Stop Using Rape As An Empty Plot Device

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

A couple years ago, I bought a highly praised NA book that caught me by surprise a little over halfway through. In the book, the main character was dealing with trauma after a horrific accident that took her parents’ and boyfriend’s lives. She takes her little sister and runs away from their uncle’s creepy advances, and settles down out of state. On the surface, her handsome neighbor appears to be the man of her dreams—until she finds out that he was in the passenger seat of the car that killed her loved ones, and he stalked her across the country because he wanted to get to know her in an attempt to make up for the loss. When the twist is revealed, she continues to pursue a relationship with this man instead of being horrified.

Never mind his sick guilt and the coercive relationship and sex. That is No Big Deal. She’s in love and everything is happily ever after, thank you very much.

In another beloved series, the main character is almost raped at every turn when she first arrives in a strange place. Later on her beau is raped in exchange for her safety. Every book in the series continues to use rape as a plot device—even later when their daughter is raped. The only time the trauma is addressed is when her lover is tortured by the demons of the act and she must rescue him.

Today I started reading another popular book. There was no mention of the heroine being sexually assaulted in the blurb, nor a warning in the front matter, yet in the prologue she discovers in detail that she has been date raped.

I would’ve slammed the book shut if it weren’t on my iPad.

I’ve also read countless books where the heroine is almost raped by some guy and the hero rescues her, the event bringing them closer together and serving as a warm and fuzzy catalyst for their relationship. It happens so often, I should be desensitized to it. Instead, I’m pissed.

There are so many other ways to advance plot, kick off a romance, or highlight human evil. Yet so many storytellers rely on sexual assault as a crutch. I guess it’s no big deal if you’ve never been raped or attacked, but when it comes out of nowhere, with no warning, it can be extremely triggering for the 1 in 4 women who have been sexually assaulted (not to mention the countless women and men who never report).

When used cheaply and disposed of, it contributes directly to rape culture.

If it absolutely must happen in your book, give victims a one-line heads up somewhere in your blurb:

Still recovering from date rape on her prom night, years later Bettie is determined not to let anyone in.

Or stick a bold or highlighted trigger warning in your foreword or in the product description:

Please note that this story contains graphic depictions of sexual assault. Read at your own discretion.

Some people get really nasty about trigger warnings, griping that they shouldn’t have to be “PC” and “cater to everyone.”

Look, there are just some things that are universally triggering. Rape is one of them. I wish I’d known that the rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave was extremely violent, detailed, and lasted about 20 minutes. Since it’s a revenge thriller, I was willing to deal with a short scene knowing that the main character was going to make those motherfuckers pay. But I had no idea it was going to be so excruciating and intense.

Nor did I realize that the Outlander series had so much damn rape stuffed into it. Plenty of people I know read that book before I did. Some of them even knew about my history. But not a single person said to me, “Hey, just so you’re aware…”

People who have lost loved ones to murder can choose to avoid murder mysteries, horror, and thriller entertainment because those are genres widely understood to contain at least a mention of violence. Exactly nothing about romance implies “Hey, this probably has rape in it because it’s a love story.”

If sexual assault is essential to your story—like the #ownvoices standalone I’ve been working on—have a fucking heart. At least mention it somewhere in your blurb so that every 1 in 4 of your readers isn’t taken by surprise and sent into a downward spiral of flashbacks. If it’s a small part of the story—such as a brief mention—a short trigger warning at the beginning is plenty.

When in doubt, stick to the do no harm rule.

What Happens On Tour: Chapter 2

After what seemed like the longest pause in the history of her life, Poppy exhaled. She rocked backward on her heels, heart split down the middle. Part of her wanted to be thrilled. Going on a national tour was everything that South of Forever—and she—had been working toward. That kind of success would surely put them on the map, and probably give her the kind of job security that her generation so rarely saw. Still, it was too soon.

She’d hoped that South of Forever had a good few years before they hit that kind of critical mass. Most people wanted their success in a hurry, but Poppy wanted to finish school. She needed to, she thought as she twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Frizz lined the strand, her natural, tight coils threatening to escape her sleek waves. Pretty soon she’d need to get it relaxed again.

She bit down on her lip. The last thing she needed to be thinking about was her hair. Griff eyed her with something between concern and suspicion. For a moment, it was as if he could see straight through her. She swallowed hard.

“That’s amazing,” she croaked. There was no way that she would be able to go on tour and make it to her classes. If she went with the band, she would inevitably flunk out. If she stayed in Boston, though, she would be giving up everything she had ever dreamed of. Glancing at Griff, she lifted her chin. She needed to say something more positive than that. She was his manager, after all. “When?”

The question flew out of her mouth before she could catch herself. Once again, she was speaking without thinking. Her mother would say that she invited trouble just by opening her mouth.

Griff seemed not to notice the struggle clawing at her heart, though. He put his hands in his pockets and turned back toward her mother’s house, keeping his pace slow and leisurely. If things were different, she might be able to pretend that they were on a romantic walk, digesting their Thanksgiving meal. His next words burst that particular bubble instantly. “This is kind of springing it on you, but Saul said that they’re leaving Monday.”

