The Joy of Sharing Books

Maybe my social circle is extra nerdy, but I swear no Facebook or Twitter post gets more responses than one asking for book recommendations. And it makes sense. I mean, who doesn't love giving book recommendations? Passing on a book I loved to another person is one of my favorite things in the world. And that goes double when I'm passing it on to my children. When they were little, that meant reading them all my favorite childhood storybooks, Blueberries for Sal, A is for Annabelle, Ferdinand the Bull, so much Dr. Seus... That was a good time. The early reader stage was less fun for me. My kids weren't really into the books aimed at that reading level. Sure, they went through a bit of a Magic Treehouse phase but I was a Boxcar Children kid.

When they started getting hooked on YA it was exciting to see them excited for reading, but that category has grown and changed since I was a kid—or at least it seems to have. There are so many new YA series and I honestly had a hard time figuring out which of the books I read as a "young adult" fit that category. All I could think of was The Babysitter's Club (which my youngest has read in graphic novel form), and Nancy Drew. I loved Nancy Drew but the editions I read were of my mother's generation and they failed to catch my kids' attention (the new ones are an abomination, sorry not sorry). After that, I came up blank.

Enter Google! A quick google search for older YA came up with many more familiar titles than I was expecting. A large chunk of them are things I read in school (Tuck Everlasting, To Kill a Mockingbird). Not to say those books weren't good, but I often found the over-examination and slow pace of reading in along with the class spoiled the enjoyment of books for me. In any case, most of those didn't make it to my adult bookshelf. 

Three books the internet seems to deem YA have stood out as ones that really stuck with me (literally and figuratively) are Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, The Giver, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've already shared the first two with my kids. The Giver, in particular, went over quite well. I hope one day they pick up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved that book. Some people are on the fence as to whether Ender's Game is YA. If it counts, it certainly gets a spot in my top YA list. 

But who even cares about these labels, my kids are old enough to dip into adult books! How cool is that? There are so many books I can pass along. I know they won't love all the books I loved. Neither of them are as voracious readers as I was, so they probably won't read most of them. And I know there are new books they will discover that I have never read. But hot damn, I get a kick out of sharing books that come not only from hazy childhood memories but also from more recent reads. Right now my oldest is reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, and that's so cool to me, as is my youngest starting The Restaurant at the End of the Universe after enjoying The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The best part is that this leg of the book-sharing journey is both new and never-ending. The number of books appropriate for them will only grow over time and the older they get the more books they'll be able to pass back to me. It's like the great circle of life... of books. And it's excellent.

Take (a few more) Shots

Anytime a book is published there are things that don't make the final print. That doesn't mean those details "don't count" or that the work was for nothing. I think the strongest stories and characters contain a depth beyond what makes it to the printed page. To celebrate the release of the third Teammates book, Full Strength, I want to share a few insights and cut scenes from the previous books. There are no real "spoilers" in the post, but there are in the linked chapters.

When making notes to my narrator on Take Shots, I said, "idk if it can come through in the narration but the contrast of how [Fitz] starts the evening so stupid with happiness should contrast how that happiness falls off a cliff, hitting all the emotional rocks on the way down." And I think that's a really apt metaphor for how Fitz's life feels in book two. It's a hard book. But that's what makes it the most important to me. And that's also what makes book three so incredibly cathartic. If Fitz ends Take Shots at the bottom of a rocky emotional canyon, Full Strength is where she starts to climb back up.

Everybody has their emotional canyons in life. And they don't usually follow the classic "Freytag's Pyramid" story-telling model that we learn in school. Life isn't set up for the exact path of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Different parts of life and experience intertwine. There are deeper reasons behind our actions than simple reactions to a single "inciting incident." One thing I strive for in my writing is to show the complexity of my characters' lives. 

For Fitz, her story has three major prongs: her team, her friends, and her husband. Situations with her husband impact her team, her friendships impact her relationship with her husband, and so forth. But there are other factors that impact why she does what she does that are relegated to "background detail" status, things like her faith, her family and up-bringing, those early years with Tom when he was the boyfriend of her dreams. The first of the cut chapters I want to share takes place during Take Shots but gives a little more insight into Fitz's upbringing and early years with Tom.

