Which Way Is Ever After?

by A. Ashkanani, flickr.com

It’s the mushy month. Love and all that… And I was thinking, ‘I should find a good love story to celebrate Valentine’s Day properly.’ Nyah, nothing with a sappy name this time. They bother me. I know there’s something wrong with a Gaskell’s North and South/Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fanatic who doesn’t devour those confectionary titles like a big goblet of dark chocolate mousse, but I have difficulty reading a book that’s embarrassing to name aloud. (“Oh, I’m reading, ‘Love’s Endless Flowing Tragic Quest of Angst,’ you?”) It reminds me of Gilbert’s down-to-earth remark to Anne Shirley about her flowery romances. He tells her, “Nobody talks like that in real life.”*

Still, I believe there’s nothing like a good love story, and romances aren’t necessarily good love stories. Take Tolkien’s Return of the King as an example. It wasn’t a romance, but the love stories are mint. The relationship dynamics are what intrigue me most, I guess. Whatever my current writing obsession, I find myself watching my protagonist develop, placing certain situations before him or her to see what the reaction will be. As a reader, I like book characters that give me the impression I’ve met them before. I’m the Bildungsroman sci-fantasy sort, add a side of love story.

Because of this, a tale about a woman who is thawed into falling in love with some non-confrontational, gorgeously handsome man, who waits all through the book for her to notice him, has no appeal. I think I prefer reading about a confrontational, ugly guy who goes through his own metamorphosis. (Have I been conditioned to correlate male attractiveness with spineless drooling? Hm…)

How about the male love interest who makes the heroine eat her words? Well, he ought to be gentlemanly about it when she does, of course. But I’m not completely a Taming of the Shrew fan because it lends itself to the opposite extreme, toward berating or abusing womankind.

Why do so many love stories belittle the intelligence of either gender to make the relationship work? I think the romance genre often finds its writers in difficulty over how to keep that balance. And what about original endings? Wedding bells ring, a thrilling account of what happened on the honeymoon, or hints of a baby’s arrival often conclude the tale. Jane Austen fared just fine leaving her characters to pledge their troth and… Here’s an epilogue. Cue the orchestra, roll the credits. What are some other ways to end a love story without being cliché? The only other endings I can think of are the ones where one, or both of them, dies. The Hunger Games (Spoiler! Spoiler!) used a tactic which I found both realistic and depressing. Kat just deals. She ends up with the one she loves best, but they are too scarred to really be happy. Call me an idealist, but I don’t find death and despondency very inspiring in a society where love comes and goes like a hobby and no one seems to know which direction to ride off and find ‘ever after,’ much less ‘happily.’

So, any book suggestions, or have I thrown out the lot?

*from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series

Review Unto Others

Writer networking and support is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I’ve arrived here via free fiction-writing communities, where I meet writers through reviews. I don’t have any previous relationships with these writers. I like that. It keeps my feedback real. In the free novel-writing world, it’s perfectly fine to leave a glowing review on a rough draft version of a story. The writer is just beginning. The potential’s there, but the story has a ton of mistakes. My review may mention a few, but it would be pointless to dissect the whole thing in the initial stages. (Sometimes I’ll try to talk the writer into letting me beta, my fingers itching to dispel the distractions I see in an otherwise great story.)

Now I’m stepping through the looking-glass to find… basically, the same review setup, only now it involves money and literary integrity. These new eBooks on Amazon, perched on virtual shelves, call to me at 99 cents. The summaries are often appealing. If there are reviews, I will read them. I’ve read a few where readers have commented with something like,

“There were grammatical errors, but this writer is new.”

“I admit I was hoping for a more rounded understanding of some of the other characters besides the main character.”

“I didn’t always relate to the main character. When events happened in the story that called for a strong reaction, there wasn’t really one.”

That’s pretty important stuff there. And some of these reviews come with four and five-star ratings. That’s not helpful. It’s like looking for a good cookie recipe, finding one with a 97% approval rating and 50+ reviews, and making a flour-heavy, tasteless dessert.* It’s a waste, and not just for other readers. It’s a waste for a writer who has talent and needs to hone his/her craft!

