Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Three's A Crowd

A couple weeks ago, I rented the movie Tristan & Isolde. I'd wanted to see it when it was in theatres but, you know, those pesky kids and their inability to see rated R movies.

Funny thing is that the DVD sat on the TV cabinet for nearly two full weeks before I was in the mood to actually watch it. This is the kind of movie practically written to my personal tastes: a romance, set in medieval times, with a hunky knight hero and a beautiful lady. Throw in a handful of action scenes that aren't too gruesome and I'm in movie Nirvana. But, for whatever reason, until last night I just wasn't in the mood for it. Weird.

Anyway, the movie itself was pretty good. Not buy-the-DVD fantastic, but worth the two-hours to watch it good. Which leads me to ask why I didn't love love LOVE it since, like noted above, it contains all of the elements I want most in a good story.

For those unfamiliar, Tristan and Isolde is actually an ancient legend about starcrossed lovers and forbidden love. There are a variety of incarnations of the story, and on the DVD's Behind the Scenes featurette, the screenwriter said he felt this gave him some creative license to do what he wanted with the script since there was no "definitive" original. I'm fine with that. I'm even more fine because the writer chose to leave out the love potions that you often find in the traditional Tristan and Isolde tales. I want real love, not manufactured lust.

Anyway, the story is frameworked on the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere love triangle almost exactly, although technically Tristan and Isolde came first so it's the other way around. Tristan is a knight, serving Lord Marke during the period in history after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain and all of the tribes were fueding with each other. These tribes face a common enemy - the king of Ireland - yet they can't seem to get it together enough to fight as one entity and defeat him. During one battle with the Irish, Tristan is wounded with a poisoned sword. The wound isn't mortal, but the poison paralyzes him enough that his comrades determine he's good and dead and send him out to sea on a funeral pyre boat. Thankfully a passing rain shower keeps the not-dead Tristan from burning to a crisp.

Eventually Tristan's boat washes up on the Irish shore, where he is discovered by the king's daughter, Isolde. She tends to his wounds and heals him, hiding the Englishman from her father while giving Tristan a false name so he won't know who she really is (not sure why she does this). During his recouperation, Tristan and Isolde fall in love. This is the best part of the movie, IMO, the only part that inspired me to rewatch all of ten minutes.

Tristan must return to England since it is rather suicidal of him to stay in Ireland, and when he gets back, he's adequately mopey, despondent over having had to leave Isolde behind. He'd asked her to come with, but she declined for reasons I'm still not quite sure about. When the Irish king offers his daughter as a prize in a tournament, hoping that this contest will further alienate the various English tribes from each other, Tristan leaps at the chance to go back to Ireland and fight in Lord Marke's name, no doubt hoping he'll score a bride for his master and find his own lady love and convince her to come back to England this time. Or maybe just drag her off by her hair so he can stop moping.

Naturally, Tristan wins the tournament. And, naturally, he is devastated to learn that the bride he has won for Lord Marke is none other than Isolde.

Okay...from here on out are SPOILERS, so read on at your own risk.

Tristan and Isolde return to England. Despite her pleas for them to run off and be together, Tristan remains firm and insists that honor and duty are more important than love, telling Isolde she must marry Marke and they must forget about their feelings for each other. Isolde marries Marke. What follows is probably the most realistic portrayal of wedding night sex between two strangers in an arranged marriage I've ever encountered. But Isolde holds up like a trooper. Marke is a good man, she can't help but like him, and even if she wishes every single second that it was Tristan in her life and bed, she sucks it up fairly well.

Tristan, on the other hand, doesn't do so good. He walks around with perpetual tears in his eyes, slowly going crazy over the idea of Isolde with Marke. When he accuses her of liking Marke too much, she throws it back at him that it was him who told her she had to do her duty. But she also tells him she will meet him whenever he wants for a little on-the-side nookie. Tristan folds like a house of cards, and their affair begins.

As you might suspect, everything falls apart when enemies of Marke conspire with the Irish king and the lovers are revealed. I won't be specific, suffice it to say, the ending is far from the normal romance HEA. Tristan and Isolde is, was, and always will be a tragedy in the fine Romeo and Juliet tradition.

So, other than the ending, what was it about this movie that didn't quite nail it for me? I'm hard pressed to say. The actors chosen for the roles were well placed. Sophia Myles was beautiful as Isolde, but not so gorgeous as to make her completely unreal. Rufus Sewell fit the idea of an Arthur-like ruler, strong yet capable of falling in love with Isolde and feeling real pain when he thinks she has feelings for another man. And James Franco made an amazing young knight, handsome and brave and sexy enough to entice any married woman to stray.

Although, I do think Franco played the despondent lover a little too damply. He spent a healthy portion of the movie with tears in his eyes. While I think it an admiral trait for an actor - especially a male one - to be able to summon tears when necessary, it's hard to imagine a real man of that time walking around looking as if he were about to burst out sobbing at any second. Sure, you really got the sense that Tristan was suffering, but I don't know that the constant waterworks made me believe Tristan and Isolde's love was any deeper or more passionate or more tragic than any other love. More, I got the idea that if the movie had been set in modern times, Tristan would have been the type to write bad poetry and listen to Air Supply ad nauseum. He was just a bit too nouveaux sensitive man for the time being portrayed.

