How Writers Age Stamp Themselves

I loved the book Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.  It was an amazing story with deep and rich characters, and I fell in love with Etienne and Anna over and over again on each page. That said, the one and only thing that bothered me about the book was the use of technology.  Or lack thereof.

The characters have computers and email, but the technology felt very 1990s.  Anna was solely dependent on phone calls and occasional email to communicate with her friends and family back in America.  I’m part of the first generation to grow up with Facebook, Twitter and everyone in class having a cell phone, so I immediately was confused by the lack of communication.  In college, students abroad felt like they were still at school with us through pictures and status updates and instant messaging and Skype.  My best friend and I went to high school together, but 80% of our relationship was online based.  I spend hours chatting with friends on messenger services.  My cousins that live internationally send pictures and messages from their BlackBerry Messenger service so there are no fees.  While reading, the emails were entirely text based and there were no mentions of any of the technology that is pretty standard in this day and age.

Did this make a difference in the overall story?  Well, yes and no.  The characters and the story were still amazing, but it’s anachronistic.  How we send and receive information does have an impact on how things play out.

1) Pictures — Anna doesn’t take pictures with her new friends, no one is taking pictures.  These days, if you go to Paris (or even the corner market) someone is always snapping pictures of everything and somehow they end up online.  Senior year of high school, we took as many pictures and video-taped as much as we could with anyone we could.  If Anna went to Paris recently, she would be photographing and uploading like crazy, as would her friend Bridgette.  Also, this would have alerted Anna immediately to the fact that Toph and Bridgette were dating or something was going on.

2) Phone calls/email — I mentioned this earlier.  My friend joked that I did have a valid gripe with the whole phone call thing once in a blue moon notion, and that today your phone can probably make coffee (hey, there’s probably an app for that somewhere).  Also, even though cell phones get mentioned, they’re not as pervasive in the story as in real life.  I know people in third world countries with better technology than the novel explored.  Anna would have Skyped with her little brother if she missed him so much.  The occasional emails would have still occurred, but it being the majority of her communication with her best friend seemed odd.  Toph wouldn’t have called her, he would be posting on her wall and commenting on everything she posted.  There would have been a greater chance of them staying connected while she was away as well, and I know people who have made their entire relationship digital while the other had to be away and stayed together through the other person’s return.  That’s the power of communication today — you don’t have to be there to be there.

3) No Social Network — It didn’t need to be Facebook, but anyone in school in the last few years has an account there.  Even when I was in high school, we had Friendster and Xanga and LiveJournal that people used.  I can’t imagine a world where you’re not blogging or updating, and the amount of high school drama that caused.  Again, this would have changed Bridgette and Anna’s relationship because it wouldn’t have been as disconnected, and Anna would have a clearer idea what was going on back home.  She would be spending time looking at profile pictures to remember her friends and relationship status is kind of a dead giveaway.  Also, she would have friended her new friends at school and learned more about them that way rather than talking.  This is a huge thing that changed the social dynamic of the modern world and how people get acquainted and stay in contact.  People don’t ask if you’re seeing someone anymore, they check your profile status.  Also, all bands these days keep website or host a web page.  To not see Anna fussing over a guy’s website or profile was odd.

Not every current YA story needs to have mentions of technology, but in this particular instance it really dated the book and its author because a subplot was a breakdown in communication due to technological limitations.  Basic utilities of daily life were unavailable, and that’s something that makes writing YA difficult these days.  The speed of change in the way we communicate rapidly and rabidly changed in a span of less than ten years.  I think the college interns should get a peek at these manuscripts to make sure that loose ends like this don’t fray the story.

Trending 2010

The trend stats from Scholastic for 2010 show more adults reading YA fiction.  Honestly, I’m not surprised.

I was about eighteen when I walked into my local library as usual, and went straight for the YA section like I always had.  I felt guilty because at that point, I was supposed to be reading “adult” novels especially since I had been reading ahead of my grade level for years.  I had tried adult novels when I was around sixteen, but in all honesty I found the quality of adult fiction horrific. I realized I would rather live in YA forever.

