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Juliette – plight of a secondary character

On January 6 the TV show Grimm begins its sixth and final season. As a fan I’m disappointed to see the show end. Worse, the final season is half its normal length. But I’ll take what I can get. At least the story will come to an end instead of terminating abruptly, and I’ll find out what happens to the characters. I especially wonder about Juliette Silverton (Bitsie Tulloch), the hero’s girlfriend. She’s had a rough five years. From the start I’ve harbored the uneasy feeling that the show’s writers aren’t quite sure what to do with her. She’s too important to the narrative to remain static. She has to change. But how?

The saga of Juliette

Life is goodA perky veterinarian, Juliette lives with Detective Nick Burkhardt in a delightful old house in Portland, Oregon. Life is good. Then Nick begins seeing people’s faces change into monsters. He thinks he’s going nuts and doesn’t tell anybody. Shortly thereafter, his Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) shows up with an Air Stream trailer full of weird artifacts and some news for Nick. Grimm’s fairy tales are real and he’s a Grimm. Like many of his ancestors he has the ability to see various species of monsters called Wesen.

They look like ordinary humans, but under duress Wesen show their true forms. Sometimes the transformation becomes so complete that ordinary people see them too. Hence the legends about werewolves etc. Some Wesen are dangerous and predatory, and Nick’s duty as a Grimm is to hunt them down and kill them. As a cop he already chases bad guys, so that’s handy.

Nick’s new identity spells the beginning of disaster for Juliette. She gradually becomes aware that he’s hiding something and their relationship suffers. Then one of his enemies, the Hexenbiest (witch) Adelind Schade (Claire Coffee), casts a spell on Juliette, a weird coma beyond the doctors’ understanding. This plot twist takes Juliette out of action for several episodes.

The writers could have let her die, but that would be too easy

Nick’s boss, Captain Sean Renard (Sasha Roiz), happens to be a Zauberbiest, the male equivalent of a Hexenbiest. At first he’s in league with Adelind and her mother against Nick. Later he allies himself with Nick against “the Royals,” European aristocrats who use Wesen to maintain their power. As the King’s bastard son, Sean has never had a comfortable relationship with his family.

Juliette learns to shootSean and Adelind’s mother devise a spell to awaken Juliette. Unfortunately it has side effects. Juliette doesn’t remember who Nick is and she develops a sexual obsession with Sean. (Before your imagination runs wild, keep in mind this is NBC, not HBO.)

By the time everything is sorted out, Juliette’s life has radically changed. She lives in a world of monsters. Even Nick’s friends, the perfectly nice couple Monroe and Rosalie (Silas Weir Mitchell and Bree Turner), are Wesen. But Juliette adapts. She becomes a team player in the ongoing battle against the Royals and various species of evil Wesen. The trouble is she doesn’t have much to do. Her knowledge as a vet occasionally comes in handy, but without magical powers or physical prowess, she can’t do much.

Adelind strikes again

Adelind gets her powers backAfter Nick takes away her Hexenbiest powers, Adelind endures an arduous and disgusting ceremony to regain them and proceeds to take away his Grimm powers. Hey, tit for tat. It’s only fair. With a magic potion she takes Juliette’s form and seduces Nick, who acts surprised when she comes on to him. I get the sense that Nick and Juliette’s love life hasn’t exactly been on fire.

Now that Nick is no longer a Grimm, Juliette hopes for a normal life. No such luck. He’s now helpless against his enemies. Nor can he protect Monroe and Rosalie from the Wesen Nazis who consider their mixed marriage an abomination. (Rosalie is foxy and Monroe is wolfish.) The only way to regain his powers is to reproduce Adelind’s spell. Ever the good sport, Juliette drinks the potion, takes Adelind’s form, and has sex with Nick.

And turns into a Hexenbiest herself.

As one might expect, the transformation is disastrous for her relationship with Nick. Nor does it do wonders for her personality. Once perky and sweet, she becomes sarcastic, jealous, and vindictive—like a witch should be. When Adelind ends up pregnant with Nick’s child from their single encounter, Juliette flies into a rage. She’s on the brink of killing Nick when his Grimm apprentice, Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni), brings her down with an arrow from a crossbow.

Photo by: Scott Green/NBC

Of course Juliette doesn’t die

She’s spirited away by a secret organization devoted to fighting a secret organization of Wesen trying to take over the world. (The organization is called Black Claw like the daemon enforcer in my Daemon World series, so I must point out that my daemon existed long before Grimm‘s secret organization. If anything, they borrowed the name from me.) After extensive conditioning, Juliette reemerges into the narrative as Eve, a Hexenbiest who does nothing but fight. A weapon without life or personality, she appears not to care that Nick has hooked up with Adelind. Maybe she would have been better off dead.

Juliette slain

But here comes another twist. In the final episode of season five, Juliette is grievously wounded and healed through the power of a mysterious artifact. In the process she changes and becomes . . . what?

Poor Juliette. Human beings are merely at the mercy of fate. TV characters are at the mercy of script writers.

 

Photos from fanpop.com and NBC.

checking your grammar day and night
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When a comma matters

Grammar Nazi deplores sloppy punctuation. My own attitude is more ambiguous since I think communication matters more than correctness and nobody is perfect—least of all me. But sometimes punctuation matters. While reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I came across an example of how much a missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

In Cronin’s novel a virus developed by the military changes test subjects into vampires with familiar characteristics: blood hunger, razor sharp teeth, aversion to sunlight, and indeterminate lifespans. The monsters also have psychic powers that enable them to escape from the fortified lab and infect the entire North American continent and perhaps the world. Eventually they number in the millions and and very few human beings or other animals are left, creating a problem. Whose blood are the vampires going to drink now?

