The End of Writing (before I start again)

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I wrote a book and I like it. It’s a book I want to read. Which I guess is why I wrote it? And yet here, on the cusp of publishing, I’m paralyzed with insecurity. I guess the old chestnut is true, being an artist is the intersection of flagrant, narcissistic ego and devastating, debilitating insecurity. The closer my writing comes to the reality of being an actual book, the more I’m waffling between the two. Some days I’m unabashedly proud of what I’ve accomplished and of my simple, sweet little story. Other days I’m certain I’m setting myself up for humiliation and my beta readers just won’t tell me how stinky my book really is.

How it feel sint he middle of writing. You've taken a vow and you might never get laid again.

How it feels in the middle of writing: you’ve taken a vow and you might never get laid again.

Writing a book was equally exhilirating and exhausting. I’m dragging my feet right now on committing to really starting the next one (plenty of research to distract me until I have no excuses left to keep me from writing) because this time I know what I’m in for and it’s harder to jump right in. And yet there has been so much I didn’t anticipate. Like all the waiting. So much waiting before publishing. I’m waiting on some translation, on cover design, on beta readers and editors. And even when that’s all through, I think I’ll still be waiting on myself to know it’s really ready to go. Leta tells me you’re never really done with a book: there’s publishing, there’s promo, there’s always something left to do. But really I think there’s levels of done. I’m looking forward to the “this is packaged and ready to distribute” level of doneness with this book, so I can stop fretting over the details of creation and start worrying about if other people will like it or not.

One day I'll hold one of these of my very own

One day I’ll hold one of these of my very own

History in the present, in pictures

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I hope many of you are already reading The Gay Men Project.  If you aren’t I’m glad to introduce you to it. It is, I suppose, something like Humans of New York, but both larger and more narrow.  I love reading the first person accounts of these men’s lives. How diverse their experiences are, how different.  Seeing the older men talk about the times they came out, how they came out, how being gay affected their lives. And the younger men, not all, but so many saying how being gay is such a small part of their identity, just a thing, nothing to make a big deal about.

I think about this a lot, this split.  I am so grateful, so thankful, that simply being gay is slowly becoming meaningless. Just an aspect of a person, not their entire identity. This is hugely important and the kind of acceptance we’ve been fighting for all these years.  And I feel a little loss in the face of it. ‘Gay’ has never been a homogenous (heh) culture but a mass of connected subcultures and it’s hard to see those dissapear. Yes, the terrible sterotypes, the negative judgements are washing away with them and good riddance.  But there was once a narrative that we are losing. An oral tradition of sorts, codes of conduct, akin to secret handshakes, passed down from generation to generation. And even the stereotypes weren’t all bad, many existed and allowed you to find your own, even when outsiders couldn’t quite see what was going on.

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Truly the need for secrecy was awful.  It existed to keep gay people safe. That there was so much threat, to their jobs, lives, and persons, that it required being hidden was terrible.  Being 40, I lived only on the very far edges of that, heard about, passed down verbally to me, as the history of a subculture. I’m glad the threat is lessening, dissipating. But the stories, the transfer of information from person to person is disappearing too. Becoming ancient lore, mythology, something barely seen. Subtext in old books and movies is lost, without this code and key to understand it. And that part I’m going to miss when it’s gone. It’s becoming a humorous stereotype of all it’s own, gay movies now filled with a greek chorus of older gay men shaking their heads at the youth of today for not knowing the great gay icons, not knowing the struggle.

The Gay Men Project preserves some of this passed on history. You can see bits and pieces of it in older men’s stories, still being shared, in a different way to the next generation.

I also love the diversity of pictures, of people. In an era when gay men’s bodies are becoming as scrutinized and modified as women’s have long been, it’s nice to have a break from the sculpted abs and designer clothes. To see real people shouldn’t be be so refreshing, but it is and it’s a great reminder that being out is what gives us all freedom.  When you can see that these are simply your neighbors, your friends, your family, integral parts of your community. Not monsters or perverts, but average people, it’s so very important to the cause, to equality, to freedom.

