Photo Challenge – From Every Angle

Today, my photography club met in a local park and had an assignment:  take an object from a basket (thoughtfully provided by our fearless leader), take it out into the park, and make a story out of it.

My object:  an old rotary phone. Not sure about the ‘story,’ but I kind of like the shots I got, and they seemed to fit the Challenge this week.

phone 1

phone 2

phone 4

A Tale of Two Romance Novels

Once again, over the past few weeks, I was reminded that in novels, characters are the most important thing.

I used to read romance novels all the time, especially historical and Scottish romances. Then I got into my paranormal phase – which I’m still not out of yet, so maybe it’s not a phase – and discovered urban fantasy (though paranormal romance just doesn’t do it for me; when a dust jacket makes inane statements like “Just as Laura realizes the only thing she wants is to live with Luke and his pack in the Grand Canyon and have his little fur-covered babies, an old enemy comes to call,” I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that).

But it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight historical romance. So this past month, I downloaded two on my Nook:  The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, and The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.

The Turncoat is set during the Revolutionary War, and it’s not your typical romance (for starters, it’s way over 80,000 words . . . or at least, it felt like it). For another, this could have been another trope-ridden romance, with a splash of history thrown in. Instead, Thorland makes it more of a trope-ridden history book with a splash of romance thrown in. She’s clearly done the research, though I have to take issue with her insistence that all Redcoats and Hessians were awful, degraded, vicious creatures. Sure, you had the rare one like Banastre Tarleton (“Tarleton’s Quarter” was anything but) – but most of them were decent guys. Just doing a job. In fact, I’ve read reports of Hessian soldiers, forced to quarter with families, who ended up on babysitting duty!

But I digress. This novel focuses on the romance between Kate Grey – patriot and good Quaker lass – and Peter Tremayne – dastardly Redcoat AND nobleman. Double strike! Kate becomes a spy for the colonists, embedded with the British in Philadelphia. Peter must figure out where his loyalties truly lie – with his country and army, or with a girl he’s only met once but can’t get out of his head? When his cousin decided to pursue Kate himself, Peter’s decision is pretty much made for him.

This is the thing I really, truly hate about romance novels. The couple meets once – ONCE – and falls madly in love. Lust. Whatever. Never mind that they’re usually on opposite sides of a war, or they don’t even know each others’ favorite color. No. Forget such banalities as that. SHE’S PRETTY, DAMN IT, I MUST HAVE HER! Can she speak? Who knows? SHE’S PRETTY, I MUST HAVE HER!

The fact is, the lead characters let this novel down. I never liked Kate. I never liked Peter that much, either, and I truly despised him when he decided to abandon his post and go join the freaking colonists against Britain. Sure, he became an emissary to France, but face it:  he became a turncoat. Hence the title. The main characters should change in some way, yes; that’s part of the story, that journey towards change. But once Peter chucked it all in for a girl – particularly Kate – I was done. I had zero sympathy for him at that point. I never felt that Kate and Peter had true lives of their own; they always felt like cardboard cutouts, being marched across the pages by the author.

MUCH better is the second one (to be honest, I’m not quite done with it yet), The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. I chose this one because the female lead is – guess what? – a suffragette in Britain, which sounded interesting.

And it is.

Milan has also clearly done her homework when it comes to this time period (the late 1800s and the early suffrage movement). Free Marshall, the FMC, runs a paper ‘by women, for women’ in which she’s basically Nellie Bly, having herself put into mental wards and prostitute hospitals, going into mines where women are forced to work fourteen-hour days, and enduring all sorts of horrendous abuse from the men of London – and Greater England – for it. I like Free. She’s smart and tough and takes crap from no one, and she’s funny.

And her life takes a turn for (hopefully) the better when a mysterious man named Edward Clark shows up to ‘protect’ her from her worst enemy, the soon-to-be Viscount Claridge, James Delacey. Clark makes no bones about it; he’s a forger and a thief and a scoundrel, and he’s not to be trusted.  But he’s the only thing standing in the way of James Delacey’s plans to destroy Free. As it turns out, he’s also the only thing standing between James Delacey and the Viscountcy.

I adore this book, because I adore the characters. Sure, Edward rambles on too much and he’s too willing to just jump into love with Free even though he’s spent his entire adult life avoiding entanglements, but I can live with that. He’s got real issues in his past that affect – that dictate – what he does today. Abandoned by his family, forced to endure the siege of Strasbourg and tortured afterwards, wandering the Continent trying to find himself . . .Unlike Peter, who is driven purely by lust for Kate and some ridiculous thing about he and his cousin really being brothers or something (I admit, I got lost there), Edward is three-dimensional, real, believable. His motives are real. His problems are real. His solutions will also have to be real.

In all honesty, I never felt that Kate and Peter had any issues. Not real ones. They both seemed whiny, self-centered, and one-dimensional to me. (And it’s a romance novel, so let me just say that the sex scenes were not just boring, but weird.) Kate was certainly not a heroine worth throwing away your career – your honor and title – your life – for. I never got a sense of chemistry from them either. But Edward and Free are all that can be right with a good romance novel. (And the sex scenes? Not bad!)