Why aren’t these reviews telling the whole story? Putting myself in the reader’s shoes, if I were given a free book and told, “All you need to do is review this when you’re done,” I’d think it was a great idea, initially. Free books! Yum! And, please, let me give you my opinion. What about further incentive from a writer-friend to swap books and review? I see the benefits of back-scratch reviewing, but I think the review itself is synthetic. The pressure to be kind will taint the whole experiment. It’s some mad twist on the golden rule. Whatever I say can no longer be entirely genuine. Think of little Fred, the poor fellow who volunteers to take a dose of Uncle Harvey’s Cure-All Old Indian Remedy, while Uncle Harvey rattles on about all the amazing things that the ‘elixir’ is going to do for headaches, gout, tuberculosis, freckles, abscesses, and hair loss. Little Fred sees the hope in the townspeople’s eyes; he’s aware of their breathless anticipation as he tilts the bottle for a swig. Is Fred going to say what he’s expected to say, perhaps physically convincing himself of the positive outcome?

As a reviewer, I think a published work should be held to a certain standard of quality. Should I praise a book with poorly structured sentences, underdeveloped characterizations, plot holes, dangling story threads, orphaned paragraphs of information, lost and wandering commas, etc.? The story can have incredible potential, but it hasn’t been placed in a comparable environment. Shouldn’t I address those issues? Shouldn’t my rating reflect the difference I see between it and the surrounding literature?

I don’t think a reader has to analyze the plot structure, tallying the arc points and subplots, to know if a story is the real thing; but there are some things that can be expressed objectively that I’d like to know as a prospective reader:

1. Grammatically speaking, is the book well-written? Could it use some work?

2. Is the pace of the story comparable to others of its general genre (adventure, mystery, horror, romance, etc.)? Exception: There are some works that employ eclectic pacing, but the skillful writer knows how to use it without losing the interest of the reader.

3. When contemplating what to write in the review, are there any negative aspects that are automatically ‘forgiven’? What are they, and why? For example, some stories speak to a reader through personal life experience, so one might overlook what the narrative lacks.

Finding any of these means the book probably needs a good going over.

With the book industry turned on its head, the readers are the ones to come to the rescue. Yet, reader/reviewer influence declines when the information in the reviews becomes overwhelmingly unreliable. That’s why it works against every writer to misuse the review system for unwarranted self-promotion, or to flatter in a weak moment; no one will trust the comments or ratings. It benefits everyone to use the power of the review to distinguish the works of merit. It really is about being kind and genuine. By ‘reviewing unto others,’ you’re really doing yourself a favor in the long run.

*Yes, it happened to me. And, yes, it was bad. I tweaked it into a great cheesecake crust, though.

The One Where My Heart Bleeds When It’s Broken

I truly thought it was the real thing… not like last time. My heart went pitter-patter. I daydreamed of the conversations about the future we would have, the promises we would make once things progressed. I felt prepared this time. I felt like I’d really straightened up a lot of issues beforehand. I approached with confidence, but with a clear sense that I should be completely open to what might happen. I allowed myself to be vulnerable… and I was rejected.

I invested a chunk of time into that query letter!

(Sigh.)

Okay so, looking back, I made some mistakes.

It was a big mistake not to write my letter in the same style as my story. The query was proper and respectful… and rather infested with that childlike transparency that screams, “I’m an amateur!”

I had also decided not to rely on great hooks, which are part of my style, as well. Somewhere I got the impression agents and publishers want the black and white of the story, not the hype and talk up. It was painful, and my sentences came out haltingly. I smoothed them over to the best of my ability. Still, it wasn’t me. Why did I send the query out knowing that? I really thought that’s why query letters were so difficult to write.

“There’s vulnerability in sending a query letter.”

I remember reading something to that effect; and I certainly felt vulnerable, sending letters that seemed to be dressed in a dull brown interview suit with the lapels severely pressed just so.

In the midst of my morose state, I happened upon an article where an expressive agent included her description of a good query. And I realized… *gasp* Agents are people, too!

I know, I was shocked. You mean, when an agent is perusing a list of books and summaries, he/she wants the info to persuade him/her that the rest of the story is just as appealing? Wait; I do that, too!

