Creating believable relationships: Who are your characters’ imagos?

My husband and I made it through 23 years of marriage before certain fundamental issues caused us to decide to part as friends. I doubt we would have made it anywhere close to that long if we hadn’t, fairly early on, participated in a workshop at our church on something called Imago Relationship Therapy.

Have you noticed that you (or your friends, since it’s always easier to see it in others) tend to fall for certain types of people … who tend to have the same issues? We do this, Imago Theory says, because what makes us feel warm and loved is very much based on what we experienced from our primary caregivers when we were growing up. Yet these same things are also guaranteed to make us absolutely crazy.

Imago Theory posits that we are all seeking to heal the wounds of childhood through our choice of mate, which is what drives romantic love, but in the process we will inevitably exacerbate those wounds — cue the power struggle.

brokenheartI bring it up here because, although I am by no means an expert at this theory and its practical applications, it can also be useful to look at what drives your characters to each other, especially since what attracts people to each other is also what may ultimately heal them … if they can survive the conflicts along the way.

And conflict is the heart of all compelling fiction, isn’t it? Sometimes, but not always, with a nice healing resolution at the end.

(Those of you who know anything about typical patterns of codependency in alcoholic/addicted families will recognize similar patterns in Imago Theory.)

When I was writing The Awful Mess, I gave Mary an alcoholic father, a powerful, critical mother, and a mean-tempered alcoholic first husband for a reason. Winslow definitely has a judgmental streak, and I’m willing to bet that Mary unconsciously grooves on that, just as she manages to feel comfortable with his almost comically judgmental Bible-thumping father. But Winslow being a cop and ex-Marine also freaks her out, since it means he has the potential for violence, which is what scared her the most in her first marriage.

Similarly, I suspect Winslow is unconsciously drawn to Mary’s bordering-on-depressive, withdrawing personality (though she also has a pretty mouthy judgmental streak of her own) because of what he experienced when he was growing up.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.David’s emotional remoteness in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire echoes Molly’s experience of her own distant father, which is probably why he becomes so compelling to her when he does begin to establish a bond of affection with her. Meanwhile, Molly’s plainspoken exasperation probably echoes something from David’s wife and his mother, who hadn’t made any bones about her disappointment in him at key moments — which is why Molly’s affection can be so healing for him.

I won’t claim that I actually plan this stuff out when I’m writing (I’m a pantser, and I’m also probably too busy unconsciously working out my own demons), but once something is written and developing I do look hard at it and try to evaluate it in these terms. What are the wounds my characters carry with them, and how might they seek to heal them? (Not necessarily consciously or wisely, mind you.) Because that is one way to drive any character forward in a believable way.

If you’d like to learn more about Imago Relationship Theory, whether for your writing OR your love life, here’s a really helpful page: http://www.imago.com.au/. You might also want to check out the many books by its originators, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.

And here’s wishing you a happy, healing heart!

The writing life: Should we risk offending people, or not?

Last month, an article in the Romance Writers of America newsletter Romance Writers Report by Jennifer Fusco caused quite a bit of controversy by recommending that authors avoid controversy. It gave specific examples in telling authors what to avoid comment on: “…religion. Gay marriage. The ruling in Ferguson, Missouri. Politics.”

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

And thus, ironically, Fusco did exactly what she was advising authors not to do.

The response apparently began with Racheline Maltese, who writes LGBTQ romances and was understandably offended by the idea that she should shut up about a matter of basic civil rights.

Sean Munger took it a step further, noting that the kind of author who would avoid any comment on matters like this is just plain boring. I think it’s a brilliant analysis.

Then again, it’s convenient for me to think that, because I find I just can’t shut up about this stuff. I did try. One of the first things I did before starting out into social media was read M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyer’s What to Do Before Your Book Launch (which is quite useful, yet oddly costs at minimum $115 new at Amazon right now — and, I’m sorry, but it’s not THAT useful — the first link up above is the ebook for Nook at $5.99). It essentially offered the same advice, without the specifics to rile people up.

It was advice that resonated for me at that point, because at the time I had just taken my son’s computer for fixing to a local guy whose shop turned out to be full of rabidly anti-Obama stuff. While this was still arguably better than going to get some high school kid to work on it at the national chain where I’d bought the machine, I swore that I was never going back to that guy again. (Incidentally, his web site gave me no clue of what I was getting into.)

It’s not that I boycott businesses owned by Republicans — I have a number of Republican friends. I occasionally even vote Republican in local elections. But I felt practically assaulted by all the vitriol in his shop — and I couldn’t help but conclude that anyone THAT rudely in-my-face about his politics didn’t really deserve my business.

And in social media there’s often no mediating personal relationship. I may not know that you are at heart a kindly fellow who will go out of his way to help the poor at the local food pantry. I only know that you are spreading what I consider racist propaganda. CLICK! You’re unfollowed.

This works both ways, of course. I notice that if I get specifically down on, say, the GOP’s attitude towards what they call “entitlement” programs, I immediately lose some Twitter followers.

Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too fast in our judgments, especially in an age of irony. Is this guy joking or is he serious?

The thing is that while I do indeed try to employ what Mary Maddox describes as “a benign detachment that leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions,” anyone who reads my books with a keen eye may notice a strong point of view about feeding the hungry and marriage equality (and other aspects of inclusiveness in the Episcopal Church) in The Awful Mess, and about women’s rights and justice issues surrounding rape in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

So if I’m going to anger people who disagree with me on those issues anyway, why should I hold back before they buy the book? Is it my job to try to fool people into thinking they’re going to read something else?

Of course, after teaching college English for some years, I have also noticed that people will read pretty much whatever they want to believe into any given book. Seriously. So … yeah, if I didn’t want to chase away any potential readers, I suppose I could keep my views hidden and they might never even notice that I disagree with them.

