Slim Chance: Toxic Thoughts w/ Jeff Erno + Giveaway

June 30, 2017

toxic thoughts

 

Thanks so much for joining me on the Dreamspinner blog. This is Jeff Erno, and I’m here to talk about my new release, Slim Chance, which is a gay romance featuring two not-so-conventional protagonists. Oliver Paxton is twentysomething computer programmer who has battled obesity his entire life. His coworker Benjy has struggled with his own baggage, primarily a social anxiety disorder that sometimes cripples him. The two become friends and share a mutual love of computer gaming, but as Benjy helps Oliver embark upon an epic weight-loss journey, their relationship evolves into something romantic and beautiful. But the demons that Oliver can’t seem to get out of his head threaten to destroy the best thing that ever happened to either of them, and Oliver must figure out how to reconcile the new and improved, thin version of himself with a past he wants to leave behind.

 

Can We Overcome Our Toxic Thoughts?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read minds? Personally, I think if offered this superpower I’d elect to pass. I’m not sure I’d want to know the private thoughts of even the people I love the most. Even the kindest, most forgiving, most compassionate among us have negative thoughts. It’s a reality with which I’ve struggled most of my life. While those around me have seen me as generous, polite, and unselfish, I harbor secret thoughts that threaten to betray me.

Back when I was religious, I believed these negative thoughts—selfishness, greed, envy—were temptations. Although I felt guilty for experiencing them and was certain I was nothing but a hypocrite, I also believed that the thing that mattered most was not that I thought something bad, but rather what I chose to do about those thoughts. How did I act? That’s what mattered.

So if someone irritated me, I would definitely register a thought about how annoying they were, but then I’d make a conscious choice to treat that person with respect and be just as polite and kind to them as I was to everyone else. If I felt jealousy toward another person, I made a deliberate effort to be gracious and congratulatory toward them rather than petty and spiteful. If I wanted the biggest piece of cake, I didn’t rush in to get mine first. I waited my turn and acted thrilled when I received my much smaller slice.

And you know what happens when you go through life striving to be a better person than your thoughts? You actually do become a better person, at least in the eyes of those around you. These little white lies—these hypocritical responses—are almost never perceived as phoniness. No, they are simply viewed as good manners. We don’t always have to say out loud everything we think. We can choose to police our own thoughts and deal with them internally.

In literature, we’re sometimes given the chance to see into the minds of characters who have very negative, toxic thoughts. Our knee-jerk reaction is to judge. That’s horrible. Why does he think this way? How selfish! Those thoughts, when presented in black and white before our very eyes, are ugly and scary. They make us uncomfortable.

Reading them is like looking into a mirror.

I’m most comfortable when a character is presented in a way that portrays his good side. I want to know the altruistic motivations that compel him. I want the positive realizations and epiphanies. I want to feel the goodness of his heart. But as soon as he is portrayed realistically and his negative thoughts are revealed—the same thoughts that I myself have always battled in my own head—he becomes unlikable.

In Slim Chance, I chose to portray the dark side of my main character, Oliver Paxton. I elected to offer the reader a peek into the mind of this tortured man. As I set out to write this story about a man who had been struggling with weight issues his whole life, I had a choice to make. I could present him as the heavy-set guy everyone loved and give him an inner monologue that would appeal to readers who were seeking a feel-good romance about a really swell person who happened to be overweight…OR I could present a very flawed but realistic character, a man who has been victimized his entire life and as a result has become his own shield. He’s used cynicism to mask pain. He’s used selfishness to cover vulnerability. He looks out for himself first mentally, mainly because nobody else ever has been there to protect him.

Slim Chance is a story about how a person like Oliver Paxton can change. His transformation is not rapid. He doesn’t magically rid his mind of the negative thoughts, and in fact, he never will. Those who have undergone cognitive therapy know that we can’t control when a negative thought enters our brain, but we can decide whether or not we’ll accept that thought or challenge it. Ultimately, we see Oliver beginning to challenge those thoughts, and more importantly, we see him acting on his decision to be a better person. And love wins.