You know that request some agents make to include, “where you are going with your story”? I think this is misleading. Think of the boy in Princess Bride, who stops the grandpa to ask, “Is this a kissing book?” Notice, the grandpa never answers. The boy doesn’t really want an answer. He’s just skeptical. He’s afraid he’ll be pulled in; he might actually like the story, kissing and all. We’re all cynics, callous to the age-old archetypes. With the myriad, dry bones queries an agent digs through, it has to be desensitizing. Poor things, those agents. It must be a merciless existence, day in and day out, looking for that one… or two… or two hundred. Now I will take a moment to sympathize. (Cue violin music.)

As you can tell, I’m working through the phases swiftly. The shock was short-lived. I’ve had a visit with denial and moved on to anger. You can see the “clouds in my coffee” dispersing as I make pathetic jabs at agent-kind with my quill.

Now what?

Well, I’ve scrapped my dull brown suit approach and written what I’ve wanted to say all along. It took a couple of minutes, as apposed* to the two months it took me to write that second query. It’s direct. It’s appealing. It’s alot like my story.

I also went back to my novel and scrutinized the beginning again. One thing that has haunted me is the pace of the prologue. It’s a brief series of journal entries. I wanted it to be meandering, like a journal usually is. Meandering is not the way to begin a story in the present fast-food fiction climate. I had a genius moment and chopped up the beginning to follow a new angle that is more concise and spirited. (Click here if you’d like to see the old version. I haven’t updated it to the new, improved version yet, so feel free to ‘tsk-tsk’ over it.)

Voila.

I think my heart has healed enough to search for my shining agent again.

 

*Btw, why is WP telling me this word is spelled incorrectly? The two months are not ‘opposing’ the couple of minutes, right?

This *is* the Manuscript You Were Looking For

After looking over client lists of agents to get a taste of what literary agencies are endorsing, I’m thinking it’s time I learned the Jedi mind trick. Have you read some authors’ bios lately?

Initial. Initial. Smarmy was terminally ill from the age of two, which explains much of the philosophical trauma he endured as a child. In his teens, he established his own business, ‘Nightshade Window Treatments,’ from which a friendly cult began, dedicated to educating others about the advantages of poisonous vegetation. A part-time volunteer for the Association for the Beautification of Carnivorous Reptiles, he paints abstract portraits on crocodile teeth to help raise funds and awareness. He has a pet platypus that travels with him to book signings because ‘Curby’ won’t sleep unless he’s wrapped in Smarmy’s silk scarf. Smarmy always wears this scarf; it marks his triumph over his 14-year addiction to Ace of Base.

Okay, I would love to read this in a real bio. My own will include my short stint as a bad fortune-teller and my award for being the worst slob at camp. But I can’t compete. Padawan training, you are my only hope.

Oh, That’s How You Spell ‘Kreativ’!

I’ve been nominated for the Kreativ Blogger award from Limebird Writers. Thank you to Beth and her fine feathered friends.

The rules:
1. Share 10 things about yourself that readers might find interesting.
2. Pass the award onto 6 other bloggers (be sure to leave a comment on each of the blogs to let them know).

Because I’m so ‘kreativ,’ I’m starting with rule 2.

6 Picks – And Why I Chose Them

1. twistingthreads – For me, this blog exemplifies the candid, analytical writer. I like tracing the path of her thoughts in her journal posts. It may seem random, but the ‘thread’ is always there.

2. booktopiareviews – This blogger researches awards given to books, what those awards entail, and, often, who backs them. She’s a teacher and an obvious bibliophile. Can’t beat that.

3. Discovering Ireland – I have no idea how I found this little treasure. It’s a school project that relates simple questions and answers about Ireland. Being a Gaelic folklore and fairy tales enthusiast, I find this blog entertaining and easy to peruse.

4. Ayesha Schroeder – In her own words, what makes this writer unique? “Her experience growing up in a mixed family gives her the unique viewpoint of both the Pakistani immigrant and the American struggling to find and define their culture.” From my perspective, she has a knack of sharing her views instead of expressing them, making her thoughts relatable to any reader. I’m not from Pakistan, nor do I pick up works purely for their cultural aspects. I’m going with my intuition about this author’s potential to win hearts from all walks of life.

