Can I Invent My Own Genre?

It’s been twenty years or so since self-publishing first became a viable thing. Two decades of growth in the indie fiction field have made it increasingly clear which writing styles and marketing tactics tend to be most lucrative. The “secret” to writing bestsellers is to define your genre and audience and satisfy them for all you’re worth. If you can manage to grind out several books in a series, you have the best chance of creating a steady revenue stream. That means developing a theme or formula that can sustain more than one book, exercising as much creativity as you can within those boundaries, and repeating the basics as long as your readers keep snapping it up. Writers who can do this also seem able to turn out books at supersonic speed.

Employing this “secret” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Personally, I don’t seem to have the skill that it requires, but that doesn’t make me bitter. On the contrary, I rejoice for those who can do this, since it makes all of self-publishing more legitimate. I remember all too well the days when gatekeepers stood in the way of aspiring authors, letting in a privileged few and making a point of mocking the rest of us and worse, wasting our time. I used to read or listen to advice given by “professionals” in the field who pretended to “encourage” those of us on the outside. Their real purpose was to keep us prostrating ourselves before the gates, so that they could pretend to stand in some beatified light from above that had blessed their own efforts. Now we can tell them what to do with their “advice.” It’s been exposed, if not as fraudulent, then at least as archaic.

Some of us have problems with genre. I’m not particularly a fan of romance, science fiction, mystery, or dystopian themes (although I’m most tempted to try my hand at the last one, in light of the disastrous presidential election of 2016 and its increasingly scary aftermath). I define my stuff as chicklit, generally speaking. Does it follow that just because I don’t write to suit a more exact genre, that few readers will get my stuff? I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read long, complex, character-driven, woman-dominated stories, and tends to write in the same vein. Stories like this take a while to read and absorb, and accordingly take forever to write. One of the reasons this process is so arduous is that I go where my characters take me, not necessarily where the market dictates they should go. My stories usually feature a relatively weak heroine who is trying to get stronger. All I can say for her is that she’s not quite as big an idiot at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her life isn’t totally straightened out, although it’s getting there. Can a story like that represent a category in itself? Maybe we could call it the Incompetent Chick Genre.

If I depended on confused and indecisive heroines to move plots along, they’d spin their wheels for 300 pages. So I surround them with stronger characters, often female, who aren’t afraid to yell at them to get off their asses, and then show them how it’s done. In Secretarial Wars (2003), an ambitious but easily frustrated secretary, Miriam, needs such a push. She works for a Federally funded grants program that she suspects is subject to corruption, but doesn’t know how to prove it. She encounters Pamela Whittle, a college professor who has been rejected for one of these grants, and has determined not only to figure out why, but to reverse the decision. Whittle carries on with this plan until she becomes part of the corruption, at least in Miriam’s opinion.

When my critique group read Secretarial Wars, they took to Whittle much more than they did to Miriam. Like most writers, my colleagues enjoy playing the game of choosing which famous actors should ideally play the lead roles in any prospective movies based on their stories. The role of Whittle, according to the group, would be perfect for Kathy Bates, who is well known for her portrayal of dynamic, sometimes crazy women. In fact, it seems that every strong female role I come up with is a perfect fit for Kathy Bates. How about a new trend based on this phenomenon? We could call it the Strong Female Rescuer Genre.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I imagined a close but uneasy relationship between fraternal twin sisters who have taken radically different paths in life. Miranda is a government bureaucrat with a lawyer husband and a house in the suburbs, while Jessica is a sportswriter who sacrifices normal career prospects, relationships, and financial security for many years in order to establish a magazine. Jessica’s publication finally catches on, and her personal life seems equally settled when she becomes engaged to a Major League ballplayer. Her less conventional path seems to end up making her both happier and more successful than her twin. Then the balance of power is knocked off kilter again when Jessica’s fiancé is kidnapped, and circumstances plunge both sisters into the investigation … with Jessica harboring suspicions against Miranda even as she requires her twin’s help.