Her eyebrows flew toward her hairline. “This Monday?” she squeaked.

“I know it’s super last minute, and I wouldn’t normally ask you to take off in the middle of a holiday.” He spread his hands, chagrin lining his face in a grimace. “But I need you.” He cleared his throat. “We all do.”

She took a moment to collect herself. “Who’s Saul?” she asked, changing the subject. Her mind roiled. There was no way she could juggle school and a tour. A national tour meant that she would be thousands of miles away from Boston at any given time, hours away from class.

As they neared her mother’s house, Griff slowed even more. She wondered whether he was prolonging their time alone together, or if he was just naturally a slow walker. Or maybe, she mused, he just wanted privacy to discuss band business.

“He’s like the Jett of King Riley.” Griff lifted a shoulder, an amused smile playing on his lips. “He definitely seems to be in charge, but he’s also their lead singer.”

“Oh.” She looked down at her toes. Despite the chill in the air, she was glad that she had worn her wedges. They made her legs look great, her floral printed skinnies practically painted on her. She put a finger to her lips. If she went on tour with South of Forever, she was going to have to learn King Riley’s band members’ names. Arguably, she should already know who they all were, considering she was a band manager and they were part of the Boston scene—her band’s stomping grounds. Technically, they were competition. She rocked back as she remembered a conversation that she had overheard between Perry and Max not so long ago. “Didn’t Perry used to be King Riley’s bassist?”

Pressing his lips together, Griff nodded.

“Is that going to be an issue?” She crossed her arms over her chiffon blouse and raised an eyebrow at him.

He lifted a shoulder. “I hope not.”

“Perry is a guaranteed problem,” she reminded him. Though he had mellowed out considerably since she’d met him that summer, he still made half-hearted passes at her and drank too much during shows. Even if he could tame his womanizing and borderline alcoholism, she could see him being the first to pick a fight with the other band. “Is this even a good idea? What did he get kicked out for?”

Griff chuckled as he angled back toward the house. “You think he got kicked out?”

“This is Perry we’re talking about.” She slowed, glancing at the front porch. It was empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, she put a hand on Griff’s arm. “Did he ever mention why he isn’t part of King Riley anymore?”

“Jett got the impression that he left on his own terms,” Griff said. “You’re right, though. No one asked, and he never said.” His eyes met hers, and a tingle zipped through her. Though her hand was still on his arm, he made no move to pull away.

Her breath caught in her throat. Blinking, she forced herself to focus. Griff was ten years older than her—at least, her true age. Everyone in South of Forever thought she was twenty-two, but she was eighteen. All of the guys she’d dated in high school had been her age or a couple years older. There had never been a need to lie.

“So, barring any Perry incidents, are you up for this?” He grinned at her and, for a moment, she thought she might faint.

He wasn’t the kind of smoking hot that made it on the covers of magazines or in underwear ads. He had a certain boyish charm that easily bent, fitting the rock star image. He could go back and forth between any look if he wanted to. She had seen pictures of him during high school, with hair grown out to his chin and the slightest hint of stubble on his face, thanks to Jett breaking out the scrapbook she kept. Poppy would have never pegged Jett for the sentimental type, but she had photos of Griff that even his own mother would probably never show mixed company. Poppy’s cheeks reddened at the thought of a photo of his bare ass. It was from his Perpetual Smile days, during a drunken night on tour. He’d mooned the entire band and Jett had snapped a photo that she later pasted front and center in her scrapbook.

Poppy realized that she had spaced out more than usual. Her cheeks blazed and heat pricked at the back of her neck. Clearing her throat, she started walking back toward the house. “I should really get back to dinner,” she said, avoiding his question.

“Of course.” Griff kept pace beside her. He ran a hand through his hair. He touched her arm as if he wanted to say something else, but then drew away.

Again, she couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if she went on tour with South of Forever for a few months. It could be like a vacation. Of course, she would be working, coordinating merchandise and hanging out backstage. She beamed at the thought of herself standing behind a merch table. She could wear one of the band’s T-shirts. Better yet, she could bring a real sense of fashion to their wares. So few bands even carried shirts for women and, when they did, they shrunk easily or were cut wrong. Then again, she wasn’t sure how much she could do in just a few days, especially with the holiday weekend.

She shook her head. She couldn’t go on tour with them, not if she wanted to finish school. Her mother and grandmother would kill her if she dropped out to go away with some band. She could only imagine the looks on their faces. They might even disown her. They’d come close enough when Jay announced his new career as J-SON, L.A.B. Records’s new face of hip hop.

She wanted to cry. A perfect opportunity was about to be wasted.

She realized that they were standing in front of her house. A sigh escaped her lips. “Well, I’d better get back to dinner.”

Griff nodded, shifting from foot to foot. “Yeah, sorry for interrupting.”

She wished that she could invite him in. If things were different, she would have no problem bringing a guy home. Her family would have a million questions, though. Jay knew the truth, but her mother and grandmother didn’t, and their curiosity about the man in their house would almost definitely blow her cover. Yolanda and Audrey didn’t understand tact or saving their questions until boyfriends went home. Poppy was pretty sure that they enjoyed embarrassing her.