Another thing that got me because it bordered on the Big Mis. After Marke discovers Tristan and Isolde's affair, he locks Tristan in the dungeon (of course). When he asks Tristan to explain, I'm screaming at the screen for Tristan to tell Marke how he had met Isolde in Ireland, before the contest and before knowing who she really was and what winning her would mean. But Tristan - tearfully - keeps his silence. As if nothing he could say would justify what he had done. Thing is, Marke wasn't an evil character who would be so consumed by the affront to his ego that he wouldn't have understood the situation.

In fact, when Isolde - wisely - tells Marke the truth of the matter, he forgives them both. He can see that this wasn't a betrayal of him based on the over-active libido of two people who should have controlled it, but rather the continuation of something that had started long before he entered the picture. In fact, in light of his feelings for Isolde, Tristan's actions were almost heroic. Instead of running off with her as he most likely wanted to do more than anything, he brought her home to Lord Marke and watched the woman he loved become the wife of another man.

Finally, because of the situation of the story, there was no way to acheive any sort of happily ever after. Not that I need to always have the HEA to enjoy something. But I need to feel good about what happened before the unhappily ever after. At one point, Isolde asks Tristan why loving him felt so wrong. I agreed with her. No matter how deep or passionate or true their love for each other was, because of the situation, no one could ever feel good about it. Even if Marke had died and the two of them could have been together legitimately, it all felt wrong.

And this isn't even because the two were committing adultry. Because their love pre-dated Isolde's marriage to Marke, because she didn't have any choice in marrying Marke, I didn't feel that Isolde wronged anyone by having an affair with Tristan. It's not as if she promised Marke she would remain faithful because she had feelings for the man. Her marriage was all about duty, and for Isolde, love trumped duty hands down. Tristan, on the other hand, felt the opposite, so his betrayal of Marke struck him more deeply. The sacrifice for being with Isolde was simply too great, or at least too great for the love we'd been shown on screen. That love didn't ring strong enough for me to bear the burden of the crimes the two lovers were committing.

I think the mistake happened when Isolde refused to return to England with Tristan at the very beginning. After that, there was no going back. And since I'm still not quite sure why she didn't just go with him - her sense of love being more important than any duty to her father or her people - all that followed felt false.

Which explains much to me about the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere scenario. I always wondered why Lancelot and Guinevere never got together after Arthur was killed. Even if those around them would have accepted such a match, something about it would have always been wrong.

I suppose this is why I'm not a big fan of love triangle stories. I'm not liking much the Jack/Kate/Sawyer thing on Lost, either. Someone is going to get hurt. And when no-one is a bad guy, even the winners become losers.

In the end, I give Tristan & Isolde a B-. Worth watching once because it does get a couple things right. But I guess I just like a little less tragedy in my Tragic Love Stories.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Good For You and Tastes Good, Too

I tend to hold a reverse prejudice against literary fiction. Not that I haven't read a lot of it in my day. Honestly, some of the best books I've ever read are literary fiction. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts, although this last one might be labeled a romance by the purists among us. I've been in book clubs and I consider myself fairly well read, so it's not like I avoid literary fiction as a rule. My snobbery comes in the form of defense against those who snub their noses at anything non-literary. Any time a group of people shoves something in my face and declares it better than what I do/read/write/enjoy, I'm prewired to reject it as a matter of course.

This said, my latest read is what I would consider a literary novel. It's actually labelled Young Adult, but I enjoyed it thoroughly on a very adult level. Whatever it is, it's certainly not romance in any shape or form.

Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings is the story about 13-year-old Brady Parks, a boy who lives and works on the shores and waterways of the Chesapeake Bay. He's a good kid, mature beyond his years, with loving parents and a good if not easy life. His friends are true, and until one fateful morning changes everything, Brady's future looks bright. A young mother and her son, Brady's neighbors, take a morning kayak ride that turns tragic when the kayak sinks and the three-year-old boy nearly drowns. Brady is instrumental in the rescue of Ben D'Angelo, but his efforts prove fruitless when the boy eventually dies from over-exposure to the chilly water. Brady is crushed and finds it difficult to handle the senseless death of someone so young.

But things become even more complicated when Brady discovers evidence that the kayak accident might not have been so much an accident as sabotage. Even worse, it looks as if his two best friends might have had a hand in it. Brady struggles desperately with what to do; the right thing, which might ruin his own life as well as those of his friends, or the easy thing, which isn't necessarily the easiest when his own conscience begins to pull at him.

The story is told in first person from Brady's POV. He's an amazing kid, level headed and responsible beyond his years. In fact, if I'd have any criticism at all, it might be that Brady is somewhat adult in his outlook on the world considering his lack of time in it. But this didn't detract from the story one bit because when Brady finds himself facing the grieving Mrs. D'Angelo the first time or when he discovers the evidence that implicates his friends, his utter lack of direction rings so very true. He struggles terribly in situations that would make any adult squirm.

