Finding Heroic Proportions

So, I’ve been reading up a storm lately in the historical mystery shelves, trying to get a handle on what’s going on. (As Marvin Gaye would say, apparently. Have a bunch of his songs stuck in my lately. Not sure.) I mean, what’s going on in the field of historical mysteries.

The mystery formula is pretty easy to get your head around, and I’m starting to notice some good techniques for the suspense, the red herrings, the false suspects—you know, all the fun props that go with the genre. Looking forward to all that stuff.

But, what really stood out to me is how little I liked most of the “heroes” offered to me. Take Tasha Alexander’s first book And Only to Deceive (and this is nothing against TA. I finished her book in two days, so obviously I got into it. Long may she prosper), but anyway, in her book she’s got two heroic possibilities offered to her main character: Andrew, who is supposed to be charming and playful, and Colin, uncommunicative and moody/smoldering.

One of them is the man she’s destined to be with and one is SECRETLY PURE EVIL. Both propose marriage.

This is a good scenario for a suspenseful, semi-romantic mystery, right? Yes!

Does it work? NO! I hated them both!

I hated them because I’ve never been attracted to a) superficial dingbats or b) uncommunicative moodfests, and I found it unbelievable that any woman really would be. Every time the main character got all “Oh, ANDREW” on me, I was like oh, for the love of.

And then it occurred to me that the whole plot  hung on Colin’s uncommunicativeness because if he communicated one single fact to the heroine, the mystery would have been over. (Also, she would not have been put in danger and the bad guys would have been put in prison). This is not awesome, but it’s a staple of romantic male leads since Mr. Darcy first decided it was a good idea to conceal Wickham’s true character in P&P.

I can’t really blame Jane A. She couldn’t have known it was going to go down like that.

But, it sure seems like lazy writing for the rest of us. Lazy and, when you think about it, really unattractive. The more I started categorizing the qualities of heroes the more confused I became. I mean, honestly, to whom is this arch-hero so magnetic?

This is your standard hero: strong, brilliant but arrogant, uncommunicative, moody and/or angry, secretive, overly sexed (though sometimes undersexed in mystery writing. See Adam Dalgliesh and William Monk), with a dark and bitter secret.

Gosh, sign me up.

I know writing is fundamentally a creative pursuit and there’s definitely room for all kinds, but my obsession is emotional realism. I realize my plots aren’t always going to have the plodding reality of an 11 o’clock news story. I get that there’s creative license in what people do and definitely in what they say (who’s even half as articulate as their lead character?), but I need each character’s driving emotions to be something I can understand and believe in.

What frustrates me is that this Byronic hero is so much a staple of literature that most writers—male and female, from romance to science fiction—are fishing for their male leads out of the same pond. I understand romance isn’t going to change any time soon. That’s a whole different animal, in my opinion, but for the rest of us, I think we need to start getting a whole lot more intentional about what sort of hero we’re building.

Personally, I feel a moral imperative about it (girls who swoon for Edward Cullen are girls who won’t recognize an abusive relationship until it, literally, starts to hit them. Sad but true), but you don’t have to get morally indignant to know that good writing is true writing.

What is your hero really like as a person? Would his arrogance repulse people? Would he actually get invited to parties? Does he wash his own dishes? Is he uncommunicative to make the plot better, and if so, would you or anyone else really want to be with somebody who can’t communicate?

These are important issues, because I don’t know about other readers but I’m getting to the point where every time I find another square jawed brooding Byron—whether he’s solving crime or piloting the starship Galactatron—it’s all I can do to keep from launching the book across the room.

Save me some fees at the library. Write about real people.


POX on the POV

Just got some feedback from a friend in my online writer’s group, and yes, it was a rookie mistake. Apparently, I’m guilty of head-hopping, the bane of the third person omniscient point of view (or POV if you want to be all writerly and in the know (henceforth ITK. I could get used to this. (ICGUTT))).

So, head-hopping, as everybody knows, is when the narrative gives you intimate, in-the-head insight into different characters all at the same time, ergo leading one to utter confusion about WHO the main character is and also whiplash from switching directions in the middle of the game. The reader needs a single character to identify with… which is impossible when we know what every single character is thinking. We don’t know who to listen to anymore.

Alternate metaphor: this reader ain’t no player. She wants a loving, committed relationship with one character.

Ok, well, I love the third person omniscient, so I guess the best I can do is serial monogamy, but you know what I mean (YKWIM).