Cut Chapter: Fitz's Thanksgiving in North Carolina

There's only so much a writer can cram into one book. But trust me, there is so much more behind each of the characters than makes it to the page. Here are a few random facts about Tessa you might never read about in a published book: 

  • Tessa's last name is White 
  • Her family ancestry includes Dakota on her dad's side and German on her mom's
  • Her older brother lives in the San Francisco Bay area in California and does physics research at UC Berkeley
  • Tessa grew up deer and duck hunting with her dad 
I do have a little story about Tessa's experience hunting, but it might still make it into book 4, so it's not going up here. Instead I'm going to share a deleted scene from around the same time as the Fitz one above. Tessa's story arc with her parents is one that I know has touched some of my readers on a deep personal level. And it will continue into book four, but for now, here's a bit from early on in that journey (that I'm totally not mostly excited to share because of a subtle dirty joke).

This post has gotten long enough so I will come back to Michelle and Dawn at a later date. Michelle's deleted chapter is full of fun Michelle-style rage and that Dawn's is hella geeky, so tune later for that!

To every Cat there is a season

This month has been incredibly full. The low point was when Corky, Kristin's super sweet 17 year old cat had to be put down. Pets are family and Corky was an extra special member of ours, especially for Kristin who had Corky basically her entire adult life. We're at that age, Kristin, Ethan, and I where the pets we got as young adults are now departing this world. I lost my cat Arwen a couple years ago. Ethan and I had adopted Arwen and Eowyn together when we were 22 and 20 respectively. Now all that's left is Eowyn. She's old, deaf, loud as hell, persistently attached to Ethan's lap... and she's the last of an era. 

But as some chapters of our lives come to an end, new ones begin. For Kristin and I, and the whole family really, the next chapter goes by the names Lola and River, our two new kittens. Lola is a tortoiseshell, just like Corky was. She's cute and energetic and has been trying to eat my hand while I type this post. She's Kristin's cat. River is a gray tabby whose favorite activities seems to be bolting from one room to another and climbing up into my boxspring. She's mine. 

Lola and River will never replace Corky and Arwen, but they add something to our lives that was lost when we lost our old lady kitties. And they came along at the start of our own new chapter, less than two weeks before our wedding. It seems crazy—bringing home two new kittens just days before our wedding and on the same day my third book, Teammates: Full Strength, came out. Especially when you consider we already have two other cats (the aforementioned old lady Eowyn, and our kids' cat Hermione aka The Big Fat Fluff) and a dog (Bones). But in a way, that's part of what makes it special. It's a new season for us, and I think it's going to be lovely.

See more kitty pics on Instagram @alirosesommer

Partially hospitalized... at home (and it helped!)

The pandemic turned our lives upside-down. And for many like me that lead to massive increases in mental health symptoms. When I lost my connection to friends, teammates, baristas, and bartenders who had been a part of my daily routine, it hit me hard. I gain energy from social interactions with the people I know and am comfortable with. I still had two partners at home but they work all day, and the void of losing everybody else was deeply felt. My depression went from a shadow over my shoulder—ever-present but often manageable—to a looming darkness overhead that threatened to swallow me whole. I had more and more days where nothing felt worth living for. The pain of existing was more than I felt equipped to bear. Self-harm and suicide were often on my mind. In short, it sucked hard. And it scared my partners.

Because they are wonderful, caring people, Kristin and Ethan worked to get me help beyond what my psychiatrist could give me—help in the form of a partial hospitalization program (PHP for short). In "regular life" PHP would have meant spending my days, 8-4, in the hospital and my evenings and nights at home. During a pandemic PHP meant spending that time in my room on zoom calls with therapists of every ilk, nurses, doctors, and most importantly other patients

Maybe it isn't the other patients that make the experience positive for others, but for me these people were my world. Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I try to write this post. I will write about the logistics, what I learned, and all that in the following paragraphs. Due to confidentiality I can't say very much about the amazing people who went through this journey with me. Nonetheless, I want to take a moment to say thank you to them. Thank you for your willingness to be venerable. Thank you for your words of encouragement and acceptance. Thank you for the little things—your puppies, kitties, artwork, hobbies, totally "off-topic" stories... All the things that made us more than pixels on a screen. I also want to say an extra special thank you those who've stayed in touch. Getting your texts, or even just seeing you on FB or Instagram, means so much to me. Thank, you thank you, thank you... for existing and being so honestly and wholly you. I was so goddamn lucky to have y'all in my PHP experience.

