In defense of The Love Triangle and Other hated Tropes: Why they’re still a thing

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Like other unrepentant addicts whose substance of choice is BookTube, I recently perused some vloggers who spoke with varying degrees of passion about tropes they’re sick of seeing in fiction. No two lists of top 5 literary pet peeves was exactly the same, but almost all of them kicked off with a phenomenon known as “The Love Triangle.”

They hate it. Hate everything about it. Wanna kick it in its shins and insult its mother.

I respect that. I have my own fiction tropes I’d cheerfully boil in oil, if I could.

What I understood less completely were the vloggers who both hated tropes of this kind and asked, “Why? Why do authors keep doing this? It’s immature. It’s the lazy persons way of adding tension to the story. Why must authors so relentlessly beat this, of all dead horses?”

I believe I know why the love triangle and 4 other maligned tropes are still in consistent use by writers in a multitude of genres. I would therefore like to share my own top 5 list of awful tropes, the underlying problems that keep those tropes alive, and 2 potential solutions to those problems, starting with – wonder of wonders –

  1. The Love Triangle. Picture a teenager with few friends to her name and no positive attention from the gender she fancies (there’s no rule that the teenager has to be a “she,” not a “he,” but I have experienced teenage womanhood, so “she” is my default pronoun). In the movies, all awkward girls need is puberty and a makeover to turn them into prom queens. For the real life teen, the makeover does nothing, puberty brings bigger (perceived) pimples than boobs, and the boys she likes can’t even be troubled to give her meaningless sex. “No thank you,” they say. “We don’t want girls who want us. We have too much tunnel vision for the objects of our own affection who want nothing to do with us.” Now, send that girl to a new school, college, workplace, or vacation destination where the boys’ priorities are different, and she gets attention from 2 dudes at once. Is it immature to lead them both on? You bet it is. But the girl may to do it anyway, ’cause guess what: She’s immature! And if you spend your first couple decades with no positive male attention then suddenly get lots of it, you hate to turn any of it down. The dreaded love triangle is wish-fulfillment for persons who have never been in demand before and haven’t thought through the consequences of that particular brand of getting “too much of a good thing.”
  2. The asshole with the pretty abs and tendencies toward physical or psychological abuse. Loneliness is lonely, and love-starved humans measure attention on an absolute scale. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s also good. Also, abusers make for nice, dramatic reads, and if your goal is to keep readers turning the pages, that kind of drama will often do the trick.
  3. The “maybe I can change him” girl. Often but not always found proximal to the asshole with the pretty abs, “I can change him” girl is fantasy fulfillment for the end of her tryst with with the bad boy. 20 chapters of torrid, awesome sex, and then what? We tolerate a certain amount of badness in bad boys. Once they become bad men, we send them to jail or marry the bastards and make our lives a living hell. If your romantic fantasies involve a bad boy, and romance must end happily (I hear from experts that to qualify as romance, it indeed must end happily), she either has to ditch the asshole with pretty abs and find someone better or marry the asshole whose fictional nature will allow him to be redeemed because… fiction. Mr Rochester.pngI’m looking at you, Mr. Rochester!
  4. World-rocking first time sex, especially for virgins. I personally despise this trope more than the love triangle and the asshole with the pretty abs because when I first started having sex, and my world remained 100% un-rocked, I thought there was something wrong with me. Some gentle hints that virgins are rubbish in bed and that I should not to expect miracles right away would have helped me a lot in my twenties, but I get why that message is not prevalent in most genres of fiction. Comical sex is for old pros and their partners who have a great sense of humor about their bodies. Unsatisfying sex is for people who don’t really like sex and can’t wait for the scene to be done. Neither falls into conventional categories of romantic fantasies, so world-rocking first time sex it is!
  5. The empty shell heroine who “isn’t like other girls,” either in her own estimation or that of the hunky male protagonist. Of all the items on this list, this one raises my blood pressure the most. Too frequently, when the author invites the reader to superimpose herself onto the empty shell heroine, the male protagonist proceeds to use the same tactics a sexual predator uses to lure in his victim to emotional ruin. No joke. A lot of predators seek out the victim who looks remarkably like Bella Swan from that first Twilight movie: few close friends, the posture of someone with zero confidence, and clothes that suggest she’s either ashamed of her body or does not know how to dress like a girl her age customarily dresses. The predator then looks closer to see if she checks off other boxes on his list, like feeling rejected by others or compulsion to self-sacrifice for / allow herself to be dominated by people she cares about. Bonus points if she has a past or a current unhappy relationship. Every time she compares new dude to that other nit-wit, he’ll look like Sir Galahad. Untitled.pngThen, all you have to do is pay her a little attention and make her feel special, and she’ll follow you anywhere until such time as you get bored with her and give her the brush off (one predator of mine unfriended me on Facebook to let us know we weren’t an item anymore). These awful tricks are used over and over again because everyone has felt rejected and everyone wants to feel special, so the predator-like romance persists in fiction. And in real life.

