The Reality of Man Candy

Because I follow a lot of blogs and possibly because I share the interests of many women my age cough* cough*, my Facebook feed has become overwhelmed with photos of largely topless men and some who have only strategically placed items to protect what little modesty remains to them. I’ve thought it pretty amusing, but haven’t given it much further thought. Here’s one to show you what I mean (it’s not gratuitous, at all):

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Until this morning, when I came face to face with it. Given I live at the beach now, it shouldn’t have been surprising as there is a smorgasbord of young backpackers walking around sunning themselves. But this was different. It was a fair way back from the beach, up the hill where the residents live and outside the supermarket. A man, who would generously be about 30 years old, wearing shorts and  nothing else. He clearly put a huge amount of time and effort into the large and defined muscles on his body and equal time trimming his hair and beard. He could have been one of the chests that had popped up on my screen, the look was so familiar to me. But something about it was off.

Driving home, I tried to put my finger on what exactly it was that I found off-putting. Surely I should have been ogling, as I’m sure was his intent, given that all around him were fully clothed on this slightly chilly morning. And it wasn’t just that I couldn’t picture myself ever being with someone who looked like that, it was that I genuinely didn’t want to. Having dated a guy when I was much younger who spent an inordinate amount of time in the gym, I know how restrictive it is. It also tends to be boring, with your partner constantly being vigilant about what they eat and drink and tired because they work out so much.

As a woman, I know about the pressure society puts on you to look good. Though I might rail against it at times and the double standard, I still get my hair and nails done and put on makeup most days. It makes me feel good and I enjoy it, even while acknowledging to myself the increasing futility of meeting expectations while aging. I put in some effort, while consciously making the decision to not go to extremes, which for me is fillers onwards. I realise others draw the line earlier, possibly in the area of hair removal, others what I consider later with lasers, and some just ask “what line are you talking about?”. A couple of years ago, I did some copywriting for a plastic surgeon’s website and that for me was an eye-opener. I decided there was nothing about myself that I disliked enough to voluntarily be cut open and chopped up, and then deal with being in recovery for at least 2 months.

I look at those recognisably sliced and diced women that are common in the areas I frequent and I don’t understand the attraction to that look. But then I wonder if I’m falling into the trap we accuse men of perpetuating of wanting us to look effortlessly, naturally beautiful instead of breaking the myth about how hard it actually is, as well as expensive, to look “normal”.

So this guy was essentially being a woman. In order to look as cut, muscled and groomed as he did, he would have had to prioritise looking good ahead of many things in his life. Given he was walking around half-dressed at 9.30am on a weekday morning, he probably wasn’t heading off to an office job and he didn’t look like someone who got their hands dirty working a trade.  I’m assuming that whatever job he had, it would relate in some way to how he looked.

If he had been a woman, I probably would have admired the commitment and the end result before moving on. But a man doing the same thing! Shock and horror. What a waste of time! He probably would look better if he didn’t try as hard. Cue the brain explosion…

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Is Real Necessarily Better than Fake?

I was looking at one of those home sale websites (actually several, but that’s a separate issue) that fill up my inbox. Generally I ignore them, but we’re moving house so I’m all reinvigorated housefrau, hell bent on having a spotless & flawlessly decorated trophy house, at least until we’ve actually moved, then I revert to my usual token surface dusting slackness. Along with the usual handwoven rugs and ugly bedding sets, there was, on both sites I visited, sales on bogus plants.

They seem like a great idea – no watering or sudden death and they always look the same. No drooping gerberas to mess with the still going strong roses. On a side note, why can’t florists time it so everything goes south at around the same time? At least then I wouldn’t feel bad about chucking the lot. Instead I have to deal with some extra guilt in throwing away still living flowers (who might somehow be aware they’ve been thrown in with the lawn clippings) or spend time every day playing God in deciding on the fate of individual flowers. “You’re dead. You’re close enough,” I think, arbitrarily plucking them from the life sustaining water.

thMDATHANJIf I had fake flowers, I wouldn’t have to deal with this. I have enough guilt in my life with the kids, the dog, the state of the house, the state of my career, etc. It is an extension of the Christmas tree dilemma – which I solved years ago by getting a fake tree. The kids help assemble it and it’s become a nice tradition. It also means that I don’t have to deal with the remorse from killing a tree, watching in slowly droop, turn brown and die in the hot Australian summer, which is not the best time for pine trees. It doesn’t feel part of the Christmas spirit to watch the centrepiece of your celebration die. Sure a fake tree doesn’t smell as good, but I think the whole non-death thing far outweighs the cons.