Humanity’s only hope is a young girl, Amy, who is infected with a variant of the virus that gives her the vampires’ powers without turning her into one.

A familiar premise, but The Passage is remarkable for the breadth of its story and the depth of its characters.

The second half of the novel concerns a small colony of human beings in California roughly a hundred years after the catastrophe. They survive by following strict social rules and keeping the perimeter outside their high walls flooded with light through the night. But the batteries that store power from a nearby generating plant are failing. It’s just a matter of time until the lights go out. Then Amy arrives. Her unlikely survival outside the walls arouses suspicion and her presence upsets the colony’s social balance.

Cronin provides ample backstory to create characters that become like people whom I’ve known for years. This narrative strategy could have been a drag on the plot, but the histories are dramatically rich and always pertinent to the current action.

One of the colony dwellers, Peter Jaxon, has always felt overshadowed by his older brother Theo. Theo is a leader, a warrior, the inheritor of their father’s mission to leave the safety of the colony and search the world for other survivors. Peter reflects bitterly that while he cared for their mother on her deathbed, it was Theo to whom she spoke her last words: “Take care of your brother, Theo. He’s not strong like you.” Peter feels disregarded, belittled. His mother’s words drive home his belief that he is—and always will be—second to his brother.

Only much later, after a lot has happened, does Peter realize that he might have misinterpreted his mother’s words. Perhaps she said, “Take care of your brother Theo. He’s not strong like you.” In other words, Peter is the stronger of the brothers and their mother knew it. This interpretation is more likely. Unless she was altogether delirious, she would know which of her sons was sitting at her bedside.

Apart from what the misunderstanding implies about Peter’s sense of himself and his relationship with Theo, it shows how important a comma can be. The comma after brother puts Theo in the vocative case and indicates that she was addressing her older son. Without the comma Theo becomes the object of the verb in the sentence, the one with whose care Peter is charged.

(Grammar Nazi reminds me that if Peter and Theo have no other brother, this should be indicated by placing a comma after the word brother. Grammar Nazi has a habit of complicating things.)

Obviously people don’t use punctuation when they speak, so this kind of ambiguity is inescapable. But writers have the tools to communicate with greater precision. They just have to use them.

You may have noticed that I’m no longer blogging at Ancient Children. The blog is now part of my new website, created by Kate McMillan of Outbox Online. I hope you’ll take a look around while you’re here.

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A shiny new object changes everything – and nothing

Last year I got an awesome deal on a camera. I “saved” over $500 off the purchase price. (And no, I didn’t buy it off the back of a truck. It was last year’s model, on sale, and I had credit card points.) Of course I could have saved more by passing on the camera and continuing to take photos and videos with my phone like most people.

FlowerI justified the purchase in various ways. I was writing a novel, Darkroom, in which a photographer and her photographs play a central role. Hands-on experience with an actual camera was research. (The photographer in the novel is old school. She uses shoots with film and develops her prints in a darkroom. I wasn’t ready to go there, especially since darkroom equipment is hard to find.)

Instead of shelling out money on stock photos, I could use my own high-quality photos on my blog and in the process learn more about working in Photoshop. And I could make videos!

I could ask an onlooker to videotape some of my riding lessons so I could study and improve my form.

As webmaster of the local Scrabble club, I take pictures at the meetings. This particular camera has a setting called “Beauty Shot” (I’m not kidding) that processes images of faces and eliminates flaws. I could get better shots of the people who hate having their picture taken. They might stop threatening to kill me if I posted photos of them online.

PlaygroundAnd the shiny new camera would give me a reason to detach my brain from my iPad and get my butt out of the house once in a while.

Once I started snapping pictures, I came to some unhappy realizations. All the fancy features were pointless until I knew how to use them, so I studied the manual enough to be minimally competent. More than that would take practice. A lot of practice.

SAMSUNG CSCAnd I soon realized were things that my camera couldn’t do. A few outdoor sessions showed me that even with the correct settings I couldn’t capture birds in flight. My husband, Joe, a sometimes photographer who gave me invaluable help in researching Darkroom, explained that I needed a lens with a longer focal length, which would cost almost as much as I’d spent for the camera.

HydrantMaybe someday . . .

It wasn’t only the camera that had limitations. I lacked the eye for photography. My gaze slipped past the unlikely objects that make good photos. I didn’t think in terms of frame or perspective or angle. Joe helped me. When I walked around town taking pictures, he came along and pointed out what I overlooked. He set tasks for me. One was to photograph the fire hydrants in our neighborhood. I came to think of the project as a travel guide for the dogs who might journey to Charleston, Illinois.

His tutoring helped. I learned to see more possibilities in places so familiar that I’d stopped  seeing them.

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And I made a heartening discovery. Photography helps my writing. Not only do I see the world in a new way, but my photographs have become a kind of memory, capturing mundane images in more detail than I could ever remember.Shadow Box

But there are limitations here as well.

Memory is more than an visual image. It’s the smell of mud, the bark of a dog and the rumble of distant thunder, the flutter of the wind and the damp touch of the air. Above all it’s the convergence of thoughts and moods with the input from the senses—that complex thing called experience.

Broken Dishes

My writing process – That Magic Moment

Writers are expected to write about their creative process. It’s on every handy list of blog topics for authors. But this particular topic is a struggle for me. On one level is the mystical Source From Whence All Inspiration Flows, and I haven’t got much to say about it. It’s my well in the desert. If it dries up, I’m toast.

