You Need A Thneed!

I was skimming my tumblr dashboard and saw someone had posted a page from The Lorax, the one where he says “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

I…sometimes cry at this part of the cartoon. But if I’m being honest, the Onceler is still my favorite character.

He’s got a fairly complex characterization and arc, doesn’t he? He’s motivated by a genuine love for the Truffula trees, but he still destroys them and everything else in his quest to be rich. There’s the scene where he rationalizes his behavior (while lounging fabulously in an armchair and smoking a cigar) with “If I didn’t do it, then someone else would!” And of course he repents in the end.

Sometimes I am astonished at the continuity in types of characters I have instaloved over the course of my life. Smooth-talking, ruthless businessman/hustler who makes it big? Check.

Other examples:

  1. Lex Luthor. Ever noticed how all Lex Luthor’s plans are classic real estate scams…that somehow require the death of millions?
  2. Pulitzer from Newsies. I don’t understand why Robert Duvall didn’t win an Oscar for that performance. But then, I don’t understand why Newsies didn’t sweep the Oscars that year, generally.
  3. Badger from Firefly.

In a similar vein, I recently read a historical novel I read as a kid (Rebecca’s War, about the British occupation of Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War). I remembered having a crush on the male lead, but when I reread it I was completely astonished to realize that he’s still exactly my type:

Aristocratic young British officer, snarky, clever, good at worming his way into your good graces, particular about his clothes and a little vain, but he’s someone you can rely on in a crisis, too—and he’s always endlessly impressed by the plucky middle-class heroine. Cf. Chuck Bass, Logan Echolls, Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Peter Wimsey, and any number of historical romance heroes.

Is there a type of character you’ve always loved? Rewatched any cartoons recently and been surprised by how little your taste has changed?

Melodramatic phrases comfort the soul

I saw someone on Tumblr talking about John Wilkes Booth’s death today, and his last words were so melodramatic I was fascinated. Here’s the whole story, from his Wikipedia article:

Before dawn on April 26, the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett’s tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered, but Booth refused Conger’s demand to surrender, saying “I prefer to come out and fight”; the soldiers then set the barn on fire. As Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him. According to Corbett’s later account, he fired at Booth because the fugitive “raised his pistol to shoot” at them. Conger’s report to Stanton, however, stated that Corbett shot Booth “without order, pretext or excuse”, and recommended that Corbett be punished for disobeying orders to take Booth alive. Booth, fatally wounded in the neck, was dragged from the barn to the porch of Garrett’s farmhouse, where he died three hours later, aged 26. The bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him.

In his dying moments, he reportedly whispered, “Tell my mother I died for my country”. Asking that his hands be raised to his face so he could see them, Booth uttered his last words, “Useless, useless,” and died as dawn was breaking. In Booth’s pockets were found a compass, a candle, pictures of five women, including his fiancée Lucy Hale, and his diary, where he had written of Lincoln’s death, “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”

Who were the other four women?? Also, “Useless, useless”! It reminds me of two other really dramatic life-and-death stories: Henry II muttering “Shame, shame on a conquered king” before dying, and this one about the robber baron Henry Clay Frick (anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him after Frick’s Pinkertons attacked striking steelworkers, killing 7):

The bullet hit Frick in the left earlobe, penetrated his neck near the base of the skull, and lodged in his back. The impact hurled Frick off his feet, and Berkman fired again, again striking Frick in the neck and causing him to bleed profusely. Carnegie Steel vice-president (later, president) John George Alexander Leishman, who was with Frick, was then able to grab Berkman’s arm and deflect a third shot, saving Frick’s life.

Frick was seriously wounded, but rose and (with the assistance of Leishman) tackled his assailant. All three men crashed to the floor, where Berkman managed to stab Frick four times in the leg with the pointed steel file before finally being subdued by other employees, who had rushed into the office. As the police entered the room, guns drawn, Frick reportedly yelled, “Don’t shoot! Leave him to the law, but raise his head and let me see his face.”