As always, it boils down to the characters.

  • Will your readers care about them? Are their problems real and believable and most of all, can readers relate to them?
  • Have you given them pasts that affect their presents in genuine ways?
  • Have you given them a pathway to change in your book – to change in a meaningful way? Meaning they may have to sacrifice something in order to be with their beloved? (Or, in not-a-romance-novel, change that’s necessary for them to achieve their goal?)
  • Do they take on lives of their own? Do they, at any point, take over the story? Because if they don’t, you’re just pulling strings. You’re not writing real characters. And readers will know it.

All the research in the world can’t make up for lack of good characters. If there’s no chemistry there – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel or not; imagine Harry Potter without Fred and George! – then you can’t force them together.

Characters are the most important part of your novel. They’re the driving force behind your novel. Make sure they’re characters your readers will like and care about!

Being Authentic – In Writing and In Life

This is going to be an odd year for me.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking – wait. It’s August. How do you know what 2016 will be like already? Because I don’t go by a calendar year; I go by an academic year. August to May. June and July are bonus months in which I frantically prepare for the coming of August again. So – although technically I live in a 12-month year – I really live in a 10-month year. Normally, not such a big deal, since I’m an adjunct -or was, anyway. Now I’m a full-time instructor and still struggling with that. I still feel like a feral cat that’s been brought indoors.

I never honestly meant to be a teacher. Ask anyone who knew me in high school or my early 20s, and they’ll tell you that a teacher is the last thing I should be. Yet here I am. Why? How did it come to this? I still don’t know. I think it goes back to me being a pantser at heart, in writing and in life, and never having a real plan for anything.

Right now, teaching is my ‘main gig,’ so I have no choice but to stick with it. But my real passions wait for me at home. My vintage shop on Etsy. Thrifting on the weekends. My kitties (though I do wonder if they even notice I’m gone during the day).

My writing.

But it’s my writing that seems to suffer the most. I find it so hard to write when I feel depressed, and these past weeks, as I tried to come to grips with the reality of my new situation and how drastically my life was going to change – yes, I’m fully aware that I’m on the only person on earth who gets depressed over getting a full-time job, thank you – I could barely pick up any of my manuscripts or type anything new.

Over the last few days, though, I’ve been able to come back to my romance novel a little. Just a bit. And to my surprise and delight, I’ve found that what I had written wasn’t half-bad, and what I’m writing now – though not a lot – is fairly good, too. Sometimes when you write, you feel like every single word is being forced out of you; every sentence is Mount Everest. And sometimes – the way it should be – the words pour out. You’re in the voice of your characters. Without thinking, you delve back into their diction, their accents, their lives. That’s what the last few days have been like for me. And they’ve given me some hope that maybe these characters will stick with me for a while and work with me. Let me tell their story.

I’ve been reading Sarah ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance this year, and we have reached August – the time of creativity. She says that if we want to be truly happy in life, we must trust our instincts, follow what we are guided to do, and above all, honor our gifts.

One thing she emphasizes  – and how many of us can identify with THIS?! – is that when an idea comes to us, whether it’s a character, a plot for a new novel, an idea for an article, or whatever – we need to grab it then and there and hold on to it. Even if we can’t quite get to it Right Then and There, we still have to take note of the idea, jot it down, ruminate on it, never let it out of our hands. And never once doubt that we can actually do it. She quotes William Hutchinson Murray, who led an expedition to Mount Everest in 1951:  “. . . the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

One thing writers always say is, “I had this idea, but someone else wrote it first.” And that’s okay. How many Scottish romances are on the shelves right now? Three hundred? More? And yet, publishers are still buying them, aren’t they? Sarah says “It is impossible for you to be an original. But you can be authentic . . . Why do you think you were offered the spiritual and creative opportunity?” My romance novel is set in the American colonies on the eve of the Revolutionary War. There are a few hundred others out there in that same time period. But this is my writing, my characters, my plot.

As I think about my Authentic Self and What I’m Meant To Do Here (which, apparently, has nothing to do with winning the freaking lottery), it always comes back to writing. Writing has always been there for me. It was how I survived high school. My characters are always waiting for me, nudging me from time to time to remind me that they’re still there and would I please come visit them and this time, might I write some more on their novel, please?

My authentic self is probably not a full-time teacher. It may not be a full-time anything, honestly. I may be one of those people who happily has five or six things going at once, juggling all of them and happy to do it. I’ve done it for ten years, after all. So as I head into a new year, I have a few resolutions to make:  That by the end of my year (in May) I will have at least one manuscript ready to be sent to agents, if not before.That someday, I will be able to support myself by writing novels.

That sometime soon, August won’t be the start of a new year, it will just be one more month, the last month of summer, another beautiful warm month to enjoy as I sit outside and write, with my kitties playing and locusts singing in the trees.

Photo Challenge: Creepy

spider 3 bw

I normally NEVER get this close to a spider if I can help it, but thankfully, I’ve got a good zoom lens! 🙂 These particular spiders are big, nasty, brown, ugly things that LOVE to build webs right at face-level. And sit there. At face level. Waiting for me to walk into them. I hate these things.