Clearing his throat, Griff nodded toward the house. “I’m sure you have to discuss things with your family.”

Her jaw dropped open. It was as if he knew. Licking her lips, she shook her head. She wanted to tell him that wasn’t it, but she had no other excuse for not jumping at the chance to go on tour. “It’s just that I planned on being here for the whole weekend. They’ll be disappointed.” She gave him a smile, lifting a shoulder.

“Well, let me know what you decide.” He pulled keys out of his jacket pocket and pressed a button. The lights flashed on a glossy rental car that she had overlooked. She heard it unlock. He leaned in, as if to give her a kiss. Her heart stopped. She tilted her face, shock freezing her thoughts. Instead, though, he gave her a quick one-armed hug, then stepped away.

She watched as he climbed into the car, almost too small for his tall frame. Then, forcing her feet to move, she headed up the front walkway. By the time she got to the porch, he was gone. She wondered if she’d just imagined the entire exchange. As she eased back inside, though, she realized her entire family sat in the living room.

Her mother beamed at her. “I knew you had a boyfriend,” she blurted. “You’ve been so busy, I knew it couldn’t just be school.”

Grandma Audrey gave Poppy a knowing look. “He’s cute.”

“He didn’t stay long,” Jay remarked. He shot Poppy a questioning glance, but said nothing else.

She burned to tell Krista what had happened. She couldn’t think of a graceful way to exit the conversation or to ditch dinner, though. Krista was the closest thing she had to a best friend. She’d had friends in high school, but none of them had been super close, and they had all gone to different colleges around the country. Some were even overseas, traveling the world with the military.

Nodding toward the kitchen, Poppy indicated the food, probably cold. “Are we eating, or what?”

Her grandmother shot out of her seat on the couch and bustled into the kitchen, Yolanda close on her heels. Poppy heard Grandma Audrey swearing, and stifled a laugh.

“So what happened?” Jay whispered. “Everything okay?”

“Later,” she mouthed. She would tell him everything, but only after dinner—and only after she conferenced with Krista first. If anyone knew what to do, it would be Krista.


South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

BUY NOW

Kindle · iBooks · Nook · Kobo · More

Or 1-click buy for your Kindle:

Cover Reveal: What Happens On Tour

Untitled design

Drum roll, please—it’s time for the official What Happens On Tour cover reveal! You may have seen my puzzle over on my Instagram profile, but there’s nothing like seeing this baby in HD. Designer Starla Huchton needs some serious applause.

Are you ready? I’m tingling, I’m so excited.

3…

2…

1…

What Happens On Tour (South of Forever, Book 3), by Elizabeth Barone

South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

Poppy Hampton may be rock band South of Forever’s new manager, and she may have successfully launched her brother’s music career, but she sort of lied about her credentials. She also may have aged herself up a bit in her resume. It’s no big deal.

All she has to do is make sure they don’t find out.

Until the band’s sexy drummer—and the guy of her dreams—Griff tells her that it’s finally happened: South of Forever has been invited to go on tour with the fast rising rock band, King Riley. She’d be thrilled if such an exciting opportunity didn’t mean choosing between her career and her education—or if dating Griff didn’t mean lying to him about the ten-year age difference between them. Can Poppy launch her career without destroying it before it’s even started? And if she risks everything to follow her heart and be with Griff, can she keep her secret safe?

What Happens On Tour is the third book in the South of Forever series, a steamy contemporary New Adult romance that follows a fledgling rock band on its way to the top.

Available August 19th.

PRE-ORDER SALE

Pre-order now for only $0.99!

Kindle · iBooks · Kobo · More

What Happens On Tour (South of Forever, Book 3), by Elizabeth Barone

Catch up on the South of Forever series:

Buy Diving Into Him and Savannah’s Song now »

I’ve Got the Pre-Release Jitters

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

All I can tell you about my book cover right now is that it’s pink—in the most badass of ways.

I can’t sit still.

There’s nothing else I can do at the moment, but the anticipation is killing me. I’m impatient by nature, mostly in an excited puppy way; I want to share this book with the world now, dammit. I got the final cover design from my designer this morning and I’m just itching to get rolling on my cover reveal plan. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this gig in the last five years, it’s that there is payoff in patience.

I have a plan, and it’s a cool plan, therefore I must stick to it.

So much about this release has been unpredictable, to say the least. My publisher closed and, even though I was determined to get What Happens On Tour out on time anyway, the financial burden of having to re-publish four books in one month kind of threw things off. But I’ve learned something else in the last five years: There is always a way. My choice was either way another month or two, or give crowdfunding another shot.

I’ve done crowdfunding in the past, and learned that the all-or-nothing route doesn’t work for me. I’m thrifty and can make even a little bit work. So this time, I went with GoFundMe, which allows you to keep an open timeline and any donations you receive, regardless of whether you reach your goal. Not gonna lie, I also sold some things on eBay so that I could kick in, too. Within two weeks, we hit our goal.

