There are sometimes not enough words

Having gotten it in my head that I’d like romances from the 1980s, I came across The Copeland Bride by Justine Cole.  It seemed like the right amount of gut-twisting, darkly tragic stuff I’m back into these days.  Talk of Moliere, a Dickensian back drop, and two people damaged by it all.  There were even a few wittier moments in the beginning.  It could have been great.  And it wasn’t.  If only the writer actually wrote the parts that matter though.

This story was a prime example of why “telling” is not better than “showing.”  I felt like my enjoyment of the story was thwarted at the door of what could have been an exciting exchange ten times too many.  She showed the boring parts and told the interesting parts.  When a character pours their heart out to another, the reader needs to hear the character’s exact words, not the author’s Reader’s Digest version of it.

Entire swaths of what should have been the most poignant parts of the novel were boiled down to a few narrative paragraphs that offered little emotion or sincerity.  It reads more like a historical encounter than a literary one because the characters don’t have strong voices.  They don’t tell their story, the narrator has high-jacked the story and told it for them.  There’s a certain distance that needs to be maintained, and if not it can ruin the story.  A good third person narrator is like a good scientist in the field, observing astutely but not interfering.

I disliked Quinn’s treatment of Noelle a lot the more I kept reading.  In the first half, he was just angry.  In the second half, masochistically cruel would be the appropriate term.  There isn’t a redeeming feature other than his face, which considering that this is romanceland, he’s a dime a dozen.  Noelle isn’t a strong heroine, in spite of the insipid narrative that she’s street smart and carries a knife.  A heroine carrying a weapon doesn’t magically make her self-reliant and able to take care of herself.  The word “rape” gets tossed around too easily.

It just goes to show that the devil is in the details. It also reflects the need for good editors who should be able to spot and correct these kinds of things. But alas, there’s more antagonism toward proper editing and revision these days, so I can hardly be hopeful about future pulp writers.

The 1-2-3s of Romance Heroes

Now for my breakdown of the guys for romantic book trilogies.

Book 1: Alpha Male aka “The Head Honcho” – Usually in romance trilogies, the first hero is the one of the highest social rank (alpha male of the pack, king/prince/duke/earl, oldest son, leader of whatever group the trilogy heroes are a part of, etc.).  He’s the opposite of the more docile heroine he’ll be wooing – more domineering, inflated sense of his rank and never hesitant to put anyone in their place.

Book 2: Beta Male aka “The Second in Command” – This hero is usually the Head Honcho’s wingman or best friend.  He’s often also the “good guy” in the trio or the one most honor bound and solemn as a monk.  Well, I guess it does take a lot of patience to wear heroine #2 down.

Book 3: Omega Male aka “The Rebel Without a Cause” – The last story often involves the most rebellious, least mature of the trio.  Often, he’s the one getting into bad scrapes but he manages to handle himself quite well until heroine gets involved.  He is also a thwarted lover, of either one of the previous heroines or another girl from his adolescence or some years before the stories take place. Where he goes, trouble is likely to follow.

The 1-2-3s of Romance Heroines

I’ve started noticing a pattern when it comes to romance trilogy heroines, linked by male leads.

Book 1: The Outsider aka “Alice in Wonderland” – Heroine is brand new to the fold, be it a clan, coven, pack, planet, dimension, etc.  She doesn’t know the workings of the world she’s gotten into, so many of her pitfalls come from her lack of knowledge, and a majority of her role is uncovering the hero’s realm.  This heroine is more naive and docile.

Book 2: The Insider aka “The Warrior Princess” – This book’s heroine is often someone who is already part of the hero’s world, understands it but in some way has rejected it or doesn’t fit into it.  Out of the three heroines, she’s often the most independent minded.  She belongs to their world but isn’t necessary connected to the three main men until something happens to throw her into their path.  This heroine often has an axe to grind and will fight the hero of this novel more than if they were in Book 1.

Book 3: The Outlier aka “The Girl Next Door” – Often the last heroine and hero are people who were lingering around in the first and second books, that you thought would hook up then but ended up with their own stories.  Usually she’s connected to a large aspect of the previous novels – either as a sibling to one of the male leads or tied into a  overarching plot or continuing subplot device in the series. The heroine for Book 3 is well acquainted with the world she’s in (can be either an insider or outsider), but doesn’t feel like she belongs because of something in the past.  Book 3 heroines skew more toward knowing what they want but not how to get it.

When It’s Done Right

Here is a rare gem indeed – I’m going to rant about a historical romance done right.

The characters are multi-dimensional, humanistic rather than characteristic, and there’s a level of genuine drama, not melodrama lingering between them.  Connie Brockway has been on my radar since last year, but I hadn’t touched her McClairen family series until now.

The trilogy is formulated around the three Merrick silbings, whose tragic family history haunts them and their truly villainous father Lord Carr is at the heart of it.  This hearkens back to my theory that a hero is only as good as his/her villain, and Lord Carr is the exact scheming, mad and cunning evil genius that keeps the heroes on their toes.  He isn’t the usual caricature Jafar villain of historical romances, he’s actually got his hands all over the pot and proves difficult for his children and their respective spouses to combat.  His greedy motivations and deft ability to play the role of wolf in sheep’s clothing puts him in a league above 98% of the other historical villains I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of those).

The stories unfold like a chess match.  It is a true battle of wits in order to survive, and the Merrick children pull it off in such a smart and heart-felt way.  Though they love, Brockway makes it natural and subtle rather than large pronouncements and obnoxious repeats of how in love they are.  No crying around virginity being the exaltation of being, though there are female virgins.  And Brockway knows how to conduct romantic tension like it’s the New York Philharmonic. She takes time to develop the plot and the romance together, rather than tacking on a plot to the romantic plot.