My two music-inspired novels, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) and Handmaidens of Rock (2014), both unfold partially on college campuses. I made use of my own experiences as an academically conscientious but socially awkward coed in the early 1970s. In those days, the friends I made tended to be stronger personalities than I was. More often than not, I let them set the tone of the relationship. The heroine of “Homecoming,” Imogene, feels herself getting crushed between two powerhouse roommates. One is a hopeless snob, and the other is the sister of a rock star whom Imogene worships from afar, and eventually gets to meet. In “Handmaidens,” aspiring journalist Candy struggles with a bad freshman roommate, who hypocritically criticizes her timidity with the girls in the hall while systematically badmouthing her behind her back. Although that situation mirrors my own unhappy freshman experience, I did not leave my small-town school, as Candy did, for the more congenial and diverse surroundings of a big university. I stuck it out, and eventually found my niches.

All in all, the “incompetent chick” in my stories resembles me, while the “strong female rescuer” is the more dynamic friend who swoops in and takes over. If I were casting a movie based on this dynamic, any number of ingénues could play the innocent girl.  But I couldn’t do without Kathy Bates, or a Kathy Bates type, to move in and threaten to blow her off the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Girls Are Unlikable

Why do readers and critics of chicklit fiction demand likable heroines? When asked why this is so important, some say they can’t get into a story unless they find themselves rooting for the central character. They must be able to identify with her, or at least care what happens to her. They’ll concede that everyone has flaws, and a perfect heroine would be dull, but she must overcome whatever foibles are standing between her and a happy life.

So how flawed can a heroine afford to be? Must she achieve near-perfection during the course of the narrative to allow the reader to develop the necessary sympathy? Do readers really strive for such perfection themselves, or think they can achieve it with such a person as a role model? In the process of writing four novels, I’ve come up with imperfect and perhaps even unlikable heroines. I never thought they were bad people, just a little messed up. Of course they tend to be self-absorbed, but aren’t most young people like that? That’s how I defend them from naysayers.

In Secretarial Wars, a story inspired by one of my office experiences, the recently divorced secretary Miriam is still sleeping with her ex-husband, although he wasted no time marrying someone else. That’s certainly not nice of her―in fact, it’s called adultery. She actually gets a kick out of risking discovery by the volatile and jealous second wife. Miriam’s professional goal is to shed her secretarial identity and become an investigative journalist. This presents a conflict of interest, as her efforts to uncover malfeasance at the office make her something of a turncoat to the agency that pays her salary. Along the way, she takes some tentative steps toward personal happiness, but without benefit of a real epiphany that would lead to a character makeover.

I chose a small-town college setting, like the one I experienced myself, for The Rock Star’s Homecoming. Imogene, a college senior, rants and raves because her unreliable boyfriend Steve won’t commit to taking her to her final homecoming dance. What will that mean for her chances to leave college with the all-important “Mrs. degree”? To makes Steve jealous, she allows herself to be seduced by the rock star who returns to campus with his now-famous band to play the dance. Since her strategy kind of works, has Imogene learned any real lesson? At least she realizes that she wants more from her post-college life than just a husband.

Handmaidens of Rock also involves girls sleeping with musicians, although the three who hang out with the band called AMO certainly have career aspirations of their own. The way they use the musicians to acquire fame and fortune in their own right might not make them the nicest people. Still, if they didn’t grab some benefits from the arrangement, the arrogant band members would be far too inclined to treat them as mere groupies.

In Let’s Play Ball, fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica penetrate the world of baseball while pursuing widely different career paths and personal lives. Miranda is a bureaucrat with a stable job and what looks like a solid marriage to a lawyer. Jessica, by contrast, is a sportswriter who has sacrificed conventional career prospects and relationships to establish a magazine that pursues controversial topics. After a long struggle, she makes a success of it, and becomes engaged to the major league ballplayer who was the subject of one of her most famous profiles.

All hell breaks loose when that ballplayer is kidnapped, and Miranda is caught sleeping with a teammate whom Jessica suspects of participating in a wide-ranging plot. Obviously, Miranda is no paragon of virtue, although she claims to have been driven to it by her cheating husband. Jessica’s self-righteousness doesn’t endear her to readers either. She tends to regard herself and her fiancé as perpetual victims, and is too quick to accuse everyone in sight of participating in the vast conspiracy to destroy her perfect happiness.

