Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Not Wrong, It's Different

I went to my RWA chapter meeting on Monday night.  November's meeting is traditionally a brainstorming session.  We were to bring a problem from our writing so that the other members could brainstorm solutions.  There were five of us there: two published but not yet established authors, and two newbies.  I fall in between them: I've got a completed manuscript, a partial manuscript, and am writing a third book for NaNoWriMo.

I had a minor problem to bring up, and someone did say something helpful, so that worked as planned.  The rest of the experience was bizarre to the point of being surreal.  And fitting -- today is the one-year anniversary of Promantica's first post.  That RWA meeting reminded me that it's not wrong, it's different -- which pretty much sums up the spirit of this blog.

Here's what happened.  My NaNoWriMo book is about a very new judge and a lawyer who first encounter each other in court.  Judge Jack McIntyre has to recuse himself from a case 20 minutes into a hearing because the moment he sees Elise Carroll he knows that he's in love with her.  She protests, on the grounds that they've never met each other.

"Haven't you heard of love at first sight?"
"That's a myth, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny," she retorts.

Jack and Elise -- both thirtysomethings -- enter into an odd romance.  He wants to woo her, but is smart enough to see that she's skeptical of his intentions.  She figures that while he's crazy he's also hot, and on the principle that the best way to get men to leave is to give them what they want, she decides to sleep with Jack.  She doesn't want the wooing with candlelight and fine wine, but she'll happily take the rumpled sheets.

Being lawyers, they negotiate a contract: every other date will be in one side's preferred style.  Jack gets "romantic dates," Elise gets "sex dates." 

The problem I presented for brainstorming was this:  After four dates, I was getting close to the point where I needed Jack & Elise to fight about something superficial, in that way that couples fight about the toilet seat but they're really airing their frustrations about something else.  So, what could they fight about?

As I say, I did get a great idea as a tangential by-product of the discussion, but the discussion itself was highly frustrating.

The two authors in the room insisted that Elise, my heroine, is very unsympathetic and unlikeable.  Now, I don't get the point of such a comment.  First, why would they say that?  Because I have a heroine who thinks a relationship based on sex is reasonable?  Because she doesn't immediately want to get married and have kids?  Because she's not melting in the face of Blackjack McIntyre's charms?  If these authors really believe that, then I have a few folks here in Romlandia for them to meet!

But leaving that aside -- because ultimately I *do* need to be concerned with how readers see Elise -- where's the utility in telling a writer that her heroine is unsympathetic?  If the character is irredeemably unpleasant, telling the writer isn't very helpful, and if the character is sympathetic, telling a writer the opposite isn't very helpful, and if the character maybe just needs to be zhuzhed a bit to up her likability quotient, stating "she's not sympathetic" seems particularly unhelpful.

I get it, though -- it's brainstorming, there's no self-editing or censorship allowed.

The other issue that the authors had was with the entire set up.  They kept saying to me, "What are these characters' goals outside the romance?"

And the answer is pretty simple:  They don't have any.  When the book starts, Jack is working to be a good jurist, which takes time and practice -- not a very sexy goal.  Elise is a year away from being considered for partnership, but she's more focused on doing a good job.  At the time these two meet, they're mostly focused on their careers.  If you'd met them separately, you might have admired them, but not been very interested in their personal quests.

