Monday, October 31, 2005

Ready, Set, Go

You know, I have to wonder why the creators of NaNoWriMo chose the month of November for such a work-intensive endeavor. With Thanksgiving taking up a very long weekend for any US participants (and really, unless you don't go visit family or aren't in charge of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, those days between Wednesday and Sunday are goners) not to mention the fact that November 1st starts at midnight the same night as Halloween, it's really a short month. Plus it's only got 30 days to begin with.

I'd think some time like March would be better. Or January. Both months have nothing much happening in them, they both have 31 days, and they both are at times of the year when the northern hemisphere is hemmed in by cold and dark and those of us living in it more likely to be motivated to write.

Oh well, I'm sure they had their reasons.

Anyway, I don't know that I'll be able to make it up until midnight tonight to get started. But it sure seems lame not to do so. Like falling asleep at 11:45 on New Year's Eve, just when Dick Clark's big ball is about to descend.

I wonder if it would be okay if I pretended I was on Eastern time rather than Central time. I mean, who really cares? Technically, I could use Greenwich time as my marker and get started as soon as we finish sorting all the trick or treat loot and checking it for rusty razor blades. I plan to post my word count here, but I can just wait until tomorrow morning to do that, right?

Of course, the sooner I start the sooner I have to decide on the story I will stick with for the next thirty days. And wouldn't you know this weekend I was hit with a wonderful premise that has nothing at all to do with anything I've already been working on. In fact, it's not even in the same subgenres.

But I've been very good. I spent yesterday brainstorming the new idea and doing some rough research, all of which I jotted in an empty Word document and saved to look at when NaNo is finished. I've brain dumped so my mind is clear and free to focus. My only allowable diversion from writing on one story and one story alone is to blog daily. Cause blogging doesn't count since it's not fiction, right?

For one month, I hereby vow to be monogomous to one story and one story only. I won't look at another story. I won't think longingly of other characters. I promise to love, honor and cherish my NaNo story until 50,000 words or death us do part.

Or until midnight, December 1. Greenwich time.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Yes, Virginia, There Really Is a Santa Claus

I hold no illusions about the rocky road to becoming published. I have yet to send in my first manuscript (heck, I have yet to completely finish an MS to a sendable form), yet to get my first rejection letter, yet to reach that moment of despair and self-doubt after having received the umpteenth rejection letter. Even so, I know what my future has in store for me. A lot of negativity with the tiniest glimmer of hope to keep me going. My momma didn't raise no dummy.

Except, every once in a while Cinderella comes along and sticks her big, fat glass-slippered foot up my butt to remind me that although 99.999% of all writers follow the same path, one or two experience The Miracle. (Cue heavenly music.)

A couple days ago I received an e-mail from a friend, a writer who has been published in the Inspirational market, and who is working feverishly to expand her writing career to the next book and the book after that. I don't think she'll mind if I share this story clipped directly from her e-mail. I've cut out the non-pertinent stuff and changed names to protect the innocent!

"One of the members of [my writers' group] e-mailed us a little over a year ago and said that one of the younger ladies from church (late 20's, early 30s) had approached her in the hall one Sunday. This nice gal said she'd heard Suzie had been published, and wanted to know how she might get the book *she* was working on, published. (Not an uncommon question.) But so many times, these "writers" seem to think it's a breeze. A query letter to a publisher and you're on your way.

NOT. I have enough rejection letters to line my walls, and so do many other authors in my group. Publishing is just NOT easy, and it's certainly not for the faint of heart. We always try to pass along the words of wisdom that if your self-esteem is low, don't even bother trying. Hundreds of rejection notices hurt. Plus, nowadays, the national market won't even accept your mailed query letter if it doesn't come from a reputable agent. So if you don't have an agent (which often takes longer to find than a publisher), don't even bother. So the road to finding an agent is hard an ugly, and with no guarantees.

Anyway, on with the story. This young gal, nearly bubbling over with enthusiasm, asked for info. Suzie told her the hardships and ins and outs, and told her that her very first step would be to find an agent. (And warned her it would be no easy task.) She directed her to the Writers' Market books for agency listings and sent her on her way.

A couple of months later, this cute young thing bubbles up to Suzie at church and practically FLOORED Suzie when she told her she had FOUND a literary agent who had fallen in love with her mss...and a few weeks later, Little, Brown and Co. had called her agent "with a preemptive deal so huge that I honestly thought [her agent] was pulling my leg." Little, Brown signed her to a THREE BOOK DEAL, and now she even has a MOVIE DEAL!!!"

So, first time out of the gate, not a single rejection letter to her name, this author sends out her virgin manuscript and gets it published, an agent, and a movie option.

Uh...okay. Yeah.

No, really, this is wonderful. You can't help but cheer when you hear this story (after you stop gnashing your teeth and pounding your chest with pure, green envy) because it's the Writer's Fairytale come true. It proves that although it might not happen often, it does happen. And if it can happen to this non-assuming young thing, then why couldn't it happen to, oh, say me?

The writer who pulled off this amazing feat is Stephenie Meyer (who, if she ever reads this, should alter her website so that her name is featured prominently and clearly on her home page) and her book is called Twilight. Her web site features her version of her publishing story, and it's just as inspirational as my friend's account. You just want to cry and grin at the same time.

And to add insult to injury, this book looks really, really good.

Man, I'll bet she's really pretty and a wears a size 3, has great hair, never had a cavity, and wakes up at 6:00 a.m. with a smile on her face and little bluebirds singing on her windowsill.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Thanks For Sharing. Really.

One of the things I've discovered since joining the on-line writing community is how unbelievably generous most writers are. Or at least, the romance novel writing community is generous since I have no idea how things are in the mystery writers or SciFi fantasy or, heaven forbid, Literary communities.

When I say generous, I'm talking about the willingness to share knowledge. I've confessed before that I'm a junky for how-tos, any book or article or program that might offer me some little tidbit that I can apply to my own writing. And I've discovered the greatest resource for solid, usable writing tips and strategies is from writers themselves. Those people who've been in the trenches and have stared down a blank page and lived to tell about it.

Even more impressive is the fact that these writers who could choose to spend their time writing manage to make time to offer up what they've learned. They take precious moments away from their WIPs to compose sometimes lengthy workshops or blog entries or similar so those of us in writer's preschool can benefit from their struggles.

I would like to thank these kind people. I know it's not intended for me personally, that I'm just a nameless, faceless blob in the massive crowd of writer wannabes, but you cannot imagine how much your advice means to me and how much it helps me. Every day I come to your blogs or websites hoping that another pearl of wisdom will be waiting, some little bit of advice that might help me get past a particular problem I might be having. The thrill for a how-to junkie like me is indescribable.

Writers of exceptional generosity include PBW, Holly Lisle, Alison Kent, Michelle Willingham, just to name a few. There are many, many more, and I apologize for not listing them all. Perhaps I'll add to my sidebar a section for Writers Deserving of Gratitude and keep adding to it, to give all of these people their due props.

And I also promise, right here and right now, if I ever become published and therefore worthy of extending advice, I'll give back to the community the same way these women have given to me. If I can help just one person out there, I'll be thankful.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Mix

My name is Lynn, and I have an addiction. I can't hide it any longer. I need to come clean.

I am addicted to...Chex Mix.

And I'm not talking that wimpy, weak shit they try to pass off at the grocery store as the Original Chex Mix.

I'm addicted to the hard core stuff. The buy three boxes of cereal, melt the butter, add the spices and cook it over low heat for an hour, stirring every fifteen minutes good shit.

It all started last December. The holidays. Time for mucho baking. Following the recipe printed on the side of the Corn Chex box, I whipped up an old fashioned batch for one party or another, forgetting how good homemade Chex Mix tasted until I took my first handful. Dang. Ambrosia.

After the holidays were over and that first batch loooong gone, I figured, hey, why save it just for parties? That might have been an advertising slogan at one point. I don't recall, in which case they might just have something with that subliminal messages theory. I'd make batch after batch, and we'd scarf it down like it was nectar of the gods.

I got a little crazy and started messing with the original recipe. Seems nobody really liked the pretzels because they were always left at the bottom of the tupperware container along with the shreds of crumbled cereal squares. Too, my daughter isn't a big fan of nuts, nor did they really add anything of consequence to the mix. I love to snack on those crunchy La Choy chow mein noodles, so I threw in a cup or so of those, delighting in that surge of bad-girl rush for being such a rebel. And I - hold on to yourself - increased the quantity of each cereal from three cups to something a little closer to four while at the same time melting all 8 tablespoons of the stick of butter instead of just 6 so I could make a bigger batch in one baking.

