writing

A Note from the Author: Help a Sister Publish a Novel?

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Read on, and this old-timey illustration of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 will, I hope, make a bit more sense.

Hey, faithful readers!

First, an apology I’ve been so erratic in my updating schedule for this blog. Life. It is a multifaceted, complicated thing that gets in the way of doing the things I care about.

And another apology, because I’m not actually adding a new post right now. Rather, I’m phoning in a favor.

Some of you may know (I’ve written about it briefly) that I moonlight as a fiction writer. Others of you may have observed that I am passionately obsessed with the Elizabethan era, based on the sheer number of times I have alluded to Shakespeare on this blog. (Macbeth, my people. It is relevant to everything.)

Well, if you’re interested in fiction and folk wearing ruffs as I am, I’ve got good news:

Because you, dear reader, could maybe help me publish my historical fiction novel.

I was lucky enough to be selected randomly as a participant in National Novel Writing Month’s Pitchapalooza. What does that mean, you ask? It means that I submitted a pitch for my historical fiction novel, titled The Devil and the Rose. And if enough people vote for my story, I receive an introduction to an agent or publisher that fits my genre.

That’s right: It’ll only take you 30 seconds to HELP ALL MY DREAMS COME TRUE.

Wondering if The Devil and the Rose would be something you’d like to read? You can read the full pitch here, but here’s the quick and dirty version: Young rakehell university student Christopher Marlowe is conscripted into the service of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster. His task? Uncover plots of regicide and Catholic rebellion in the household of everyone’s favorite Stuart nemesis: Mary, Queen of Scots. Oh, and also launch his career as England’s most celebrated poet. Oh, and also don’t let word get out that he’s gay.

I can’t imagine how complications would ensue.

Want convincing? The judging committee considered my book “a really fun story about a great era that holds lots of interest to lots of people, with a fascinating iconic superstar playwright who died tragically young at the center of it,” and added “the writing has a wonderful panache and style, which makes us feel comfortable believing that [the author] can actually pull this off.”

YO. What more endorsement can I give?

I know y’all didn’t subscribe to this blog to listen to me shout about why Doctor Faustus is the best critique of Catholic morality this side of Luther’s 95 Theses. (Although I will do so, enthusiastically and at length, if you ask.) So if poets in doublets aren’t your jam, by all means, pass me by. But this has been my dream since the ripe old age of five, and I’m trying to get better about asking for things that matter deeply to me, so I’m hoping you’ll forgive me.

And for my fellow Shakespeare junkies looking for some new fiction, well … help a sister out?

Here is where you can go to view my pitch.

And here is where you can go to vote.

(I’m Allison Epstein, by the way. It just occurred to me that I almost never use my full name on this blog. But yeah, that’s me.)

To everyone willing to take the time, I personally thank you as deeply, profoundly, and profusely as I am able without my heart exploding.

Thank you thank you thank you!

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4 Small but Powerful Benefits of Eating Disorder Recovery

If there are two things I know I love in the world, they are:

  1. Recovery from an eating disorder, and
  2. Numbered lists.

And when you do a quick Google search of “signs of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder,” your search results will list the main, clinical diagnosis points: weight stabilization, less rumination and disordered thoughts, etc.

But recovery doesn’t always work in broad strokes.

Sometimes it’s the little things you didn’t realize were messed up — until, all of a sudden, they’re not.

These are just four awesome items on my list of recovery benefits, but they’re ones I didn’t really think about until much later. They weren’t the reasons I chose recovery, but hey, I’m sure as hell happy they’re here.

As always, these reflect my personal experience: Your personal mileage may vary.

But if you’re wondering what life in late-stage recovery actually means in concrete terms…

And if you, like me, have an ever-abiding passion for lists…

Well, this one’s for you, my friend.

1. Better Sleep Patterns

In the midst of my disorder, my sleep schedule was whacked all to hell. I’d sleep maybe 45 minutes a night — but would spend a full nine hours in bed, tossing and turning.

This wasn’t because I was ruminating about what I had or hadn’t eaten that day, although I certainly had nights when that was the case.

I was just laying there, staring at the ceiling, exhausted, but totally unable to fall asleep.

Why? Because my ED had screwed up my body’s internal workings so much that it didn’t know when to sleep, or for how long. I’d trained it not to listen to its innate signals, and as far as I can tell, it extrapolated the pattern all the way to sleeping.