But together?  Spontaneous combustion.  These people are sharp.  I love the way Jack and Elise interact.  Here's the scene where, frustrated and angry, they negotiate their "contract":
   “Fair enough.  You’re absolutely right.  We didn’t spend enough time yesterday negotiating terms.  By all means let us do that now,” he said.
   “I don’t want to negotiate terms, Jack.  I want to take you upstairs, unwrap you like a present, and get sweaty with you in my bed.”
   “I understand that, Elise.” He made her name sound like an epithet.  “I decline that generous offer.  My counter-offer of dinner at a five-star restaurant is clearly unacceptable to you.  So let’s try to find some middle ground.”
   “There is no middle ground,” she protested.  She crossed her arms over her chest.  Clearly the poky nipples weren’t working for her.
   “That’s no way to enter into the spirit of negotiation, Elise.  You said yes to something last night.  What was it?”
   “I told you.  Hot, steamy sex.”  Ugh.  She sounded like a petulant teenager, which wasn’t the way to win this war.  She straightened her shoulders, lowered her arms and got into the spirit of negotiation, as he’d called it.
   “But I take your point,” she said in a calmer voice.  “Let’s see.  I want sex, and you want five-star restaurants, correct?”
   Jack inclined his head slightly.  Still wary of her tricks, she supposed.
   “Okay, then,” she went on.  “How about we trade?  One date goes your way, the next my way.”
   “But not on the same night,” he said.
   She had to keep from smiling.  “Of course not.  We’d spend all our time arguing who’s half of the date had lasted longer.  No, I’m talking about alternating dates.  You get one, I get one.  That sort of thing.”
   He appeared to consider that.  “I get to go first.”
   “Why?”
   “Because it’s traditional to take a woman to dinner before having hot, steamy sex with her,” he pointed out.
   “God, Jack, that’s so last century,” she laughed.
   He grinned.  “I’m a last-century kind of guy.”
   “Okay, I’ll concede that point.  On my dates, however, the food has to take a back seat.  No cooking for me, or expecting me to cook for you.”
   “Why not?”
   “Too romantic.  If I let you cook for me, then next thing I know, you’ll have white tablecloths and a Gypsy violinist here on one of our sex dates.”
   “So what happens on one of your uh, ‘sex dates’?” he asked.
   She cocked her head to one side.  “Jack McIntyre, if you have to ask, I’m going to feel sorry for the news anchor and that biologist babe.”
   “Nonetheless, answer the question,” he insisted.
   “Well, sex, of course.  Styles, positions, locations, and frequency all to be negotiated on the specific date.  I’m, um, flexible,” she said, looking up at him with a saucy grin.
   “I can well believe it, minx.”
   “And as I don’t deny that food tastes pretty good after hot, sweaty sex, the host for the sex date will either have something ready to eat, or be prepared to phone for traditional take-out food, such as Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, pizza, etc.  If it can be described as gourmet, it’s non-compliant with the stated intent of the sex date, which is...sex.”
   “May the host of the sex date offer the guest wine?”
   “If the host so desires.  I don’t mind a beer with my pizza, on occasion,” Elise said.
   “Beer.”  He seemed disconcerted by the idea of something so plebian.  Welcome to my world, bub.
   “It’s not too late to change your mind,” she offered.
   “On the contrary, I’m more excited than ever,” he said coolly
   “Mmm.  I could tell,” she drawled.
   “One question.”
   “Yes?”
   “Who supplies the condoms?”
   She burst out laughing.  She couldn’t help it.  “The host of the sex date is expected to have a sufficient supply of appropriately-sized contraceptives that are free of defects and well within their sell-by date,” she said.  “And if you try to get me pregnant, Jack, as a sneaky soap-opera ploy to marry me, I’ll...I’ll tell Judge King.”

Now, if Jack and Elise don't appeal to readers because they're not on some Vital Quests that Create Conflict, then I'll take my lumps.  I'm writing the book I want to read.

But my approach -- take two interesting people, have their paths cross in a very synergistic way, and watch what happens -- doesn't fit the mold.  One of the authors very kindly informed me that (and this is as close to verbatim as I can make it), "A romance is when guy meets a girl, and they like each other, but they each have an external goal that causes conflict and keeps them apart, but eventually they realize that they would rather be in love than apart."