That’s the end of my list, but it’s not the end of the problem. All 5 of these unfortunate fiction happenings have their roots in one, basic marketing principle: Women with low self-esteem are good for the economy. We have whole industries dedicated to making our girls feel bad about themselves so they can buy products thereafter to make them feel better: make-up, jewelry, perfume, lingerie, hair removal, hair regrowth, diet pills, cosmetic surgery…say when.

Millions of people would have no jobs if women liked themselves, so we are programed from an early age to think we’re crap if we don’t have the right product to enhance the arbitrary attribute du jour without which we will never be accepted, included, or loved.

Isn’t capitalism fun?

Our fiction reflects a deeply-ingrained lack of self worth in our girls and women grown, and fiction will continue to reflect that unless 2 things happen:

1) We program our daughters to think glass ceilings are for other girls. Don’t get me wrong. Female empowerment has come a long way, and we as mamas and daughters have always done the best we could for each-other. But can you imagine the things they could read, write, invent, promote, and change if they weren’t told what they couldn’t do by fools who have a financial interest in making them feel small?

2) If if we as readers raise our standards, the authors will meet them. I say this to empower readers, not to blame them, because lots of authors love their readers and want badly to write books that make them happy. I don’t know if Penguin Random House hears the tortured pleas of a readership sick of the same old tropes, but the indie publishers do. So do the self-pub crowd. When I worked trade shows, more often than not, it was on behalf of a wee Kentucky publishing house whose proprietor’s kids did not eat if she was not sensitive to the tastes of her readers. If more than one customer complained we had no cookbook in our lineup, we had a cookbook in our lineup the following year. I don’t know if we ever found a historical fiction title that tickled our fancy, but when multiple customers asked for it, we made historical fiction part of our acquisitions list. If you’re a reader who’s sick to death of the tropes above, and you (constructively) let authors know what they could be doing better, some of them will listen and write better books for the world and you to enjoy.

That’s all I got for you, today. As always, if you think I got it right or wrong, leave a comment or ask me questions. They make me smarter.

Until next time, be kind to yourself and your home girls in the sisterhood, or by and by, future generations will forget how its done.

G’bye for now.

 

Art + Mental Illness = Myth?

A while back, PBS Digital Studio put their name on a YouTube video in which a slender, altogether sane woman posed an interesting question:

Can we please stop treating art and mental illness at though they are related?

 

And I went, “What?”

If they’d said something more like, “Can we please stop acting like spousal abuse is okay if it’s committed by a genius (Picasso)?” or “Can we stop excusing self-mutilation / cries for help as ‘the artistic temperament’ (Van Gogh)?” I would have been on board.

What

But that’s not what they said.

That slender, sane woman went on to say that according to a 2013 study released by Karolinski Institute of Stockholm, persons in creative professions are not more likely to suffer from mental illness than the rest of the populous. However, the study does suggest that people in creative professions were “very slightly” more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder (no number given to indicate how much “slightly” is).

So, bipolar doesn’t count as a mental illness?

