Friday, September 30, 2005

Long Live Alpha Man

First, credits: the inspiration for this came via PBW who led me to Jayne Anne Krentz's blog entry, and here we are.

Ahhh, the demise of the Alpha male hero. Totally agree with JAK when she says that Alpha males aren't dead. They've simply been redirected via a new genre where the sensitive, PC hero isn't a requirement because, let's face it, usually he's dead. I mean, what's a little aggressiveness or hard-headedness when the hero isn't even room temperature and drinks blood cocktails? Heck, a guy who totes a gun and isn't afraid to shoot first and ask questions later is nothing compared to one who turns into a four-legged beastie when the moon is just right.

But isn't it interesting that the paranormal/vampire subgenre is on the rise? Isn't it interesting that vampires and werewolves and changlings and aliens and time-travelers from distant dimensions - all guys known to be, um, not exactly the sensitive type - are popular heroes these days?

Mayhap we all protested a bit much? Got exactly what it was we asked for and now have to go elsewhere for our fixes?

And when I say "we", I don't mean me. I've never complained about an Alpha male hero. At least, I've never complained about a hero because he was an Alpha male. I might have complained because he was an asshat in any form, beta, omega, or Phi Delta Epsilon, but not because he was un-PC or too rough around the edges. I love me a manly man's man. I want to be swept up off my feet, rescued from the clutches of danger and death, and made love to by someone who knows his way around the female body. I want to see that guy fall flat on his face when he realizes how he can't live without the heroine. I want to see that taming.

But, really, if there is any truth in the rumor that the Alpha Male hero has become an endangered species in non-paranormal subgenres, that is really a damn shame. It's an example of someone thinking that fiction needs to conform to real life; that what we see in our day to day must be reflected in our escapism. Certainly we'd never accept that hyper-dominant man in our work place or as someone we'd be willing to bring home to Mom and Dad. Therefore, we cannot tolerate his appearance in our fantasies.

Except, isn't the point of fiction and escapism and fantasy to take us away from the real world? Maybe I'm just not getting it.

Not that sensitive guys aren't great. Not that they can't make wonderful romance heroes. I'm all for having sensitive guys and gay guys and intelligent guys and geeky guys and, yes, alpha male guys as heroes. Just like I'm in favor of Baskin Robbins 31 flavors.

Sometimes it's nice to have mocha almond fudge. But my favorite will always be mint chocolate chip. It would be a dang shame if someone out there decided I can't have it any more because, I don't know, green is just not an acceptable color for ice cream.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

I'm So Lost

Okay, who out there is a Lost fan? :raises hand and waves wildly:

With every episode, I ask myself, can this show get any better? And it always, always does.

How? How do the writers manage to keep me so captivated, draw me in with baited breath as this story becomes more and more complex, without ever pushing me into a state of annoyance because they haven't given me enough?

At the end of last night's epi, I raved to my husband that this show was like a ball of yarn tossed all around the house, with knots and and threads that seemed to end nowhere but really lead to a whole other level. With every additional episode, I walk away with more questions than answers, and I'm itching to find the next piece to the puzzle.

The hubby, being the cynic that he sometimes is, wonders how much longer this show can sustain the amped-up level of mystery without starting to piss off viewers. He's got a point. There is only so much we can take, so much not knowing, before we will begin to demand some answers.

Like, who is Desmond and what is he doing in that underground bunker and how long has he been there and what, exactly, has made him so paranoid?

Who are these "others"? What do they want with Walt?

What is the deal with John Locke?

When will Sawyer lose all of his clothes and start wearing a loin cloth?

But at this point, I'm far from frustrated. Each week I get just enough that I'm still in the story. I find out enough to sustain me until the next episode.

The show does have it's faults. I cannot tell you how bored and frustrated I got with Micheal's backstory they showed last night. Not one minute of it gave me any information about Michael that I didn't already know. Yeah, his girlfriend wanted to take Walt off to foreign lands and Michael didn't want to give up his son, but in the end she guilted him into it. Didn't we already cover this way back when? I know Michael cares about his kid. I certainly didn't need ten or fifteen minutes of crap taking time away from the present to pound that anvil home.

In fact, I'd say that this is the greatest challenge the writers now face. I feel like they did such a good job introducing the various characters through backstory during Season 1 that I know all I need to know about them for what is happening in the present. Unless something in a character's past directly involves what is going on on the Island - solves some aspect of the mystery or explains some odd goings-on - I don't need to see it.

For example, I know Jack has a God/inferiority complex with regards to his role as a doctor and a leader. I know that Charlie is a recovering heroin addict. I know Michael loves Walt. I know Sawyer has major abandonment issues, and that Kate can't trust anyone. Any backstory that simply exists to further these known character traits is wasted time and highly, highly annoying.

But show me some more about Hurley and the history of that mysterious number. Show me some history on how Desmond ended up in that bunker. Show me what happened to the French woman and her team after they were stranded on the Island.

Or at least show me some more of Sayid being Sayid.

And, dang, start destroying Sawyer's clothes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

My First Fangirl Fixation

I remember the first author I ever knew by name. I remember her because I'm still one of her greatest fans. Her books captivated me when I was young, and I still reread her entire series on a regular basis because I find the stories such a comfort. I own a very well-worn set of paperbacks and am slowly collecting hardback editions, not because they are hard to find but because I want each hardback to be special.

And kind of telling, this author actually wrote a very sweet love story, one that captured my heart when I was a kid even though I had no idea what a romance novel was.

I'm talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of the Little House books.

In true fan form, I've always gobbled up anything having to do with LIW. I bought every book published with her name on it or associated with it. I watched the Little House on the Prairie television series during it's 10-season run, experiencing that unique frustration of book lovers when the television show took dramatic license and diverged wildly from the books, then accepting the show for what it was in its own right. Well, maybe not so much those last three seasons...

When I happened upon Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, produced by CBS and aired on Lifetime, of course I had to watch. This site does a good job explaining what was wrong with the movie; mostly that in order to condense a good 8 years worth of story into a two-hour movie and in order to make things palatable to today's viewing audience, a lot of creative license was taken. Again, that stuff annoyed me to a certain degree, as did the actor who played Almanzo Wilder (his teeth had me absolutely fixated whenever he was on screen). But I enjoyed it all the same.

And I got an itching to reread LIW's books. Now I understand why my TBR never seems to get any smaller.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Gone to the Dogs

This weekend, we got a dog.

When I was nine years old, my family got a dog from the ASPCA. She was a black beagle mix mutt that cost us $8, we named her Mistletoe (Missy for short) since we got her near Christmas time, and she lived to the ripe old age of 16.

My husband grew up with two different dogs, both full-bred boxers. His first flopped over dead of a sudden heart problem one summer afternoon while they were playing catch. The other one lived happily into her double digits, a good deal for large full-bred dogs, I'm to understand.

So, by and large, we consider ourselves "dog" people. Except, when we got married and moved into our city apartment, a dog wasn't even an option. Instead we got a cat. She's meaner than piss, looking and acting a lot like Garfield, but I love her because I'm the only person she actually likes.

Several years later, we moved into a house. A dog became an option, especially since we had a fenced in back yard. But we both worked 50 plus hour-a-week jobs, and we knew it wasn't fair to keep a dog crated or left alone all day that way.

A few years later, we had two kids and I got laid off from my job. We decided that my career as a stay-at-home-mom should begin. Thus, the conditions were at long last ripe for us to get that dog we'd always figured one day we'd have, you know, being "dog" people and all.