5. Novel Girl – It’s a blog, but it’s more like a condensed writing class. Rebecca takes the writer’s craft seriously and packs her posts full of helpful advice, tips galore, and lovely analogies. I feel like every entry is a personalized gift because she seems to put so much into it.

6. Kristin McFarland – Aspiring fantasy writer with lots of passion and determination. Need I say more?

 10 Things You Were Just Dying to Know About Me

1. I’m left-handed. Inigo would have so pwned me.

2. Okay, I don’t even know how to handle a sword; Inigo would have pwned me anyway. But… “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” – Lady Catherine de Bourgh

3. Don’t give me knives or scissors, either. One time I cut myself, instead of an orange, while babysitting. I decided to make it a learning moment to remind the kids of the importance of using a cutting board. This lesson occurred while a copious amount of blood was being dealt with. The children were enthralled, but for some reason I was never invited to baby-sit those kids again.

4. I’m a chain tea-drinker and partial to tea-drinking writers I meet online.

5. I have a tendency to cross the bridge, plan for ulterior ways to get around the bridge, and prepare to scale the bridge, if necessary, before I get to it.

6. Pet peeve: I despise when the bookstore locks all the doors fifteen minutes before closing. Yeah, I’d do the same thing if I were working there, but still. My first instinct is to bang on the door, scream, “Help me! I’m trapped!” and drool like a maniac on the glass. Haven’t done that yet.

7. I lost part of my right earlobe to frostbite when I was 9. It grew back in the shape of a three-leaf clover.

8. My favorite colors are lime, kelly, and sage green. I’m now the proud owner of a kelly green velour blazer. My wardrobe is complete.

9. Number seven is purely fiction. You knew that, didn’t you? See, I’m honest.

10. I don’t normally do chain letters, chain emails, chain fb statuses, etc. This feels somewhat like that. At least it doesn’t come with a guilt trip if you don’t do it.

What Not To Write

While editing Dragonfly Prince, I’ve taken a few breaks to read free online novels. I found a couple of good reads, but there were things that caused me to stop reading. Here are a few:

  • Confused verb tenses

She walks through the door and saw him.

  • Boring dialogue

“Hey, Mom.”

“Hello, my daughter of twelve years. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mom. I am going to do my homework now.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, sweetie. I am glad you are such a good student.”

  • Narrative and dialogue redundancy

I went to the kitchen to make breakfast.

“I’m going to make breakfast now,” I said.

  • Forced and/or connotatively incompatible descriptions

The night sky was a sea of fire. A heavy purple ribbon ran, like a puckered bruise, along the horizon.

A purple streak across a red sky is beautiful; a bruise is not.

  • Backstory, backstory, backstory

It all began with Hugo’s great-grandfather, who wore white leather gloves, lived in a house with five rooms – the living room, the music room, the kitchen/dining room combo, the daffodil-themed bedroom, and a 16-square-foot bathroom – and had an old dog with rheumatoid arthritis named Fear…

I don’t even know Hugo. Why would I want to read all of that about his great-grandfather? By this time, I’ve left the story before knowing what it was even about.

  • Introspective Babble

“Carson, there’s no one here,” Trish told him, sizing up the abandoned building.

Carson wasn’t listening. He had a habit of that with Trish. It stemmed from the many fights they’d had as kids. Trish was two years younger, but she had a way of making him feel like he was the younger one.

He stepped out of the car, but she grabbed the arm of his jacket. “You can’t be serious! You’re not going into that old place!”

He resented the tone in her voice. She always used that tone when she thought he wasn’t doing what she thought he should do…

Introspective babble is kind of like angst, only with more whininess.

As a reader, do you sometimes run into droughts, searching for a good story without success? For me, that’s when the urge to write becomes the strongest.

How Christmas Traffic Inspired Me

Just like Christmas traffic, this post may seem convoluted; but bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Really.