Even though I hoped to still release on the 19th as planned, I decided to just go with the flow. If I had to release a few days or even weeks later, no big deal. Lady Luck was on my side, though, because my designer was faster than usual. In less than a week, she had a final product for me to see.

And now I’m dying to share it.

This book is a bona fide underdog. I had a hell of a time writing it. But I pushed through career doubts and character clashes, and got it done. If it weren’t for a handful of people, I really don’t know if it would’ve happened. What Happens On Tour is by far the hardest book I’ve birthed, and that’s why it’s the book I’m most proud of.

It also takes the series to a whole new level. All I’m gonna say is, I worked really hard to pull off the story I wanted to tell, and I think I did it. Of course, I’ll let you decide.

Read Chapter 1 now, then purchase your copy on August 19th.

What Happens On Tour: Chapter 1

Poppy twirled a pen between two fingers, her phone pressed between her cheek and a shoulder. “No problem,” she told Jett Costa, front woman of the band she managed. South of Forever’s keyboardist Max Batista had recently gotten out of rehab. Jett wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly. Poppy could understand. The band had been through a lot in a short amount of time. She still wasn’t sure why, but a few months before Jett brought her on, the singer had been hospitalized, too. Poppy had overheard their drummer Griff Whalen talking to Jett about it. No one knew exactly what had happened, but Jett had assured the band that it had nothing to do with her own rehab stint over a year before.

“I’m serious,” Jett said. Poppy started, realizing that, once again, she had let herself get swept away by other people’s drama. “I want everyone’s eyes on him at all times. I don’t want him relapsing.”

Poppy sighed. She hadn’t become the band’s manager to babysit musicians with drug problems. Still, her success depended on how well the band did. If Max started doing cocaine again—or touched anything else, for that matter—her career would be over. Pushing the thoughts away, she did her best to convince Jett that she was thoroughly capable of keeping Max on the wagon. “If you can stay sober,” she said, “so can he.”

A pause stretched on the other end.

Poppy bit her lip. Perhaps she had said the wrong thing. She tossed her long, brown waves over her shoulder and swapped the phone to her other ear. “I mean, I’m sure everything will be fine.” Though Jett couldn’t see it, she flashed the smile that she had once upon a time used to book shows for her brother.

“Yeah.” Jett cleared her throat. “Just keep an eye on him.” Without another word, she hung up.

Grimacing, Poppy put her phone down on her desk. If she kept at it, Jett and the rest of South of Forever would realize that she wasn’t the composed twenty-two-year-old that she pretended to be. She glared down at the open textbook on her desk.

“I’m going on a Starbucks run. The usual?”

Poppy glanced up at her roommate. Dark circles underlined Krista’s blue eyes. Her blonde hair hung limply around her face. Midterms were definitely starting to take their toll. Luckily, Krista had escaped the “freshman fifteen”—the fifteen pounds that most students supposedly gained during their first year at college. Poppy, on the other hand, had gained at least thirty. The last thing she needed was another fattening beverage, but if she was going to get through her study session and babysit Max, she definitely needed the caffeine. She reached for her wallet.

Krista shook her head. “This one’s on me.” She flashed her parents’ credit card, grinning. For a moment, she looked like the cheerful young woman that had moved into their room at the beginning of the semester. She tucked her hair behind her ears. “You got the last one.”

“True.” Poppy tapped her pen on the corner of her desk. She longed for winter break when, for a few precious weeks, she could just be Poppy the band manager. Juggling her classes, work, and keeping South of Forever from finding out that she was a fraud was starting to wear on her. There were bags under her brown eyes, and her once smooth, deep brown skin sported more than a few pimples. She was also pretty sure that she had a wrinkle near her nose. Next up, she thought, she was going to start sprouting gray hairs.

Krista turned and slouched out of their dorm room in defeat. Poppy glanced at the laptop open on her roommate’s desk. The cursor blinked on an empty page. Krista was supposed to be writing a paper for her communications class. At the rate things were going, neither of them were going to make it through their first semester.

It was too bad. Poppy couldn’t have picked a better roommate. Krista was easygoing and had no problem with Poppy coming and going at all hours of the day—even when she crawled into bed in the middle of the night after a particularly long rehearsal night with South of Forever. She was lucky that she woke up in time for her marketing classes most days.

Sometimes, she wished that she had chosen an easier path in life.

She turned back to her desk, her eye catching the framed photo of her and the band. She stood next to Griff, his arm draped across her shoulders. His fair skin was a stark contrast to her deep copper complexion. A tingle ran through her as she thought of that day, how his touch had lingered long after Max’s girlfriend Savannah took the photo. She had uploaded it to their website later that night, proud to be part of the South of Forever family. Her eyes roved over Griff’s face, his eyes slanted to the side. It looked like he was looking at her.

She blinked, peering closer at the photo. His blue eyes were so light, they were nearly gray. He was definitely looking in her direction, but whether or not he was peeking at her was a different story.