Except, we'd moved and we no longer have a fenced in yard.

And we have all hard wood floors in our house, floors that could be scratched by dog claws.

And when we go out of town to visit family, we don't really know anyone who might be willing to take our dog in, thus the need for a kennel.

And dogs shed. Some of them a lot. A. Lot.

And they don't use a litter box like a cat does. They need to be walked, even when it's cold and snowy outside. I live in Chicago. It's cold and snowy. A. Lot.

And dogs bark. Some of them a lot. A. Lot.

For "dog" people, we weren't feeling the love for dogs an awful lot. Simply put, dogs are a lot of work. They don't grow up like kids. They aren't self-sufficient - indeed, care by humans completely unnecessary and almost an annoyance - like cats are. The cons list, when I started to compile one, was as long as my arm while the pros list pretty much started and ended with "Dogs are loyal and add so much to your life!"

Then Katrina hit and I watched b-reel after b-reel of abandoned dogs on porches and dogs being ripped from their owners' arms because no dogs were allowed on the transport buses. I wept huge tears over all of these pets who basically had to be left to starve or drown.

I told my husband we should adopt one. He sort of kind of thought maybe possibly we should think about considering such a remote distant idea. If I was on board 75%, he was a measly 25%.

I also told a woman from my church how I felt about those dogs. Come to find out, she's a foster home for dogs that go through a local pet rescue group. I explained to her about my husband's reluctance, and we decided maybe we could introduce him slowly to some of the dogs she currently had living at her home, and maybe in a few months/years/decades, he'd warm up to the idea.

She called this past Friday night with the perfect dog for us. Not too big. Not too small. Loves kids. Sweet disposition. Short hair. No barking. She'd been kept chained up, had been attacked by another dog or animal which had hurt her bad enough to leave scars, had been scheduled for euthanizing, rescued at the last minute, finally adopted out only to be returned to the rescue group when her new owner turned out to be violently allergic to her. This poor thing had paid her dues and then some. Somewhere between a year or two old, she's an all-American mutt, part beagle, part yellow lab, part shepard, part boxer, heck, probably part wolverine. She's cute as can be.

We went to see her on Saturday afternoon. I picked her up on Saturday night.

We've had her just over 48 hours and she's peed on the floor twice, pooped once, and threw up her entire breakfast this morning.

Yeah, I'm a "dog" person all right.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Laboratory Experiments

What, exactly, is chemistry?

I don't mean the branch of science that involves Bunsen burners and test tubes. I'm talking about the heat between two characters that makes us want them to rip each other's clothes off and get down to business as soon as reasonably possible.

Last night I watched A Knight's Tale (and by now I imagine you all think I sure watch a lot of movies, which I do - usually a couple a week), and I just couldn't get behind the romance thread between the hero, William (played by Heath Ledger) and heroine, Jocelyn (played by Shannyn Sossamon). It wasn't that their romance wasn't realistic as defined by any movie so far out as this one. It's not that the actors aren't gorgeous people. And it wasn't that I didn't buy their romance. I simply wasn't moved by it in any way. Never did I feel all mushy inside when they finally kissed or more, nor did I much care either way if she wed the hero or the hero's arch-enemy. Just kind of a meh feeling to the whole thing. Not a rewind moment in the whole movie.

And I chalk this up to a lack of chemistry. Never did these two characters - or it might be the actors - sizzle in any way. Except I honestly cannot put my finger on what was missing.

I do think it does have a lot to do with the actors. Something in the way they translate a role onto the screen, the way they interact with each other, just works in all the right ways.

Couples who sizzle - and this is in no particular order, just as they pop into my head.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) in the BBC/A&E version of Pride and Prejudice. It'll be interesting to see if Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen in the new movie-length version coming out in November this year have even half the chemistry of Jennifer and Colin. Honestly, as much as I want to love this interpretation, I'm not holding my breath.

Justin Taylor and Brian Kinney (Randy Harrison and Gale Harold) of Queer As Folk. I won't elaborate on this since I've gone on and on and on about it before. No one can accuse me of being repetitive.

Buffy Summers and Spike (Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Remember that part about me not being repetitive? Applies here as well. Except, I have to say that I think James Marsters could probably generate chemistry with a cardboard box, so this one is kind of no fair. I mean, Sarah Michelle is not bad, but James, well, he makes this one.

Princess Leia and Hans Solo (Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford) in Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI. God, didn't you just want to applaud out loud during Empire Strikes Back when Hans pushes Leia up against the bulkhead of the Millennium Falcon and just lays one on her? Swash my buckle indeed! Except, in later years as I've watched Harrison Ford in other movies, I've noticed that he doesn't seem like he's a very good kisser. I'm sure it has a lot to do with feeling awkward about kissing a woman you don't love in front of a whole bunch of cameras, but he always looks so stiff. No offense, Harrison. I still love you.

OT - You know who's a great on-screen kisser? Keanu Reeves. Lawdy. When he kisses the girl, the man looks like he's entered eternal bliss. If you can get your hands on it, watch him at the end of Speed macking on Sandra Bullock. And in The Matrix Reloaded, the lovemaking scene between Neo and Trinity (Carry-Anne Moss)...whew. Oh, and in A Walk In the Clouds, after the grape stomping scene when he and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon go back to their bedroom and finally, finally just doesn't get any better.

But I digress.

Joshua Lyman and Donna Moss (Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney) of The West Wing. Now, this is a huge well of untapped chemistry. For six years, Donna and Josh have been circling each other, drawing closer but then pulling way back. It's a tease on the grandest scale, and I'm not even sure I'd ever want anything to come of it because these two could fall victim to the Moonlighting Syndrome. Even so, my heart aches every time they come thisclose...

There are dozens of smaller-scale Chemistry Majors out there but I really don't have time to compile an exhaustive list. As I look back over the above, I do see a trend in that all of these pairings had to fight to exist. There always involved a healthy portion of unrealized sexual tension between the characters. And while I do give a lot of credit to the writers and creators who brought these people into existence and forced them to suffer all of this angst and frustration, I still hold that chemistry needs more than UST.

Which brings me full circle in wondering, exactly, what factor X must be there to affect me.

I might not be able to name it, but I know it when I see it. And I miss it when it's not there.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

I'm a Re-Watcher

My husband cannot for the life of him understand the desire to own a movie on DVD. He's of the mind that once you've watched a movie, you've watched the movie. Unless it is unbelievably good, why in the world would you want to watch it again? And since his definition of unbelievably good would involve a movie in which the Buffalo Bills won the Superbowl and then are carried around the field by hoards of naked cheerleaders who begin to pillow fight, you can see why his portion of our DVD library numbers in the zero range.

I own quite a few movies. There are the kids' movies, of course, but my own collection is growing very nicely. It helps that you can pick up an older release DVD for as low as $5.50 or $7.50 at Walmart. Since a family meal at McDonald's costs more than that and is far less good for you, I don't balk at dropping less than $10 on occasion for a great movie.

I also own a couple of television shows on DVD. Whoever came up with the idea of putting an entire seasons' worth of television shows on DVD should be nominated man or woman of the millenium. There is nothing better than sitting down for a The West Wing marathon or a Queer as Folk fest. Episode after episode - minus commercials, naturally - you never have to suffer a cliff hanger for longer than it takes to upload the next disc.