I don’t have the science to back this up — scientific method is not exactly my forte — but I do know that after a few years of recovery, nine out of 10 times I’m sleeping about thirty minutes after my head hits the pillow.

As someone who loves sleep like Pitbull likes listing city names, this is no small benefit.

2. Functional Digestive System

TMI warning: I’m gonna talk about poop real quick.

My ED really did a number on my digestive system. I never used laxatives (for obvious reasons, my support team shot that option down), but the effects of not using them went on for weeks at a time, which was kind of awful.

Now, keeping my system regular really isn’t so hard.

And for y’all who are wondering how awesome it is to have a digestive tract that actually digests things the right way, let me just say this:

It’s fucking glorious.

//end poop talk.

3. Enhanced Creativity

I didn’t really think about this one until recently. I was a creative writing major in college, and when I was working on cranking out a short story a week, it seemed to me like my creative juices were flowing pretty regularly.

But I flip through old notebooks from time to time (a dangerous endeavor, not to be attempted by the faint of heart), and I can see the difference.

My characters are more developed now. They’re more confident. More interesting.

And my scribblings in the margins of my school and work notepads reflect a mind considering more than food.

My college notebooks boast wordless scribbles, black squares, mindless doodlings, the occasional frustrated outburst on a bad day.

The notepad on my phone now features marginalia like:

Did Renaissance Jews wear hats?

Villain’s personality: Artful Dodger + Ursula + Loki 

Cross-pollinating a hangover with an exorcism

What does the early modern tradition think about the bottom of the ocean?

Now, maybe these examples say more about the nonsense that goes on in my mind than any rise in functional creativity. But I think the point stands.

And in case you were wondering, yes. Renaissance Jews did generally wear hats.

4. Fearless Media Consumption

I went through this phase — OK, it was like two years — when I read almost every piece of fiction about eating disorders I could find. I would pour through books looking for mentions of people with anorexia, and then reread the passages over and over, without really knowing why I was doing it.

I wrote eating disorder fiction myself, and for all the wrong reasons. I’m not proud of it, but it is what it is.

There are plenty of theories about why people dealing with EDs fall into these patterns, but whatever the cause, I fell hard.

In early recovery, I veered in the opposite direction. Nothing that mentioned eating disorders made its way into my purview…

Or dieting.

Or weight.

Or bodies.

Or food.

I just wasn’t equipped to handle it, and it was easier to push it to the side.

Now, I can flip on the TV and see a preview for a Biggest Loser–style show or new diet pill without feeling the need to hop on the treadmill, or to turn off the set and engage in a healthy coping mechanism.

With every day my recovery grows, it’s easier to watch and read content that used to trigger the living shit out of me.

And it makes it easier to work in an office where diet talk is practically a daily thing, too.

Sure, big-picture recovery is the end goal. But sometimes it’s worth it to celebrate small victories — however they show up for you.

So, fellow recovery warriors, what are some of the small but kickass benefits of recovery you’ve noticed in your own journeys? Let me know in the comments!

Confessions of a Former Writer of Sexist Fiction

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In the process of moving to a new state for a new job, I spent a whole mess of time packing up all my stuff into cardboard boxes. This led to the discovery of every writer’s waking nightmare: those short stories and novellas you wrote before you had any idea what “narrative structure” or “scene setting” meant. If you ever want to spend an afternoon alternating between sheer horror and vague retrospective enthusiasm, try reading those notebooks. It’s a trip.

Sometimes, when you take a nostalgic writer’s trip, you discover some things. I found two:

1. A sentence from a totally useless story that I immediately cut and pasted into my current manuscript, because it was perfect and I re-fell in love with it instantly, and

2. The following realization: “holy shit but I wrote a lot of misogynistic patriarchal sexist bullshit between the ages of 13 and 18.”

You want to know what kind of cultural tropes and baggage society gives us? Check out the way you thought about gender roles as a child. No filter, no sociological un-learning, just straight regurgitation of the dominant worldview.

Here are two of the most popular tropes I found myself using over the course of my youthful forays into fiction. The sad thing is, these are not exclusive to children. They’re everywhere: in movies, in TV, in mainstream fiction, in video games, everywhere. And the sooner we start breaking them down, the better shot we’ve got at stopping them.