I’m not sure how to phrase my questions politely to these folks, but I’d legitimately like to know…

a) Does “creative profession” exclusively mean “Persons who do art for a living”? Wide-eyed artistic types (in the USA, at least) are frequently told they can’t make a living with their art, so they bus tables, build computer chips, or learn to do something their societal counterparts consider “real jobs” in order to pay their bills. I don’t believe that makes them lesser artists.

b) What is mental illness? If we agree depression, bipolar, anxiety, and self-harm / suicide are mental illness, I believe the number of mental illness sufferers (the video never gives us) might go up.

c) What is art? If we agree Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Robin Williams were makers of art, I believe the number of mental illness sufferers (the video, again, never gives us) might go up.

Seriously. Try to tell a writer he or she is not an artist sometime. Then, watch the supernova of indignity and shortly thereafter the black hole of self-doubt consume him / her and anything in a 5 foot radius. It’s a hoot.

What’s more worrisome to me is that most artists I know are anxious and depressive, if not suicidal. And I don’t believe I’m alone on this. After the death of  Robin Williams, the folks at Cracked.com released a poignant article about depression as they perceived it in the comic writer, and they stated, if pressed to guess how many of their writers suffered from depression, they’d have to say “…all of them.”

I feel like the folks who made the video for PBS were sane people who are annoyed at the misconception that…

Mental Illness = Artist.

On that, I quite agree with them. I believe that…

Mental Illness = Mental Illness

And in many cases, the art produced by a depressive, schizophrenic, autistic, bi-polar, anxious, or suicidal person comes from a phenomenon the psychologists call sublimation – the channeling negative and unacceptable impulses into behaviors that are positive and socially acceptable (says verywellmind.com).

In other words…

Art = Not Punching People = Not Going to Jail

In those cases, the mental illness does cause the art when the art is a coping mechanism the way it is for me. A boxer might work out, or a chef might make croissants in order to relieve their own symptoms of similar disorders. But for me, the rapid-swing bipolar and suicidal thoughts tend to be better dispelled by my doing something artistic.

mona lispa

I guess I got extra irritated with this video because mental illness is still highly stigmatized and often invisible. If an artist with anxiety, depression, or something else gets told by enough sane people “You’re not normal, and you’re not special. Get over yourself, and act right,” do you think that person is more or less likely to make art again? Do you think that person is more or less likely to open up and get help for his or her illness?

To any readers who believe I got it all wrong, please – oh please – tell me why in the comments. I’d love to be completely mistaken on this issue so I can quit being upset about it.

To any readers suffering from anxiety, depression, etc, I’m pullin’ for ya. Persevere and love yourself. With the right kind of help and support, it can get better.

If you’re happy and sane, awesome! Blaze a trail for others to follow.

But neither one of y’all are better or worse artists by default. Just sayin.’

 

 

8 Pitfalls of Self-Publishing: Spend your money wisely by learning from someone who didn’t.

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Many moons ago, before a kind-hearted publisher who liked my stuff gave me a shot at traditional publishing, I, like many aspiring writers, tried my hand at self-publishing.

And I sucked at it.

I was clueless about self-promotion, I spent my money in all the stupid ways, and I learned some valuable lessons in what not to do with my time and resources.

Up to now, I’ve been trying to erase these misadventures in authordom from my consciousness. But I like starry-eyed authors, and I’d like to help them keep dreaming big without getting burned as bad as once I did.

So, for anyone new to the self-promotion racket, here’s a list of 8 self-publishing pitfalls, peppered with some tips on where your money could be better spent:

  1. Publishers who use phrases like “start-up cost” or “for a small fee…” This goes for any publisher, really, but again, if you’re new to this, self-pub authors don’t generally have to pay kdp.amazon.com or  ingramspark.com until they have a finished, publishable project. Publishers who want fees upfront are almost always scammers.
  2. Book reviewers who charge over $100 per review. This is one I actually fell for hard, and I’m still pissed about it. I won’t use their names ’cause I’m classy like that, but well-known reviewers that rhyme with Jerkus and Unfairion charge “$499” and “$425” per 500-ish word review, says the internet. Jerkus goes so far as to boast it “could generously boost your writing career.” Nah-uh. What they mean is they give you their review, you give them money, and they’re done with you. In order to make their review work for you, you take the best bits of the review, put it on your posters, slap it on the back of your book, and turn it over to your publicist – assuming you can afford a publicist after shelling out for the review – y’all can do your best to conjure some author-publicist magic with which boost your career. Even then, you probably won’t be a household name. On the other hand, for the cost of a free book and a respectful e-mail, you can get influencers to talk about your book for free on Goodreads, You Tube, and reviewers’ own websites. This is an affordable option for authors at any stage of their careers, and I wish I knew about it sooner.
  3. Trusting your eye over a professional editor. I get it. That $200 to hire an editor could be a week of groceries, half a computer, 100 lottery tickets, etc. Also, writers are fragile, egotistical, or both. Non of us wants to pay a stranger to tell us the work over which we’ve toiled and wept could use an overhaul. But for me, about 6 proofreads into my own stuff, the words turn to mud, and I find myself sleep-reading. Even if  you think you’ve caught everything, you haven’t, so don’t disrespect your novel. Pay a professional to hack it apart and tell you some harsh truths about your grammar errors and plot holes so readers can see your book at its best. I promise, it’s worth it.
  4. Cover templates for writers reluctant to hire an artist to do their covers. Just…don’t. Cover artists are magic and cheap, especially on sites like fiverr.com. With expertly designed covers starting at $5 a piece, there’s no excuse for not investing in the quality artwork your book deserves. At that price, you could even buy 2 or 3 covers and ask your readers which one most makes them want to pick up the book and read it. But hey, why tell you why non-pros shouldn’t attempt their own cover art when I can show you: corn on macabre side by sideBehold: a before and after picture of template author art vs the trained eye and hand of a pro. Also…faust forward side by side Can you guess which one of each book the publisher went with? I know which book cover(s) would make me more likely to pick up the book.
  5. Copyrights. While it’s possible for someone to steal your book, it’s not normal for an unknown writer to be a victim of intellectual theft to that degree. Granted, investing in a copyright for your book is less expensive than some of the other junk on this list ($50-ish when last checked), but if you don’t have a following, yet, you might not need a copyright. It might be okay to build your author platform first and save your money until you have the reputation of someone worth stealing from.
  6. Trademarks. Um, if you’re famous enough that people are riding your coattails to financial security, good for you. If you’re famous and vindictive enough to go after those coattail riders for selling unauthorized T-shirts with your character on them, good for you and your lawyer. If you’re not that rich or famous, yet, consider this: Trademarks cost a lot of money. I want to say when I tried it, the fee was more than $200 but less than $500. Not only was the process so tedious and confusing that I gave it up, and the legal eagles declared the case “abandon,” the trademark only covers one category of merchandise. For example, if you want money from both T-shirts and coffee mugs with your trademarked character on them, you have to file 2 separate items of pricey trademark documentation, not just one. Isn’t capitalism fun?
  7. Free Facebook vs $100 per year website. You know, maybe (?) All I know is I’ve dismissed editors, artists, and potential business associates because they had no website. Brands with no corner of the internet to call their own seem less real to me, but if Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest are your jam, cool. Prove me wrong. I’d love someone to blaze a trail for me to follow 🙂
  8. Trade Shows. I love trade shows: Comic conventions, book Conventions, Renaissance Faires… I did not come out of a box liking trade shows. My first couple shows were $200 per booth for me to people watch and feel awkward. If you’re the semi-rare, non-introverted author, and you think face-to-face sales might be your jam, find a $50-100 table at a smaller convention / faire / book-friendly shindig. It’s intimate, less intimidating, and if you lose money on your first one, you’re not out much.

Boy, I’ve been suckered a lot of con artists in my young life.

I hope you can avoid some of this nonsense on your own writing adventures. Feel free to comment about any mishaps I might have skipped. I’d be grateful to know I didn’t fall for every trick in the book.

Why we don’t write: Seven excuses and why they’re all lame

In the spirit of adding value to the internet (and not merely thieving someone else’s value in the form of their pictures all the time. Love you, pixabay!), I took some photos a while back in hopes they would make good book-ish pictures for the ol’ blog:

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…because Gad only knows the one thing the internet needs is more pictures.

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What makes these glamor shots of the fancy journal and the old-fashioned pen there-on kind of hysterical is that the inside of the journal looks like this:

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…and has looked like this for two or more years.