The suspense in the story is tightly woven yet so subtly accomplished you don't realize why it is you just can't put the book down. From page to page I turned, wondering what Brady would do. Yet there wasn't that heart-pounding tension in so many suspense novels where the good guy is running from the bad guy, trying to prove himself innocent or them guilty. Brady's struggle was mostly internal, and time after time I ached for him to just tell his parents or his older cousin, Carl, so the poor boy could unload his heavy burden from his own, narrow shoulders.

The ending is not pat. Things don't get easy for anyone. Cummings has a chance to cop out with some easy solutions, giving heart-string-tugging motivation behind the actions of Brady's two misguided friends that could allow her to wash her hands of the mess she's created. But she doesn't do that, even though all loose strings were tied up neatly and there is a definite sense of completion and hope. Brady grew on me as a character in such a way that I want to know what happens to him next. The sign of a truly good book for me is when I'm sad to finish the last page and leave the character behind when I'd just as soon keep on hanging out with him or her. I'll miss Brady Parks. A lot.

This book reminded me a lot of John Knowle's A Separate Peace. I read that book over 20 years ago, in high school, but the theme of the actions of meanness and their repercussions still echo in that dusty corner of my brain occupied by Great Works of Literature I was made to read.

If you are looking for something that goes down smooth yet leaves you with more than empty calories, pick up this book and give it a chance. Red Kayak is up for a 2007 Rebecca Caudill award, and I certainly think it deserves a lot of recognition. At the very least, I hope teachers out there discover this potential classic and encourage kids to read it. It certainly make you think about what's right and what's easy and what you might do in such a situation.

It gives literary fiction a good name.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


My family got me The Sims 2 for Mother's Day.

It's something I had asked for, so I was quite pleased to receive it.

But here it is, two weeks after Mother's Day, and I have yet to load the program on my machine to start playing with it. Because I'm really scared.

Scared that it's going to suck so much time the entire world will feel the pull toward my exact latitude and longitude, possibly throwing the time-space continuum as we know it into chaos.

I never do anything less than 110%. When I latch onto an idea or interest or hobby or passion, I jump in with both feet, entire torso, arms, fingers, head, hair, everything. I don't believe in dabbling. I go for full life immersion or nothing.

So loading up Sims 2 and creating characters and worlds and building houses - all of which sounds so cool to me - stands to pretty much take over my entire life. This is something I just can't afford right now. We are heading into summer vacation, which means my time already will be sucked dry with kid-things and trips and summer stuff. Last thing I need is a new addiction to a cyber-world.

Funny thing, the reason I wanted Sims 2 in the first place is that I thought it might allow me to take my characters and make them three dimensional. I thought, perhaps, I might be able to work out some scenarios on my computer screen, get an idea of how things really look outside the theatre of my brain. But I know what will happen is that I'll get wrapped up in stuff that has nothing whatsoever to do with my current WIPs. Before I know, three months will have passed by with not a single word added to anything I'm working on right now, but I'll have a couple dozen new characters clamoring to be heard.

I must follow the advice of Nancy Reagan. I'm just saying No to Sims 2.

For now.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Well, Jim, I Was Walking Down The Street...

Meljean made a comment to Wednesday's post that ties in with my current dialogue issues:

"I find I end up with speeches." Meljean remarked.

I'm with you on that one, too. If my characters aren't exchanging banal banter, one character is monologuing at the other one.

This is an especially tough challenge when I want one character to divulge some bit of backstory to another character. I have yet to master the art of dripping backstory into the main narrative in such a way that readers absorb it by osmosis. Instead, I seem to rely on one character going the "When I was a lad..." approach.

But, in my defense, I feel somewhat as if my hands were tied. A lot of my characters have interesting backstories, and usually there is one or two defining incidences that have put them in the position of being the right character for the particular story at hand. Many times, I have imagined these character-shaping scenes in my head to great detail, and it makes me sick to boil them down to something as simple as "my mother was a bitch" or "my boyfriend left me when I was sixteen." A lot of times, those backstory events are as interesting to me as the story at hand. (And did you notice the liberal use of to me, since I do know that sometimes backstory is boring to everyone else.)

Since prologues in general are a no-no, that leaves me either to ignore backstory-critical moments or to find another way to reveal what happened. I know flashback can be used to great advantage, but I also know that it takes a master to work flashback in such a way as to keep the current story from grinding to a sickening halt. I'm working on mastering that technique.

Meanwhile, I seem to rely on the old "Tell me what happened..." dialogue, wherein said characters are in such a place with some time to kill that they can bare their deepest darkest secrets. I find that this method accomplishes a couple things for me.

1) It demonstrates that the characters - usually the hero and heroine, but sometimes two good friends - have reached a point in their relationship where trust has solidified enough to reveal their damaged selves.

2) It establishes a new sense of intimacy between the characters. After the confessing, they know each other better than anyone else. There is a new level of connection there.

