Owning Mistakes, aka Hindsight, aka Learning

Molly Ringwald has a wonderful article in the New Yorker revisiting her work in John Hughes’s films. She really went the extra mile on this, to the point of interviewing a fellow actress she hadn’t seen in decades. It’s very much worth the read.

I think a lot about the fails from my first book. A LOT.
I love all my books. I’m proud of all my books. I’m super proud of Good Intentions.

And yet… Good Intentions starts with an attempted rape. I had reasons, I thought it made sense, and even now I think it holds up, but damn I wish I’d done something else. I included the explicit labeling of rape in the text because the protagonist wanders into a bizarre and unexpected situation where I wanted no ambiguity about who the bad guys were and what he should do. At the time, I figured the good guys get away okay, the bad guys go up in smoke, and neither of the intended victims are the sort to carry trauma from this, so we move on. But rape is the sort of subject that really shouldn’t be used without it specifically being the subject. I hadn’t really encountered serious discussion of how overused that trope is until it was too late. I could’ve done something else.

One of the first bits of protagonist dialogue involves a white guy dropping a racial slur, and even if it’s in the context of “hey white guys, don’t do this shit” I could’ve just not had that at all. The book involves a spectrum of sympathetic black characters, but the first black characters to appear are gang members. The only Latino characters are part of a drug cartel.

These are all things that are real and happen in real life. They’re also harmful tropes and/or ugly stereotypes. I was new to writing and didn’t think that stuff through quite as far as I wish I had. For all those flaws, it’s a warm and funny story with lots of heart and I got better about those issues real fast… but I wouldn’t blame anyone for putting the book down before finishing it over those sorts of things.

That’s frustrating, because it’s the first of a series. I love my book, my story, my characters, and I want others to love it, too… but there’s always that “but” there because I believe in learning and growing and owning my mistakes. It’s a little tough to know how to hype a book when I also feel like I should somehow tell readers, “BTW, I screwed this up and I know it.” That doesn’t exactly fit well into a pitch. No one has ever called me out on any of these things, so I’m not writing this in response to anyone confronting me or anything of the sort, although I am sorry for not seeing those problems and fixing them ahead of time.

Anyway. Read that piece by Molly Ringwald. It’s truly great.

In other news: I plan to share a chapter or two from the next Poor Man’s Fight book on Monday the 9th. Watch this space.

Release date looks increasingly like later in the week of the 16th. Again, the paperback will follow thereafter because my formatting options have changed, and I’m waiting to hear back from Audible about creating an audio version so there’s nothing to tell there just yet.

Also, for anyone in Portland: I’ll be selling books at a table at Wizard World Comic Con April 13-15th! Hope to see you there!

8 thoughts on “Owning Mistakes, aka Hindsight, aka Learning

  1. Dee

    Hello so let me start by saying forgive my grammar and stuff like that so I am a black man one of many and I didn’t find issue with how good intentions went I obviously respect how you feel as it’s your book and even if it wasn’t I would still respect your thoughts it just sucks cause if I’m being honest that line kinda reeled me in it came as such a shock that couldn’t do anything but laugh and then I proceeded to enjoy each and everyone of you characters I feel that the first encounter with the girls holds up just like you said it was a terrible situation that pulled me in further and showed me who Alex was I just hope that when or if you decide to continue the Good Intentions series that you dont change to much I for one will read it regardless however I feel like the world shouldn’t influence your story world to much.

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  2. Mark

    I had to re-read the first part of GI because I couldn’t remember that. At first I was wondering, is gypsey a slur for Roma? Then I read that part and yeah no need for it. The rape though… that’s what spurred Alex into action. Oh and… Kept reading the first couple of chapters… Stephanie is a petite Latina about Alex’s age at the law firm.

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  3. Mark

    I am not saying that you aren’t 100% correct but as a philosophical point aren’t the sections of GI you mention merely relating things that could and do occur yet in life? Do we truly benefit from hiding that such things occur? Is it not better to keep them in front of us and constantly admit that they are abhorrent? The rape scene could be seen as integral to the outrage that Alex felt and was the catalyst to his actions… and thus the story. As to race, well that is sadly still evident in society and while we should not be continuing to uphold stereotypes as a people if we are to reflect a true view of society some of this will seep into the story. I love your books. Yes, you could have done some things differently but not in all cases was it necessary. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Chong Go

    It worked smoothly for me, and I *hate* emotionally manipulative writing. I guess that means it served the story, fit the context, and seemed to flow naturally as part of the story. And I’ve read it three(?) times. It worked and the reader response has been solid, so I wouldn’t get too caught up in over analysing it, or worrying about what the odd reader here and there has said. That way lies paralysis and un-fun writing.
    Honestly, the only real problem Good Intentions had was, urm, the first cover. It showed up in my “also boughts” for a long time, but I dismissed it because of the cover.

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  5. Johnny B. Goode

    If you cut off the wings of an angel and clip the horns of a devil in real life, I would disapprove; but in fiction it’s okay for me.

