The Mermaid Game--Original Flash Fic Release

So Boy Meets Boy Reviews is four-years-old today, and they asked me to write a flash fic for their celebration! And because I'm me, I wrote way too many words, so I'm not sure it even counts as a flash fic anymore, but they were kind enough to accept the story anyway.

I'm also giving away two paperbacks of Loose Cannon, so make sure you sign up if you don't already have own a copy. Go here to read the fic and enter the giveaway! They're doing stuff all month long, so check back frequently for other stories and giveaways by prominent m/m writers!

How Dark is Too Dark? Or, the Birth of Hard Line.

So...Ghost's book is pretty dark so far. 

I know, I know, I should probably be talking about Tobias, and I will, for about half this post, but the only reason he's part of this conversation is because he's crucial to the feelings I'm having about Ghost right now. And those feelings are currently like this: 

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It's like a Japanese horror movie, I guess I'm saying. Where you're really freaking out, but the only way out is through so you keep going.

Ghost's book is writing really well. Like, really well. Like nothing has written since Bad Judgment. And that's huge, you guys.

Here's the thing--Bad Judgment was fun to write. It was basically me doing whatever the hell I wanted, following plot bunnies (they hop around into random, messy places just because they think it might be cool, you know), letting the story's characters and angst lead the way. I didn't worry about audience or whether Embry was likable (he sort of isn't? I adore him anyway) or whether it was appropriately "romance novel-y" to have one hero having sex with someone who wasn't the other hero. I didn't care. I followed my impulses, and the book wrote fast and easy and fun.

That was not my experience with my other books.

With Loose Cannon and Hard Line, I had to make like a professional. I had standards to live up to and people who expected things to make sense and bills to pay. It wasn't a lark anymore, so my draft had to be good. I had to write in past tense because lots of readers apparently won't read present tense, which is what I prefer to use, and that slowed me down quite a bit. I had to be responsible for the things my characters do and say and consider what messages I'm putting out there in the world.

Now, I'm not begruding readers having expectations--you guys definitely should. You're spending time and money on these books, you should get a good experience out of it. And my publishers have lots of experience in making books available to the widest possible audience, which definitely benefits me. If there are huge swathes of readers out there who dump a book for present tense, that's important to know. Not saying any of this is wrong, necessarily, just that it doesn't suit my natural inclinations as a writer very well, which is apparently to jump out of a tree with my hair on fire and pray that I stick the landing without breaking a leg. 

Why does this matter? Because Church and Tobias's books were really hard to write in comparison to Bad Judgment for those reasons. Especially Tobias's book. Like, especially, especially. In fact, I sort of hated a big chunk of the Tobias-experience. Actually, if I'm honest, "hate" is an understatement. It was like mining for poisonous crystals in a claustrophobic cavern filled with dead unicorns.

That's kind of a weird description, but it feels right, so I'm standing by it. 

I got halfway through my outline and just. hit. a. wall. My pace slowed to a crawl. I kept revising scenes over and over instead of moving on to new ones because I thought that if I could just fix the source of the problem, things would unstick. Didn't happen. I went days, and then weeks without progress, and this is enormous, because while on paper I had four months until my deadline, in reality I had two-and-a-half because I needed time to get the book to betas and sensitivity readers and revise the manuscript before turning it in to my editor. So the time crunch was starting to weigh very, very heavily. I was 50,000 words in and I literally could not make myself sit down at my desk. Just thinking about it stressed me out to the point where I was nearly in tears. I hated Tobias, I hated the book, I hated writing. 

I can probably get more dramatic than this, but I figure we both have better things to do with our time.

So how come there's a book that me and my editor are actually really happy with? Because I finally sort of lost my shit. Imagine all the pacing and hand-wringing you get in movies when one of those Victorian husbands is panicking outside of a birthing room while their wives are screaming in labor off-screen--there was some of that. Also imagine Romeo yelling at the heavens "I defy you, stars!" There was some of that too. There were F-bombs. So many F-bombs.

The point is that I had a meltdown about something stupid that was utterly unrelated to my job. I'm pretty sure I was watching a nature show and a cute bird got eaten by an alligator and I started crying. Crying very much out of proportion with the event in question. This freaked my husband out, so he asked a lot of prodding questions that finally had me admitting that I wanted to run away to Brazil because everything everywhere was horrible and and Tobias's book was awful and it'd ruined my whole life and nothing was nice like it used to be.