3) It explains to Character A why Character B behaves in a certain way and clears up any Big or Not-So-Big Misunderstandings that hover beneath the surface.

4) It allows me to portray relevant backstory in such a way that it (hopefully) effects the reader on an emotional level, helping her (or him) to empathise with the character more deeply. Well, yeah, if the evil step-dad killed her puppy, no wonder she hates all men with a passion.

5) It allows me to show, not tell. Sort of. Technically, one character is telling the other character what happened. But in the words chosen, it the depth of description and details revealed, you can achieve so much more than what could happen in straight narrative.

6) Because the injured character is reliving the past vicariously in the telling of it, you can bring to fore emotions that character might have experienced at the time. Nothing more effective than that big, strong Alpha-male breaking down sobbing as he explains how devastated he was when his mother died when he was only 10.

So, as I see it, lots of good reasons to use conversation as a place for backstory dumpage. But I do know it needs to be done with some finesse. That's the part I'm struggling with. How to go about things so you don't end up with pages and pages of paragraphs with only the occasional quotation mark to remind the reader that someone is speaking and that they haven't accidentally walked into a 1st person POV story run amok.

A final benefit to this method, albeit one the readers might not ever see or appreciate, is the ability to have the character tell his or her story in his or her voice (allowing practice in nailing that voice) and having all the pertinent details spelled out in one place. Kind of akin to having a character write his or her own biography during the character creation phase, only on an incident-specific level.

I'm a big fan of the "Tell me what happenened..." approach. Hope that's okay.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Speech Impediments

I love writing dialogue. A lot of times, I'll type dialogue without any quotation marks or speech tags, just letting the back-and-forth flow from my fingers as if I were transcribing a conversation. I then go back and add in who's saying what to whom, what they are doing, expressions and reactions, the like.

Only thing is, I'm finding my dialogue is chock full of speech tics. Not so much the "ums" we all stammer on occasion, especially when we feel put on the spot. I'm talking about the "Ohs" and the "Wells" and the "Yeahs." Not to mentions quite a few "Sos".

I end up with something like this.

"Well, I think it's time we have a talk," Brenda said.

"Oh?" Barney replied. "I'm don't know. We've gone this long - "

"Yeah, and I'm getting pretty tired of it. When we started this relationship, I thought things were going to be fifty-fifty. Full partners."

"So, what's the problem?" Barney steeled himself, preparing for the worst.

"Well?" Brenda glared at him. "Are you ever going to let me hold the remote?"

I also find that my characters do a lot of echoing, as if they stood at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

"I can't believe you're accusing me of that," Barney said.

"Accusing you of what?" Brenda replied.

"Of hogging the remote. Didn't you have it just last night?"

Brenda snorted. "Last night? I was out with the girls last night."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "That's right. But I know you had it the night before."

If my characters aren't throwing around empty-calorie words or repeating each other, they're asking "what" way more than they should, as if they'd been hit with some hearing problem or are kind of on the obtuse side.

"What are you going to do about it?"

"What?" Barney said.

"The remote. How are we going to work this out?" Brenda demanded.

"Well, we could go with the Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday approach, with alternate Sundays thrown in."

Brenda studied him a long moment. "You know something?"


"I love you."

I think my problem comes from transcribing dialogue as I hear it in real life. I want things to sound and flow naturally, hoping that if my characters sound like they are talking like real, living and breathing human beings do, they will come across as three-dimensional, real people. It's not so much that I engage in bagels n' coffee talk, wherein my characters go through the whole hello-how are you-I'm fine-how's the family-great, and yours song and dance. Nor do they discuss weather or the state of current sports scores. The dialogue I write is necessary to move the story forward and reveals things about the characters and their relationships with each other.

It just seems to take them a long time to get anywhere. Not to mention, this habit is killer on my word count. I might reach 10,000 words and discover a good 2,000 of them are filler speech tics.

I need to work on this. Yeah.

Monday, May 15, 2006

This 'N That

Hope everyone had a wonderful Mother's Day.

Mine was quite nice. My husband, for all he loves to drive me crazy, knows exactly how to give me a lovely Mother's Day. He wrangled the kids - took them shopping and out to lunch - in order to give me some peace and quiet. I used this time to write and ended up spending almost the entire day lost in my story. I honestly can't think of a nicer way to spend a dreary Sunday, so I'd have to say my day was pretty close to perfect.

And, to end it all, the final episode of The West Wing aired. I'm sad the show is over. It was one of only a couple that both hubby and I enjoyed and could watch together. The characters were wonderfully three-dimensional, the dialogue so sharp and quick I often had to watch a second or third time to get it all. The cast was extraordinary: I honestly don't think I can recall a single performance by a regular or guest that I didn't find spot on.

I'm going to miss the show a lot. I understand that this was the best time for it to end, while it was still good and at the natural break between the Bartlett administration and the one to follow. But over the past two seasons, I've gotten to know the new characters well enough that I think another season or two following their progress might have been nice.

