How to be Fat

So I’m working through the final stage of edits on the hot-mess hermit book, which as some may recall features a socially awkward, not-entirely-recovered alcoholic recluse with a shame-inducing fetish [linked post includes pseudo-spoilers]. Throughout the process of writing the book, I was so concerned that my hero was irredeemably fucked up, I didn’t spend much time at all worrying about my heroine, who’s generally functional and rational and mild-mannered. Until after I handed in my last round of revisions, when I panicked.

I’ve written a formerly fat heroine, I realized, as though I hadn’t designed her that way myself. I should say, Merry wasn’t romance-novel fat—not a size ten or twelve or lamentingly “curvy.” Merry was clinically obese, a hundred pounds overweight. She lost the weight over the course of a year, before the book opens, and when we meet her she’s hiking across Scotland, still coming to terms with her new body, which she’s simultaneously proud of and displaced by. The book’s not about weightloss per se—that’s something Merry’s dealing with, something that’s shaped and uprooted her and dropped her at a crossroads, but it’s secondary to all the other stuff between her and Rob, the hot-mess hermit.

So why am I suddenly panicked about all this? Because the question sprang into my mind, “Did I get this wrong? Am I going to offend or alienate people with current or former weight issues?” It’s such a thorny topic. I didn’t have an agenda I was trying to push, via Merry. I guess if I had to title one, it’d be, “Everyone has the power to change.” But here are some other messages people could find, if they went looking for them:

No one who’s overweight can possibly be happy.
No one who’s overweight can attract a quality partner.
No one who’s overweight has healthy self-esteem.
No one who’s overweight is healthy, period.
No one who’s overweight deserves love.
No one who’s overweight doesn’t wish they were thin.

Because Merry’s HEA comes after her weight loss, and because she’s happy with the change, I know I’m inviting all these interpretations. I hope it’s clear in the actual pages, neither I nor Merry believe any of those things is true.

Thirty-one, and she’d never been in love. She’d been infatuated, sure. She’d been in love in a guy’s general direction, but she’d never felt that light and heat shining back on her. She’d been clad too heavily in her own self-consciousness to welcome it. Some women wore their curves proudly—rocked the hell out of them, in fact. But that had never been Merry. Her extra weight had been defensive, something to hide behind, not to embrace.

Now the armor was gone. She felt exposed, but the sensation was as thrilling as it was scary. And if she ever wanted to get tangled in the writhing tentacles of passionate, mind-blowing, stupid-making, reciprocal true love, she’d have to make peace with this naked feeling.

She’s ambivalent about the change. Kind of giddy to be on the cusp of fitting into size-eight jeans and other cosmetic mile markers, but kind of let down that it hasn’t left her feeling…something. Something definitive that sparkles with confetti, something with a tangible finish-line tape to break through, or a tiara that says, “I’m Finally Worthy!” in rhinestones.

Let me tell you about another formerly fat gal. Me. I was chubby from puberty onward, and went off to college forty to fifty pounds overweight. I hated it. I did not rock my curves. I felt powerless over my emotional eating and didn’t do a lot of things because I was too self-conscious. I did not wear it well, not objectively or attitudinally. I felt like a sad sausage.

These days I’m thoroughly average-sized, and generally content. My dresses are sixes and eights and tens—I am medium incarnate—and I usually like how I look in my clothes. I can run four or five miles without stopping. I like sweating, a lot, and I eat well. If my favorite clothes start to feel snug, I track my eating habits for a week or two until I feel comfortable again. I feel like I’ve got that stuff under control. Or that I’ve called a tenuous truce with it. Whatever. Close enough, in this sadistic culture.

Shall I share with you the secret of my weight loss? Because I dropped about fifty pounds in six months, and despite a few peaks and valleys, I’ve kept it off for about thirteen years.