He rationally suggested that I consider what I'd done differently back with Bad Judgment and try to emulate it, and I sort of yelled, "I did what I wanted!" Then he was like, "Well what do you want to do here? If there were no restraints, what would you change?" and I was like, "I hate this fucking outline and it isn't working and I don't know how to fix it because no matter how far I backtrack it isn't getting better and the only way to really fix it is to scrap the whole mess but I can't do that, because even if I had time, they wouldn't let me." And he was all mature and shit and said, "Why not? Have you asked Anne about it?" (Anne would be my editor at the time). At which point I sullenly said, "No, I don't want her to think I'm a fuck up." And he was like, "Well, it doesn't make you a fuck up to need help. It only makes you a fuck up if you don't do anything about it." 

And I maybe gave him lots of dirty looks for being a grown up, at which point he went to buy me comfort food and I went to play video games because there's only so much maturity I can handle at one time.

But I couldn't sleep because I kept thinking about what he said. I decided it was stupid to tell my editor that I wanted to do something different when I had no evidence that the something different would actually make anything better, so at three in the morning, I did a little experiment. I scrapped the outline entirely, opened a new word document, and just started over. 

An hour later, I had twelve pages. Twelve pages of seven different, partial scenes throughout the book, because I'd get partway through one and have an idea that I had to get down, so I'd switch and it would be glorious, and then I'd have a new idea. This new draft was darker, and Tobias was being kind of a jerk, and he was falling apart and being self-destructive and taking advantage of my other hero, and suddenly Tobias wanted to have really kinky sex, and my other hero was writing better too, because it turned out I hadn't been the only one to loathe Tobias before (which might've explained their entire lack of chemistry in that draft).

The experiment got rid of any lingering doubts I might've had.

So by six in the morning, I was writing a long, twisty email to my editor that might not have made much sense considering I'd been up all night having a lot of emotions about how much I loved my job all of a sudden despite being scared that maybe I wouldn't be allowed to do what I really felt was best for the manuscript, which was to scrap the entire outline that I had submitted to them months before. This was the outline that had convinced them to buy the book in the first place, so it was a really big deal for me to say, "hey, instead of giving you the responsible station wagon you wanted, can I interest you in this Porche? Yeah, it's crappy in bad weather and it's way more expensive, but look how shiny! SHINY!"

And Anne got back to me with the equivalent of "Let me talk to some folks, but one way or another we'll figure this out." And then she got back to me a couple of hours later with, "Okay, break down what you want to do. In non-outline form because I don't want your brain to melt out of your ears." And then she got back to me a couple of hours after that with, "If you really think you can start over and re-write this entire book in only four months (really two-and-a-half, with revision time, remember) and still turn in a draft that's readable, knock yourself out."

I really love Anne and my publisher, you guys. They're super.

So the claustrophobic cavern of dead unicorns became a sun-drenched field of happy, prancing unicorns. I really like this version. I mean, I re-read it for edits a couple weeks ago, and I kept catching myself thinking, huh, I'm really enjoying this. While Anne has moved on to do other stuff, my current editor has said she really likes it too (and she's paid to say when she doesn't like stuff, so it's a pretty reliable opinion).

If you like good boys rebelling and tattoos on wise-cracking private detectives and blackmail and stakeouts and stress-baking and unexpectedly kinky sex (I actually made myself blush while I was writing. That has never happened before), you'll probably like Hard Line too.

Why does this matter? How is the birth of Hard Line related to Ghost's book?

Because I'm not actually an idiot and I learn from my mistakes sooner or later. I have no outline with Ghost. I've made a deal with myself that I will let Ghost be imperfect and unlikable, that I will follow plot-bunnies into dark corners if they look interesting, and that I will let this book get as blood-soaked and messed-up as it wants. 

So far, that's pretty damn blood-soaked and messed-up. In fact, I cannot imagine a world in which this draft gets published by a mainstream romance publisher as it is right now. But then, I thought that about Bad Judgment, too, and look how that turned out. I mean, Carina Press has a line called Dirty Bits. Probably I should stop underestimating them.

