Throwing Fellow Writers Under the Bus

I’m reading an interesting book right now called Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. It’s interesting as it deals with many of the concerns in my genre: Violence (how and when to do it), set pieces, designing suspense, etc. Percy’s writing is fun to read for the most part (though I will admit to getting frustrated while reading the beginning of the book. He waxes long and poetic about his childhood, which has little to do with the purpose of the book).

I read something last night, however, that genuinely surprised me. He was explicating the restraint writers should use when inflicting violence on our readers, and the fine line between authenticity and gory indulgence when he mentioned the writing of both Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. To wit:

“That’s what the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis occasionally feels like: a special kind of CGI meant to sour your stomach…Their flamboyant style aestheticizes the mayhem, as if the authors love what we are meant to despise. They linger on the violence, wallow in the gore, celebrate it to such a degree that I can almost see them smirking, hear them snickering, and they essentially become that kid we all went to middle school with – Cody: big ears, buzz cut, braces – who would fake a punch, and then, when you startled, would screech, “Two for flinching,” and sock you twice in the shoulder. Don’t be a Cody. Nobody liked him.”

Why did this surprise me? It’s not because I disagree. I haven’t been able to stomach Palahniuk’s writing since Survivor for precisely this reason, and I despised American Psycho so much after watching it that I’ve never agreed to watch it again despite many impassioned pleas for me to give it another chance because the violence is symbolic and a commentary and blah blah blah.

No, I was surprised because it’s quite rare for an author to publicly disparage a fellow author in this way. There’s an unspoken code of honor amongst authors that our critics are hard enough on us, so if you can’t say anything nice, keep your mouth shut and change the subject. (With the notable exception of Dan Brown. For some reason, it’s always fine to make fun of his writing, which doesn’t bother him in the slightest as he laughs at all of us plebes from his castle).

In a book like Percy’s, there’s plenty of room to use various authors’ work as an example of what to do, instead of what not to do, and up until now that’s almost exclusively what he’s done. That was why I was so surprised to see these two getting singled out. It’s possible they write their stories in precisely such a way as to elicit this kind of disapproval, in which case this was a smashing success.

I thought I’d open this up to all of you and see what you think. How do you feel about violence and gore in storytelling? Any pressing thoughts on either Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis that you’d like to share? Hit me up in the comments section!

Thoughts on Passengers

I’m sure that everything that’s needed to be said about the movie Passengers has already been said, but I finally had the chance to see it this weekend and simply had to get some thoughts down on digital paper about it. It spurred a discussion between Wes and I that spanned two days, which I think makes it remarkable because really, how many movies do that?

For those unfamiliar with the story, SPOILERS Continue reading

An Open Letter to President Trump

Dear President Trump,

I do not envy the tasks before you. You’ve inherited a country that’s divided on almost every issue, constituents who are spoiling for a fight, and a media machine that seems determined to thwart every move you make.

Regardless of how anyone feels about you or your plans, that is undeniably a tough row to hoe.

Much of the blame for the state the country is in can be placed at the feet of the media. You can’t vilify both candidates for over a year and then expect everyone to feel safe when one of them eventually wins. That said, the fault likely lies with us, too, for believing much of it.

I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. You won a highly contentious election, so you obviously have some idea of what you’re doing. All I’m asking you to do is simple: Unite us as a people.

Sounds simple, but it isn’t, because what I’m asking you to do is give us something to believe in. To be an example of a good man, to represent our country well, and to serve the people of the United States. It’s going to be extremely difficult, and a ton of work, but, to be honest? I’m rooting for you. Really I am.

I didn’t vote for you, but you are now my president and, as such, I genuinely wish you the best of luck. Bipartisanship has done little but ensure that half the country is miserable for four-to-eight years. Average citizens have lost faith and trust in the people we elected to serve us, and our politicians can’t seem to agree on anything because there’s now too much pride at stake to ever concede on anything.

I believe the official term for it is “special interests,” but what it boils down to is that people are more concerned about their personal priorities than they are about considerations of the greater good.

So what I’m asking you to do, begging, really, is to be a peacemaker. Many of the people you are now responsible for are terrified. Reassure them. They don’t understand your choices. Please explain them, patiently.

A country where no one can agree on anything is like a game of tug-o-war. Everyone is working as hard as they can to make sure no one goes anywhere. Find a way to convince people it’s safe to work with you by being the kind of president we can rally behind, and I have hope you might just be able to turn things around.

And for my part? I promise not to get in your way. I’ll give you a fair shot, because really, what sense is there in hoping you fail?

Congratulations, Mr. President, and welcome to the White House.