But what is best about watching anything on DVD is that you can skip over all the boring stuff right to the very best parts. I'm a rewinder. By that I mean, if I love a particular scene or moment, I'll rewind it and watch it over and over and over again. I've been known to pop in a DVD just so I can watch a five minute clip. In fact, I'm in constant search for the technology that would allow me to take all of my favorite moments from anything I've ever watched and dump them all onto a Best Of DVD of my very own.

Last night I got a hankering to watch some Buffy and Spike action. In case you haven't been reading this blog for long, I'm one of those in the camp that although Angel was cute and sweet and all broody moody hunky hero-esque, he didn't come close to burning up the screen like the chemistry between Buffy and Spike. This preference could be because I started watching Buffy long after it was off the air and jumped in somewhere early Season 7, so I knew Buffy/Spike before I saw Buffy/Angel.

Anyway, I popped in one of my favorite episodes - After Life - and spent about an hour watching the same three scenes over and over again. The one when Spike sees Buffy for the first time after she's come back from the dead. The one when Spike tells Buffy that every night in his dreams, he saves her. And the one at the end, when Spike tells Buffy if she's in any pain, he will do anything to help her. you sense a theme here.

Actually, my point isn't so much that James Marsters rocks and I want Spike to come be my secret boyfriend. My point is that certain situations grab me around the throat and don't let go. But as much as I can watch a movie or a television show and know immediately what scenes I'll rewind until the disc breaks, this doesn't happen for me so much when I'm reading a book.

It is rare that I will return to a favorite book and reread just one scene. Honestly, I can only think of half a dozen scenes that I love so much I sigh whenever I think about it. One is in Julie Garwood's The Bride, when hero Alec has to break into a burning church to save heroine Jamie. It's a wonderful scene that I can picture in my mind. Another is in Judith McNaught's A Kingdom of Dreams when heroine Jennifer kisses hero Royce's scars. There are others as well.

But usually, it's the entire book that I return to when I'm in the mood for a reread rather than a particular scene. Maybe it's the characters or maybe the scenario. Actually, what usually happens is that I think of a particular scene, dig up the book, flip the pages to find said scene, then end up reading it and going to the beginning to read the entire thing front to back. It's why I never get very far when I try to clean out my bookshelves. I'll start flipping through something trying to find one or two vaguely remembered moments and end up sitting on the floor nose-deep in the story.

I have no idea why I am the way that I am. Are there others like me out there who are scene junkies?

You know, I'll bet my husband would rewatch any scenes involving naked cheerleaders and pillow fights. I'll bet he'd even buy the DVD.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Beauty Before Age

As I've matured, my appreciation for an older man has grown proportionally. But I've always been aware that some men, like fine wine, get better with age.

In my early twenties I had a crush on news anchor Tom Brokaw (stop laughing), who at the time was probably in his late-forties, truly a gent of the world if ever there was one. I would watch the NBC Nightly News just to see my man give it up, hoping that maybe he'd be on location where he always lost the charcoal suits in favor of button downs with the sleeves rolled up to reveal incredibly sexy arms for a guy who sat in a televisions studio all day.

My passion for George Clooney didn't begin until well after his beginnings as a long haired motorcycle riding handyman on The Facts of Life. It took a Caesar haircut and the deepening of those sexy creases at the corners of his eyes to get some serious attention from me. I'd like to say I was a Clooney fan before the rest of the world woke up and smelled the sex appeal because I watched him on Sisters (where he played Detective James Falconer, *swoon*) but alas, my infatuation grew side by side with the legions of Doug Ross groupies.

Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart, Ed Harris. All gentlemen who have fifteen to twenty years on me but still the power to turn my head or at least bring me into the movie theater.

And as I've aged, the age of the perfect hero has increased for me as well. While there's still something about a young stud in the flush of his perfect twenties, I can now understand the appeal of a man who's long outgrown those all-night kegger days and understands the appeal of clothes retrieved from a hanger rather than the floor. Of course this makes sense. In my high school days, I went for the seniors. College brought on the pursuit of graduates and my early twenties a thing for men in their older twenties. When I construct the perfect man these days, he's always over thirty and usually heading for forty.

This weekend, an acquaintance, flush with excitement over the new man in her life, bent my ear for quite a while telling me all about her new love. She's a divorcee who clearly misses the companionship assured when you have a life time mate because I know she's been looking for a special someone for a long time now. As she was describing her new beau, she could barely contain her giddiness. I was so happy for her and listened with genuine interest as she went on and on about their budding relationship. I even went so far as to mask my heebie-jeebies when she got into that TMI zone regarding the "intimate" side of their new love.

Then, she told me that her boyfriend has a pacemaker.

Yeah, my thoughts exactly.

Can I tell you how hard it was to supress that shudder? Dating a man with a pacemaker? Having - gulp - sex with a man with a pacemaker? A pacemaker??

On our way home, I was telling my husband how in a million years I could never imagine getting turned on by a man who has a pacemaker unless it was him, of course, since that will never change. I can't imagine being turned on by anyone that old. (And before I get lectures, I know that some people who have pacemakers are not old, per se. In this instance, the guy is just plain old, so go with it.)

I think I have a built-in ceiling for age attractiveness. There does come a point where a man (and a woman), no matter how sexy in their youth, middle-age, and early twilight years, becomes no longer sexy. Or at least, I can no longer see them in such a way that makes me think "hot" so much as "Geritol".

And bless my friend's heart for her happiness, but the idea of something happening to my husband that would force me out into the world of singles with the goal of meeting a man who is simply not that old totally freaks. me. out.

But hey, I could be wrong. Who knows. I might be the ninety plus broad at the nursing home chasing all those studly eighty-year-old hunks around the Parchese table.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Back to My Roots

Last night I pulled out an old WIP that I had started a year or so back. It's a medieval that I pushed to the side when I read my first Brockmann and became obsessed with military romance, convinced that's the true subgenre of my heart.

Except, know what? Reading through my bits and pieces of the medieval, I fell in love with it all over again. Really. The enthusiasm for that story came rushing in at me like a kid in a candy store. I remembered all of my ideas for different scenes, what the characters' backstories are, how they fall in love and what obstacles stand in their way. For the first time in a very long time, my heart is pounding over the idea of working on it. As much as I'm excited about the mil roms, this book seems almost easy because I don't have to force any of it out.

It's not without problems. The plot is fairly straight forward and certainly nothing that has never been done before. Granted, I haven't relied on as many romance novel cliches as I did in my very first manuscript, but there are quite a few of my favs. Too, it's a medieval set in England. I understand that this subgenre is on the decline, readers such as Wendy Crutcher (aka, Super Librarian) indicating they are more than a little ready for the industry to move away from English set historicals. Honestly, I don't think this book will turn around the trend with it's dazzling new approach to castle epics.

But I don't care. I'm excited about this. I think it's a good story. Even better, it's a story with a healthy start that can be finished with some solid effort.

And at this point, that's what I need. I need to type The End and mean it. I need to print out a completed first draft for editing. I need something to keep me going.

Most of all, I'm excited again. Yay!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Not Here But There

Woohoo. I'm a guest blogger over at RTB for Open Blog Night. So check me out over there today.

See ya tomorrow.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Implausibility + Coincidence = Contrivance

In Stephen King's wonderful On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer wannabe or even just any fan of King's as it is a cool autobiography as well as an advice book), he uses a parallel between his wizened old uncle's toolbox containing every tool necessary to solve any fix-it problem with what a writer must do to be able to write well.

