Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

Bringing Readers Inside the Bedroom

Writing about sex is hard (no pun intended). While there are plenty of writers who have found their niche writing romance novels filled to the brim with sensual scenes, the majority of us do anything to avoid a sex scene. As my book editing professor has mentioned on more than one occasion, readers don’t need to be taken into the bedroom. In other words, describe your lovers ripping each other’s clothes off and passionately kissing, but let the reader’s imaginations fill in the rest.

But what if you don’t want to stop at the bedroom door? How do you write about sex without causing your reader to roll their eyes, skip ahead, or feel completely awkward (mostly for you). For one, understand that metaphors and sex work–up until a certain point, at which you lose readers. In Slate.com’s recent article “The Worst Sex Writing of the Year Features Statisticians, Superheroes, and Brie Cheese,” Amanda Hess gives readers one example of what she deems a “delusional” metaphor from Manil Suri’s The City of Devi:

We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but Hess’ astute observation, “Congratulations–you fucked,” pretty much sums it up. When metaphors are too complex, they seem unrealistic. For most of us, sex doesn’t equate to feeling like a superhero diving through atomic nuclei and causing statisticians to rejoice. Hess also offers other examples of “bad” sex writing.

Story Shots: Gloom

Story_Shots

The shorts below were written by some of our contributors for the month of June, which, as we know, is typically a month associated with gloom. But rather than focus on April showers and May flowers—the weather and nature that springs up this time of year—our contributors focused on the way gloom has seeped into their own lives.


The story of how I ended up naked on the internet seems a lot more complicated than it actually is. The truth is simple.

It started with a boy named Tyler. Six-foot, thin, baby-faced Tyler.

He was my first date since my breakup with a longterm boyfriend, who was completely his opposite. It was a big day, and I was really just looking for a hookup, and yes, women can say that, too.

But the night came and went, and I remained firmly unlaid. It was full of science and art and history and music and booze and food until 5 a.m. but not a look down my shirt, not a grab for my ring, not a tongue in my mouth, let alone anything else in my anything else.

I walked out of his apartment after the sun was up with a hug and some new music but completely bereft. What the hell? What man would rather have a friend more than a vagina? What was wrong with me? It must be because I’m…fat? Am I fat? Did he hate my thighs?

It was then that I missed my old boyfriend more than ever—my boyfriend who knew what he wanted, took charge, could fuck like a man, and called me the right names. And who always made me feel sexy as hell. Maybe I’d made a mistake in letting him go.

So I did what any 28-year-old, freshly graduated girl living in Gresham, Oregon and looking to win back some of her self esteem would do: I slapped a pic of my boobs on a site called ratemeplease.com and waited to be judged—obviously a classy choice, since the domain name had “please” in it.

The average scores of others were lots of threes and fours, and the highest on the hall of fame didn’t even hit 8, so I wasn’t expecting much.

But then my scores and private messages started pouring it by the hundreds, and before I knew it, I was #12 on the entire site out of thousands (not now, so don’t bother looking)—my highest achievement after my master’s degree.

And the messages, or “fan mail,” as I like to think of them, well, they included it all, some sweet and others nasty enough to get me pregnant just by reading them. The only thing they always left out were negative comments. I never got one.

There’s more to this Missy’s-naked-on-the-internet story (so much more), but the only relevant thing is how one rejection in June can devastate the usual confident woman, and apparently winning a boob competition is the way to respond. Also: Tyler missed out, and I’m a respectable 7.8.

–Missy Lacock

AWP 2014: Writing Unsympathetic Characters

Last week, I attended AWP in Seattle with other students in my program and fellow contributor, Tiffany Shelton. For those of you who haven’t heard of AWP, it’s a conference and bookfair held in a different city each year and hosted by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Both AWP and Write to Publish took place in February, and both conferences have set me on a roll. Recently, I’ve been writing anywhere from five hundred to a thousand words or more a night—and because I just told you, reader, I feel a certain obligation to keep up this stamina.

Because I’ve already written about how inspiring writing conferences can be, I won’t linger on the subject too long. Just go to one, if you can. They’re terrifying and uplifting; you leave feeling you have the permission to write, to struggle, and to succeed. And they make you realize that “success” doesn’t look the same for every writer—and that’s okay.

At AWP, I went to several panels, but this post will focus on a panel titled “I’m Just Not That Into You: Unsympathetic Characters in Fiction.” Author Irinia Reyn moderated the panel, which consisted of authors Hannah Tinti, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Maud Newton, and agent Ryan Harbage.

I attended this panel, because as both a reader and writer I have come to the realization that I am drawn to characters who others may deem unsympathetic. Irinia began by asking the panelists what they mean when they say a character is unsympathetic. Responses varied from “They appeal to our dark side” to “They are the characters I want to read about.” One panelist—and this stuck with me—said that sometimes unsympathetic characters are just people “put in a difficult situation who have to make a controversial choice.” Are unsympathetic characters the same as unlikeable characters? No. That was the response from the majority of the panelists. There’s no writer’s handbook that says your readers must like character a, b, and c. As one panelist said, “It’s good when someone has a reaction.”