On another level the creative process is a set of practices that, like rituals, give the writer access to the Source. But I have nothing as exalted or predictable as a ritual. I don’t need a special chair, a lucky pen, a certain place or time of day (although I usually write in the morning). And inspiration doesn’t always come to me in the same way.

I might experience a creative moment when an story comes to me in its entirety, a flash of inspiration with a strong emotional component. In that moment I experience the story and understand its meaning. The story is complete and perfect. My writing inevitably falls short of the original conception, but sometimes it comes closer than others.

Cover of YubiA long time ago I wrote a short story about a woman who falls in love with her parakeet. From the beginning I knew the last line would be “Daniele would love Yubi as long as she lived.” I began the story with Daniele’s brother giving her the bird as an unwanted gift and simply aimed toward that last line. It felt easy. (“Yubi” is available here as a free download.)

But my fiction isn’t always conceived in a magic moment. For my horror novel Daemon Seer I set out with only a goal, to write a sequel to Talion. And Talion began as a story about the friendship of two very different teenage girls. The serial killer’s role was to unite them against a common enemy, but somewhere along the way the son of a bitch highjacked my story.

Since Daemon Seer ends with a cliffhanger, I pretty much have to write a follow-up. Fortunately the story of Daemon Blood came to me in a flash of inspiration. I’m in the middle of writing the first draft now.

Before I can write, I have to discover the story’s tone. Sometimes this means reworking a paragraph several times. This part of my process contradicts the advice of writing gurus who advise never, ever stopping to revise a first draft. But I can’t help it. No way can I continue until the prose sounds right. Once it does, I move ahead at a decent clip. And sometimes tone isn’t an issue since I have it right from the start.

I outline my novels, for all the good it does. An outline is like a rough map of uncharted territory. You begin the journey and discover there’s no path where the map clearly indicates there should be a path. Instead you spot something off to the west that might possibly be a path. So you head that way instead, trusting that it eventually leads where you need to go. No matter how elaborately I plan, I come to a place where I have to trust my sense of direction. Maybe that’s what creativity is.

Occasionally characters refuse to go along with my plans for them. In Darkroom, a bartender named Nina Ivan gets drugged and raped at her place of work. There’s a scene in which the protagonist, Kelly Durrell, persuades Nina to report the rape to the police. That’s how I planned the scene anyway. By then I was working on a later draft of the novel. In earlier versions Nina was a much less important character and I hadn’t thought much about her background or motivation. I didn’t really know who she was.

While writing the persuasion scene, I reached a point where I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out why. The dialogue wasn’t coming and dialogue is usually easy for me. I stopped in frustration. When I came back to the scene the next day, I understood. No way was Nina going the police. She isn’t that kind of character. I wrote the scene her way and altered the story. Everything worked out.

It usually does.

Your Story is Still Unfolding

Usually. There’s always a chance of dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. Creativity takes faith.

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Who Is the Second Person?

Here’s a rerun of  an old essay on use of the second person for new readers who missed it the first time around. I’m kind of proud of this one. 

You don’t see much fiction in second-person point of view. You encounter plenty of characters who tell their own stories and all kinds of third-person narration, but only a few quirky narrators who address you the reader directly. Second person is unconventional and unexpected. Readers can be put off by its strangeness. There is also presumption in addressing readers directly, telling them what they they’re doing and thinking. The second person takes liberties, like a stranger who seizes your arm and tries to steer you where you hadn’t thought to go.

Sometimes it can be downright aggressive.

Point of view defines the relationship between the writer, the character, and the reader. In first person, a character speaks to the reader with the writer as an invisible medium. In the various modes of third person, the writer becomes visible and mediates between reader and character, creating a connection ranging from subjectivity that reveals every thought to the objectivity of a camera that shows only external action.

With second person this triangular relationship becomes complicated. While a third-person narrator is understood to be the author – or rather, a constructed version of the author – a second person narrator might be either the author’s persona or a character in the story, and might be speaking to the reader, to another character, or to itself.

In Albert Camus’ The Fall, the second-person perspective is unobtrusive in the beginning. The novel seems to be written in first person. The narrator, a former lawyer, speaks to an unnamed and silent listener. They meet in a bar in Amsterdam, and the narrator begins the story of his downfall. He continues the tale as they meet several more times over the next few days. It’s a story of lost innocence. Like Adam after the Fall, the narrator sees he is naked and understands that he — like every human being — is guilty. Several events contribute to the awakening. The most crucial happens while he is walking alone at night and sees a woman jump from a bridge. Rather than trying to rescue her or calling for help, he walks away.

The incident changes the narrator. He becomes self-conscious, a divided being: “My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double.” He looks at the world with new eyes. Although he is guilty, he is beyond judgment. No one is capable of judging him since they are equally guilty. Once an earnest believer in law, he rejects morality and the concept of justice. He explains to the listener:

If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves are constantly innocent . . . That’s what must be avoided above all. Otherwise everything would be just a joke.

At first the listener seems no more than a handy dramatic device. The narrator has to confess to someone. But it slowly becomes clear that the listener is part of the story; he is implicated. The narrator admits to stealing a valuable painting, and the listener could expose him. But he won’t. He sees himself in the narrator, just as readers do. The second person in The Fall includes not only the listener, but everyone. We’re all guilty.

In his short story “Videotape,” Don DeLillo uses second person narration directly. The story has no I, only you. The narrator is watching a video clip on the news. Filmed accidentally by a child, the clip shows a man being shot in his car by someone called the Texas Highway Killer. The narrator is obsessed with the clip and wants to watch it every time it appears on a news show. And he watches himself play out the obsession the way he would watch himself on video. He becomes an image of himself, objectified and placed in a framework for analysis:

You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast – a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending.