Quoting exactly from his text (and again, I recommend you go purchase this book!):

"I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you."

I love the imagery of a writer construction a mental toolbox full of the different tools writers can use to tell a story. Basics such as good grasp of grammar, spelling and the use of language make up the hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches, the absolute necessities. Practice with metaphor and simile and characterization become those specialized tools like the needle nose plier or the right angle drill necessary to do specific jobs. It's all very cool.

Except, I find myself trying to use tools that I'm not so sure are legal. I don't mean legal as in they're going to haul my butt off to prison. I'm talking in borderline acceptable because if used poorly, they will cause the reader to hurl my book against the wall in exasperation or disgust.

These two particular tools are coincidence and implausibility.

You know, those two components of Too Stupid Too Live behaviour that can drive anyone crazy.

But I'm not talking so much about actions the character takes that make him or her TSTL. I'm talking about premises that have such simple solutions no amount of contorting will work to stretch them into novel-length plots. I mean, how do you drive a plot around a premise that, honestly, any sane person could solve in such a way as to end the story immediately?

In my case, I came up with a really cool "What if" scenario wherein the heroine finds herself in possession of something questionable. Thing is, any semi-intelligent person would immediatly take said item to the police and say "Hey, look at this. I think this is a bad thing!"

But if the heroine does this, the story ends at page 7.

So, you say, no biggie. You just need a Very Good Reason why this person wouldn't take the no-no object to the police.

And this is where I run into implausibility. I just cannot imagine a good reason for not taking something to the police. I should clarify. I just cannot imagine a good reason that is not hyper-melodramatic for not taking something to the police. A lot of times, the reason is a result of very timely coincidence, so timely, in fact, that the reason becomes completely transparent as nothing more than a contrivance to create conflict. I don't think contrivance is even acknowledged as an official writer's tool. In fact, writers who use contrivance are usually considered tools themselves.

I can't tell you how many movies I watch these days that include a moment when I throw my hands up and cry TSTL because the hero/heroine/villain whoever doesn't do the reasonable thing. The premise and its subsequence conflict are so easily solved that the characters are made to do asshat things just so we won't pack up our popcorn and walk out of the theatre.

I know that real life is waaayyy stranger than fiction. Only in real life could some 100,000 be left for four days in an overcrowded sports arena with no food, no water, no toilets, and roaming gangs of gun-toting thugs. Surely a set up for drama of the highest and most terrifying form.

But can you give me a single example of a real life woman who, when alone in a dark, spooky house, doesn't run next door to the neighbor's the second she suspects someone is lurking about upstairs but rather decides to investigate on her own. Heck, I've been known to have a freak out moment and call my mother to tell her to call me back in five minutes to make sure I haven't been murdered just because I've heard a scary sound in the basement.

Perhaps what I need to do is ignore my own real good common sense to a big degree. Otherwise I have to accept a certain level of TSTL behaviour on the part of my characters, or I have to be willing to whip out those heavy duty coincidence and implausibility tools and use them without mercy.

Except, I don't want to have stupid people in my stories. Which means, some of my premises will have to be forgotten when I can't come up with a dang good reason the resolution wasn't figured out immediately.


Friday, September 16, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name Sucks

A few days ago, Maili Ryan posted an interesting column on RTB about romance novel book titles. The gist of her thoughts are how unfortunate it is that so many romance novel titles are so forgettable because they rely on a small stable of words. The result are thousands of generic titles that have no chance of staying with the reader much longer than a few seconds after she (or he) puts the book down.

In the comments section for Maili's post, I had this to say:

"This may show my complete ignorance, but I was completely gobsmacked to learn that editors have the ability to change a book’s title. When I think of a title for any particular work I have in progress, it’s a painful, careful process. It’s akin to finding just the right name for a characer; you try several different options until finally, you just know that the title is right. And the idea that my intentionally selected title will be tossed out the window in favor of something generic kind of…well, pisses me off may not be strong enough. "

See, titles are a big deal to me when I'm writing. I hate having a WIP out there without a title. If anything, I need something to use when I'm creating folders and saving files. I've gone so simplistic as to call WIPs "The Medieval" or "The Cooking Story". I've used character names as well. So I've got a "Jake's Story" and a "Alison's Story" floating around my harddrive right about now until something more concrete comes to mind.

But usually I'll try to come up with something that captures the general theme of the book to use as my working title. Sometimes that working title remains the same and becomes the end title. Most of the time, however, the title changes. This is usually because by the end of the story, something that I hadn't known was going to happen occurs, and it makes better fodder for a title. I once wrote a fanfic that for the duration of it's writing, I referred to as "The Here and Now," only to change it to something far more abstract once the story was finished because scenes that I hadn't even conceived when I started ended up being key to the story.

Whatever I end up calling a book, I can assure you it resembles nothing whatsoever like a stereotypical romance novel title. I don't use any "Savage" or "Thunder" or "Tempest". Like I said in my comment on Maili's column, the title I choose has meaning related directly to the story. That meaning not be immediately clear, but once the book has been read, the reader can always say " I understand why it's called that. This makes perfect sense."

To which I'm sure any publisher out there worth her salt would tell me that you don't want your reader to have to read the book first to know what it's about. In order to sell the book, a requirement necessary to get the reader to read the book, the title must give some sort of glimpse to what's inside. How is a reader supposed to know that the story is about a Greek Tycoon's Virginal Bride's Secret Baby if you don't state so very clearly in the title? And who wants to read about a love that isn't "Savage" or "Forbidden" or "Furious"?

Thing is, literary novelists (or their editors) don't feel compulsed to dumb down titles simply to increase sales. Some of my favorite reads in the non-romance genre have titles that at first glance offer you nothing about what lies beneath the covers. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent comes immediately to mind. Too does Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season. Heck, even Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code didn't offer up a whole lot of insight and that thing just flew off the shelves. (I haven't read TDVC, but my husband read it for his Book of 2004. And that's another entry altogether.)

Some titles are simply lyrical. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

I have to wonder if in any of the above examples, the writer had another title in mind and his or her editor said "Nope, I've got a better idea." No offense to all of the fabulous editors out there, but these titles sound like something out of writer's brain.

Was it a matter of the editor wanting to change the titles into something that would sell better but the writer stuck to her guns, knowing that what she had in her hands was a winner? I mean, really, wouldn't Sweet Love, Forbidden Love have worked better for a story about the love between a Japanese American girl and a caucasian boy in pre-World War II America (one theme in Snow Falling on Cedars) be so much more appealing to the masses? Or how about The Hostage Songbird and Her Warrior Lover for Bel Canto? Okay, there is no warrior in the story, but it's about an opera singer who is one of a group of people taken hostage. So surely such a title is far more easily understood than one in some foreign language.

My point is, sometimes a writer has an actual reason for titling a story a certain way. And I guess she must decide if she wants to stick to her creative guns or if she wants to sell, if what the editors claim is true. I'm just so incredibly dismayed that romance novel readers aren't given the benefit of the doubt.

I mean, I'm smart enough to know that Gone With the Wind doesn't necessarily mean I'd be reading a book about hurricanes or tornadoes.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Sensitive Topic

At the risk of looking like a fangirl since I make mention of these ladies so often (okay, I *do* really enjoy their site), there is an absolutely fascinating discussion of rape as portrayed in old-school romance novels - and some new-school ones as well - over at Smart Bitches.

