Friday, September 30, 2011

Where Are the Allergies in Fiction?

Allergies are greatly underrepresented in fiction.

On one hand, I can understand why. Many folks don't have any allergies and therefore know little about them. (I'll distinguish contact allergy, allergy, and intolerance in a minute, but right now I'm referring to all three. And if biology talk makes you queasy, you should probably stop reading, now.)

On the other hand, allergies add another layer of realism and potential conflict to a story. In the rare event that you do see an allergy in a story, it's either a fantasy creature's sensitivity (like silver burning werewolves), or full-blown anaphylaxis (windpipe closing up) from sesame seeds or peanuts. But people can be allergic to anything, and there are many different types of allergies and reactions—and then there are intolerances and contact allergies, which are entirely different ball games but can be just as problematic.

Many folks can be excused for not thinking of this topic, but not me. I had friends and family with severe allergies long before I developed any of my own.

I first started developing allergies about 7 years ago, with a stressful… situation… that essentially shut down the portion of my adrenal gland that protects against the development of allergies. My adrenal gland still isn't functioning right, and as a result, I have a huge list of allergens (things I react to).

An Incomplete List of What Misti Reacts to:

  • grass
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • mold
  • stevia (the natural sweetener)
  • strawberries
  • tea tree oil
  • nitrile (the common latex-free gloves)
  • rice
  • eggs
  • almonds

And yes, that's an incomplete list. Some of those are allergies, some are contact allergies, and some are intolerances.

Some things, like antibacterial soap and spring flowers, always gave me a hint of trouble. There's one soap in particular that's always made my skin itch. Spring flowers always made my nose itch to sniff them. Now, even minor exposure to one of them causes cracking skin or full-body itching.

The thing is, those are my skin reacting, not my immune system, so those aren't "allergies" in the "Call the allergist!" sense. "Contact allergy" is a good way to describe those; my reaction happens upon contact—but even a contact allergy can be serious. I can't even be in the same room as strawberries without the traces in the air irritating the interior of my windpipe, which makes breathing uncomfortable, even painful. It isn't anaphylaxis, because my windpipe doesn't actually swell (or at least the allergist told me it doesn't). But it still interferes with my breathing, and the reaction won't go away without antihistamine help.

If I touch tea tree oil, my skin peels off—but tea tree oil is a fantastic antibacterial and antifungal, even better than vinegar. My mom sometimes uses it for disinfectant. I live with my parents. You can imagine that I'm very careful with spray bottles that have homemade contents. Usually, they're vinegar. But sometimes… (Oh, and castor oil causes the same thing for her, so I have to be careful about the special antibiotic-free soaps I buy.)

Allergists enter the picture for what could be called "true" allergies, when your immune system attacks the allergen in your system. Such allergies usually get worse upon repeated exposure, though it's possible in some cases to retrain your immune system to accept the allergen. That's the premise behind allergy shots: load up the allergy sufferer with antihistamines and trace amounts of the thing they react to; the antihistamine will keep the person from reacting (much) to the allergen, teaching the immune system that the allergen is okay.

But allergies aren't something to take lightly, even when your reaction's mild. If you ignore the allergy, it might go away, but it's far more likely to get worse. Reactions can include itchy skin, hives, swelling, dizziness, headaches, seizures—as well as other weird things you wouldn't expect. I used to know a girl whose brain swelled upon exposure to her allergens, which was murder on her equilibrium, among other things.

That brings us to intolerances, things that the body can't process properly. These will build up in your system and get worse if you keep eating/touching/encountering them, but once the thing you react to is out of your system, you'll be back to normal. Your reaction won't be any worse if you react to it, recover, then react to the same amount of it again.

Often, an intolerance causes pain that's resolved by expulsion (vomiting and/or the runs), though sometimes it's just pain. (Imagine sharp stones are bouncing around in your stomach whenever you move. That's how I feel for a full day after eating a mouthful of rice; day 2 is a severe but tolerable stomachache; day 3 is back to normal.) But intolerances can also cause reactions like arthritic symptoms and general fatigue.