But I still can’t do it. These views matter, or I wouldn’t have written in the books in the first place! I didn’t write the books to be able to say, “Hey, look, I wrote some books! Aren’t they shiny?” I wrote them to say something. It’s all working towards the same end. It’s all living out loud.

So I’m just going to be as obnoxiously opinionated as I feel called to be by my concept of the truth. Yours may well vary from mine. We can still respect each other’s right to speak. You never know, the world might even benefit from our discussion.

Living out loud, or why I don’t hide being self-published

Publishing expert Porter Anderson had an interesting post recently, asking if it might be time for self-publishing to get over itself. He points out that:

  1. Yes, obviously, indie publishing has become a respectable option for a number of writers, including many who were once traditionally published.
  2. Readers have never particularly cared who publishes books.
  3. Why call attention to it (or, worse, get militant about it) when you could instead put that energy towards writing more books?

It’s a valid question.

My answer to him (literally — I commented on the blog post) was this:

…I have a friend who asked me why I didn’t just fake it, since my books could “pass” for traditionally published. And he had a point. But I’d be nowhere without the helpful information provided by indie authors who went before me (and are still figuring things out faster than I am). So I feel an obligation to participate as well, to the extent I can, as a matter of paying it forward. I also find it genuinely interesting. (I have a background in traditional publishing, so I find the whole industry interesting.) I do think it is unfortunate when self-publishers get militant about their status. I understand the temptation, but I think it’s rooted in insecurity. There’s nothing inherently evil about traditional publishing. Or about agents. Or about bookstores. How many of us would be writers today if we hadn’t benefited from that low-margin book industry all our lives? Yeah, it can be corporate and risk-averse, and some of those contracts bear close examination. But the Big Five are not in a deep, dark conspiracy to ruin authors’ lives. If we care about literature, we should hope that they and bookstores continue to prosper, and that we all find our way to eager readers.

(He responded, if you want to check it out.)

Now, my personality is part of this equation. I compulsively truth-tell for the most part — sometimes unpleasantly so. My mother practices the fine art of being a polite Southern lady, but I think I have taken after my journalist father — we’re both prone to occasional crankiness and self-righteousness. (Yes, Dad, I said that.)

Over a decade ago I remember telling an agent at a conference that I wouldn’t self-publish because “that way lies madness.” And in those days, that was true. Self-publishing was largely the realm of crazy people utilizing vanity presses, stocking boxes of books in their garage, and hand-selling to everyone they knew. Then Amazon and print-on-demand technology changed all that.

I do remember still feeling an inhibiting shame about self-publishing, even after I’d decided it was something I would probably enjoy doing, until I came up with the name Sheer Hubris Press. That gave me the freedom to just do it. Yes, people, it says —  Yes, I’m publishing myself! Yes, I think my stuff is worth reading!

I just can’t fake anything, and I don’t want to have to. Yes, I know there are things that are definitely Too Much Information or too cruel to say, and I’m not recommending you tell your boss you can’t stand him or her before (or even after) you have another job lined up, but for the important stuff, the stuff that gives life meaning, I want to be my genuine self.

There is still sometimes an element of shame involved. For me the worst shame was discovering that my proofreading of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire was not at all up to snuff. Fixing that meant sitting with perhaps the most visceral feeling of shame I’ve ever experienced — literally, I put off the work for days because of the awful feeling I got in my guts. I had prided myself on being a better publisher than that.

So, yes, sheer hubris can lead to spectacular failure. Except… so what? Ultimately, it was just another hard-won lesson along the way. The book has been fixed (mostly — there are at least three typos left, which I’ll fix when I add the information about the next book). And it’s doing well enough critically to make me happy, even though I doubt its sales will ever match The Awful Mess, which has the great advantage of crossing over into romance.

As I once told a library audience when presenting about indie publishing, there are people who will react to a self-published book as if someone in the room just farted but they’re too polite to say anything about it. What I didn’t say is that I don’t give a flying **** about those people. They care more about status than whether a book has something valuable to say.

"The dog did it ... I swear!"There’s enormous joy in living your life the way you want to live it — living out loud — and sharing what you’re good at with others. If you can accept that publishing is hard work if you plan to do it well, puts you out there where not everybody will be kind, and is extremely unlikely to result in fast fame or riches, then you’re going into this with your eyes open. If, knowing all that, you still feel called to do it, go for it.

One of those 2015 resolutions: building my email subscription list

Jo-Anne Kern won the first quarter’s $20 Amazon Gift Card for being a member of my email list. (This is not the same list that gets you this blog sent to you in your email, just in case you’re confused about that.) If you’d like to be entered for the next quarter’s drawing, subscribe. You’ll need to confirm your subscription for it to really take. I send out occasional news and give you access to bonus materials and stories.

I’ve been investigating how to build the email list. There seems to be a whole industry of authors who claim to have the magic secret of doing this, which they’re happy to tell you about (and you can learn more for only $____!) One of them involves adding annoying pop-ups or slide-overs to your web site. I may yet try this, but I’m not at all convinced it would help. I click out of those sites fairly often.

One thing that would help would be having a web site that is actually up and running fast enough. Bluehost has been letting me down this week. Sorry about that.

A signed-copy giveaway

I decided to run another Goodreads giveaway for a signed copy of Ribs (for US readers only). Naturally, I just read a book promotions expert saying that you should never give away books unless you can get an email address in return. (On the other hand, giving away books is exactly how I managed to do quite well with The Awful Mess.) If you’d like to enter for this, here’s the information:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra Hutchison

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends April 30, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

So you need to write a literary analysis…

This week I’m borrowing from the other side of my life, the English professor side.