I've spoken my mind on the topic various times within the comments section, so you can read what I think over there rather than me repeating it here. Generally, the question raised seems to be why writers in the past or even now feel it is in any way acceptable to portray a situation in which the hero rapes the heroine. Of course, a huge debate has ensued over what constitutes rape in such a scenario or if what has occured is actually forced seduction. Because the idea that a woman could fall in love with a man who raped her is pretty hard to acccept, yet it seems to be what happened time and time again in those old bodice rippers. Again, head over there for some brilliant insights on the topic posted in the comments section.

However, I'd like to bring up another aspect of rape in the romance novel that Candy and Sarah have left for future discussion. When I started writing romance novels, I heard/read/something somewhere that depictions of any rape in a romance novel were pretty much taboo these days. I took that to mean not only scenarios when a hero rapes a reluctant heroine but even when a villian rapes a character in the real sense of the word.

This kind of blindsided me. Not that I make a habit of depicting villains raping characters left and right, but in my mind, rape is a pretty heinous crime, and anyone who engages in it is a pretty heinous person. And since some of my villains are heinous people, it does not go beyond the pale that they might do such a despicable thing.

In fact, in my very first manuscript the heroine is raped by her step-cousin, the villain of the story. I wrote the scene in detail, from the heroine's point of view, and it is horrible. Afterwards she is devastated. It in no way glorifies rape. It's ugly and it's real and it's the act of a truly evil man who gets his just deserts by the end of the story.

But once I learned of the "all rape is taboo" guideline, I was in a predicament. This attack on the heroine is a critical aspect of the story. Because of this attack, many things happen that drive the rest of the story. I tried to imagine what might happen if the villain only almost rapes her, but that doesn't work. I tried to imagine how the story might read if I closed the door on the rape; didn't describe it in any detail. But again, the brutality of the attack is key to the rest of the story, and I feel I'd be doing the reader a disservice by not showing it. If I simply left it at As Roderick shut and locked the door, Betty felt a scream of terror rising out of her throat. Next Chapter it would be awfully hard to convince the reader that how Betty reacted was reasonable because the reader would not know how awful the attack was and what it meant to Betty.

So I'm going to ignore the rumor (or truth) that a publisher will not buy a manuscript that describes any rape scenario. Since this attack is not gratuitous but integral to the story, I'm going to go with my gut. Could mean I might never sell this particular story. But I'm thinking I'd rather tell it my way than dilute the impact simply for a sale.

Real rape is horrible and ugly and evil. I think people who depict it in fiction have a responsibility to keep from using it expoitively and certainly to avoid glorifying it in any way.

But I don't think they should be restricted from depicting it at all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

But I Like the Kitchen Sink

I started a new book yesterday - new-to-me author and a new-to-me series. Before I picked up this title, I checked out the review on AAR. I'm not going to tell you the name of the book yet until I've finished it, at which time I'll form a final opinion and will happily share. But the review on AAR for this particular book as well as the other books in this series was way less than favorable. That's why I checked out the first title from the library rather than commit to a purchase.

Anyway, I decided to read this book despite AAR's bad review. This goes to prove that negative reviews don't necessarily keep people from reading books, or at least me. But I will confess that my expectations for a good read plummeted when I saw that "D-" grade, and I find myself looking for clues to corroborate those negativities the reviewer pointed to specifically.

However, other than one of my greatest pet peeves in any form of writing*, so far I'm enjoying this book quite a bit. The reviewer complained that the story fell into the "everything but the kitchen sink" trap of including nearly every romance novel cliché ever used. Since I'm only about a third of the way into the book, I can't say if this is true or not. Who knows. By the end I might agree with the reviewer.

But here's the thing. I confess to having a thing for all of those romance clichés. I'm a sucker for them. It's why I keep reading romance novels, because quite honestly, I do believe that everything has pretty much been done already. I open a new romance novel and expect to encounter a cliché or two or three. If I'm really lucky, the clichés will be my favorite kind (damsel in distress, knight in shining armor, bedside vigils, enemies into lovers) done very well, and the book ends up on the keeper shelf. The books I toss in the UBS bag or don't even finish are the ones that include clichés I don't love done badly (secret babies, rich businessmen and virginal secretaries, Big Misunderstandings with transparent premises).

In the instance of a book containing too many clichés, yes, there is a point where the hero and heroine have suffered enough for love and the inclusion of more traditional obstacles are just more for the sake of more. If a writer can't maintain an entire novel-length story based on a couple clichés, she (or he) needs to go back to the beginning and try again rather than throw in another been-there-done-that to add fluff.

With my current read, I've encountered three clichés with a set up for at least a fourth. I've got the woman who has sworn off gorgeous, womanizing men married to a gorgeous, womanizing man (enemies into lovers), a near-death of the heroine (bedside vigil), and a commitment phobic man having feelings for his unwanted wife. The set-up for the Big Misunderstanding is standing by in the form of a rival suitor for the wife's affections, and this concerns me a bit because it needs to be handled carefully from here on out or I will get seriously annoyed.

I guess my point is that having everything but the kitchen sink doesn't have to be horrible if it's done well and makes sense. I do admit that this delicate touch isn't something most writers have, but it does happen.

I'll get back to you on the final verdict to see if this writer has the right stuff.

*My biggest pet peeve in any sort of writing is when the characters consistently call each other by name during dialogue. It usually goes something like this:

"Lola, I don't know why you insist on teasing me this way," James said.

"I'm not teasing you, James. I honestly don't love you in that way," Lola replied with a sly grin.

"That's crap, Lola, and you know it. You've wanted me ever since that day you saw me skinny dipping in the old swimming hole." James grabbed Lola by the shoulders.

"Let me go, James," she said, her breath catching in her throat.

"No, Lola, I'm not going to let you go. This is what I'm going to do."

Before Lola knew what was happening, his lips had caught hers in a bruising kiss. She shoved her hands against his chest, breaking the contact that had set her entire body bursting into flame. "James, you are a cad!"

Nothing looks more amateurish than this technique. People do not talk this way. A simple outloud reading of such dialogue would show how unnatural it sounds.

So all writers out there, stop doing that. Just stop.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

High Art on a Cover

I always get a big belly laugh when Candy and Sarah over at Smart Bitches post one of their Covers Gone Wild entries. Those two ladies have raised cover snark to an art form. And heaven knows they have plenty of fuel for their fire. I would wager that 9 out of 10 of those old-school romance covers are cringe-worthy at best, hysterical at worst.

It makes me wonder what in the heck the artists who made these covers were smoking when they designed them and what strip mall art school the creative director who approved them must have gone to. I've worked with designers - a lot of designers - and I'm intimately familiar with the approval process for creative work. I also know the pressure on these people to produce vast quantities of creative product on laughably tight deadlines. If you want an idea about the kind of stress these people undergo, fetch a blank piece of paper, set your kitchen timer for three hours, and design an ad for your favorite book/movie/music CD complete with font selection, line art, and color schemes, and while you're at it, make it look really pretty.

So, yes, these artists and their bosses get a healthy break from me because they have a rough gig. And I also understand that in a majority of cases, they are not given creative license to produce the covers they think are good but are forced to design to some non-creative person's idea of what is good. There is nothing worse than taking art direction from a person who thinks high art is achieved with Elvis on black velvet and that if your design program comes with 246 different fonts, there is absolutely no reason not to use as many as humanly possible. When the publisher tells the artist to show a passionate orgasm-imminent clinch between the hero and heroine and they must be standing on a raft floating in the middle of the ocean with a pirate ship looming on the near horizon and the heroine's hair has to reach to her ankles and the hero must be wearing nothing but an eye-patch and perhaps there should be a parrot in there somewhere, well, my heart goes out to that poor schmuck.