So what exactly did I do in PHP? I shared a lot. Every day would start with a check-in:

  • What is your goal for today? 
  • What might be a barrier to that goal? 
  • What is something you're proud of/grateful for? 
  • How can we support you? 
  • Would you like to take some processing time right now?

I think that it doing this sort of check-in every day in real life could be useful, if even only with yourself. I journal and through PHP I learned some tools that have helped make that journaling even more helpful to my mental health. GLAD (or the longer version, GO GLADLY) is one easy one to do and share. Basically you just write down something you're Grateful for, something you Learned, something you Accomplished, and something you Delighted in. A lot of the tools we learned were ways to be more introspective, to put words to our feelings and be aware of where we are and what we need to get where we want to be. And there were also skills—actions for self-soothing, calming, or otherwise bringing ourselves down from high anxiety. And actions for "activation," things to try and jump-start you out of that low place where depression lurks, waiting for a chance to pull you further down.

I can't say that it fixed me. It helped. It didn't cure my depression (or anxiety), but it gave me more ways to cope. One of my favorites is my deck of cards. Following the lead of one of the most amazing fellow patients, I now have a deck of cards. And on different cards are different activities. Some are calming some are activating. They include things like count your breaths for one minute, splash cold water on your face, go for a walk, take a shower, do the electric slide... Some are more useful than others and I've added to my deck since the end of PHP. It sits next to my bed and is one of the most tangible reminders of the fact that I have tools. When things feel hopeless, just holding that deck can be a comfort.

If all this sounds like hokey tricks and nonsense, I understand. I think a few years ago I would have rolled my eyes hard at some of the lessons. And I actually did nope out of a few things during the program. But I was desperate enough to try almost anything. And I'm glad I did. I wish I could go back. The program ended long ago but I still have the skills, worksheets, and friends I made there. Some days I wish I could go back so much it hurts. But missing what I had in PHP, as painful as that can be, is hell of a lot better than wishing I didn't exist at all.

I followed up PHP with an all-too-short stint in intensive outpatient therapy (basically PHP-light) until insurance got crabby ('Merica!) and now I have a personal therapist in addition to my psychiatrist. It's not perfect but it's something.

If you are depressed—especially if you think about hurting yourself—please reach out to somebody, even if it's a stranger on a helpline. People who can help you are out there. It doesn't have to be so bleak all the time. Really. 

Fan-fiction: The gateway drug to writing

I don't remember my first time writing fanfic (or reading it, for that matter). I have to assume it was Star Wars. In junior high, I wrote this amazing (read: mega cringe) story where Luke Skywalker crash-lands on a sparsely populated planet. He is, of course, injured and therefore must be cared for by a local farmer and her beautiful daughter, Antikee. Antikee was my own alter ego (*shocking*). And if you knew anything about 13-year-old Alison, you can rightfully surmise that Antikee and Luke totally boinked. 

Sadly I don't have that story anymore. I do, however, have a nice collection of my teenage fanfic—mostly X-Files stories. There is a super-painful-to-read X-Files/Indiana Jones cross-over with this paragraph in which I demonstrate just how much I sucked at spelling when I was young (I still suck, but not quite this bad). 

Now Indiana proseeded with caution.  He looked where her stepped and was careful not to snagg any wires.  Without furthur mishapes he made it to the chamber he had been seeking.  Inside this cavern sat a small statue on a stone pedastool.  The stature had been hand carved in pipestone.  It was the last known piece of it’s kind that had not been taken illiaglly and sold to “collectors” for profit.  It was the kind of thing that belonged in a museum.

I never finished that particular story (I like to think that's why it's in such dire need of proofreading). None of it had seen the light of day until now. But I did finish and share many a fanfic. I even published several stories online to fanfic pages long since lost in time. Apparently this is very common among writers. 