I very nearly wrote a memo to myself on page 2 along the lines of…

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…but I couldn’t actually bring myself to write it in the book! I was too frightened of putting pen to paper.

Therefore, in attempt to help ease the paralysis felt by my fellow authors and I when it comes to putting words on the page, here are 7 excuses we use to put off writing our books and what makes them bogus.

  1. I’ll do it when I have time. Nah, man. Writing is like working out, having kids, or going to Ireland. If you wait until you have time, you’ll never do it. When we care about a thing, we make time for it, yes?
  2. There’s no hurry to write my book. I’m still young, yet. Yuh-huh. No car accidents, heart attacks, or unseen calamity in YOUR future, eh? Did you know there are powerful, quotable works left unfinished because their writers went to Auschwitz midway through writing their books (Irene Nemirovsky‘s Suite Franceise is likely not the only book of its kind. Its just the one that broke my heart when I learned why it was never finished)? I’d love for nothing so severe to happen in our lifetimes, fellow writer, but we should never assume the dreadful, world-shattering events can’t happen to us. 20190115_190052 bnw
  3. I’ll never make any money at it. Plausible. Runaway success as a writer is super rare. Then again, so is making money on a hobby. If you’re one of the lucky few who can make a living with your books, fantastic. If you’re not, what did it cost you, a little paper, time, and ink? You wouldn’t expect to make money on a golfing, fishing, or sky diving habit. Why put that kind of pressure on your writing?
  4. I’m afraid I’ll fail. Also plausible. Failure is an expensive and necessary part of the “try, try again,” mentality most authors require to get a book in print. One recovering failure to another, I’ve kept consistently kept my lights on by learning from my mistakes and doing my best not to make the same mistake twice. Granted, my books are not heralded as signs of the second coming of Terry Pratchett or anything. But between the writing and the “day job,” my loved ones and I still eat well enough, we have to worry about getting fat.
  5. What if no one likes my book? Um, do you like your book? If you do, start there. Learn to habitually speak and write about your book with confidence in a variety of settings. If you’ve ever gone to a trade show (a comic convention, a book fair, or something like that), you know the guy or gal who gets the most sales is not the one with the best book. Its the guy or gal with the smarm, charm, eye-contact, and enthusiasm for his product that wins the day. If you love your book, and you’re not shy about it, you will inspire others to love it with you. I promise.
  6. I’m not good enough, yet. Bad news first: your first book will almost certainly suck. It’s not your fault. There’s just a lot to learn about publishing biz -self-pub and traditional – that you won’t master until you’ve gotten a couple titles under your belt. Even if your first book is fantastic, five years from now, you’ll be a new human with a new writing style, and your first book to you will be to you what the portrait in the attic was to Dorian Gray: bedraggled, poorly aged, and a part of you that you wish you could destroy. Or if against all odds you look back and love your first book, you’ll wish the publisher had listened to you on various aspects of the formatting and the editor had left your favorite lines uncorrected and perfect the way you wrote them.  Good news: Your first book is likely not your last book. Hold on. Future you will have more to say about different, grander things than the you of today. dorian gray.png
  7. I’m not inspired. How can I write when I have nothing to say? Here’s where I disagree with almost all the writing experts on earth. Their best advice is “Write anyway.” I totally understand why they think this thing. A daily writing habit is admirable. It helps us meet deadlines and stay relevant. However, I have 2 gripes with the “write anyway” school of thought.                                                                           1) Quantity is not now nor will it ever be better than quality. I know retirees who have rhymed words on paper every day for 10 years and think they’re poets. They are not poets, and they have not in any way made efforts to be better writers in those 10 years of faithfully putting words on paper. So they don’t get better.                 2) Those who advocate the writing of more books over fewer, better books are some of the first to cry, “Hey-ho! Woe is me! The book market is over-saturated with less-than-life-changing work, and my magnum opus shall therefore have less impact on its target audience.” Do you think there’s a connection between encouraging writers to write things they don’t care about and the current market saturation? Maybe a little?                                                                                                                                   There’s nothing wrong with the writing of many books that take up space someone’s shelf, and what works for me will not work for all authors. For me, the writing frenzies start when I find something I care about, and the obsessive parts of my brain turns it into a story over then next few weeks. So, maybe the trick is to do cool things, read good books, and have stimulating conversation on a regular basis? Then, we’d care about something all the time, so a daily writing habit might lead to better AND more frequent books.

