Sunday, November 20, 2011

Groundhog Day: The Romance Novel Way

In the classic comedy with Bill Murray, a weatherman is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over until he gets it right.

I feel as though I've been reading that premise, over and over.

I'm a little peevish about this because it deals with my current bugaboo: external conflict. I got a rejection recently from an editor who read the whole of Blackjack & Moonlight and said, "There’s never a difficult choice or insurmountable obstacle in front of them, nothing at stake, and at no point am I brought to the point where I doubt the inevitability of their happy-ever-after."

(By way of rebuttal, here's a beta-reader's comment, which I received weeks before the rejection: "As is true with most books of this type, you realize that you are near the end, in your gut you know that the story has to work out, but you can't see how it can happen in only a few pages." Does it strengthen my argument or undercut it to tell you that this particular beta-reader doesn't normally read romances?)

Anyway, the archetype of external conflict is Romeo & Juliet (or, if that's too distant an example, how about Twilight?). Huge barriers keep the lovers apart, and yet they come together. Okay, so in R&J they [spoiler alert] both die, and in Twilight, well, I'll admit I stopped reading after Book Two, so I'm not sure, but it seems like Bella should have a tough time surviving the consummation of her love for Edward.

I write about urban professionals, however, and I base them in part on urban professionals I know, have worked with, or might have some resemblance to. What I've observed is that smart people can solve their external problems a lot faster and more easily than the problems they've made for themselves.

In other words, smart people can screw up their own lives more efficiently than anything rational I can throw at them from the outside.

What? Oh, right. Groundhog Day.

Here's the pattern of a book I started recently. Heroine is a child prodigy musician who gave it all up years ago and is now running a bar she bought. Hero is a rock musician coming back to record years after quitting when a band member died. When the book starts, the hero comes into her bar & orders a drink he doesn't bother to drink, all the while thinking about how attractive she is. He leaves. He comes in the next day, orders the drink, talks to the heroine briefly, thinks how attracted to her he is, leaves. Comes in a third day, orders the drink, talks a bit more to the heroine, thinks about her, leaves.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually she gives him the only one of her CDs he doesn't have (because he couldn't get it used on Amazon, presumably). He admits to himself that he decided to record the come-back album in this particular town because of the heroine.

Sorry, what was the conflict again? I'll admit it, I gave up at that point. I was supposed to believe these two people were locked in a situation that prevented them from having anything to do with each other, but clearly that wasn't what was happening. What was happening was Groundhog Day without any self-awareness.

I ask a bit more of my characters than illustrating that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

A book I'm reading now isn't quite so bad, but it shares the quality of assuming that if the characters repeat to themselves that ONE reason they can't give in to the attraction they feel for the other person, we readers will understand how vitally important it is for them never, ever to think they can be together. (I think the hero's reason is that the heroine is Italian. Yeah, like I'm moved to tears by his plight.)

The point of the movie is that eventually Bill Murray's character learns that he has to do things differently. Learning to modify the ways we trip ourselves up--that's not an automatic, one slap-to-the-forehead-is-all-it-takes, realization. And I know a lot of people who never get there. (I used to say of a relative that he kept hoping the airlines would lose his emotional baggage, but it never happened.)

I agree with the editor that it's nice when a book has believable external conflict, but I only like those stories when the conflict isn't something the characters are unable to see, won't acknowledge, are idiots about, or need an outside agency to fix magically. Having the hero and heroine stub their toes on an issue over and over again without thinking, "I should try a different path," that's just dumb.

I'll take smart over dumb every day of the week.

Edited to add: This post prompted some loving concern from good friends--and really, if your loving friends can't tell you when you've posted the equivalent of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, who can?--that I come across here as  a bitter crone  a holier-than-thou smartypants  an arrogant know-it-all  all of the above in this post.

So here's a confession: I don't know how to do this right. I don't believe anything I wrote here is "more right" than what I wrote in this post on how everyone's entitled to love what they love. I didn't intend to suggest that anyone who loves books in which the characters bumble about in a lovably dorky way is wrong to love those books. It's much more likely I'm writing the "wrong" books than that any of you is reading the "wrong" books. And that's without the obvious fact that there are no "wrong" books, just (maybe) a bad fit between the reader and the book.

Here's the irony: I wrestle with this issue. The balance between me as a member of Romlandia, as an individual reader, and as a writer--I don't have an answer how to get that balance right. I'll admit it: it's an internal conflict that I can't work my way through. Several times today I arrived at the following as the bedrock truth:
I just don't know.
So, yup you got it: a post defending smart internal conflict over dubious external conflict ended up making me admit I haven't got all my own internal conflict worked though. Which means if this were a romance, there'd be no HEA!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

TBR Challenge - The Child Detective

I had a mad crush on Encyclopedia Brown when I was little. I read as many of the Nancy Drew books as I could find. And I adored the adolescent detective in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, who seemed like he might have some form of autism.  So, to satisfy this month's "non-romance" TBR Challenge, I went back to a mystery with another child sleuth. I like their common sense and their ability to ferret out the obvious details that adults overlook. I like the way their minds work.

But Flavia Sabina de Luce, the 11-year-old protagonist in Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie just annoyed the hell out of me. She's bizarrely knowledgeable until she isn't, intrepid but rather cruel, clever when it suits the plot and dim at other times.

Or maybe I just didn't care who killed the red-haired man in the de Luce's cucumber patch.

Mind you, I can see why the book is an "International Bestseller." (According to Wiki, Bradley sold the rights in three countries based on a synopsis and the first chapter. Maybe that's why I didn't like it so much--sour grapes.) Set in 1950, it's got that made-for-PBS feel of an English country village back when you cycled everywhere. Flavia de Luce is "plucky." I can imagine she appeals to readers who would have enjoyed Joan Hickson's Miss Marple so much more if she'd only been pre-adolescent and thus inherently an idiot.