I wish I could say my journey was as Biggest Loser-worthy as Merry’s. She lost a loved one and got a major reality check, and went semi-OCD about the project overnight, losing her hundred pounds through a guerrilla campaign of healthy eating and daily exercise. She’s stuck now with a highly quantitative, calorie-policing mindset, but she’s working on that.

I, on the other hand, lost weight on a strict regimen of chicken noodle soup, Diet Coke, crippling infatuation, Tori Amos, and computer solitaire.

Hey, I was twenty-one. What the fuck did I know? I certainly didn’t think I was anorexic—I thought I was finally getting my shit together. I didn’t want to weigh ninety-five pounds or anything! Plus it was working. I probably danced around in the Express changing room after fitting into a pair of size-six jeans on the cusp of a nervous breakdown and sodium poisoning. I was in turns elated and psychotic. And really, really cold, all the time. My periods occasionally called in sick. But hey, it was my journey. It was ugly and dysfunctional and I do not recommend it, but it taught me I was indeed capable of being something other than the only unhappy size I’d known, and since then I’ve gotten into nutrition and exercise, bit by bit, year by year.

What I’m trying to say is, Merry’s fat story is basically mine, except she was more overweight and for longer, and she went about changing her habits in a more rational, informed, and healthy way. But we were identically unhappy when we were overweight, and overweight in part because we were unhappy. We never flaunted the extra curves we frankly resented, because they represented what felt like a womanly failing. Proof of a fundamental flaw. We both came of age heavy, in a culture that sees heaviness as a shameful condition to be fixed at all costs. Fat was what we knew, until suddenly we were something else. Something equally unwieldy, in far different ways.

But this is only one lens. A lens with that aforementioned takeaway, “Everyone has the power to change.” What about the million other lenses? The one that belongs to someone who digs their curves? The one that belongs to someone who wishes they could gain weight? To someone who got heavy after always being a skinny person, and had to adjust their self-image in the opposite direction that Merry and I did? To the life-long, effortlessly average-sized person who doesn’t get why people beat themselves up over this nonsense? To the person who lost weight to feel deserving of love, then attracted only dickbags who cared about looks? To a man? To a person of color? To someone with an underlying medical condition? To someone from a different culture?

To some, “fat” itself is a hate word. To others, a label to be embraced, and fuck you to the people who use it as a slur. There’s no universal experience, when it comes to weight. There are infinite, valid ways that one can view weight and weight loss—both their own and others’—and many people’s feelings on the topic are passionate, to say the least. In this book, I’ve represented only my own experience, tweaked and tailored to fit who Merry is. That leaves a lot of people, with a lot of differing experiences, to alienate.

In my panic, I sweated all over Charlotte about this, as she’d read the book. Wise woman that she is, she basically said, “Your point of view is as authentic as anybody else’s, and you presented it authentically. That’s all anybody can be asked to do.”

True. Plus the subtitle of this book isn’t “How to Lose Weight and Deserve Love!” Unbound doesn’t have a subtitle, and if it did it would probably be, “How to Love a Self-Loathing Hermit.” That’s the core concept. This weight stuff is just formative back-story that’s shaped the heroine, literally and figurative.

I don’t have a thesis to prove, here. I’m just waxing fretful on the topic of representing fat in fiction. Feelings? Seen it done in ways you loved, or ways you loathed? Seen it represented in the same way, too many times to count? Sick of Romancelandia decreeing that a size ten is fat? That boobs and hips are a curse to their female owners—a curse lifted only via the enlightening magic of hero-lust? Perplexed by the way romance heroines always seem to lose their appetites when they’re stressed, so much more pious and feminine than binge-eating? Stuff about heroes and their reactions to their heroines’ bodies, be their waists tiny and supple, or their hips lush and wang-rousing? Free-for-all time in the Wonko-Comments. Lay it on me.

Posted in Life & Wonk | Tagged , , , , | 33 Comments

Is it ever okay…? A question with Kary Rader

Amber: A while back I beta read a story for Kary Rader, the kind of story that sticks with you. So when I saw she’d published it and it was getting rave reviews, I asked her to stop by Wonkomance and tell us about it. Because she really embraced the wonk here, oh yes.