I’m hoping that putting this post out there will help a few students avoid those “free essay” web sites or CliffsNotes they might otherwise be tempted to borrow too much from. (In case you’re not sure: YES, that’s considered plagiarism. It’s not as if you were planning to cite them, right?)

I know how bewildering it can be to face a literary analysis assignment. A lot of professors and teachers have their own unspoken preferences about how a book report or literary essay or critical essay should be constructed. If you pay attention, you can tell what they are, because all their lectures about literature you read in class will do exactly that.

Seriously. I once took an undergraduate poetry class with a poet at UMass. Every single lecture pointed out the homoerotic qualities of whatever poems we were reading, or at least what they had to say about being a man. I assume there must have been some female poets represented in his syllabus, but I can’t remember any. And don’t get me started about the creative writing professor who just had to do a public Freudian analysis of everything we wrote for his class.

Your high school English teacher probably pushed you to do Formalist or New Criticism — to analyze the piece in terms of its literary techniques: characterization, plot, setting, mood, foreshadowing, irony, symbolism, and theme. Doing that helped you learn those terms.

Of course, I fear this is also how we get students who think that authors spend their days cruelly plotting ways to “hide” obscure things in their writing. That’s not really how it works.*

So how do you figure out what to write? In my college classes, if I ask for a literary essay I just want you to use evidence to argue some point about the text. You must find textual evidence in the piece — and possibly in criticism or historical sources or biographical sources that you will also cite — to make a case for some interpretation or another.

In other words, pretend you’re a lawyer trying to make a case that a piece is this or that (“Pride and Prejudice is not just a romance, but a critique of women’s economic status in Regency England”). Or think of yourself as a detective uncovering certain aspects of the text that others might not notice (“Mansfield Park suffers from Austen’s own ambivalence about vitality vs. propriety”). Instead of forensically investigating a crime scene for clues to the perpetrator, you’re forensically examining a text looking for clues to what it means, why it matters, or why it was perpetrated written.

Really at a loss? Try reader response. Just relate aspects of the piece to your own life or beliefs in whatever way you want. The nice thing about it is that you can’t be wrong. You may not be particularly right, either — and personally I tend to bar my students from this one because it’s just too easy to bullshit and I’m trying to get them ready for higher-level courses.

Anyway, I had the great fortune of actually taking a class in literary criticism with the wonderful Prof. John Sitter at UMass, so by the end of that I was at least dimly aware of what was possible. Years later, in an effort to explain all the major options for my students without spending a whole semester on it, I came up with the attached downloadable quick guide to the most common critical approaches. You are welcome to use it or share it in your own classroom or studies, assuming you’re not an educational publisher who’s planning to make some moola with it. Just copy it as-is, please.

Ways to analyze a literary work

This is just an image -- download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

This is just an image — download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

Hope it helps. And if it does, I’d love to hear about it.

*Oh, and about that idea that authors are hiding things on purpose…

I suppose some authors might quietly plot to stuff things into their books to torture future English students, but generally speaking I think authors are more interested in 1) making whatever point they’re trying to make, and 2) selling books.

If authors do use symbols, for example, it’s not out of a desire to be difficult, but because things generally considered “symbols” tend to crop up unconsciously as they write. Or, they might use symbolic elements very deliberately, but only because they are hoping it will help you “get” whatever point they’re trying to make.

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

For example, you could do a whole literary analysis of the symbolic role of water in my first book, The Awful Mess. Was I thinking about this possibility while I wrote it? Hell, no.

I knew I wanted the river at the beginning to be going the ‘wrong’ way, and, yes, I knew those two characters in the first scene were going to head the wrong way, too. But mostly I’d just always thought the Contookut River in Peterborough, New Hampshire was kind of charmingly funky that way. (It flows north, which I hadn’t realized some rivers do before I moved there.) Was that a symbolic connection? Yeah, maybe, vaguely, but it was more to do with exactly where I had first imagined that scene taking place.

Not until after I’d gotten quite a ways into the manuscript did I realize that water sure was popping up a lot. And water is sometimes used as a metaphor for sexuality … and life … and rebirth, as in baptism. And so, yes, once I saw it was there, I did play with it a bit, and that’s even how I found my ending. I even got to the point when I wished somebody hadn’t already used the title A River Runs Through It. But did I plan it that way from the beginning? Nope. Sadly, I’m not that clever. (My original idea had nothing to do with water as metaphor. It had to do with an arcane principle of web design that nobody knows as metaphor. FAIL!)

Anyway, at least I know I don’t need to worry about The Awful Mess ever being taught in high schools. There’s too much sex!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The addictive joy of “shipping”

Although I write stand-alone novels, I have spent a great deal of my life enthralled by various ongoing fictional relationships, whether in books or on television. There’s something uniquely addictive about watching a relationship unfold over multiple installments, instead of in one big gulp.

Is this because it mimics real life, where two people meet and might have to dance around each other for quite some time before they realize they belong together? Or is it because there’s a sense, when you see characters over multiple installments, that you are actually getting to know them the way you get to know real people?

Of course, it’s a very one-sided relationship. They don’t have a clue about you. But that makes it incredibly easy. There they are in your life, at regular intervals, consistently entertaining you. Meanwhile, you can wear sweatpants and never worry about whether the house is clean or you have spinach in your teeth. Nor do you need to worry whether they have anger issues, designs on your checking account, sexually transmitted diseases, or a deep-seated desire to axe you in your sleep.

So fictional characters are safe, you think … at least until you notice you’ve turned into the reader/viewer equivalent of a crack whore.

The risk is much higher today, especially with streaming services that make entire series available on demand. If it weren’t for my absolute refusal to turn on the television before 6pm, I could lose entire days! As it is, I still sometimes lose entire evenings.