I’m hardly alone in creating less-than-virtuous heroines. Famous authors have been known to do it, although they rarely make their girls totally unlikable. If they do, critics and online reviewers savage them. For example, Candace Bushnell has created a plethora of heroines in her many chicklit novels, including One Madison Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and the best known of all, Sex and the City. The four SATC girls who were featured in the television series and movies tend to rise from the confusion as fully realized characters, simply because we’ve known them for so long. Carrie the writer is the most relatable to me, but Miranda the career-minded lawyer, Charlotte the homemaker, and even Samantha the nymphomaniac publicist are likable most of the time.

In one instance, however, many of Bushnell’s readers think she went too far. Trading Up features a total narcissist in Janey Wilcox, a superstar model with Hollywood aspirations. This novel has received more one and two-star ratings than I have ever seen on Amazon for a famous author. The description reads: “Modern-day heroine Janey Wilcox is a lingerie model whose reach often exceeds her grasp, and whose new-found success has gone to her head. As we follow Janey’s adventures, Bushnell draws us into a seemingly glamorous world of $100,000 cars, hunky polo players and media moguls, Fifth Avenue apartments … Unseen forces conspire to bring her down, forcing her to reexamine her values about love and friendship―and how far she’s really willing to go to realize her dreams.”

This description is somewhat inaccurate, in my opinion. As far as I can see, the only “reexamination” Janey undertakes is to figure out why she hasn’t hit the big time as forcefully as she expected. She latches onto a Hollywood mogul by pretending to write a screenplay, only to be exposed as a fraud. She marries another star maker who actually loves her and tries to help her, but he proves to be a dead end, forcing her to “trade up” again. There is no come-uppance that would make Janey a better person. There is only a vague discontent that keeps her moving on.

The soulless heroine isn’t a totally modern phenomenon. In fact, Edith Wharton raised the topic way back in the early twentieth century. Bushnell was perhaps giving us a sly wink in that direction when she had her character Janey propose Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, as a film subject to one of her producer lovers.

Wharton’s heroine in that novel, Undine Spragg, was like Janey in a different era, lacking the Hollywood glitter. Undine marries three times, leaving a trail of destruction and never looking back except to offer self-justifications. Her first husband, who doesn’t share her taste for high society, bores her. He is too busy trying to support her and pay her bills to keep her amused. When she moves on, she abandons her young son, until she later sees some benefit in having him with her. An ensuing custody battle ends up destroying her first husband. Predictably, once she wins the child back, she neglects him. Her second husband has a noble title but not enough money. Her third husband does have enough money, but rather crude manners.

Wharton sums up Undine’s dilemma: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Both Bushnell and Wharton suggest that their heroines are trapped in the societies they inhabit, and are therefore perhaps not entirely to blame for being so ruthless. Undine was born into an era in which marriage provides the only outlet for an ambitious woman. Similarly, Janey is social-climbing in a community that values her beauty much more than her mind.

Both authors have created beautiful sociopaths, who by definition are incapable of change. Does that mean they’re unworthy heroines, as many critics suggest? I find them fascinating in their own way. Sociopaths may be disturbing and infuriating, but they are people too.

 

Uncooperative Heroines

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

Going Hollywood In Maryland

My first self-published novel, Secretarial Wars, took forever to finish. I started working on it around 1990, before self-publishing became a real option, and I didn’t finally dispose of it until 2003. It was inspired by several awkward office experiences I lived through during my first full-time job after college. Considering how humble the job was, and how frustratingly long it took to get anywhere in my professional life, it seems incredible that a small slice of that story has now been dramatized in a short film called “The Investigation.”

Secretarial Wars was actually my third attempt at a novel. I had spent years struggling with two hot messes, a college story and its sequel, that were trying to become novels and not really succeeding. I finally reflected that I might do better by grounding a story in my more recent real-life experiences. So I conceived a tale based on my secretarial life at the quasi-government Fulbright grant program from 1974 to 1979.