Kary: Fellow resident rule breaker here, so thank you Wonk-o-mancers for having me. I have a question for you today:

Is it okay to write a story with a 17-yr-old heroine and a 25-yr-old hero?

What if he was her mentor…?

What if she was a virgin and he a wealthy business owner… and she was terminally-ill, looking for a sexual experience before she died…

What if he was also dying and a genius who started college at age 14, a little geeky and under socialized…

What if she was mature for her age because of what she’d endured through her illness…

What if… they were meant for each other?

taylor-web-copyThat’s the crux of my newest release, A Taylor-Made Life.

Five years ago while I was pregnant with my youngest child, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma cancer. It was a difficult and emotional time in our lives. He’s now well and cancer free, but in October 2011 when a friend’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, all those emotions came flooding back. A Taylor-Made Life is the result of those emotions.

But aside from a story dealing with the emotional and life-changing effects of cancer, I also knew I wanted to push the limits of conformity. I wanted to ask a question that started with “Is it ever okay…?” Not surprisingly, many publishers and agents had plenty of problems with it. Despite rave reviews, contest wins and a general appreciation for the story, I heard the words “unmarketable” “unsalable” over and over again. My favorite rejection letter from a NY publisher is quoted as this: “Although I think this work is well-written, engaging, and compelling, I’m afraid it’s not quite the right fit for our line.” I thought to myself, “Huh? They don’t publish well-written, engaging and compelling? Odd, that.”

And with that letter the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back. I gave up the ghost and self-published in July with gratifying results. The story has already reached many, and I’ve received email from people as far away as Nigeria telling me how it’s touched them. Letters with person stories of loss and renewed hope are finding their way to my inbox.

So, I think I’ll keep writing, and I think I’ll keep asking my questions. Thanks again for having me on and allowing me to share!

They lived the life they were given; they loved the life they made.

Cheerleader Taylor Smith doesn’t want to die a virgin. Unfortunately, if the terminally-ill leukemia patient doesn’t find a lover or a stem-cell match within months, her fear will become reality. When her cancer mentor is revealed to be a hottie entrepreneur from California, it seems fate might finally be on her side.

Tech-geek Gavin Taylor has everything he ever wanted, except someone to grieve for him when he’s gone. With his melanoma cancer beyond the help of his riches, he agrees to participate in a cancer patient mentoring program where he’s matched with a dying teen from Texas. Despite his immediate attraction, the Silicon Valley whiz intends only to provide friendship and happy memories to the beautiful, young woman who is determined to win his love.
When it’s discovered that his frozen sperm and her harvested eggs could lead to a cure, Taylor’s mother offers to be a surrogate. And Gavin must decide if he can risk the heart he has never given and a child he’ll never know to a girl he just met.

Find a Taylor-Made Life on:
Amazon Barnes & Noble Goodreads

Amber: Thanks, Kary! Also, to everyone else, if you picked up of the Mary Ann branded tissue packs at RWA, you’ll probably need it to read this book :)

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 17 Comments

Guest Post: Heidi Belleau on Fucking Up and Being a Fuckup

Today, I’m excited to be presenting “On Fucking Up and Being a Fuckup” by Heidi Belleau, an essay on the subject of writing outside your comfort zone, taking risks, and fucking up. This piece originally appeared on Heidi’s own blog, Heidi Below Zero. Heidi has graciously granted us permission to re-post.


Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 4.59.11 AMSo I posted my latest cover and blurb reveal on tumblr the other day.

The book was Wallflower, which comes out from Riptide in October and is the second in the Rear Entrance Video series, all about an unlikely group of roommates who wind up running a porn store. Wallflower is the story of a really shy geeky kid who has resolved to make friends and relate with people better, and comes to an unusual conclusion as to how he goes about it. (Spoilers, he dresses up as a cute girl.)