Interestingly, the idea for Slim Chance did not begin from Oliver’s perspective. Although in recent years I’ve struggled with my own weight and body issues, it was the character Benjy I related to. Like Benjy, I suffer from social anxiety. My condition has worsened over the years, probably due to a number of factors. For one, I’m a writer and don’t spend a lot of time outside my house. The less chance I have to interact with people, the more reclusive I become.

A couple years ago I ran into a friend, someone I used to be very close with. It was at a conference where there were a lot of people. This person, when I used to know her, was extremely overweight, but she’d had a surgery and had taken off—I dare say—two hundred pounds. When we were friends, both of us were social outcasts, which was probably why we bonded the way we did. We hung out together, commiserated with one another.

The new and improved version of my friend—the slender, sexy bombshell—had a new hairstyle, all new flashy clothing. And she wasn’t suffering from her social anxiety anymore—not in the least. In fact, she was the opposite. She’d become the life of the party, surrounded by a ton of friends, and all of them were laughing and joking…and she hardly noticed me. We didn’t spend any time together one on one that weekend. I saw her up on the dance floor at the evening parties. I saw her photos plastered all over social media as she got selfies with almost every important person at the conference.

But I wasn’t her friend anymore. And though she used to be one of my biggest fans, I don’t think she continued reading my books either.

That’s what gave me the idea for Slim Chance. But I deliberately chose not to present the story from the social-anxiety-ridden best friend’s perspective. I wanted to get into the mind of the person who lost all the weight. I wanted to understand how and why a person could dump their loved ones, the ones who stood beside them back when they were heavy, and exchange their true friends for the superficiality of the glamor crowd—the popular people.

And I think I do understand the situation a lot better now. I think allowing myself into the mind of Oliver Paxton helped me understand him and love him. And like Benjy, I get it. I see why Oliver, once he’d improved himself physically, felt the desire to continue upgrading. He’d never had friends! Not the popular people. No one had ever found him attractive or even tried to kiss him. He’d never even been on a date. So yes, of course, those temptations played out in his head. Who can honestly say they wouldn’t be tempted given the same set of circumstances?

But Oliver did something my former friend did not. He stopped, looked back, and realized who he was leaving behind. And therein lies the purpose of the story. You don’t have to be a perfect, lovable person that everyone adores. You don’t have to think only the purest thoughts. You don’t have to be the best looking, the most in-shape, the most popular. Love is not about any of those things. Love is larger than obesity or social anxiety. Love doesn’t demand we rid ourselves of all our faults but accepts us as we are—flawed and beautiful.

 

* * * *

My life-changing journey with Dreamspinner began seven years ago when I signed a contract for Trust Me. I didn’t exactly expect to be taken seriously as an author back then. I wrote as a form of therapy—a catharsis for my emotions. Trust Me helped me open up and deal with events in my past, including child sexual abuse, my struggle to reconcile my religious faith with my sexual orientation, and the internal homophobia that I couldn’t quite shake. The story chronicled the childhood experiences of two very different boys, one religious and the other a rebel. Eventually, in their teen years, Shawn and Bobby connect and fall in love but have to contend with a 1980s society that isn’t ready to accept boys who love other boys. They emerge triumphant and at last, 130 thousand words later, live happily ever after.

Trust Me_lowres

Following Trust Me, Dreamspinner published my anthology of short stories called Bullied. The compilation included seven fictional accounts of teen bullying, featuring gay and lesbian protagonists. Originally released at Dreamspinner, the anthology was later moved to their young adult imprint, Harmony Ink. It won a Rainbow Award the year it was released.

My best-selling book to date at Dreamspinner is We Danced, the closest story I have to a formulaic romance. It features a young veterinarian intern named Josh who moves to a small town in Kentucky where he encounters a handsome bar owner named Rex. After accidentally leaving his cell phone at the bar, Rex returns after hours to retrieve it, which is when Rex and he dance to the country-western jukebox music and share their first kiss. Later, Rex reveals that he’s a father. He has a six year old son, Tyler, whom he has adopted. The three form a family and together face all the obstacles that a small-town Kentucky community can throw in their way.