I haven't written fanfic in a while, but now that my kids are into it, it's on my mind more often than it has been in years. What is it about fanfic that is so alluring to readers and writers alike? I think much of it is the comfort of familiar characters and worlds. Writers will talk ad nauseam about how much they love world-building or character development. But with fanfic you lean into preexisting worlds and fully-fleshed out characters. You can write dramatic interpersonal situations without spending the time building the backstory needed to make those situations make any sort of sense. 

I was a big writer of Mulder/Scully romance. When I go back and read some of the things I'd written, now that I am so far removed from "X-Phile" life, things that made me swoon back then fall completely flat. If you aren't immersed in the sexual and romantic tension between Mulder and Scully you don't really feel the release of that tension—that "ahhh, finally" sensation when those two sexy FBI agents set aside pretense and get down to it. 

The ability to rely on the works of others makes fanfic a fantastic gateway into writing. If you're paying attention, it might also give you some clues as to the type of writing you might be best suited for. Yes, I wrote primarily sci-fi fanfic, but I didn't do much to add to the fantastical, paranormal, or extra-terrestrial landscape. Naw. I just wanted to see my favorite characters make out. So why did it take me so long to realize that I really should be writing romance or at least stories with romantic components?

I didn't truly put two and two together until I was writing fanfic of On Ice (yes, fanfic of my own damn book) and "shipping" my characters. But looking back, it should have been so clear. And it makes me wonder what other writers have gotten out of their fanfic adventures.

(I liked to rock it old school on our early 90s IBM)

Labels, Labels, Labels

If you spend any time online these days, especially in LGBTQ+ communities, I'm sure you'll run across a new term or label. And in any discussion of such labels, invariably there will be somebody who asks, "why do we need all these labels?" 

I saw a post the other morning: Understanding Asexual Microlabels by @the.patchwork.ace, shared by my good friend Justin Grays. On the last slide, it said something that I think needs a serious signal boost beyond the labels discussed in that post.

"These labels exist to help define you, not put you into a box. ... The label you use is nobody else's choice. Likewise, even if you think the label is pointless personally, other people may find it helpful in understanding themselves."

This spoke to me and got me thinking about recent conversations I've had about labels. Here are my two key takeaways: 

  1. Nobody should label you but you, and that includes being free to choose no label 
  2. Nobody should get to invalidate a label you apply to yourself  

Now, unfortunately, I feel compelled to stop here and say anybody who wants to interject into this conversation any sort of bad-faith "but does that mean I can label myself as a dog and blah blah blah" or other such bullshit can fuck right off now.

On point #1: We, as a society, looooooove to label shit. Maybe it's even innately human. IDK. It can be hella helpful (something I'll get to in point #2). Yet if you require people to label themselves, especially with limited multiple-choice options, there's a considerable margin for fucking it up. Making people pick who they are from a set list designed by somebody who knows nothing about them is a recipe for over-simplification and invalidation. 

Here's an example: We were signing up for those Greenlight credit cards for our tween/teens. They seem great because they're designed to help young people figure out money, yadda, yadda, yadda. The kids were stoked. But then they had to pick a gender. Male or female. They use they/them pronouns. It was uncomfortable and upsetting. Although in the end they selected their assigned-at-birth gender and moved on, it's kind of the tip of the iceberg on these sorts of things. If you're going to ask for people to choose their race/gender/sexuality/etc/andsoforth from a multiple-choice list, I think it would be an improvement if those lists included "prefer not to say" or "my identity is not on this list" (I pick that over the simple "other" because othering is a whole... other can of worms.)

Forcing labels on people can and does cause harm. Mislabeling somebody or forcing them to pick between options that don't fit can cause serious mental trauma. Let's try to cut that out. As a society. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here and say nobody should ever use labels! Let's instead move on to...

Point #2: Labels can help people. Finding a label that fits you is validating and can help you understand yourself better. A label can be a way of realizing you're not alone. That "there's a word for people like me?" moment can be life-changing, soul-soothing. It can help you navigate the world.