I’m actually not very adventurous when it comes to choosing a POV. I love a good third person omniscient and basically always have. It’s the LBD of fiction, no? Come on! Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens, Trollope. Third person limited is too, you know, limited. I love all of my characters and can’t wait to explore their individual personalities and desires and schemes.

Serial monogamy, hm?

I think I need POV rehab.

I’m still committed to keeping Lilies in the third person omni ballpark—the plot demands more flexibility than a third person limited approach would give me—but I definitely need to be more intentional about keeping myself focused on one main character per scene. To be honest, probably the biggest reason for this with Lilies is that in my first major revision I ended up changing my lead character. I tried to change the focus, but I missed a lot of little pieces, and therein, as they say, lies the foul odor.

I read a great intro article on POV by Rob Parnell today when I was looking for some confirmation of my fears. Best bit of advice in there:

We should already understand that in any given scene we should identify with one character at a time – but which one? The best advice I ever received was that scenes are most effective when told from the POV of the person with most to lose.

The suckiest thing about getting great advice?


A Few Good Books: Victorian Historian Edition

Have to admit it: I’m hooked on the Victorians hardcore.

I have an entire shelf dedicated to Anthony Trollope novels. My travel scrapbooks are full of pilgrimages to Jane Austen’s birthplace, London, Chatsworth and Lanhydrock House. I skim Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook and Mrs. Ellis’s book on wifely conduct for fun. As a teenager, I spent good time trying to learn how to construct a hoop skirt.

Oh, it’s bad.

It’s bad, and it’s long-term.

That’s why I’ve set my last two novels in the Victorian Era. It’s really just a way of sating my addiction while getting my word count done for the day.

Along the way, however, I’ve come across some really stunning books on the Victorians and, whether you’re writing in the period, just happen to love it, or really don’t care but find yourself reading anyway, let me be the first to talk your ear off about how helpful and fun these books are.

The Usual Suspects:

Here are some books you may have heard about, but no list would be complete without them.

  • Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders. The Bible for writers in the Victorian period. This is a copy to own and dog-ear for years.
  • What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. This one’s been under criticism recently for perpetuating some of the stereotypes about Victorian hypocrisy and repression (YAWN), but just reading the section on foxhunting made my fingers twitch to throw a gratuitous hunt in my next book (don’t worry. I abstained). Highly readable and great fun.
  • Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know about Them and Why We’re Wrong by Matthew Sweet. A new fav, Sweet writes his chapters topically about an issue (say murder, sex, or drugs) and talks candidly about how the Victorians really felt about the issue, pointing out how similar their views are to those of our own “modern” and “liberally minded” culture. A great antidote to all the stereotypes about the Victorians out there.

In Their Own Words

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” —Oscar Wilde. There are literally hundreds, but here are some that live on my shelf:

  • The Journal of Emily Pepys (1844-1845). This one is short and sweet, but since you won’t find much primary source material written by a ten year old, it’s well worth the read. It’s a great window into what childhood was really like for a girl from a comfortable, middle-class home.
  • Munby: Man of Two Worlds (1859-1910). Munby wrote a monster journal, and I’ve never gotten through even most of it. But, he was a meticulous noter of his daily events, and if you want to get the flavor of London first-hand or catch a glimpse of some of the clubs and societies and fears of the day, he’s a great tour guide.
  • Kilvert’s Diary (1870-1879). Kilvert was an unmarried clergyman living in the countryside. Now that sounds like the start of about 25 different novels.
  • A Victorian Boyhood by L. E. Jones. Nostalgic and grandfatherly, Jones writes the book in 3 essays covering childhood, boyhood, and Eton. Lots of anecdotes that would simply be impossible to invent as an outside but are a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Don’t Forget the Baedecker!

It’s impossible to ever really get the feel of a place or period without actually seeing it, and costume dramas are only so reliable. We may not be able to see history, but it’s amazing how close we can get. Here are some things I’ve found useful.

  • Museum guidebooks. The captions and brief essays on history are designed for easy digestion, which is a blessing since most of us don’t have the gumption to make it through a whole textbook primer. But, the pictures are the real treasure: meticulously catalogued pictures of costumes, paintings, and (often) furniture with the exact dates on each piece. Happy day.
  • England’s National Trust (website and guidebooks). Last time I was in England, I was able to visit both Chatsworth and Lanhydrock. Buying the tour guide book and taking pictures has provided me with great inspiration (who knew how big those kitchens were?). If you can’t go yourself or track down a book, do an online search for the kind of house you’re using as a setting. Chances are you’ll find a good website with a pictorial tour, layout of rooms, and some great info.
  • The London Times. A good research library will have these on microfilm—all the way back to the late 1700s. Nothing like reading a few days worth of the newspapers set in your time frame to get a feeling for the style and subject du jour. As an added bonus, the advertisements and headlines will crack you up. Guaranteed.