So anyway, I posted the cover and blurb on tumblr and it got reblogged and I got notes and one of the notes had a comment attached by the person reblogging that can be best summed up as “wary, but intrigued.” I won’t link the post because I’m not Anne Rice, but the gist of it was “X looks questionable, plot looks good, but it depends on how it’s executed.”

In other words, “Yeah it looks great in theory but there’s a lot of potential for her to fuck it up.”

And at first I was . . . dismayed! “I tried really hard on this book!” I cried. “I promise, I worked really hard to write a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of trans* issues and gender presentation and crossdressing and how they intersect and I’m queer and I promise I didn’t fuck it up!” I pleaded. “I had beta readers!” I finished, quite pathetically.

Um, not in reply to the post because that’s rude, but I yelled them at my screen because I’m really emotional after my near-death experience yesterday okay.

And then I stopped and thought about it and went . . . wait. Yes, this is the exact reaction I should hope to be getting from my books, and here’s why.

Because there is a big chance of me fucking up.

I mean, I’m white, I’m cis, I’m bisexual but I’m in a straight relationship, which comes with attendant privileges. And here I am writing a series that has followed a gay first-generation Canadian from Jamaica, an outspoken Inuit comic artist with white parents, and of course Rob, my gender-experimenting Chinese-Canadian.

Now, I’ve been writing POC since I got into this game. When Violetta Vane and I sat down to write The Druid Stone we pretty much simultaneously said to one another, we should do an interracial relationship. And then we did. And then we kept doing it. We liked it, it was interesting and fun and a challenge to write different voices and cultures, it was a drawing point for readers. . . Romance as a genre is still a pretty damn white place, and M/M slightly less so I’d say but still with the visible problem that a lot of the POC characters are less there as genuine representation versus for “spice” b/c ethnicity X,Y,Z is “sexy,” AKA adding a new flavour of fetishization to the M/M fetishization pie. (Not naming names, but there are a few books about Asian characters that particularly bother me on this front.)

So anyway, I’ve been writing M/M with interracial and multicultural elements for several books now, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m proud of what I’m doing, I find it fun and challenging and just RIGHT. I mean, on the point of Rear Entrance Video and why it’s so diverse: it’s not because I’m trying to recreate the glory days of 90s Captain Planet-style cartoon tokenism, it’s because Vancouver is a diverse, multicultural city and I wanted to represent that in these books. Think of it as an anti-Girls policy.

But all this time, I’ve been writing with a WOC co-writer who not only has the life experience of, y’know, growing up Asian-American, but has also dedicated a lot of her time and energy to educating herself about racial issues and racial politics and participating in activism that follows those learnings. In other words, she knows her shit. I do my best and I think I’m pretty keen for a (1) white girl, (2) a white girl from an overwhelmingly white upbringing, but let’s face it, I’m still a lowly worm in comparison to her.

Rear Entrance Video isn’t co-written though. It’s all mine. Sure, Violetta beta read the books for me because she’s my friend and a damn good beta and I need her. I mean, for sentence-level stuff and for bouncing plot ideas off of, not just the racial stuff. She pointed out places where I’d inadvertently written lines that were offensive, or pointed out double-meanings to things that I may not have been aware of. (For example, Rob refers to himself as “Asian, so I’m pretty small,” and Violetta was the one to point out the power of the “so” in that sentence and how it would read, and in light of that would I change it to “and” or leave it?) This is the kind of nuance that I’m just never going to grasp as a white person. I empathize and listen and ask questions when appropriate, but ultimately, an outsider’s knowledge is always going to be lesser.

So you know, on these books I did my best, just like I’ve always tried to do. But make no mistakes, these are the books of a white woman. In the case of the second book, the fact that I’m cis comes into play, as well. I’m writing as an outsider, and that means I will fuck up. Maybe my fuck up will get caught before the book goes to press, maybe it won’t. (So don’t blame Violetta; she’s amazing, but she’s not a magic racial-fuck-up-fairy-godmother and expecting her to be is not cool. I don’t expect her to be, and neither should you. My mistakes are mine. Always.)

