Saturday, July 19, 2014

Thoughts About the Documentary Bridegroom

When we talk about equal rights for the GLBTQ community, I think it's often too easy to forget that we're talking about real people. Real human beings. Not abstracts, not ideas, but men and women who love each other.  People with histories stretched out behind them and lives still ahead of them.  

The documentary Bridegroom offers one of the best arguments I've ever seen in the fight for equality.  Most of the first half of Bridegroom tells the stories of Thomas Bridegroom and Shane Bitney Crone. Where they grew up, how they each came to terms with their sexuality, how they met, how they fell in love, and how they lived their life together.  The second half tells the story of what happened when Tom died in a tragic accident.  How Shane wasn't allowed to see Tom in the hospital during his last moments alive, how Tom's parents barred Shane from the funeral and threatened him with violence if he tried to attend, how Shane began to put his life back together.

The love that existed between Shane and Tom is really the only argument it presents, but it's the only one it needs.  

I didn't expect to be as affected by their story as I was, but their story could have been anyone's story. It could have been my own.  I can say with 100% certainty that if Matt was in the hospital and someone tried to keep me out, they'd have to arrest me and throw me in prison to keep me out of his room.  My heart broke into a million pieces watching Shane's video journals at the end.  

The thing is, I'm mostly preaching to the choir here.  If we're friends, if you're reading this because you know me or because you've read my books, then you're probably already a believer in marriage equality.  I hope, if you haven't seen Bridegroom, that you'll watch it (it's on Netflix!), but you're really not the people who need to watch it.  It's people who don't believe in GLBTQ equality who need to watch this film.  It's too easy to dismiss gay rights when all your fighting against is an idea.  But Tom and Shane aren't an abstract.  Their lives and their love were real.  I'm real. Matt's real.  All of the gays and lesbians past and future are real, and that's what people need to understand.  They're not fighting against an idea, they're fighting against us.

In the end, I don't think marches or court cases, though insanely important, are going to change the hearts and minds of people who think that being gay is a sin and that we don't deserve equal rights.  That kind of change is going to have to happen one person at a time.  And this documentary is a great place to start the conversation.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Transgender Thoughts

I just finished reading Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin and it's given
me a lot to think about.  Kuklin interviewed, followed and photographed six transgender teens over the course of four years.  She tells their stories through pictures, and allows them, more often than not, to tell their own stories in their own words.

As both a gay writer and a writer who writes about gay teens, transgender issues are an area I'm woefully ignorant of.  To my knowledge, I've never had any transgender friends.  The closest I've come are the people I knew who were involved in drag...though I suspect those have far less in common than I once believed.

Though I had my own body issues growing up—too skinny, too weak, big nose—I never felt uncomfortable with my gender.  Being male always felt natural to me.  I chafe at some of the societal expectations for my gender (never show emotion, don't cry openly, must love sports), but I've still found a place within my gender that's comfortable.  Even when I struggled to come to terms with being gay, I never questioned my gender.

The most difficult part of reading the transgender teen's stories was the conflicts they had with their parents.  Doctors who specialize in transgender issues seem to agree that beginning hormone treatments before the onset of puberty can help the teen "pass" as their true gender when they're an adult, and that it becomes more difficult once puberty has begun and they've stared to develop either masculine or feminine characteristics.  I really felt for those teens who wanted to badly to be seen on the outside as the gender they felt they were on the inside, but I also sympathized with their reluctant parents.  Every parent wants to do what's best for their child, and that includes making certain that they don't allow their children to make any permanent, life-altering choices without understanding all the ramifications.  The truth is, it's difficult to know anything for certain at 16.

Ultimately, the book opened my eyes to the spectrum of genders that exist, and to the problems transgender teens face.  I wish that society could get to a point that would allow teens (and adults!) who are questioning their gender to experiment without forcing them to make permanent choices until they're sure.  I wish we could stop being so hung up on gender expectations and focus on who people are inside rather than what they look like on the outside.

Lastly, I was really caught off guard by the strength of the teens Kuklin interviewed.  Reading their stories in their own words gives me hope for the future.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Thoughts About Publishing

Last week, I purchased 6 books.  The total at was $88 pre-tax, with free shipping, and I am not a member of B&N's discount club.  I haven't purchased anything from Amazon since mid-May, as a form of protest over the methods with which they're carrying on their fight with Hachette.  It's not the negotiations I'm against, it's their tactics, which harm authors.  On a lark, I logged into Amazon and added the same 6 books to my cart to see the price difference.  I wanted to see how much more I was spending by not shopping at Amazon.  As it turned out, the pre-tax price at Amazon was $101.  I also get free shipping there since I'm a Prime member.  The real kicker is that 2 of the 6 books had a 2-4 week lead time.