Mind you, Flavia isn't most people's idea of an idiot. She's a keen amateur chemist with a specialty in poisons. (She avenges herself against her older sister by contaminating Ophelia's lipstick with urushiol, the extract of poison ivy. Never mind that poison ivy doesn't naturally occur in England. It does grow in Canada, where Alan Bradley's from.) But there were times when it seemed implausible that a girl of her age could know some things, like the names of obscure volcanoes, but then not know what a "rhetorical question" is, for example.

Similarly, she knows what Leonardo da Vinci's Vetruvian Man looks like, but doesn't know what body part her sister is talking about with the advice, "If you're ever accosted by a man, kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes." Maybe I was the unnatural 11-year-old, but I think at that age I could have deduced what general area of a man's body was meant by the "Casanovas."

It's easy to see the antecedents for Bradley's inspiration. Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle for its wacky family dynamic, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm for its cast of wacky characters made wackier by virtue of shadowy past tragedies, and all of the Miss Marple mysteries. As with Agatha Christie, the implication in Sweetness is that the rural police are good-natured but dim, useful only for a) arresting the wrong person and then b) arresting the right person after our intrepid amateur sleuth has sussed out his or her identity.

The problem for me is that the wackier the characters and their dialogue, the less I believe in the mystery and its attendant danger to our girl detective.  For a taste of the wacky, here's a truly implausible bit of a long, long monologue by Laurence "Jacko" de Luce, Flavia's father, describing his childhood at a public school:
Mr. Twining was more kindly than adept [as a conjuror]; not a very polished performer, I must admit, but he carried off his tricks with such ebullience, such goodhearted enthusiasm, that it would have been churlish of us to withhold our noisy schoolboy applause."

I know this is supposed to be the translation of childhood into an adult man's vernacular, but Mr. de Luce is so bland and distant up to this point that having him spout sesquipedalian words just makes him even less interesting. As he's locked up on suspicion of killing the fellow in the cucumber patch when he makes that speech, it's particularly odd.

Sweetness is a wildly popular book--I know this because it took forever for my Wish List copy to arrive via Paperback Swap. Just as well I didn't like it; now I don't have to worry about how long it will take to get any of the sequels.

Now that's one way to reduce a TBR pile!

Friday, November 4, 2011

"It Must Be Good in Bed"

As the daughter of two Brits, my mother was hardly a profane woman.  Nonetheless, she had an earthy explanation whenever she was introduced to a dubious candidate as boyfriend / fiancĂ© / husband of a female acquaintance: "He must be good in bed."

I love the philosophy imbedded in this. There was no intent to insult the woman's choice of man, even if his charms eluded my mother. Instead, she was respecting the fact that she couldn't know all his finer points, and that some of them might be quite personal indeed. We're not usually privy to the sex lives of our friends so we have to assume that both parties are making a fully informed choice for bed- and life-partners.

[And yes, the sentiment is rather lopsided with regard to gender. My mother was born in 1919. She had more experience with the concept of a woman discovering that a man was not good in bed than with the reverse.]

Two things happened recently to remind me of my mother's attitude.  First, I had a conversation with Janet W. about two highly-respected authors of historical romances.  Janet admitted that while she enjoyed the books of Author #1, she (Janet) had stopped reading recent releases as they came out. By contrast, she still read the books of Author #2 as soon as they hit bookstore shelves even if it's undeniable that Author #2's current work wasn't up to her best.

I took an opposite position. I do read Author #1's most recent releases even though I agree they aren't as good as her very best work. With respect to Author #2, I start each of her books - even the very famous ones - with a good bit of trepidation. A couple of her books rubbed me the wrong way - including one that Janet recommended very highly.

What followed was a spirited discussion along the lines of, "you've got to be crazy," at the end of which Janet and I just laughed and agreed that there's no point disagreeing with another reader's reaction to a book after the bedroom door is shut.  In other words, a book can strike me as a bad bet, but when I hear how much Janet loves it, I figure it must be the book equivalent of "good in bed."

The second incident had a friend asking on Twitter if any writers would like to write some fan fiction to expand a short story by Mary Jo Putney, "Sunshine for Christmas."  (She had no takers.) I had to find my copy of the anthology, Christmas Revels, in order to remember what the story was about. It's a sequel to The Rake, in which Lord Randolph Lennox travels to Italy in December to get away from the English weather. There he meets an English governess, Elizabeth Walker, who agrees to show him around Naples.

It's a charming story, and I enjoyed it, but it certainly doesn't leave me with a desire for more. Another story in that collection, "The Black Beast of Belleterre" does make me wish it were longer, even as I think it's actually perfect the way it is.

Ironically, the same friend on a separate occasion tweeted how much she loved about a story by Author #1 (the one I still read). I read that story and had to scratch my head. Again, as much as I love Author #1's writing, that particular work seems charmless to me, whereas I believe it's the only thing by Author #1 that my Twitter friend truly loves.

Now, obviously all of this is further evidence that we should allow people to like what they like for the reasons they like it. But there are times where it's perfectly reasonable to argue over plot points, characterization, prose style and the like. Nothing requires us to forgo the charms of discussing books.

Here's where the sentiment of "he must be good in bed" can be helpful. The love for a particular book is no less personal than the love for another human being. Even where a review points out its flaws, the reader may just love it. Once the discussion is at the level of "Why do I love it? I just do," then it's more polite to say, "well, it must be good in bed," and let each other love what we love.