“Raise his head and let me see his face”! It’s like something out of a movie. Do people naturally behave like this in times of crisis? Or do they do it out of a sense of what’s expected of them because they’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of theater/movies? And is that even a meaningful distinction? Speech, being communication aimed at someone else, inherently has an element of “for effect” in it. And raising a child without ever telling him a story isn’t “natural” either (well, I guess especially if you were doing it to find out how he reacted when you shot him). It’s fascinating.

I carried a watermelon

When a friend read my upcoming A Lily Among Thorns, she pointed out that my heroine is good at everything. She said it got a little improbable.

It’s a totally fair criticism: I did originally intend Serena to be the female version of the “good at everything but feelings,” dark-past-ed alpha hero.

But the hidden truth, the one I should maybe have played up a little more in the book, is that there are plenty of things Serena’s bad at. Millions of things. But, up to the point where she meets Solomon, she’s very carefully arranged her life so she only has to do things she’s good at. It’s a major limitation in her life, and something that’s always at the background of her consciousness: “If I might not be in control of my image while doing this, I can’t do it.”

I had the realization recently that I have a tendency to do the same thing. Not, obviously, to the extent that Serena does. But I really, really don’t like doing things I’m not good at. Even if I want to do them. I never learned to ride a bike because I didn’t learn when I was a kid and then when I was older everyone else already knew how and it was easier to say, “I don’t ride,” than to wobble or fall in front of friends (or strangers!). I rarely have the courage to sing karaoke or dance in public. I hate working out where other people can see.

You might notice a trend in this list: I have always thought of myself as a klutz, someone who’s good with her brain but not very coordinated or sporty. But the truth is, I love sports. I played soccer and basketball as a kid…but it wasn’t until I started fencing in middle school that I found a sport I really could love wholeheartedly.

At the time, I thought I was so much happier fencing because I was better at it. Looking back, I suspect it’s because it was less awkward for me socially. The other fencers were mostly geeks like me, and because it wasn’t a team sport, no one got mad or blamed me when I lost. (Plus, come on, fencing! To a history nerd, it’s the most glamorous sport EVER.)

I’ve found myself swooning over dancing in movies lately. All kinds: tap, krumping, swing dancing, Broadway musical, ballroom, popping and locking. It just looks like so much fun!

I can’t do that, right? I have no sense of rhythm! I’m uncoordinated! I have two left feet! I’ve never done any kind of formal dancing in my life unless you count that British folk dancing class in college where I could only really do the English country dances, not the Scottish ones, because the English ones only required me to remember where to walk and the Scottish ones required me to learn special footwork and keep a beat! I can dance at parties, but I certainly can’t dance with anyone without feeling hopelessly foolish!

And the thing is, I’ve always just thought of this as part of who I am. It’s something I’m not good at, something I can’t do. But I don’t really believe in natural talent. We’re good at things we care about enough to work at and spend time on. I’m a good writer…because I’ve been reading and writing stories consistently since I was a tiny child. I’ve never put the effort into music or dance. Partly because I was busy with other things, and partly because the other things I was busy with didn’t give me a sneaking sense of inadequacy.

I think maybe it’s time to step outside my comfort zone and sign up for some beginners’ dance lessons.

When’s the last time you did something outside your comfort zone? Did it work out? I could use some inspiration!

Corinthians vs. Aliens

Overheard at various RWA workshops/speakers/conference functions:

Brokeback Mountain is tragic. Titanic is merely sad.” (I should point out this was NOT a comment on their respective quality! It was about the story structure.)

“The Regency is a shared world fantasy like Star Wars or Star Trek.” –Mary Jo Putney. Hell yes! That is one smart lady.

“Our ‘voice’ emerges when we embrace that exposure [the stuff about ourselves that authors reveal in their writing] and allow the barriers between ourselves and readers to become porous.” –Madeline Hunter. Yes! That!! This is what I was trying to say in this blog post and couldn’t quite express.

New genre concept created by my table at the Keynote Lunch: Space Regency! I think this is a great idea. I can see it now: the short but tough emperor of Beta Gaul IV out to conquer the Europa galaxy! Many planets have fallen under his sway. In his way stands tiny Albion Prime, ruled by a decadent Regent, protected only by its natural asteroid belt…(All roads lead to Nathan Fillion wearing a Rifleman’s uniform, that’s all I’m saying. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, go to Susanna Fraser’s blog here. Wow, time for a sidenote: when I first read that post I was NOT as into Ian Somerhalder as I am now. He’d make a great James! So compelling and adorable.)

Did you know if you google image search “Jane Austen goggles” you find nothing? NOTHING! What is that? …Sorry, I think my brain is falling out my ears a bit from all that conference and I’ve gotten a bit scattered. Which leads me to:

I started researching Sussex for the WIP. I am stealing this parish church: “Above the tower clock is a figure of Father Time, who, according to legend, jumps down from his perch at midnight and scythes the churchyard grass; the legend is said to have been started by a former rector, who could not afford to pay for the grass to be cut and did the job himself under cover of darkness. Another rector left a unique and useless addition to the fittings of the church—the tall stone ‘tub’ for total immersion, standing against the south wall and reached by a flight of steps. This was installed in 1710 in an attempt to lure Baptists back to the church on the grounds that ‘anything you can do we can do better’; but it was only used once.”

What’s the smartest or funniest thing you’ve heard someone say recently? Also, can anyone photoshop me some Space Regency images?

“Does she care for olives?”

When I turned in the manuscript of A Lily Among Thorns, my editor at the time (the fabulous Leah Hultenschmidt) commented on a particular scene, “Your men are so good about bringing women exactly what they want to eat in the ballroom.”

“Huh,” I thought, “I guess there are scenes in both my books of the heroes bringing the heroines just what they want to eat at a party.” In In for a Penny, Nev remembers that Penelope hates being messy when she eats (the young ladies at school made fun of her for her low-class table manners), so he cuts up all the food from the buffet into bite-sized pieces for her before giving her the plate.

(This turned out to be a favorite moment for readers, actually—I’ve had people mention it to me more often than probably every other scene combined.)

And in A Lily Among Thorns, Solomon and Serena gate-crash a society party (for Important Intrigue Reasons). Serena has a very scandalous past, and Solomon’s grandfather was an earl but his mother ran off with a poor curate whose brother is actually a tradesman (gasp!), so their arrival doesn’t exactly go unnoticed:

Serena hastily turned her attention to the ballroom. Everyone in the room was watching them. The low murmur of conversation rose to an excited hum. At least Mrs. Elbourn looked pleasantly scandalized instead of horrified. This would make her party the talk of London. Perhaps that would be enough to keep them from being tossed out on their ears.

Solomon’s shoulders slumped. “Shall we try the buffet table? Maybe there are lobster patties.”

Serena felt warm. Was it because of all the eyes on her, or because Solomon had noticed she loved lobster patties when Antoine [the chef at her hotel] made them last week for supper?

“Whatever,” I said to myself. “It’s probably just a coincidence.”

Only now I’m working on my next book (not sold yet so I have no details, sorry!). [ETA: This book was eventually published as Sweet Disorder.] The heroine (a middle-class widow who does her own grocery shopping, so a gift of food makes sense) doesn’t like sweets and no one can seem to remember that! And in the scene I just wrote, after their first (awesome) kiss, the hero really feels he should apologize for taking such shocking liberties, so he brings her a whole ham.

She hasn’t been able to afford a whole ham since last Christmas! (It’s just such a cute image to me, this guy ducking his head apologetically and holding out…a ham wrapped in paper.)

Okay, so maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe it’s a thing.

I guess, to me, coming from a Jewish/Polish family, food is more than just food? Food and cooking are family, and love, and friendship. My biggest fear when I have people over is that I won’t have enough or the right kind of food for them and they’ll be hungry. HUNGRY, AT MY HOUSE! THAT WOULD BE TERRIBLE.

Plus…isn’t it nice to have someone pay attention to you? To be so interested in you that they actually remember small details like what you like to eat, or to want to please you so much that they make the effort to find out?

There’s a point in Sense and Sensibility after Willoughby has dumped Marianne when Mrs. Jennings is trying to cheer her up:

Had not Elinor, in the sad countenance of her sister, seen a check to all mirth, she could have been entertained by Mrs. Jennings’s endeavors to cure a disappointment in love, by a variety of sweetmeats and olives, and a good fire.

When I’m heartbroken, that’s exactly what I want!

What little things mean love, to you?

Making someone a cake is an incredibly intimate thing

I moved this week! My new apartment is still filled with boxes but I can already tell I’m going to be very happy here.

I hired movers, which I’ve never done before. It was an interesting experience–I never thought about it before, but movers get a really unique insight into people’s lives. At one point, I was saying that I didn’t know where to put the leaf from the dining room table, and one of the movers said, “The most common place to hide a leaf is under the bed.” I had no idea! Then I mentioned that I wasn’t sure yet how we were going to lay out the furniture in our living room. The mover told me, “Well, the most common layout I see for this living room…” I was fascinated.

Then my roommate and I were watching Ace of Cakes, and Duff said, “Making a cake for someone is incredibly intimate thing. It’s like taking their joy and making it into a tangible object.” I’d never thought about it like that before. But isn’t it beautiful?

People often relate to the world in really job-specific ways. It’s something I love to play with while writing–after all, half the fun of fiction is experiencing the world from inside someone else’s head. It can be difficult to capture because of course, I only have experience doing my own job.

It’s something that’s especially relevant to A Lily among Thorns, because my hero and heroine are both from quasi-upper-class backgrounds, and have both chosen to be tradespeople: my hero is a chemist who works for his uncle’s tailoring shop, and my heroine is an innkeeper. And they see themselves as defined by those things in opposition to a lot of the people they knew growing up. I worked hard to make that a part of their characterization.

Which is all leading into my exciting announcement that my workshop, “Making Your Hero(ine)’s Job Work for You,” has been accepted by the Emerald City Writers Conference! You should all register for the conference (when registration opens) and come! It’s going to be super fun. I had an absolute blast giving my sex scenes workshop last year and I know this will be just as awesome.

A link

Cecilia Grant just made a fantastic post about the importance of the reader’s input in genre fiction. Here’s my favorite bit:

They played this one number – a quieter love song that had been a radio hit – and the audience, most of whom seemed to be young women and all of whom seemed to know the words, sang along. And when the chorus came around for the second time, the singer stepped back from the mike and the audience kept on singing by themselves.

I suppose this isn’t uncommon in rock concerts, but in that moment, it just seemed like such a clear and lovely illustration of the audience’s role in realizing – completing – a piece of popular art. The artist writes the song, records it, sends it out into the world, and it’s not really complete until it’s received by someone to whom it means something. The audience gives it that last little spark; makes it real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.

Readers and my imagined audience and my experience as the audience of other people’s stories and my connection with other writers/readers are a HUGE part of my creative process so this post really resonated with me.

YA appreciation, part 1/2

One of my favorite book blogs, the Book Smugglers, are having YA (young adult lit) appreciation month right now, and they have set aside today for other bloggers to talk about YA.

I love YA books. I loved them when I was younger than the target audience, I loved them all through middle school and high school, and I continued to love them right up to now. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what makes YA so magical, but I think part of it is that the majority of it is written by people who aren’t in the target audience.

Caveat: Of course, this doesn’t mean that, say, black literature would be better if it was all written by white people. But all adults have been young adults at some point in their life, so it’s different. And of course, sometimes this results in really awful books. We’ve all picked up a YA book and thought…Has this author ever met a high school student? And there have been fantastic YA stories written by young adults, which bring something unique to the table.

But for a lot of adult-written YA, it means the author is thinking very carefully about her audience while writing.

For me, writing is about storytelling. And that means telling a story to someone. The readers are just as important to the process as I am, and the experience of reading the book is something we create together.

For some reason (I blame the Romantic movement), a lot of people have this idea about art as something that the genius creator does all by himself (yes, in this version the creator is usually a “he”), and then he lets other people see it. They are supposed to passively appreciate his vision in the manner it was intended.

Joss Whedon’s “I give my viewers what they need, not what they want,” is a classic example. We won’t get into my issues with Joss Whedon, but suffice it to say, my goal is the give my readers what they want.

It’s like making a chair. If I’m a furniture maker, and I spend twenty hours making a beautiful chair, and then someone else spends twenty hours sitting in it, it doesn’t really matter how much passion and joy and genius I put into the woodwork if they aren’t comfortable in it, and I can’t tell them, no, you really are comfortable, if they’re not. They know best about that. Together, we created the experience of that chair.

I think YA authors, because they are so conscious that they are writing for someone else, get that more often than other writers.

Stay tuned: tomorrow I’ll post about a few amazing YA books that are on my shelves right now.

Just call me the Marlon-Brando-in-"The-Wild-Ones" of teen soap viewers

So I may have mentioned that I’ve been watching Gossip Girl. I’m halfway through Season 2, and while I’ve noticed a decline in quality in terms of plot coherence (also: understanding how to correctly use the term “slander”), I still love all the characters so I’m willing to overlook it.

There’s something else the show does really, really well that’s important to me: it doesn’t judge its characters.

Here’s what I mean by that: say Blair just did something awful, like (WARNING: mild SPOILER for season 2 coming up!) posted a fake rumor to a gossip blog trying to destroy a teacher’s career because they gave her a bad grade. Why did she do this? Here’s the show’s answer:

1. Blair has problems with lashing out.
2. Blair has a lifelong dream of going to Yale and is afraid this grade might affect her admission.
3. Blair is under a lot of pressure this week because her divorced father (whom she adores but isn’t very close to) is visiting from France with his boyfriend.

Etc., etc. The answer is NEVER, “Because Blair is a bitch.” Sure, Blair often acts like a bitch, and has more feelings of anger and resentment than many of the show’s other characters, but that’s pretty much a non-issue for the writers.

The specific meanness of posting the rumor, whether it was justified, and what, exactly, the consequences are for Blair, the teacher, and various innocent bystanders, IS an issue, but that’s very different. Blair is never on trial AS A PERSON. When a scheme of hers backfires or hurts someone, it never feels like a judgement from the writers, but simply a plausible outcome of her behavior.

I could go on for hours about why I like this in a book or movie, but I think the two most important factors are:

1. I hate it when I feel like an author is bullying a character. Okay, that maybe sounds a little silly, but it actually really affects my reading. People root for the underdog, right? Well, I also root for what I call “narrative underdogs.” If I feel like an author is stacking the deck against a character or setting them up to look bad, it bothers me.

If an author creates a character just to be a terrible person and then punishes them for it, my first thought is “Well you MADE that character the way they are!” This is especially true if the terrible person’s punishment involves public humiliation and I can practically hear the author snickering gleefully. Which I think leads pretty well into factor 2:

2. I’m contrary. I instinctively rebel if I feel like I’m being told what to think or how to react. I have an irrational hatred of feeling as if an interpretation is being shoved down my throat. For example, if a hero and heroine exchange some charming banter, and then the heroine thinks, “Oh my, HERO is the MOST delightfully witty man I’ve EVER met!”…my first instinct is to say, “I’ve met wittier.”

“What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?”

Of course no author (or person, for that matter) is unbiased, but it’s a “show vs. tell” thing. If the writer shows me character A behaving like a jerk, probably I’ll think character A is a jerk. I might or might not LIKE character A, but either way I’ll think she’s a jerk.

(A romance I read recently that did this incredibly well was Eloisa James’s A Duke of Her Own. Way to create a full cast of characters, have some of them behave very badly indeed, and yet let me draw my own conclusions about all of them!)

But if the writer tells me repeatedly that character A is a jerk, very likely I’ll start looking for excuses for A’s behavior, no matter how awful it is, or be pushed into siding with her against character B, whom the writer keeps telling me to like.

And that’s the great thing: Gossip Girl never forces me to choose sides. It provides me with every character’s perspective and lets me decide for myself whether I think Serena is being passive-aggressive, or Dan is being unfair, or Nate is being adorable (hint: Nate is ALWAYS being adorable). It gives me the space, as a viewer, to figure out how I feel about the characters and situations. And that means that, most of the time, I can love all the characters even as I acknowledge their faults, and be on everyone’s side.

Are you a contrary reader? (“No” is an acceptable answer! I’m just curious!)

Angry heroines, part 1/2

There’s been a really interesting conversation going around about “unlikeable” heroines. I think it started over at Dear Author, and just yesterday a great post by Tracy Grant went up at History Hoydens. There was a quote in that that got me thinking:

“But more seriously, I think it [why anti-heroines are so intriguing] is in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role.”

This conversation feels especially relevant to me because Serena, the heroine of my next book, Lily Among Thorns, could potentially be considered an “unlikeable heroine.” I like her a lot, of course, but she’s prickly and defensive and not always fair, because she’s had a hard life and been treated badly by a lot of people and she’s angry. It seems like fairly often, that’s what “unlikeable” boils down to–angry.

I’m a pretty angry person. I’m also a happy person, and I think a compassionate one, but the compassion is partly something I’ve worked on and developed because it’s important to me, not necessarily something that came naturally to me as a kid. My natural response to a lot of things is anger, and I’ve always felt guilty and ashamed of that, because girls aren’t supposed to be angry. Or at least, girls aren’t supposed to express anger. But there’s a William Blake poem my mom used to quote to me growing up:

“I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath; my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not; my wrath did grow.”

I’ve had this experience so many times–I’ll be angry at a friend of mine for something stupid, something little, but I won’t want to tell them for fear of being a bitch or hurting their feelings, I’ll think, “I shouldn’t care about this, I’ll just wait and it’ll pass.” Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. When I was younger, I lost a couple of friendships that way, because I didn’t say anything and didn’t say anything until the anger turned into resentment and after a while, that was all I could feel about that person.

In recent years I’ve gotten better about bringing something up (as tactfully and kindly as I can figure out how to do!) if it continues to bother me after a few days, but it’s still hard for me. I’m still afraid to do it, and I still feel so guilty for wanting to, for being unable to simply close the door on my anger and make it go away.

But if you don’t express anger, it doesn’t magically go away. It grows until it consumes you. If you aren’t allowed to express it, well. So many unlikeable heroines, anti-heroines, and villainesses come down to that–they’re angry, and their anger has come, in some way, to define them.

That is Becky Sharp’s real crime, isn’t it? That she had a tough childhood, that no one ever protected her or took care of her, and her response to that is to put herself first, to become hard–in contrast to Amelia, who’s compared to a “flower that smells the sweeter for being crushed.”

Villainesses like Milady or Becky Sharp, it seems like, accept that they can’t openly express their anger, so they express it in disturbing, hidden ways, through manipulation, passive aggression, sugar-coated insults, lies, and in some cases, violence and murder. It’s not healthy or admirable, but I’ll admit to an instinctive sympathy. I like reading about it.

But what I love even more is the unlikeable heroine, because often she does express her anger. Like Tracy Grant says, she breaks the rules, defies convention, and accepts the consequences. She insists on being true to who she is, and not pretending to feel differently.

And what I love even more than that is the hero who responds to that, who genuinely respects and likes the heroine’s anger. Sure, it’s a transparent fantasy of love and acceptance, but isn’t that what romance novels are for sometimes?

Are you comfortable expressing anger? How do you feel about angry female characters? And do you have any flaws (or things that could be considered flaws, anyway) that you like to see mirrored in romance heroines?

(I’m working on Part 2 of this post right now, in the form of a list of my favorite angry heroines. I can’t wait to hear about yours!)

Edit: Part 2 is here.