His thoughts stretch beyond his small obsession to reach the understanding that video has radically changed reality for him and everyone else in our culture. Even the killer’s modus operandi is inspired by video.

Second-person point of view is necessary to this story. It models the way video affects how we look at ourselves, shapes our thinking. It implicates readers, whose reality has been shaped by video whether they know it or not. It reveals our collective obsession with recording and replaying. Remember Rodney King’s beating by the police and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a half-time performance at the Super Bowl? Video clips of these events were aired hundreds of times on TV. They have become part of our collective reality, or as DeLillo describes it, “the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you are thinking.”

From these two examples, second person seems to be a technique for literary masters, but it’s available to any writer who cares to give it a shot. I wrote a section of my thriller Talion in second-person and present tense. A girl is enduring torture at the hands of a sadistic killer. I wanted the narrative to feel intense and immediate. First-person failed to convey the shattered state of a character whose personality is being destroyed along with her body and who struggles to hold onto a fragment of her personality.

I’m presumptuous, talking about my writing along with that of masters like DeLillo and Camus, as if I’m anywhere near their league. I write genre fiction, but I try to learn from the best. What matters is whether the technique works. If second person were wrong for the section, it would be a distraction. Apparently it’s not. Though a few readers have criticized Talion for its occasional shifts into present tense – something they think shouldn’t be done in genre fiction – no one seems to have noticed the second-person narration. Maybe the descriptions of torture are so harrowing that readers don’t notice she and her have become you and your and they’ve joined the victim beneath the killer’s knife.

As with any literary technique, second person works best when it has both a narrative and thematic purpose. Ideally, writers don’t up and decide to write in second person; they have a story that can’t be written any other way.

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I was a teenage changeling

It would happen as I walked to school alone, or sat in the cafeteria with schoolmates chattering around me, or came home to find my mother had left work early and stopped at the liquor store for a fifth of vodka, now half empty. I suddenly knew this wasn’t my life. I belonged somewhere else, to different parents. Why they’d abandoned me I had no idea. They must have had a good reason, I thought, and someday they would return for me. I imagined my real parents as powerful, unearthly beings who could transport me in an instant to the unknown and hardly imaginable world where I belonged. They might come anytime, I told myself. One more minute and I could be out of there.

The reasons for my make-believe were plain to see. I was an introverted kid with not many friends. My mother was depressed and numbed her misery with alcohol. “I wish I was dead,” she said often. “If I had any courage, I’d find a gun and shoot myself.” My brother, Steve, the only one who shared my experience, had gone to live with our father in another town. But his absence hardly mattered. Something had changed between us since we became adolescents. The onset of adolescence probably had something to do with my feelings of strangeness as well. I hardly recognized my body anymore. Hardly recognized myself. I felt alone and insignificant, and my fantasy allowed me to feel special.

A changeling is a child left by fairies in exchange for a child stolen. An inferior, sickly thing left in place of what is precious, like the fake diamonds a jewel thief might leave to conceal his theft. I wanted to believe I was worth the trade. I wanted to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of my own life. But first I had to accept my life as it was. Once I did, things got better.

I worked harder in school and won encouragement from some of my teachers. I joined high school organizations and made more friends. After losing ten pounds and getting fitted with contact lenses, I found a boyfriend. And if I wanted to enter unknown and hardly imaginable worlds, I picked up a book or wrote a story. Eventually my stories and plays won national contests sponsored by Literary Cavalcade magazine, which led to a scholarship at Knox College, a school famous for its program in creative writing.

Looking back, I know my unhappiness wasn’t that unusual. I’ve met people whose childhoods were far worse than mine and who had the same sense of not belonging, of being an outsider. Now I value the experience. Though it caused me plenty of suffering then — and later — it made me a writer. It helped me imagine Lu, the hero of Talion and Daemon Seer, a teenager trapped in hopeless circumstances until the daemon Talion tells her who she truly is.

I wonder how many others have imagined themselves as changelings of one kind or another. I would like to know their stories.

I wrote another version of this post almost five years ago. Now that I understand my life better, the story has a happier ending.

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Autobiographical fiction: I was there when none of this happened

Fiction writers often begin with autobiography, especially young writers. Life is painful and incomprehensible. Their stories cry out and struggle to comprehend the world. My early fiction was cathartic in this way. But I soon figured out that personal experience is limiting. The characters in autobiographical stories are distorted fragments of the people on whom they’re based, and what happened is often less significant than what might have happened.

There’s a sea of darkness beyond the uncertain light of memory. The truth is somewhere out there, and once my imagination enters the darkness, I abandon any pretence of autobiography. I’m not writing about actual people or events anymore. I’m writing about ghosts and dreams. The story can become anything.

I’d reached that point when I wrote “Mandarian Training School.”

Although rooted in experience, the story is fiction. Most of the events never happened, and the characters only loosely resemble people I met at a summer school for high-school students with mathematical ability at San Diego State University. The distinction matters. The story reflects my imagination, not any kind of objective reality.

At fifteen I was a year younger than most of the participants. People who know me now might be surprised that I applied and even more surprised that I qualified. My friends at Charleston Scrabble Club will tell you that I’m not exactly a whiz at keeping score. My interest in math is mild at best, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. These days I can barely solve a binary equation.