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  6. Scott

    Wow… Maybe I’m going to be a fan you hate.. but seriously you seem to be on a seriously internal PC binge. I love your writing but if you go down the PC road I will probably move on. Real life is messy and bad shit happens, if you can’t write reality, fantasy, fiction etc because it might offend then you should quit writing. To not offend you would need to stop communicating in any form and maybe huddle at home and don’t go in public.

    I’m actually having mental issues even trying to see how to say this. You used accurate generalities in your personifications based on stuff happening in our world now. The danger is always applying generalities to individuals as individuals will vary greatly from statistical generalities. I have many hispanic friends, non of whom are criminals, some of whom are law enforcement, none of them would have an issue saying that in our geographical area the majority gangs are hispanic with the next being black. It’s just cold hard reality. Doesn’t affect my affection for my hispanic or black friends at all. It does mean that if I’m walking down the road and a bunch of young people dressed and colored stereotypically are hanging out that I might not take my family by a different route than past them.

    My mom and sister live across the street from a black drug dealer. Because we have a relationship with his family he makes sure they are left alone ( most everyone loves my mom). I don’t know all of his story and and in casual conversation get along with him well. Doesn’t change the fact that he is a stereo typical criminal and drug dealer and that in general I don’t want to hang around him because his life choices make being in proximity to him much riskier.

    You characterizations in your book didn’t give me a seconds pause. You had white bad guys, black bad guys, hispanic bad guys etc.. None of it felt like you are racist. It concerns me that something has this sort of thing eating at you. maybe if you have had an issue with being racist yourself I could understand after a major internal reformation being overly touchy but otherwise it simply feels like this new offend no one ever PC attitudes that has been infiltrating our society lately, down that road lies the fascism and tyranny of group identity politics.

    Sigh… my post here is really fragmentary and short for such an involved meme that is so prevalent in our current culture wars. I would encourage you to not to worry so much about being offensive. We have to be able to talk about offensive things both in a literary sense and real life, if you can’t talk about them how can you address them. At the end of the day regardless of anyone else’s opinion do you like the person you are? If so then don’t let anyone or society itself run you down.

    Most of my favorite books in the sense that I consider them more than just a fictional story but great literature all have a common them of addressing very very hard issues. Try reading some of Robin McKinley’s books, they are brutal when addressing issues of rape. I also consider them some of the best literature in Sci-fi/Fantasy around. I often will never read one a second time because of how much they hurt to read but I will never ever regret reading them that once. Your writing is much lighter veined and doesn’t rise to that level but it does rise to the level that I have read all your books at least twice. They are just fun escapist fiction and very well done. You have a knack for creating good character development that is rare. Don’t allow individuals or society to control how or what you write because some might find it offensive. If you had done so already I would not have read most of your books that a lot of people would find offensive due to their political, ideological, or sexual beliefs. Just tell them if it’s not for you don’t read my writing and move on. There are a lot of people that do like it.

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    1. Elliott Kay Post author

      Scott,

      I’m not denying the existence of any of these bad things. Nobody is. Yet a lot of groups out there are tired of the harmful, negative tropes thrown their way. Nobody denies that Latino crime exists, but when that’s the first and/or only way Latinos see themselves portrayed, a lot of them are justifiably unhappy. Same with other racial identities. It happens. I don’t regret the casting of the bad guys in the books so much as I regret not doing a better job of counterbalancing it and going against the lazy, harmful narratives that are entirely too prevalent.

      I don’t see this issue as PC. I see “PC” as “treating people with respect.” And none of this is to say my writing is going to turn delicate and free of negatives. It’s about learning the real harm some of these things do and trying to mitigate them because I care about doing better and being better.

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      1. Ross

        Going to have to agree with Scott here. I think you are mostly overthinking it. I can agree with 1 maybe 2 of your concerns; the Latino characters and the inappropriate use of the word “nigga”. Yes I noticed the stereotypes but they kind of fit what was happening in the story for the most part.

        The main Latino characters being part of a cartel is the one point I do agree could’ve been handled better but everything else just fit the story or the flow of the book and wasn’t really offensive or overly stereotypical in a bad way.

        The rape scene was a pretty important part of the story and while it wasn’t the main focus of the action, it was pretty pivotal in establishing Alex’s character and lack there of from his guardian. Perfect fit for the story and a clear way of establishing the good and baddies as you intended. The only part that wasn’t really addressed was the potential trauma which as you pointed out shouldn’t really be a factor with a centuries old angel and a succubus who have both seen far worse in their lifetimes.

        The use of the word “nigga” was fine in context because we all know someone who just doesn’t quite understand the history of the word and the visceral reaction it evokes. It’s also immediately addressed and again establishes the characters of both people in the conversation.

        Finally, maybe you could say that Alex’s friend should have been introduced if only on the phone before the gang related black characters but it fit more the flow of the story for us to only really focus on Alex at the beginning struggling to fit Lorelei into his life before meeting his friends. It also fit that she wouldn’t exactly be known by the best examples of humanity so the gang running into her was good for the story,

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