Fulbright grants were awarded mostly to university professors and researchers with the goal of disseminating American ideals and values abroad. The viewpoint character in my story, Miriam, was a somewhat confused but ambitious young woman who chafed at the limits of her secretarial role. She had two best friends in the office, based on pals of mine who were nearly polar opposites in personality and worked for the organization at different times. One of these girlfriends was a dedicated secretary, and the other, to put it mildly, was not.

Since I started writing the novel before most offices had become high-tech, and it focused on a time when stone age instruments like electric typewriters were in use, I compromised by bringing it up to the early 1990s, when the Internet did exist but was not yet at every desktop, and the few cell phones in use were clunky by today’s standards.

I ground out three novels after Secretarial Wars, and paid to have all four converted to screenplays by professional screenwriters. I thought they all did a decent job of making the stories more cinematic than the originals. Secretarial Wars was the one I felt adhered most faithfully to the original novel. I lifted a few scenes from that screenplay and enhanced them for submission to a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. I called the short script “Secretarial Spy,” and centered it on a secretary’s travails at a Fulbright-like grant program. The heroine, Miriam, an aspiring investigative journalist, entertains two rather contradictory goals: to get a promotion, but also to investigate her boss for possible malfeasance in awarding grants.

The script underwent a thorough revision by a writer far more movie-savvy than me, and was renamed “The Investigation.” While the story ended up quite different from the original, I’m not inclined to complain about that. No doubt if the process had taken place in Hollywood, California instead of Bethesda, Maryland, the same wholesale changes would have occurred. The spark of the idea remains intact: a showdown between Miriam and a boss of questionable morals, Mrs. Broadwater. They work for an outfit called the Peace Council, which boasts an idealistic mission: to promote international cooperation through humanitarian projects. However, owing to the Council’s involvement in many political and financial deals overseas, it’s also vulnerable to corruption.

The film truly does bring back a humiliating episode. Fresh out of college, rather full of myself as a summa cum laude graduate, I was discontent with my secretarial position but didn’t realize that my disdain was obvious. I applied for a modest promotion, based on my ability to complete writing tasks. I was called into the office of the deputy director, a steely woman who really ran the place, and subjected to a painful interview. I didn’t have ready answers for her barrage of questions and observations. Do you like your job? All I could honestly reply was that I believed in the mission of the agency. You haven’t formed a real partnership with your immediate supervisor. I insinuated my supervisor might be partly to blame for that, while trying not to throw her totally under the bus. You never take initiative. But how, I wondered, is a lowly underling supposed to do that?

I tried to do better after that wretched interview. I was pursuing a master’s degree in political science in night school, and I decided to examine the nuts and bolts of the organization for a term paper. No real scandal turned up in the course of my research. Still, it set me thinking: what if something had looked fishy? What if grants were for sale to the highest bidder, or as a political reward? Maybe a secretary who aspired to be an investigative journalist would pursue such a theory. And maybe she’d establish contact with an underground newspaper editor who was looking for scandals, and also happened to be devastatingly handsome.

The boss who unwittingly served as the model for Mrs. Broadwater is now deceased. There’s no way of knowing how she would feel to be portrayed as a sourpuss, and possibly worse. Not that it’s a fair portrayal—she was actually a dedicated and accomplished official, who dealt with me as the child I still was. She may have looked like a witch to me all those years ago when I was her powerless employee, but the story demonstrates her growth as well as Miriam’s.

The young secretary in the film, after receiving a comeuppance much like the real-life one I endured, vows to improve her job performance. Concurrently, she picks up a habit of staying late in the office, poking around for secrets. The crusty boss nearly catches her in the act one night, but perhaps mistaking her nosiness for conscientiousness, unbends enough to offer her the long-sought promotion. When Miriam requests to be called an assistant instead of a secretary as part of that deal, Mrs. B approves of Miriam’s newfound spirit. There is even a suggestion that the boss has sniffed out Miriam’s investigatory plan, and doesn’t totally disapprove. She was once a young idealist herself.

Isn’t it amazing how re-imagining a painful situation or a troublesome person can give you a sense of power over them? When that process is aided by talented actors and filmmakers, it’s even more empowering. My (almost) fifteen minutes of fame can be viewed below:

Can I Call My Team The Redskins?

