Jason Collins and Writing With Realism

Jason Collins’ announcement today in Sports Illustrated — the first active male pro athlete in one of the major US leagues to come out of the closet — is historic. It also highlights an interesting challenge I had when I was first developing Exeter and the characters — specifically, Dan Reilly.

If you’ve read any of the books, you know Dan is gay. He also was a football player, and in the mid-1990s, he was both openly gay and playing high school football. Dan’s just a year or so older than Jason Collins. Massachusetts is a fairly progressive state, but that’s so unusual as to be implausible, at least on the face of it.  Frankly, if I’d consciously built the character that way… Well, I probably wouldn’t have.

The original story I was trying to tell in what was supposed to be the first book had Dan as a main character, but not THE main character. Ellie was the main character, and at the time it takes place, she’s just moved to Exeter and ended a longtime relationship. I didn’t want readers thinking she and Dan were going to get together. And I read enough fanfiction to know that it often doesn’t matter what the author intends — readers will have their own opinions about character pairings. So I started thinking about the characters and my options.

I knew a lot about Dan at that point, but not his family. (Liz was not yet his cousin — she wasn’t even a townie.) Realistically, there were two options for putting him off-limits. He had to be happily married. Or he had to be gay. (As it turned out, he was both.) I first thought married. But I knew Dan well enough at that point to know that if he was married to a woman, he’d have a few kids by now. And I knew that wasn’t right. So I wondered if he was gay. It took about 30 seconds for me to realize that was the case — it was the missing piece that made the character come alive. Chris came to life later.

But that left me with an interesting dilemma, because I already had the football background in there. I knew enough about his personality to know that hiding something that big wasn’t in character. So then I had to figure out what would make a high school football player come out and play football — and make pretty much everybody else accept that. There’s been some commentary — and Collins himself alluded to it in his essay — making the point that Collins can come out in part because he is such a tough, ferocious player. He defies any stereotype. How does a high school kid get that rep? How did Dan earn enough respect that he could have plausibly done this?

I also knew at this point that the Irish mob was in Exeter. That ended up being the answer. Dan had taken on the mob and won — he’d earned respect from enough people that he wasn’t going to lose it by coming out. Today, a young, gay football player doesn’t need such an extreme situation. But this was in the early 1990s, more than 20 years ago. It had to be an extraordinary set of circumstances. The marsh mess also ended up explaining a great deal more about several other characters, things I hadn’t fully grappled with at that point.

Dan only exists in my head. Jason Collins is the man who actually took this step to come out while playing. I’m hoping what he sees going forward is as positive as the initial reactions. The fact that it took until 2013 for any male pro athlete in a major sport to do so, though, reminds me of why a fictional character had to face down the Irish mob to do something similar in 1991.


Running Near Boston

For New Englanders, especially for those in Massachusetts, it’s hard to believe the Boston Marathon was just starting at this time a week ago. It feels like we’ve had weeks packed into the past seven days with all the events.

Last week, I wrote a column for my paper in Virginia trying to explain Marathon Monday to those who’ve never experienced it. But as the week played out, and as I drove up to Franklin for a planned visit home, I was reminded of a conversation Kyrie and I had while I was working on Thrown Out.

Kyrie was arguing it wasn’t realistic to have so many characters who run. She said most people don’t run. I disagreed, though I did concede Chris probably wasn’t a runner. Still, a lot of the characters in Exeter do run, or have run in the past. As I thought back over the insanity of the last week, I realized that the Marathon has a lot to do with that. Around here, more people do run. The Marathon and its influence gives running a higher profile than it has in other places. Its legendary status in the world of road running, thanks to the qualifying times, means that running Boston says something about a person. And that, in turn, means that when you grow up around Boston, you think about running the Marathon someday. To do that, you have to start running. And so we run.



Characters Drive Plot: We Are Exeter Update

If you’ve been watching the progress meter in the sidebar, you know I’m almost done profiling the selection of Exeter characters who will appear in We Are Exeter. 🙂 For me, there have been a lot of unexpected bonuses in doing these.

WAE listI knew I’d get a chance to dig into characters I’d thought of for various stories, such as another classmate of Dan, Evan and Liz who returns to Exeter. You’ll see her in a short story at some point this year.

I knew I’d have a chance to flesh out characters who will appear in Books 2, 3 and 4 but weren’t much more than a name before I sat down to work on this.

I didn’t realize that a character I thought I was done with would insist on showing me, through that character’s answers to the questions in the Q&A portion, that this character’s not done. Far from it. The repercussions of the role this character is demanding are going to resonate throughout Exeter.

I still have eight of the 27 profiles to polish off — my project for today, at least until it’s time to go enjoy corned beef and cabbage. (I must admit, I’ve never had them.) Who knows what surprises will show up in the remaining eight profiles?

Keeping the Author Honest

I did some blog housekeeping today, and one of the things I’ve added is a progress meter for my various Exeter projects over in the right sidebar. You’ll notice the March one is deliberately vague — newsletter subscribers will find out the details Tuesday. Everybody else will find out in about 10 days. You’ll be able to buy it starting March 31.

The April story, though, is one I’ve already mentioned, so no secrets there. If you’ve been wondering exactly how Dan and Chris met, you’ll get your answer April 29. The biggest question mark on that one is the length. I put my best guess down there, but the last time I predicted a story would be 15,000 words, it was my first NCIS fanfic which ended up being novel-length. So we’ll see…

As I start digging into more projects, I’ll add more tickers so you can see how much progress I’m making. Heckling and nagging are always welcome. Now, off to the coffee shop to get some new words down on paper…

Behind the Scenes: What Didn’t Make It In All That Is Necessary

FB pollSome of you know that originally, All That Is Necessary was set completely in 1991. That means there’s a lot of what happened that summer that is never seen in the final version of the book. While you don’t need to see any of the scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut, some of you have said you very much would like to.