Anyway, Ghost's book is writing soooo easily. And I'm not about to put myself in a position to end up back in that grody cavern with the unicorn corpses where the first Tobias draft lived, so I'm just going to keep trooping into the ridiculousness that is Ghost doing Ghost-things and hope that my other hero can rein him in a little by the end. I'm probably setting myself up for a massive overhaul in developmental edits, but I can live with that. I'd like to not make my current editor's head explode, please and thank you, something she'll no doubt agree would be nice, so I'm resigning myself to the fact that this one's just going to be an uncertain process.

It feels right, though. And a tiny, hopeful part of me thinks readers willrespond really well to this. Bad Judgment got great reviews and I've gotten an enormous amount of positive feedback from readers on that one, and it's pretty unorthodox for a romance novel.

Plus, people seem to really...well, "like" is probably not the right word for how readers feel about Ghost. The comment I get most is that he's intriguing. Most of my readers have already figured out that there's some crazy-dark stuff in his background. So I'm thinking that it won't even be a shock if the book ends up blood-soaked and messed up. It's just--you can't wade into the life of a guy who's gone through what he's gone through and get a pretty story out of it. It's completely unrealistic, and trying for anything else will just have me eating my hair in the corner anyway. So I'm letting it get dark. 

Cross your fingers, huh?

In Defense of the HEA

You could say I have a bit of a bone to pick. Which might explain why this is really long. 

Damon Suede called romance "The literature of hope." Some folks might say that that's an inflated description for dinky little love stories; those folks don't know what they're talking about. I'm not saying that to be rude so much as to express that they are working from a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre, one that is usually based in some mixture of sexism, superiority and an unfamiliarity with the texts in question. 

When you strip away the bullshit, we're talking about the most popular, most $-generating fiction genre in publishing. Why is it popular and profitable? Because, as in any other consumer market in existence, consumers are drawn to the most efficient and successful product available to meet their specific needs. To discuss romance as if it is a profoundly important part of not only a complex, highly-profitable industry but a form of art that speaks to countless people is not inflated; it's accurate. And to call that dinky or little is to insult not only the books, but the readers who invest in them.

The real question is where and how HEAs fit into that.

Look, I think we can all agree that real life sucks. Seriously. If you're not angry or sad or bewildered by many, many things at this moment in time, it's because you're not paying attention. And it's entirely too easy to get lost in that swampland. It's like the Swamps of Sadness, you guys, only we're all Artax.

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This reference will go over the heads of some of my readers, but if you haven't seen The NeverEnding Story, you should skip out early on work to watch it. By the way, as a helpful tip, Bastien's shouting "Moonchild." You'll know what I'm talking about when you get there; no one can ever understand that line as he delivers it, which is a shame, because it unlocks, like, 95% of the father's character. Bastien's mother was a hippie, but that's no excuse for poor articulation.

The point is, there seems to be some debate about whether or not HEAs are a fundamental part of romance. The majority of readers seem to say yes; a small minority, some writers, and a few smug assholes seem to think no. (Note that I'm not saying you're a smug asshole if you find HEAs unnecessary--it's a valid point of view. I'm just saying that a few of the folks on that side are particularly given to arguing in a way that makes you want to kick them in the shins). 

The arguments against HEAs seem to center around three points. 1) They're formulaic and predictable. 2) They're unrealistic, and therefore problematic. 3) They're for wussies who can't bear to face the unsettling reality that is the modern relationship, which is intangible and frequently flawed and Real Life Doesn't Work Like That, You Weakling, Real Women Like Ambiguous Endings. (This is the smug asshole rendition of #2, really). 

I will address these one at a time.

1) HEAs are formulaic and predictable. Yes, absolutely they are formulaic and predictable--in some ways. This is a legitimate concern if you're looking for something truly avant-garde, I'll admit, although I'll point out that this is equally true of any genre. Let me make an (imperfect) analogy. Consider the mystery genre. We know we're going to find out who it was, specifically, that has 'dun it.' The killer is virtually always revealed. The detective/P.I./cozy British grandma solving crimes out of her kitchen will always figure out the identity and motive of the killer/femme fatale/vegetable stealer. This is formula, and it is predictable. But we read mysteries because it is, like with romance, the journey that matters. It's the how, not the if. So yeah, we know they'll get together, but the how is where the tension comes from. And if the how is predictable, the HEA isn't the problem. It's the author.