One of my favorite movies is Empire of the Sun. Another favorite of mine is Rescue Dawn. The two movies have a great deal in common; and I’m not talking about Christian Bale, who stars as the main character in both of them. They are both about war and the strength of the human spirit. When these two concepts become the backdrop for a story, that story often captivates me. (‘Captivate.’ How apropos, eh?) Strangely, it doesn’t have the same effect on me to watch movies drawing upon the human spirit when winning sports matches or surviving expedition challenges – you know, where the underdog team finally gets the victory or the wilderness wanderer makes it back to civilization. I guess, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “You signed up for it. What did you expect?”

Yeah, and people sign up to go to war. Dieter Dengler, the true-life hero on which the Rescue Dawn protagonist is based, even wanted to give his life for a nation that wasn’t his native country. That’s partially what made the movie so incredible. In war, people can become like animals. The lines of black and white are so blurred that ethics are thrown out the window. The situation is so extreme there is only reaction. In all candor, I often wonder what I would do in extreme circumstances – if I would make the right decisions. I have a nagging doubt that, in a desperate moment, I wouldn’t. It’s the little clues that bring me to that conclusion.

I started thinking about this when I ran a red light a couple of days ago. It’s that rotten Christmas traffic. I justified it because of the long lines of cars, the long wait, and because my light time was shortened by the cars that previously ran the light for a good twenty seconds. As I passed under that blaring crimson reminder, I saw the line of cars ahead, waiting to enter my lane. Seconds later, I slowed down and signaled for a car to take the place in front of me. Why? Why did I just hammer through the traffic light to decide to wait behind yet another car? Simple: Inside that car was a person. I could see him. I think he was in his seventies. His white-haired wife was beside him. The red light was an emotionless mechanism to direct me, and a horde of other cars, into systematic obedience. While I happen to take issue with systematic control, I do believe in submitting to a greater, collaborative cause to protect and help those around me. That’s why it bothers me when I’m not keeping my part of the bargain, even in seemingly insignificant things like running a light.

That system to protect and aid each other is what is lacking in war. Even countries that don’t consider themselves at “war” know that when there is no peace – no agreement to coexist together – the situation is dire and intense. The environment is hostile, and the mind has to work within tightly constructed boundaries that are never clearly delineated. It’s an ever-shrinking prison that comes down to little option for escape without harming self or someone else for survival.

Empire of the Sun has a scene where Jamie is making his way across the British/American prison camp trading and winning certain items to obtain other items that, in having this delivery service, grant him privileges. His ingenuity and perseverance makes me shake my head in wonder, while his dusty, angular face and empty expression depict the telling signs of his harsh life. His actions become more and more like a mouse being chased by a cat, scrabbling to survive, than a boy around his own kind. The end of the movie makes me bawl every time. Jamie’s eyes go from stony, dark lifelessness to a glimmer – a small window – of recognition. It’s hope. It’s a chance to feel again, to know where he belongs. He closes his eyes slowly as his mother embraces him. He can’t go back to the child he was, but he’s no longer alone. There is someone there to take his part, someone to see he has what he needs. And he closes his eyes, finding peace at last after his long journey.

The same day I ran the red light and let a car go ahead of me, I finally made it to the store for toilet paper, soup, and cough medicine. I didn’t try to make conversation; I was trying my best not to cough on the cashier. I looked behind me, and the next shopper was a woman whose hair looked like it had been fixed three days ago. Her makeup was dried to her face, and she had raccoon eyes. Her one purchase was a case of beer. It wasn’t her appearance that was startling; she didn’t seem to notice anything. Even the cashier was making note of the woman’s manner. Her eyes darted places, but never looked at anyone directly. It was like she existed in an inner panic with some kind of mental monologue going on.

I wanted so badly to catch her eye. I wanted to ask if she was okay. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t find the courage to insert myself into her world.

I think the worst wars are the ones going on inside. There the battles of the mind rage, where the captive stares out upon a hostile world created by events of the past that cannot be put to rest until someone comes who knows who that person really is, where he/she belongs. Why does the human spirit rise above? I think it’s because of hope, the tenacious belief that somewhere there is help and peace.

In the spirit of the season, I’d like to give you the gift of a quote from three men who wrote that their words were given to them directly from the Spirit of God. Their names were Paul, Peter, and John, and they often began their letters with this greeting:

Grace and peace to you.

Grace means divine help. May you find divine help and peace. And may you have the tenacity and courage to rise above the wars you face.