Starting next week, I’m going to send out a “missing scene” to newsletter subscribers each week for four weeks. I’ve got a poll up on my Facebook page with some of the possibilities, based on your comments. If you’re interested, go vote — and make sure you’re signed up for the newsletter so you get the scenes starting next week. They won’t be posted anywhere else.

Digging Into Exeter’s Past

Thanks to a kick in the pants from James Scott Bell in today’s Kill Zone, I went back through some of my Exeter short stories in progress and realized I was a lot further along than I thought with a short story/novella about Dan and Chris when they first meet. I added another 2,500+ words today to the story, and I’m hoping to have a rough draft done by Wednesday for Kyrie and Maggie to look at. (For new readers, Kyrie’s my editor and Maggie’s the other half of my critique group.) My goal is to release the story as an ebook only within the next month. If you prefer paperback, you’ll get your chance down the line. Both shorts I’m working on this month eventually will appear in the next Stories From Exeter collection: The Way We Were.

If you’ve finished All That Is Necessary and cursed the ending (I’ve heard from a few of you already, obviously), you’ll be glad to know that my travel time to Indy this week was mostly spent brainstorming how the various threads of the plots will fit together. I even surprised myself by finding out a piece of information about one character I had only partially known. 🙂 Whether you’ll find out that information in Book 2  or not is still an open question. It’s either a Book 2 or a Book 4 reveal, depending on where it has the most impact.

A couple of characters from the first Stories From Exeter collection who skipped All That Is Necessary reappear in Book 2, and we’ll get more information about that reveal at the end of ATIN as the story plays out. (If you were surprised by the revelation at the end the first time you read ATIN, keep an eye out for the hints you missed when you re-read. You might even pick up on some clues about  what could be coming in the next book.

Just a reminder: I’ll be signing books and hopefully meeting lots of new Exeter readers at Sacred Circle in downtown Staunton on Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon. If you live close enough to the Valley to make the trip, please come by. Carey has a wonderful store and we’ll have plenty of both of my books available. If you need extra incentive, Historic Staunton Foundation has its Winter Wine Festival just around the corner in the Stonewall Jackson Hotel from noon to 6 p.m. for just $20 ($15 in advance).


Serious Fiction and #LegitLit: Creating a Hybrid Home

Print vs. Ebook

Traditional vs. Indie

Genre vs. Literary

Serious vs. Fluff?

Critics, readers and writers all like debating about fiction and where it’s going. One interesting sidelight to the Traditional/Indie debate has been the discussion about what works in print versus in ebook. Some genres are hugely popular in ebooks. Erotica leads the way — no covers to hide from people while reading in public — but romance, supernatural and other popular genres also do well in ebooks. Meanwhile, literary fiction doesn’t. Unless it’s popular literary fiction — akin to what Don Maass has dubbed 21st Century Fiction — and then it does well in both print and ebooks.

Blogger and critic Porter Anderson has been talking recently about the rise in “shirtless” fiction — romance, romance and more romance. For Porter, it’s akin to the 25-cent paperbacks people can buy by the bag at library book sales and used book stores. Easily read, easily discarded. He’s been pushing what he’s calling #legitlit and #seriousfiction — stories that make you think. Is that literary fiction? That might depend on who you ask.

My books always end up tagged as literary — despite the Irish mob’s presence — because they aren’t genre. I was talking with Mollie Cox Bryan in person for the first time this weekend at a book signing, and she had thought my new book (All That Is Necessary) was a mystery. Logical assumption, given the body count, but wrong. I’d like to think the Exeter books fall into Porter’s Legit Lit category: books that make you think and make you go deeper than the surface.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one Calen Spindler and I touched on briefly in a recent Facebook discussion about writing. She made a comment about writing pure entertainment, and then came back later to say that as much as she jokes about that, she does try and weave serious themes through her work.

I’m not sure I try to so much as that’s what comes out of my brain. For me, telling a layered story with strong characters is key. When a friend recommended Doris Lessing’s books to me recently, he said she’s one of his favorite authors because, “She’s one of those authors that makes me not want to read another book for a long time because there’s always a lot to absorb and reflect upon.” While my books don’t belong in the same breath as Lessing’s, that idea of providing a lot for a reader to absorb and reflect upon is probably the best expression I’ve heard for what I try to do when I tell stories. And I think it’s maybe the best way I can think of to define Porter’s concept of “serious fiction.”

Those books that have enough depth and meaning that we find ourselves reflecting on the book, the characters and the story in the hours, days and weeks that follow, those are serious fiction, or #legitlit. There’s nothing in that definition that excludes books that fall into a genre category. Calen’s writing, in fact, is supernatural. To go back to Don Maass’ idea of 21st Century Fiction, the books he’s talking about are the ones that take the best from the genre and literary worlds. That puts them into the serious fiction category almost by definition, and yet many can be commercial successes.

Those aren’t easy books to write. To make them easy to read, or at least engaging enough to pull readers along through the story, takes a certain skill as a writer. That’s one reason I like Porter’s “serious fiction” and #legitlit descriptions more than literary. Literary often involves playing with language in ways that are artistically pleasing, but perhaps veer too far into experimental for most people. And genre has taken on a connotation that is the opposite of serious fiction. More and more there are books out there that don’t fall into either category. If more people adopt the “serious fiction” category, maybe we can start to build a new genre.