So thanks, Kevin Truong, for the work you’re doing to relay this these beautiful stories and pictures.

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Beautiful to a reader, better to a writer

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Miniature of Istanbul (Historical Peninsula)I few weeks ago I stumbled across Alex Jeffers’ Tattooed Love Boys in the Wilde Stories 2013 collection. I love short stories and speculative fiction but I find often that I enjoy a story while reading it, but forget it not long after shutting the book. Tattooed Love Boys stuck with me. Sure, it was about tattoos, beautiful boys, angels (maybe), and gender switching, which are basically the things I love most. But the writing in this story set a mood and tone that was what made the story stick with me. It had a dreamy quality that made the reader, like the characters, not question the weirdness.

Immediately I went out and got Jeffers’ The Padishah’s Son and the Fox which is both delightful and disgusting. Telling an ‘erotic’ fairytale with all the gruesome darkness of true fairytales, with many unexpected turns the story left me completely satisfied as a reader. The storytelling is lovely, giving you a genuinely visceral response, both positive and negative.

Though wonderful neither of these stories had the length and depth for me to completely immerse myself in, to forget myself in. Luckily the next I picked up was The Abode of Bliss. I read it in two sittings, interrupted only by the need to interact with my family and to sleep. Given the chance I would have read it straight through. Though I was emotionally overwrought when I finished it, so maybe it’s best that I had time to reflect on it when I finished (easily done as I was on a plane).

3597187161_1dcfb09bc4_oThe Abode of Bliss by turns made me laugh and made me weep. Reading it I felt both lonely and loved, and was filled with longing, both sexual and romantic. The prose is poetic though not overblown or contrived. It is evocative and heartfelt but with an emotional distance, as if the story teller is remembering, that allows careful observation. But still I felt close enough to be pulled into the remembered emotions, to cheer and cry for Ziya. I felt entirely inside his world, inside him, a character made up only of a words on a page.

This is how I hope to write. Some day I want to be practiced enough to feel confident that I can tell stories this intense, this clearly crafted, stories that sound this true no matter how made up they are. Here’s the thing about storytelling: it’s all made up, even when it’s true. As far as I can tell, Jeffers isn’t Turkish, (he says in his end note that he’s never been there) but somehow he manages to utterly transport me to Turkey. And carry me there inside the mind of character who feels completely authentic, so fleshed out as to be entirely real, utterly believable.

Jeffers’ books have reminded me that writing what you know is shit advice, it always has been. If people only wrote what they know we’d never have Madame Bovary, or War and Peace, we certainly wouldn’t have Star Trek or Harry Potter.  My own stories, at this point, are merely dirty little tales, with characters hopefully polished enough that readers will love them so much that they feel what the characters feel. They, at their core, stories of young men finding a sense of community in eras before my time. They are stories about things I have no experience of, having never been a young man in the 1980s. But these are the stories I have to tell, the characters who live in my head. So I will do my best to do them justice.

Reading The Abode of Bliss was pure joy as a reader, exactly what I needed for my vacation, to be entirely transported out of my own world. As a reader I couldn’t ask for more out a book.  As a writer I’m thrilled to find books like this that inspire me to try and make my stories much better than they are now.  Books that encourage me to keep writing the stories that come to me. Stories of cities I have never lived in, of people I am not and do not know. I will sleep tonight dreaming if Ziya in Turkey. I will wake tomorrow ready to better practice my craft, to more skillfully use words to bring readers into the world I created.

Not Far From the Tree (part one)

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Guess what I just got?!

IMG_20140530_175850836It’s newest book in my mom’s Rain City Comedy of Manners series, Artemis in the Desert. Just in time for beach reading, bed reading, park reading, weekend reading, airport reading, or really any kind of reading there is. Like the other books in the series (Nine Volt Heart–likeable rock stars, and The Grrrl of Limberlost–punk rock nerd girl coder) it features strong female characters, crazy bad guys and such lush backdrop descriptions that you’ll wish you were there inside the book (well except maybe camping in the cold rain in the desert, you won’t wish for that but you’ll really feel it). And like all her other books, even though I’ve already read it a couple times (in various stages of completion) I’m going to read it again now that i can just enjoy it.