She shook her head. She needed to be studying, not worrying about whether Griff liked her. Her cheeks flushed and her heart fluttered in her chest. She should be so lucky. Rock stars like Griff didn’t go for girls like her—especially girls who lied about their age and college degree.

She chewed on her lip and made herself look away from the photo. She just needed to get through the next week. After midterms, she could spend Thanksgiving with her family—just far enough away from the band and all of the stress weighing on her shoulders.

The door swung open and Krista entered their room, cradling four lattes in a tray. Behind her, the hall stood empty. It seemed as if the entire campus was burrowed in, studying for exams. It was easy for everyone else to focus so early in the semester. Poppy wished it could be the same for her.

* * *

Poppy stood outside her dorm, her rolling suitcase parked in front of her. Shifting from foot to foot in her wedge sandals, she watched as yet another Honda Civic entered the complex. Instead of cruising past her to the line of visitor parking spots, though, it rolled to a stop in front of her. A tinted window rolled down.

Heavy bass poured out, punctuated by lyrics she hadn’t heard yet. Her brother Jay leaned out of the window and nodded to her. “Get in.”

Poppy snorted. She had expected Jay to come in a limousine or maybe even an SUV driven by someone from his record company. “Why a Honda?” She tossed her suitcase into the trunk and hurried around to the passenger side. Her fingertips barely brushed the seatbelt as Jay peeled out of the dorm parking lot.

“You blend in,” he said, whipping around the corner.

She lifted an eyebrow at him. “And this isn’t standing out?” She could hear a bit of Grandma Audrey in her voice, even though it had been months since she last saw her grandmother. A soft smile touched her lips. She couldn’t wait to be home.

“Come on, I’m just having fun.” Jay maneuvered into traffic, slamming the brakes as the light turned red at the bottom of the hill.

Poppy rolled her eyes. She nodded toward the iPhone plugged into the dashboard. “New song?” Reaching for the dial, she twisted it until the entire car rocked with the bump of the bass.

Jay slapped her hand away and turned the music down. “It’s not finished yet.” He slanted her a look. “I’m not ready for the public to hear it.”

Poppy blinked, wondering whether anyone on campus would recognize her brother. Until just a few short months before, she had been J-SON’s manager. Only he had been surprised when, at a show she had scheduled, someone from a label approached him and invited them to dinner to discuss a recording contract. She, on the other hand, had always known he’d make it. He hadn’t been with L.A.B. Records long, but he was already one of their more promising artists. The two singles he had released were doing well.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, relaxing back into her seat as he pulled onto the highway. “I expected more fanfare, now that you’re all big and stuff.” She grinned at him.

“Incognito,” he said, putting sunglasses on against the morning glare of the sun. As he urged the Honda to the standard eighty miles an hour that the rest of traffic adhered to, he glanced at her. “How did finals go?”

“Midterms,” she corrected, “and they were a bitch.” She wanted to forget the last week of her life as quickly as possible.

“And how’s the band?” He gave her a sly smile.

Neither their mother or grandmother knew what she was doing, but Jay knew everything. They had always trusted each other with their secrets. “Running me ragged.” She bit her lower lip. “You heard about the scandal, right?”

“You kidding me? Everyone knows about it.” Jay switched off the song and tucked his phone into the center console. He punched buttons until he found Hot 93.7, an old school rap song trickling into the car. “It’s all everyone at L.A.B. can talk about.”

“Eventually,” she said, “Mom and Grandma Audrey are going to find out that I’m managing South of Forever. It’s inevitable.”

“Is he still sober?”

The abrupt change of subject made both of her eyebrows nearly touch her hairline. “Why do you ask?” She crossed her arms, twisting in her seat so that she could face her brother full on.

“Did you know that Koty Jackson is from L.A.B.?” Jay took off his sunglasses and regarded her with somber brown eyes.

She almost giggled. Of course she knew. Up until very recently, she’d had an ESX poster in her bedroom at home. When Koty left the boy band to join the rock band Perpetual Smile, she had migrated with him. If she thought about it too much, it was all just too crazy. In a million years, she had never dreamed that she would be managing the Dakota Jackson and Jett Costa.

Then again, things were much different with South of Forever. They still had ages to go before they achieved the kind of success that Perpetual Smile had known. She could get them there. She wouldn’t accept anything less.

Jay cleared his throat. “Daydreaming again?”

The Honda slowed as I-95 clogged, the morning commute just beginning.

Poppy groaned. She waved to the traffic. “Your people can’t do anything about this?”

“I’m not that famous yet.” He chuckled.

“I know exactly where South of Forever stands,” she said. “Does L.A.B. really talk about them that much?”

Her brother nodded. “Scott Woodrow is on double duty. He manages ESX, but still keeps tabs on Koty.” Switching lanes, Jay urged the Honda to go faster. Traffic slowed again, and he stomped on the brakes. “This is bullshit. I thought we’d miss this.”

“J-SON, traffic in Boston is ever present,” she said in her best Southern belle accent.

Just as he had when they were little, Jay dissolved into giggles. “Oh, Poppy.” He squeezed her hand for a second. “I’ve missed you. It’s not the same now.”

