Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trigger Warnings

This year’s tragedies include the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the mudslide in Washington state, flooding in Bosnia, the recent shooting in Santa Barbara, California, and so much more. And the year's not half over. Life isn’t easy or pretty or fair.

As adults, we have to prepare the next generation to navigate a world that's both glorious and treacherous. That’s why we must say no to “trigger warnings" for college texts.

Students at several U.S. colleges and universities and the student government at the University of California-Santa Barbara have called for trigger warnings or alerts for classroom material that may upset them.

The works trigger-happy activists think should come with warning labels include Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with its look at anti-Semitism and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which addresses suicide. Read the New York Times article on the trigger-warning trend here.

Anti-Semitism was an issue in Shakespeare’s time and is one today. Slapping a warning label on books, plays, exhibits, and movies that depict it won’t make it go away. Confronting it, on the other hand, might change a few hearts and minds.

The suicide of World War I vet Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway is relevant today as it was then. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a war wound that may not show on the outside but can cause more damage as a bullet. The number of male veterans under the age of 30 who commit suicide jumped by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. We honor our vets by educating people about PTSD and erasing the stigma of mental illness. We dishonor them by slapping warnings on books that touch on the effects of war on warriors.

Education, be it via college or the school of life, exposes us to triggers. We’re supposed to be shocked disgusted, and angry. We learn how we think when we’re challenged.

In The Guardian, Jill Filipovic writes: “But the space between comfort and freedom is not actually where universities should seek to situate college students. Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don't just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with 'that's triggering.'"

Kristen Lamb, who teaches writers social-media skills, says writers should be as concerned by the call for trigger warnings as college professors. Here’s Lamb on the issue: “My fiction isn’t about rainbows and unicorns and the world holding hands. I don’t write My Little Pony. I strive to write about regular (often innocent) people thrust into the bowels of darkness who through sheer force of their humanity confront evil, grow into heroes and WIN.”

As you can tell, the trigger-warning movement triggered my anger. I’d be less a person if I hadn’t read certain books. How about you?


Monday, May 19, 2014

Baton Blog Hop

Jessica Topper, one of my favorite writers, invited me to participate in a Baton Blog Hop.   This particular hop asks each writer-participant four questions about his/her writing and work in progress.

Before I answer the big four, let me introduce Jessica. She’s the author of LOUDER THAN LOVE and the upcoming Much I Do about Nothing series for Berkley that will kick off early next year with DICTATORSHIP OF THE DRESS.

Jessica’s also my critique partner, and I cherish her insights. What’s more I consider myself lucky to have had the chance to read DICTATORSHIP as she wrote it. Like LOUDER THAN LOVE, it’s a romance that incorporates mainstream or women’s fiction elements such as family conflicts, divided loyalties, loss, and the necessity of moving beyond grief. The trademarks of a Topper read are humor, solid friendships, and rock music. Yes, rock music. Jessica works in the music industry and mines her behind-the-scene knowledge and love of music to make her stories sing.

While I'm glad Jessica passed the baton to me, it’s hard to hop with it tucked under my chin. Hey, I can’t hold it and type at the same time. Guess I’d better get to the four questions.

I’m polishing a story I recently finished about three people whose lives change when one of them is asked to watch a baby while its mama pops into a nearby restroom. The mama fails to return, and the story takes off.

I write women’s fiction, that is, stories about the issues, interests, and relationships that shape women’s lives. While I enjoy three-hankie reads, humor gets me through the day, and my characters rely on it, too. 

The term “women’s fiction” riles some people. I view it as shorthand for the kinds of complicated stories I like about women’s lives, but others see it as limiting. Read more about the debate here and here.

I write what I know. I’m a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. Relationships interest me, and so do the many roles women juggle.

I wish my process worked better. It hinges on a good (to me) first sentence and first paragraph. I sweat the beginning of each story, the beginning of each chapter, and the beginning of each scene. After I have a beginning I like, I fall into a groove. That first paragraph, though, may take me an hour or more.