My example: This is a bit less heavy than gender or sexuality (you can read about my struggles accepting my bisexuality in the post "Come out, come out, wherever I am), but it's a personal example that meant something to me. "Are you an extrovert or an introvert?" I grew up tagged as an introvert. I was a shy kid. I liked to read and would easily get lost in my own imagination. But I always wanted friends. I never wanted to be a loner. Yeah, sometimes I wanted to be left alone, but I didn't want to be left out. I got less and less shy as I got older. Still socially awkward but no longer hiding-under-my-desk-with-a-book shy. And the older I got, the less and less the introvert label spoke to me. I like going out with friends. I like parties and crowds and meeting new people... If I'm in the right mood. But the label of extrovert never was one that felt like it truly fit right with me either. Bits of the introvert label still applied. It was very frustrating when introvert vs extrovert was used as a get-to-know-you question at conferences or even in stupid online quizzes like "which type of fish would you be" or whatever. Then a few years ago I learned the word ambivert (somebody between introvert and extrovert). I finally found my label! It was like a breath of fresh air. Yeah, the quizzes are still annoying (see point #1) but when people ask me—when I can talk about it rather than just checking a box—I have something to say that fits me. And that's nice.  

Now, I can see the argument (my brain is *excellent* at finding arguments) that if there were no labels for extrovert and introvert in the first place I wouldn't have had that struggle to begin with. Fair enough. There may even be some fancy Latin term for that or something. But like I said before, humans love to label shit, including ourselves. The feeling of being seen and finding community can have an incredibly positive impact, I see it every day in my online queer communities. And labels can help facilitate that. But only really when people can explore them and assign them to themselves. 

In Defense of Self-Publishing

A little bit ago I heard an analogy that has really stuck with me. When a band tries to make it in the music industry, they don't produce one record and then sit at home, shopping it around to music reps. They go on tour, they play small venues, they put their music out online, they try to build a following. In the process of trying to make it, they are sharing their work with the world. It's out there. It may never end up on a top-40 station, but people hear it.

So then why is it that the conventional wisdom for writers is to write your book and then start querying agents without sharing your work outside of a few beta-readers? I know there are those agents and publishers who won't take on anybody who has already self-published. But if nobody publishes your book, then nobody's reading it. And that's sad to me. 

When I first started writing I was adamantly against self-publishing the Teammates series in any way. However, after I completed the books, I wanted to do something while I was seeking an agent. That's how Benton House Publishing and Natalie Falkenwrath were born. I wrote Lust in the Stacks over NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month). I had friends read it and used all the spelling/grammar checkers I could get my hands on to proof it. I made the cover art with the free version of Canva and formatted it in Word. Ethan helped me set up a publishing house to publish under, and we published it. 

I made websites, social media accounts, etc to promote it myself, I talked to bookstores. And I hired a narrator through ACX to narrate it—that was the only real cost to me, aside from ordering proof copies. It was definitely a learning process. But in the end I put out a book that hundreds of people have read. It's gotten good reviews, for the most part (not going to please everybody). And I'm in the black. That's right, as of this moment Natalie has made more money than she spent. I will be sinking all that money back into hiring Lessa to narrate the second Natalie book, Glutton for you, but I feel confident it will be worth it. 

So after a year of rejections for On Ice, I started taking steps to have Benton House Publishing channel all that new experience into publishing the books that own my heart and soul. It was a difficult decision to make and even now I feel a bit embarrassed about it. But you know what? I worked hard to do it right, and I think it shows. I hired an editor, I commissioned professional artwork for the covers, and doubled my efforts to promote it. It will take me longer to recoup the costs of those choices, but it was worth it. People are reading them. 

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fact that it is an incredible privilege that I have the means to do this. And it certainly isn't something that is feasible for everybody. I had to have the time and front money to make it work. And it's not easy. Especially if you want to put out a product that is really solid. There are some incredibly terrible self-published books out there. Books without any discernable grammar, covers that look like they were made on MS Paint circa 1999, books that even the premise makes you have a "wft" moment. I hope I never produce one of those. But there are also some amazing books out there that are self-published. And there are authors who started there who later did get picked up by mainstream publishers. I mean, look at The Martian—it started on Wattpad. 

I like that self-publishing is so readily available these days. And I think it's okay if I never become a big-name novelist. If you go into writing for fame and fortune, I have bad news for you. But if you go into it to express yourself and share your art with others, the news is all good. What matters to me is that people are reading what I'm writing and enjoying it. So I'm going to keep on writing. 

If you're interested in learning more about self-publishing or collaborating with Benton House Publishing to self-publish, please DM me through my Twitter @alioffthemark