As an added bonus that an author can play with, there are also psychosomatic allergies. These happen when someone's so afraid of something that they'll react when they expect to, say if they taste it (even if that taste is imitation) or see it (without realizing that it's fake).

I've been accused of being psychosomatic, but there are two problems with that theory.

  1. I react even when I don't know my allergens are present. If I were psychosomatic, I'd see the item, then react, not start reacting and have to wonder what on earth is going on.
  2. I don't react to artificial versions even when I've tasted the flavor and am worrying about allergen exposure. If I were psychosomatic, I'd react even to artificial and imitation versions. I eat strawberry Twizzlers just fine.

See? I have no excuse for not writing characters with allergies. I know so much about them. I pop homeopathic antihistamine pills up to 6 times a day. *takes one* (This stuff works great, by the way. Conventional antihistamines suck; they only last me a week, tops, before they stop working.)

I was musing on this earlier this year, trying to figure out where to fit the different types of reactions into my stories. I realized…

I'd written a character with a food sensitivity into Destiny's Kiss without even realizing it. The character has hints of the allergy in the book, if you're familiar with the particular sensitivity s/he has.

No. I'm not telling you who it is; that would spoil the fun. I will say that it isn't the narrator, and it's looking like she won't discover that this character's an allergy sufferer until book 3.

But I'm also concentrating, now, and making sure I consider my characters' allergies, contact allergies, and intolerances when I write. There's so much untapped room for allergy conflict outside of the "Oh, noes! Hero's throat swells shut from one of the most common allergies! How original!" I look forward to exploring it.

Who's your favorite character with an intolerance or allergy? Have you written characters with intolerances or allergies?


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rudeness Is Intention, Not Action

It seems like a lot of people have a set belief that X action is rude, and they're quick to call out others for it. Shoot, I've even alerted others that something they said could be interpreted as rude, in a way I found polite, only to have someone else scold me.

But this isn't (exactly) about me. This is about what I've noticed in life.

I've noticed that rudeness is relative.

For some people, in some cultures—even in some parts of the USA—any kind of bluntness is rude. If you don't couch everything in a sweet cutesy "politeness", you're unspeakably rude. But for others, that insincere nicety is rude.

If your hair looks like a crow's nest, I'm one of those people who's naturally inclined to say as much. I've learned to adjust it to something more innocuous, like "How was your morning?", which can get the full story of you didn't sleep well and woke up late and didn't get a chance to brush your hair. (Or that you got a new hair stylist, which might get me asking who just so I can avoid that person.)

But don't expect me to feed you what you want to hear. If your hair's a mess, and you're looking for someone to deny it, I'm the wrong person to talk to for moral support. Even if I get the clue (which is unlikely), I find dishonesty rude. So if you say "My hair looks terrible," I'll agree and remind you that you can brush it later, not soothe your pride.

I live in the southeastern United States, a part of the country renowned for its "hospitality" (meaning the cultural norm is to be sugary sweet to your face, no matter what's said behind your back). You might suspect that my bluntness costs me friends.

Actually not. I have a lot of friends, and I get along with a lot of people. (Probably in part because I'm as willing to volunteer "That color likes you" as I am to give a forthright opinion when addressed.) From others' comments, I really think that "rudeness" and "politeness" have more to do with intention than action.

See, I've been told by some folks that they stopped thinking me rude when they realized I expected them to speak to me the same way I spoke to them.

What is rudeness but treating others in a way you would never allow yourself to be treated?

What is politeness but treating others the way you want them to treat you?



ETA: Just realized that this headache is actually a budding migraine, so please let me know if something doesn't quite make sense. (I only started getting migraines this year, and I'm the only one in my family who gets them, so I'm still working on recognizing the warning signs.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Trust Me, I'm a [Insert Source Here]

This has bothered me for awhile, but I tend not to talk about it. Mainly because I don't want to put ideas about my credibility or lack thereof into people's heads.