My mom has been a huge inspiration to me. All the usual blah blah blahs: she’s smart, strong, independent, gave me a love of books and words, etc. Lately though she’s knocking it out of the park in the getting shit done department. Writing, editing, and publishing a huge variety of works (her own and other people’s) at a rocket fast pace without sacrificing quality on anything (look at how gorgeous her book layouts are, read how neatly crafted her books are). I aspire every day to her level of productivity and her quality of output.

Plus she’s just super awesome to hang with. If you can’t get to her garden to have fancy gin drink and good hang out, you can still find her other places she hangs. She has a website where she talks about writing, editing, her stories and other various things. You can also follow her Twitter where she is very funny and her Facebook for updates about what she’s got coming up.

On Pen Names and Secret Identities

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Why a pen name? The obvious answer is that if you’re writing romance or erotica, it’s separating your writing from your day job.  But even if I didn’t have a day job I’d still use a pen name.  There’s lots of good reasons like branding, and if you write in two very distinct genres you want to keep them separate (essentially brand them with the name you write each with, so I guess that’s still branding).

takano04For me it’s also because I just like names. I grew up in an age of the internet when we were all anonymous, there was no Facebook, we didn’t put our real names on anything. I’ve never been good at coming up with clever internet handles, but I love when other people do. I love the expressiveness of choosing your own name. And the ability to change it like an outfit. As evidenced by the many I’ve had in the last ~20 years: jax, pinklady, starcat, stoneprincess, jayjay, evereadysmile and now flickerjax (and several variations on my real name).

A pen name is a little different. It’s lasting, forever tied to whatever work you created it for. It can’t be changed like a url or a handle. I went through a dozen choices of what to use for the works I’m currently writing and finally settled on one that I think fits the ‘brand’ of the stories and fits me.  I chose a traditionally masculine name (about 9/12 of my list of choices were masculine) not because I’m hiding behind it while writing m/m romance (a quick perusal of this blog or my FB will reveal almost immediately that I’m not a guy). I picked it because I love the name and it reflects me in a way I like. And perhaps because in real life my first name is “masculine” this feels more comfortable. Most traditionally feminine names felt more fake to me than my final choice: Ajax Owen Bell.

My imaginary son is in the ether somewhere thankful he was never born to me because this probably would have been his first and middle names. Actually that was the only thing that made me hesitate about it, but I have no reason to save the name for a child, so I took it for myself. It feels comfortably like my name, correct in a way other choices I weighed never did. They all felt false and thin, but this is solid for me, like this is a name that I already somehow own.

If you’re looking for Ajax Bell, you can find me other places online (psst, over in the sidebar).  Facebook, necessarily separated from my “real life” account, mostly to protect my grandmother from anything more offensive than what I already post, and because my day job coworkers probably aren’t interested in gay romance writing. And of course I’m on the endless rabbit hole of time wasting that is Tumblr. Follow if you like, but fair warning, it’s mostly gay porn, mermaids, and Tokio Hotel in my feed and it gets graphic at times (I do tag because without Tumblr Savior all civility is lost to the world) and my tags probably expose a level of insanity I should be ashamed of (but I’m not, bring on the gay porn German pop star mermen and my ramblings about them, yeah).

Anonymity on the internet is clearly a relic of the past, gone but still mourned. Identity is something else entirely. I think it’s fair to say the person I am when I wake up early and go slog at my office all day is different from the fangirl gleefully watching endless eps of Looking and Orphan Black while reblogging Bob’s Burgers gifs. I have no problem at all with the idea that I need different spaces, different names and (ugh) different brands for those identities.  So here I am, yes it’s me. Still me, no matter what you call me, but if we’re friends (and we are, aren’t we?) feel free to call me JJ no matter what space we’re in.