Crazy, I tell you!

So now I've got it down to a precise mixture of cereal and addins plus butter and spices that tickles my family's particular fancy.

Not that the family ever gets to eat any of it. See, Chex Mix is the perfect snack for me to have sitting in a bowl while I'm writing. It's not too greasy as to cause problems with my keyboard (or at least, swiping my hands on the leg of my jeans doesn't cause stains that don't come out in the wash). It isn't too sweet, nor is it so salty that I'm constantly having to refill the Diet Coke and subsequently making endless trips to the bathroom. Plus it has a delightful crunch and the bonus of every mouthful coming as a surprise. Will I get mostly Wheat Chex? Maybe more Corn than Rice. Or how about an unusually large helping of chow mein noodles?

I have to confess to General Mills that I've discovered the much cheaper store brands of chex-like cereals work just as well, so I'm not going to be personally responsible for keeping them in the black despite my addiction.

And I would greatly appreciate anyone out there who can assure me that this processed flours and sugars snack isn't really probably the worst food possible I could be eating while simultaneously sitting on my butt for hours because it is all carbs, carbs, and more carbs.

Some addictions are better left unexamined too closely. Just pass The Mix.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Style Doesn't Mean Substance

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of The West Wing. Last night I sat down to catch up on the last two episodes I've had TiVoed and finally got tired of waiting for the hubby to watch with me. He's on his own.

Anyway, the most recent episode was really good story-wise. A major character who I really like has gotten himself into a heap of trouble, and although I don't blame the other characters for now treating him as a pariah, I feel so sorry for him. There's a new level of tension that the show had been missing, not to mention I'm happy to have the story set back in the West Wing instead of always on the campaign trail as it has been nearly all of this season.

But this episode annoyed me on an entirely different level. Almost every scene was shot in the most bizarre way. In nearly every instance, one character would be talking to another character who could not be seen either at all or only indirectly, as in reflected in a pane of window glass or obscured by an artfully placed lampshade. Often one character would occupy far screen left, the character he or she was talking to actually off-screen left, and 2/3 of the rest of the screen was full of room. Talk about feeling off balance.

The first time this occurred, I noticed it but didn't think twice about it. Then it happened again and again and again until I realized this was actually intentional. It was if the director was trying to be artistic or maybe was trying to imply some deep metatextual message about people hiding themselves from others or discovering hidden agendas or how we aren't always able to see the entire scene.

All I know is that it annoyed the heck out of me.

Plus, it completely distracted me from the story. In nearly every scene, this stylistic approach dominated my thoughts because it was so dang obvious. Instead of listening to the dialogue or watching the actors' facial expressions, I was focused on who was off-screen and if I could catch a glimpse of reflection or why in the heck the camera is doing that extreme close up of a lamp shade rather than the people.

Which goes to show that a little bit of style goes a long way, especially if that style is of an extreme nature. One or two of such scenes would have been more than plenty.

Same goes when writing a novel. All those gimmicks - stories told via e-mails or second-person POV or without using any paragraph breaks - can be either really unique and fun or really, really annoying and distracting.

I'm at the beginning of a YA story about three sisters. What I want to do is show the story from each sister's POV, taking turns between them. I also would love to find a way to keep this a first-person POV because nearly every single YA that I've loved is written in first-person POV. Except, how do you switch between three characters, all of them speaking in FP? Talk about mass confusion.

So I got the brilliant idea that maybe each sister could communicate in a different way. For example, one sister could write e-mails or use IMing, one sister could journal, and one sister could write long, eloquent letters. This style would tell the reader which character's brain they were currently sitting in. Also, the method of communicating would say something about the character.

This could work.

This could also get highly annoying very quickly. Maybe just a little too much style for a little too long. I have no idea. I suppose the only way to find out is to give it a try and call up some friends to read it with the explicit instructions to tell me if they find such a method cool or a pain in the ass.

Because last thing I need is for readers to be so cognizant of style that the story is secondary. Style should be entirely invisible. If you can see it, it means you aren't focusing on the right thing.

After all, e.e. cummings may have written amazing poems, but I can't ever get past all of those lower case letters to find out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Too Many Choices

I can only imagine how annoying it must be for a writer who struggles to come up with workable story ideas to read or listen to another writer who has so many ideas she (or he) doesn't know where to begin. I can only imagine this because I fall in the latter camp.

NaNoWriMo begins in one short week, and I have to decide which of my twenty or so story ideas I want to focus on. Where I fell down last year was in changing my mind, not just once but twice, and starting on new ideas rather than follow through with my original plan. Like I said before, I did manage to write the 50,000 words that make you a "winner" in NaNo's book, but they were spread over three different story ideas. Yeah, not so good.

Problem for me is that I have twelve different ideas for books that are connected to each other. Yes, each book can stand alone. Each book has a distinct hero and heroine, a complete story arc with neat and tidy HEA, and enough general material to fill well over 50,000 words. But these ideas involve no small amount of thought and coordination. The world building is fairly intensive, and I need to make sure that I'm not setting up major continuity issues. I need to know which characters need to be where and when. Heck, I'm not even sure yet what order the stories follow. I'm constantly changing my mind about what happens when.

All is not lost, however. I do have two or three stand-alone ideas. One of these is actually a Young Adult novel that's been lingering in the back of my brain for a long time. Plus I have three historicals - spanning time periods as diverse as medieval England and Ireland up through pre-Revolutionary America - in some degree of production.

One of the tenets of NaNo is for writers to turn off their internal editors and just write without worrying about quality. Quantity is the name of the game. As such, it makes sense to use a story idea with not much invested into it. If ever there exists a time to try being a pantser, it's during NaNo.

Unfortunately, I can't work that way. Pantsing usually gets me one or two chapters and then a hard crash into a brick wall. I need to know characters and setting and scenes and overall arc. Because if I don't know all of this stuff, when the going gets tough, I use as my excuse to stop writing the need to develop all of these details. Next thing I know, I'm knee deep in personality profiles and plotting boards and haven't written a single world.

Maybe the easiest solution is to put all of my story ideas into a hat and just pick one at random. Whatever I pull out is the focus for NaNo.

What I need to learn to do, though, is turn off the part of my brain that will be thinking about all those ideas still floating around in that hat.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Happy Anniversay, Lappy

This month I'm celebrating the one year anniversay of having my laptop. What a year it's been!

No, really, I can't imagine how I went so long without this thing. We've had a PC in our house since around 1994, and my husband's had a laptop for his job for about as long. So I've always had access to a computer. But it was always a shared proposition (and yeah, there were fights about me being on it so much and the hubby wanting a turn), and of course it wasn't mobile in any way. Getting my own equipment means now I can write pretty much anywhere, anytime.

And I do. I've written while riding in the car and while sitting in the car waiting for some kid lesson to be finished. I've written during Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, sneaking away for a paragraph or two. I've written sitting on the couch, lying in bed, and lounging in the shade on our deck. When my husband purchased this for me, he opted for the larger screen at the expense of a heavier machine. This does make my laptop a bit bulkier and heavier than I'd like (I say after spending an hour drooling over the Mac Powerbooks at the Apple Store, downtown Chicago), but it's done me good in so many other ways I can't complain.

I know many writers out there use something like the Alphasmart for their writing. I'm somewhat tempted by this option because my biggest distractor and time waster is the Internet. See, here I am writing in this blog rather than writing my WIP, after which I'll hop around my blog loop for another hour or so. Not to mention all the times I'll be writing and discover I need some detail that requires research and I'm destined to lose a good half hour or more while I find the answer. If I had a non-Internet capable machine, that little problem would be solved. I could type in asterisks to indicate where I need to fill in facts, and I could segregate writing time as completely separate from Internet time.

Except, I love the fact that when I have my laptop, I have every tool I need at my fingertips. I have all of my spreadsheets with plotting notes and characters development tracks. I have dictionaries and thesauruses (?) and world time conversions and distance calculators and all kinds of stuff right inside this tiny little box. I don't have to cart around notebooks and binders because most of the information is in my computer in some format or another.

Kind of the one-stop-shopping advantage.

I have taken to writing in a notebook more often, but it's really hard to move out of the "backspace mentality" to make much progress. I'm so accustomed to having that ability to rewind, erase that most of what ends up on paper has lines through it and words and arrows in the margins and a whole lot of incomprehensible junk I later have to wade through. As such, I've reserved paper writing for getting me started or unstuck, or when I find myself stranded someplace without the trusty laptop.

Oddly, my wedding anniversary is also in October. I have to confess, my marriage to this laptop has run a lot more smoothly than my marriage to my husband. Lappy doesn't give me grief when I leave her running or have a messy desktop. Nor does she expect me to share the remote control, ask me where she left her wallet, or snore whenever she has a cold.