As an aspiring YA author, of course I’m going to be a bit biased toward YA.  How did I get there though?

I wanted to grow up and move on to more adult books at that age, though I constantly found something lacking.  There’s something about most adult books that got on my nerves the most — they were often far wordier than necessary and tended to drone on and on with drab details.  I would have to dig my way out of that mess to find the story.  With YA authors, they seem to understand how to get to the story and be more engaging overall.  They can build their worlds better and give their characters more depth.

Another major difference between adult and YA fiction is character growth.  YA literature takes into account the changing sensibilities and social dynamics of their demographic, whereas the adults seem stuck in some sort of rut and it’s more about things that happen to them than internal change.  People don’t stop growing and changing.  I forgot which YA author said this, but she said that she preferred YA because the characters were getting to see the world for the first time and unlike adult characters, YA characters actually have a lot more hope for the future and more adventures waiting for them.

So, I think it’s great that YA is opening up more, because I don’t wanna grow up either.

Why are Historical Romances written today so bland?

Historical romances have to be one of the most cliche and white bread variety of all fiction genres.  Historical romance writers play it safe, the characters are always virtuous to some end.  But novels printed in bygone eras weren’t all Jane Eyre and Jane Austen.  Georgette Heyer played close to the vest in her imitation of Austen’s novels, but she was from a conservative era as well.  For some reason, the media likes to paint the past as this idyllic and overly intelligent time bygone.

Guess what?  People don’t change that much and they’re as fun and flawed and ferocious as they’ve ever been.

So here are some literary novels that will knock your socks off and have yet to be banned from the public:

1) Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (1722) – Prostitution, incest, illegitimate children galore can be found in one of the earliest English novels.

2) Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Choderlos de Laclos (1782) – Better known to Gen Y as Cruel Intentions and Gen X as Dangerous Liasions, two former lovers plot the downfall of innocent misses.

3) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1380s) – Though this isn’t a novel, it is a collection of some of the bawdiest tales to grace English ears.  Chaucer is considered by many to be the Father of English Literature, all thanks to a sex-starved college student and a dangerous old cougar.

Top 5 Overused Names in Historical Romance Novels

While reading several Regency novels, I’ve noticed a certain pattern to the names of characters.

Ladies:

  1. Lily/Lillian – I’ve actually lost count how many times I’ve seen this name come up.  Somehow, every Lily is a naive hoyden on the run from someone.  As someone who used to find it adorable, I could do without seeing it in a Regency story ever again.
  2. Isabella/Isabel/Isabelle/Belle/Bella – This name was gaining popularity even before the Twilight books came out, but can just one of them not be clumsy?
  3. Molly – The favored name of chambermaids and street rats.
  4. Grace – Too often used as the joke, “Grace/Your Grace”
  5. Charity, Chasity, Patience, Passion, Prudence – I know virtue names were a thing at one point, but sometimes they come off far too Mary Sue in trying to make the character from the actual virtue.

Names that get a pass because they’re historically accurate in their usage: Jane, Elizabeth, Anne, Joan, Mary, Marie, Julia, Emma, Lydia, Sophia, Kate, Catherine, Charlotte.  Overall, the overuse of female names happens less often than it does with male names.

Gentlemen:

  1. Sebastian – The arrogant noble guy who always ends doing the right thing, in spite of himself.  Self-righteous to the bone.
  2. Jack – The ideal name for the rogue, misunderstood younger son of some nobleman.  Also known as “the black sheep” of the family.
  3. Rafe – Pretty much the self-made man with an ignoble yet slightly noble background.
  4. Tristan – This is one of my favorite male names and I’ve used it in Regency, but I’m a little weary of seeing it now. Often he’s the good, not twisted hero with more whimsy in his character than most other heroes.
  5. Gabriel – This name often emphasizes the avenging angelic nature of the hero.

Names that get a pass because they’re historically accurate in their proliferate usage: Edward, Henry, Richard, Michael, John.

It’s not the common usage of names that’s obnoxious (in real life it happens all the time), it’s that the names have become stock characters.