1113161412aI’m an ardent sports fan, so it’s hardly surprising that three of the four novels I’ve self-published so far deal with sports teams and their fans. It’s challenging, to say the least, to describe the drama and excitement that live games can produce. My attempts along these lines are based, somewhat loosely, on actual DC-based baseball and football teams that I have known and loved over the years. Accordingly, the question has arisen: how permissible is it to use actual names of sports teams in a fictional work?

Most legal experts who give advice on this subject seem to think it isn’t a big deal, unless one of two situations applies: you’re a famous author whose use of the name is likely to attract widespread attention, or you have a beef with the organization and are attempting to sully its reputation. Neither of these situations is all that likely to come up in a self-published novel, or at least to be noticed by many readers. In any event, there are far too many books published each year for the legal profession to monitor.

Nevertheless, this issue is getting more attention in the self-publishing industry than it used to. In my 2003 novel Secretarial Wars, football is a peripheral part of the story, merely a stimulant to the secretaries who follow the team as fans and cherish hopes of meeting the players. My editors back then made no objections to my using the actual names of longtime divisional rivals, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. I didn’t use real names for my star players, although I suspect their real-life counterparts would have been easily identifiable to a long-time fan.

Fast forward a few years, and it seems the self-publishing industry has advanced far enough to take the trademark and libel issues almost as seriously as traditional publishers do. So by the time I published my third novel, Let’s Play Ball in 2010, I was advised to change the names of the baseball teams I had referred to in the original manuscript. Thus, the Washington Nationals became the Washington Filibusters, and the Miami Marlins became the Florida Keys. The story includes a well-traveled player who managed to wear the uniforms of both New York teams in the same year. They were supposed to be the Yankees and the Mets, separated only by a long subway ride, but they were called something else.

1019041330Now I have a novel-in-progress, tentatively entitled “Sycophants,” in which football is a more integral part of the story. It revolves around a movie producer operating in Washington, DC, who is married to a star football player for the Redskins. The success of her current film-making endeavor depends at least partly on the fortunes of his playoff-bound team.

By the way, I’m sidestepping the entirely separate debate currently raging about the name “Redskins,” a team moniker which has been in use in Washington since 1937, and four years before that in Boston. It seems likely that modern racial sensitivities would prevent a new team from receiving that nickname today, and would also preclude many other team names and mascots that are still in use. I sympathize with those sensitivities, up to a point. I’m a progressive when it comes to politics, but I’m not a big fan of political correctness. In cases like long-enduring nicknames, I feel that context is everything. These names have sentimental associations and historical significance to fans. By some accounts, the original Redskins nickname was intended to honor a member of the Sioux tribe who coached the team during its Boston days. Further, polls have shown that Native Americans, who presumably have the most at stake in this debate and the most reason to be offended, actually care very little.

That leaves me with a nagging temptation to call my fictional team by a genuine, 84-year-old name. Somehow, it makes the team I’m writing about more real to me. It also complicates matters by being set in a past, around 1990, that many fans can remember. How confounding would it be to give them an altogether different past from the real one? Since it’s fiction, I can theoretically do anything I choose. Still, an author depends on the willing suspension of disbelief, and messing with that can be dangerous.

The Baby Boom Still Roars

images (4)These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.

My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.

It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.

My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.

Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.

My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.

Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.

I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”

I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.

Writing For The Feds

_1407624Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I’ve always preferred making things up to dealing in realities. However, once I grew up I had bills to pay, so I needed to find practical uses for my writing skills in various workplaces. My efforts weren’t always welcome, especially when I was starting out. Back in the dark ages, most employers just wanted you to type, and not worry your “pretty little head” about what you were typing. I tried to dramatize that phenomenon in my 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars

Eventually, I wound up as a budget analyst for the Department of Labor. Federal agencies usually submit at least three versions of their annual budgets during the course of each fiscal year. These documents must present an effective mixture of numbers and narratives to justify the agency’s continuing existence as well as to request funding for new projects. Some budget analysts specialize in numbers-crunching, and some are better at explaining what the numbers mean. In my experience, the numbers specialists are more respected, but they can’t get along without the writers, even if they think they can.