Self-Publishing: No Degree Necessary

Self-publishing has taken off, that’s no secret. Bestsellers, from Fifty Shades of Grey to Wool, began as self-published books. Recently, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK, even began its own masters program in self-publishing. A full-time student can complete the program in one year; when he or she graduates, they will have all the skills needed to edit, design, publish, and market their own book. At least, that’s the idea.

I’ll admit, I’ve read very few self-published books. So few, that as I write this, I can’t recall their titles. But by no means do I “hate on” self-published books. Sure, I have, on occasion, expressed the belief that self-published titles are generally lacking in editing, design, and marketing—all those aspects of publishing that UCLan hopes to teach—but that isn’t always the case. If I’m being honest, those nameless self-published titles were bad apples that spoiled the rest.

What do I mean by spoiled? The great thing about self-published titles are that you can often get them for cheap (sometimes even free if they’re e-books). Low prices are great; that means more books for me. Yet, in my experience, this leads to reading a lot of bad writing, and in the end, I’d rather pay more for the good stuff.

(Credit: IndieBound)

For a long time, most readers have felt this way. Publishers may be the “gate keepers,” but, as a reader, I appreciate knowing that I can trust a book stamped with HarperCollins’ or Penguins’ logo will be a good read. However, I think it’s important to remember the exceptions, because, surely, not every reader will love every book published by the “Big Five.” So why shouldn’t that same logic apply to self-publishing?

Self-publishing has many positives. None too small to overlook. Wool, as I mentioned earlier, was a great success story. Hugh Howey originally self-published the book as a stand-alone, short story on Amazon. When it began to develop a following, he continued the plot with additional stories, all of which he eventually sold to Simon & Schuster for six figures.

The Tumblr Post that Started a Debate on Race and Writing

Normally, I’m not one to start an online debate with another blog, but while scrolling through Tumblr a few days ago, I came across this post.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

I immediately shared the post with the other contributors here at the blog, and we, along with many other Tumblr users, had a wide range of thoughts regarding this piece of advice.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

Before I begin, I think it’s only fair to say that there were also many Tumblr users who shared their support of The Writers Helpers, the Tumblr blog which handed out this advice. According to these users, the account admins were not being racist, but simply honest.

(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)
(Credit: www.thewritershelpers.com)

In case you were wondering, I fundamentally disagree with the original advice offered by The Writers Helpers. Do I think that the admins of this blog (or “S,” the specific admin who responded to the question) are racist? No. I do not. However, the statement—the advice itself—advises writers to treat their own characters’ races as unequal.

Women are People: Who Knew?

Two-dimensional characters aren’t merely results of poor writing; although, they can be. You can spot them right away. There’s the femme fatale, the bad boy, the cat lady, the everyman, the damsel in distress, the jock, the farmer’s daughter, or the sidekick. Shall I go on?

While they can be predictable, two-dimensional characters often serve to drive the plot along. The women are given to drawing the men into situations that make for entertaining spectacles. The hero saves the damsel from a burning building, or the farmer, waving a shotgun, chases the young man caught climbing out his daughter’s window off the property.

Yet, good writers are the ones who are able to surprise their readers. Mad Men‘s Don Draper, for instance, is a womanizer. When I first started watching the show, I wanted to hate him. He appears to have no shame or morals, constantly sleeping with women who aren’t his wife. But really, he’s so much more than just a womanizer. His story is complicated (I won’t give away any spoilers), and his unpredictability makes him that much more intriguing.

The problem is that female characters in the media aren’t generally as complex. In part, this may be due to the small amount of women in these industries that are actually in a position to influence character development. According to the Women’s Media Center 2013 report on the status of women in the media, women made up only 9 percent of the directors for the top grossing films. From 2011-2012, women made up only 26 percent of the behind-the-scenes jobs in television. And in 2011, women made up less than 50 percent of submissions to literary magazines. At the New York Review of Books in particular, women made up only 19 percent of submissions.

Don’t Judge An Adaptation By The Book

People always say the book was better. It’s ironed onto t-shirts on Etsy and plastered all over Pinterest. Anthropomorphized novels are urging you to buy and read them before you decide to see their cinematic counterparts acted out on the big screen.

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We get it (really, that face says it all) because it’s a slippery slope and if people stop reading then maybe people will stop writing. I struggle, personally, because I really love both mediums—in some ways equally, although for different reasons.

The amount of film—both television and movies—out there that originated from literary works is pretty astounding, but the truth is, sometimes the book isn’t better. And that’s not (always) a bad thing.

That’s probably because literary adaptations aren’t meant to inspire the reader, they’re meant to inspire the director. We simply get to enjoy the fruits of their labor and vision.

Below are just a few adaptations that, perhaps, prove the book isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just different.

Game of Thrones

Even book purists have admitted that while Martin’s books are packed full of history and some pretty amazing characters and plot lines, the HBO show has, quite possibly, done a better job at telling this story. While the show has made slight changes from the start, Season 5 is going far, far off the books, changing the story lines of some characters completely and ditching new characters that appear later in Martin’s series.