And, there goes 30 minutes of my writing time for the day. Must dash, friends. Happy researching and happier-than-ever writing! It’s a great day for words!

Well, every day is that.

But, you know what I mean.

When self-awareness equals income

So, I’m reading a book right now that’s kicking my butt, and if you’re serious about writing, it might just be the butt-kicking you need too.

The book is called Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny, but it could probably be any book from that particular shelf, and even if it is that book you don’t have to be a woman to learn from it, because artist types tend to suffer from a lot of the same handicaps Stanny’s talking about here.

What are those handicaps?

Under-earning and low expectations. The mythology of the starving artist. The dramatized scorn for money. The difference between playing to win and just scraping by on playing not to lose.

Here’s the thing: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book or wandered through a bookstore and gotten so discouraged because I KNOW that I’m a better writer than exhibit A or B—and I swear it’s not pride. I know perfectly well that I’m not the next great marvel, either, but I know that I can do good work, I know that I’m disciplined, I know that I can plot and finish and revise a novel, I know I’m motivated.

But, I don’t know anything about business, and I’m scared of risk, and THAT, my friends, is what’s killing my career before it even starts. Not a lack of talent or drive.

And, it ticks me off!

Was reading along in one chapter where Stanny is talking about shying away from risks and self-sabotage, and I was all whiney, like I don’t do that! My problem is that the lucky chances never come my way in the first place!

Big. Fat. Lie.

When I started mentally listing all the writing or literary chances I’ve shied away from over the years, I was floored. I’ve turned down 3 jobs, lost two good writing gigs, and failed to take advantage of numerous networking opportunities.

For no good reason. That’s what kills me. Yes, absolutely, I want this career, but when I look at my actions, I sometimes wonder why they’re telling such a different story. I think each one of us has a cocktail of issues, but mine are definitely an assortment of fears, low self-worth, anxiety, insecurity.

I guess I never realized how profoundly my “private” issues have an impact on my “public” career. It’s sort of the reverse of the workaholic who never has time for his kids. We all need different awakenings. Not, of course, that I’m now aspiring to be a workaholic—nobody should be—but this book is giving me a lot of food for thought as I get serious about my commitment to my own career.

Life is short, you know?

Got to get a whole lot smarter about business, attitude, and beliefs, not just for my writing but for my own quality of life. Self-defeat is the most expensive thing in the world. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford it.

First Drafts

Still haven’t gotten used to the overly-caffeinated feeling of finishing a first draft. I got the last word down a little after lunch time (hotdog wolfed down at my desk, dressed in pink plush bathrobe, window cracked to the gray April wetness outside), and have been bouncing around the apartment for the last hour or two feeling weightless and confused.

Of course, the most enjoyable part is going into all twenty-eight of my goal lists and highlighting in indigo whatever permutation of “write a novel” might be listed there. Love the feeling of accomplishment—like whatever else happens this year (or doesn’t happen! Sad fact of my (non)publishing history), I will still be able to say I wrote a book in 2010.

Four books by the age of 27, which doesn’t exactly make me successful, but it’s been a solid apprenticeship.

I remember whining to somebody once about wondering whether I was any good or if I could have a career in writing, and he said, “well, write a million words, and then we’ll talk about whether or not you’re any good.”

Not the most cheerful advice, but I’ve got about half a million words in the bank now, so I’m willing to hope there’s some truth to it.

Besides updating my to do lists and zipping off a copy of the rough draft to my brother (fantasy writer) for opinions, I’m not sure I’m ready to start on the next major project on my list: revising the opening 50 pages of an historical fiction saga that got a few tentative nibbles last year when I sent it around the agent circuit. A few nibbles that dried up after the first reading, so I’m pretty sure it’s the opening chapters that sunk that particular ship.

Let’s see, here’s what else I’ve got on my plate for April:

  • Send the murder nov to first batch of test readers
  • Revise first 50 pages of the historical fiction nov
  • Update potential agent list for the HF nov
  • Research potential writing conferences or online writers groups with good agent/editor relations

None of which will get done today. Can’t shift from one book to another that quickly. Shall probably read and do dishes and upload pictures and try to get my head strapped back into place. Ok, and maybe some teeny form of celebration tonight. Maybe something sticky and delicious. Baking has always been a happy outlet for me. 🙂