Cyndy Aleo

Four Little Bees Writing & Editing

author, freelance writing, editing, and a little bit of web development, helping clients with content development, book editing, and blog set-up and customization

Dreams for girls

This election is causing me a lot of anxiety, and I'm not alone in that. And the one thing that's making me the most anxious is that it's causing so many people to share their personal values, and I had no idea how many people around me in my life are sexist or racist or classist or homophobic. Those things were so nicely hidden in polite society other than the occasional comment, right?

I apparently do not espouse the values of a lot of people who surround me. And that is anxiety-producing in even the tiniest of ways.

Yesterday, I had a disagreement with someone over a picture they thought was touching: a flower girl staring at the bride's wedding dress hanging with one of those captions like "someday..." blah, blah.

Do we take pictures like that of little boys in weddings staring at tuxedos? I've never seen one, but the flower girl one is a photo I've seen countless times. Why do we encourage our girls to dream of being princesses and brides? And am I a failure for not being married?

I have a lot of friends who never married... maybe more than most. A lot of days, as I'm working my near-minimum-wage job then driving my 11-year-old minivan for all the kid activities, I'm jealous of them. They can take trips on a moment's notice. They're beholden to no one. Yet I wonder if our insane focus on women being brides and wives and mothers makes them feel like they've missed something, that they are failures in the eyes of our society.

It's always women at the center of these conversations: how do you work and have children? When do you plan to get married? Where are the conversations on the other side? Where are the people asking how men balance family and career? Why is the pressure on us? Why is there such an emphasis on the school dances with amazing dresses and weddings with dresses that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars while men show up in a rented suit? Why are women supposed to focus on everything but bettering ourselves and our OWN situations?

I've hit the time of year where I'm already stressed and exhausted: two kids on different football teams often going in opposite directions, two kids dancing on different days, one teen working with hours that often conflict with mine. And then you add things like people saying it would be great if women didn't vote so their candidate could win and my ex commenting how exhausting his one day of driving our kids in 400 directions on one of his two weekends with them a month is going to be and I just think I'd much rather see a picture of a flower girl looking at a space suit or a Bunsen burner or Sandra Day O'Connor's judicial robes or a woman in a suit running for President of the United States.

What's your most embarrassing job ever?

I have a friend -- some of you know who she is -- who is an amazing storyteller, both orally and as an author. One of her stories (actually a couple of her stories) dovetail into a phrase I've assigned as her catchphrase: "And THAT'S how I ended up working as a topless waitress."

Had you told me seven-ish years ago when I met her online that I'd end up being friends with her, I'd probably have gaped at you. She's a Midwesterner and proud of it. I'm an East Coast city girl who's struggled my entire adult life merely with living in the suburbs and having less access to public transit. I grew up solidly middle class. She sure as hell did not.

We ended up bonding initially over the often horrifying economic ramifications of a divorce, and discovered our shared esoteric employment history that doesn't really lend itself well to resume building. It does make for an entertaining author bio, however.

But it's funny; she never once mentions that short-lived topless waitress gig with any sort of embarrassment. I found myself skipping my college homecoming last weekend -- which I'd really, really wanted to attend -- because in the face of former classmates who've gone on to become things with titles like "vice president and general counsel" I didn't feel up to saying "freelancer when I get gigs and icing things in a bakery."

Yet my bakery job overall doesn't embarrass me. It puts food on the table and keeps my head -- or at least my face if I tip my head back -- above water. Most of my former jobs don't embarrass me, well, anymore than things like taking a job I knew was going to be a terrible fit just because I needed the job, or being the first on the chopping block during a RIF because I was unable to play corporate politics (something I've never learned to do) or deal with rampant stupidity that costs the company money (see above).

But it's gotten me thinking about what job I most regret. Would it be the one I took with an obviously sinking company where the hiring manager obviously settled on me as the second choice after the first choice refused the position and then intentionally undermined me looking for grounds for dismissal? The fast food job in high school?

No, there's only one I really regret: celebrity gossip blogger.

This was in the height of the Perez Hilton era, when everyone was hoping to get on that money train. The guy I was ghostwriting for was a super-nice guy with some great social media chops. And it looked like easy money; all I had to do was find and regurgitate news items in a snarky way. I pretty much do that anyway, right?

Wrong.

I have a friend who's asked why I've never mined it for a story, made it funny, made it parody. It's because it's not funny, and I feel a lot of remorse that in whatever small way I played into the creation of this takedown culture, where we worship celebrities until we grow tired of them and then jump on the nearest pile-on to denigrate them, where we know the names of all the Kardashians (spoiler, I actually don't, just the two loudest ones) but can't tell a reporter on the street where Aleppo is.

I stayed with that outlet until it folded because I needed the money, badly. But I can also tell you about the day Anna Nicole Smith died and I had to spend the day hunting everywhere for body bag photos. About how I alternately cried and vomited all day that this was what was passing for news, that this was what people find worthy of attention. Where I once watched award shows and got paid to do it, now I avoid things like paparazzi photos of celebrities like they're my worst nightmare.