For years now I have actively avoided TV shows when I hear people talk about them as addictive. I avoided Lost. I avoided Bones and House and Breaking Bad.

When I was a kid a show would be on once a week. At most, once a day. There were only five channels on the television, but I found plenty to suck me in. I shipped for Fess Parker’s luscious Daniel Boone and his wife, and John and Victoria on High Chaparral. I also had a thing for Barnabas Collins and Victoria Winters.

Spock and Kirk in a nutshell - Imgur

From http://imgur.com/gallery/SI6h3U9

As a teenager, I went gaga for Spock. Not that he was particularly great for shipping, unless the friendship between Spock and Kirk counted. But I suppose it did for me, even though I never saw that crossing over into what shippers call slash (i.e. Kirk/Spock – K/S, for short.)

In high school, my friends and I went mad for Ross and Demelza. (Poldark is being remade now and I’m glad — Winston Graham’s fine saga deserves another round of popularity.) My friend Julie and I devoured the books and used to reenact favorite scenes with a tape recorder.

Another fictional series I got interested in after a television miniseries was Conrad Richter’s The Awakening Land trilogy The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. Sayward and Portius were wonderful, and I swallowed those three books like candy. It wasn’t TV, but possibly just great cover art that led me to another addictive trilogy, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter novels. And if I hadn’t been so fond of Aragorn and Arwen, I doubt I would have plowed through The Lord of the Rings as fast as I did. (This was decades before Viggo Mortensen made Aragorn way cuter than he is in the books.)

File:Arwen-aragorn.jpg

From http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/File:Arwen-aragorn.jpg

A religious friend recommended Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries as good writing with Christian themes back when I was first exploring Christianity. I don’t think he had any idea how compelling I would find Lord Peter Wimsey, especially his eventual relationship with Harriet Vane. Star Trek had launched me into reading science fiction and fantasy, and these books got me started reading mysteries – but only if they have strong romantic threads. I still consider the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet one of the most satisfying fictional relationships I’ve ever read. It could not have been as rewarding if it had all happened in one novel.

In the world of television around this time, I got addicted to silly Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And when Star Trek: The Next Generation came along I shipped passionately for Picard and Crusher from the very first episode. That passion inspired a long correspondence with TNG’s producer, the lovely Jeri Taylor, which eventually allowed me to do amazing Trekkie things like tour the sets and eat in the Paramount commissary. I even sold an (uncredited) story idea to Star Trek: Voyager, where I dutifully shipped a little for Janeway and Chakotay before I finally lost interest. If I hadn’t been married, with a full-time job and a baby, I might have tried to parlay that initial sale into an actual television writing career, but I knew how all-consuming that that kind of work was, so I didn’t.

It's more accurate to say XF Fandom created the word "shipping" -- to distinguish shippers from "noromos" who didn't want all that anguished attraction. From  ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/550072541961425904/

Mulder and Scully may be the reason THE WORD “shipping” exists — to distinguish “shippers” from “noromos,” who didn’t want their stories bogged down by all that anguished attraction. From ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/550072541961425904/

My mother got me addicted to The X-Files and Mulder and Scully. I loved those two, but that show eventually annoyed me so profoundly that I also started writing and publishing fanfic for it – something made so much easier by the new Internet than it had been before.

Another fictional couple caught me in their grip about that time, because while I was writing The Awful Mess I was keeping my eyes open for fiction featuring Episcopal priests. The Rev. Clare Fergussen and Russ Van Alstyne of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries can still cause me to drop everything for the next installment.

My Star Trek genes re-activated yet again when I discovered Star Trek: Enterprise, which I’d missed when it was actually on the air because I had a kid to put to bed and no time to chase down its weird movements on the TV schedule. (Jeri had moved on by then.) It was uneven, like all the Treks, but I loved that crew and Trip Tucker and T’Pol in particular. Like the original series, it ended far too soon. I wanted more.

trip_discovers_fanfic_avatar2 And so I wrote more. A lot more. I have put Trip and T’Pol together in scene after scene after scene (and yeah, occasionally the other characters, too). I recently totaled my fanfic.net output: 522,274 words. That’s at least five or six novels right there.

bed_shirt_avatarOn one level, this was absurd. Star Trek is a very recognizable universe, so I can’t just tweak my stuff and try to sell it the way 50 Shades of Gray was sold. (That started out as Twilight fanfic.) I should have put all that energy into work I could actually make some money from someday, even though I’d had a lot of nibbles but no bites from an agent. But, honestly? Fanfic kept my writer’s ego alive through all those rejections.

It was also great training. I got the discipline of writing regularly, the tougher feedback that comes from sharp writing pals, a chance to experiment, and an opportunity to roll with reviews and reviewers that were mostly kind, but definitely not always so.

Rude but effective. From AngelCosta78: http://41.media.tumblr.com/8cb7350090904ccb2f5b57cc9d498e70/tumblr_mpy1wvenEI1rtrs3mo3_1280.jpg

Rude but effective. From AngelCosta78: http://41.media.tumblr.com/8cb7350090904ccb2f5b57cc9d498e70/tumblr_mpy1wvenEI1rtrs3mo3_1280.jpg

Today, I’m not really addicted to any TV couple. I used to religiously watch the stylish Castle (though I never bothered with repeats), but Kate Beckett went gaga over a wedding dress a year or two ago and I haven’t watched it since. Defiance is entertaining, but I’m willing to simply watch it unfold. House of Cards has addictive qualities, but who can ship those awful people?

Readers sometimes tell me they’d like to see more of Mary and Winslow from The Awful Mess. I have written a (recently much expanded) prequel I’m about to make available to members of my mailing list, but I kind of hate to do anything else to those two. (Didn’t they already suffer enough to get to their happy ending?) As for Molly and David in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, I think I left them where they needed to be left.