Anyway, those are 7 excuses for not writing and my best shot at their 7 rebuttals. If I missed some, please, oh please, let me know in the comments section. Creative writers should have quite the epic excuses for why they can’t write, and I’d be privileged to read any I didn’t think of.

 

The Strong Female Protagonist: Who is she? WHERE is she?

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A couple years back, in a casual conversation about what I wanted to be when / if I grow up, I heard myself say, “I want to be the female Ryan Reynolds.”

I promptly forgot I said this, and life went on.

Then last week, I caught some You Tube clips featuring Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Gene Gray, and other “strong” female leads, and I noticed something remarkable.

Every female with a warrior persona was in perfect physical condition and came with 2 settings:

“Berserker” and “Off.”

So I searched the ol’ memory banks for the closest thing to a female Ryan Reynolds in recollection. It took me all the way back to Lori Petty in the 1995 United Artist interpretation of Tank Girl.

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Okay. Grainy-ness of the borrowed internet photo aside, this is what a strong, female lead should look like, y’all.

Tank Girl was gritty, sarcastic, physically fit, physically funny, and – get this – allowed to where baggy clothes in scenes when it made sense in the context of the scene, not the skin-tight leather jumpsuit you’d expect to see in a modern Marvel flick. Also, in no way were her motivations through-out the picture precipitated by her feelings for a man (except maybe the feeling of contempt for the antagonist).

This was alarming to me in a lot of ways. Tank Girl was made closer to 30 years ago than 10, and it still beats the crap out of anything Wonder Woman has done for us, lately.

It also embarrasses me a little because I’m guilty having thought I wrote “strong females” into my own work, and their settings were exactly the same as Wonder Woman or Black Widow:

“Berserker” and “Off.”

I may be giving this phenomenon more thought that it deserves, but I think I know why we’re doing this to our women of genre fiction, comic books, and movies.

The short answer: “Toxic Masculinity.”

The somewhat longer answer: Back before women’s lib, civil rights, and stay-at-home dads were a thing, there was only one kind of man and one kind of woman in most people’s minds. Men were career-minded bread-winners who didn’t talk about their feelings. Women were full time housekeeper / child-minders who were kind of allowed to talk their feelings with other women but not too deeply. When we started embracing the idea that humans are complicated, women and men each became proficient in what was hither-to perceived as “man’s work” or “woman’s work.”

Here’s where it gets sticky. There are still humans who believe the man should be a career-minded bread-winner who doesn’t talk about his feelings. And since women are now prone the a similar career-mindedness, it seems natural to paint them as stoic professional bad asses who have it all together all the time…

Like a career-minded man only more-so.

With bosoms!

Not to put that Ryan Reynolds guy on a pedestal or anything, but the reason I think he can do what he does is he started out in comedy. Then, by the time someone noticed he was handsome enough to be a leading man / super hero, he was already grounded in the self-assurance that he wasn’t just, as they say, “another pretty face.”

Before he looked like…

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…he was…

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(the internet wouldn’t give me stills of this ancient scene featuring Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion. I think it knows that much readily accessible sexy on our monitors would lead to some unintended euphoria / tech overdose and world break-age)

That’s where the toxic masculinisation of both sexes falls down, ya see. The courage to show people who we are, not the paragon we assume they want to see will eventually give us believable male and female leads and do wonders for our collective psyche.

In the meantime, “Berserker” and “Off” might be our best option in female protagonists until the governors of our movies, comic books, and genre fiction decide there’s money in it for’m to spring for an upgrade in the form of 3 denominational character development.

And not the 3 dimensions merely as it pertains to the female protagonist’s bosom, neither!

 

 

 

Why Publishing Guidelines Matter (Except for When They Don’t)

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Writing a novel feels like grueling futility exercise from start to finish.