So yes, I work at a bakery to supplement my meager freelance income. I wear a uniform and a name tag and I mostly frost cakes and bake pies and provide customer service for people who sometimes treat me like something they've scraped off the bottom of a shoe. But I've never, not once, applied for another job in celebrity news. 

White privilege and cleaning up our own backyards

This morning I saw a tweet and I was pretty sure that it was about a book I'd not only read, but thought was excellent. I didn't review it, because I don't, as a rule, review friends' books, and the friend is a close enough friend that if I'd thought it was inappropriate I'd absolutely have said "This is trash."

But what's interesting is that the book -- which isn't genre, wasn't positioned as genre, wasn't marketed or sold or even conceived as romance -- was being judged by those standards, even when some of those involved in the discussion noted that.

And I wondered... have I been the person who gets lured into these "HOW DARE THEY?!" mentalities without looking any further?

Any trade review of the book notes that it's a dark story, that it reflects the all-too-common reality of people outside of most people's experiences. What amused me the most is that many of those in the conversation are regular proponents of diversity in books, particularly romance. 

I am the first person to tell you there is no place for some things in romance: a Nazi concentration camp setting where the hero is a Nazi, for instance. There is no writer on earth who can make that palatable. But one of the things about literary (and upmarket and non-genre and even genre) fiction is that it can be a mirror, especially to things we are unwilling to look at in our own society.

Had any of the people in question actually read the book, or talked to anyone who had, or asked anyone who had, or read trade reviews of the book, they'd have seen that it does just that. While we are able to focus on "big" news and "big" issues, things we forget:

As of 2011 data, approximately 20 percent of children in the U.S. are living in poverty. One out of five children. One. In. Five. (Data point: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/by-the-numbers-childhood-poverty-in-the-u-s/). Those aren't all black or brown children, but the rates are definitely higher for those population. Still, according to the 2010 census data, there are over a half million white children in this country who are below the poverty line.

One of the issues that I find in examining how we react to issues is coming from our own privilege. Even with the most concerned white people who are looking at things like the ongoing police issues in this country and the Black Lives Matter movement, we are Othering. "It's terrible, and thank god it could never happen to me because I'm white/middle class/cishet." Meanwhile, we are unwilling/unable to see or clean up what's in our own backyard. Not all of those single-parent households below the poverty line are non-white. A lot of those kids growing up with no options, no safety net, who'll end up at the wrong end of a police interaction or parent interaction or drug dealer interaction are just. like. us.

Only not.

And I find myself wondering how many times I've done this. How many times I've made judgements based on my own privilege growing up. My kids and I are lucky in that we do have a house and a car that runs and groceries and are able to hang on by fingernails in a good school district. At the same time, all the free lunch kids know the other free lunch kids, and my kids came out of the elementary school with the highest percentage of kids under the poverty line in the district. They're the "bad influences" and the ones the other parents encourage their kids not to talk to. We often find it easier to spot the families where maybe drugs are a commonplace appearance in homes, or there's an abusive parent.

I wrote about it before -- probably on a blog that's now gone -- but one of my kid's former classmates was murdered by her non-custodial father, along with her half-sister. It brought the "Othering" home for me: These aren't kids in the news or in backwoods quasi-towns in a rural area far from me. These are kids who sat next to my kids in class, who stand in line for free breakfast, who may have been mean to my kids because their experiences weren't necessarily heavy on the kindness. My experiences growing up are not those of these kids. My experiences growing up are not even those of my kids, who struggle more than a lot of other kids do, and yet I still remind are privileged in a lot of respects.

So I'm hoping that when I look at writing that's reflecting that reality back to me, I'm trying to be a little more empathetic. A little more "When everything is the worst, what is the best case scenario for a kid/person like this?" Not all fiction is fantasy. Not all situations can be judged by the moral compass that privilege brings us.

It's been a little over five years since that little girl and her sister were killed. And having read and been moved by the book these folks on Twitter were so outraged by, I can tell you that if I were able to put that little girl into that book, to make her that character, to give her the inappropriate and morally reprehensible plot line so that her life did not end at the end of her father's gun in a tent in the woods after he'd taken her and her sister from their grandmother, I would do it in a heartbeat, without question.

There are a lot of days when I miss the blind privilege I once existed in. At the same time, I'm forced to regularly examine my own biases, my own reactions, every single time. Our country has a legacy of pretending everything is great; it's fantastic; we're the best place on earth, while distancing ourselves from the things that aren't so great. Maybe the solution for everything that's wrong is to work on that distancing, starting with how our own country is being uncomfortably being reflected back to us by authors and artists and protestors.

Buy This Book!

tl;dr: Right now, I want you to go and buy this book. I'll wait here with the rest of this post while you do.

The Dirty Secret by Kira A. Gold

So once upon a time, as we all know by now, I wrote Twilight fan fiction. And there were authors you hung out with online and then there were authors you were pretty much sure were way cooler than you were and you weren't quite sure what the hell they were doing writing fan fiction. One of those authors was in.a.blue.bathrobe.