Right now I’m in the midst of turmoil with another couple in Bardwell’s Folly, but I don’t expect to stay with them for more than one novel, either. (If you want to read the first two chapters of that before anyone else does, do make sure you sign up for my mailing list.) And then I have a play to write, and then another stand-alone novel in mind.

But after that, or possibly even before that, I’m beginning to wonder whether coming up with a series of some kind might not be a good idea. It would give me a chance to play with a long relationship over multiple installments. And it might give me a writing income closer to the income of your typical low-level drug dealer, as opposed to your typical starving novelist.

Except… to stretch out a romance over multiple installments, there has to be an A plot that leaves the reader feeling some sense of satisfaction at the end of each episode (or book). Otherwise, they’re likely to feel cruelly tortured by egregious cliff hangers and unresolved sexual tension stretched out beyond all reason. (Cue X-Files theme music.)

Perhaps that is why so many great couples come from genre fiction — historical sagas, Westerns, vampire tales, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Yes, people are falling in love, but their number one job is usually something more pressing, like finding murderers, saving the universe, or fighting off the bad guys. Just plain old romance over multiple volumes tends to devolve into soap opera. (Cue Downton Abbey.)

Do series even exist in women’s or literary fiction? I suppose Jan Karon’s Mitford novels do this — Father Tim and Cynthia take a long time to come together while the various problems of the people of Mitford get charmingly presented and resolved. (An agent once won my heart by telling me The Awful Mess was like the Mitford novels, “only better.” He still didn’t think he could sell it, though.) There are probably others, but I can’t think of any. Can you?

Who are your favorite ongoing fictional couples? Who’s your crack?

Showing some love to … Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

Novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980). From the home page of The Barbara Pym Society.

If you don’t know who Barbara Pym is, you’re missing out. I’m going to give you a quick introduction here in the hope that you may enjoy her books as much as I have.

(This is the debut of a new series of blog posts in which I share some of my appreciation for my favorite authors or books or other cool things out there. My theory is that if you’re curious enough about my stuff to pop in here, you’d probably like some recommendations of stuff I like. I may be inviting some fellow authors to guest post in this series, too.)

If you love Jane Austen for her social commentary and not just her romance, you’re likely to love Pym. Like Jane Austen, Pym was English, though she was born over 130 years later. Both write about gentlewomen in distress. Their heroines struggle for dignity and love in a society that has little concern for single women of limited means.  Many of their heroines have either seen a reduction in their status, or are at great risk of it.

Austen and Pym are also both very, very funny.

In Austen’s novels, a love-match to a good man of property is what signals the heroine’s ultimate triumph. In Pym’s novels, first published mostly in the.1950s and 60s, there is not always that definitive a resolution, but there are certainly plenty of romantic longings, and much finely observed social comedy along the way.

Pym finds both delight and absurdity in the rituals of daily life. Her characters are often fellow parishioners in the local Anglican Church (either in villages or London neighborhoods) or anthropologists on the hunt in one way or another. Her men are caddish or hapless but somehow still appealing. Her supporting women exhibit various degrees of thoughtlessness, clumsiness, competitiveness, or eccentricity, while her heroines strive to maintain a sort of cheerful, desperate dignity.

Pym’s take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Here she is in probably the first book I ever read of hers, Excellent Women:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Jane and Prudence might have been next, or perhaps A Glass of Blessings, but I really became enthralled when I got to An Unsuitable Attachment.

In the weeks that had passed since she had met Rupert Stonebird at the vicarage her interest in him had deepened, mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality.

Ha! It boggles my mind that this was the novel, after six others found publication, at which her publisher and all other British publishers balked, sending Pym into an exile from her readers that she found baffling and distressing, as any author would. She didn’t stop writing, though.

Where to start reading Pym probably depends on your tastes, but if they are anything like mine, do not begin with either The Sweet Dove Died or Quartet in Autumn, the more modern novels that she published after both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil called her “the most underrated novelist of the century” and rescued her from obscurity. These are not typical works of hers and definitely not my favorites, though I do not regret reading them.

My favorite Barbara Pym novel of all — and I am probably in the minority in this — is A Few Green Leaves, the one she rushed to finish before she died of breast cancer in 1980. In this village story, a lonely anthropologist longs for a close relationship with any man, though the sweetly hapless local vicar is clearly a better sort than another potential candidate. As in many Barbara Pym novels, love and the local parish are a source of both comedy and pathos, but their treatment strikes me as more affectionate here than in any of her other books.

There are many other books I haven’t even mentioned, of course. Crampton Hodnet was released posthumously, but it was an early one by a younger Pym and it’s quite funny.

I can’t help reflecting that if Barbara Pym had hit that brick wall with the publishers in our time, she could have turned to self-publishing to keep her loyal  fans reading. (Of course, I suppose we could also worry that she might have published the first draft of Some Tame Gazelle too soon and never gotten properly edited or found a wider audience at all.)

If you can’t find Pym in your local bookstore or library, you can find her in the online bookstores today, though not all of her books are still in print, or even available on Kindle, at least in the United States. I hope that is changing, since I do see a few available that way. It doesn’t make sense to me that in a world gone so crazy for Jane Austen (who well deserves it), Barbara Pym isn’t at least fully in print.

Pym’s work also strikes me as great fodder for some fine comedic British costume dramas set in the 50s, like Call the Midwife only less sappy. I’m surprised no one has done it yet (unless they have, and they just haven’t made it to the United States). I do think she could be a little hard to translate onto the screen as fully as one might like, because so much of the humor is going on in people’s heads. Occasionally breaking the fourth wall a la Frank Underwood in House of Cards (but, of course, not at all like Frank Underwood in House of Cards) might help.

(If there is anyone out there who wants to pay me handsomely to have a go at it, just let me know.)