Photo Challenge: Beneath Your Feet

snail 1 vg

About a mile from my house, along my running route, there’s a place where the snails love to congregate. And after it rains, they come out of the ditches and cross the road. I have no idea why the snails cross the road. But I always spend way too much time picking them up and moving them so they don’t get squished by cars.

On this particular day in May, I had my camera and got down on the road to photograph this snail as he made his way across. Then I gently picked him up and moved him into the ditch with a few hundred or so of his family members. 🙂

What if the Movie is Better Than the Book? Egads!

If you’re a reader (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), then you know the feeling when your favorite book is made into a movie.

First, the excitement. They finally recognize the genius of My Favorite Author! I wonder who they’ll get to play the MC? Oh, it better not be So and So, because I will just die if it is. And that one scene, they have to get that right, or . . .

And then the doubts come marching in. OMG. This is one of my favorite books. What if they screw it up? What if they cut my favorite scene? What if the actor they get to play the MC doesn’t have the right color eyes!? (YES, this matters!) And if they change even ONE WORD of the dialogue, I will SCREAM!!!

And by the time it’s ready to be released . . . well, you’re 100% convinced that this movie will suck and it’ll get everything wrong and there is no way in hell you’re going to go see it. Ever.

Well – maybe. There’s really two groups:  those of us who believe the movie must remain as faithful as possible to the book, and those who don’t mind if there are changes, so long as those changes are good. The problem is, who determines which changes are “good?” I still despise Alfonso Cuaron for what he did to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Seriously, how hard is it just to make a Patronus that looks like a freaking stag? For crying out loud, you’re doing all this digitally! Just get it right, damn it!

But what happens when you don’t read the book first? Instead, you watch the movie? And fall in love with the movie?

I did this with Practical Magic. It’s one of my favorite movies ever. I love the characters, the dialogue, the actors. That’s why, when I found a copy of Alice Hoffman’s book last week, I decided I’d read it, to see how it compared.

I’m on page 65 and ready to give up.

It’s not just that the book and the movie diverge so radically from each other; it’s because those changes are what make the movie so great. (Oh, I see the villagers with the pitchforks and stones coming to get me now!) But as I run away, let me explain why:

Sally is a much stronger character in the movie. The movie is told from her POV, which draws us into the story immediately and makes us sympathize with her. Gillian, likewise, is a strong woman – a bit too eager to fall in love, but we see how strongly she loves her sister, and that makes her a likeable character. The aunts are fantastic, and the little girls are wonderful. Sally’s #1 goal – to be normal – is jeopardized when Gillian calls for help in getting away from her crazy boyfriend. Because Sally is take-charge and loves her sister, she chooses to help, and things spiral downward from there.

I think what I like most about the movie, though – aside from the characters – is that the supernatural elements are so very, very present throughout. This is a true paranormal movie. You can’t have Ghostbusters without the ghosts, and you can’t have Practical Magic without the magic. All the problems stem from the magic – unlike the book, where all the problems seem to stem from who knows what. If there’s any magic to be found in the book, I have yet to discover it. Maybe it’s past page 65? If so, that’s a long time to wait.

I also can’t stand how the book is written. It’s almost omniscient. We get varying POVs on the same page – a HUGE no-no for any writer. And it’s all telling, not showing. You know how fairy tales are told? “Hansel and Gretel were greedy children, and one day they decided to go for a walk in the woods because they’d heard all about this magical house made of candy. But they didn’t know a witch lived there!” Blah blah blah. This book is written exactly the same way. I though maybe the first 30 pages of this were just exposition, world building, background. But no. Here we are, page 65, and we’re still enduring it.

Here’s a good example of what I mean. These paragraphs are from pages 63 and 64:

Sally sits down. She’s a little woozy hearing all this information about her sister’s life, and the concrete stoop is cool and makes her feel better. Gillian always has the ability to draw her in, even when she tries to fight against the pull. Gillian sits down beside her, knee to knee. Her skin is even cooler than the concrete.

Gillian eyes the house, unimpressed. She truly hates being on the East Coast. All this humidity and greenery. She’d do almost anything to avoid the past. Most probably, she’ll find herself dreaming about the aunts tonight. That old house on Magnolia Street, with its woodwork and cats, will come back to her, and she’ll start to get fidgety, maybe even panicky to get the hell away, which is how she ended up in the Southwest in the first place . . .

It’s crazy how many rules of fiction writing this novel actually breaks – and how many the movie gets right. Because of the way the book is written, I’m removed from the characters. I’m watching them from the outside, and I don’t care about them. I’m not sucked into the story, the way I am with the movie.

That’s why, even though everyone tells me I need to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I adore that movie. I adore the characters. I adore the dialogue. I adore the gritty reality of it. I adore Minnie and her pie. 🙂 I adore Celia and Johnny. Will I hate the book? Maybe. Maybe not. But why risk it? The movie is so perfect.

Usually, the book is better than the movie, no doubt about it.

But sometimes – every now and then – the movie is actually better than the book.

Crazy, huh? 🙂 Especially for a writer.