Mathematics is an elegant and challenging language. It expresses concepts that cannot be understood in any other way. As a child I loved math. The summer in San Diego changed that. Emotionally I was unprepared for the workload or the competition. I worked my butt off and felt like the stupidest person in the program. But when I received our class rankings some months later, my name appeared in the middle of the list. I wasn’t a failure. Only mediocre. Somehow that seemed just as bad.

“Mandarian Training School” chronicles my emotional struggle during that summer long ago. And yes, writing it was cathartic. In retrospect, it marked a milestone for me as a writer, the point where I broke away from personal experience and learned to see in the dark.

Read the story here.

 

Image from fotolia.com

Happy Endings

Ultimately no one gets a happy ending. As every Game of Thrones fan knows, Valar Morghulis: All men must die. Even if you’re steadfast in your belief in an afterlife, you still have to die and the process is usually painful and scary.

The most we can hope for is a fortunate death. You rescue a child from a fiery building and get crushed by debris while the kid crawls to safety. At the age of 92, you and your beloved spouse die instantly in a car crash where no one else get hurts.

The inevitability of the unhappy ending may explain why so many readers of fiction crave happy ones. The storyteller brings the protagonist through conflict and danger to a moment of triumph or fulfillment—and then stops. The golden moment sails on forever. If it’s especially satisfying, the reader may reread the book and experience it all over again.

Some readers feel cheated when a story fails to deliver an upbeat ending or when it stops before the conflict is fully resolved (the open ending). “That’s all there is?” they ask. “What a downer!” A few might hurl the book across the room. Books have an advantage over e-readers here; they can be hurled without breaking.

Readers aren’t shy when they hate the ending of a book. They complain to friends and excoriate the offensive book in merciless reviews. Frustration and disappointment run deep, especially when there’s a large emotional investment in the story. Just read the reader reviews of Allegiant, in which Veronica Roth kills off the main character of her trilogy.

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I understand why readers feel this way. It was hard for me to forgive JRR Martin for the Red Wedding. Never mind that Rob Stark brings his fate upon himself. His army dwindles as he alienates his allies from the other northern houses. Betrothed to one of Waldo Frey’s daughters for political reasons, he marries the woman he loves even though his advisors and his mother warn him not to. And his mother knows Waldo, knows his bitterness at being slighted by other houses. How can she even consider going anywhere near the old man? None of that matters. Martin makes me love these characters and then has them brutally slaughtered while they attend a wedding at Frey’s castle. My anger didn’t stop me from continuing the Fire and Ice saga but when I set out to reread it, I stopped in the middle of A Storm of Swords before coming to the Red Wedding. I just couldn’t go through that again.

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I laughed when someone told me that the outcome of an “exotic massage” is called a happy ending. The analogy suggests the nature and depth of readers’ frustration. The author ramps up the tension with conflict and suspense and then delivers disappointment and frustration. True tragedy offers an elevated kind of release—catharsis—but melodrama depends on the happy ending.

Not every massage delivers sexual relief and not every kind of story ends well for the protagonist. Massage clients and readers know that. Their outrage comes when the benefit is promised and not delivered. Since the legality of a sex massage is iffy and readers don’t want to be told ahead of time how a story ends, the promise is implied. A suggestive sign outside the massage parlor, a book cover identifying the story as a romance.

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It upsets me to see Daemon Seer categorized as a romance. I worry that somewhere a reader of romances loathed the ending and still blames me for her damaged Kindle.

So why not give deliver the happy ending every time? Because disaster is the logical end of certain stories, in which case the happy ending becomes a clumsy lie. Intelligent readers reject the lie—even when part of them yearns to accept it. And a few writers are hard cases who insist on delivering a truth that few people care to acknowledge. A truth stated beautifully by Anne Sexton in her poem “Cinderella”:

Cinderella and the prince
Lived, they say, happily ever after,
Like two dolls in a museum case
Never bothered by diapers or dust,
Never arguing over the timing of an egg,
Never telling the same story twice,
Never getting a middle-aged spread,
Their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.


Image credits:

Cinderella still from FanPop

Game of Thrones still from FanPop

JRR Martin meme by AryaArryWeaselNanSaltyCatofthecanalsBethNoOne via Mashable

Massage parlor sign from Bakersfield Now

Sentimentality – Does God care about roadkill?

“Sentimentality is loving something more than God does.”

—Kenneth Meyers

 

My horse, Tucker, lives on a farm forty minutes away from my home. The roads are flat and straight and sometimes so empty I drive for miles without seeing another car. One afternoon while driving out there to ride, I composed the above haiku in my head. (I’m not the sort of driver who wields pen and paper while behind the wheel.) Haiku is a Japanese form consisting of three lines: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. A haiku usually presents two images, but they don’t come together to form a metaphor. The reader discovers connections between them while contemplating the poem.

I seldom write poetry—as you can most likely tell from this effort. When I brought the haiku to my critique group, some praised the imagery while others faulted the poem for its sentimentality.

Say what? I thought. People dislike my writing for various reasons, but they seldom find it sentimental.

Sentimentality evokes emotion at the expense of critical thinking. It’s comfortable emotion, epitomized by the verses on certain greeting cards, the kind with rainbows and ribbons and nostalgic country scenes on the front. It horrifies sophisticated readers and most writers. A whiff of sentimentality sends them scurrying to open the windows and run the fans at high speed until the stink is gone. I suspect that readers without training in literary criticism don’t feel this horror. They recognize tearjerkers and sugary writing and accept them for what they are. Most of the time anyway.