Barbara Pym's take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Click To Tweet

If you’ve read Pym, let me know your favorites. If you have another favorite little-known or out-of-print author, I’d love to hear about that, too!

A fun interview, a BigAl review, and a shameless bribe

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

This week I was fortunate enough to enjoy two big events in the life of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, my second novel.

First, BigAl of BigAl and Pals reviewed it very positively. Of course, like most reviewers he also notes that it may force you to ponder things you never wanted to. That may make this book harder to sell than The Awful Mess, which is easier sailing once you get past that pesky committing-adultery-with-a-married-priest thing.

Later in the week I had an interview on The Indie View, which asked some great questions. I enjoyed answering them — though it was something I did a while ago, so it was a little funny to see that some of my ideas (for example, about how to market the book) have already changed.

They decided to highlight the one bit of name dropping I did, so I’m going to assume that was clever somehow, and keep going. Yes, I used to sit in Marilynne Robinson’s living room while her husband Fred Miller Robinson, then a professor at UMass/Amherst, taught the undergraduate creative writing workshop I was taking. I remember being impressed that they were so hospitable with a bunch of scraggly undergrads. (I was of course even more impressed later, when I read her first novel, Housekeeping. Amazing book for those of you who appreciate beautifully-crafted literary fiction.)

That shameless bribe I mentioned

I’m trying to grow my subscriber list, so in order to entice you to join it, I offer the following:

  • As I’ve noted before, this year I’m going to award a $20 online bookstore gift certificate (Amazon or whatever you prefer) to a random person drawn from the subscriber list each quarter. So at the end of March, somebody’s getting one. The list is still pretty small, so your odds are way higher here than they are in other lotteries. (Sorry, family members, you are disqualified.)
  • cover for Motivated Sellers

    “Motivated Sellers” – a prequel to The Awful Mess

    I’ve finished the short prequel to The Awful Mess that began with “After that Slap.” (Those of you already on the list may remember this.) It’s in production at the moment. It’s now called “Motivated Sellers” and I will soon make it available free to all members of my reading list. You get to spend some time with Winslow and Bert and watch Mary’s real estate agent dodge that issue of how the house smells. And then I’d love it if you’d let me know whether you think I should make it available to the general public or not.

Those of you already on the list know I don’t send a lot of email. Right now if you want blog posts, that’s a separate subscription. I may combine the two lists, just so the update people don’t forget who I am. Blog posts only come every two weeks unless something exciting is going on. (I tried doing it weekly again recently and while I enjoy it, I find it takes a major amount of time that really ought to be going to fiction writing.)

And yes, spring WILL come

forced blossoms and primroses

Some flowers to help us survive winter!

I want to end on a cheery note for those of us suffering through the worst winter in decades in the American Northeast (as I write this, it is snowing AGAIN.) I forced these branches from a sick tree in front of the house into blossom this week. It’s a reminder that those buds out there really will swell and break into flower and leaf someday.

Want to try it yourself? Cut some branches, put them in water — maybe with a teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide to discourage bacteria — and be patient. It took about three weeks, and I had just been about to dump it all as a failed experiment when I noticed the buds swelling. Forsythia and willows are the easiest to do this with, if you have those. But fruit trees can work. I used to do it with ninebark, too. If you hammer the ends of the branches flat that is supposed to help them take up water, but I didn’t bother with that.

Those are primroses underneath the branches. I picked them up at the grocery store on sale this week. (They are often on sale about now.) If I keep the spent blossoms pinched and keep them moist, they should continue to bloom for quite some time.

Stay warm and think spring thoughts!

 

Goodbye, ABNA. Hello, Kindle Scout. (For some.)

As I wrote last year after my own experience with it, I thought Amazon Publishing’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award was a brilliant way for them to acquire new authors of quality work, usually without the fuss of agents, while building engagement among its self-published authors and readers.

But last year, it turns out, was the final year for ABNA. This January Amazon announced that it has essentially replaced it with Kindle Scout, an ongoing submission process in which authors can put up their books in pursuit of a contract with Kindle Publishing.

How it works

Kindle Scout How It Works -- Amazon illustration

Illustration from Amazon’s Kindle Scout “How It Works” page

Authors upload a copyedited Word manuscript, a short blurb, a description, a cover, and a bio plus author photo, and try to get readers to nominate their book for publication.Those who generate enough buzz to get noticed and meet Kindle Publishing’s editorial requirements might just be accepted for publication with a small advance and what I would consider reasonable contract terms for authors who don’t mind being exclusive to Kindle.

Kindle Scout appears to be a similar to ABNA in that it forces authors to pursue social engagement. It’s also much faster than ABNA — in thirty days, a work has either made it or not (though it may take a little longer to get the final word, and then it goes into production). Certainly, it’s a route to publication that is much faster than a search for an agent and traditional publication.

There’s also an incentive for readers to check those books out — they get the book free if a book they nominated is accepted for publication.

Those are all good things.

But I’ve also seen ABNA fans complaining about some big changes:

  • Books cannot have been published at all before, not even self-pubbed, except in avenues where no money is being earned. ABNA was awash in already self-published books (including mine and the one that beat mine and the three other semifinalists in General Fiction last year).
  • The only genres welcome are romance, mystery/thriller/suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. (Edit in May of 2015: Amazon has added “literature and fiction,” which includes contemporary fiction, action and adventure, and historical fiction)
  • Authors must have US social security numbers or tax ID numbers. So most foreign writers need not apply. (Edit: But I’m told there are ways to work around this.)
  • There’s no formal set of feedback on the excerpt for those who make the first cut, and no Publishers Weekly review of the whole manuscript for quarter finalists (not that this was ever quite as exciting as it sounded).
  • There’s no official social component for contestants who want to discuss the process with each other, though I’m sure authors will find other ways to discuss and collaborate.
  • It’s not obvious how any given book is doing, unless it makes it to the “hot and trending” list. There’s a definite limit to how much you can flog a book to your friends and family, so authors with an existing readership are at a distinct advantage — surely a benefit to Amazon.
  • Authors take on all the cost and risk of cover design, while Amazon gets to sit back and see what works. Most submissions I see appear to have professionally designed covers, so people are obviously investing in this. (Of course, that means  they’ll also be all set to publish whether they win a contract or not.)
  • Quite a few authors say they will miss the motivation of the yearly deadline for ABNA. Kindle Scout is a rolling process you can begin at any time.