I enjoyed budget-creating most when I was still young and idealistic. When I arrived at Labor in the early 1980s, I wholeheartedly believed in the department’s mission to uplift and protect the workers of America. Some administrations were resistant to those goals, but the challenge of finding ways to carry out the mission while enduring hostile cuts was satisfying in its own way. One of the highlights of my career took place at a hearing on Capitol Hill when an opening statement I had written was read, word-for-word, by the agency head. The supervisor I had then was proud of me and had my back. I only realized later what a rare gem he was.

There’s a reason why workplace comedies like “The Office” resonate. Supervisors and managers are an easy target for satire, since few can resist abusing what power they have. With a few well-publicized exceptions, most higher-ups in the Federal government never get disciplined because they generally refrain from blatantly illegal acts. But borderline unethical behavior, as well as plain bad judgment, are pretty rampant. I’ve seen managers form cliques with their favorite employees (who may nevertheless badmouth them behind their backs), take dubious junkets at taxpayer expense, and hire the people they want while skirting proper hiring procedures. Sometimes the office is junior high all over again, and other times it’s like society at large, where the one percent who already have everything get all the promotions and perks. Yet jobs that involve writing seem to be coveted. I was always fighting off newcomers and interns who were brought in to try their hand at doing my job, as a test of their basic analytical skills. Until late in my career, I was able to defend my turf.

One quirk of managers is that they tend to believe in their own perfection when it comes to writing, so editing them can be tricky. More than once, we budget drones would depart the office on a Friday, leaving behind what we thought was a completed budget ready for final approval, only to return on Monday to find that a manager had screwed around with it over the weekend and turned it in with serious omissions and errors that weren’t there before. A backup edit could have prevented that, but those are not always appreciated. One time I was able to delay, by about thirty minutes, sending through a piece that would have gone to Capitol Hill full of silly typos if I hadn’t caught them. My supervisor at that time was annoyed by the delay, and incredulous that there could have been any mistakes. I finally learned to edit on the sly if possible. I once rewrote a budget narrative that had come from one of our brilliant IT specialists in pure, incomprehensible geek-speak. With the help of Google, I was able to translate it into plain English. In order to get it through without a lot of review, I passed it off as the higher-up’s original work.

Later on, a newfangled electronic budgeting system was introduced, designed to make everything work faster and more efficiently. Like all new innovations, it did help in some ways when it was working properly (a fifty-fifty proposition), but at times it made matters worse, since some managers didn’t understand its limitations. They thought it gave them license to send in program narratives right on deadline, or make further changes at the last second, which could then be loaded into the system. They expected a fully realized budget to pop out just by clicking a button. But even the fanciest machines don’t necessarily understand formatting or recognize human errors. Naturally, we analysts were blamed for any mistakes we couldn’t catch on the fly.

In spite of frustrations like these, I took pride in my job until I apparently got too old for meaningful work. Hitting a certain age is the kiss of death for many Feds. Age discrimination is rampant in the Federal government, regardless of the rules against it. I’ve heard many stories similar to mine, so I have to conclude that agencies routinely drive out good employees who might have had several more years of productivity left. I can understand, up to a point, the need to plan for the future by bringing in younger blood. But the discarding process can be unnecessarily humiliating, and uneconomical as well. Sometimes I felt like shouting out that graying hair isn’t necessarily a sign of senility. I still remembered how to do things I had done as a youngster, and I usually noticed what was going on under my nose. I also questioned the wisdom of bringing in younger people and overpaying them to do the same work we used to do at much lower grade levels. I saw the most experienced employees relegated to the kinds of routine housekeeping tasks that are unappreciated and unrecognized until they don’t get done.

Since I retired, about a year and a half ago, I’ve heard informally that it is indeed a problem getting enough of these new hot-shots to pay attention to certain thankless but necessary tasks. I expressed the opinion before I left that it might be advisable to familiarize more people with the grunt work. But now that I’m gone, that’s so not my problem. My job now is to polish the skills I once used to earn a living, and have fun doing it.