My daughter and I watched Bridget Jones' Diary this weekend. I'd seen it before, of course, but I'd forgotten how funny the movie is. The fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant is laugh-out-loud worthy. I don't know what the British folks out there think, because I know they were a bit miffed over the casting of Renee Zellweger as Bridget, but I think she did an amazing job in the role. And of course Colin Firth knocked me out with his Mark Darcy.

Funny thing is that I have the book but I've never read it. Now I'm motivated to do so, and after the first chapter or so, I'm really enjoying it.

Which leads me to declare that I honestly believe I may be one of only 10 people in the whole wide world who hasn't read Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. I'm actually holding off now until I see the movie, because I figure I'm one of the very few who will be able to give an honest assessment of the movie as a movie rather than how it compares to the book. Newspapers should call me up for interviews, don't you think?

Only three and half weeks until school lets out for the summer. I'm starting to panic.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Be All That You Want to Be

Know what the very best thing about having a writer's brain is? It's the ability to be anyone and to do anything.

The other day I happened to cruise past my local UBS, and I thought about how cool it would be to own a used book store. I thought about how crammed full of books my UBS - called Cornerstone Books - is, how it has floor-to-ceiling shelves from wall to wall overflowing with used books of every genre and subgenre. The romance section is situated all the way in the back, with overflow heading into the stock room (and I've mentioned how I'm never sure if I'm allowed to peruse the offerings in this stock room, but I do anyway). I thought about how the UBS in my mother's town has an amazing romance novel section, with books divided and subdivided by theme, author, subgenre, etc.

Which led me to thinking about how I would do it if I owned a UBS.

Then I wondered if a UBS dedicated to selling only (or primarily) romance books would ever be viable as a business entity. Would it go under because there isn't a big enough market or would it be a smashing success because it focuses on one small slice of the reading pie in such a way as to do it justice? I even thought of a great name for it: Romancelandia Books.

But, being practical and a realist, I do know the downside of owning a bookstore, or any service-related business for that matter. You have to work crazy hours, including weekends. You have to stress about employees, inventory, vendors, payroll, rent, etc. All those minute details required to operate a business. Owning your own store/restaurant/whatever involves pretty much an entire-life commitment, and unless you are unique in some way, chances of long-term success are pretty slim.

BUT...I rationalized as I drove reason one of my fictional characters couldn't own a bookstore. No reason I couldn't live out the fantasy, even including the downside, on paper. Talk about low risk, no risk, right? And because it's my world I'm creating, my character's endeavor CAN be a smashing success simply because I say so, assuming, of course, I've made a reasonably realistic case for it.

So, no matter what zany idea occurs to me - like back during my junior year of college when my roommate and I went to Sea World over spring break and I decided I wanted to become a dolphin trainer - I can find a way to make it happen. In the course of my small lifetime, I can be anything I want to be via the characters that I bring to life.

How cool is that?!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Free At Last

We're coming to the end of the television season, and I'm so glad.

It used to be that I was so disappointed when my favorite shows would go on Summer hiatus. I'd lament all the reruns and how there was nothing on to watch, gnashing my teeth over any cliffhangers that needed to be resolved.

Now, I'm excited to get those free hours. Because in the summer, there is nothing I feel compelled to watch.

I know this sounds ridiculous. Like I have no control over what I do with my time, that someone is forcing me to watch The West Wing and Lost and Grey's Anatomy every week. If I don't miss these shows over the summer, why don't I just kick the habit altogether and stop watching?

As many times as I've read about writers who claim they don't watch TV, I don't think there is anything wrong with devoting yourself to a show or two. TV shows, especially those hour-long dramas, offer up some excellent examples of storytelling, both how to do it well (Lost) and how to completely muck it up (Smallville). Watching episodes from an early season as compared to ones from a later season can demonstrate how characters grow and change over time (a la The West Wing's Donna Moss). And the season-finale cliffhangers certainly prove that leaving 'em hanging is the way to keep 'em coming back for more.

Plus, sometimes my writer brain needs a rest. Sometimes I need to not think. Nothing better for this than vegging on the couch for an hour or so and letting someone else do the heavy storytelling lifting.

Besides, I use TiVo, the best invention ever since flush toilets, so I can shift when and how I watch what I want to watch. I don't suffer commercials, so my hour-long dramas really only require a 50 minute commitment. If I miss a week or two, it's a nice evening's worth of time to catch up. Plus, I can't write while I'm eating my lunch anyway, so I might as well enjoy a Buffy rerun.

But, it will still be nice this summer to not have unwatched episodes of Lost hanging over my head. When I pause to think what night it is and what show will be TiVoing and whether or not the hubby will want to watch it with me, I can smile and know that I'm not missing anything at all.

The key, I think, is to use those hours gained over summer hiatus to actually write. If I spend an average of 5 hours a week on TV programs (and there really are only 5 shows I make an effort to watch), I need to log 5 extra hours of writing every week this summer.