SPOILER ALERT! Sansa’s story, for instance, has been changed drastically. Instead of wandering through the Vale with her cousin, she is off to Winterfell. In the books, Jeyne Poole’s character (who we’ll never meet) travels to Sansa’s former home instead.

But these changes make the show arguably less “boring” for viewers and help push the story forward. With a cast list that’s already quite lengthy, the show expects a lot from viewers with increasingly busy lives (they’re doing us a favor, really). And because the characters from the book—even the ones who are cut—are still serving as the inspiration, book readers may come to appreciate the changes. Some already have.

Stand By Me

This movie was an instant classic—four boys walking the railroad tracks in search of the body of a missing boy. Yet, the story was originally contained within the pages of Stephen King’s short story “The Body,” a story that isn’t as frequently associated with King’s name as, say, Carrie or The Shining.

It’s a 1986 coming-of-age story, but the film has a timeless quality with some amazing performances. Incidentally, “The Body” was in King’s anthology Different Seasons which also contained “The Shawshank Redemption” (an equally stellar adaptation).

Drive

Drive, the movie, is based on the 2005 book Drive by James Sallis. The film takes advantage of the medium, letting meaningful looks and long silences do the talking instead of dialogue. Minor characters in the novel, like Shannon and Irene (Driver’s love interest), are given larger roles in the film, and these characters help provide more depth and connection to the events that unfold.

Plus, there’s Ryan Gosling. Need I say more?

Mean Girls

Mean Girls was a staple of my teenage years. It demonstrates how cut throat teenage girls can be to each other, while helping women laugh at it all a bit. Originally though, Mean Girls wasn’t Mean Girls at all, it was Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, a book written by Rosalind Wiseman to help parents understand their daughter’s friendships and conflict.

Tina Fey turned it into comic genius (yes, I’m going that far).

“I want my pink shirt back!”

Damn, Poetry’s Hard

In Adam Frank’s recent article on NPR, the writer compares poetry to physics. He begins his discussion with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, which is 434 lines. In other words, it’s long. For some readers, that length provides something to hold onto a bit longer. An author might claim that more space allows for them to create greater meaning. But for some readers, longer poems can be daunting.

However, length isn’t the only thing that makes certain poems more difficult for some than others. Why someone may not “get” a poem can be for many reasons. In Frank’s article, the writer interviews John Beer, poet and professor at Portland State University. Beer had this to say about the subject:

There are, it seems, as many ways for a poem to be difficult as there are for it to be a poem at all. For most people, a lot of poetry written before the twentieth century will be a challenge: the vocabulary will often be unfamiliar, the syntax may be more complicated than we are accustomed to reading, and allusions, especially to classical learning, abound.

The “Harry Potter” Fan Theory That Changed Nothing

Where there are fandoms, there are fan theories. The Harry Potter world has a ton of them. The latest to gain attention is that the Dursleys were not just mean to Harry because they were bad people, but because they were under the affect of a Horcrux.

Specifically, they were under the affect of Harry, who is himself a Horcrux. Remember?

The theory started on Tumblr—because where else—where Graphic Nerdity wrote that the Dursleys were ordinary, perfectly respectable people before Harry was dropped off on their doorstep. She continues, “For the next decade it proceeded to warp their minds…The fact that they survived such prolonged horcrux exposure without delving into insanity or abandoning a helpless child only solidifies their place among the pantheon of noble and virtuous heroes in the Harry Potter universe.”

And, I suppose, on the surface the theory makes sense. Both Ron and Ginny become possessed when exposed to a Horcrux for a long period of time—Ron with the Slytherin locket and Ginny with Tom Riddle’s diary. The wizarding world had long since been surprised by the Dursley’s complete lack of familial love for Harry.

All this to say, yes, I felt it too. Reading the books, especially as a child myself, I wanted to understand the sort of people who’d keep a little boy in a closet under the stairs.

But while the Harry Potter universe does have a “pantheon of noble and virtuous heroes,” I don’t think the Dursleys are among them. Nor were they meant to be. Sometimes bad people just have to exist.

The universe Rowling created also has many evils, and while most of those belong to the magical world, there are plenty of evils that are very much human.

Wasting Time & Not Giving a Damn: The Art of Being A Young Writer

Maybe we have to waste time to be writers.

A year ago, in the car on the way back from Seattle, I had the talk with a few friends. The I-can’t-finish-anything and I’m-not-sure-where-it’s-going talk that all writers seem to have with their reflection or a peer at some point in their career, particularly early on.

Really, what I meant was that I’m not sure if I’m good enough. And that’s tough to admit.

Maria Popova tackled this topic in her recent post “The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility” over at Brain Pickings. Before Wild, of course, Strayed wrote The Rumpus advice column “Sugar.”

It’s self doubt. According to Popova, “the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.”

The same self doubt that caused one “Sugar” reader to write to Strayed. The reader was twenty-six—a classic writer who can’t write. She tells Strayed, “I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Strayed’s response is beautiful and raw. You can and should read it.

Highlights for all my fellow twenty-somethings struggling with how exactly one perfects the art of being a motherfucker: