Hiya – Gonna be hanging out with these folks the next coupla weeks, sharing heretofore untold secrets about myself.
Updrift is first and foremost a love and adventure story with a little mythology mixed in, not a treatise on ideal womanhood or feminism… But. I did write in a theme addressing the challenges modern women face concerning work, family, and love; and I included the backdrop deliberately with the goal of enriching the narrative. The theme is not there to cast aspersions or further divide us, however. Quite the opposite.
In a nutshell, my heroine, Kate, is the daughter of a single, working mother. As Kate grows up, she looks to the three most influential women around her – her mom; her aunt, the corporate go-getter; and Alicia, the stay-at-home mother of her best friend – to try on the incarnations of adulthood each represents. She changes her mind twice in Updrift, changes her mind again in the sequel… and if I were to focus solely on Kate throughout the series, which I don’t, her circumstances and how she applies her values in light of them would change many, many more times.
I took this approach because real women who juggle real, whole lives, don’t have the luxury of adhering to one, pure professional or biological ideal. Real women adapt, with considerable intelligence and strength, to accommodate all the dichotomies inherent in having a job and family and lovers on the side; and they live richer, more communicative lives as a consequence. They’re also, in my opinion, a lot more relatable than the idealized women represented on either end of the spectrum in commercial literature, ones who I don’t think much exist.
If you’re like me, you’ve seen literally dozens of what I call anti-heroines come out of traditional publishing in the past ten years. The last book I read in what’s become a veritable slough of them had the hero and heroine falling in love because of their ability to physically harm each other, with the heroine (of course) being the superior fighter. It was very well written… but I find this trope every bit as one-dimensional and limiting as the damsel trope it’s meant to replace. I also find the arguments in favor of such scenarios too facile, certainly disingenuous, and worst of all, unkind.
Telling a young woman she needs to develop her combat prowess to be a competent romantic partner is no better than insisting on weakness for the same reason. If you don’t know a woman who wrestles with how to have a family and pay attention to it while holding down a job, you don’t know any women. If you think brandishing the banner of ‘either/or’ should be the goal of fiction aimed at young women, I would ask you to approach the idea of womanhood with more expansiveness, more empathy, and more love, both for yourself and for girls coming into adulthood.
This perspective led me to ponder in my writing, “What does ‘and’ look like instead of ‘either/or? What does it feel like inside a real character?” I gave Kate her professional passions because they are a part of her personhood and therefore her womanhood, and she sets aside her romantic compulsions for the man she loves in favor of professional discipline before she commits, which I believe can be hard for some girls but is a worthy choice to illustrate. I make sure Kate feels the friction between duty and love, as many of us do. I do not make her figure everything out at age 20 because I wouldn’t expect that of her, and because life in the real world doesn’t happen that way.
And I just wouldn’t do that to a sister.
Kate’s story contrasts with different heroines in the trilogy, which was drafted entirely before Updrift came out. For those who are truly interested in this issue and where I take it, I’m happy to provide the following spoiler alerts: Kate will return to her professional interests in Breakwater, where she figures out how to accommodate motherhood and her career ambitions, but on her terms. Breakwater’s heroine establishes her own business and is professionally developed well before engaging with her guy. And in the third, Outrush, the heroine completes medical school and is processing a failed marriage before her romance takes off.
Maybe you disagree with my approach and have good reasons for doing so. I welcome your comments and invite you to share your perspective. And if you have a different story to tell that expands on the ideas I laid out above, I invite you to write the story out, publish it, and share it with the world. I think we need a broader selection of novels than the ones we have. The ones I’ve written, I’ll admit, are based on my musings and mine alone. What would be your theme?
I was invited to submit a holiday-themed short story a couple of months ago at Romance Lives Forever, which I turned into a thingy on Wattpad recently. I hope you enjoy what I came up with!
We altos (the muddier, under-appreciated sisters of all those trilling, standout sopranos) used to tell a joke I have since adapted to feature writers or editors as my situation dictates. It goes like this:
Q: How many sopranos does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Ten. One to do it and nine to stand around and say they could have done it better.
I thought I was so alone in my cleverness until I stumbled across this site today: https://sites.google.com/site/writersjokes/jokesabouteditorspublishers
Hope it gives other folks out there a chuckle!
Thank you, Errin for hosting me on your blog today. My topic is inspired by comments from one of my editors as well as some reader feedback to my Moonlight Romance series. I hope my essay will inspire thought and even some comments!
How Realistic Should Romances Be?
I’m not talking about what happens in the bedroom or merely the aspects of a relationship here. I’m talking about books in every sub-genre of romance. Do readers expect some level of fantasy? Reading is escapism so is the genre supposed to be a Hollywood version of life? All readers have their own thoughts on this issue. Here are mine.
Let’s start small and work to bigger issues, shall we? Living with or dating another person is never always rosy. Do we want to know that the hero has bad morning breath? Do we want to know that the heroine hates folding laundry and has clothes piled up on her floor? I think many readers can relate to such small flaws. No one is perfect. What I hate most about a book is when a character is practically perfect. A few flaws will make them more human, more real.
Okay, let’s go a little deeper. Do we want to know that hero blames himself for his younger brother’s death? That could be the foundation to a multi-faceted character. I can picture a woman coming into his life and helping him heal, perhaps helping him to see the truth. He was only eight. He wasn’t old enough to watch his little brother in the pool. What if he did know better? What if he picked his little brother up from football practice and they got into an accident because he was driving drunk? Is that too much reality? Would you prefer his little brother only had some scars?
We’ve all done stupid things in life and hopefully we learned from them. Our characters need to learn, too. An author’s own level of reality tolerance should guide their writing. While some flaws or necessary the writer gets to pick which flaw and how deep the flaw runs. Do not try to guess what the audience will want. It is impossible to please all your readers. The best you can do is to write a story you are proud of and that pleases you. Even classics such as Shakespeare have 1-star reviews.
There are even darker issues that appear in some romances: bullying, blackmail, physical abuse, rape, racism, etc. I’ve touched on some of these darker issues myself. Why do I choose to bring a gritty realism to my romances? I feel readers should learn and reflect on what they read. I’m not one of those fluffy feel good authors. If you are, I have nothing against you. Feel good books have their place, and when I’m depressed I reach for one of those and a carton of ice cream. Some romances seem like pure fantasy, and I don’t mean just fantasy and sci-fi romance. The dashing alpha males and sexy billionaires can make my heart race, but little about them feels realistic. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met any billionaires. Those are my thoughts on the subject. Now it is your turn to weigh in.
How realistic do you think romances should be?
Haley is an author of historical romance set in the Civil War era. Many of her titles are interracial or African-American. In her free time Haley enjoys hiking, antiquing, and being a slave to her cat. If you want to read more about her, drop in at http://haleywhitehall.com/ for updates and release information. Her re-release Midnight Caller is on sale for 99 cents through the end of August.
http://haleywhitehall.com/ for updates and release information. Her re-release Midnight Caller is on sale for 99 cents through the end of August.
I’ve been buried in a creative writing program the last six months and had fun playing with a vignette where I tried out a male voice in the style of Nabakov. Ha! Thought I’d share:
The summer I turned thirteen, I transitioned from boyhood during a car ride with my grandparents, my transport a dung brown ’77 Oldsmobile with stained seats and the inescapable scent of life gone stale. Papa pontificated from behind the wheel, musing on the mystical fate that led some people to fortune and others to struggle. Nana sat on the passenger side, gazing out the window, which she had cracked at the top to receive her exhalations of cigarette smoke.
“Slow down, Rob,” she interjected, showing rare interest in her surroundings, or maybe she wanted a reprieve from her husband’s tyrannical introspection. “I want to see the yards.”
The car itself reflected our social station. It was used, purchased from someone affluent we badly wished to emulate, someone from a posh neighborhood such as we were visiting that afternoon. An undiagnosed mechanical click announced our presence as we progressed, compelling a nervous cadence to Papa’s speech. “Goddamn engine,” he muttered. “Not like I need more problems.” He resumed his sermon on the valor of the oppressed poor over – and here he indicated the palaces around us – “those greedy bastards who take from the rest of us.”
“Slower, Rob,” Nana insisted. “What do you think of that curved walkway?” Our pace became a crawl.
My independent experiences convinced me I was better than all this. I was aware, for example, of the unquantifiable salience of the rock band, Rush; and had achieved mastery in “Asteroids” and “Pac-Man.” Why should I, with such worldliness, suffer the tired imprecations of those who were bitter and old? I turned away to consult my own reveries.
I imagined living in the white Mediterranean on the corner. I would have my own room and plenty of quarters for the arcade. I would own a better bike and ditch my paper route. The curtains parted and Debbie Bristol from school stared at me from the other side.
“Drive away,” I whispered desperately.
“Stop the car,” Nana ordered, and our clicking was like a rainfall of anvils sent from above to crush me. Debbie raised her hand and mouthed, “Hi.” I wanted badly to disappear, to not be seen gawking from a poorly maintained vehicle in a neighborhood we clearly didn’t belong. I composed my face to reflect indifference, but Papa’s and Nana’s expressions revealed resentment, as well as naked, burning want.
Thus I was caught, not for how I wished to appear, but as I actually was, my life in vivid dissection before a girl I liked.
“Who is she?” Nana asked, her sharp stare reflected in the mirror on her visor.
I half heard her, absorbed as I was in an epiphany regarding my identity, and who I might be ten or twenty years from now to a girl like Debbie. I was heartbroken over my insufficiencies, over the delta between my current state and the man I would have to become, but I waved back. “She’s just a girl from school,” I said.
Okay, so I found this story while doing some research today for the novel I’m working on. It’s a bona fide fairy tale – read to the end for the credibility part…
There was a young man who was studying to be a writer. He wanted to become one by Easter, get married, and live by his writing. He knew it was just a question of hitting on something. But he couldn’t think of anything. He was born too late. Everything had been examined before he was born. Everything had been written about.
“Those lucky people who were born a thousand years ago!” he said. “They could become immortal! Even those born a hundred years ago were lucky. There was still something to write about then. Now there’s nothing in the world left to write about, so what can I write about?”
He mulled and stewed over it to the point that he became ill, the miserable fellow. No doctor could help him, but maybe the wise woman could. She lived in a little house by the gate that she opened up for those driving or riding on the road. But she was able to open much more than the gate. She was wiser than the doctor, who drove in his own coach and paid a tax because of his rank.
“I must go out and see her,” said the young man.
The house she lived in was small and neat, but drab to look at. There wasn’t a tree or flower. There was a beehive outside the door – very useful! There was a little potato patch – very useful! There was also a ditch with blackthorn bushes that had flowered and set berries – bitter berries that purse the lips if they’re tasted before the frost.
“It’s like an image of our prosaic times, I see here,” thought the young man, and that was a thought. A pearl he found by the wise woman’s door.
“Write it up!” she said. “Half a loaf is better than no bread. I know why you’re here. You can’t think of anything, but you want to be a writer by Easter.”
“Everything’s been written!” he said. “Our times aren’t like the old days.”
“No!” said the woman. “In the old days wise women were burned at the stake, and poets walked around with shrunken bellies and holes in their sleeves. Our times are good times – they’re the very best! But you aren’t looking at it the right way, nor have you sharpened your hearing. I’m sure you never say the Lord’s prayer in the evening, either. There are all sorts of things to write and tell about here for those who are able. You can take stories from the earth’s plants and crops, scoop them up from the running and standing water, but you have to understand, understand how to catch sunbeam! Now try on my glasses, put my hearing trumpet in your ear, pray to God, and stop thinking about yourself.”
The last part was very hard, and more than a wise woman could ask for.
He got the glasses and the ear trumpet and was positioned in the middle of the potato patch. She put a big potato in his hand. It was ringing. It rang out a song with the words – the potato’s history – interesting. An everyday story in ten parts. Ten lines would have been enough .
And what did the potato sing about?
It sang about itself and its family – the potato’s arrival in Europe, and the lack of appreciation they had experienced and suffered before they, like now, were recognized as a bigger blessing than a nugget of gold.
“We were distributed at the city hall in all cities by order of the King. Our great importance was proclaimed, but people didn’t believe it and didn’t even understand how to plant us. One man dug a hole and threw a whole half bushel of potatoes into it. Another stuck a potato into the ground here and there and waited for them to shoot up like a tree that he could shake potatoes from. And there was growth, flowers, and watery fruit, but everything withered away. No one thought that the blessing lay under the ground – the potatoes. Well, we have had our trials and sufferings, that is to say, our ancestors – they and us, it makes no difference. What stories!”
“Well, that’s enough,” said the woman. “Look at the blackthorn!”
“We also have close relatives in the potato’s homeland,” said the blackthorn bushes, “further north than they grew. Norwegians from Norway sailed west through fogs and storms to an unknown land where under the ice and snow, they found herbs and greenery and bushes with wine’s dark blue berries – sloeberries. They froze to ripe grapes, and so do we. And that country was called Vineland, Greenland, Sloethornland.”
“That’s a very romantic story,” said the young man.
“Come along,” said the wise woman and led him over to the beehive. He looked into it. What a hustle and bustle! There were bees in all the hallways beating their wings to bring a healthy breeze into the entire big factory. That was their job. From outside bees born with baskets on their legs came bringing flower pollen. It was shaken off, sorted, and made into honey and wax. They came and went. The Queen bee wanted to fly, too, but then they would all have to fly along, and it wasn’t time for that yet. But since she wanted to fly, they bit the wings from her majesty, and then she had to stay put.
“Climb up on the embankment,” said the wise woman. “Take a look at the road, and all the forks there!”
“What a swarming throng!” said the young man. “Story upon story! Humming and buzzing! It’s too much for me! I’m going back!”
“No, go straight ahead!” said the woman. “Go right into the teeming crowd. Have an eye for them, and an ear – and yes – a heart too. Then you’ll soon think of something. But before you go, I must have my glasses and ear trumpet back.” And she took both of them.
“Now I can’t see anything,” said the young man, “and I can’t hear any longer.”
“Well, then you can’t be a writer by Easter,” said the wise woman.
“But when then?” he asked.
“Neither by Easter nor Pentecost! You can’t learn imagination.”
“But what shall I do to make my living by writing?”
“Oh, you can manage that by Shrove Tuesday! Become a critic! Knock down the poets. Knock down their writings – that’s just like knocking them. Just don’t be over-awed. Hit at them without ceremony. You’ll get enough dough to support both yourself and a wife!”
“You’ve hit upon the very thing!” said the young man, and he knocked down all the poets because he couldn’t become one himself.
We heard this from the wise woman. She knows what people can think up.
(“What One Can Think Up,” written by Hans Christian Andersen in the mid 1800s!!!)
If you want a true adventure in professional non-affirmation, write a book sometime and watch the world as you know it spin wildly off its axis. Aside from the astonishing number of rejections you’ll get from publishers and agents – astonishing! – people with whom you have virtually no association will trip over themselves to give you writing advice, mountains of it. Folks, my advice to you is to pay real close attention to the advisor’s actual street cred (Published? You like, not just appreciate, what they write?), and to protect what you know to be the heartbeat of your own story. As I should, I stew about writing – mine, yours, that of people alive and dead – and want to share. So, with the caveat that I’m not published and write commercial fiction probably not up your alley, I’m offering my two cents on the subject.
When I was a newbie, I was distracted from the fact that much of the counsel I received was spurious because of the earnestness with which this counsel was delivered. It is touching, in a way, that someone would put such thought into a critique, but I’ve learned this thoughtfulness, no matter how ardent, should not warrant de facto edits on my/your part to my/your story. Here are the types of critics I’ve encountered in my creative meanderings and how I suggest you think of them.
1. The Intellectual. This person read Keats (Or is it Yeats? I always get the two confused…) in college. Their minds crave only Deep, Meaningful Literature, and anything written by someone whose last name is not K’Yeats will ultimately fall beneath their dignity. Even if you do write DML, understand that this person’s comments are really given to support his or her need to feel competent and are not an honest, straightforward response to your work, although it’s likely the guy/gal is not aware of this. Here are the warning signs that mark interactions with overly intellectual types:
– They prefer Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners” to Stephen King’s “On Writing.” King gives you the friendly fireside chat that can help you think constructively about your writing, while O’Connor evangelizes on the one true path to salvation that starts to feel abusive after about 20 pages. I’m not knocking Flannery – her stories are exquisite, her imagery haunting and lovely – but how she thinks about writing is not altogether helpful in my opinion.
– They scorn the use of all adverbs. This is tricky, ’cause weak writing does rely on adverbs for the kind of heavy lifting better left to verbs, and adverbs are often the culprit when you ingest a concept that feels slipshod, where the dissonance of a passage rankles in your gut like sour milk after you lift your eyes off the page. That said, adverbs are a delightful seasoning to the overall flavor of a piece, and, sometimes, the only vehicle for evoking a kind of modern vernacular I particularly enjoy. I think it’s a bad idea to lock them completely out of the playroom, and I’m not just talking dialogue.
– They don’t actually write. There’s too much reverence and profundity (I don’t think this is in fact a word) tied up in the idea of writing for them to put pen to paper, so they don’t. Writing is, on one level, grunty, with no intellectual holy grail granted at the end of your effort, and I find it better to talk with people who’ve put their backs into it so I know they understand in reality, not hypothetically, how to make their narrative go.
2. The Genre Reader. This one’s easier to spot: he or she will tell you your story needs more explosives or sex or medical terminology because these are the only stories he or she reads. These critics have but one response to your work, and when you tell them you didn’t intend to write action/erotica/a medical thriller, they will say,”Yebbut you need more explosives/sex/medical terminology.” You’re probably not writing for them. Smile politely and walk away.
3. The Socializer. Whereas Intellectuals think no one can write, Socializers think anyone can, and these critics almost motivate me to violence. They’re usually perky and beaming with goodwill, and their participation in a writer’s group is no different to them than going out for happy hour to toss back a beer with friends. Their advice – or, worse, encouragement – is thoughtless and often baseless, and there is no civil way to tell these people to shut up and go away. You have to just sit there and endure their drivel, which may include comments such as, “I’m not sure you realize how hot hell really is when you say ‘hot as hell,’ or “I think your main character should always wear pink because it’s such a romantic color.” If, God forbid, a Socializer shares some writing, you’re in for, at best, something along the order of a twelve-year-old’s ‘Dear Diary’ entry, and, what, for crying out loud, can you offer by way of commentary on that where you don’t sound like an ass? Nothing, and that’ll be your number one clue you’ve a Socializer in your midst. No one will say anything, you’ll see lots of thoughtful nods, hear a few non-commital “ahs,” and the group will move on. Bring your ipod to these sessions so you can discreetly avoid these careless participants and the poisonous rage they may cause you to feel. Do not, under any circumstances, bring your pick ax.
Advice-givers are cross-pollinated, of course, so you’ll find intellectual genre readers, or socializers who think they’re smart. The most difficult part of these interactions for me used to be navigating them, and weathering the resulting doubts and diversions that have sometimes taken me months to resolve. In spite of the angst I’ve wrestled with following these exchanges, however, I will continue to seek them from time to time, to offer up my vomit for others to inspect, if you will. I recommend you do, too.
It will keep you honest. As you’ve already guessed by reading the above, I’ve looked long and hard at the more unenlightened motivations of people who read and comment on other people’s writing, but I’ve also had to look long and hard at my own, which I’m guessing are consistent for all of us struggling to tell our stories. Mine revolve around a lot more than getting good, objective advice, like validation for my ideas and appreciation for the way I lay them out. More often than not, I’m also looking pass the buck on my workload, to find some way to lighten the burden of editorial refinement that makes writing so personal and so hard.
The only person who can improve my writing is, ultimately, me; but other writers have shared crucial insights I would never, never have discovered on my own. Too, I’ve developed a permanent sense for when I should listen and when I shouldn’t, what about my stories is up for sale and what should be left alone, and, consequently, my final take on the whole proposition is that it’s important to engage, to solicit feedback so that you can know your own work. Once you’ve developed this sensitivity, you won’t need to reach out as often, and I think you’ll go back to your cave a better writer.
So, I hope you’ve found my take on writing advice interesting if not helpful. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, and I do mean that rhetorically. Mostly rhetorically, that is. Take that, all you intellectual adverb haters out there. 😉