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I don’t think my haiku is sentimental. It shows two images of destruction on the highway. To find the poem sentimental, the reader must make a metaphoric connection (the piece of blown tire stands for the death of a human being in a car wreck) and an inference (because the tire claws the sky like a bird, the death of a bird is just as important as the death of a human being). But this line of thought reveals as much about the reader as about the poem.

I hate seeing dead creatures in the road and do what I can to avoid hitting them, but it wasn’t just pity that inspired my haiku. I was struck by how much the wing resembles the blown tire and how common it is to see both things on highways. Nearly everyone drives on highways. We need them. But there’s something inexorable and destructive about the process of hurtling over them at high speed.

Of course we feel worse about car wrecks than we do about roadkill, especially when people are maimed or killed, but ultimately we accept those fatal multi-vehicle highway disasters as facts of life. We accept them as surely as we accept the occasional crushed bird and woodchuck. Grieving when someone we loves dies in a car wreck doesn’t change that.

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Flying Spiders: Brief Excerpt from Talion

The second chapter of Talion includes a flashback of Lisa and her brother  visiting their father in Chicago. She receives a locket that becomes significant later. For readers wanting an entirely plot-driven story, the flashback might be an annoyance, but unless they understand who Lisa is, how will they care what happens to her?

Flying Spiders

He was nowhere in the crowd of faces at the airport gate. The other passengers swept her and Randy forward like a powerful river. A crash of voices and distant music echoed from the cavernous airport walls. Lisa searched the endless stream of faces. She desperately had to pee. They passed restrooms, but she couldn’t ask Randy to stop. He grabbed her wrist so hard she yelped in pain. “Stay with me!”

He dragged her through a huge terminal building to the United Airlines counter. They waited in a long line. When their turn finally came, the uniformed woman behind the counter was writing something. Randy drummed his fingers until she said, “May I help you?” Her eyelids drooped as she listened to him, then she lifted a phone and punched some buttons. “I got two kids here’s supposed to meet their daddy.” She pronounced the name, Murray Duncan, so precisely that it sounded like contempt. She hung up and started checking suitcases as if Randy and Lisa weren’t there anymore. Another uniformed woman told them to step aside so the line could keep moving. Squeezed between the ticket line and the baggage line, they got jostled and drew curious stares.

Randy’s face turned red and knotty, like when he lifted his stupid barbells. What if he started a fight and ruined their vacation?

“Dad probably just went to the wrong place,” Lisa said.

“Well, they’re paging him right now.”

A loudspeaker drifted above the noise in the terminal: Murray Duncan, please come to the United Airlines ticket counter. Murray Duncan. . . Something about the sound, hollow and distorted, made Lisa feel the awful moment would keep happening forever. Dad would always forget to meet them, and his name would drift through the airport terminal like a ghost.

Lisa saw the girl coming. She hurried along in snake-skin pumps with ticking steps that made her boobs jiggle. Lisa might have laughed except the girl was gorgeous. She looked like a model with perfect hair and makeup and a flashbulb smile.

“You’re Randy, right? You’ve got your dad’s sexy eyes.”

The swollen anger drained from his face like air from a popped balloon. The girl tossed a conspiring smile over her shoulder. That’s how you handle men, it said. She introduced herself as Angelina and apologized for not meeting them at the gate. The traffic on the expressway had been insane.

Randy carried their suitcases out to the car and stowed them in the trunk, putting lots of effort into lifting so Angelina could see his biceps. Lisa snickered but kept her mouth shut. She wanted his good mood to hold. Breathing the grit and fumes of the airport, she felt excited and a little queasy. Her whole life would change from this vacation, she just knew. It didn’t even matter that Randy took the front seat and stuck her with sitting in back.

“Where’s our dad?” Randy asked once they were on the expressway.

“In a meeting.”

They waited for Angelina to explain further as hundreds of cars spun past, the people inside glowering or desperate or laughing wildly. Compared to them she seemed cool and perfect. Her hands rested easily on the steering wheel, the car just another accessory like her gold bracelet and pink nails.

“Are you his girlfriend?”

“Yes. And I work for him as well. I’ll be staying with you while he’s at the office.”

“So he’s paying you to stay with us?”

“Should he be?”

Randy scowled. Though he teased Lisa without mercy, he hated being teased himself.

The condo, in a high-rise by the lake, was like a picture in a magazine. Everything down to the empty flower vase fit the decorating scheme, but nothing reminded Lisa of Dad. It felt like a hotel. She and Randy watched TV and drank bottle after bottle of orange and lemon Pellegrino.

She felt bloated and grouchy by the time Angelina drove them to a restaurant with pastel tablecloths and napkins spread like fans. Dad sat alone at a table drinking a foreign beer and reading a newspaper. He looked different than she remembered. Didn’t he used to have a tan? Now his skin reminded her of mushrooms. It was stretched too tight over his cheekbones, but under his eyes the wrinkles gathered like cobwebs.

Then he hugged her and said, “How’s my beautiful girl,” and Lisa told herself everything would be OK.

The next day Angelina took them shopping. In a jewelry store Lisa found the locket. She knew right away it was what she wanted — a smooth hunk of 14-carat gold with a thick chain. Inside, Dad’s picture would fit beneath a crystal. Angelina slapped down a credit card without asking the price.

That evening they had dinner at an Italian restaurant too fancy to serve pizza, and Lisa asked Dad for a picture of himself.

“You don’t need my picture.”

Lisa was too surprised to answer.

“Can’t you give a picture to your own daughter?” Angelina said, careful not to presume. She was just asking.

“I don’t have one.”

“I’ll take one,” Randy said.

“No. If there has to be a photograph, I’ll get it done professionally.”