She's the first thing I'd grab if the house were burning down and I was assured the kids and pets were already safe. She's the first thing I'd load in the car if a hurricane were a-comin'. And she's the first thing I greet after a long vacation.

Yes, a match made in heaven.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Procrastination World Building

I don't currently have any plans to venture into the SciFi/Fantasy genres, either as a subset of Romance or an entity all unto themselves. I simply don't have the imagination necessary to invent entire new planets and cultures and laws of physics. Contemplating the idea of time travel bends my non-scientific mind like a paperclip as it is, what with alternate time dimensions and the realities of history being changed by a miniscule event or running into past incarnations of yourself. Gak! I still don't fully grasp Einstein's Theory of Relativity or understand why jumbo jets are able to fly, so the idea of space travel or other dimensions is really out there for me. I won't even go into magic and faeries and other paranormal options because the possibilities are simply too great for my tiny brain to handle.

Even though I could never write the stuff, I love SciFi/Fantasy stories and movies. I think it's because I'm in awe of the talent required to pull them off well. Can I tell you that I view J.R.R. Tolkien as some kind of god, considering that he not only invented Middle Earth but several milleniums' worth of history to go with it? Plus a cast of literally thousands of characters. And languages. The guy invented complete languages, for crying out loud! Ones that actually sounded realistic when coming from Liv Tyler's mouth.

Anyway, if I continue down the path I've chosen writing-wise, I won't be required to do any major universe shifting. But I still have to build a world in which my characters work and play and love and fight. I'm a big fan of series featuring the same characters across stories (coughBrockmann'sTroubleshootersandTallDarkandDangerouscough). I have so many characters running through my head who all know each other and work together I've got a solid dozen books waiting on queue to be written, all of which take place in the Lynn Version of the world.

As such, I've spent the past couple of weeks doing some serious world building. My world actually takes place in the very near future. Because here's the deal. By the time I write my books, edit them, shop them around for months/years/decades and hopefully get The Call, plus the year to 18 month lead time between The Call and Book On The Shelf, whatever I write today is going to be years obsolete.

I know I can get around that little issue by simply not dating my books. Don't say more than "Present Day" in any timeline specified. I get that. What's harder, though, is that time is passing between real world events that I might want to reference and the ages of my characters. For example, say I have a guy who served in the First Gulf War when he was 22 years old. Today that guy would be 36. Since I can't move the War out of 1991, every year that passes my hero gets older and older, unless, of course, I want to have him get younger and younger when he was overseas. I don't imagine publishers are too interested in a story about a hero who served in a war when he was 12 years old.

So, do you see my problem?

Yeah, you are telling me what I need to do is just shut up and get busy writing and this all becomes a non-issue.

But, I would argue, I'm having a lot of fun building my world. I'm having a blast assembling a team of warriors, coming up with the things about them that are the same and the things that are different. I'm enjoying the research and loving creating their histories, both as individuals and as a group. I have several large spreadsheet cheatsheets that help me keep the facts straight, and since I'm a true spreadsheet geek at heart, this act of organizing and arranging is just pure geek heaven for me.

Too, I'm enjoying manipulating the world as it is to create artifical bad guys and crisis scenarios that require big time heroes and heroines to solve. It's fun making up fake countries and cities full of imaginary intrigue, danger and chaos. And it's even more fun giving my guys and gals the powers to fix everything in the end. Talk about feeling like a god.

In fact, I can kind of see why JRR Tolkien spent decades immersed in his own imaginary world. I'm certainly not about to invent any languages, but this procrastinating world building stuff is pretty cool.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Too Good Not To Share

Okay, I just saw this and must spread it around. This is from Best-of-Craigslist via Amy Edward's blog:

10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage is Wrong

1. Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester and air conditioning.

2. Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

3. Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

4. Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can't marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

5. Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britney Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.

6. Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn't be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren't full yet, and the world needs more children.

7. Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

8. Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That's why we have only one religion in America.

9. Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.

10. Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven't adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Permission to post this was granted: "Re-post this if you believe love makes a marriage."

Brilliantly said.

Random Junk

With a pile of TBR books roughly 150 high, I gotta wonder why in the world I'm currently in a re-reading mode. The last three books I've picked up have been ones from my keeper shelf. I mean, I have books such as Private Demon and Dark Lover that I'm itching to start, just to name two off the top of my head. So why am I working through some old Brockmann categories and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series?

I have no idea.

Comfort, maybe. This time of year, when the weather turns crisp and the leaves start to tumble, there's something appealing about curling up with a great read. Those keepers are keepers for a reason, because they never fail to make me feel great. It's like catching a favorite movie running on TNT or TBS on a Sunday afternoon. You just can't help but stop and watch.

The Brockmanns I can chalk up to a need to read in the mode of which I'm writing. Kind of like preparing the palate for a good meal, if you will.

The Sisterhood books are a direct result of my renting the DVD of the movie (dang, what a three-hanky movie!) and a need to refresh my memory as to what happens next to these characters.

I imagine I need to get reading out of my system since I do plan to participate in NaNoWriMo and want nothing to distract me from writing. I'm lucking out in that my TV watching will be reduced by one hour after Over There airs its season finale episode next week. And I've officially given up Desperate Housewives. I liked the show and have every epi from this season TiVoed, but I have no drive to watch them. That's telling, isn't it?

I've been following avidly the bloggers of late like Steph Tyler and PBW and Alison Kent who have been discussing ways to increase productivity. My problem isn't so much needing ways to increase productivity but more so ways to stop procrastinating. I need that giant shove to find the momentum to get going more than I need ways to keep the momentum going. I'm not the train in the middle of the hill, struggling to make it to the top. I'm the train sitting at the bottom of the hill, struggling to make a start.

Alison also touched on something that I've discovered is true about myself. When I'm engaged in other creative activities, my need and desire to write diminishes. It's as if I have a limited quantity of creative juices, and if I direct them someplace other than on the page, there is nothing left. Right now I'm on the home stretch of Halloween costume making, so writing falls to the way side. That's a big no no, I know. I've tried to limit myself to costume making when the kids are around and writing when they aren't.

So, yeah, I'm in a big time wasting mode. Need to get out of it right quick. November is looming.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Magic Power of the Music

You know how it is when you get something stuck in your head and it just won't go away? I've been thinking a lot about Wicked, which as I mentioned earlier I saw this past Saturday night. The more time that passes and the more it gels in my brain, the more I love this musical.

From a story perspective, I have to admit the show is lacking. The basic premise of why Elphaba - the future Wicked Witch of the West - seems to "go bad" is kind of weak. I don't think it's weak because it's really weak, more so that the limitations of a musical that already lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes can only allow so much.

And it could be the fact that I'm a hopeless romantic (duh!), but I wish more time had been spent on the relationship between Elphaba and Fiyero. Heck, I would have enjoyed the musical that much more if the entire thing had swung around the relationship between Elphaba and Fiyero.

No, what makes this musical my current obsession is the music. I can't stop thinking about the music.

I don't see many musicals, despite the fact that I live in the third largest city in the US, a city with a wonderful theater district. It's simply too expensive. By the time you buy tickets (our decent-but-too-far-stage-right front row balcony seats cost a whopping $85 a piece), pay for a babysitter, pay for city parking, and do dinner, you are talking an evening that costs a couple hundred dollars minimum. That's something that's a once-a-year special treat.

I've lived here for a dozen years now, and I've seen maybe half that many musicals. I did see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat twice. My defense is that the company featured the incomporable Donny Osmond in the role of Joseph, and we took both my parents and my husband's parents on different nights. My mom, aunt, cousin and I managed to snag great seats to Mamma Mia via Hot Tix, a forum where you can buy same-night theater tickets at reduced prices. I've also seen Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria (I actually liked the movie better), and productions of Evita, Little Shop of Horrors, and a couple others that don't immediately come to mind.

Of what I have seen, Joseph, Mamaa Mia, and, now, Wicked stand out in my mind as my favorites. And when I examine why this is so, in every case it's because of the music.

I'm in complete awe how a story can be told via the music. How the lyrics advance the plot and do so much to explain the internal dialogue that can't be shown in a traditional stage production. I was nodding my head when I read an article that talked about how first, a Wicked screenplay for a movie was attempted but quickly abandoned when the writers realized it would be nearly impossible to express the internal workings of the characters on film. However, a musical perfectly lent itself to such a story because emotions and internal motivation could be expressed via song to very good effect.

Not only do the words explain so much, the music itself can create such intese emotion I sit there slack jawed. Coupled with an actor or actress who can sing in ways that make me green and purple with envy, you have to shake me once the whole thing is over to get me to stand up and leave the theatre.