2) HEAs are unrealistic, and therefore problematic. I'll agree, that when we live in a time when the divorce rate is super high, you can't just tack on a handy marriage proposal and expect that readers will assume that everything turns out hunky-dory. Obviously this is garbage thinking. Marriage is not a gateway to forever bliss and a resolution of one entanglement does not mean that new ones will not form. So I can understand why some readers find it questionable to say that two characters can live happily ever after in a realistic book. But a glance at the structure of a romance novel proves that longevity is often a pretty realistic thing, especially compared to real life. 

So there's a thing called the black or dark moment. This is basically synonymous with the climax, but fiction writers are inherently dramatic, so some of us get a little precious with names. The black moment/climax is the scene where it seems like all hope is lost. The point of the black moment/climax is to force characters to make the last big decision--change or lose everything.

In romance, this is the scene where you're sure they're going to break up. Their differences are irreconcilable. Love is doomed. Press the back of your hand to your forehead and swoon your grief to the stars. But the thing is, we all know the black moment isn't likely to actually be The End Of Our Heroes/Heroines/Whoever Floats Your Boat. Why? Ha, if you said the HEA, you're wrong! I tricked you! It's because of communication. In romance, the black moment most frequently resolves with communication. Also forgiveness. And self-sacrifice for a partner. AKA love succeeds in a romance novel because people practice good relationship skills. This is what inevitably removes a lack of realism from being a worthwhile critique of HEAs.

People can learn. A romance is, at its core, about people learning how to be with each other and get their needs met while meeting the needs of the other person. The resolution of the black moment is a perfect example of this new, good, conflict-management behavior, and we're seeing the success that becomes possible when this communicative, giving behavior is employed. HEAs aren't unrealistic in this context, because we aren't seeing a lack of future problems so much as proof that our trust in these characters' ability to handle those problems isn't misplaced. We know this because the characters just modeled it for us in resolving the black moment. We watched them clean up their mess, ergo future messes will not be a problem.

So unless the characters are shitty d-bags who treat each other like crap until some god-like creature magically resolves the whole situation for them, you've actually got a pretty good argument for why HEAs are fairly believable. Remember, if half of all marriages result in divorce, that means half of them don't. And when characters resolve stuff maturely, you've got strong evidence that you're looking at one of the success stories. (Also, if a god-like creature is running around fixing shitty characters' problems to ensure happy endings, again, it isn't the HEA that's the problem. It's the author.)

3) HEAs are for wussies who can't bear to face the unsettling reality that is the modern relationship, which is intangible and frequently flawed and Real Life Doesn't Work Like That, You Weakling, Real Women Like Ambiguous Endings. If you're throwing this one at me, please know that my reply in #2 will address all major issues of #3 except for your smug assholery, and for that you get dismissed from the conversation until you can present a logical argument that doesn't rely on ad hominem attacks.

Moving on.

Why is the HEA so satisfying? Why are people so willing to throw down about this and demand that an entire genre conform? I mean, it's just a couple of made-up people boning and spitting some purple prose at each other. It's not such a big deal if we skip that part, right?

Well, in a word, yes. In a bunch of words: yes, it fucking is a big deal. And here's why. 

Part of the satisfaction of the HEA lies in basic story structure. For the purposes of this part of the argument, I have math, which automatically validates my perspective! Well, I have a graph thingy. I don't know if that counts as math. I had to take geometry twice, guys. Proofs. Ugh.

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This is known as the plot graph or camel's back, or, as it is known to writers who didn't spend way too much money on an MFA, as that "That upside-down check-mark thingy." It's meant to help writers understand the way that plot--specifically the chain of cause-and-effect events that make up plot--creates tension and movement on the page.

How it works is this: your character is out living the good life when something happens that starts the whole catastrophe rolling (this is the Inciting Incident, if you're fancy). Voila! Your character is forced to make a decision about how to handle this problem. What they choose reveals who your character is, and--crucially--sets in place the next catastrophe. Each decision a character makes creates a future conflict because of the way other characters (and the world at large) then react. If your heroine's wastrel brother shows up asking for money yet again, what your heroine decides to do tells us who she is and what she values. If she says yes, she's nice and she wants to help her family, even if it costs her the funds she was going to use to start her own sex-supply store. (I would love, just once, to read about a heroine who tells an asshole to get lost b/c she has to go sell orgasm-aid devices to other women. That sounds amazing.)