Case in point: my bank's changing some policies that'll add fees to my two checking accounts. Discussing the matter with them revealed something I could do each month that would waive the fees from those accounts. I joked that I could always [insert loophole that would let the same money be used to waive the fees from both accounts]. The banker got nervous about me taking up that train of thought.

Okay, I realize that my delivery on jokes isn't obvious, but that loophole search is how my brain works. Give me a true/false question, and I naturally think of the exceptions to something being true or false. Give me a DRMed file, and I'll have ideas about what would need to happen to it to crack that DRM, though I've not actually done that. (Oh, but I've been tempted.)

I admit all this so I hopefully don't lose credence in your eyes when I say that people trust others too much.

You're online. Someone gives advice that sounds unusual to you, but you decide to trust it, because "Hey, they're an [author/editor/doctor/whatever]." (I've done this, too.)

Er, what are you thinking?

Let's suppose that that person actually is whatever source you think they are, which is a bigger assumption than many of us like considering. (And is the reason I don't like bringing this up.)

Does that source know everything about your specific situation? No. (At least, I hope not.) Does that source live anywhere near you, to know how your locality affects your situation? Probably not. Is that source infallible? No.

We are all of us fallible, so why do people mindlessly believe what Doctor So-and-So or Agent Shark or Kris Rusch say? Not trying to offend my doctor or Janet Reid or Kris, all of whom I respect. And all of whom I trust as sources who know what they're talking about.

But they aren't infallible. And I think they'd agree with that assessment.

Sometimes, I find myself reading along and nodding with whatever particular folks say, because they're so much older and wiser than I am, with so much more industry experience…

Er, right. Does that mean when someone older than me says "Climb that cliff!" I say "Which one?"? I've always wanted to rock climb, but I've never actually done it. I'm not going to start trying to climb some rock face without any kind of harness, support, or help, just because some bloke tells me I can. I know I don't have the proper training or even strength to pull that off.

I don't care if your vast array of professional experience says that anyone can climb that particular cliff, even a petite girl who's made ill by exercise. I'm physically incapable of doing it. If I let you convince me that I can, I'll only hurt myself.

I've had doctors poison me with things they were told, repeatedly, that I was allergic to (Tylenol and latex-free gloves). I've read enough agent advice to know that one agent's "Don't ever do this!" is another's "Do this!" I know enough writers to recognize that we all have different goals for our careers.

And, as young as I am, I've had enough business experience to know that even the best advice is useless if it doesn't fit your goals.

Be careful who you trust. Know your goals. And develop your own opinions, folks.



Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Free Short Story Release!

I know, it's past the first week of September—but I did in fact release another short story at the start of this month! (I just forgot to put up the announcement when I meant to, sorry!) It's even set in Aleyi, the same world as A Fistful of Fire.

"Driven by the Deadline" is about Fael Honovi and why she tied herself to the felven royal family, anyway.

Honovi knows she's going crazy. It's only a matter of time, since she's stuck in a monochromatic land of creepy.

She's a shade, stuck in a plane of reality separate from the primary one—and completely incapable of manifesting a body in the primary plane. With someone killing off the felven royal heirs, Honovi's been asked to play godparent. She'd love it, a distraction from the grayscale monotony that's her life.

But can she get there without her own plane of existence stopping her?

***A short story of 2,300 words.***

This title's on the creepy side.

"Driven by the Deadline" is a short short, hitting about 2300 words, so I have it up for free on Smashwords, who will distribute it to other vendors. It's currently $0.99 US on

I'm still working out what next month's release will be. A Fistful of Earth is more difficult to write than I expected. Lallie's… not the easiest character to convey. I'm still aiming for "late 2011" release, but it may end up in December. (I hope not.)

In the meantime, please enjoy "Driven by the Deadline"!

And reviews would be appreciated. ^_^


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

5 Reasons You Want Harsh Reviews: How to Take Negative Reviews (3 of 3)

Wait wait wait—you want harsh reviews? Harsh reviews?

Yes, you do. Even if you can't handle reading them. You want harsh reviews, be they earned, partially earned, or entirely unearned.