We knock ourselves out writing a story so it quits ricocheting around in our brains and we can finally allocate our grey matter to something else (like that catchy Justin Bieber song we hate ourselves for knowing the words to).

Then, if we want to dispense our story to the readers who will love it, we have to either…

  1. Scrounge up the resources to self-publish / promote, or…
  2. Meet the implausible guidelines set forth by some publisher with a golden glint in his or her eye.

I mean, I get it.

I totally get that the publisher has a job to do, and that job requires the author to met some rigid guidelines:

  • Your story cannot be too derivative or the publisher could get sued.
  • Your story cannot be too different, because reps don’t know how to sell “different.” “Same” means there’s something to compare it to, and the publisher can capitalize on an audience that already exists.
  • The publishing house wants an author who can follow directions. Any diva author who acts like rules are for other people is going to be a pain in the ass and someone the publisher won’t not want to make time for.
  • Publishing is a business, and book length is a thing. Too many words / pages means the price of printing goes up, and they have to raise the book price in order to make the money back. Too few words / pages, publisher starts two wonder, “What’s the point?”

I really, truly have naught but the utmost sympathy for the publisher.

I also understand that art is only worth what someone will pay for it, and there’s no art like good commerce.

However, if you’re writing a book that doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, it’s easy to feel unappreciated and discouraged.

“I just want to tell the world this cool story the way my characters told it to me,” you grieve after months of fruitless querying. “There’s just no room for misfits on the Barnes and Noble shelves, I guess.”

For what it’s worth, some of the greatest authors in history would not be published today, based on the rules that currently govern the publishing biz. Below, in no particular order of importance, are some of those rules and the books / authors who broke them successfully:

-Keep your word count way, way under 250,000 words. Works equal to or greater than this length will frighten publishers away from your novel and relegate you to Slush Pile Hell for all eternity… Unless your name is Leo Tolstoy, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, or Victor Hugo.

Serious authors do not stop at one, great novel… unless that author’s name is Harper Lee (who technically has a sequel to her one great novel as of a few years back, but those who have read it tend to agree that said sequel was to To Kill a Mocking Bird what Return of Jafar was to Aladdin).

Books under 50,000 words long are unsellable…Unless they are, say, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at a paltry 29,966 words or George Orwell’s Animal Farm at a still more meager 28,944 words.

-Happy Endings are mandatory when writing a children’s book… unless that book is The Velveteen Rabbit, Where the Red Fern Grows, or roughly half of the stories bestowed onto us by Hans Christian Andersen.

Don’t bother illustrating your own children’s book. The publisher will want an in-house expert, and you probably suck at it, anyway… Unless your name is Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, or Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Then, the more voo-doo, you do, the better.

-Show don’t tell… unless your name is Jane Austin or Frank L. Baum in which case your plucky female protagonist and you are excused from amending your masterworks to reflect modern writing trends.

– Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly… unless your name is Anne Rice. Then, feel free to use them boldly, proudly, deftly, and literally (yowza! Hurt m’self a little with that last one).

Self-publishing is for authors who are not good enough to be published by traditional means…unless your pen-name is Mark Twain, and the book you are publishing is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So I guess there are a few things ways to handle your book if that book is one that in un-pigeon-hole-able. You can look for a ballsy publisher who’ll take a chance on your wild card of a novel, you can publish books that sell for a while before doing something you like, or you can self-promote like the proverbial Dickens and say, “To hell with y’all ( because nothing brings the publishers a- running like an author who proves he/she doesn’t need them).”

In any case, if you happen to be an author whose book seems out of place in today’s market, fear not. Tomorrow’s market will be different, and maybe your book will be the convention-defying phenomenon that makes “different” the new “same.”

Suspense: The Exotic Dance of the Literary World

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So there I was, minding my own business when I looked above the sink and saw spiderweb wherein hung a broken pencil nib where the spider should be.

Thought 1: “Neat! I gotta get a picture of this.”

Thought 2: “That would be a killer graphic for an article on suspense.”

Thought 3: “Stupid brain! Now, we gotta think of something witty to say about suspense.”

Having long been a comedy writer, my focus has primarily been on surprise, not elaborate build-up.