Maybe these 5 hours will make up the loss in hours I'm going to experience having two kids home from school 24/7. I got As in math, so I'm pretty sure I'll still end up in the negative column.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Likelihood of Failure? Too High

The other day the thought occurred to me that, maybe, I was making things too hard on myself. Here I was, knee deep in world building and developing a village's worth of characters and trying to interweave the plots and subplots of half-a-dozen hero/heroine pairs, when I began to wonder if maybe I should Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Maybe I should start with something more basic. Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl have issues that keep them apart. Boy and Girl overcome issues and live Happily Ever After. All of it set in today's real world. All of it told without convoluting the picture with brothers and sisters and best friends waiting in the wings for their own stories.

Maybe, what I needed to do, was start with a category romance. Two points of view, max. A sweet (or at least a little spicy) story that centers around one couple and a fairly straightforward problem. Guidelines from the publisher that keep me in line. Something...simple.

Not that writing category romances is simple. There is nothing simple about taking the same old worn out tired plot and stock characters and finding a new, fresh way to employ them, all within a word-count limit that I think of as more of a novella length than a true novel. When it's done well, the category romance is a sight to behold.

But, let's face it, part of the appeal - and demands of the publishers - of category romance is that they follow a straightforward path with jogs and bends that are a bit softer than the single title. Too, the very word limit keeps a writer like me from wandering off the road to explore all kinds of tangents. To write a category romance, you pretty much have to stick with the story at hand. They don't suffer rebels well.

Except, I'm generally not a big reader of category romance. I'm a fan of the more complex, the sub-plots and extra characters and the sweeping worlds you only find in single titles.

And...big admission here...I don't seem to have much luck in regards to quality when it comes to the categories I pick up.

Case in point. I went on line and made a list of all the series lines in Harlequin's and Silhouette's stables. List in hand, I trotted off to the UBS to stock up on a handful of each so I could do some research. Would I be more of a Silhouette Intimate Moments gal (which seemed to be the obvious choice since Suzanne Brockmann's Tall, Dark and Dangerous series SIMs are some of my all-time favs of any genre) or maybe I'm the Harlequin American Romance kind. What, exactly, is the difference between a Harlequin Romance and a Silhouette Romance? And why are the Super Romances super? Since I'm not a big reader of any specific line, I figured maybe I just needed to jump in and find one I really liked, and there I might make a home.

OT - does anyone else notice how the graphics on the eHarlequin website of all of those couples look much like the couples in ED advertisements?

My local UBS has an entire wall of category romance. Granted, it's stuck in the back of the store, through the door that leads to the stock room. Some of the wall was blocked by the towering bags and boxes of books recently dropped off, and I didn't have the guts to go so far as shift stuff around to help myself. In fact, I'm never even sure if I'm really allowed to go back there in the first place unless I have some kind of special access authorization, like the owner of the store only lets her very best most favorite customers see what she has to offer in the way of category. But since I had a mission, I risked it and stood in the stock room eyeing the booty before me.

I was immediately struck by the number of "secret babies" and "virgins" and "brides" that seem to populate the genre. I knew they were out there, but until you see probably a thousand books all in one place, a good 80% of them with either baby, virgin or bride or some combination of two or all of the above in the title, you don't realize how much of a cancer these themes have become.

Since I have no intention of writing about secret babies or virgins or brides (or billionaire Greek/Italian/Texas/Businessmen tycoons), I immediately passed by any with such a title. I tried to look for names I recognized (do you know how many different people write category romance? I had no idea) and general themes that appeal to me - ex-Spec Force guys, tortured pasts, rescue scenarios, friends into lovers, that sort.

I walked out of the UBS with only five books. Because frankly, the whole thing was just too overwhelming for my tiny brain to fathom. Plus, I'd brought the dog with me and could hear her barking up a storm in the car, embarrassing me to no end.

I came home, plopped down in front of the laptop and logged on to AAR to see if the titles I'd chosen had been reviewed. Just curious since I'd chosen these five pretty much working blind.

And here's the reason I don't buy category romance. Of the five books I'd selected, three of them had earned a 'D' grade, two of them flat out 'Fs'. Normally, I won't let a low grade stop me if I really want to read the book. But reading the reviews and the flaws pointed out by the reviewers as reasons for the low grades, my hopes sank immediately that it just might be a matter of personal preference. These books had serious flaws, not just an irritating quirk that irked that specific reviewer but might not bother me a whit.

Out of over 1,000 books at my fingertips, I'd selected five that avoided my hot buttons and should have appealed to my reading preferences, and not a single one of them came recommended in any sort of way. Granted, I was shopping in a UBS, which by it's very nature implies that the books you'd find there aren't necessarily keepers. But come on. Five out five given a failing grade by those who are supposed to like category romance as a genre? This experience completely confirmed my overall experience with category romances I've bought off the shelf in bookstores.

And it solidified my reluctance to read in the genre. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the recent five I've acquired. I still need to do that research (sort of), so I may give them a shot. But with all my other TBRs plus the gazillion other things I have to do, it's not looking good.

The quality of category romance is simply too hit or miss for me. Unless, like Brockmann, it's a proven entity, I just do not see risking my time and money on an unknown because the likelihood that I'm going to be disappointed is just too great.