“It used to be us against the world,” she said. “Now we’re both in separate corners, kicking ass and taking names.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” He put both hands on the steering wheel. “I’m proud of you, girl.”

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Poppy nodded. If she could survive Thanksgiving break without her life imploding, she would be proud of herself.

* * *

The carving knife clattered to the floor. Poppy darted back, the blade missing her toes by inches. She glanced at her grandmother. Their eyes met, then they both dissolved into giggles.

“Quit throwing things at me,” she told Grandma Audrey. She wasn’t sure why she and her brother addressed their grandmother by her first name. Their father’s parents had passed away before either of them had been born, so there was no need to differentiate. Her grandmother had been Grandma Audrey for as long as she could remember, though.

“I’m just crazy like that.” Grandma Audrey stooped to retrieve the knife, and then ambled over to the sink. “Thirty-second rule,” she said, rinsing it off.

Poppy settled an elbow back on the counter, texting her dad a quick “Happy Thanksgiving” with one hand. It’d been years since she or Jay had spent a holiday with their father. After James and Yolanda separated, Poppy’s dad moved out of state. Last she knew, he’d taken yet another odd job. Even though he no longer owed her mom child support, he still sent Yolanda money every month. Poppy treasured their few visits and occasional FaceTime chats. Her dad worked hard and had a great sense of humor. She hoped that she’d inherited his work ethic.

Watching as her grandmother resumed carving the turkey, she sighed. She definitely hadn’t inherited that particular gene.

“What’s wrong, sugar?” Grandma Audrey dropped a slice of turkey onto a platter. Steam rose from the meat.

Poppy’s mouth watered. “I’m just thinking about how I’ll never be as good a cook as you.”

Tucking her chin into the palm of her hand, her thoughts again strayed to South of Forever. Jay’s words haunted her. She had tossed and turned in her sleep, unable to stop visualizing Scott Woodrow stalking Koty. She felt naked. From what Jay told her, L.A.B. had a lot of resources—both financially and in the music industry. Maybe it was unnecessary to worry about such a thing, but she couldn’t help but wonder how far L.A.B. would go to get back their prized pop star.

“Honey, you can’t even boil water,” Grandma Audrey replied. She nudged Poppy with an elbow.

“Exactly.” Poppy forced herself to be present. She hadn’t gotten to spend time with her family since she’d started college. “I’m practically starving at school.”

Plunking down several more slices, Grandma Audrey turned to look at Poppy. She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look it.” She poked Poppy in the ribs.

“Hey, it takes work to look like this.” Poppy put a hand on her hip.

Grandma Audrey winked. “You look fine. You’ve got all the right curves in all the right places. You’re no size zero, but you’re far from being overweight.” She popped a piece of crispy turkey skin into her mouth. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

“Thanks, Gran.” Picking up the platter, Poppy carried it to the table. At any moment, her mother would be home from work. Even though it was later than most families ate Thanksgiving dinner, Yolanda had to work at the hospital. Emergencies didn’t take holidays, she often said.

“I’m just glad you’re in school,” her grandmother continued, “unlike your fool of a brother.” She clucked her tongue and shook her head.

“Jay is doing so well, Gran.”

Grandma Audrey rolled her eyes. “He’s not getting an education.” She pointed a finger at Poppy. “You better stay in school.”

Pressing her lips together, Poppy nodded. She sat down at the table. Her grandmother sat across from her. Indicating the potatoes, turkey, and the rest of the Thanksgiving spread, Poppy tried to change the subject. “Everything smells great.”

“Don’t bullshit me, young lady. Your brother’s a fool and I’m not changing my mind. Your mother is still heartbroken.” Grandma Audrey crossed her arms.

As Poppy opened her mouth to respond, Jay burst into the kitchen. He’d been in the basement, working on his new song. She gave him a grateful look. Even though she loved spending time with her grandmother, her spiel about the importance of a college education was getting old. No amount of lecturing was going to eject Jay from his path. Poppy was pretty sure that her mother and grandmother resented her for helping him get there.

Jay gave her a sly look, his eyebrows wiggling. “Someone’s here to see you, Poppy.” A smile played on his lips.

Shaking her head, Poppy remained sitting. “Yeah, right. I’m not falling for that one.”

“I’m serious. Some white boy with a blond faux-hawk.” Jay crossed his arms. “Do I need to read him the riot act?”

Pushing her chair back, Poppy stood. Her knees wobbled. “No, because there’s no one here.” She stepped gingerly toward the living room, heart pounding in her chest. It couldn’t be who it sounded like. Jay had to be making it up. She froze in her tracks as she entered the living room.

Griff stood in the entryway, his hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket. He leaned over a table, studying photos of Poppy and her family.

Her mouth hung open. The Griff Whalen was in her house. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Mind whirling, she fumbled for a cool way to greet him. Instead, her lips sagged even farther apart.

He turned around, his gray-blue eyes settling on hers. “Hey,” he said. He removed his hands from his pockets and jerked a thumb toward a photo of her first day of kindergarten. “You’re so cute.”