But even so, that's no excuse for the joke that ended up on the cover of so many romance novels. I'm talking about the mullet-headed men in the "pull-my-finger" poses or the women whose O-faces exhibit not so much complete ecstasy but rather a painful case of constipation. Come on. Who ever thought that looked compelling? What art director got that project file with the color proofs and said "Man, what a brilliant execution of love on a raft, and aren't these two hot? Approved. Print it."

Perhaps there is a special school out there for designers of bad romance cover art. The Acme School of Grotesque Man Titty and Tart of the Flowing Tresses.

In other words, it shouldn't be so dang easy for Candy and Sara to snark so well. the interest of defending both the genre I love and hope to find success in one day, and because I believe that some of the most talented people in the world exist in the creative design industry, I'm going to do the opposite of Covers Gone Wild. Here are a couple of book covers that I absolutely love. They are classy. They are well executed. The designers of these covers can hold their heads proudly because they done good.

I owe Sharon over at WriteMinded a big thank-you for bringing my attention to this glorious cover. Actually, Karen Marie Moning owes both Sharon and her cover designer a big fat bouquet of flowers because this cover will probably sell me this book. I've never heard of this author or this series, but I'm so impressed by this incredibly sexy, tasteful and intriguing artwork that I'm dying to read the book. Only problem with a cover like this is that my expectations are very high for what I will find inside. This is a case of judging a book only by its cover and hoping against hope that I won't be disappointed.

This cover is simply lovely. I love the way the heroine is shown from the back, leaving me to imagine what she looks like rather than to roll my eyes over her romance-heroine-genericness. I also love her fairly modern posture in a clearly historical setting. This makes her look like a real person rather than an uptight medieval lady so bound up in her period clothing she couldn't possible be a living, breathing creature. And I confess that, in general, I prefer covers that have that water-color painting look rather than the photo-sum-original art of so many a clinch cover.

The premise for Stuart's Black Ice is what sent me looking for this book, and I would have bought it even if the cover had been a brown paper bag. But I was thrilled when the cover captured that sense of menace the story itself contains. It could be the middle of August and looking at this cover would send icy chills down my spine.

*Sigh* I love this cover. I love everything about it. I love the embossing that gives the flowing draperies so much texture. I love her wedding dress (and I'm completely capable of ignoring the fact that the heroine in this story never wears anything even closely resembling such a dress). I love the glimpse we get of the hero, again allowing us to fill in the blanks of what he really looks like. If I have a single complaint it's that perhaps the heroine's neck has been torked a little bit too much, leaving me to wonder if she isn't going to suddenly scream out in pain from a pinched nerve. Otherwise, I prefer this cover much over the reprint non-traditional version.

Okay, this is kind of a cheat. The original book cover for Wicked is something completely different. This cover is a result of taking the design art from the musical and applying it across the board. But I so much love the entire theme that I've included it here. Look at the way the designer has used line and shape to intertwine the Wicked Witch and the Good Witch. That wry smile on the face of the Wicked Witch hints of a sexy, funny, more-three-dimensional-that-pure-evil character. And what in the world is the Good Witch whispering to evoke such a smile? I've got to read this book! Or at least, I've got to get me some tickets to this musical.

And that is truly good art because it intrigues me. It asks me to look further, to come inside and discover the secrets only hinted at by a single image.

Dang. Hats off. I want the names of these designers so I can look them up someday.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Back when I was working full-time, it wasn't at all unusual to find myself in the midst of a full blown panic attack. Things would get so crazy, with the phone ringing and the e-mail inbox overflowing and deadlines coming one on top of the other that I would literally stand in the center of my cubicle so overwhelmed I didn't have a clue of what to do next.

I hated those days. I hated that feeling of being completely out of control, like there was no way I'd ever be able to get on top of my job.

Usually, what I'd do when I hit panic mode was to come to a full stop on doing any actual work and clean off my desk. Because by the time I got so frantic, piles of paper and notes and empty fast-food containers and soda cans covered the surface of my desk like debris after an earthquake. This mess always added to my stress because I'd be convinced that looming somewhere in the pile about to topple on to the floor were the half-dozen things that absolutely positively had to be done immediately but that I'd completely forgotten about.

So I'd stop everything and clean up. I'd stack piles neatly. File old papers I needed to keep and toss those I didn't. Clear off the ice-cold french fries and even go so far as to scrounge up the communal bottle of Windex spray and clean the inch of dust off the back of my computer monitor.

And afterward, I always felt so much better. With my work area neat and tidy, I felt I had at least a tiny bit of control over things. Add to this my love of creating an orderly to-do list full of tasks I'd be able to cross off with my thick, red Sharpie and my stress level usually plummeted to something hovering near manageable.

When I stopped working, I figured those days of anxiety attacks were over. Sure, I still have deadlines in the form of kids needing to be places at certain times, but at least my phone doesn't ring off the hook and I don't have designers and clients looking at me in expectation. No one is breathing down my neck wondering why I haven't turned in some critical assignment, and as long as I feed people relatively regularly, I'm in no danger of losing my job as Mom. Really, compared to the world I inhabited before, my life now is running in slow motion.

Except recently, I've found myself suffer the same debilitating panic attacks I had when I worked 50 plus hours a week. My heart races, my mind stumbles over all the things I need to get done, and I worry that I'm forgetting about the really important stuff.

And I hate it.

Part of this problem, I think, is my inability to focus properly on one thing at a time. In working where I did, I developed a highly keen ability to multi-task. Actually, I think as a woman multi-tasking is inbred in our genes, and when you become a mother, the skill is fine-tuned to a true art. Throw in working an outside job and most woman would earn metal at the Olympics Multi-tasking event. I always laugh at my husband's dismay when he's asked to do two things at the same time. "What do you mean I have to cook dinner *and* watch the kids?" Puh-leeze.

Thus it only makes sense that my writer's brain wants to multi-task at warp speed. At any given moment, I have half a dozen story ideas and three times that many characters running around inside my head. I'm constantly world building and thinking to myself that I need to get my hands on a notebook so I can jot thoughts down. I will never be able to comprehend a writer who claims to have run out of ideas because mine don't stop coming even when I try to turn them off.

The result of this overabundance is paralysis. I have no idea where to begin. My desk is a heaping mess, my in-box overflowing and my voicemail full.

I've tried cleaning off my desk in the form of brain dumps on paper. When an idea or thought strikes, I put it in a file so it's safe from forgetting and I can then purge it out of my head. This helps a little.

I've tried creating a nice, orderly work space with notebooks and labeled binders to organize my thoughts and plans. And this helps, too. I'm the kind of person who loves to see things all in one place, the big picture if you will. I'm a sucker for forms where you can fill in information so it is right where you need it when you need it.

I've read countless how-to articles full of things like plotting boards and outline formats and character sketches. I've read books with steps a writer can take to turn the writing process into something that can be accomplished in 30 days or less, leaving the actual writing to pretty much an afterthought because the hard stuff is already done. And all of this information has been useful to a certain degree. I've culled from it what works for me and have ignored the stuff I find impossible.

So my actual desk is as clean as it can be. I'm organized and armed and ready to rock and roll. I should be feeling a sense of peace, like I can now sit down and start crossing off the things on my to-do list, a purely sublime experience.

