Expectations – oh no!

I just finished reading a book that annoyed the hell out of me. Even a week after finishing it, I’m still bitter and twisted. The writing was great and the story was gripping right up until the last bit. By then the story was wrapping up in the usual way. I knew what was coming so starting skimming a bit, switching my brain off because I didn’t really need to concentrate. After all, once you know what’s coming, there’s no real need to focus. Except then the author threw in a curly one.

It was a romance so he was carrying around his grandmother’s ring to give to the love of his life, which of course was the other main character, because for 80,000 words we’ve been hearing that she was and it was just unfortunate circumstances that kept them apart. Except then… she wasn’t. Someone else was and he gave her the ring. Cue my WTF face:

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Now I get that there is a trend at the moment where we’re trying to show women and young girls in particular that the love of a man isn’t everything. That you can be happy and fulfilled with the love and support of your friends and family. The problem for me is that I think that’s great and support it wholeheartedly. I watched “Frozen” and loved the ending where true love is about sisterly love, rather than romantic love. Similarly, “Maleficent” was about the love of a mother figure, rather than Prince Charming. So you can imagine my horror when I found myself feeling deeply annoyed that the main character in the end behaved horribly to the original “love of his life” and decided that it was in fact his daughter who deserved his wholehearted devotion.

I should like that, right? The stressing of the importance of other types of love in our lives. But I didn’t. I actually hated it. But why? Was it because it was a man making the decision, rather than a woman, that her child was the most important thing in their life that I didn’t like? If the sexes were reversed, would I have been okay with it? As much as I hate to say it, maybe.

Quick disclaimer: I feel the need to stress that what I’m talking about is fictional works, not reality. What I want to read is completely different from what I want to happen in my actual life. I love books about stuff that I would never want to happen to me personally.

A big part of the problem is expectation: I want to be surprised, but clearly not too much. For me, there wasn’t enough of a set up for the resolution. My reaction was not the one the author was looking for.

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But then I put on my writer hat and I want to do all sorts of crazy things. There is a total disconnect between what I want to read and what I want to write. I want to write the twisty ending because that’s far more fun than just going with the obvious and I always think in my head that it’s great to surprise the reader and of course they’ll love it! This has been a great lesson for me. Readers don’t want to be surprised in the last chapter but something completely different. If you’ve stuck to a theme and known storyline, you can’t back out at the end. If you write a whole book about star-crossed lovers, then they have to be happily together at the end or there is no point to all the angst. And if you mess with that, you’ll just end up with cranky readers.

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Horrible People

Characters in a book are easy to make irredeemable, but you try not to, because you get criticized for making them one dimensional. You try to put a bit of good in with the bad to give them some texture because it makes them more realistic. But sometimes that’s not true to life. Some people you encounter really are just that awful.

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I hadn’t given it much thought until I encountered one recently. Generally, if someone is behaving badly you can write it off as a bad day, too much to drink, going through a difficult time in their lives, et cetera. From asking around, it seemed this man was genuinely what he appeared. He was loud, obnoxious and completely unattractive, both externally and internally. Literally there is no stage of drunk you could reach where he would be even tolerable. He appeared to have no knowledge of this though and regaled everyone in shouting distance of how fantastic he was. He was that stereotypical older privileged white male who travelled to third world countries a lot from the locations given for the anecdotes and you can only imagine what he got up to there. With the advent of political correctness and greater understanding of different cultures, I had thought that this type of man didn’t exist anymore. Racism and sexism are generally better hidden than in this throwback to the seventies. And I mean the 1770’s. I gained a new insight into how the atrocities towards the native inhabitants occurred when white people first arrived.

What it made me realise is that when it’s not in your face, you tend to forget stuff like this is still there. If someone isn’t drunkenly shouting absurd and increasingly vulgar statements at you, you can ignore it. A sly comment here or there, an attitude that is slightly offensive to another racial group or a patronising compliment that reinforces gender stereotypes are all easily glossed over. It is easier to ignore it than to confront someone and have your interpretation denied. In one way, it was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one disgusted by this man and that as a society we’ve come a long way. But in another, the fact that this person was still invited to social functions shows that he hasn’t had to change and is to a certain extent still tolerated.

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It has made me think about who and what I find entertaining. I often laugh at outrageous things and sometimes I’m the one trying to make people laugh by saying things I probably shouldn’t. But where is the line between funny and distasteful? Between being so careful that you become bland and just being pleasant by ensuring that you don’t offend anyone? I struggle sometimes when writing to not censor the words and actions of a character, in order to avoid potentially offending anyone. But sometimes that means that the writing doesn’t ring true, because that fictional person would have said the wrong thing. Of course not every character I write is me, though I realise by this stage in my writing career that people reading a book will generally attribute any attitude expressed to the author. Understanding what is acceptable and what isn’t is difficult with the increasing globalisation of publication, where your book is available in every country almost instantly with no regard for cultural differences.