I suppose there may also be some ineffable damage done to an author’s relationship with her local bookstore or potential future agent or editor if she were to be published exclusively by Amazon, but ABNA and Kindle Select are just the same in that. (I also suspect all parties concerned would quickly get past that if they thought there was money to be made.)

I left Kindle Select with the first novel last spring and haven’t regretted it. While I haven’t exactly burned down the town at the other retailers, my last 99-cent promotion did bring in some very nice extra crash from Nook and iTunes (especially Nook), making the advertising investments that much more profitable (especially since BookBub and Fussy Librarian carry all the links, not just Kindle). And I feel a bit less vulnerable to sudden changes like the advent of Kindle Unlimited, which has impacted the income of many indie authors.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Currently in Kindle Select, with a promotion coming later this month.

I do still have the second novel in Kindle Select to begin with because I still think it’s the best tool to get this book discovered and reviewed. I’ll be able to judge whether I was correct about that by next month (assuming it’s a title that can gain any momentum at all), but in the meantime I’m just working on another book. As most successful authors will say, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time and money on promotion until you have enough titles out that they can cross-sell each other.

If you have other wisdom or opinions on ABNA or Kindle Scout, feel free to comment!

Which reminds me: A fellow author I respect recently told me I’m making a big mistake associating myself so clearly with self-publishing when my stuff could pass as professionally published. I told him I would miss the interaction with other self-published authors far too much to try to pretend I wasn’t indie. (Also, I told him I just can’t keep my big mouth shut. I fear this may be the one big thing I have in common with all my heroines so far.)

Happy publishing, however you get it done!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rules for dating my daughter

Some time ago this t-shirt made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter, and met with general approval from the wild-eyed feminists I tend to hang out with:

feminist dad t-shirt

From https://www.facebook.com/rhrealitycheck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I certainly approved of it as an antidote to some other much more macho versions I’ve seen, like this one:

rules for dating my daughter -- macho version

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest

 

Talk about being hostile and possessive. (Though I totally agree with the doorbell thing.) It all seems to amount to this, really:

Rules for dating my daughter you can't

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that’s just about as patriarchal as it gets. Also, I’m the mother of a teenage son, and I don’t really appreciate these sentiments being directed at him. It’s as if these guys were all such sleazes in their own dating days that they expect the worst from every other young man.

Not that I’m going to suggest typical young men — and quite a few older men — are not highly, highly motivated to get some.

Which is, of course why there are risks out here for young women who are dating (or just trying to get a meeting with Bill Cosby). And my novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire demonstrates at least one of those risks fairly dramatically.

But how many people would really be willing to apply “She makes the rules. Her body, her rules” to their own teenage daughters?

The heroine’s arguably wacko feminist mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire DOES hold this philosophy and actually puts it into practice at a key moment …. and plenty of women I consider feminists react to that moment by saying “WHAT? She said WHAT?”

Not without reason. The 17-year-old may be legally of age (in Massachusetts) and unusually mature, but she’s recently survived a harrowing ordeal. And the fellow she wants to make her own rules with is a much older man who is messed up in his own way, though I don’t consider him a predator.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to try to support the idea that SHE makes the rules, because I don’t have a biological daughter, and my stepdaughter is now safely grown up (though we had plenty of nail-biting moments), and I myself avoided most of the dangers of immature sexual experimentation by being a total nerd for a long, long time.

But I was a daughter. And while my childhood was thankfully not much like Molly’s, I do remember how I felt about being protected from my own opportunities to grow up: I resented it.

My old Clearwater High School friend Gayle recently posted on Facebook about how I had a “purity of purpose” in high school, whereas she was obsessed with boys. The reality was that I just kept my obsessions quieter. Yes, I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age sixteen. And yes, I was enthralled by him (a Southern liberal! It was such a refreshing concept!). But a lot of that effort had to do with the fact that I was canvassing with the lovely young Michael Billiris. (He never laid a finger on me, I’m sad to say, though I’m not sure I would have had the slightest idea what to do if he had.)

When Carter won, Michael and I were of course invited to the local campaign party to celebrate, and that was when my dad said no. My father was a local journalist and he knew what those parties were like — probably not at all a safe place for a naive 16-year-old. Even though I know this now, that “no” still rankles all these decades later. I worked on that campaign, damn it! And Michael Billiris was going to that party!

Maybe Dad saved me from some horrible trauma. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to all that stuff I was always waaaaay behind my peers.

The thing is, learning how to handle sex is part of growing up. For girls as well as boys. There’s fumbling around and figuring out what the deal is, especially since everybody has been trying so hard to keep you from learning it.

There’s learning how to cope with people who want it from you — perhaps especially if you don’t want it with them — or to cope with people who don’t want it with you when you desperately want it with them.

There’s crappy beginner sex, getting-better-with-practice sex, and, hopefully, some really great sex. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s all with the one great love of your life. Most of us aren’t that lucky. (And do people that lucky actually know how lucky they are?)