WEDANCED_JEFFERNO_FINAL

Choosing America’s Next Superstar was my nod to reality-TV, featuring a gay romance between two of the musical talent show’s top-ten contestants. Left-Hand Path is my one and only Dreamspinner paranormal. You Belong With Me is a young adult romance, a jock-nerd fantasy about two neighbors who communicate by holding hand-written signs up in their bedroom windows.

Dreamspinner has also published a couple of series of mine, the most notable being Dumb Jock. It too has a jock-nerd theme in all six of its installments. The first book of the series is actually the very first novel I ever wrote. I even used my own first name for the protagonist. The next four books in the series are stand-alone reads about new characters who are in some way connected to the original characters, and the final book of the series pulls all of the books and characters together for a final reunion. Book two, Another Dumb Jock, also received a Rainbow Award.

dumbjock

And most recently, I have a three-book detective/mystery series called Full Nelson which showcases the hyper-masculine detective hero, Chris Nelson, and his sidekick, Ethan, who happens to also be Chris’s husband and works as a middle-school teacher.

So, not counting the audio, foreign translations, and bundled compilations, Slim Chance is my sixteenth book with Dreamspinner, but hopefully not the last.

 

Check out Slim Chance today!

SlimChance_postcard_front_DSP

 

Blurb: 

Can a man improve his appearance without losing everything good inside him?

Oliver has always been obese and suffered from a negative body image. He’s tried diets before, failing time after time, but he vows this time will be different. As he begins an exercise program, his confidence increases—and so does his interest in his friend and coworker Benjy. Though they bonded long ago over a love of online gaming, it takes a lot of courage for Oliver to share his new body and be intimate with another man.

A passionate romance blooms, but as Oliver nears his goal, it seems he doesn’t need Benjy—with his chronic anxiety and troubled past—now that he’s made attractive new friends at the gym. But not all relationships are equal, and Oliver realizes that Benjy, who loved and supported him when no one else did, is more than a reminder of his old life.

A pleasing appearance means nothing when it hides a lonely, empty heart, and if Oliver cannot decide what’s truly important, he’ll lose what he cherishes most.

self2015

Author Bio:

Jeff Erno began writing LGBT fiction in the late 1990s. Although an avid reader and amateur writer from a very young age, Jeff pursued a career as a retail store manager in Northern Michigan. When his first gay-themed novel was published, he was shocked that anyone would even want to read it. Nine years later, he writes full time and has published over four dozen novels. Jeff now lives in Southern Michigan, where he resides with his brother, Eugene.

Jeff’s writing credits include a variety of themes and sub-genres including gay romance, Young Adult, Science Fiction, erotica, and BDSM. He is the winner of a 2012 Rainbow Award and an Honorable Mention in 2011. His style is unpretentious and focused upon emotionally-driven, character-based stories that touch the heart. Jeff is especially passionate about young adult literature and combating teen bullying and youth suicide.

Jeff’s website: http://www.jefferno.com
Jeff’s Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jefferno

 

Backlist Giveaway

I’d like to offer readers a chance to sample my backlist if they’re interested in reading any of my books. Please use the comment section to post your thoughts on any one of the following questions:

1. How do you feel about a more nuanced portrayal of a protagonist like Oliver? Does it bother you to hear his inner thoughts, some of them being toxic and negative? Will this layered view of the main character prevent you from empathizing and rooting for him the way you would a more altruistic lead character?

2. Do you prefer a limited or alternating point of view? In Slim Chance, the entire story is told solely from Oliver’s point of view. We have to rely upon what we see, through Oliver’s eyes, in order to know Benjy.

3. Do we place too much emphasis on physical appearance in the m/m community? Why aren’t there more stories featuring characters with less-than-perfect body types? Is this too heavy (no pun intended) a topic to deal with in romance, which is supposed to be uplifting fantasy and happy-ever-after?

Three winners will be selected, one from each question. Feel free to answer more than one, but please use separate comments to do so. Winners will receive their ebook of choice from my backlist (which includes any Dreamspinner book other than the new release).

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