At the end of their visit, he’d given each of them a photograph that looked like it came from his driver’s license.

On the plane home Randy said, “What an asshole. He’s paranoid of his own kids.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want pictures of himself floating around for the cops to get a hold of. He scams people. He talks them into phony investments and steals their money.”

“He does not.” Lisa yelled so loud the flight attendant frowned a warning at her.

“Ask Mom if you don’t believe me.”

“Mom hates him.”

“Because he’s an asshole. He spent more time with Angelina than us.”

On a bright Sunday afternoon, Dad and Angelina had taken them to the John Hancock Center. They rode an elevator at breakneck speed to the observatory on top. It was swarming with tourists. Everyone jockeyed for a spot at the windows. Luckily Randy was big enough to elbow past the adults, and Lisa was small enough to stand in front of him without blocking his view.

Sailboats drifted across the lake in dreamlike silence. Lisa imagined sailing out there, the sun on her shoulders, the waves lifting her with the promise of excitement. She imagined diving into the jeweled water of the pool on the roof of an apartment tower. Knowing her father lived in just such a building, she felt like a princess. When she was older and ready, he would bring her into his world. She would dedicate herself to preparing for that time.

She realized Dad and Angelina were gone. They had to be somewhere in the observatory, but she felt anxious. She turned to Randy. He was staring, not at the lake or buildings but into the vacant sky.

“What’s up there?”

“Spiders. On the outside of the window.” He pointed to some darkish specks Lisa had dismissed as dirt. But they were spiders. “I wonder how they get up here. And what do they eat? Probably insects that come flying along. And if the wind blows them off, they’re so light they float along on air currents to another skyscraper.”

“You can see spiders anywhere,” she said. “Where’s Dad?”

“Who cares.” His eyes never left the spiders. “You go find them.”

The observatory’s corridor followed the outer windows to form a big square. On the opposite side she found Dad and Angelina. They were each leaning a shoulder against the inner wall, touching foreheads as if sharing secrets through telepathy. His arms circled her waist. Lisa knew then he wanted to be with Angelina. His kids coming to visit was a pain, and he could hardly wait for them to leave.

They never heard from him anymore. The child-support checks were signed by his lawyer. The birthday and Christmas presents were certificates from upscale catalogs, but Mom still made them send thank-you notes. “Your actions show who you are,” she said. “And if he’s got any shame he’ll help pay for your college.”

 

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Ambiguity

Photograph by Tonia Fraser.

You could write a book on why readers dislike ambiguity in fiction. Someone probably has. It might seem arrogant (or at least reductive) to address the question in 500 words or less, but I’m going to try.

The answer comes down to what a reader wants — challenge or comfort.

Ambiguity is a lack of clarity or certainty in a situation. In fiction, it’s found in open endings, unsolved disappearances, characters whose nature remains mysterious, events that may or may not be real. For me, ambiguity enriches a story and keeps me thinking long after I put the book aside. It makes the story more real. More like life.

We live with ambiguity every day. Someone texts a friend several times and gets no reply. An insecure person thinks, “I did something to make her hate me.” A fearful person thinks, “Maybe she’s in trouble.” An optimistic person thinks, “She’s having too much fun to check her messages.” The point is, people feel the need to come up with an explanation.

Oftentimes more is at stake. You interview for a job. The interviewer promises to get back to you, but doesn’t. Maybe you should call and ask whether you’re still in the running. But what if your call annoys the interviewer?

You meet someone and want to start dating. But maybe he’s a con artist with a string of ex-wives. You run an online search and hope it uncovers the truth. Some of the truth anyway.

The uncertainty of life can be exhausting and anxiety provoking. What a comfort to escape into a story where the mystery is solved, the lovers are united, and both characters and reader stand on solid fictional ground.

The trouble is, the real complexity of experience is missing from those stories.

Margaret Atwood’s “Death By Landscape” is a short story built on ambiguity. The protagonist, Lois, goes to summer camp and meets Lucy. The two girls become friends over several summers together at camp. One day while they’re alone on a hike, Lucy goes off to pee and never comes back. A search of the surrounding countryside turns up nothing. The owner of the summer camp blames Lois.

For the rest of her life, Lois carries the guilt and perplexity of not knowing what happened to her friend. She collects paintings of wilderness landscapes but otherwise pushes the experience to the back of her mind — until she gets old. With her husband dead and her children gone, the mystery of Lucy’s disappearance reemerges. Lois spends her days gazing at the landscape paintings in search of Lucy.

“Death By Landscape” illustrates how devastating lack of closure can be. Lois seeks closure in her collection of landscapes. They are attempts to recapture Lucy by placing borders around the uncharted territory that swallowed her up.

Many readers seek closure in fiction and abhor the holes where certainty and clarity disappear. I can’t really blame them.

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7 genre-busting ‪novels in a limited edition box-set

Today’s featured guests, seven prominent indie writers, are here to discuss what ought to change in mainstream publishing. Their limited edition box set—Outside the Box: Women Writing Women—will be available in e-book format beginning February 20 for just 90 days. The set may be pre-ordered now.

The project is the brainchild of Jessica Bell, an Australian writer living in Athens, Greece. A literary author and the Founder/Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves literary journal, Jessica wanted to showcase the most exciting fiction being released by authors who are in full charge of their own creative decisions. “I couldn’t imagine collaborating with a finer group of writers,” Jessica said. “The authors in this box set are at the very top of their game.”