But I don't feel that peace. I still feel slightly panicked because my virtual desk is a mess. And I just can't figure out why what worked for me in my 8-to-5 professional world isn't solving my writing problems. Why can't I get myself together and move forward?

Wait. I haven't written a to-do list. Maybe that's the problem...

Friday, September 09, 2005

Come To the Light

Generally, I consider myself a writer of dark romances. I prefer tortured heroes and, to a smaller degree, heroines, hurt/comfort scenarios, and generally a lot of angst in my stories. I'm great at heaping misery on my characters, both in the form of emotional baggage and current predicaments that involve some measure of suffering.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of stuff that is so dark the romance is almost an afterthought. I don't enjoy stories that involve such things as BDSM. Even if my characters had horrific beginnings, I don't want them so emotionally scarred that they have no capacity for positive love or change.

And for the most part, this set up works okay for me as a writer. I can think of enough ways to make my people suffer without taking them over the brink.

What's harder for me is to keep things light.

I have an idea for a story that involves some fairly innocuous external conflict. The villains aren't mustache-twirlingly bad, more a little over-zealous in their determination to win the game, so to speak. In fact, I think the havoc these guys will wreak is almost more of the accidental "I didn't mean for that to happen!" kind.

And although my hero has lost someone significant in his life that causes him internal struggle, for the most part he's a fairly well-adjusted guy. He's not tortured or dark, just a little bit guilty.

But the problem is my heroine. I just cannot for the life of me think of her in any way other than a perfectly normal person who for the most part is happy with her life. She hasn't suffered horrors in her past. Sure, she'd love to meet a nice guy, but it's not essential to her long term happiness. At least she doesn't think so.

My question is this: can you have a compelling story if there is no major internal conflict? Or can a good story be written that involves a minimal of internal conflict? Perhaps just the normal "If I stick with this guy/girl, I'd have to sublet my apartment" kind of angst rather than the "If I stick with this guy/girl, my entire internal belief system will crumble and I will have to finally at long last release the demons that have been keeping me from ever loving another living soul" kind of angst.

One of my biggest pet peeves in books is forced internal conflict for the sake of...well, conflict. I hate this across genres, but it seems far more obvious in romance novels when keeping the hero and heroine apart for 300 plus pages can prove a challenge. It drives me up the wall when a hero or heroine refuses an obvious attraction simply because inside his/her head he/she is bemoaning "We can't be together because I'm afraid of loving someone/incapable of commitment/not deserving of this person who is so much better than me/fill in the blank with easily-solved conflict."

I guess you could say that I prefer internal conflict to be a mystery to the character. If Susie Gunshy is unwilling to date anybody because Bob Onenightstand dumped her butt fifteen years ago after the big Frat Night Kegger Bash and she knows this, I get kind of annoyed after she's sung the sixteenth chorus of "I can't trust you. All men are scum, as proven by the one and only guy I've dated." If she knows why she is afraid to date nice men - can admit it not only to herself but outloud to other people - then she's already over the conflict hurdle. All we as readers need to do is turn the pages long enough until Stanly Niceguy proves her wrong and they live HEA. Which, unfortunately, tends to be a pretty boring ride.

But if every man in Susie's life has let her down in some way, from her no-good father who left town when she was six to her adored older brother who was killed in The War to her seventh grade science teacher whom she idolized before he was arrested for owning child pornography to the guy who vowed he loved her until after he'd taken her virginity and then left her for the Prom Queen, she'd have legitimate internal conflict about trusting men. Except, she wouldn't think about it in such a pragmatic "All the men in my life have let me down, therefore I don't trust men" way. Her distrust would be so much a part of her very personality that she'd analyze it no more than the rest of us analyze why we prefer dogs over cats or vice versa.

And if Susie's life had followed the course I've stated above, she'd certainly come with emotional baggage. The hurdles Stanly Niceguy would have to scale would be meaningful and real, and his success would be something I'd turn those pages to witness.

So I hate to give my characters trivial internal conflict. Conversely, I don't like the idea of always writing or reading about people who've suffered the worst life has to offer. Sometimes it would be nice to write a light story where the conflicts aren't so dire rather than floundering in the dark.

I very much admire writers who can tell a story about normal people (defined in the loosest sense of the word normal) and keep me hooked while avoiding internal conflict that reeks of contrivance. If a couple can't be together because one of them has a hang-up, make me believe it. Otherwise I just feel like slapping the character and pulling a Cher. Snap out of it!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Who Says People Don't Care?

Sorry for the gap. Tuesday I determined that the fifteen-odd Rubbermaid containers full of baby and toddler clothes I've accumulated over the past seven plus years were doing no good to anyone taking up space in my guest-room closet. With so many people needing so much, I had no good excuse not to sort it all out and ship it down south, so I rolled up the shirt sleeves and got busy. Little did I know this project would take two full days.

I sorted by size, culled out the stained items (which were clean when I packed them up, I swear), and grouped like items into bundles. On Tuesday night my husband came home to find our family room looked like an explosion in a clothing factory. Anyway, when all was said and done, I ended up with five large boxes full of infant and toddler clothing. Actually, I'll have another box in a day or two as I've set many infant items with faint milk-stains to soak in Oxyclean, which if you haven't discovered yet is the miracle chemical of the modern age.

Neat story. I hauled my boxes to the local UPS store to ship out, figuring with the current perfomance of various US governmental systems, I'd be better trusting private enterprise to get my stuff to Louisiana. I've marked the boxes very clearly with what items are inside so there is no mistaking whatsoever that this stuff is meant for the hurricane survivors, and only the vilest of FEMA beaurocrats would thwart its progress into the hands of children with nothing more than a single change of clothes or no shoes at all. You'd think that would inspire the US Post Office to speed things up or at least make sure the stuff arrives intact, but I'm not taking my chances.

Anyway, the man behind the counter at the UPS store was weighing and measuring my boxes, muttering the cost to ship each one as he finished. I joked that it would be a great service if UPS would waive shipping fees of relief items being shipped down to the Gulf region. The UPS man said he was surprised that they weren't doing exactly that, to which I replied they could at the very least offer a substantial discount.

When my bill was totalled, the shipping cost amounted to over $76. As I fished in my wallet for my credit card, the UPS man reached into a container on the top of the cash register and pulled out a $20 bill. He told me that my amount came to $56.

Now, I don't think this money was UPS money, but rather money that maybe the store employees had put together for some use or another. Pizza. Taco Bell. A dozen donuts from the Dunkin Donuts on the other end of the strip mall. Or maybe they'd all tossed a few bucks in the jar for occasions like mine. But I thought it was just the nicest thing in the world that this guy chipped in to pay for the shipping.

This is the kind of stuff that shows what we Americans are really made of.

And anybody in the upper echelons of UPS management who might happen to read this, you should take a note from your employees. Offering people discounted shipping of items meant for disaster relief is good PR for your company and it's good stewardship of this country.

At the very least, someone needs to give that UPS guy a raise. He deserves it!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Tears Are Colorless

And over the past week, I've shed many.

So although I will probably regret this, I really need to get a few things off my chest in regards to what I'm hearing about the situation in New Orleans and why and who and how.

First of all, I sent my money to the American Red Cross without any thought whatsoever to the color of the skin of the people my donation would eventually help. Just as I didn't think for a single second about what nationality the victims of the Tsunami were when I donated to the American Red Cross for that disaster, nor what religion the people who were victims of the 9/11 attacks were when I sent my money to the American Red Cross to help those folks out. And frankly, I don't care one bit about any of that.