For example, probably my favorite song from Wicked - "No Good Deed" - is so moving it keeps bringing me to tears. Elphaba's anguish is wide open for all to hear (no doubt aided by Ana Gasteyer's amazing vocals) in such a way that I ache for her character in a way no book or movie has the power to make me do. Even as I listen to the CD track over and over, I still feel the tears welling in my eyes.

If I could ask for any one talent, I think it would be the ability to create music. To sing in such a way that moves people to tears, or to write the songs that inspire the same. Perhaps it's because my own abilities lie in the visual rather than the audible that I have such envy.

All I know is I have to thank these people who create such amazing things so that I can enjoy them. I sat in that theatre on Saturday night just overwhelmed by the power and beauty of what human beings can create when they put their minds to it.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

It's Not Easy Being Green

Very interesting ATBF posted over at AAR discussing African American romance novels.

I have to admit that I've only read one true romance novel that featured an African American hero and heroine, and that book was written by a white writer. I really enjoyed Suzanne Brockmann's Harvard's Education. But I can't say that I enjoyed it because the characters were African American. I enjoyed it because I liked the characters, period, and also because I generally always like a Brockmann story. The fact that the hero and heroine were African American was totally incidental.

This as opposed to reading Terry McMillan's Waiting To Exhale. It's been years since I read that book, but I can recall that I never forgot, as I was reading it, that the heroines were African American. Not that I couldn't relate to them or that they weren't sympathetic. I enjoyed the book, but I didn't "forget" about the color of the characters the same way I did when reading Harvard's Education.

Do you suppose that's because Terry McMillan is African American versus Brockmann's being white? After all, Brockmann can give lip service to her characters' experiences about being African American, but she herself has no way of knowing what such an experience entails. As such, she can't infuse her book with the same atmosphere (for lack of a better word). It's like, after stating at the beginning of her book that the characters are African American, Brockmann then writes the rest of the story as if the characters were no different than the white characters.

This is good and bad. Because, really, African American characters are no different than white characters on the most fundamental level. You either relate to a character or you don't, regardless of skin color. So if a book is written well, in a way you almost forget all about the color of the characters' skin. It's like, if you love a heroine, you forget if her hair is red or brown or blonde because it so doesn't even matter.

Except, if there is no fundamental difference, why the segregation? Isn't something missing if the African American characters are as bland as white characters? It's kind of the opposite of white people posing as hip hop rappers (a la Vanilla Ice), trying to be something they aren't. There are difference - neither good nor bad - that keep things interesting. It's part of the beauty of the world, that we are all the same and different.

These thoughts all come kind of timely for me. Last night the hubby and I celebrated our anniversary with a trip into The Big City for dinner and a show. We saw Wicked, which to anyone who has the opportunity to see, please do. Wonderful. The music was amazing, and Ana Gasteyer absolutely blew me away as the lead actor.

Anyway, my point; the heroine of the story is Elphaba, who becomes the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. And Elphaba is green. I'm talking Kermit the Frog green. It's a big deal. She faces discrimination, ridicule, and, ultimately, becomes an outcast because of the color of her skin. It matters that she is different, and not in any good ways.

Except, after a while you didn't notice that Elphaba was green. You only knew that what she suffered was unfair. You rooted for her to find love and felt outraged when she suffered unfair persecution. Her story - her character - was sympathetic, and the color of her skin didn't matter one bit.

So I guess that should be the goal of both readers and writers. Whatever the color of the writer and whatever the color of the skin of the protagonists, the story must be compelling. And to that end, I don't believe that African American romances - whether written by AA writers or starring AA characters - should be kept separate from other romance novels. When I'm perusing the shelves, I want all of the good stories under my fingertips.

That just makes sense to me.

Friday, October 14, 2005

You Can Call Me Al

I've talked before about naming characters. I both love and hate the process.

Sometimes names just come attached to the character, no second thoughts necessary (I've just recently met a Cole that seems to want to hang around). Other times, I go through round after round trying to find the right name. I have a stable of favorite names, names that I think sound heroic or heroine-ish. I confess that, often, they fall into the stereotype of what constitutes a good hero/heroine name. You know, the Rafes and Isabellas and Paytons and Skylers. I'm not one for using the names people actually encounter in real life, those that normal people really have like Barbara and Nancy or Dan and Steve.

Except when it comes to secondary characters. Then it's all about the quick and easy names. The names I don't like well enough to reserve for the big guns.

It's amazing how many secondaries and throw away characters there are who don't really have any significant part in the story but still need a name so key characters don't say things like "You can use that guy's office. He's out of town." or "The blonde sitting at the front desk can help you. She's our receptionist." These aren't people with backstory or motivation, they're the extras. Even so, they deserve a name to give the flow of dialogue a sense of reality and the story texture and detail.

Too, as I develop histories for my key players I find myself with a whole pack of people needing names. Is the hero named after his father or his father's favorite uncle? If the heroine has three sisters, did their parents use one of those naming trends where all four girls' names start with the same letter? Heaven forbid one of the characters came from a large and very close-knit family, where they all show up every Sunday for big family dinners.

Coming up with these names is tough. I flip through baby books looking for interesting names, except if anything draws my attention because I find it unique, I then want to save it for some future hero or heroine. I'd hate to name some grocery store bagboy Christian and then decide three books later that my knight in shining armor needs to be named Christian.

So I try to use those generic, real people names. Do you realize how few names are used over and over again? How many Michaels and Jameses and Vickis there are in the world? And is it okay if my books reflect reality this way, with many Michaels and Jameses and Vickis walking the streets?

As for last names, I head to my local white pages. Except, again, you fall into that trap of wanting something unique but not too much so. I mean, Smith or Brown or Jones is always a safe bet for a minor character's last name, but how original is that? On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don't want readers struggling over the proper pronunciation of Klowskowski when Mr. Klowskowski, the heroine's grouchy super, is only going to be on screen for two paragraphs.

As I've developed story idea after story idea, my list of secondary and walk-ons has grown at an alarming rate. So fast, in fact, that I have trouble keeping track of all of them. I've started a cheat sheet of sorts, and every time I invent a new person, he or she goes onto the log. I have names sorted both alphabetically and by book where they first appear. If the character is dead, I make note of it (and I seem to have a lot of dead parents for some reason). I'm hoping this goes a long way in helping me keep things straight.

Meanwhile, I suppose I have to accept that fact that books, like life, contain some measure of repetition if you hope to be more than a one hit wonder.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Stick Around for the Good Stuff

Know what job I think would be a blast? I'd love to be the person who designs soundtracks for movies. I'm sure there's a technical title for that. Music developer?

I'm not talking the person who writes the score, even though I imagine the jobs either are one in the same or interact intimately. I have zero musical ability. I can read notes on a scale if I concentrate really hard, but I can't translate them into any actual sound. I have so much admiration for people who can play an instrument or sing well. Those talents are so far out of my reach. Know that saying, couldn't carry a tune in a bucket? Well, they were talking about me.

What I think would be fun is to hunt through existing music and pick and choose tracks to play beneath key scenes. Can you imagine what kind of music collection you'd have at your fingertips?

The business part of the job has gotta suck. I'm sure contacting famous people and artists and their managers and business folks and making deals to purchase the song for use in the movie and on the subsequent soundtrack is a lot of work and headache. Hello, Dolly? We'd like to take your rendition of I Will Always Love You from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and have Whitney Houston cover it for a movie we're doing, The Bodyguard. I'm sure her version'll never be as successful as yours, though...

Thing is, when I hear a particular song, I can just imagine it playing during some key love making scene or when the hero and heroine first kiss or when the story reaches its dark moment and things are looking pretty bleak. Especially I have a thing for songs that I can imagine running at the end of the film, when the HEA has been reached and the credits start to roll.

Most people pick up their empty Super Jumbo bucket of popcorn and head out of the theater long before they can grasp what song is playing as the lights come up. I'm not one of those people. I stick around during credits because I've personally been involved in the making of a movie, I've had friends' names pop up on those credits, and my own name has actually rolled across that screen. I often want to know who was responsible for the fabulous cinematography or the name of a particular song that played at an especially poignant moment.

So I do listen to the credits song, and it's pretty amazing how much such a song sums up the entire feel of a movie. The Bourne Identity ended with a techno piece that pushed home the urgency of Jason Bourne's situation and the high-tech nature of the international assassin business. One of my favorite credit songs rolled out Little Darlings and is nearly impossible to find as a single: Let Your Love Flow by the Bellamy Brothers captures the upbeat message of hope and a great future that the movie ends with. And who can say that there were any better songs than Chad Kroeger's Hero to end Spiderman and Train's Ordinary ending Spiderman 2?