Ask me why. *waits*

Glad you asked. The reasons are fivefold:

  1. Harsh reviews balance the effervescent ones. You know that gushing 5-star review from your MMO guildmate that you just know people are assuming came from your sister?** (Especially if you don't have a sister.) A harsh review provides a dissenting opinion, letting folks consider the feedback and decide what matters to them.
  2. Harsh reviews help you nail your target audience. Oh, I'm sure you think you know who your target audience is, but there's nothing like a harsh review to make you realize that a particular type of person is not part of it. Or maybe that there's a disconnect between what you're writing and the audience you intended to reach.
  3. Harsh reviews can help you grow as a writer. A harsh review can be like a highly critical critique partner, except the space constraints generally force the reviewer to focus more on big-picture issues than getting hung up on the details. Like any critique partner, the critic won't always be right; sometimes they'll attribute a problem to the wrong source, or they'll be entirely off-base about a problem. But sometimes they'll be spot-on.
  4. Harsh reviews can strengthen you. I don't just mean as a writer; I've already addressed that. I mean as a person. Nobody likes accepting blame, but forcing yourself to evaluate negative feedback for the germs of truth that might be buried within it can help you handle mistakes you make in life, too.
  5. Harsh reviews provide you with resource material. If you have the nerve to study them, even a troll can provide handy content for you to pull from the next time you need to make a complete donkey of a character. I honestly used to beg for flames when I was a teenager; they were so inspiring.

Now, I'm aware that some people are so depressed by a single harsh review that they'll mope and fret over it and possibly ruin their writing trying to make that single reviewer happy. Don't do that.

There's a secret to being able to handle harsh reviews: You can't make everyone happy.

Got that? You cannot and will not make everyone happy, even in your target audience.

A good friend and I have similar tastes in reading: we both like particular story types, genres, and plot elements. You would think that we share favorite authors.

We don't. In fact, we generally hate each other's favorite books. She loves Vicki Peterson; I prefer Patricia Briggs.

It's taken many attempts to read each others' favorite authors and more discussions on the matter for us to realize: We like different writing styles. On a technical level, something between Vicki Peterson and Patricia Briggs makes each of us love one and dislike the other. Both are fantasy authors who write snarky characters, subtle development, and great humor.

My friend isn't a writer. Okay, so she dabbles with writing, but she's actually an artist. Her paintings are gorgeous.

Imagine if we both were giving feedback to some poor writer. As soon as one of us was elated about a story, the other would go "Meh" or "Ulgh." That writer would have to pick and choose which pieces of our advice to listen to.

Remember: You will not please everyone. Don't try to.

Have you ever entered the "Please everyone" trap?


**If you're reading this, Shallon, I do love getting your reviews. I just know that some folks don't take 'em seriously.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Case Study on Earned Critique: How to Take Negative Reviews (2 of 3)

Some of y'all might remember my post on why I pulled my self-published short "Butterfly Boots". The long answer went into my exposure to fan fiction vignettes and international literature making me produce something that didn't fit my audience.

The short answer? I screwed up.

Now, I realize most of you haven't read "Butterfly Boots", but that shouldn't be necessary. My 2 critical reviewers kindly gave me permission to reproduce their reviews here.

This is a Real Story? July 13, 2011

[by Michael P. Gallagher]

I'm not really sure what this was, although I do know I was struggling to figure out what was going on while reading it - and when the ending came I mentally said, "huh?" This something really had no plot, no beginning, and no end. It's almost as if someone just cut and paste a section from something and slapped it into an eBook.

I found it ironic, and chuckled a little, at the end of the story: there is a brief snippet on the author and it says the author is described as a person that "...took her a while to figure out that `finish a story' thing." No kidding. Can I have my five minutes back?

As I type this review, this book is free in the Amazon Kindle store but that shouldn't make you want to try it - there are several hundred short stories for free right now (just type in "short story" as your search term in the Kindle store section of the Amazon website, and sort from lowest to highest price); most of them are pretty good. This one deserves a wide berth, free or not.