She was mysterious, and she wrote this fic using that completely tired trope where two people meet in two different ways -- in this case online and then in person -- and don't recognize each other until the climactic scene.

Mention two words to any Twilight fic fan who was around in 2009, and they will go nuts for you, "Hello, Spark."

Beyond the fervor over this fic, I was totally in love with it, because the author clearly got music in that way so few people do, and most of whom I manage to make friends with when I meet them. 

Then a couple of years ago, I get this email asking me if I can edit a book. It's that author, and she wants me to edit.

I may have needed a lie-down.

I've edited a few things for her: that first YA book, a novella... and then she reserved a spot for me for this Shakespeare retelling, and as the date was approaching for her slot, I get this cryptic email that went something like this: "Hey, the Shakespeare thing is killing me but I have this other thing I just had to get down and it's really rough but would you mind taking it anyway in that slot that I held?"

That "really rough" thing was what is coming out today as The Dirty Secret. Obviously, I can't ethically review it because Kira is a client, but I can tell you about it and all the reasons you need to buy this right now.

First: You all know I've read a lot of erotic romance. A. Lot. And I'm going to admit to you now that I got a little tired of reading it. There are only so many times you can read people having sex before it gets a little old-news. I'd often find myself skimming the sex scenes and reading the plot. I know. Defeats the purpose, right?

And the blurb here tells you just about nothing about why this book is so amazing. Yes, it's erotic romance. Yes, there is sex in here, and a lot of it. But Kira has a style of writing that's so unusual I think it defies cramming into a block of text on the back of a book. When I sent the edits back to her for this one, I believe I told her it was like moving into a Baz Luhrman film. If you've seen Moulin Rouge (or Romeo+Juliet or pretty much anything), you'll know what I mean: that rich, sensual background that transports you outside your own world.

If you are looking for erotic romance that is PWP (porn without plot), this isn't your book. There are lush descriptions of interior design and art. I've been reading the reviews for this one, and I think there are some folks who want that and only that, and that's totally okay. But that's not what this book is.

It's unique and it's sensual and the sex is somehow unlike the other stuff, and I can admit to you that when I was editing this book I had to take a break at times.

This is the book that landed Kira her agent. That got her a publishing deal. And that went on to get a Publisher's Weekly starred review (no easy feat).

I can't tell you enough good things about it, but I can tell you that when I finished my edit, I wanted to live in it.

I can also tell you that this is a series and the series GETS BETTER. I've already seen a draft of the next one, and I am a bona fide addict. You need to read this book. Go buy it.

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Things no one will probably say about the Twilight gender-swap

I know I'm supposed to tread carefully, as I work in publishing, but I'm sort of tired already of the Beyonce Book Drop. I was tired of it the first time and I'm even more tired of it now.

There are a lot of authors singing hosannahs to "What Stephenie Meyer has done for YA," but the reality is, this move wasn't about her fans, and it sure wasn't about YA books.

As I work in publishing -- and have on one side of the fence or the other for several years -- I can tell you how much work and planning goes into a book launch. It's months of planning and editing and putting together advertising and marketing plans and soliciting early reviews. It's like setting up a domino run of millions of dominoes and hoping no one knocks one over while you're setting them up.

It's coincidental that I have friends with a YA book out today, because that's not even the real book that's getting crushed today. There are certain books you know are going to be huge before they even come out: anything by John Green. Julie Murphy's Dumplin' (which I did actually preorder, devour, and love. Today should have been all about Rainbow Rowell's Carry On, an adorkably meta fan-fiction of her own book (technically speaking... if I described the various levels of fandom interplay involved in the creation and publication of Carry On, I'd lose all two of you who are going to read this post).

So you have a book that came out of a book where the heroine was a BNA (big-name author in fandom terms). And then you have an author with one of the largest fandoms on earth surprise everyone with A FANFIC OF HER OWN BOOK. REALLY?

Let's call it what it is: a self-serving cash grab. Twilight fans have waited for the completion of Midnight Sun. Fans of The Host have waited for what was supposed to be a continuation of a trilogy. And yet every last book that was planned for today has been overshadowed with an author writing a gender swap of her own work.

 

Please. Fandom already did this, several times over.

My favorite? Gate Light. A gender swap crackfic with cyborgs and a whole host of crazy (and very little canon).

The first I saw? Twilight Reversed. Back in 2008.

This isn't innovative. As a fan, it's not particularly exciting. It's definitely not what the fandom had hoped for. And it manages to crap on months of work by publishing people in support of other books.

So please don't tell me how amazing this is and how it makes me a bad fan to actually loathe this book, this move, and right now? This author. Because I know how hard these people work behind the scenes, and it bugs the hell out of me to see these stunts.

(Also, because Beyonce is Our Queen, notice that she didn't schedule stealth media moves for giant announcements on the perfect New Release Tuesday for maxxing out NYT juju. If this was about the fans? S. Meyer'd have done this yesterday. Or better yet, Sunday.)