I’m lucky that I write very commercial books that aren’t taken that seriously but it has to have an impact on people trying to write works of greater literary significance. With everyone chasing publicity, trying to get their name out there ahead of all the millions of other authors, there’s sure to be someone far more offensive in their writing than I could ever imagine being. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. These characters might be descriptive of real people, and while they do unfortunately exist, don’t really need more air time. Though they do make excellent villains, as long as they get offed in the end because unfortunately some times, you can’t do that in real life.

In Defence of Fifty Shades

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I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey last night, despite the terrible reports I’d heard. Mostly because it was a night out with the girls and I’d already bought the tickets. So my expectations weren’t high, which coupled with the lovely wine we had during the movie, turned it into a much better than anticipated evening’s entertainment. Frankly, on the way out I was wondering what it was exactly that people were objecting to, calling it glorified domestic abuse, appalling, worst movie ever, etc.

Clearly there were a lot of people watching it who hadn’t read the books, which given how well they sold is surprising in itself. This was made abundantly clear by the groans and calls of “What!!” at the final scene, which was identical to where the first book ended and should have surprised no one. The book gives more context to what happens in the end, but the movie was far superior in the way you didn’t have to listen to an annoying inner monologue about “inner goddesses” leaping about repeatedly. The sex scenes were tastefully done and there were moments of humour. I thought Dakota Johnson was very good and captured the conflict the heroine feels perfectly. Sure it’s about BDSM, but more than that, it’s about pushing personal boundaries.

Most of us in our twenties did this, maybe not exploring kink, but in other ways. It could have been seeing how long you could go without sleeping. My record for this is nearly 36 hours, where I went to uni on a Friday morning, then straight to work behind the bar at a nightclub where I worked a 12 hour shift until 6am then drove an hour outside Sydney to a skydiving centre and jumped out of a plane. By the time I finally got to bed it was early afternoon.  I generally partied hard, drinking and dancing for hours, pushing my body to do more, imbibe more, keep going longer and longer. This is what you do when you are young. How do you know what you are capable of if you don’t test it?

If you haven’t seen the movie and plan on being surprised, stop reading here. The final climactic scene, where Christian whips Anna too hard and she breaks up with him, has been called by one reviewer as glorified domestic violence. I think this is a simplistic interpretation. She asks him to do it, to show her what it is he wants, testing both her limits and his. His limit is clearly further than hers, but when it becomes too much she doesn’t safe word out. In the second book this is explained as “she forgot” and he gets upset with her for not saying stop, even though he reminded her before they started. If she had said the safe word “red” and he hadn’t stopped, then I’d agree it was domestic violence. Though I don’t get the attraction to BDSM, I do understand wanting to see how far you can go with things. This scene is similar to any video of extreme sports – base jumping, free running, skateboarding or snowboarding when someone attempts a skill and doesn’t pull it off. They went to the edge and fell off. Do you think less of the snowboarder who tries their best but still stacks it? No, but because it’s sex that is the medium rather than snow, there’s far more judgement. Just because we wouldn’t personally attempt something doesn’t make it our right to say that no one should.

Midnight shame

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I know I wrote in an earlier post about how responsible I am now with caffeine consumption, but lately I’ve fallen off the wagon. This year, I asked for a sexy Italian for Christmas. In all honesty, I’m not sure what I would do with a sexy Italian, one husband being more than enough, so luckily it was a domestic electrical item that turned up under the tree. I received a coffee machine people, get your minds out of the gutter. So I now am the proud owner of a gleaming, spaceship-like contraption that makes the most excellent of coffees. It sits there winking at me all through the day and I’ve been falling under its spell, willpower helpless to its hard, angular good looks.

Any hoo, in the way of these things, there’s always a price to pay. Unusually, it hasn’t been a pounding heart in the early hours of the morning, but a pounding conscience instead. I’ve been waking up in the early hours remembering odd events from my late teens and early twenties in excruciating detail. Like many people, I was pretty much an asshole until around twenty-five when I finally grew up, so there’s a fair bit of material there. Shame is a horrible feeling, particularly when there’s no way to fix or apologise. I’m reliving it with the benefit of hindsight and experience and wondering what the hell my younger self was thinking. If I was a character in a book, in many instances I would have been the villain, the awful ex-girlfriend or generally the foil that makes the heroine look better.  I’m not saying I was irredeemably bad and I had some good moments, but those aren’t the ones playing in the quiet hours around midnight.

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Just as it seems no one wants to read about the perfect person leading the perfect life, my conscience likes to linger on the times I got it wrong. But why is my mind fixated on this period of my life? I think its mostly because I’ve decided to tear apart my latest book and completely rewrite it and that’s the age of the people in it. Some of the events in the book actually happened, so I’ve been thinking about those years a lot and how it felt to be that young and the excruciating awkwardness that is most teenagers. With no clear idea of self, you don’t know how to act, so try on different personas to see what fits. Sometimes I got it right, but most often I didn’t, after all I was just pretending I knew what to do.