It’s clear I don’t sweat over the beginning of blog posts the way I do fictional starts. Blog posts strike me as conversations, and I allow myself to wander a bit until I make a point. (And sometimes I never get around to making that point.) With fiction, though, I’m hyper-aware of the need to ground the reader in time and place, open with a hook, make the point of view clear, advance the story, and so on. No wonder beginnings intimidate me.

Enough about me! I’m passing the baton to the other critique partner in our women's fiction-writing  threesome, Kristin Contino. Her debut novel, THE LEGACY OF US, will be published by Sparkpress in September. Look for her Baton Blog Hop post Monday, May 26. 

No matter what kind of work you do, have you thought about your process? Do you get the distasteful or tedious stuff over with first or dive into the interesting stuff? Do you accomplish more in the morning, afternoon, or night?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Reading to Influence People

Is my luck changing? Yesterday, Mr. Julius Azuka emailed me to say $5,000 awaits at the Western Union office if I will only pay $225 as a daily endorsement and activation file fee. 

Oh, Mr. Azuka, how did you slip through the spam filter that catches your more charming brothers and sisters in crime, the ones who use “Most Beloved” or “Precious Dear” in subject lines?

Your pitch is not convincing, Mr. Azuka, and your email’s tiny font and lack of white space work against you.

Good news, Mr. Azuka! I will help you craft a pitch that engages your email recipients. For a daily inspiration fee of $225, I will show you how to capture and retain pigeons. What’s more, to show my good will, I will offer you five tips for a discounted rate of $125, payable to me via a Western Union money order.

Help is yours for the taking (and paying), Mr. Azuka.  My best wishes for your success.


A poll by Booktrust, a UK-based group that promotes literacy, found that only 19% of younger fathers (aged 16-24) say they enjoy reading to their children at bedtime, compared to 78% of older parents (aged 55+).

Do you feel for young dads who are working long hours and balancing school and work? Me, too, but the survey points to lack of confidence rather than lack of time as the chief reason fathers skip bedtime tales.

I blame Jim Carrey.

These young dads think they have to do funny voices and make faces. They approach a bedtime story as if it’s stand-up comedy. Wrong! Your kids want to hear a story from your lips, and special effects aren’t required.

Every time Dr. Seuss or one of his books is mentioned, I flip back in time and “hear” my father read Green Eggs and Ham to my younger brother and youngest sister. His approach emphasized the text, and while he embraced the rhyme, he didn’t overdo it. His version became the baseline for me and my sibs.

So it will be with you, young dads. Your little ones won’t compare you to Jim Carrey or to their friends’ fathers. Yours is the reading that will stick with and matter to your kids.

Younger Daughter just finished reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent and emailed me to say she loved it.  I gave her the book two years ago because I suspected she’d like it and because readers press books on others. We do this in the flush of enthusiasm for the book itself or in a light bulb moment that illuminates for us, if not for anyone else, a connection between the book and someone we know. Mind you, our attempts to press books on others have backfired, and we’ve learned not to ask if the pressee liked the book or even read it. Patience counts here. If we wait long enough, the person we pressed a book on will unearth the long-forgotten thing and may think he/she discovered it.

My mother only reads large-print books, and my attempts to sell her on e-readers’ font-enlarging capability have failed. She wants to hold a “real” book in her hands, not a Kindle. Her local library has a good large-print selection, but I’ve gone there, chosen for her, and missed. A recent win? Karen White’s The Time Between. My mother loved it. What’s more, after reading the first couple of pages, I bought a copy for myself, devoured it, and then insisted a friend read it. Note to self: be patient.


Have any advice for Mr. Azuka? Other than Get an honest job! I mean.

Did you/do you read to your kids? What book was/is your favorite and theirs?

Are you the kind of reader who presses favorite books on friends and family members? What’s the last book you insisted someone read?