Elements of foreshadowing and Gothic flair add to this series.  The conclusion is befitting, though rushed it works.  While there are some weak points, I find that this has to be one of the best romances I’ve come across and it deserves way more credit than it has.

How To Write A Good Cliche

It’s been a long time since I read a good book.  A really good book.  One that I have to read every word of, get completely wrapped up in and love to reread again and again.  That’s how I felt about Anna and the French Kiss.  It’s the well worn ‘girl gets sent to boarding school against her will and is a fish out of water’ plot set up.  But it’s not just the story, but how well the story gets told that really makes it special.

1) When writing a cliche, the focus should be character based. The readers are familiar with the story, but creating a connection to the characters can make the story stand out.  Example: Anna doesn’t really say she’s different or misunderstood, she focuses on who she is and what she does, which is what makes her unique and colorful.  Sure, St. Clair is pretty much every wishy-washy guy with a troubled home life that girls seem to fall for, but he’s genuine in his friendship with her.  It’s basically the same thing in real life.

2) It’s the little things that make a big difference. In the ‘fish out of water’ stories, the focus is often on feeling out of place in general.  The book uses a different approach, with Anna going out and exploring those differences and turning it into her own world.  The little things like what she does in her spare time, what she eats or what she studies are really fleshed out to truly recreate the experience of being in a new place and adapting.

3) Make the experience feel unique. Everyone and everyone’s story is unique, cliche as that sounds.  In one branch of literary theory there are two types of plot – tragedy and comedy.  In another, there is theorized to be only one – the main character is living his/her normal life when something occurs to take them out of their routine.  Now think about how many stories there are in the world.  Good, amazing, brilliantly original stories.

So go ahead, be cliche.

And the Fangs Come Out

While doing my daily perusing of Slate.com I decided to stumble on over to Double X, the “female” off-shoot of the popular online magazine. I found yet another article raving at the anti-feminism of the rebooted vampire genre focusing on Twilight and True Blood. Being the sci-fi/fantasy geek that I am, it is eye-rolling when someone not into the genre attempts to combat the forces of misogyny. The writer couldn’t seem to make up her mind about True Blood‘s stand on the vampire misogyny, but Twilight was clearly hardcore Mormon. The two works are then held against the vampire feminist icon of the 90s, Buffy. I too have ranted that Bella is the absolute anti-Buffy, and nearly choked on my coffee when a commenter called Bella a “strong female character.” Yes, my strict, traditional parents taught me that tripping over myself and crying for someone to come and save me was a hallmark of a strong person… (Actually, it was more like ‘Get your ass off the ground and give back twice what you got.’)

Buffy and Twilight are easy to compare because they’re both in the teenage fare. They share the girl loves vampire scenario common to this subsect of the vampire genre. The major difference is that Buffy slays vampires and demonstrates that even if you love someone, bending to their will is not in your best interest. Buffy made her own rules, not only feuding with the Watchers but coming back from the dead. Bella on the other hand is subject to the whims of the vampire she’s in love with and waits for him to come and save her. Twilight‘s mores make me cringe, and I come from a marriage based, wife cooks and cleans and raises the kids ethnic background. Bella just lives to pleasure Edward, and has childish fits when he leaves her. She doesn’t fight or assert herself. At least keep some garlic handy if your boyfriend needs help (or wants to suck all of your blood out)!

True Blood/The Southern Vampire books should be set apart in 1) they are adult fare and 2) it’s less along the lines of female/male dynamic than it is a sort of satire of minority vs. majority. I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of the characters, but it’s this intrinsic difference of what vampirism stands for that puts it away from Buffy and Twilight, more towards Anne Rice’s vampires and social commentary.

Now here’s where I take offense. The idea that the vampire subjugation fantasies are “bad for women.” The title is too provacative for a fluff piece that was featured. While I would like nothing better than to Fahrenheit 451 all of Stephanie Meyer’s works (which are cheap knock offs of actually good books), I wouldn’t go so far as to start calling them “bad for women” (bad for literature and a butchery of the English language, by all means yes). I tend to leave people and their sexual fantasies alone. To say these books are “bad for women” is crossing into the territory of “violence in music, TV, movies and video games caused Columbine.”

I will now refer back to the Aristotle’s idea of “catharsis.” Unlike Plato who thought that everything should be publicly censored (please tell me they haven’t swapped out Republic for Twilight just yet), Aristotle believed that exposure to our darker natures through entertainment would sate our need to act on them. In other words, we get off on seeing someone being shot rather than getting off on actually being Deerhunter ourselves. Slasher movies are a big part of American movie fare, but how often do we hear in the news that someone took a hacksaw and went on a killing spree? Some of the people who I’ve found enjoy reading Twilight novels are actually really assertive women. I just chalk the subjugation up to another kink fetish, like feet. Not really that harmful until it moves into reality.

I abhor the model of waiting for a guy coming in to save the day rather than saving yourself, and the free fall of “girl power” in the late 90s to the “lying, cheating backstabbing best friends” business that we’re currently in is a altogether disconcerting. But all in all, it’s just a phase that one can only hope passes quickly before it really does set the feminist movement back. If you want to be that tough chick who gets the job done, you’ll find a way. If you’re that girl who drops her keys to bend over so you can catch a guy’s attention and wallet, you too will find a way. There isn’t just one female archetype running around. I’d say the scary part is the fans who’ve lost touch with reality and mistake the books for some kind of psychotic bible instead of enjoying it for the entertainment value it holds.

Image Credit to Fanpop.com