Amazon does some things that bother me.  Their Kindle T&C is frightening, and when I do purchase Kindle books, I immediately strip the DRM and store them on my computer to make sure that the books remain mine.  But they've also revolutionized on-line retail.  They've turned buying and shipping into freaking magic.  They've caused other retailers to severely scramble to up their game.  But I'm loathe to let any one retailer become so powerful.  It's never ever good when one company has too much power.

Look at the cable companies.  They've got near monopolies over TV and Internet, and Time Warner and Comcast rank dead last in customer satisfaction surveys.  They're the worst.  Amazon, has some of the absolute best customer service I've ever seen.  However, this tiff between Hachette and Amazon has proven to me that Amazon is willing to set aside its "customer first" mantra in order to chase higher revenues.  They're a company, and companies are in it to make money, so it's only customer first so long as it doesn't hurt their bottom line.

And I don't want to crap all over Amazon either.  When S&S (full disclosure, Simon Pulse, an imprint of S&S publishes my books) got into it with Barnes & Noble,  B&N severely limited the number of S&S books it ordered and stocked, and decreased S&S's visibility in their stores.  They abused their power as the only large brick and mortar retailer in the nation, and I "boycotted" them during that as well.

And let's not forget publishers either.  With the exception of Random House, the publishers pled guilty to price fixing e-books.  While I understood their logic in wanting to stabilize the ebook market, their methods were wrong, and they deserved to be punished.  The Big 5 have made huge mistakes when it comes to giving Amazon so much power, not being forward thinking about ebooks, and a host of other things.  While I often find Hugh Howey a little bit hyperbolic in terms of how he talks about traditional publishing, he makes a lot of valid points about their steadfast refusal to get with the times and in their treatment of authors.

I fear for the future of B&N.  Their megastore concept is unsustainable.  I fear what will happen if Amazon becomes the sole major retailer for books.  I worry about more publisher consolidation.

I'd really like to see some changes happen in the book space.  Barnes & Noble should give up their megastores and open smaller, more focused boutique stores.  In my hometown of Jupiter, there is no bookstore.  Period.  You have to drive thirty minutes north or twenty minutes south to a B&N.  The only indie bookstores are 90 minutes north or 2 hours south.  Jupiter is a pretty affluent town these days, and it's continuing to grow.  It certainly can't support a huge B&N, but a tightly focused store could do really well there.

B&N also needs to work on its online presence.  Ordering those six books was a bit of a pain.  I ordered them on Friday, but they're not shipping until today.  Amazon usually ships them the same day.  I'd also like to see them offer a format that would allow users to side load Nook books onto Kindle reading devices.  Sure, they'd have to give up DRM, but DRM is bullshit anyway.  Rather than fighting device and format wars (which Nook has lost), they should be fighting to put their books onto every single device possible.

Publishers, for their part, need to get way more competitive with ebook royalty and pricing.  Not just offering lower ebook pricing, but flexible ebook pricing.  They would also be well served by selling direct to customers in a big way.  They could offer authors higher royalties on books sold directly from the publisher, and create an experience tailored to the desires of readers.  When I go into a bookstore, I don't shop by publisher, but I do recognize that I buy more from some publishers than others.  Publishers and imprints shouldn't shy away from that type of branding, they should embrace it.  They should fight to stand out.  The imprint of S&S that I write for, Simon Pulse, is always great at publishing edgy teen fiction.  I know exactly what to expect when I buy a Simon Pulse book.

Publishers need to stop letting Amazon decide their fate, and do it themselves.  They need to experiment with offering ebooks bundled with regular books.  They need to offer content that you can only get through them.  They need to be willing to go where the readers are and be willing to innovate the hell out of books.

Publishers offer an experience that is hard to duplicate.  None of my books would be even half as good as they are if it wasn't for the input and guidance of my editors, copy editors, design team, and marketing folks.  But it's not good enough anymore.  Amazon is killing them, and they're allowing it.

Maybe publishers can't offer the same speed and convenience as Amazon, but they can innovate in other ways.  Imagine if I order a book from S&S.  It'll probably take 48 hours to ship and another 2-3 days to arrive.  Why not offer the ebook free so that I can get started reading it while I wait for the physical book?  I love physical books, so I won't ever go all digital, but if it's a book I really want to read, I'd be willing to begin it on my e-reader and finish it when the book arrives.  And that would definitely win me over as a customer.

As for Indies, I think they also need to specialize.  Books of Wonder in NYC is one of my favorite bookstores.  They only sell children's books, and they do it so well!  They bring in authors for signings and talks.  They're a great example of what indie bookstores can accomplish.  They need to become hubs of the community.  They need to look into POD devices so that they can offer indie books for print while you wait.  They need to partner with Google and other ebook retailers so that they can sell ebooks and earn money for it.

Often, in these discussions, I feel like it becomes Us vs Them.  Amazon vs Publishers, Indie vs Traditional Publishing.  But that's stupid.  We're all readers.  We all love books.  There doesn't have to be a winner, you don't have to pick a side.  This is an exciting time in publishing, and we're lucky to be living through it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Outside Looking In

I thought for a while that I was obsessed with death.  Every story I wrote began with or was influenced by the death of someone my protagonist knew and loved.  I've never been particularly afraid of dying—I'm certainly not looking forward to it, and the thought of not existing anymore is difficult to wrap my head around, but I don't fear it.

My best friend took a writing course at an artist retreat.  The instructor for that course, coincidentally, was Bruce Coville.  We were both tickled by the strangeness of it.  She'd signed up for the retreat long before I even knew Bruce had read Five Stages, and it was an odd bit of serendipity that he should be teaching her course.

Rachel and I have known each other since high school.  Not only has she been my first reader for more than two decades, but she's been my biggest cheerleader.  During the retreat, she had a private fifteen minute session with Bruce, and she used her time to ask him questions that I'd never have had the courage to ask about Five Stages.  I'll never be able to express what an amazing friend she is.  She had an opportunity most writers would have killed for, and she used it to help me.  That's who she is, and I couldn't ask for a better friend.

One of the things Bruce Coville told her was that successful writers find their theme— one thing that matters to them, that drives them—and they write about it over and over.  Variations on the same theme haunt everything they write.  At first, I thought facing death was the theme that drove me.  Ollie in Deathday had 24 hours to come to terms with dying, Drew in Five Stages believes he is literally being stalked by Death, Pip in the story Better I have in the Grim anthology faces death if she can't prove her own humanity, and I've got two books in various stages—one in which the fate of the entire world is at stake, and another in which death is merely the beginning of the character's problems.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not death I'm fascinated by—exploring the themes surrounding death don't drive me—it's outsiders.  Every story I write is concerned with someone standing on the outside looking in.  Ollie knows that his friends are going to live out their lives and that he is not, Drew lives in an artificial world of his own making, Pip is a robot.  In fml, my only published book not to feature death prominently, Simon has wasted his high school years longing to be on the inside, and spends the entire night trying to figure out how to fit in.

My characters are lost, they're broken, they're unsure of their place in the universe, and my stories are about them figuring out where they belong.  

Sometimes, they figure it out.  Ollie doesn't have much choice.  You learn out on page one that he's going to die, and it's a promise I was hellbent on keeping.  But Simon is only just beginning to figure it out by the end of fml, and at the end of Better, Pip simply decides to do things her own way. That's because, even at 36, I still don't have it all figured out.  Most days, I wake up happy and totally content with my life, but sometimes I'm still that awkward boy in school looking for a place to belong, wondering when I'll have all the answers, even though I know that no one ever has all the answers.  It's the search for them that matters, not the thing we find at the end.  In an early draft of Deathday, Ollie and Shane do figure out from where the deathday letters originate.  I ultimately decided to cut those pages because why we die isn't important, only who we are while we're alive.

It turns out, I'm not obsessed with death at all, I'm obsessed with living.  And if I've learned anything after 36 years, it's that we're all on the outside.  The inside is just an illusion.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

What Bruce Coville Said...

"The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley broke my heart, then put it back together again. I truly loved this book." –Bruce Coville

*Just so you know, this is pretty much the highlight of my career.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

All on the Page

I think I used to consider myself a blogger.  Not a particularly good one, mind you, but still someone who blogged on a regular basis about topics that were marginally related (though not always).

These days, I feel like I'm a person who has a blog.  Much like an untended garden, it's withered in places and grown wild in others.  I don't know if blogging has simply given way to Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook (none of which I'm good at either) or if I've been saving my words for my writing projects.  Every word I put down here is a word I'm not putting in a book, and that's something I think every writer has to contend with.  

These last few months have been exhausting.  There's been some heartache, some joy.  I took up sculpting and typing on antique typewriters that remind me what I smelled like when I was a smoker.  I lost my aunt Debbie—an amazing woman who demonstrated the kind of influence a truly passionate teacher can have on her students—but I gained some clarity about my own life and what I want from it.

I continue to be astounded at just how much support The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is getting, both from my agent, editor, and every single brilliant person at Simon Pulse, but also from people I don't yet know.  It's still months from release, and is only just beginning to make its way into the hands of early reviewers, but the response has been humbling.  I felt, even when I wasn't sure it would ever be published, that it was a special book.  I can't say I believe in God, but I do feel like this story came from someplace greater than me, and while every writer hopes for great sales, my honest hope is that Five Stages finds readers who need to read it the way I needed to write it.

At the same time, I've struggled since selling Five Stages to write something else.  When I was still
looking for a new agent to represent it, I wrote two books I thought would be more "commercial."  Then I sold it, and that renewed my faith in myself. It gave me permission to write the kinds of books I wanted to write, which sounds easier than it is.  I found myself comparing everything I wrote to Five Stages.  Honestly, it's been difficult to write something I felt was worthy of being a successor to Five Stages.  Maybe that's a good problem to have. That's what I tell myself.

The problem with Five Stages is that it's so emotionally honest. My characters aren't me, but they're all me.  I'm not even sure that makes sense.  All I know is that when I was writing Five Stages, I had nothing to lose, so I left my heart on the page.  And the thing about that is that you have to keep doing it.  You have to rip out your heart with each new manuscript, and leave no part of you hidden.

I never saw her teach, but I saw her students cry, and I think that's how my Aunt Debbie taught.  With everything she had.  She wasn't just an example for her students, she was an example for us all.

I don't know if writing this means I'm a blogger again or if I'm just a writer who sucks at occasionally blogging.   Maybe I've finally learned how to leave it all on the page, and that's left me nothing for here.  Maybe I should stop drinking coffee before it warps my brain.  Nah, it's probably too late for that.

I can't promise I'll be blogging more often—it's the summer and I'm working on two manuscripts, and a project I hope I'll get to announce very soon—but there are a lot of things happening that I can't wait to share.  Things that aren't typewriters or sculptures or how much I love taking bubble baths when I'm trying to write the first draft of a book.  Cool things, comic things, collaborative things.  Lots of things.  

And if you don't find me here, I'll always be in the pages of my books.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Money Amazon Will No Longer Get From Me

I'm going to keep this brief, mostly because I'm supposed to be writing, but partly because there are too many nuances to really delve into in a single blog post.

The recent and current fight between Hachette (a publisher) and Amazon has shown me, once and for all, that Amazon is simply growing too powerful to ignore.  I've read (and replied to) many people on-line who seem to feel that Hachette, as one of the publishers that settled with the DOJ in the price-fixing scandal, is merely getting what they deserve.  Maybe that's true.  But here's the rub:  Hachette is a corporation full of people.  They publish hundreds of authors, who are also people.  Those people aren't guilty of anything, and Amazon's extortionist tactics are hurting them.  Removal of pre-order links and delayed shipping takes money directly from the pockets of real people, and that's not okay.

Amazon has great customer service.  I'm a Prime member.  In 2013, I spent over $2000 at Amazon alone.  Half of that was on books.  They're cheaper, they deliver quickly, and if I ever have a problem, they solve it without argument.  But no one corporation should wield near-monopolistic power over a single market.  If (when) Hachette capitulates to Amazon's demands, Amazon will see that as proof that they can squeeze the other publishers too.  They're following the same path Barnes & Noble took in the 90s—engaging in price wars with indie bookstores and consolidating their power over the market—and that Wal Mart took.  

Maybe the fact that I'm a writer and that I make my money from publishing means I have a conflict of interest. But I can't, in good conscience, continue to give money to a company that uses its power in an industry to extort its vendors.  I haven't shopped in a Wal Mart in years, and now I won't be shopping at Amazon either.

Mostly I buy books from them, but from now on I'll be spending that money at Barnes & Noble or a local indie store (the nearest is 40 miles away).  For my other needs, I'll just have to find a local store that sells what I'm looking for.  I buy a lot of my art supplies from Amazon, but there's an A.C. Moore five minutes from my house, so I'll shop there.  Those options aren't as convenient, and I'll probably spend more money, but the benefit outweighs the cost.

I don't want Amazon to disappear, but when I look at companies like Comcast and AT&T, and see how they wield their monopolistic power, it's difficult to argue that any company should ever be allowed that much influence over a market.  

I'm only one person, and I'm sure Amazon won't miss my $2000, but if enough people do it, maybe it'll make a difference.

Anyway, I bought 2 Nook ebooks from B&N, and went to my local store and bought IQ84, The Technologists, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and The Martian.  That's $80 Amazon didn't get.  It's not much, but it's a start.