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Not Enough Time to Be Lazy

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I’ve been writing a book. Or rather, I’ve been writing a series a books, in fits and starts, in the few hours I can grab between doing this and doing that and pretending to be a responsible adult. I’ve got one close to done and many others started.  Right now I should be pouring through my recent edits and making a crap draft into a good working draft.  Instead I’m drinking chai, watching the rain and listening to the dryer.

Despite having not achieved much more than a long, long walk and few household chores yesterday, I am utterly wiped today. I feel like I’ve been beaten with sticks. Like I could sleep for a week. Hopefully the chai will clear my foggy head enough that I can intelligently string words together in some semblance of story of and character development.

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I want nothing more than to lounge in bed all day and read comics.  Okay maybe something more.  Maybe someone could prepare my food and bring it to me and rub my feet too?  I never think I’ve done terribly wrong with my life until I’m forced to confront my lack of houseboys to do my bidding, then suddenly my choices seem sinister and stupid.  I could have done better.  Sigh.

Only Lovers Left Alive

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tumblr_n61mx7lrnm1r7wwqao1_500Last night I went and saw Only Lovers Left Alive with Darrah.  It was playing, as far as we could tell, only one week, Mon-Thur, two shows a night, at different times each night. At a theater inconvenient to most anyone who would probably be interested in it.  If they could even discover it was playing.  7pm on Thursday and the audience was the two of us, a solitary fangirl (I saw you, ma’am and recognized what you are), and two 50s-ish guys.  I mean I guess the theater can argue the limited run was for lack of interest but, c’mon, Nashville.  Why wasn’t this at the Belcourt,and publicized, like at all?

Still I’m grateful we saw it the theater, and in a quiet theater no less, because it was amazing.  I couldn’t watch the first couple minutes, where everything was spinning.  Too vertigo-y for my delicate brain constitution, but the rest of it was fucking perfect.

I want to crawl inside this movie and live forever. I over identified with Adam’s character, so crawling inside it obviously means Tilda Swinton would be my wife, which is all I’ve ever wanted out of the world. But there’s more reasons than that.  My coworker asked what it was about this morning, and I said, “it was vampire movie, but if I had to use single words to describe it they would be: soft, comfortable, calm and romantic.”  There really wasn’t angst and suffering in OLLA, just a little irritation and exasperation. And of course, the vampire thing.  I started reading Anne Rice and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro when I was 14 or 15.  Yep the vampire thing is kind of over played in pop culture now, but it will always be a huge part of  my emotional and intellectual upbringing.  OLLA was the vampire movie of my goth teenager dreams.  It filled me with the same calm wonder as discovering the Romantic poets did, or finding The Chameleons UK and feeling like someone else really understood my inner world.

The pacing of the movie was oddly relaxing.  There was no real sense of urgency in it, even when people were hurrying to do things. There was tension, but it never felt scary or anxiety inducing.  There was just this pervading sense that whatever came could be handled, somehow.  Which is perfect, if you’ve lived forever and been through everything, sure this too shall pass, you  know it will.  The film was also very much a snap shot. No long flashbacks, only casual discussion of their long past together.  Just here, right now, a small window into a long long life. And everything was left to be inferred.  There was no explanation for vampirism or powers or anything, it was just a given you’d know some parts and figure out others.

And of course now all I want to do is go shop for just the right white leather jacket.  I mean if I can’t marry Tilda Swinton can I at least please be super cool like her?

tumblr_n4zjh1y5fE1sw6awyo1_500I left the theater feeling both calmed and utterly delighted.  I want to write stories like this.  Stories that are merely a slice of life, a small window of a larger tale, but still utterly engaging and interesting. Stories that lack complicated plots but are rich and detailed with character, scene, setting and tone.

I totally recommend OLLA, but watch it undistracted, so you can live in it while it unfolds.