Character Descriptions that Need to be Dropped Like a Bad Habit

1) Stop describing the hero as a Greek statue or Adonis

2) Stop describing the hero as a cat or cat-like, which includes but isn’t limited to lynxes, lions, tigers or leopards

3) Stop describing the heroine as a kitten or mouse or mousy

4) Stop writing that the hero “would never force himself on a woman”

5) No more flaming red hair, there are far too many characters that remind me of Little Orphan Annie all grown up

6) I know even when you’re in love in real life, it’s easy to drop the “perfect” word around a lot, but it gets old fast on paper

The Next Big Thing

When I was at NYC Comic Con last October, most of the science fiction and fantasy titles announced involved shifters.  A few years before that, vampires were a bigger deal due to the Twilight craze (I think Team Jacob spurred the shifter trend) which has been winding its way back down.

I think I was lucky to spend my childhood in the late 90s, when it was a bigger, darker scene for sci-fi and fantasy.  The teen horror, sci-fi, and fantasy realms were run by R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, Tamora Pierce, K.A. Applegate and quite a few other awesome people I can’t recall at the moment.  Nickelodeon aired “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” while Disney Channel had “So Weird.”  Dark stories for teens like The Hunger Games weren’t as uncommon, they were actually closer to the norm for children’s books at the time.

The first time I picked up on SFF trends, it was when Buffy hit the scene.  Suddenly, it was vampires everywhere.  It was at the tail end of that when Harry Potter became popular.  There was also a bit of alien/space opera still lingering from The X-Files and Firefly.  The witch trend was next, which had Harry Potter and Charmed and some other book series I can’t quite recall.  During college I kind of lost track of most media, but I think the it was the Twilight vampire bandwagon again, then followed by few fey stories were big those years.  Shifters/paranormal romance have now overtaken the scene but I feel like that’s winding down.

While I was meandering around the Regency era (I usually didn’t care for historical romance before), I started noticing that more historical paranormal and steampunk novels have been coming out.  Then looking at the Nebula Awards Nominees, there were more than two entries that fall into that category.  For an obscure sub-genre like historical paranormal to have that many entrants is peculiar.  I think that will be the next genre to get major print, especially after Supernatural’s Wild West episode airs, that might just be it’s shotgun to the race.

The Ending is SO Predictable…

If there’s one phrase that grates my ears, it’s “The ending was so predictable…”

Actually, if you’ve ever taken a literary theory class in your life, it would be quite obvious that most endings are generally predictable.  The hero wins, the villain loses (or escapes to the sequel), roll end credits.

But why? Well, there are hundreds of books on the topic that explain it.  It’s best summed up by Tom Clancy here: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”  In real life, most of the situations faced by the protagonist have a fail rate greater than that of scripted scenarios.  House would be sued for malpractice if he was a real doctor and most likely lose his license, Temperance Brennan would be twenty years older than the character is portrayed, Sam and Dean would stay dead, etc. and the shows would have to end due to realism.

For all their fussing and finnicking, people don’t want the ending to be “realistic” but optimistic.

Good example: The Prestige

Bad example: Little Black Book

How to Love Your Villain

villain: (noun) 1. a wicked or malevolent person; 2. (in a novel, play, film, etc) the main evil character and antagonist to the hero

The biggest problem I see in villain descriptions is that the writer obviously hates their villain.  The villain is the bad guy/girl who throws obstacles (among other things) into the way of the hero/heroine and is an all around nasty piece of work.  However, the villain becomes a very flat or ineffective when the writer dislikes the villain.  Not spending enough time developing them often puts a hamper on the story, because the writer hasn’t taken the time to organize and utilize the character.

A good litmus test of how well a story is written circles back to how effective the protagonist is at resolving the major conflict.  Conflict is often (but not always) created by the antagonist, ergo the more creative and challenging the antagonist is, the more creative and challenged the protagonist is.