I disagree with that.  I don't disagree that it's an accepted structure for a romance novel.  I disagree that it's the only accepted structure for a romance novel.  I've blogged about this before.  There are romances where the two people are kept apart for nearly the entire story by the conflict, and only come together in the end, but there are also romances where the characters are together nearly the whole time.  There are vitally important characters who are defined by their goals, motivations, and conflict, but then there are those characters who are defined by personality, mindset, intellect, skills, and world view.  All my favorite books have been more about who people are than what they do.  Plus, I like to see how people interact and solve problems.

In Blackjack & Moonlight, neither Jack nor Elise knows how to love someone romantically.  He sees his courtship to be like any other legal campaign to be waged: gather information, figure out how best to present your case, and win.  She sees his courtship as craziness, a delusion he'll snap out of eventually, at which point they'll go their merry ways.  The fact that he never loses actually undercuts his sincerity; she's just a campaign to him.  The fact that she is a delightful companion undercuts her insistence that she's not emotionally engaged with him.

But really, these people have to realize in the course of the story that they want to love each other and they need to learn how.  Most people don't need 90,000 words to realize that the difficulties are all caused by polarity -- turn one magnet around and they'll snap together -- but then most people aren't as smart as Jack and Elise.  I'm a great believer that smart will get a body in trouble faster and longer than nearly anything external.

Is my book wrong?  I doubt it.  It may not be any good -- I still have to do a good job writing it -- but it's not wrong.  It's different.

Happy Birthday, Promantica!

I want to thank everyone who has ever read a Promantica post, commented, or recommended it to someone else.   From time to time I've had something to say, and here's where I've said it.  It took me a while to realize that there was no point arguing with people -- I'm entitled to disagree, but they're entitled to their opinion.  It's not wrong for them, either.

12 comments:

  1. In Blackjack & Moonlight, neither Jack nor Elise knows how to love someone romantically.

    Isn't that the MAIN conflict in most romances? It seems like that to me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "But my approach doesn't fit the mold."

    Welcome to my world.

    See, you just ran up against the wall I did in the early 90s. Whereas I was young and stupid and believed Da Rulez and tried to conform--and missed by mere millimeters every single time--you KNOW you don't have to conform to be good.

    Dismissing myopic (or frustrated, or habit-bound, or jaded, or battle-weary) critique group partners is one thing. Selling a book like that is a different matter altogether.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It sounds interesting to me, and judging by what you've written here, I don't feel that Elise is unsympathetic.

    Unfortunately for you, I've noticed that when I really enjoy a romance (as opposed to finding it interesting, well constructed etc), it either doesn't get reviewed at all or other people have found it boring.

    It might just be due to the fact that I have a preference for Harlequin Mills & Boons, though, as they tend to be reviewed less frequently than single titles. What sort of length were you aiming for?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Victoria -- As I understand "Da Rulz" (to borrow from MoJo), it's the reverse. Romances are populated by people who are READY to love each other can't (yet) because of the Big Misunderstanding, someone is Too Scarred by the Past, or Class Issues, etc., etc. -- all external conflicts. The sense I have is that the external conflict is there to keep these two people from snapping together at the groin, they're so perfect for each other.

    I rarely read books where the real action is a matter of personal growth for both characters. Or there's personal growth, but it's unsubtle -- as in a book I finished recently where the hero had been dumped in a previous relationship and so spent 96% of the book CONVINCED that no woman, not least the nubile young thing who'd been in love with him since she was 5, would ever stay with him again. He actually says, toward the end, that he thought if he told her he loved her she'd leave, so if he doesn't tell her he loves her she'll stay. What's that -- the commutative property of stupid?

    He finally gets a clue and morphs magically into the kind of guy who sends gifts to the heroine for no reason. The book was okay, but his character arc makes we want to paraphrase Dorothy Parker: "His development ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."

    I'm not good at "Da Rulz."

    Which brings me to you, Moriah Jovan. I can reassure you that my husband (a computer programmer, software developer, and professional proofreader) and I have agreed that if I don't get an agent (or some other sign that commercial publishing is the way to go) by 1/1/12, then we'll consider self-publishing. Between us, we have most of the skills we need. (And the skills we lack, like graphic design, we know where to get within our extended family.)