As I lie awake, staring at the dark ceiling, I try to forgive my younger self, mostly so I can go back to sleep. Caffeine makes my conscience into an overtired toddler. I’ve just got to take away all the stimulatory material and hope it crashes out. That or drink less coffee.

Blogging my way into difficulties

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After last week’s surprisingly controversial blog, I learnt a key lesson (that’s corporate-speak for stuffing something up). While I am essentially writing about myself, people around me do of course make appearances and some of them might not be happy about it. As a side note, a quick hello to all the Christian groups now following me. I’m sorry to say I don’t generally talk about religion and you may not be interested in the generally fairly mundane musings of a Sydney writer, but welcome!

But back to topic, I got in trouble and much frostiness has ensued with a couple of people this week. I’m not sure if mentioning this will cause problems too, but now I’ll stop the cycle. I’m not an island and it’s very hard to think of topics to write about that don’t contain some interaction with other people. Trying to find something else to talk about this week led me to saying yes to a couple of things I wouldn’t normally agree to in the hopes that it might provide material that won’t start a cold war (we’re very Anglo, so not a word is said directly and we repress like nobody’s business). As a result, this week I have exceptionally long eyelashes and resemble a llama. I have thick hair, which in a trickle down effect leaves me with naturally large eyebrows and eyelashes. Eyebrows – bad. Eyelashes – good. So I’ve never really considered eyelash extensions. At all, not even for a moment. But a free voucher was waved in front of me and I was searching for lack of meaning.

I feel ridiculous and am hyper-aware of them, not just because I can actually see them but also thinking that people are looking at my eyelashes and wondering what the hell happened. And they are here to stay for the next few weeks. I’d love to say that this was the first time I’ve stuffed up a beauty thing, but I’d be lying. Colouring my own hair when I was at uni saved a lot of money, but occasionally I’d get bored and try something new. So there was this one time when I found out why they put the helpline number on the side of the box of colour. No one means to turn their hair khaki. My flatmate literally laughed so hard he couldn’t get up from the floor.

Then there was the time I had a bikini wax from a Frenchwoman. Any one who has experienced this will know what I’m talking about. The rest of you can just wonder and be grateful.

The time I lost a Shellac nail into a cake I was taking to a dinner party. The nails were dark coloured and the cake was chocolate. Needless to say, I peeled the rest off and the surface of my nails along with them. It was too late but hopefully whoever got it thought it was a nut.

I could go on with all the times the beauty industry has done me wrong, making me believe that some new fad can make me the flawlessly groomed beauty that I never seem to have the time or energy to be. But overall, struggle is a good thing – trying and failing is interesting. Being perfect is boring so having characters who make mistakes is essential, but isn’t that easy to do. There is such a strong urge to smooth the edges and polish them up, in a way that is impossible to do with your actual life. You want to make them able to do the things that you never could and vicariously live through them. In the worlds you create, you have complete control so why not try to make it everything you wish your life could be? This is the worst possible thing you can do. What I try to always keep in mind is that even superheroes need flaws and weaknesses, the trick is in giving them the right ones.

Secrets Volume 2

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I’m really liking the Mary Lambert song “Secrets” at the moment, the chorus being “I don’t care if the world knows what my secrets are”. Such an incredibly brave stance to take, given the things she’s talking about revealing, and has revealed about her personal life aren’t of the “I like to fart in the bath and pretend its a spa” variety. Secrets like diamonds, can be graded from the hardly any bad bits to bright sunlight and a strong breath and the whole thing fractures into dust. Internally flawless secrets are hiding lollies from the kids and sneaking them in the pantry while they’re not looking.  Heavily included secrets are more along the lines of “I murdered someone and stashed the body in the basement”. Not many people would have a problem giving up the first one, but anyone committing the second would tend to keep it to themselves.

But like diamonds, the grade of secret is only part of it. Another big part of what makes a diamond is the size. Similarly, I think part of what leads to secrets being confessable or not lies in the level of fault that can be attributed to yourself. People are much more willing to confess to big secrets as long as it’s not their fault. The more you move towards things that you are directly responsible for, together with the grade of the secret, leads to you being less willingness to be open about it. This is because people are judgemental. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, after all if we didn’t use our judgement we’d be still living in caves ruled over by the thugs with the biggest clubs. Judging things, weighing up the merits of our actions and others, teaches us how we want to live. What we actually want to stop is incorrect judgements about things and people. Being judgemental is natural and fine, what we do about it is more important. Not agreeing with abortion and making the decision that you wouldn’t have one yourself is using your opinion to form a framework for how you live your life. Applying that exact same framework to everyone else, regardless of circumstances, is where the flaw lies.