For example, in a case of bad writing that appears far too often in romances, the villainess hates the heroine for having the hero’s attention.  She appears randomly in the middle of the story, plots to harm the heroine in an insipid, color by numbers method, then her plan fails and she is quickly disposed of and the hero and heroine live happily ever after.  Did you feel cheated by that story?  Probably.  Did the hero and heroine become better characters?  Not really.  It was easier to make the villainess the scapegoat or deus ex machina than having the characters think critically.

So what sets great villains like Iago and Lord Voldemort apart from these kinds of stock characters?  They’re characters we love to hate because they’re so damn brilliant we can’t help liking them or being in awe of what they do.  The writers of these characters took the time to flesh them out, to give them whole personalities and complex motivations.

Harry Potter’s development throughout all seven books is juxtaposed by Lord Voldemort’s own development.  Each book contains a piece of Voldemort’s past and how he has gotten to the point where Harry must fight and defeat him.  Voldemort is part of Harry, they’re linked by that night Harry lived.  By the time Harry has to face him, the readers have a multi-dimensional view of this madman.  The readers are not just invested in Harry’s success, but Voldemort’s failure.  It makes Harry’s challenge greater, thus his story becomes more epic.

Guess what else?  The writer is the villain.  The writer is the person raining fire and brimstone on the protagonist.  The writer is the person who shakes the character out of bed that Monday morning and kills his goldfish in the afternoon when ninjas attack.  The failure of the villain to create conflict is the failure of the writer to create conflict.

So writers, before you start to wish bad things upon your villain, please take the time to get to know them, let the reader get to know them, then feel free to throw them off a cliff into the fiery hellhole.

On Slaughtering Virgins at the Altar of My Boredom

Last week’s episode of Supernatural featured 22 year old virgins being collected for some sort of demon sacrifice.  The show took the time to poke fun at people at that age who still hadn’t lost it at this day and age.  Hey, sometimes life doesn’t work out quite the way as planned for some folks.  Or maybe it does.

Anyway, there are way too many virgins in modern romance novels.  I’m sick of browsing through that section and the amount of times the word ‘virgin’ tends to come up.  Virginal meek martyr complex for all the girls, playboy arrogant martyr complex for the guys.  It’s enough to make me gag.

Regency novels can get away with it because 1) it was hard for women to be by themselves without a chaperon, 2) not being a virgin could void a marriage contract, 2a) women had next to no rights at this time (they couldn’t own their own money or property), 2b) divorce was messier and more taboo back then, 2c) society was more family based and it would be dishonor on the family involved.

That’s not what’s going on today.  Women have equal rights to men, they’re independent and they’re not wrapped up in saving themselves for just one guy.  There are still people who don’t lose it until they’re married, but for a majority of the population that isn’t true.  So why are there so many virgins still running around in print?  Maybe it’s the ones who don’t get laid that write (kind of like how drinking to escape problems creates problems, thus more drinking)?  Nope, I’ve read some of the author bios and a majority of them are mothers and wives.  What gives?

Not to hate on virgins, but they are horrible at sex.  Sex scenes with virgins are awful because the manwhore they’ve decided to give it up to has to be gentle.  Virgins are also a pain in the ass because they don’t know what they want sexually yet miraculously know how to get every position right on the first try.  Also, for some reason virgins are extra fertile? Right…

Making the modern heroine a virgin is frustrating because it makes the character stupidly naive and non-assertive, a strategic disadvantage for the guy to take advantage of.  Why is it so wrong for women to have a sexual history and experience?  Women can be just as experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to what they want out of love and sex.  Well, only the publishers can answer that one.

Mary Wollstonecraft hated romance novels because she felt that it made women think that having someone taking care of them, and that was back in the 1700s.  It would be expecting too much that the virgin/whore complex could fade even after the sexual revolution.

And with that I leave another book recommendation, Miranda Neville’s The Dangerous Viscount, a Regency novel where the hero is the virgin and the heroine has to show him the ropes.  The other book is Twice Tempted by a Rogue by Tessa Dare, where the widow didn’t live chastely ever after when her husband died, wasn’t afraid to proposition the hero for sex sans relationship, and was a truly independent character.