1. Women as Plot Devices

Uncomfortable truth be told, it seems I’ve always been more comfortable working with male protagonists. I don’t know why this is. Well, I kind of do know why this is. Despite the steady diet of female empowerment my parents and I sought out, from Tamora Pierce (guys I don’t care how old you are go fucking read Tamora Pierce) to Little Women (#JoMarchForever), most media produced in America is phallocentric.

There’s a reason we invoke the Bechdel test as often as we do: because so many things fail it.

You know what the test is: the film must have two or more female characters, both of whom have names, and who have a conversation with one another about something other than a man. Should be a given, right?

Check out this list of which 2014 movies passed and failed the test. Then think about how many of those passing films were billed as “blockbusters” or “must-sees.” How many of them got heavy advertising? How many of them weren’t dismissed as genre films like “young adult” or “teen girl” or “chick flick”? I count maybe ten. And that list has 159 movies.

And this is fucking 2014.

No, this doesn’t make me feel any better about the number of variations I wrote on this story: charming yet disadvantaged male goes through dramatic adventures (piracy, vampirism, the Napoleonic Wars) only to discover that the only female in the story is the love of his life, and that he’ll do anything (kill the captain, commit suicide in a vampire/hunter street fight like West Side Story with fangs, feed the rival suitor to a hungry bear) to obtain her.

Easy Solution: Start telling women’s stories with the same authenticity as men’s.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we should throw out all male protagonists. (#notallmen.) But all I’m saying is that we have to make an effort to even the playing field. Women make up 50% of the world’s population. Asking for a few stories about women who aren’t only focused on marriage shouldn’t be so much to ask, but apparently is.

It’s also worth pointing out that bit parts like scene-setting servants, whores, crowd characters, or personality-less mothers don’t count. Female presence is not the same as female representation. As writers, we need to get as deeply into the heads of the women in our stories as we do the men. It’s especially disappointing to me as a woman that even I frequently did not do this. But it’s never too late to re-correct.

2. Objectifying and Sexually Skewed Adjectives

Guys. Guys. I can’t make you understand on an emotional level the number of times I referred to the female character in the aforementioned nonsense vampire novella’s “emerald-green eyes.” (I know, I know, I’m selling this vampire novella really hard.) I blame this partly on Harry Potter: flip through the series and see if you can find a color adjective unmodified by another adjective. But the sum-total character development I gave this girl was deciding she had “emerald-green eyes.”

Occasionally, “shockingly emerald-green eyes.” Though how this could possibly shock anyone after I’d already written it forty times is beyond me.

She wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment. I’ve read through at least nine stories written between 2004 and 2010 recently, and nowhere in any of them is there a female character of any plot importance who isn’t the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. Statistically speaking, that’s not exactly likely. Worth noting that there are male protagonists, in my writing and elsewhere, who look all kinds of ways. Yeah, I skew toward a type (okay, yeah, I skew toward this type). But it’s not the only goddamned type.

There’s a reason that an unattractive female protagonist (and not a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” type, a genuinely unattractive female protagonist) still feels like a revolutionary idea.

Women don’t have to be “classically beautiful” to be important. Beauty isn’t the only trait that determines a character’s value to the story. If we don’t spend all our time describing the male protagonist’s jawbones or the way you can see the shape of his pelvis through his pants, we sure shouldn’t be constantly talking about a woman’s body more than about what she’s saying.

Easy Solution: Kill your adjectives with fire.

I’ve become super highly attuned to the work my adjectives are doing. Specifically the patriarchal work. Description is great, guys. I once spent an afternoon doing nothing but drinking iced coffee and writing descriptions of various rooms, just for practice.

But when description replaces your characters’ agency, you’re leaning too far in the “show, don’t tell” direction, and it’s high time for you to come back to us.

Also, please delete every time you describe the color of something with more than one word. Every. Damn. Time. There is nothing wrong with “green” or “blue.” Take it from me, your future self will thank you for it.

I feel a little weird outlining my shortcomings as a writer, especially when I haven’t been called out on it by anyone else. (This is because no one is every allowed to read that vampire epic. It should be clear by now why.)

But I really think it’s important to be honest about the way writing works. Feminism isn’t a banner you take up one day and then never do a sexist thing again. Writing isn’t a skill you pick up at Target and then deploy perfectly heretofore. Both are processes, and both require training and continual sensitivity.

Constant vigilance, even.

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