Erika Mitchell, just an average, ordinary citizen

Erika, Why Aren’t Your Heroes White Chicks?

“Yay! Someone took me seriously even though I’m a woman!”

I have been asked a few times why I wrote my books from a male perspective. After all, I do not, nor have I ever, possessed a pair of testicles, so why am I writing characters who do?

Not only that, but my male protagonists aren’t white, either. In Blood Money, my hero is an Iraqi-born Muslim living in London. In Bai Tide and Take the Bai Road, he’s a second-generation Chinese man who was born and raised in Berkeley, CA. This is weird for people, and I’m asked frequently why I wrote these characters.

After all, I’m a white chick who’s been living in the suburbs her entire life. What qualifies me to run around the literary jungle pretending I’m something I’m not?

The subtext here is odd, I think. Is it possible to ask me why I’m writing heroes who are men of color without the unspoken assumption that because I’m a white woman, I should be writing chick lit with a nice, comfortable white heroine?

After all, men who write novels from a female perspective are often praised for their bravery (here, I would refer you to Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong novels, or Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series {which is excellent, and which you should read immediately if you like thrillers}). If done well, male writers are seen as taking a bold risk writing from their heroines’ perspectives; they’re asked about their choices from a place of praise. “Oh, you did such a good job writing from a woman’s perspective, how did you do it?”

Women writers, however, are held to a different standard, measured against a different set of biases. I read a blog post recently called “Homme de Plume” about one writer’s experience querying agents under a man’s name instead of her own name, and the shocking difference that made in those agents’ reception of her work. The same book that was submitted under a woman’s name received one request for more out of twenty-five queries sent.

Under a man’s name? That same work netted seventeen requests for more out of fifty queries.

The entire post is a fantastic read and well worth your time if you’re so inclined, but what it boils down to is this: Female writers are expected to write nice, compact little stories in the expected genres. Any time you decide to color outside the lines, be it by writing the wrong kind of protagonist, writing the wrong kind of story in the wrong genre, or daring to try something new, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle against the expectations of an industry that rarely changes and, when it does, does so only grudgingly.

All this to say, I have an answer to the question I’ve been asked so many times. Why do I write male protagonists, and why aren’t they white? Why am I writing espionage stories when I am theoretically much better qualified to write cozy little chick lit stories?

Because these are the kinds of stories I want to write. Because I like guns, and I enjoy blocking out fight scenes in my living room. Espionage is interesting, and so are explosions. Writing, at least the kind I’m trying to bring to the people who are nice enough to buy my books, should be an entertaining escape. A fun thought exercise that lets you feel, if just for a second, like you’re pulling back the curtain of national security to peek, even if just for a second, at the roiling covert landscape beneath.

And why aren’t my heroes female and white? Because they’re not. It’s just that simple. The world is full of people who don’t look like me, and when I was coming up with those stories, those are the heroes I saw doing what needed to be done.

Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, there are some problems that even a muscled white dude can’t fix.

I doubt I’ll ever submit my work under a man’s name, if only because I imagine that might make writer’s appearances and book signings problematic should the book ever get published. Instead, I’ll keep writing the stories I want to write and encouraging others to do so as well. I’m well aware that my possibly odd choice of heroes and genre may well be the reason I never see my name on a bestseller list, but that’s an ambition I’ve learned to let go.

If I can bring a few hours of enjoyment to my readers, I’ll consider my job well done, and if I can make even one person who looks different than I do feel good because there’s actually a hero who looks like him/her in a book? That’s even better.

Two Less-Chubby Thumbs Up

Well, I don’t know about you, but 2016 is off to a great start for me. I’m down almost five pounds since Christmas (amazing what you can accomplish when your knee allows you to exercise), my house is organized, my kids are doing great, Wes and I are clicking, life is good. Makes for boring blogging, though.

My only complaint, and really it’s a small one, is that the gym is SO overcrowded. I’m still seeing the regulars around, but now there are all these new people camping out on machines, taking up all the lockers, and taking up the stretching mat area so I have to take a mat over to the hard scratchy floor when I’m done with my workout. Boo.

While I’m tickled there are so many people trying to get healthier, I’m annoyed they’re doing it at my gym, all at the same time.

Truth be told, I’ve never understood the point of New Year resolutions. I’m assuming the people at the gym were flabby/untoned/overweight/etc. before the holidays, so why wait until January to do something about it?

Anyway, annoyances aside, life is good. Also, I’m reading a book right now that I’m obsessed with: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I’ll never write that well. Ever. It’s both comforting and a little discouraging.

How’s your 2016 shaping up so far?