In just a couple of weeks, July 12th to be exact, The Returned, will be released to the world. Surely you’re all aware of the date and are counting down with bated breath. This will mark my fourth published book in just under two years. I’m going to say that again because it’s still a little hard for me to believe. Fourth book. Published by a major publisher. Fourth book in two freaking years!
Okay, sorry, where was I?
Despite the relatively short period of time, it feels like I’ve come quite a long way. The Returned is the first book whose outline survived until the very end. I admit, as a lifelong Panster—writes by the seat of my pants—I was worried the book would be too formulaic. It wasn’t. Wraith grows a lot as a person and a character, as do Caitlin and Edward, both in their relationship and as individuals. As release day approaches, I think about something I’ve heard other authors say; that it took them three or four books to feel as if they’d found their voice. It’s heartening to know I’m on a similar track.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my other books, but I think The Returned is my best work to date, as it should be. That growth and improvement is something I strive for as a writer: to always be improving in my craft. I’ve recently started rewriting a book—the first novel I finished—and it’s remarkable to see how far I’ve come as a writer since finishing that book. It’s also more than a little embarrassing to think I sent that manuscript to agents, but we’re not going to talk about that.
Yes, I’ve improved as a writer, but for me, being a better writer is inextricably tied to being a better person. Unfortunately, growth and improvement is never a singular, instantaneous event. It happens over a long period of time, sometimes so slow that, like the proverbial frog in the pot of slowly warming water, it goes entirely unnoticed until you have some context. When it happens, it can be embarrassing (see above, and we’re still not talking about it) but mostly it’s wonderful to see, clearly and starkly, just how much progress has been made. In this post I talked about how much I learned about the tropes and stereotypes I’d blindly fallen into and how I work to rise above them. I say work not achieved, because I still have a long way to go. This fact was brought into harsh relief as I was editing The Returned.
The hardest part about change, of any kind, is accepting and acknowledging things about yourself that need to be improved or, shudder, “fixed.” It’s a fact: sometimes we meet an asshole, and sometimes, we are the asshole. Very few people enjoy being the asshole, particularly when it’s not intentional. I certainly don’t, especially when it adds to the already massive pile of shit that marginalized groups have to deal with. I’ve worked hard to, for lack of a better term, check my privilege.
I’m a straight white male who grew up in the 80’s. Like a lot of kids, in elementary school I had a fairly diverse group of friends, but as I grew up and social structure became more central to life—junior high and high school—my group of friends became more homogenized. In short, the vast majority of my friends looked like me and had similar experiences in the world. I imagine it was the same for a lot of people. For me, my distorted view of the world was compounded by a father who, to put it mildly, was a less than a stellar role model in terms of minorities and women. But that excuse only works for the young. Those who are, for lack of a better term, trapped in their environment and unable to change their circumstances. As an adult, I’m responsible for my behavior. Yes, we’re all, everyone one of us, shaped by our pasts, and we carry those biases, preconceived notions, and judgements forward into adulthood. BUT—and this is a “but” of mythic proportions—while I might have a reason for why I have those blind spots, it’s not an excuse to do nothing about them. Some people may see wanting to improve yourself as apologizing for who you are. I don’t, and I’m not.
The problem, however, is that blind spots are by their definition not visible. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Often, we only find learn about them when someone else points them out. It’s easy to see that as a personal attack. In some ways, it is, and justifiably so. After all, I’m being the asshole. I know it’s not the responsibility of the person calling me out to do so gently or kindly. Is anyone regularly patient and understanding with assholes? I’m not. So, it’s my responsibility to recognize that I’m at fault, and address said blind spot like a grown up. I’m not saying I always agree, though I do always try to see things from their point of view. I’m not even saying it’s enjoyable, it can be shameful and embarrassing. No, it’s not always easy, but then I’ve never felt the fear of creepy men following me while catcalling, of being been pulled over because of the color of my skin, of being threatened because of who I love, or the anger of being seen as less because stairs aren’t a pathway but a barrier.
It’s good to keep some perspective.
After The Forgotten, I thought I’d come a long way in terms of checking my privilege and making sure my characters all had agency (influence on the story). Turns out, I still have a long way to go, and a hell of a lot of blind spots. My editor for The Returned was a woman and several years my junior. Much to her credit, she never failed to call me out when I needed it and I have the utmost respect for her because of that. I won’t lie, I was shamed by how many small things she pointed out. Not because of anything she did, but because I felt I should know better. I’m both amazed at how subtle changes can make a huge difference in terms of granting, or taking away agency, and humbled that I didn’t see before, something that is so obvious now. Want an example? I originally wrote a line of dialogue where one male character asks another male character where he is taking his wife on their honeymoon. My editor (whom I’m not naming only because I didn’t ask her permission first) said I should change it so the first character is asking the second where he and his wife are going on their honeymoon. That small change moved the wife from being someone who was being taken somewhere (no agency) to someone who was going somewhere (agency).
Yes, that change is small, and incredibly subtle, but it makes a massive difference. The small things are, by their nature, the hardest to see. As someone who hasn’t had people try to take my agency away from me, I don’t always recognize when I’m doing it to someone else.
Imagine what it would be like meeting someone who mispronounces your name, and continues to do so every single time they see you. It would get annoying but you’d probably write that person off as a jerk. Now, imagine that it’s the majority of people you meet who do that. And more than that, when you correct them, they roll their eyes and tell you to get over it, or worse, threaten violence. That is just the barest taste, of the faintest whisper, of what some have to deal with every single day.
I’m sure there are some who will say I’m being ridiculous and that this is political correctness run wild. While I will agree there are some cases where PC has gotten out of hand, I think for the most part it comes down to respect, and treating people how you want to be treated. You know, like we all learned in kindergarten: be nice and polite to others, and when you’ve done something wrong, including hurting someone’s feelings, say you’re sorry. Some lessons never stop being valid. Though sometimes it can take forty years, and writing four books to really appreciate them.