“Why’d the chicken cross the road? Oh, some fowl reason. Budup-bup.”

Not much suspense in the setup – punchline format, right?

It’s almost more a kin to the “Who-done-it” style mysteries of Raymond Chandler or Earl Stanley Gardner. They write Phillip Marlowe and Perry Mason into few dreadful scrapes and string us along for a few chapters, but the novel will invariably end with a big, abrupt reveal.

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Just like a punchline. Each book is like a twenty – thirty thousand word joke leading up to, as it were, a killer punchline (yes, yes. I know. Puns are to humor what soy is to meat. I can’t help it. It’s a sickness).

Then, it occurred to me while listening to a better writer than I am talk about the works of Alfred Hitchcock, “Oh, I get it! Suspense is the stripper, and surprise is the flasher.”

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No, really.

The striptease artist is all about finesse. It’s elegant, it’s slow, and the emphasis is on keeping the audiences’ interest by not revealing everything at once.

By contrast, the flasher is sneaky and sudden. At the end of his or her performance, he or she is just as naked as was the stripper, but the audience receives no build-up from the flasher. They must suspect nothing in order for his scheme to work. The reaction he’s going for is 100% based on astonishing the audience with an abrupt, hit-and-run surprise.

Both these tactics have their uses and were employed famously by a no-chinned, throaty-voiced force of nature named Alfred Hitchcock.

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Go on. Picture this man that modern movie makers esteem a world class suspend-er strutting his saucy stuff as the stripper at your next bachelor party.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

Anyway, it’s said of Hitchcock that he treated each scene as though there were a ticking time bomb in it. If the characters are allowed to calmly play out the scene, and a bomb goes off without warning, you have mere moments of shock on the heels of several minutes of  potential boredom. If you show the audience the ticking time bomb at the start of the scene, you get the shock of the exploding bomb at the end, and those preceding minutes turn from boredom to suspense.

Possibly unpopular opinion time:

I think suspense and surprise are comparably valid methods, and Hitchcock overused suspense in his films.

A lot.

And some of his movies could have been far better if he’d used so much as a teaspoon more surprise and a cup less suspense.

One such movie is a James Steward / Kim Novak Picture called VIRTIGO in which *spoiler alert* Hitchcock tells you, the audience, the beautiful blond is guilty. Then, he lets you look at your watch and impatiently stamp your foot while you wait for the hero to catch up. Had he let the audience figure out the clues along side the hero, the ending would be more satisfying, and the audience would have felt a lot more conflicted in their feelings toward the protagonist. They’d go from, “Dear Gad, why is he putting that girl through all that? This guy’s nuts,” to, “Serves you right, you cold-hearted bitch, for getting involved in that other girl’s murder.” PSYCHO, one of the few Hitchcock films I’d watch on purpose these days, is both hugely dependent on surprise AND a film that lingers in your head for a while when the movie ends due to the unsettling nature of the big reveal.

The Kind-of-sort-of moral of the story:

Leaning too heavily on suspense or surprise could lead stale writing. On the other hand, it could lead to predictable branding and establishing a formula for cranking out more books in your series. An eager public awaits both the stripper and the writer of the  courtroom drama, even though they know what happens in the end. So… try both until you hit your stride, I guess, or avoid both, and choose another genre in which to write your masterpieces?

One of my least favorite Hitchcock films is NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

I hate this film. Hate it. Purple passion, migraine inducing hate. Because it strings you along for 40 or 50 tremendous scenes of suspense. At the end, it’s as though Hitchcock got bored or stuck or something, because one second, the protagonists are straining to reach one another one slip-of-the-hand away from free-fall off Mount Rushmore’s iconic cliff face. The very next second, they’re in bed on their honeymoon, and all is right with the world.

Nice segue, Mr. Hitchcock. 3 or so million angry movie goers could sue your dead ass for whiplash and win!

Never the less, if that wicked, old man was allowed to end at such time as he ran out of interesting things to say, I shall keep to that theme set forth by him, and end my ravings here (for now).

Peace, ya’ll. Thanks for reading. Go forth, and write books worth burning!