My donations are color-blind, and I resent it when influential people come on television and imply that Americans don't care about what is happening to those unfortunate people suffering in New Orleans because those folks are of a certain racial background or economic status. According to BusinessWeek Online, donations for the victims of Katrina are coming in in record amounts and at a faster rate than the Tsunami and 9/11 disasters. So it seems as if the majority of Americans are not holding back their support for any reason, especially not because of the race or previous economic position of the victims.

Secondly, offers the following definition:
ref·u·gee ( P ) (rfy-j)n. One who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution.

I don't personally find anything at all derogatory in that description. I certainly would never think less of a person who was a refugee, whether they've left their country because of war or famine or they've left their city because of natural disaster.

So why have some people of influence come on television to decry the media's use of the word refugee to describe the victims of Katrina, claiming that using this term is derogatory toward a certain racial group? When I hear the word refugee, I don't think of anyone of any particular ethnicity, simply a person who has been displaced from his or her home. Calling someone a refugee does not mean that person has now lost his or her identity as an American citizen. It does not mean that this person is inferior or not needing of compassion or help.

So what is the problem?

And finally, I completely respect and even accept the needs of many of the victims of Katrina to help themselves to the food and water and diapers and shoes and clothing from the shelves of the abandoned stores of New Orleans. I like to believe that the store owners themselves would have been handing out these items to the needy - free of charge - had they been there to do so. I don't call these people looters, simply survivors, regardless of the color of their skin.

But people who gleefully carry televisions and bicycles and DVDs and entire racks of expensive shoes and clothing and GUNS from abandoned stores are looters. They are thieves. Period. And here, too, it doesn't matter what color their skin is.

So when influential people come on television and claim the media's calling of these thieves "looters" just another example of stereotyping and profiling, I wonder how they are so completely able to ignore the miles of video footage showing non-essential items being carried out of stores, stolen almost proudly with no sense of shame or apology. I wonder what kind of twist on such a scenario they can possibly spin to make such lawlessness acceptable or the fault of anyone else - the American people or the government or the hurricane itself - other than these thugs who are so utterly lacking in common decency.

This is not the time to draw racial lines in the sand. This is not the time to accuse the American population of racial neglect. Certainly blame needs to be laid where it belongs when we finally have the time to examine the reasons it took entirely too long to help these people. I would wager that victims in areas that are comprised of predominately white communities are as neglected by the powers that be as those folks in New Orleans. These people are probably feeling just as abandoned and helpless and frustrated as those stuck in the Superdome. To claim that any one group is being treated more poorly because of their race or economic background is misdirecting blame, an exercise that will do no one any good.

If you look at pure, empirical data, the population of New Orleans is 67% African American (using 2000 US Census data), and 27% of the population is below the poverty level. Place this disaster in Miami, Florida, we'd be seeing a disproportionate number of Hispanic people (Miami's population is 67% Hispanic) and the poor (28% of Miami's population falls beneath the poverty line), not because of discrimination but because of demographics. It's not a conspiracy.

And I would be no less outraged if the current situation existed in Miami, and I'd give just as much to help those who needed it. Just as I would be no more outraged if the entire state of Rhode Island, with its 85% caucasian and 89% over the poverty level population, were experiencing this tragedy. It's wrong in any color.

But this should not be about race. This should be about people needing help. Now. To jump to making accusations only serves to alienate and divide us when we most need to stick together and help each other out. This is already a national embarrassment. Let's not make it worse by throwing stones at each other.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Ugly Rumor

In a forum for a group I belong to, one of the posters stated that the Canadian Red Cross is telling people that the American Red Cross has asked for no outside-US donations because it currently has everything under control.

If you've heard this rumor, please know that IT IS NOT TRUE.

I called the American Red Cross Donation Line (1-800-HELP-NOW) and was told that ANY donation is welcome. I specifically asked if I lived in Canada or Mexico or elsewhere outside of the US could I donate, and the woman I spoke with said YES.

So please, if you are not a US citizen but would like to donate something, please go to the American Red Cross website or call the donation line and do so.

It makes me sick to think of how many people will not donate simply because they believe their help is not needed.


The Notebook Cure

Last night, I watched countless programs about the events unfolding in New Orleans and the entire Gulf region. Horrified doesn't even begin to describe my reaction. I'm donating to the American Red Cross Hurricane 2005 Disaster Fund. I urge anyone who can afford it to do the same. Every little bit helps.

It feels very strange to blog about normal things when the world around us seems so unsettled. But in the interest of pulling myself out of my melancholy, I want to keep living life as normally as I can. Something none of us should take for granted right now.

I've been using a computer for so long now - at work and at home - that writing things out on paper is almost painful for me. It's like my fingers are so out of shape writing-wise that they don't remember how to execute the proper moves. My printing is so terribly sloppy, I'm almost embarrassed when I have to send notes to school or write out a thank you letter.

Not only that, but my brain works differently now. I'm so used to thinking in backspace mode that when I have to commit words in ink on paper, I come up nearly blank. I have to see what I've written in front of me so I can decide if I'm happy with it or not, which requires the ability to erase it all with ease when it's more the not. Since I don't like writing with a pencil, that means lots of rewriting to keep things I'm going to send to other people neat and tidy.

So the idea of writing an entire novel out in longhand is inconceivable to me. When I read about writers who take their notebooks to the park or to the coffee shop (a la JK Rowling) where they fill page after page, I can't imagine ever doing that. Sure, I carry around a notebook which I use to jot down thoughts or bits of research or things that don't lend themselves to being typed easily into a word processing program, like family trees or maps of imaginary towns. But an entire novel? On real, live paper? No way.

But a couple of weeks ago, I hit a bit of writer's block. Rather than stare at the blank screen in front of me that almost seemed to be saying, "Come on, I dare you!", I picked up a notebook and started to write in it instead. Just as I expected it would be, it was pretty painful. I crossed out pretty much every other word and every other complete sentence. The margins are crammed with rewrites, and there are so many arrows pointing this way and that I'm not sure I'll ever untangle the mess.

But it did work. I managed to get down several pages, and even though I doubt the word count is very high given that most of the pages are more crossed-out-stuff than keep-stuff, at least I wrote something.

I think something about knowing that writing on paper will mean I'll have lots of errors is kind of liberating. When you have the ability to backspace, the pressure to stew until the perfect sentence emerges is pretty strong. Looking at a blank screen is a lot more threatening than looking at a blank page filled with faint blue lines acting as gentle guides and margins offering plenty of buffer space for future corrections.

Ever since I sat down at the library on Monday, all set to really get going on one of my twenty starts, I've been nearly paralyzed. The urge to write has completely disappeared. Granted, this is not abnormal for this particular time of the month since my creativity levels ebb and flow with my hormones. But I'd determined to ignore this uncontrollable aspect and work through those slow times, regardless of how uninspired I've felt.

I think what is probably happening is total fear because now I must produce. Which means, it's probably time to get that notebook out and forget about the blank screen of my laptop. Maybe if I remember that it's okay to make lots of mistakes, I'll be able to at least get something down on paper. I can always cross it all out later.

Worst part about writing in longhand? Somebody has to transcribe it all into the laptop eventually. I remember the days when my mother typed my father's PhD dissertation on a tiny electric typewriter.

Wonder how much she'd charge to do that for me?