I'm partial to credit songs with lyrics as opposed to scores, at least for non-period movies. And a healthy portion of my Purchased Music file on my iTunes are songs I've picked up because I first heard them in a movie and loved them. The glory of iTunes and the entire music-on-computer industry is that I can pick up a single song from a film without having to buy the entire score-heavy soundtrack CDs. I love my iTunes. I'll never go back.

Meanwhile, I have a list of radio played songs that are begging for credit honors. Right now I'm hooked on Sara Evan's A Real Fine Place to Start . If anyone out there with the power to choose movie soundtrack music is reading, give it a listen. It's perfect for the HEA at the end of a warm and fuzzy love story. Preferably something that stars Matt, Jude, or Gale.

Have I ever mentioned that another job I think would be a blast is casting director?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Gotta Get Me Some Action

There's a thing about wanting to write military romance - or any suspense romance, for that matter - that I never considered when I fell in love with the subgenre. It's all about the action.

In mil roms and suspense roms, people are always getting chased or chasing someone else, getting shot at or shooting someone else. There are usually a few punches thrown, maybe a couple of kicks for good measure. No matter how much or how little, if the hero is supposed to be some sort of kickass guy (or gal), the writer is going to need to show a little bit of that ass-kicking, right?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write action scenes?

I mean, the deadliest weapon I've ever wielded has been a fly swatter. I think I once experienced a high-speed car adventure at 9:56 on a Saturday night when I knew that Baskin Robbins closed promptly at 10:00. The extent of my martial arts knowlegde I earned from my dozen odd viewings of The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid II. Um...wax on, wax off. Paint the fence.

Sure, I'm a big fan of military and action movies. I've seen countless actors and their stunt doubles perform perfectly choreographed fight sequences, more lately with a little help from their computer buddies. Some are done well, or at least what seems like something that might possibly happen. Some are just long, drawn out affairs to show off the latest in CGI technology (The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, anyone?).

Seems most real one-on-one combat action is actually pretty quick. Watching one of the DVD special features on my newly acquired copy of The Bourne Identity, a former CIA operator applauded the movie's fight scenes which he said showed both a linear progression and things that a real world operative would do. The fights were brutal but quick. None of this dancing about, taking shots at one another until any real human made of flesh and bones would be nothing more than a bag of mush. I read the same compliment about the action scenes in A History of Violence; that when it did happen, the fights were brutal and over very, very quickly, as they would be in real life.

So, the good news in this is that I don't have to write chapter-long fight scenes between heroes/heroines and their baddie counterparts. It's not just realism that gives me a pass on this, either. I imagine that readers of romance, even suspense romance, aren't there for the fights. Less is more can be my modis operandi with no guilt.

Even so, I still wouldn't know a sucker punch from a choke hold. (Actually, I do know the difference between these two, but I'm trying to make a point.) As such, I figured maybe I'd take a wander into that testosterone-laden world of true military fiction. You know, the ones where the romance is limited to the hero banging as many well-endowed, nameless blondes as will fit in his hotel hot tub. What those stories lack in love they more than make up for in action, action, and more action.

Right now my carry-along read is Richard Marcinko's Rogue Warrior: Red Cell. I figured I'd get a double whammy with this one since Dickie M. is known far and wide as the Navy SEAL to end all Navy SEALs. I'd get a chance to see not only how real action is portrayed but also a flavor of how SEALs talk the talk and walk the walk. Plus my local UBS had a paperback copy, as well as the one that follows, Rogue Warrior: Green Team.

And to be honest, I'm enjoying the book. Dickie is pretty amusing. I've learned some very colorful phrases that might come in handy if I'm ever hanging out down on the docks with the boys on shore leave. I won't go into how sore my eyes are from the rolling. While Dickie's books are fiction (because he'd get in big-ass trouble if he revealed any *real* dirt on top-secret operations), he gives the concept of a Marty Stu whole new meaning since he is openly the star of all of his stories. His books contain a bizarre mixture of reality fused to the absurd, and so far it's pretty obvious when he's playing in one world versus the other. Truthfully the real stuff is far more interesting than the real-stuff-disguised-as-over-the-top-fantasy.

BTW, I'll have you all know that walking around with a copy of Rogue Warrior is no less embarrassing that reading something like The Pirate Lord in public. I suppose if I were a man, a book with Dickie Marcinko and his big gun glowering from the cover would be a sign of studliness. For me, I just feel like saying "Research" to everyone giving me that eyebrows down look.

Reading action will do a lot to give me a flavor for the ducks and covers and rolls and maneuvers such stuff entails. However, in the end I think it all comes down to the ability to visualize an action scene in your head. To that degree, writing action scenes is a lot like writing sex scenes. You have to be able to close your eyes and watch the picture unfold, noting what body parts are where and in what direction things are headed.

Except, it's a lot easier to work out any vagueness in a sex scene because I have a willing partner. Wonder what the hubby would say if I asked him to block out a firefight?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Faking It

You know that old saying, Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach? I'm not so sure about the truth of it. Most teachers I've encountered in my life certainly can do. And I have too much respect for teachers to hurl such an insult.

But I understand the joke behind it. In fact, if the saying went Those who can, do. Those who can't, criticize I'd go so far as to embroider it on a pillow.

Looking over my blog entries since I began this little project, I see that I've moved away from offering up opinions on craft. Part of this is because there are only so many ways you can discuss POV and what makes a great or poor story and whether or not adverbs are truly the evil sent to Earth by Satan himself that so many claim.

Too, I've started to question why in the world I, of all people, feel authorized to speak about the craft of writing in any capacity other than that of a reader of writing. I haven't had a thing published. I certainly haven't been doing this my entire life. Lord knows I am far from perfect (some would say farther than others). All I know about writing is what I've read in how-tos, learned in workshops, and gleaned from reading it done well and done poorly. It's only in the last two years that I've even developed the vocabulary to discuss the good and the bad.

So surely I'm engaging in the worst form of those who can't, teaching. Or...blogging. Something.

But since I am the Queen of Justification - really, I am. I can justifty anything if you ask me to. - I'll give myself the out of this being just one more learning tool for myself. I've always been the type of learner who absorbed and retained things better if I wrote it out myself. When I'd read a textbook, highlighting key passages wasn't enough to send the critical info into my brain for permanent residence. I needed to actually write it down in a notebook for it to really stick.

In using this blog to discuss issues of craft, I've gotten the chance to take things apart and examine them and then put them back together again. Doing this helps me understand the stuff better, see why it is the way it is, and hopefully to better apply it in my own work.

Too, any writng is practice, right? So even if I spend 1,000 words contemplating my own navel, it hasn't been an utter waste.

So anyone out there - unpublished, I should say - who engages in lots of meaningful thought and discussion about craft. Do you feel like a fake? Kind of like an actor on ER pretending to be a doctor, who knows the fancy million-dollar words and which instrument to pick up when, but if you were thrust into a real emergency room, god help you.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

My Love Affair With Violence

Two warnings for you on this one. First, it’s very long. Second, if you plan to see the movie A History of Violence, don’t read this because it contains major spoilers, and this is a movie that must be seen without knowing anything for the best experience.

Last night my adoration for Viggo Mortensen drove me to see A History of Violence. Well, my love for Viggo and because the premise looked very interesting. Viggo plays a mild-mannered, small-town family man named Tom Stall. He lives in a tiny Indiana town, owns the local diner, drives a beat-up pickup, and is generally one of the most unassuming kind of guys you’d ever come across. He’s still madly in love and lust with is wife Edie even after twenty years of marriage, his teenage son, Jack, is the victim of bullies but otherwise a good kid, and his six-year old daughter, Sarah, is just cute enough to make you kind of nauseous. Your basic Norman Rockwell version of Americana.

One night, as Tom is closing down the diner, a couple of ruthless murderers show up to rob the diner. As one of them begins to rape the waitress, Tom bolts into action. Within the span of a few heartbeats, he’s killed both criminals and finds himself both a local and national hero, complete with reporters camped out on his front lawn.

Problem is, this media attention brings some strangers into town. A Philadelphia mobster named Carl Fogarty, played by Ed Harris in some pretty scary facial scar makeup, shows up at the diner, twin thugs in tow, claiming that soft-spoken Tom isn’t really Tom but actually a fellow mobster named Joey Cusack. Tom – in this case, Viggo at his finest – is bewildered and dismayed over this obvious case of mistaken identity. Yet Fogarty insists so firmly, the audience can’t help but wonder. Even Tom’s devoted wife, Edie, begins to have her doubts.