    It's not my preference, but not because of any outmoded idea of a caste system of publishing, with self-published authors being the "untouchables." It just seems easier to go the commercial route, if it's available to me.

    Laura -- I have you down as a beta reader for Love in Reality, which is undergoing a major rewrite at the moment. Then you can see for yourself if my style is to your liking!

    It's possible my books will be an acquired taste (which brings me back to self-publishing). I can live with that.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have you down as a beta reader for Love in Reality, which is undergoing a major rewrite at the moment.

    I'm looking forward to it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Laura -- You've been very patient! I'm pretty sure I promised it to you over 4 months ago.

    ReplyDelete
  7. When you first mentioned the revisions they did sound as though they'd improve the novel quite a lot, so I'm sure it's worth my while to carry on waiting patiently ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Happy Birthday! I have really enjoyed your blog over the past year.

    Discussions of whether a heroine is "sympathetic" (a hero doesn't seem to have to be--just hot) remind me of the way my students talk about "relating" to characters. They seem to mean the character must be LIKE THEM, and as far as I can tell, the other authors felt she had to a certain kind of feminine (interested in feelings and love?) to be sympathetic. Personally, I think I can "relate" to or find sympathetic characters who are very different from me, and with whose values I don't necessarily agree, if the author makes me UNDERSTAND them. I don't think there are "rules" for a sympathetic, likeable character (I like all kinds of real people . . . ).

    And I loved your description of the book and the way you seem to be flipping some gendered/genre expectations about love on their heads. I'd read that!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks, Laura!

    Elizabeth -- It's so nice to know you've enjoyed the blog, thanks.

    I have to say, I don't buy into the notion (which is less prevalent now, it seems) that female readers need to identify with the heroine in order to enjoy the book. Sometimes, we want the heroine to be different from us in a fun way -- have a nicer body, job, etc. -- or just be someone who we're willing to spend time with.

    Of course, I'm willing to spend time with Elise, but I'll have to wait to see if anyone else is.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Here's the thing: I don't need to relate to anybody in a book at all. I need to be INTERESTED in them. They need to catch my attention. That's all.

    When I was younger I needed to be able to relate to the heroine, to like her, to think that she was WORTHY of my liking her. I personally think that's an emotionally immature place to read from, but apparently I am, in this, as usual, in the minority.

    If I come to the end of a book and say, "That heroine is unlikable", usually it ends up that she wasn't UNLIKABLE so much as she was drawn inconsistently or she did dumb things or I was frustrated with her or she was just kind of a blob. Make her interesting and consistent and logical, and I'm fine.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Here's the thing: I don't need to relate to anybody in a book at all. I need to be INTERESTED in them. They need to catch my attention. That's all."

    Ditto. From the excerpt you posted, I am interested and like the exchange (says so much about their personalities) and it was entertaining.

    "But really, these people have to realize in the course of the story that they want to love each other and they need to learn how."

    This is the crux of any romance novel, to a degree, it can be argued that the rest is window dressing.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have to laugh, I really do. Someone reacted to my explanation of Jack and Elise with the comment, "I hope it's a short story." Well, I'm at 36,000+ words and they aren't even close to being able to fall in love. (Closer than they were for the excerpt above, but not by much.)

    My hero thinks that winning Elise will be like winning a legal case: First, gather a lot of information. Second, plan your strategy. Third, refine your arguments. Fourth, convince & win.

    Bet you can guess how well that will work!

    Elise has finally admitted that Jack is like a recreational drug she doesn't want to give up, but she's still convinced he's crazy to think he's in love with her, and anyway, once they really get to know each other, they'll get bored.

    Clueless, really clueless, the pair of them.

    I am a very happy writer.

    ReplyDelete