning shame. If I’ve just met you, if I find you especially intimidating, or if I admire you, I’m probably going to be on the quieter side. As someone who has spent a great deal of her life wrangling a Cerberus of social anxiety, that’s just how I roll sometimes — and that can change once I get to know you. I thrive on deep, meaningful connections. On the outside I might be a calm facade with the occasional nervous giggle, while on the inside I’m spazzing out like a three-headed puppy that has just been offered treats.

I think women in particular are like this about things they enjoy. I think it’s because some of those things considered feminine — specifically the romance genre, or stories with a romantic arc — are also considered silly and frivolous and pandering. And I think that’s a damn shame, to be shamed into silence.

Just as ye olde “men desire sex more” trope gets so much airplay, it’s common knowledge that “women get emotionally attached” — and as a result, we mask our excitement. We don’t let on how we really feel, because remember, emotions are bad! And you should feel bad for having them!

Even when we do enjoy a thing, people forget that we can enjoy that thing in theory, but not in execution. I enjoy the shifter flavor of paranormal fantasy — and I’m a sucker for character-meets-physical-monster-with-a-heart-of-gold arcs — but a lot of those novels are awful. It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the fun bits (legitimately sorry).

So before I get off my heart-shaped soapbox, I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts:

  • You can absolutely appreciate a romantic storyline while also poking fun at it or pointing out its flaws.
  • Open your mind to different kinds of love. Writers of romantic narratives should all strive for more diversity, inclusivity, and healthy portrayals of relationships.
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to love what you love.
  • True love is real! And it’s pretty cool.