Okay, one last SPOILER warning…Really, if you plan to see this movie, don’t read any further. Hie thee to the nearest theater, then come back.

Things get really hairy when Fogarty and his goons arrive at Tom’s home with Jack as incentive for Tom to remember who he really is. Bing, bang, boom later, and there is no longer any doubt as to who Tom was.

This movie affected me on so many levels, I’m still trying to untangle my brain so I can sort it all out.

First, the story forces you to ask the question of whether a man can truly change. Can he decide that he wants to be a good person and then make it so, even if his past is filled with badness? At first you believe the answer to be Yes. For over twenty years Tom had lived the life of a truly good man. It took an act of extreme violence for the part of him he had buried so deeply to surface again, and Tom was clearly disturbed by what he had been forced to do to stop those murders.

Yet, as the movie progressed, it became frightening to not only the audience but to Tom himself how quickly his old demons were able to resurface as necessary time and time again when his old world forced him to own up to his past. Skills he hadn’t practiced in decades came back as easily as riding a bike, and they weren’t the kind of skills that most people put on a resume. It forces one to consider if a propensity for violence is something that, once ingrained into a man’s being, isn’t something that can be left behind. If you have it, you have it for life.

This question – can a flawed man overcome those flaws to become a better man – is a common theme running through fiction. Heck, in romance it’s a staple, and it's usually love that inspires and equips the hero to do so. Even in the case of this movie, which is far from a romance, Tom tells Edie that it wasn’t until he met her that he was truly reborn. Love saved him from himself. I won’t go off into my smug sermon about how those who thumb their noses at our formulaic genre can kiss my ass because even the most non-romance-centric genres fall back on love as the ultimate in redemptive power.

Anyway, what truly has me thinking too much about this movie is what I’ve come to realize is my fascination with violence. Actually, I’m not so much fascinated by it as… is a strong word.

Okay, before I lose every reader I have, let me be clear about something. I do not like exploitive violence. I don’t like violence that is shown simply to titillate or that is gratuitous. I don’t like extreme violence against women that acts as a stand-in for sex. I don’t like gruesome violence shown or described hyper-graphically. I hate – hate, hate, hate – horror and slasher films with the intensity of a thousand white hot suns.

And in real life, I abhor violence. I would as soon hit or hurt someone as I would grow a tail and sprout six foot antlers. The news makes me cringe because of all of the real world violence it shows out there. Every time I hear about more of our troops being killed overseas, I hate real life violence even more.

What I love is fictional violence against the bad guys. I love it when the hero knows how to hurt and maim and kill those who need hurting and maiming and killing.

I have no idea where I stand in pure numbers, but I have to be one of the few women out there who loves a good action flick or war epic because I love watching the good guys kick the bad guys’ asses. I love alpha heroes, and anyone who has ever been to my blog before knows that mil roms (thanks, Steph!) are what I enjoy reading and am attempting to write. These are the sorts of guys and the sorts of stories filled with the good guys abusing the bad guys.

In last night’s movie, watching Tom return to his darker self and dispatch the mafia dudes with cold, calculated precision gave me thrills. I admired that every move he made had the right effect. He worked on automatic pilot, and regardless of the fact that it was the movies and every fight scene choreographed out the ying yang, I lost myself in the illusion that someone could be such a killing machine.

So, confession made. Bigger picture. Why am I the way that I am?

I blame Darwinism. It makes the most sense. Actually, the only sense. I’m a woman, and eons ago, my kind had to rely on a male to keep me and mine safe and well fed. Of course I would choose the male that could best slay the beasties and evildoers, so anyone who displayed prowess in the field of fighting and a-killin’ would be welcome in my cave.

While my brain is one of those kind that did evolve over the years, I guess my animal instincts didn’t keep pace. Intellectually I know that violence is a bad thing. But my heart can’t help but beat a little faster when the hero starts showing his slaying skills. A guy who knows how to efficiently – indeed, gracefully – dispatch of mine enemies climbs to the top of the pile when it comes time to perpetuate his line.

I am in control of my hormones enough to differentiate between defensive violence and offensive violence. Heroes work in the former, villains in the latter. Some heroes walk a thin line – Tom walked that line – at which point I label them anti-heroes (see prior entry). Violence in the name of protecting your family or country is honorable. Violence in the name of advancing your self-interests is despicable.

I suppose all of this comes down to a matter of preference. I’m a fan of rescue scenarios. Normally one is only rescued from some sort of danger, and inherent in danger is some threat of violence. Where one goes, the other is usually following. Thus it makes sense that I enjoy fictional, defensive violence because someone is getting rescued, and if the rescuer is good at his job, I’m a happy camper.

So, I find a guy with the ability to dispatch justice of the lethal persuasion pretty hot. My consolation is that I’m not alone. Even in the movie that opened up this introspective can of worms, wife Edie finds herself both appalled by and attracted to this other, more violent man she’s just discovered she’s married to. After she’s learned the truth, she wants not a whole lot to do with Tom. He figures a little physical affection will remind her what they shared in the past, but as she rejects him, things turn a little…well, violent. And it is clear by Edie’s reaction that in some perverse way, this turns her on. They have sex that is definitely consensual but certainly not loving and tender.

There is something so appealing and a very big turn on at the idea of controlling a being capable of killing a man with his bare hands. Something dangerous about trusting and surrendering to him. Edie realizes this, and I don’t think she’s too happy to know this about herself.

Too, that whole Love Tames the Savage Beast theme comes into play. Yes, this man is a killer. But love turns him into a tender, gentle lover. Interesting.

Well, I warned you this was long and probably contained far too much true confession. Even so, if you are so inclined for a movie that’ll make you think, I highly recommend A History of Violence. It certainly doesn't glorify violence, but it does make you think about it in a new way.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Anti-Hero Or Simply Misunderstood Rogue

Kathleen O'Reilly has written an interesting column for RTB about the appeal of anti-heroes. While I agree with her overall sentiment - there is a great appeal in anti-heroes - I kind of disagree with her definition of what constitutes an anti-hero.

She uses the example of Hans Solo of Star Wars fame as an anti-hero, and I along with several other commentors came foward to say that we see Hans as more of a rogue than an actual anti-hero. Too, she remarked on how hard it was for her to identify anti-heroes in romance novels. I would wager this is because many heroes in Romancelandia that might be called anti-heroes are actually more in that rogue vein.

My definition of a true anti-hero is a person who in the real world would not be a hero at all but a villain. It's the person who we know is really the bad guy but whom we want to win in the end anyway.

Examples that I can think of who personify the anti-hero to me are:

Spike (James Marsters as a cold-blooded vampire) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
John Riddick (Vin Diesel as an escaped convicted murderer) from Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick
Sawyer (Josh Holloway as a hardened conman) from Lost
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp as a pirate) from Pirates of the Caribbean
Martin Blank (John Cussack as a hitman) in Grosse Point Blank
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon as a trained assassin) in The Bourne Identity
Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) from Thelma and Louise
Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood as a retired gunslinger) in Unforgiven
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks as a mafia hitman) in Road to Perdition
Brian Kinney (Gale Harold as a promiscuous, drug-using playboy) in Queer As Folk
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini as a mafia godfather) in The Sopranos

All of these characters are really bad guys, but because of their story and because of something inside them, we want them to win in the end. Despite the fact that they've broken the law - even having gone so far as to kill people - we still see something heroic about them. Maybe it's because they've been redeemed or they've been falsely accused or their actions were justified. For whatever reason, we are willing to forgive them their past sins and want their endings to be happy.

The definition of anti-hero offered by Wikipedia is broader and does cover those of the Hans Solo ilk, as Kathleen has. And after looking at a list of anti-heroes as defined on Wikipedia, I can see that my definition might be considered a little bit narrow. (Except in a million years I'd never consider M.A.S.H.'s Hawkeye Pierce to be an anti-hero, nor The Simpsons' Bart Simpson.) However, I find this summary offered by Wikipedia most closely matches my idea of an anti-hero:

"A good working definition of the anti-hero is a paradoxical character that is, within the context of a story, a hero but in another context could easily be seen as a villain, simply as unlikable, a normal person or coward."

I would contend that the majority of romance novel heroes that people might label "anti-heroes" are really Byronic heroes. These guys aren't necessarily villainous, they simply don't fit into the mold that society has cast for the typical hero. They aren't easy to get along with, they aren't necessarily even lovable. They have a vast dark side and are severely flawed, but they don't go so far as to break the law or act evilly. Thus Batman is not an anti-hero but a Byronic hero. Same thing with Angel of Buffy fame.