Gen X-ers like myself tend to think that the next generation are all about exposing themselves. If they’re not sexting, they are posting videos on youtube or endless pictures on social media. I think this is probably a little unfair, given the amount of newly single post-forties people I know on Tinder (no I haven’t looked, given the rumour that most of the pictures are not of their faces. Some things you can’t un-see). Similarly, my facebook feed is constantly filled with pictures of whoever is currently on holiday. I literally have seen every meal they’ve eaten. As a side note, I don’t get this trend. Anyone can order a meal from a restaurant. No effort or skill has gone into it. If you haven’t put the time and effort into making it yourself, I don’t care.

Letting the world know what you’re secrets are is fine and potentially liberating, but I can’t really see myself as someone who would let it all hang out. I’m far more likely to hide the big things away or let them be enacted by a character in one of my books. This is a confession of sorts, but nothing I have to own up to. Cowardly, possibly, but all writers need material and if you give away too much of it in public, there’s less left inside you to put on paper. I find when I’m deep into writing something difficult, it’s hard to stop from bringing it over into my personal life and vice versa. Writing about a married couple fighting in Saint Kate led to several tense moments with my husband but it also meant that what I wrote seemed to many people to be very real, because in a sense it was. So unlike the very brave Ms Lambert, I do care if the world knows what my secrets are, if only so I still have something to write about.

 

 

Losing the plot

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When books are reduced to their most basic “A” leads to “B” leads to “C”, there are only a few unique plotlines. Buyers in the romance sector are mostly women in the first world, so there are even fewer applicable plotlines and you’re pitching to a relatively tolerant society. Now you can’t just have people meeting and getting on famously like they do in real life, because that’s a very short and boring book. Accordingly, you need to cause conflict. The question is, what? There needs to be an inherent or created incompatibility between the main characters to create tension. Their drives or desires need to be at odds, but at the same time surmountable, because there needs to be a happily ever after at the end.

So what could possibly hold two people apart in a reality based contemporary romance novel, without being too manufactured or done to death? No longer can you just use the Romeo & Juliet excuse of “the families don’t like each other” because that’s not how it works for most people in modern societies. Many people couldn’t pick their cousins out of a line up, let alone generate a deep enough family loyalty that goes beyond their immediate relatives to prevent them from doing anything. Certainly not enough to stop them getting their freak on at the club on a Saturday night.

I had a conversation about this with the always delightful Jennifer Lane, who has a book coming out where the protagonists are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Politics used to be one of those things that you could never talk about in polite company in case you started an argument, but that no longer seems to hold. Politicians don’t have the glamour that they used to have back in the 50’s and 60’s, when they seemed to have almost rock star status. The media’s attitude to them and intrusion into all facets of their lives has taken away any mystery. We know they are all just people with regular people problems and their job seems to have a whole lot of drudgery attached, which is all very unromantic. And maybe it’s just me not really caring too much about politics, but to be honest I don’t really mind what my partner’s political beliefs are as long as I never have to attend another political fundraiser (dear God, those things are as relentlessly boring as a primary school talent show and the wine is usually crap).

Religion? This one’s a tougher cookie and most romance writers won’t touch it with a hundred foot stylus. With this one there is too much conflict and the real potential to offend. When your main aim is entertainment, the last thing you want to deal with is death threats.

Race? Society is generally too tolerant for that to be a significant enough issue to keep people apart. What would once have been scandalous is now commonplace and not even remarked upon. Creating conflict around this would be hard without sounding like a bigot.

Status? Done to death. Cinderella and all those Billionaire books (seriously? Has anyone checked out the photos of actual billionaires before they write these? There are only 23 of them in the world under 30 and they look like Mark Zuckerberg not Robert Pattinson).

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So where am I going with this? Nowhere to be precise. I struggle to create realistic conflict without alienating readers (my second book about an unfaithful wife received very mixed reactions) so I have no answers. The market wants what it wants, which is good looking billionaire alpha males (who don’t seem to work much) seducing impoverished virgins. Given the restrictions on what you can write (check out the list of rules on a lot of the publishers’ websites if you don’t believe me) it’s no wonder many novels sound the same and the market is saturated. Novels like Fifty Shades are great because the conflict was new even though the characters themselves were clichéd. Although those novels were heavily criticised, the fact that they broke out of the Romance novel box should be acknowledged.

I’ve nearly finished my third book, which like my first is paranormal. I’m often asked why I write books with supernatural elements, and this is the reason. Aliens, vampires and dystopian stories appeal to a lot of writers as new conflicts can be created because the rules of reality don’t apply. When you spend around a year writing about something, you need to make it interesting and internally coherent for yourself or the delete button starts singing its seductive siren song.