The point is that her decision to help sets another problem into place--if she says yes, the d-bag brother uses the money to gamble, and gets himself into trouble with a loan shark, and now the heroine has to bail him out. Or, she says no to the d-bag brother and he ends up dead because he couldn't pay off the loan shark, and she has to deal with the guy coming after her to get the money.

Plot = character + decisions + the resulting, escalating problems. The process repeats, and each time the decisions are more difficult to make and problems get more difficult to resolve, until finally you get to the big bad, where it's win it all or go home crying. In romance, it's that black moment again, when they either work things out or break up, so that last decision is basically DO I DO WHAT IS NECESSARY TO BE HAPPY WITH THE CHOSEN FELLA/LADY/WHOEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT? If the character has learned and grown over the course of the story, that last decision is answered with a resounding "yes!" and that resolves the last problem standing between our lovers. That's how you HEA.

Why am I being pedantic? Why won't I shut up? What has it got to do with why people are so vociferous about their HEAs? Because of that tiny little moment where the heroine tells the d-bag brother to get lost and then he dies b/c he's stupid. When a character makes a choice and a good or bad thing happens in response, you're not only setting up the path to an HEA, you're setting up a commentary on human behavior that can be extended beyond the page.

The HEA is the reward that the author dangles in front of the characters as a way of getting them to be good. This is a moralizing thing that shows up in all fiction, actually. We have been trained, ever since we first started reading board books with our parents as toddlers, to view good behavior as a thing that earns good endings. This is a deeply internalized thing; we, as readers, as authors, as human beings, like the idea that being good gets you good stuff, and that being bad gets you stuck in a trash compactor. It makes us feel safe. "Yup," we say, "here is my world and it is structured and if I just Live Right, it will remain so and I can go about my business and nothing bad will happen to me." HEAs prove that people who get their shit together and love one another are entitled to love and happiness.  A lack of an HEA contradicts this. It says that you can be good and do all the right things and still get fucked over. 

Saying "Yeah, but it's realistic," isn't a useful rebuttal in that situation. Not only did we take care of that in point #2 above, it definitely doesn't help with the larger emotional implications of the HEA. It makes it worse, actually, because now you're saying that no matter what I do, the world might piss on me. And maybe there's a perfect afterlife where a divine being punishes the guy who just cut me off in traffic, but I'm angry now. 

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Let me be clear: rejecting this idea and clinging to the HEA and order in general does not mean you are weak or stupid. It doesn't mean you're delusional. It means you like the idea of a world where the good guys get the good shit and the bad guys pay for it. That's not a bad premise. And romance readers aren't blind ninnies. They simply want, desperately, to believe that doing the right thing isn't a futile enterprise.

This is how we get back to Damon Suede's fabulous quote: Romance is the literature of hope. Hope requires feeding. Hope requires HEAs, because HEAs reaffirm not only the idea that relationships can be successful, but that the world itself, as a whole, can be successful. Good behavior, good communication, and the ability to clean up your mess = good life. It's the same theme you'll find in fantasy, mystery, horror, comedy, etc. (anything but literature, I would argue, because literature exists to fuck with you. It's the paper equivalent of the tilt-a-whirl.) The heroes are good, ergo they win. Good wins. It's not a romance thing, exactly. It's a people-cling-to-stories-for-happiness thing. It's just that romance is uniquely drawn in a way that makes it an excellent delivery system. When you mess with the HEA, you're not only messing with our best source for that high, you're threatening a deeply-needed source of reassurance that our efforts and sacrifices in life will not go uncounted. 

So leave us our happy endings, okay? I spent an hour watching CNN yesterday, and I fucking need to read some purple prose about reunion boning.

And now, just to undermine my own argument, I'll tell you that I'm one of only, like, five people who really liked the ending to JR Ward's Lover Unbound. Insert mad laughter here.

Tobias Has a Title...and a Date.

I know, I know, I haven't had a lot of news lately. I gave myself a lot of time to write Tobias's book, in large part because I'm a slow writer, and also because I knew I would have to do a lot of research for it and I didn't want to skimp. But now that the book's in and we've begun the editing and pre-publication process, things are finally starting to roll!