Again, not to dis the writers of category romance. It's not an easy gig. And I don't think the publishers make it any easier. I have no idea if it's a matter of the high demand leading publishers to accept less than stellar work, or if my expectations are just too damn high. But when the chance that anything I select will rate a D or F is near 100%, I'm just not very motivated to try and try again to find a winner.

It reminds me of those crane games you find at restaurants and pretty much everywhere they think kids will be bored and try to sucker their parents into giving them a couple quarters. You know, the game where you steer the giant claw-on-a-chain until it's poised over the prize you want, usually the only cool stuffed animal in the massive plexiglass box. Then you hit the button, the crane drops the claw which grasps wimpily at your object of lust only to grab air before moving back into position to await the next sucker. It keeps your 50 cents and you walk away with the burn of disappointment in your belly. I try to explain to my kids that you might as well take your 50 cents and drop it down the sewer drain because the likelihood of losing that game is pretty much guaranteed.

I kind of feel that way about category right now. Unless it comes highly, HIGHLY recommended or is someone I've come to know writes very well via their blog (and I do have a stack a mile high of TBR categories by writers I know via their blogs, which I expect will be very good), it's just not worth the risk to come up with nothing but air and a bitter disappointment.

Which, I guess, means I shouldn't consider writing category. If I don't want to read them to do the research to find out how, then I don't have much of chance of succeeding in writing them.

Friday, May 05, 2006


When I first determined to do something with my writing rather than make up stories in my head and keep them there, I devoured any bit of info/advice/anecdotes about the craft of writing like a man starving in the desert. I checked out every possible writing book my library carried, ordered some keepers from Amazon, cruised the writing section of Barnes & Noble every chance I got, and generally read everything from Stephen King's On Writing to Julie Beard's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Your Romance Published. Not to mention all the time I spent cruising the internet for anything I felt could help me become a better writer.

And I discovered the blogosphere. I bookmarked a dozen or a hundred writers' sites that I found most useful and visited them religiously, hoping to suck these people for any microscopic morsel of wisdom I could get.

I've culled my list of regulars down to less than twenty, simply because bloghopping had become my newest, biggest time suck and I couldn't afford such a luxury if I actually wanted to do any real writing.

But I've discovered the next level. I've graduated, so to speak, on to the next step in the writing/publishing process. I've discovered editors' and agents' blogs.

(Well, maybe not graduated, as I still find the advice of published writers invaluable. Would this be more along the lines of co-majoring?)

Specifically, I've been hanging around Miss Snark's place, and through her Evil Editor, who has become one of my first stops of the day. Too, I've found Pub Rants which is both entertaining and educational. I know there are others out there, but I'm trying to start slow and build up. I don't want to end up like I did before, spending 6 hours a day trying to visit all of my favorites.

I've already learned so much just reading the advice of these people in the know. Mostly, I've learned that there are a lot of people out there who really don't have a clue. This never seeks to shock me.

I mean, I know that editors and agents reject pretty much 99.9% of the stuff they get. I've always found that so discouraging because I imagine that out of the 99.9% that they reject, at least 90% of it is actually pretty good stuff. If those people couldn't make it past the threshold, how in the world do I think I have a chance?

But when you read some of the examples that these folks post to make their points, you see that they do receive a lot of junk. People who have no idea how to write a query or who have horrendous spelling and/or grammatical errors in what they send. I always felt curious in a "duh" sort of way when experienced writers would remind wannabes of the importance of spell check. Did people really send in badly spelled queries such that it warranted addressing? Apparently so.

Anyway, I'm having a blast lurking around these editors and agents. Kind of like hanging with the cool crowd, if I were invisible so they couldn't give me a look like I was a nasty blob of gum on the bottom of their expensive, hand-made Italian shoes. I keep quiet, I read everything, and I learn. As a bonus, I also laugh. A lot.

Perhaps this is because I'm not one of those on the hot seat, having my own query ripped to shreds. I do offer thanks to all those brave enough to let Miss Snark and Evil Editor take a stab at what they've done because I'm learning a lot via their mistakes.

And you can better believe I'll never take for granted the spell check advice.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

So That's What Mommy's Doing All the Time

Last Thursday, I was sitting at the table in our family room where I like to work because the many windows make the space nice and bright. Plus the table allows me to spread out. Anyway, I'm working on a map for my current WIP when my kids wander over to see why mommy is playing with markers.

Naturally, they want to help. I explain to them that they can't help with my project, but they can make maps of their own. They pull up chairs and get to work, asking me questions all the while.

"What are you drawing?"

"I'm making a map."

"Where do we live," my daughter asks, looking over at my pencilled creation with great interest. She's eight and into maps these days.

"This isn't a map of our town," I explain. "It's a made-up place. An island where people can live."

"Oh. Well, why are you doing that?" she asks.

"I'm writing a book, and this map will help me know where things are when I'm writing."

A moment's pause. "You're writing a book?"

"Uh huh."

"Like, the kind in the library?"


Again, she takes a minute to think. "So, how will you make it into a book?"