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The compilation of novels introduces a diverse cast of characters: A woman accused of killing her tyrannical father who is determined to reveal the truth. A bookish and freshly orphaned young woman seeks to escape the shadow of her infamous mother—a radical lesbian poet—by fleeing her hometown. A bereaved biographer who travels to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of a celebrity artist. A gifted musician who is forced by injury to stop playing the piano and fears her life may be over. An undercover journalist after a by-line, not a boyfriend, who unexpectedly has to choose between her comfortable life and a bumpy road that could lead to happiness. A former ballerina who turns to prostitution to support her daughter, and the wife of a drug lord who attempts to relinquish her lust for sharp objects and blood to raise a respectable son.

Jane Davis said, “This set of thought-provoking novels showcases genre-busting fiction across the full spectrum from light (although never frothy) to darker, more haunting reads that delve into deeper psychological territory.”

But regardless of setting, regardless of whether the women are mothers, daughters, friends or lovers, the themes are universal: euthanasia, prostitution, gender anomalies, regression therapy, obesity, drug abuse, revenge, betrayal, sex, lust, suicide and murder. Their authors have not shied away from the big issues. Some have asked big questions.

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Orna Ross (founder-director of The Alliance of Independent Authors, named by The Bookseller as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing) selected Blue Mercy, a complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery – and surprise.

Joni Rodgers (NYT bestselling author) returned to her debut Crazy for Trying, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Discover Award finalist.

Roz Morris (ghost writer and teacher of creative writing master classes for the Guardian newspaper in London) presented My Memories of a Future Life, the haunting story of how one lost soul searches for where she now belongs.

Kathleen Jones, best-selling award winning author, Royal Literary Fund Fellow, whose work has been broadcast by the BBC, contributed The Centauress, a compelling tale of family conflict over a disputed inheritance.

Jane Davis (a British writer whose debut won the Daily Mail First Novel Award) nominated An Unchoreographed Life, an unflinching and painfully honest portrayal of flawed humanity.

Carol Cooper (author, doctor, British journalist and president of the Guild of Health Writers) provided One Night at the Jacaranda, a gripping story about a group of people searching for love, sex and everything in between.

For Jessica Bell (Australian novelist, singer/songwriter, Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and whose award-winning poetry has been broadcast on ABC National Radio), her latest novel White Lady was the obvious choice, an intense, suspenseful ride rife with mystery.

Each of the authors addresses this question:

If you were Queen of Publishing for a day, what’s one thing you’d change about the industry as a whole?

Orna: The reason I love self-publishing so much is that it’s democratising and it encourages diversity. Readers and writers together are now creating new genres and books that London and Manhattan would never have published. If I were Queen of Publishing for a day, I’d make it much more diverse. I’d love to see a greater variety of voices at every level of the industry.

Jessica: That’s a tough one. Can it stop being such a popularity contest and get back to its roots? Focus on the writing, not how many followers the author has on Twitter? In an ideal world…

Roz: I would ask for more literary awards to open up to new writers. Not just to indies, but to all the new talent that comes along. Too many literary awards are given on the basis of pre-existing fame. If those authors genuinely wrote the best book of the year, then they deserve the prize, but otherwise we should give awards to the genuinely surprising, interesting and wonderful – not the usual suspects. Sometimes the best book has been written by Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes or Neil Gaiman – but sometimes it’s been written by someone relatively unknown. And those are the books that awards should be finding for us.

Carol: Although it should be obvious that there’s more than one way to publish quality books, some people in both camps sadly take up entrenched positions. Those in traditional publishing especially tend to snipe at the other side, and the antagonism does nobody any favours. We shouldn’t be at war, because in the end it’s all about the reader. I’d like to bring in a lot more enlightenment and a bit more peace, but I may need more than a day to achieve it.

Kathleen: I’d ban accountants from the commissioning meeting! Books should be accepted on literary value alone; it’s the only way to get a quality product. Readers quickly tire of being sold ‘the next best thing’. They want variety, good stories, original, surprising prose – they deserve the best, not some publicist’s idea of what they can be conned into thinking is the best. Not only that, but many of the books they buy purporting to be written by celebrities are in fact written by someone else – usually a professional writer whose own work has been rejected but who needs the money. To pass off a book in that way is fraudulent – at best a con trick. We need to take the fake out of the fiction industry and writers need to be free to write the books they want to write and readers want to read.

Jane: The options for those wishing to publish are now wider than ever before, so I don’t think it’s the publishing industry I would change. It is the perception of publishing and the value that we place on books and art that I’d like to target. This year, I’ve been out speaking to librarians and booksellers trying to encourage them to stock – and read – more indie titles. If Andrew Lownie’s prediction is right, over 75% of books will be self-published by the year 2020. Any outlet that refuses to stock indie titles will be doing readers an enormous disservice by restricting choice. The other thing I’d like to be able to do is to get out there and sell my books for the listed price. I hear parents talk about spending £120 on trainers for their children – something that will be outgrown in 6 months. People will fork out over £50 to see a band play, they’ll happily pay £2.45 for a coffee or £3.60 for a pint of beer, and yet they throw up their hands in horror at the idea of paying £8.99 for a paperback. Is the real issue that readers’ needs are not being catered for? £8.99 may seem a lot of money for something you don’t enjoy. I found the results that Kobo have collated about books readers give up on half way through very telling, with The Goldfinch and Twelve Years a Slave topping the list (the books readers were told they should be reading), whilst the book they were most likely to finish? Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core.

Joni: Oh, Lord, I’d tell everyone to take the day off and read a book. That’s the single most important thing writers can do—for ourselves and for the book culture at large—but we leave ourselves so little time for it.