And along a different line, there are those rogue and rakes and cads who I also would not label as anti-heroes. They act in ways that aren't necessarily heroic - selfish, womanizing, less than honest - not because they are villainous but because they are immature or flawed or trying to hide something painful from themselves and those around them. This is where I see Hans Solo sitting, right next to Sam Malone of Cheers and every single rake strutting through all those Regencies.

In the end, though, I guess labeling these characters isn't really the point. Whether they are true anti-heroes or something else, we all agree that these guys are too far away from our definition of heroic to be considered heroes straight out. Even so, we can't help but love them anyway.

So maybe that's it. An anti-hero is any person we love despite our better judgement.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Sacrifice Done Right

One of my biggest pet peeves in any sort of story is when one character makes the supreme sacrfice for the sake of another - usually out of love - and no one ever learns of this selfless deed. The hero uses his meager savings to pay the mortgage on the heroine's farm so the evil rancher next door can't get his hands on it, but the heroine never finds out who it was that forked over the cash. The heroine agrees to marry the evil baron if he promises not to reveal that the hero is really a bastard imposter, but the hero never discovers this and assumes the heroine is just a skanky money-grubbing ho.

It drives me nuts when someone makes a grand, amazing gesture and no one ever finds out how wonderful that person really is.

Usually the case is that the giver doesn't want the givee to know what he or she has done. He isn't expecting thanks or gratitude, so therefore his sacrifice has to remain un-credited. This is the ultimate symbol of love and heroism. Because if the heroine found out about that mortgage paying deal, she'd feel beholden to the hero. We'd never know if she loved him for himself or out of gratitude. And if the hero told the heroine what he'd done, well his effort loses a lot of meaning. He looks like he's out for something more than simply helping the person he loves.

Last night, on the show Over There, I saw an instance of supreme sacrifice done absolutely right. The giver gave without expecting anything in return, yet his actions came to light enough that he was thanked. The whole thing brought tears to my eyes, and I can't stop thinking about it. That hasn't happened to me in ages; being haunted by a story.

For those of you who've never heard of the program - it is kind of obscure - it's about a group of American soldiers stationed in Iraq. It follows both the soldiers' various assignments as well as what is happening back home with the loved ones they've left behind. I've enjoyed it immensely although there has been some controversy over the idea of depicting a war that is currently being waged. Something about exploiting the situation, although I've only found things educational.

Anyway, in this particular episode, Sgt. Chris "Scream" Silas, played by the amazing Erik Palladino, who has come a long way since his ER days, is given the task of evicting a group of orphans so that the new Iraqi government can use their building for some official purpose. The orphanage is run by a French woman who very adamantly refuses to uproot the children yet again simply because the American Army says she has to go.

We don't know much about Sgt. Scream, save that his tour in Iraq is almost over; in fact, ten days more and he's out of the Army altogether. His superiors are trying to talk him into re-enlisting for another six years, but Sgt. Scream wants nothing more to do with the Army. He's even resigned to managing a carpet store if that's what it takes to move past this phase in his life. He's seen too much by far and he just wants out. Since his first introduction - yelling at his new platoon - we've been shown that he's a hardened soldier who does what it takes to get the job done, willing to talk back to superior officers when their commands put his men in danger. But he's in Iraq to complete his missions, and that's all there is to it.

However, for some reason, the idea of evicting the orphans proves to be too much for Sgt. Scream. I think - though it is never directly stated - that Sgt. Scream may be an orphan himself. He clearly has no one back home who he feels misses him as evidenced on previous episodes. You get the feeling that Sgt. Scream is very much alone in this world.

The show starts off with Sgt. Scream determined to do his job. His entire platoon comes off as very uncaring when they blow apart a suitcase-like box carried by a young boy that they suspect might contain some kind of bomb. It proves to contain a chess set. And we are given a glimpse into what this episode will involve when Sgt. Scream gives his own travel chess set to the boy to make up for the mistake even though he and his men had been acting perfectly rationally given the situation. When you are at war with a country whose citizens are willing to be suicide bombers, a boy carrying a mysterious box can't be assumed innocent until proven guilty.

So Sgt. Scream and the French woman - Frenchy if you will since I don't think we are ever given her name - butt heads over his demands that she move the orphans out of the building. She refuses. He feels bad and comes up with an alternate location; an apartment building outside of the village could be used to house the orphans. Again, Frenchy refuses, and by now you would expect that Sgt. Scream would have had enough and just started pointing guns. But something about this woman and the orphans affects him deeply.

So deeply, in fact, that Sgt. Scream makes a deal with his superiors, offering up the only collateral he has; himself. In return for keeping the orphanage where it is, Sgt. Scream agrees to re-enlist. He'll give the next six years of his life to the Army - remain in Iraq and go God only knows where else that he might be killed - so that these kids can stay where they are.

OMG. What a sacrifice. In an indirect way, he is laying down his life.

And of course, you know that he has no intention of telling the French woman what he's done. He doesn't expect anything from her. In fact, when she asks him what he's done to make this happen, he denies he had anything to do with it at all.

But Frenchy is a smart one. She figures it out. Or at least, she figures out that he's agreed to stay in Iraq rather than go home as he had told her he was doing. I don't thing she fully understands the degree to which he has now committed himself, but she knows he gave up a lot for her and for the children.

She's suitably thankful. In fact, she and Sgt. Scream end up sleeping together. Which in most circumstances would contain a healthy dose of "Ewww" factor, like she was only sleeping with him to thank him. Except throughout the episode, we are shown how similar these two characters are to each other. That they both have nothing left at home, and this is why they continue to work in Iraq where they feel they are useful and needed. Even as they fight with each other, you can feel a level of respect and attraction.

Plus, the morning after their tryst, Frenchy hopes that Sgt. Scream will be coming to visit her often. Clearly she viewed their relationship as more than a thank-you-roll-in-the-hay. Sgt. Scream gallantly declines, reminding her that American soldiers on her premises brings a lot of danger to the children and that it would be best if he stayed away for a while.

Another sacrifice because you know that it has been ages - if ever - that Sgt. Scream has cared about someone in this way.

Through all of this I was giving Erik Palladino mad props because he played it all so well. He maintained that hardened-warrior exterior while allowing us glimpses of a vulnerable man who can't help caring for these people and their plight. When Frenchy goes to touch his cheek in a tender display of gratitude, he almost flinches, as if he is afraid of allowing himself to feel anything but numbness.

The entire episode was amazing. It was the perfect example of sacrfice done right. The motives behind the sacrifice were real, and the characters' reactions to it rang true. I'm ignoring, for now, the fact that I can't imagine how Sgt. Scream's willingness to re-enlist would be enough to change policy because to point out the implausibility of such a deal ruins the story for me. I'm going to go with the flow of suspended disbelief on this one, thank you very much.

In the meantime, even if you don't like "war" shows or soldier stories, I recommend you watch this episode if you get the chance. It'll haunt you.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

I've Never Held a Gun, But I've Read About It

I know that if I really wanted to be true to my craft, my research would involve actual contact with people who live and work in similar worlds that my characters live and work in. So, for example, if I'm writing about a heroine who is a botanist, I'd maybe find a real live botanist and interview him or her. Or if my hero is a NASA engineer, maybe I'd haunt the internet until I found an honest to goodness NASA geek and make him my bosom buddy so he could answer all my NASA techie questions.

Except, the idea of approaching complete strangers and asking them if I can pick apart their lives and professions is about as appealing to me as going on The Fear Factor and eating live caterpillars while allowing a hundred tarantulas to crawl all over me.

When I was in college, I took a journalism class in which I had to interview someone and write an article about his or her unique profession. My cousin was, at the time, a mortician so I decided that was pretty unique and also extremely easy because I could interview him. Problem was, my cousin didn't live in my college town, and I quickly realized that in order to do a thorough interview, I'd need to meet with someone in person. I called the local funeral home, spoke to a very nice woman who agreed to let me interview her, and things worked out even better when she gave me a tour of their facility. I might even have gotten an A on the assignment.

But, dang, I hated every second of that experience.

Same way I hated making cold calls when I interned for an advertising agency. Same way I hated calling new vendors and asking for bids on big projects when I worked in the design industry. I don't like calling complete strangers and asking for things.

Heck, I don't like calling my neighbor to ask to borrow a cup of sugar. I'm so thoroughly independent, even asking for help in the department store means I've pretty much exhausted every avenue of helping myself. And it takes me a full week to work up to calling a babysitter so the hubby and I can have a night out.

I have no idea why I am so freakish. I blame my parents because, well, I don't know. Maybe they were too normal. Maybe it's because they didn't beat me or smoke or get divorced or force me to eat liver and brussel sprouts.