And living by my own standards, doing your best (definition: writing good books about all sorts of different people that make readers fall in love and care and that make you feel good to write them) means acknowledging that yes, you will fuck up. You might fuck up in a small forgivable way, or you might fuck up in a big terrible way that is going to hurt people or make them angry and swear off you and your books. Every conversation about lack of representation gets the same response from a certain subset of authors though: “I’m white and I’d love to write POC but I know I’ll get something wrong and then people will be angry at me and I don’t want people to be angry at me” and sometimes it’s kind of sad and genuine like oh that’s so wrongheaded but I get why you’re nervous and sometimes it’s just racist like “oh minorities are so damn angry all the time they want me to write them but they want me to write them PROPERLY ugh just take what you can get or TAKE NOTHING” and white cis straight authors of the world who have ever said a variation of this to justify the lack of diversity in your books I WANT YOU TO THINK LONG AND HARD ON YOUR MOTIVATIONS RIGHT NOW.

So once on Dear Author we were having the conversation about “why no POC heroes/heroines in romance, authors?” and white authors were weighing in on the ole “fear of screwing up” chestnut and I realized . . . M/M authors say this very same thing to justify the whiteness of the genre. Meanwhile, gay men have been complaining since the advent of women writing dudes fucking/loving that they think M/M is fetishizing and othering and disrespectful etc. Which it most certainly can be. And yet . . . we write it. We write REAMS of it, whether it makes a certain subset of gay men angry at us or not. Whether they yell at us or not. Why? Because we like it. We like it enough that the fear of fucking up or of making someone angry doesn’t overcome our urge to write. If we’re callous we just don’t give a shit about gay men, and if we’re kind we try to incorporate and acknowledge those mens’ opinions and critiques and just do a good job while still writing what we like. So where goes that bravery when we have a chance to write another minority, be it racial or religious or political or otherwise? Where’s our stated love of diversity then?

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 5.08.58 AMSo here’s a secret: I almost made Christian (of Apple Polisher) white. Without Violetta co-writing, I was genuinely concerned that I couldn’t write a POC character, and that I’d suck and it would piss people off and wouldn’t it just be easier for everybody . . .

And I could have “gotten away with it,” too. I mean, his race is inherent to his character as the book exists so no it’s not a “colour blind” story, but it has no bearing on the plot as I originally sketched it out, either. A student teacher being afraid to manage a porn store could be any race. And then I asked: well in that case, why not make him a POC? And the only answer I had for myself came down to fear. I was afraid of fucking up.

But in the end, I couldn’t be a coward with Christian, or Rob, or Dylan, or any of the other characters in REV who are many and strange and I love them all. I can’t criticize Star Trek and Girls out one side of my mouth and write safe white boys out the other… side. Of my mouth. Okay that metaphor didn’t work.

So here’s my statement:

I have tried my best not to fuck up. I am fucking terrified of fucking up. Of making people angry at me yes, but also of hurting people who don’t need to be hurt anymore. I have also accepted that I will fuck up at some point. Not may. Will. Maybe it’s something minor, maybe it’s something huge. Maybe it’s something harmless, maybe it’s . . . not. I really hope it’s never not harmless, I do. But when I am wrong about anything, big or small, feel however you feel about it, and react (pretty much) however you wish. Be angry, or be kind and nurturing of my tiny author flower petal feelings. Tell me what’s wrong and try to educate, or just blast me in a review and warn your friends away from me. You’re the reader and I have accepted that your reactions to my books are your own, you have a right to them, and you have a right to express them however you like wherever you like as long as you’re not poisoning my cats or threatening me/my family with bodily harm.

I have also accepted that if the choices are between:

(1) being a coward and maintaining the status quo
(2) trying really hard and still fucking up

Then I will choose fucking up.

At least you can learn from fuck ups. You can’t learn anything from not trying at all.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 22 Comments