Well... the cover is pretty... July 15, 2011

[by Betty Dravis]

I like the cover and the title of this "little offering," so thought it would be a fun read, one that I could pass on to my granddaughter Melissa's mother to read to her. She loves butterflies and has some cute boots of her own.

I've been warned that some E-books are not up to industry standards and can slip between the cracks easily, but this is the first time I've encountered one. Well, I have seldom been so disappointed in a book. It actually doesn't make much sense, which is too bad because the germ of an interesting idea is here... It is just not developed; the dialogue is jerky, it has no structure, and the punctuation is definitely not up to par. :-(

I hate to look a gift horse in the face (since "Butterfly Boots" - a short story (Aleyi) (Tales from Aleyi) was one of the FREE Kindle offerings), but I simply can't give this a good rating. I'm sorry to be so critical, but I will be happy to read something else by Ms. Wolanski after she takes a few more writing courses. She does, indeed, have a good imagination. :-)

Reviewed by Betty Dravis, July 15, 2011
Author of E-book "1106 Grand Boulevard" and other books

Now, before anyone jumps in and calls these two "mean," remember what I said in my last post, about bluntness not necessarily being mean.

Looking into these reviewers, I find it interesting to note that they're both significantly older than I am. I doubt they read fan fiction, where vignettes are popular. In fact, just the complaints on the lack of structure told me that these two weren't familiar with the vignette form of writing. My first impulse was therefore to dismiss their critique, because "Butterfly Boots" was a vignette.

But, after letting the sting subside, I gave "Butterfly Boots" another hard look. Yes, it was exactly what I'd meant it to be. Yes, it was a vignette. Yes, vignettes aren't a standard literature form (in English, anyway).

And I had set "Butterfly Boots" up everywhere as a short story. Not vignette. Short story.

That's like calling first person POV "stream of consciousness". Yes, there are come similarities, and yes, they're related, sort of—but they aren't the same thing. Not at all.

I had screwed up.

I faced a choice. I could repair all the blurbs and descriptions everywhere for "Butterfly Boots" and still frustrate those readers who don't know what a "vignette" is supposed to be. Or I could pull "Butterfly Boots" until I had something more significant to pair it with. As a vignette, it didn't make much sense if you weren't already familiar with the world of Aleyi.

So why on earth had I released it as a stand-alone, a free introduction to my world? I have no clue. I've done stupider things, but I like to think that most of them haven't been as public.

At any rate, I therefore decided to pull "Butterfly Boots" until I could stick it as a bonus with something more substantial. Some folks have expressed disappointment that it's no longer available.

Now, one line in Betty Dravis's review still does bother me: "The punctuation [in "Butterfly Boots"] is definitely not up to par." I follow the Chicago Manual of Style with one British modification that didn't show up in "Butterfly Boots"—but "Butterfly Boots" did use dialect. Professional opinions differ on how to punctuate dialect and how to use it properly.

It was tempting to privately grumble (after checking "Butterfly Boots" again) that someone obviously didn't understand proper apostrophe use with dialect. And while that might be the case, something else occurred to me: I like em dashes and ellipses.

It used to be that those symbols (and accented letters) only showed up properly online if you happened to use the HTML code that matched that special character. OtherwiseÀyour symbols got all messed up.

But web applications have improved in the past 5 years. I'd gotten lazy. I'd left the special characters in "Butterfly Boots", so it's possible that they'd messed up and caused Miss Betty's comment. Possible. That's something I can try to fix with some basic use of TextWrangler and the Find… Replace function.

So I earned those critical comments. I also suspect that some folks will consider me "unprofessional" for sharing this story.

I say "Tough." Negative reviews don't have to crush your soul. Take a deep breath and see if you can learn something from it. It may not be what the reviewer intended, but there's a lesson in that review if you care to learn it.

The line between "professional" and "unprofessional" behavior has always confused me, anyway… probably because opinions differ on where that line is…

Post 3 to come: Why you want harsh reviews.

Have you earned a critical review? How did you handle it?


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