The thing is, you can’t ever just check sex off your bucket list as something you’ve done. All your life, you’ll be affected by your own and your partner’s (or partners’) libido. You are going to have to cope with the sometimes heartbreaking difference between sex and love, between sex and actual emotional intimacy, between sex and commitment. You may be faced with betrayal or boredom or disability. You may be one of those sad people who compulsively pursue sex even against your own best interest (see Bill Clinton, or Arthur in The Awful Mess).

As parents, we’d love to make sure this area of life always goes well for our kids, along with everything else. Hopefully, we teach our sons and daughters to respect themselves enough that they won’t do things they don’t really want to do just to be accepted. Hopefully, we teach them to respect others enough that they won’t wreak horror on someone just because they can.

And perhaps fortunately, there’s a sort of natural limit after which it becomes creepy to the rest of the world if we don’t let go and let our children make their own decisions about it.

Their bodies. Their rules.

But, oh Lord, please help them get them through it safely.

As I told a reader at the Sand Lake Town Library this weekend, if reading The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire keeps just one young woman (or young man, for that matter) from getting drunk at a party and paying the price for it, it will have been worth everything I put into it.

And if it prevents even one person from judging someone harshly for a youthful misstep in this area, that will make me happy, too.

What about you? When do you think “her body, her rules” kicks in?

Art or gimmickry or pornography?

This post is potentially NSFW, which means Not Safe For Work, non-internet-savvy readers. (Hey, my parents read this blog!)

Molly’s mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire is the kind of artist whose work would make any teenage girl cringe. Multiply that by ten if you happen to be her daughter in a small town where everybody knows about it.

Of course, Cassandra was great fun to write, because she allowed me to tap my inner terrible feminist artist. I love art, and I didn’t decide that I wasn’t going to pursue it as a career until I got to UMass and couldn’t get into any of the studio classes my freshman year. (I declared an English major that year, and that was that.)

But writing will never be as in-your-face as the visual arts can be. And while I admire certain artists for making the unspeakable a topic of discussion, I have also always wondered what it would be like to actually, say, be their kids, or their husbands, or wives.

One work, in particular, inspired such thoughts: The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago. It premiered in 1979, toured to great controversy, and is now housed in the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a triangular arrangement of dinner settings that purports to represent important women from three historical eras. (Yes, Virginia Woolf is there.) What made it shocking (at the time) was that the plates were painted to represent stylized vaginas.

As Wikipedia says, it provoked a range of opinion. Some loved it.

Feminist critic Lucy Lippard stated, “My own initial experience was strongly emotional… The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings,” …. These reactions are echoed by other critics, and the work was glorified by many.

Many others hated it.

Hilton Kramer, for example, argued, “The Dinner Party reiterates its theme with an insistence and vulgarity more appropriate, perhaps, to an advertising campaign than to a work of art.”[9] He called the work not only a kitsch object but also “crass and solemn and singleminded,” “very bad art,… failed art,… art so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to acquire any independent artistic life of its own.”[9]
Maureen Mullarkey also criticized the work, calling it preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent.[9]

(Go to Wikipedia for the full article, plus references.)

Personally, I am as guilty as the next Philistine of thinking of some contemporary art as a vulgar gimmickry (although I will also grant you that sometimes vulgar gimmicks are what it takes to get a conversation going). One generation’s shameless art may well become another generation’s fine art, and vice versa. Also, there’s clearly a lot more artistic attention to detail in The Dinner Party than there is in Cassandra’s work.

Of course, Cassandra’s art is not the only art in the book. Towards the end of Ribs, David takes Molly to The Clark Institute, one of my favorite museums in the world, where he is freaked out by two paintings on display in the first room. If you click on the link for the Clark above and let the photographs at the top of the home page run through their animation, you’ll see just how striking William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyrs painting is as you walk in. It’s not subtle, either, David tells Molly, when she shares that  criticism of her mother’s work. But she forgives Bouguereau’s piece for not being subtle because it’s beautiful.

Another painting still on view at the Clark (which recently renovated) is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Slave Market (below). As the Clark’s web site points out, “This disturbing scene is set in a courtyard market intended to suggest the Near East. The vague, distant location allowed nineteenth-century French viewers to censure the practice of slavery, which was outlawed in Europe, while enjoying a look at the female body” (Lees, Sarah, ed.).

And as I look at this painting with fascination — and I have visited and done so many times — I always feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. There’s inherent drama in this painting. There’s arguably a point being made about a brutal and unfair balance of power (possibly a racist and anti-Islamic one). There’s also that icky feeling of wondering if I’m essentially just looking at pornography in a very public place.

The thing is, I know that I can’t explore the topic of sex in my books without asking myself if what I’m writing strays into that territory. And, in fact, David asks Cassandra that question about her art.

But I feel compelled to write about it anyway, because sex is part of our existence, and so is the risk of becoming a victim, not just of the rapist, but of the bully, the murderer, the thief, the car driven by the drunk, the awful storm, the disease, the plane crash.

Of course, we prefer not to think about this, even to shift blame to the victim, as if somehow if that person had just prayed harder, gone only to the right places, eaten only healthy food, had the good sense to be born in the United States, been a good enough person, then God would have protected her, or him. Or, if we don’t expect God to protect us from all harm, then perhaps we assume that excellent judgment will provide its own shield from disaster.

And surely it does help, but not enough, not all the time.

And perhaps, if we could empathize a little better with people caught in that reality, and sympathize with those who have gone through it, we will be better able to lend a helping hand. Maybe we’ll try a little harder to prevent some of the trauma and carnage in the first place, instead of just turning away, or condemning the victim.

That’s my hope, anyway. If you’re not a kind person, and your reaction to Slave Market ends with “Woo hoo! Look at them titties!” here’s where I humbly suggest that there are a whole lot of Tumblr sites that would be a much better match for you.