Hard Line, Tobias's book, second in the Woodbury Boys trilogy, will be released April 2, 2018.

As soon as I have a cover (it'll be a while yet, so don't get too excited) and a blurb, I'll put those up for you, too.

Gettin' Fighty

Sometimes it's hard to draw a line between writing healthy relationships, realistic relationships, and the sort of conflict-based relationships that are crucial for page-turning fiction.

Let me give you an example with some mild spoilers. In Bad Judgment, my two heroes get into an argument. They're both tired and pissed off and neither one is getting what he wants from the other and they're too emotionally involved at this point to walk away. Neither one has any good options. There's no obviously right answer. It's just a shitty situation and they don't know how to handle it.

So what happens? They yell at each other. One of them slams a door open without really meaning to. They get to a point where they both feel that a line is about to be crossed, and they back off and do something different.

This is one of those moments that, as a writer, I thought about a lot. Not only because it was an important turning point in the plot but because I suspected that someone might get upset about it. And a few folks did. Not unreasonably.

Yelling is a big thing. Most people who've been yelled at in relationships realize that it can be a big red flag for later abusive behavior, and while the stats on men abusing women are a lot scarier, anyone can abuse anyone, regardless of gender and orientation. The fact that both my heroes are men doesn't mean abuse can't happen, and yelling is still a red flag.

Does everyone who yells hit? Of course not. Does everyone who slams a door manipulate and name call? Obviously not. But many readers--particularly readers who've been through this sort of thing--see yelling and door slamming as a bad sign, and I totally get that. It's a fact.

I want to model healthy relationships in my books. I'm not one of those readers who thinks back on the romance novels (and TV shows and movies) of the 80's and 90's with warm fuzzies. In way too many of them, emotional manipulation and abuse and rape are portrayed as romantic. As someone who read that shit through my formative years, let me just say that it took a long time for me to get some of that crap out of my head and out of my relationships. So yeah, I think it's important that romance novels say here, this is what's really ideal, this is what's actually romantic, you can have higher expectations for your partners.

But the opposite extreme can be just as tricky. Fiction where people always do the right thing and never have bad, stupid, or mean thoughts is, in my opinion, preachy, unrealistic and fucking boring. The reality is that we weren't all raised with parents who modeled healthy disagreement skills for us. Some of us have better emotional control than others. And personally, I like messy people who are imperfect. I like people who don't always know how to express themselves. I don't mind yelling every once in a rare while, because I'm less concerned with volume than I am with tone and content and word choice. That's why Brogan yelling about being frustrated and scared that Embry was hurt didn't cross a line for me, although your mileage may vary. I like people who don't all fight like they've had conflict resolution training, both because the vast majority of people haven't, and because it can be good to see couples model getting better at fighting. 

Which is something Embry and Brogan do over the course of the book. In fact, by the end, they're both so fucking grown-up it's almost sickening. 

But I'm working on Ghost's book now, and Ghost makes Brogan at his worst look like an after-school special. Hell, Ghost makes Embry look like an after-school special, and Embry's no cupcake. Ghost isn't someone who yells, but what he does is far worse. Let's call a spade a spade; Ghost is capable of real meanness. He's manipulative. He lies. He doesn't mind hurting people, and at times in the past, he has actively enjoyed doing so. It is entirely in character for him to do things which, to some readers, will be unforgivable. And while he needs to learn how to be better and he will--it's kind of a theme in this series--at the same time, people are who they are. He's never going to be selfless or kind or gentle. He's capable of doing selfless, kind, or gentle things, but doing isn't necessarily being. 

He has very good reasons to be the way he is, although I'm not sure how far mitigating factors go to excuse bad behavior. He recognizes that he's not a good person. He's capable of being better and is even willing to try, which in my mind is the line between an antihero and a villain. None of us is raised to be perfect. We're all works in progress. We learn and improve, and that means that characters who do stupid or mean things but are trying can still be worthy of love. That's a comfort to me--as someone who isn't perfect at all--but some folks find it really upsetting. They see it as rewarding or excusing bad behavior, and that's a valid perspective too.

It's a tricky line to walk without tipping over. How much wobbling can Ghost do before readers won't forgive him?

Well...

I guess we're gonna find out.