She gaped at him. She was pretty sure her legs were going to give out from underneath her. Aside from the fact that Griff stood in her childhood home, he was also complimenting her baby pictures. Her life couldn’t be real. She wished that Krista had come home with her. Her roommate didn’t get along with her own family, and had stayed on campus. Poppy had tried inviting her along, but Krista had declined, saying that she needed the veg time.

She needed to say something, she realized. If she continued gaping at him, he might think that she had hit her head. Still, she couldn’t think of a single thing. Thank you sounded too egotistical, and it was too late to say hello. “What are you doing here?” she blurted. Smooth, Poppy, she thought.

Before he could respond, the front door swung open. He moved to the side, and her mother strode in.

Yolanda did a double take, eyes darting from Poppy to Griff. “I didn’t know we were having company.” A strange, bright smile took over her face. She held her hand out to Griff. “I’m Yolanda, Poppy’s mother. It’s so nice to meet you!” Her eyes danced.

“Oh Lord,” Poppy muttered. Her mother thought she had brought a boy home for Thanksgiving. Heat striped her cheeks. She glanced around for a place to sit down, but the couch was several paces away.

“Griff Whalen,” he said, shaking her mother’s hand. He didn’t mention the band.

Poppy breathed a sigh of relief. Let her mother think that she had a boyfriend. Grabbing Griff’s arm, she pulled him toward the door. “We’ll be right back.” She tugged Griff outside and into the bright November afternoon.

The door closed behind her, but she swore she felt her mother’s eyes on her as she led Griff down the street.

“Sorry to show up like this,” he said.

She realized that she still had his arm. Releasing him, she stumbled away. “What’s going on?”

Suddenly, she realized that, for all she knew, something awful had happened. She needed to put her band manager hat on. Whatever had happened, she could handle it. At least, she hoped so. She hadn’t planned on working at all during the long weekend at home.

“Everything is okay,” Griff said as they rounded a corner.

Poppy halted at the stop sign. She shook her head, jerking a thumb toward the sloping hill that dipped down from her street. “Not down the hill. It’s kinda sketchy down that end.” She led him deeper into the neighborhood, toward the nicer side. “So Max didn’t relapse or anything?” She clapped a hand over her mouth. Again with the word-vomit, she scolded herself.

Chuckling, Griff shook his head. “Nope. I have good news, actually. I wanted to tell you in person, so I could see your face.” He stopped, a grin breaking across his face.

Blushing, she wrapped her arms around herself. Though the sun was still out, the evening was growing cool. “Tell me what?” His words replayed alongside her pulse, the perfect beat. She wondered whether he actually meant what he said, or if he was just there because Jett had sent him. She bit down on her lower lip. No, that didn’t make any sense. Though South of Forever was Jett’s baby, Griff handled all things administrative. Whatever he was about to tell her was either really bad or really big and, since they’d already ruled out catastrophe, she had a feeling her world was about to change. Perhaps things were going to change in more ways than one, she realized as her eyes settled on his.

“So, I’m just gonna say it.” He bounced on the balls of his feet, the grin still on his lips. “King Riley—they’re another big band in Boston, with a sound similar to ours—is going on tour.” Eyes dancing, he took a step toward her and grabbed her hands. “I know this is usually your area, but they contacted me and I already said yes.”

“Yes to what?” Her eyes darted from his hands to his face. His skin was warm, and she shivered, delicious heat flooding her body at his touch. There was definitely something at work, pulling them together. Part of her wanted to yank her hands away, though. She had to be very careful.

Tipping his head back, he laughed—a content sound that thrilled her to her toes. He dipped his chin, gazing at her.

“King Riley invited us to open for them on their national tour.”


South of Forever’s first tour is about to begin, and so is Poppy’s career—if she can keep all her lies straight.

CONTINUE READING

Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5

BUY NOW

Kindle · iBooks · Nook · Kobo · More

Or one-click buy for your Kindle:

Unlikable Characters: The Forgotten Art of Imperfection

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “unlikable” main characters—mostly because I tend to write them. When I first set out on this writing journey in 2011, I knew I wanted to write realistic, interesting characters. My stories were going to be character driven, rather than propelled by plot. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life studying character construction, mostly by absorbing books, TV shows, and movies, taking mental notes of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve always been fascinated by unique characters with very human faults. I especially like the ones who try to do the right thing, or could, but they usually get in their own way.

Some of my absolute favorite characters like this are Suzanne Collins’s Katniss, Joss Whedon’s Faith, Stephen King’s Roland, Gillian Flynn’s Nick, and of course George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow. These are all people with demons. They’re not villains per se, but they’re not the heroes we’ve become used to. They’re not necessarily antiheroes, either. Characters like them stand out in deep contrast to the well liked and beloved Buffys and Hermiones of the world. Unlikable characters are flawed and don’t always do the right thing. They earn nicknames like “bitch” and “whiny” from audiences.

But what fans of their respective franchises might be forgetting is their inner strength. These characters take a pummeling yet they keep getting back up. They’re the black sheep underdogs of the entertainment world. The flaws that weaken them only highlight their tenacity and (often hidden) virtues.