Anyway, this personal affliction means that talking to people in the professions chosen by my characters is slim to none unless someone in my life happens to also have that profession. If I need a CPA, I'm covered. A lawyer? Got that one. Nurses and teachers galore. No problem. Even a mortician, a farmer, and a former television newscaster.

Except, the careers that appeal to me, and thus, my characters, are kind of over the top. Not your run-of-the-mill, lives next door and attends the back to shool ice cream social kind of work-a-day bloke.

In other words, since I don't already personally know a Navy SEAL/AF pararescue jumper/Delta Force operator/ex-CIA operative, I'm not likely to be able to talk to one.

Oddly enough, a woman who used to be my neighbor and who was also in a book club with me for six years has a daughter who is dating a Navy SEAL. I see this woman at least twice a year at various parties (she comes to my house for my annual Christmas cookie party), and this very daughter used to babysit my kids when she was in high school. She's the nicest young woman; works in the local bookstore during her college breaks and always greets me with a great big smile and a hug. So in other words, I know both of these ladies very well. I could, conceivably, call the daughter and say "'re dating a Navy SEAL, aren't you? Well, it just so happens..."

But I am mortified by the idea of saying "Hey, Susie (name changed to protect my paranoid self), do you think you could introduce me to your SEAL boyfriend so I can pick apart his brain and learn every single detail about this life that I find fascinating and want to depict in a wide variety of fiction, including romance novels?"

OMG. Where are those tarantulas?

Instead, I've learned everything I know about all of my characters from books and movies. I'm probably the entirity of the Military Channel's females ages...well, their entire female demographic, actually. I've seen more action flicks and war epics than any one with breasts should ever have to see. Although, I admit this is not a hardship as I generally enjoy these shows. I know under what call number all the military books are shelved in my library, and I've sat through hours of video clips for every single basic training program offered by the US Military branches.

I figure I have to compensate for lack of a living, breathing example by becoming a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. My husband doesn't like to watch fictional military shows with me any more because I'm constantly saying "No, they'd never do it that way. They'd never attack during the day, out in the open like that." We watched the pilot episode of E-Ring together, and he got annoyed because I was rolling on the floor in laughter. (BTW, the second episode of E-Ring was much better. I'll give it a bit more time.)

So, am I the only one who has a hard time with the concept of interviewing real people? Am I just extremely shy and I need to get over it? Or can books be written convincingly if the writer studies the topic well enough?

I sure hope so.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Too Good to be Bad?

Know what I love? The first entry in a new month that causes my Archives to reflect another month's worth of blogging. I love watching that list grow because it feels like I've accomplished something. Yeah, nothing I've written here will change world history or advance western civilization. But this has to be the first time in my life that a journal I've started has made it beyond the first half-dozen pages.

Remember how the other day I got an itching to read Laura Ingalls Wilder? Never one to deny my inner neediness, I curled up on the sofa yesterday for some quality time with my two fav LIWs, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.

These two books are my favorites because they deal with the growing relationship between Laura and future husband, Almanzo Wilder. Even back in the day before I'd ever considered kissing a boy (ewww, boy cooties!), this part of the story held me captivated. And even back then, I wanted to know so much more.

I mean this on two levels.

First, I wanted to know more about what happened when Laura and Almanzo were courting. I wanted to ride along when they took buggie rides across the plains of South Dakota. I wanted to know what they talked about before and after singing school. I wanted to see the little house that Almanzo built for Laura. I'd come to love these two characters, and I pretty much wanted to spend every single moment with them.

But as I've grown older, I realize that wanting to know so much more is also based on my personal preference for intimate details when reading a romance. I'm not talking about any sicko voyeuristic tendancies. I'm talking about grinning when they first hold hands or feeling that satisfied tingle when they finally kiss. I usually feel this way when the sexual tension has been written well, and I'm itching for the hero and heroine to move to the next step and then the next. But I want to be there when they walk it.

Thing is, LIW lived a very long time ago. Long, long before it was acceptable for writers to write about a couples' love life. Heck, she lived so long ago that if we are to believe what we've read from that time, couples didn't even have love lifes. Children just sprang fully formed from their mother's foreheads because lawdy knows nothing else was going on.

So it only makes sense that Laura and Almanzo's relationship was depicted in very chaste, discrete terms. They kissed once or twice. I think Almanzo did put his arms around Laura at one point, and I know that he put his hand over hers. When they finally found themselves in front of the preacher man, they were married. That's it. Those are exactly the words LIW herself uses. "So they were married."

I can't complain about any of this. After all, these were books meant for children, and it's my own fault that I haven't grown out of them yet. Too, LIW is only guilty of writing an historical romance accurately. She wrote exactly what she knew was proper at the time. We as readers get to see only what we as people would have been allowed to see had we lived at the end of the nineteenth century. It's only from our twenty-first century viewpoint that things seem kind of prudish.

What re-reading LIW's stuff makes me want to do is rewrite it with more. Kind of like all those writers who can't stand the fact that Pride and Prejudice ends where it does so they push onward. I know how they feel. I hate that after all of that investment, we poor readers are left with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy riding off into the sunset without so much more than a proper wedding kiss. Talk about your sexual frustration. And if any writer out there could manage to capture Austen's voice and style and write a story that I think is true to the characters and time period, I would sell my dog to have that book. Really.

So maybe it's not so crazy to want to write "Laura and Almanzo: The Untold Love Story." You know, the behind-the-scenes, what LIW didn't show you tale of how their love came to be and what happened behind the closed doors. Kind of taking what LIW started and expanding it, embellishing it, turning it into something the adult in me would find satisfying.

Except writing something like that just feels wrong. It'd be like writing sleazy stories about Mr. Rogers or Mother Theresa. The romance between Laura and Almanzo is as sweet and pure and innocent as they come because we were shown nothing else. Adding sexual tension to it seems...well, sleazy.

Too, since I sincerely hope to meet LIW when I get to Heaven (she's one of my top 10 folks I hope to meet when I get to Heaven), I'd hate to have her yell at me for turning her story into so much trashy novel fodder.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

NaNoWriMo: The Sequel

Last year I discovered NaNoWriMo when I purchased the book No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty in that never-ending quest for the magic writing bullet. As would be expected, I didn't find any secret low work solutions to completing the Great American Novel. But I did find something that was pretty inspirational.

For those of you who've never heard of NaNoWriMo (which is short for National Novel Writing Month), I'll give you the skinny. The theory of this group is that most writers never actually complete their novels, and the first step of becoming a published author is finishing. No matter how much crap you've managed to pile on the paper, as long as you finish, you have something to work with. Sure, you may have to rewrite the entire thing, but at least you've got the bones.

So with the idea that finishing as The Holy Grail of writers, the month of November is the official month when writers all over the globe sit down at their laptops/PCs/alphasmarts/typewriters/notebooks and pound out a complete novel. From Nov. 1st through Nov. 30, whatever it takes, writers are expected to write. By the end of the month, in theory you will emerge with a 50,000 word opus that you can then hack all to pieces or throw in the garbage.

In order to keep you on target and honest, you can register on the NaNoWriMo website where you are encouraged to post your daily word account. There are forums and local support groups. The whole thing is one giant writing party, and "winners" are those who come out the other side with their 50,000 words.

Last year I not only signed up, I challenged a good writer friend to to participate with me. I'm sure you can guess what happened. She finished. I...well, let's just say that I did write 50,000 words. Unfortunately, they were divided between three different ideas.

Thing is, 50,000 words is really not a whole lot. It's actually more of a novella than a complete novel. I have a hard enough time forcing an entire story into a small enough word count to qualify for category fiction. So if I want to come into December with a complete novel, I have to double my word count goal and write 100,000 words in a month. Not quite as doable.

Also, of all the months in the year, November is probably second only to December in terms of not such a great time to devote to writing. With Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season, several days are lost to family and other obligations. I'd do much better in, say, March when it's too cold still to be outside but not much is going on otherwise. February would be good, too, except for that short month thing.

Even so, I plan to participate again this year. And true to the group's motto, my mantra will be Finish Finish Finish. I have an idea firmly in mind, and I plan to spend October doing all the background work so I can hit the ground writing without my normal procrastination distractions of research and character development. The rules of NaNoWriMo call for the novel to be brand, spankin' new on Nov. 1, meaning you can't cheat and start on something that's already begun. I don't think establishing a plot or an outline counts, though, so I'm going to give myself that little bit of head start.

All of you writers out there who have a hard time finishing, you might want to give this a try. If nothing else, there's something reassuring about seeing how many people out there are struggling writers. Or...maybe that's not so reassuring.