"I don't make it into a book myself," I say, swallowing a sigh because I have a feeling I'm going to spend the next half hour answering questions about the publishing industry that I don't understand myself, much less have the ability to distill down to an eight-year-old level. "I send it to a company who makes it into a book. I hope."


"I have to finish the book first. Then it takes a lot of time to turn it into something you see at the store."


And that was enough of the Q&A for that afternoon. But the conversation stuck, because Sunday night, as I'm unloading the dishwasher and my daughter is sitting at the kitchen table doing her weekend homework, she speaks up.

"Hey, I have a great idea for a name for your book."

This ought to be interesting. "Oh, yeah? What's your idea?"

"The People Who Live On an Island."

I smile. "Yeah, that would be very descriptive."

"So, when can I read it?" she asks.

Great. Now I'm going to have the kids nagging me to finish.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Long and Short of It

This week is major character development week for me (according to my nifty little schedule). Part of sketching out a character involves skulking around the internet, looking for images of people who personify the person I'm inventing. Usually requires a lot of gazing at hot guys, which, I know, is true hardship.

What I've noticed, though, is the lack of Beautiful Women (note caps) who have short hair.

I have a character who has short hair. But for the life of me I can't think of an actress who wears her hair short as a rule. Except for Halle Berry, and she is indeed a Beautiful Woman. But my character isn't African American, so she won't work. Besides, I've used her before as the model of a different character, and I try not to recycle.

Anyway, I've been racking my brain trying to come up with somebody whose hair is normally kept cut short, and I just can't come up with anybody. Every actress who comes to mind has long hair. Sure, they've gone through their short-hair periods, usually because of a role that requires drastic shaves (see Demi Moore a la G.I. Jane). But then filming ends and they seem to disappear for a while only to have it grow out really fast, back to the original long look.

Or maybe they get it cut because they are seeking a change, but such a change never seems to last because the poor soul gets so much grief over cutting what I guess so many people believe as public property. Remember that broohaha over Keri Russell's decision to cut off a gazillion inches of her trademark locks? Heck, some even contributed the decline in the show's popularity to the haircut. And I think poor Faith Hill went through some angst when she cut her hair. For crying out loud, the woman would be gorgeous with no hair at all. Why do people care?

But it seems that the public at large does prefer a woman to have long hair. And everyone who reads romance knows the cliche of those magnificent tresses flowing past the heroine's waist, usually of some sort of glowing sunrise shade of titian glory. Isn't that always what the hero notices first (or second or third), how her hair is the epitome of feminine sexiness? How he can't wait to feel it drape over his naked skin like some kind of living protein blanket. Yeah, in both real life and fictional fantasy, there seems to be a long hair = sexy lady thing going on.

Now, I admit that I have long-ish hair. Down past my shoulders. This is for a couple reasons. First, my husband tends to like long hair as opposed to short hair. I don't do a whole lot for him as regards my appearance; I don't diet or workout to keep my body in that youthful college form he first admired. I don't wear fancy (read: sexy) clothing or very much makeup. I'm very much the as-you-see-me kind of girl, so leaving my hair long-ish as a concession to his preference and as an effort to make myself attractive to him is a small price to pay.

BUT - this reason alone would not be enough for me to keep it long if not for the fact that I'm incredibly lazy, and despite the "just wash it, towel it dry and go" claim of hairstylists trying to sell some sassy short do, I think short hairstyles require a lot of work to look good. As it stands now, I wear my hair in a ponytail 90% of the time. I like the fact that I can hop out of bed and look semi-presentable without having to shower. And I've never been one of those hair-girls, who can work magic with nothing more than a bobby pin and a curling iron. What the hairstylist accomplishes while I sit in the beauty salon is something that will never happen in front of my bathroom mirror.

Too, I'm just stark raving terrified of what I would look like with short hair. I have fairly chubby cheeks, and I can't help but think I'd look pretty much an overgrown Q-tip if I didn't have long hair to draw my face downward. I know that hair always grows, so a tragic experiment is temporary at worst. But I have yet to find the Perfect Short Look that inspires me to take such a risk.

And adding another hit to the laziness column, I haven't had a decent haircut since I move from downtown Chicago some ten years ago. Back in my young, urban chic days, I went to a fancy schmancy stylist on high-end Oak Street, where they offered you a glass of wine when you walked in the door and the number of people you had to tip neared the double digits.

When I moved to the 'burbs, going to that stylist became a major effort. And since my style was not a whole lot more than 'trim off the dead ends', it seemed reasonble just to find a new gal or guy closer to home. Somehow, though, I just never got around to it. You know, those pesky kids and all of their needs and demands. So my haircuts now usually consist of me and a pair of scissors and about two fingers' width of getting rid of the bulk. Need I remind you that ponytails offer a lot of saving grace for the home hair stylist?

But, back to my dilemma. Surely celebrities and models out there have oodles of time and money to spend getting a faboo haircut. After all, it's their profession to look good, so they can write it off as a business expense. So why don't many of them have short hair? Is it simply a matter of trends, like the Rachel do? If some hot actress pulls off a cute short cut, everyone else will follow?

I hope it happens soon. I don't want to get off schedule.