I think, in the lit world especially, we’ve gotten too used to alpha males and darling heroines. There’s no fun in a character who always says and does the right thing. There’s no room for growth. They’re already perfect—the epitome of the dreaded fan fiction Mary Sue: the character who is so pretty/handsome and completely idealized.

Flaws are essential for good characters. A well-rounded character with multiple facets is always compelling—especially as they grow and change throughout the story. Even sweet Rory makes a series of bad choices as Gilmore Girls progresses. She learns from her mistakes, which only makes her stronger and more interesting.

A huge part of my brand is writing very real characters dealing with social issues. My characters are stressed out, raising siblings and juggling mental illness. They’re feisty and trying to overcome substance abuse while chasing their dreams. They stumble on their words and subconsciously judge people in the world around them. They’re spoiled and arrogant, but they love hard. They fight for what they believe in. They’re willing to break out of their comfort zones and go against the grain. The belles and beaus that I portray represent actual people, not cardboard cutouts.

There is so much beauty in imperfection. I write to put these blooming personalities on display because we ourselves are flawed. It’s important for us to see ourselves represented in art, to know that we’re not alone.

The characters in my stories are mirrors for the real life badass belles and beaus who chose different paths. If you dig that, I’m your girl. (And you can totally get one of my books for free right now by signing up for my newsletter.)

Viva la underdogs.

Who’s your favorite “unlikable” character? Tell me in the comments below!

Do No Harm

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

First, a bit of news: What Happens On Tour is officially done! It weighs in at 58,124 words. Not my biggest baby, but still a nice healthy weight—especially considering how much I struggled with this damn book.

I slogged through writing it during a really hard time when all I wanted to do was quit. I didn’t believe in myself or the story. My own characters felt like strangers to me. I couldn’t get a handle on Poppy. She was so indecisive in that first draft. Even worse, Poppy and Griff seemed to have zero chemistry. No lie, I hated almost every second of writing this book. When I typed “The End,” a relief washed over me. I put its binder on my shelf, convinced that I’d have to scrap the entire thing and rewrite it.

Months later, when I read through it for my first round of edits, I was actually surprised. It didn’t suck as much as I’d thought! And I knew how to fix it. By the time I got it to my critique partner and editor, I liked it. Both Molli and Christina gave me excellent notes on making it even better. I can’t brag enough about how fantastic my CP and editor are. Still, something about this book was bugging me.

My first rule as an artist is do no harm. Maybe not all authors feel this way, but I see art as a sort of social highway. I write as a way of processing the world around me, and since that world is very diverse, it’s up to me to portray it fairly. Though I’ll never experience racism, I have experienced sexism, homophobia, and ableism. And I’ve been relatively lucky! At first glance, I almost fit into the cookie cutter. On a day when I don’t need my cane or braces, I can nearly pass. Still, I know what it feels like to have people make assumptions about you, so it’s extremely important to me that I don’t perpetuate any stereotypes in my writing—especially since I write about characters who have mental illnesses and disabilities, are LGBT+, and are people of color.

When I wrote the first draft of What Happens On Tour, I left out any information about Poppy’s dad. There were two short scenes with her mother and grandmother, and her relationship with these two women influenced many of her choices, but the central conflict was still about Poppy struggling to balance her dreams with her reality. I didn’t want to bring her dad into it because I also had a subplot (South of Forever going on tour with their nemesis King Riley). Since I write New Adult, I try to keep parents out of the equation as much as possible. It’s all up to my fledgling twenty-somethings.

I truly didn’t think much of Poppy’s dad not being in the picture, because plenty of dads have a “Whereabouts: Unknown” status. I’m one of the few people I know whose parents aren’t separated or divorced. I decided not to get too into detail because I didn’t want to curse poor Poppy with resentment or abandonment issues. In my author-head canon, Poppy’s dad was somewhere out there, no hard feelings, and her family was a matriarchy. Girl power! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d inadvertently contributed to a long-running stereotype: the absentee black dad.

It’s a bullshit stigma. It’s unfair and untrue. And the last thing I want to do is misuse my words and hurt anyone.

It’s a difficult balancing act. I know I can’t please everyone ever, and there will always be people who misunderstand me. Being a writer is overwhelming sometimes. But even though there’s always a possibility that someone out there won’t like my work for whatever reason, it’s still extremely important that I carry the intention to do no harm. Throughout the entire writing process, I ask myself if I’m representing my readers fairly, if I’m portraying my characters justly.

In the final draft of What Happens On Tour, Poppy’s dad still isn’t physically present in her life, but he’s a positive part of it. There still may be things I screwed up in this book. Those are all on me; my CP and editor are goddesses and helped me work out so very many knots.

But to the best of my ability, my Poppy is a boss woman—the kind of character I want to see in more books. She’s not perfect and she has some tough lessons to learn, but she works hard to be a better person and kick ass at her career. I think she’s pretty damn cool.


DesignWhat Happens On Tour is coming soon! I just need a wee bit of help getting the cover designed. If you could spare any extra change, I would really appreciate it. Click or tap here to donate.