Where am I going with this? Fake flowers are on par with fake people. It might seem a stretch, but bear with me. There’s been a lot of attention on Kim Kardashian and the nudes and whether or not the photo is recent and how all those people taking selfies are essentially faking it because it takes a hundred to get a good one and lots of time and effort went into taking a photo that looks like it was effortless and no one’s life is like it is on Facebook, Instagram, etc. I get that – my Instagram looks like I’m constantly writing, when instead I’m mostly wandering aimlessly around the house or looking at stock photos pretending I’m creating teasers for books I haven’t finished writing yet.

A fake plant might create the illusion at first glance that you are a whizz with plants, much like getting botox will make you, on superficial level, look 10 years younger (but then you move or talk and the illusion is broken). And that’s okay. The thing with fake plants and fake lives is that if everyone is only looking on a superficial level, then everyone can look great. And there is something really pleasant about that. Sometimes you don’t want to see the lines and effort and dust. You might need a break from all the reality to recharge mentally. It doesn’t mean that you want to only look at the surface all the time and if you care to look, it’s pretty obvious that most of the things we are seeing are not real.

So instead of blaming the person who’s putting a synthetic version of themselves out there and judging them harshly, maybe we should give them a break. Maybe their plants keep dying and they need a fake orchid in a pot plant with fake moss or the life equivalent of it. Not everyone is good with plants and houses and kids and work, all at the same time.

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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.

 

Meh – a fashion moment

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Last week the world passed me by in a blur. It was one of those weeks where I was so busy with one area of my life that I did the bare minimum to keep everything else functioning. I’m helping out a friend with her business while she’s away on holidays and given that I have only a fraction of the necessary knowledge, was flying by the seat of my pants on the verge of panic most of the week. The phone ringing sent an icicle of dread to skewer my innards, not knowing if I was going to look like a complete moron when someone asked me a question. Fortunately, many of the phone calls were marketers of some description and I was probably the only person they had called that day who was actually happy it was them on the other end. Not that I didn’t hang up, but hopefully they sensed my joy.

One of the moments that stood out in the fog of the rest of the week happened as I was walking past Hermes. Normally I glance at the windows and like your average woman, move on. I barely spared a moment to consider the likelihood of ever purchasing an item from the store. Sure I’d love a Kelly bag, but realistically, I’m unlikely to ever think that $25,000 for an entry level bag is a justifiable expense. On this day though, out of a side door came a swirl of models, dressed head to toe in garments that I could barely fathom the price of. The first impression I had was that they were all teeny tiny people, though strangely enough very tall, wearing various shades of caramel. Their skinny legged pants that fit without a hint of stretchiness skimmed their fragile looking ankles, at length that very few people can carry off without looking like an awkward teenager who suddenly grew. Their heels were so high, anyone but a professional would be kissing the ground like the pope. They swept out one door, walked two steps then flowed in a line through another door which was blocked to the public by a security guard. It was a mysterious manoeuvre that I will never know the purpose of, and part of me is insanely curious as to why it happened. What was the purpose of going in and out of the same building through a door mere steps away?

I was left with the impression of beautifully made clothes in lovely fabrics, worn by someone who was shaped completely differently to me and frankly, mostly everyone. I thought about it, and even if I had the money to spend on these clothes, the problem is that they wouldn’t suit me even though I’m fairly averagely sized. Fashion is something that isn’t made for most of us. If I took the time, I’m sure I could understand what makes one design different to another and where the inspiration for particular pieces came from. But like learning the workings of an internal combustion engine, I have the mental capacity for it, but not the interest. A friend of mine who is obsessed with fashion, says that it makes the world a more beautiful place. I’m all for that, but I really don’t think that’s where most designers are going. It seems to me that by making clothes for and advertising clothes on people who bear only a passing resemblance to everyone else, you are really only interested in beautifying a very small section of the world. There is a reason for flowers to be colourful and a point to the stunningly beautiful wings of a butterfly, but the purpose of high end, ridiculously expensive fashion still eludes me.

When does marketing become cheating?

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Being a less than successful author leaves you open to a whole lot of helpful hints on how to make your book sell better. Given than none of the people offering advice have been in publishing, and I know almost nothing about marketing (what the f**k is a hashtag anyway?) these conversations tend to go round in circles. Friends in marketing for other industries have offered some useful insights, but none that my PR retarded self has converted to actual sales.

Several times the subject of “buying” reviews from India has come up as a suggestion. My immediate reaction has been “can’t, that’s cheating”, but the reply I got today was “no, that’s marketing”. The theory is that you have to spend money “advertising” your product, which in book terms means getting reviews and your book noticed. If you have a few hundred dollars to throw at it and it’s the most effective way of getting a return on that investment, then the logical path to follow would lead to the sub-continent.

Is it morally any different from buying a cake from the supermarket and dressing it up to pass off as your own? Taking the tags off new items of clothing and pretending they’re old? Buying ad space on a website that will then give a glowing review to your product? Pretending you have the degree you nearly finished? I knew someone who did that and I don’t think they were ever pulled up on it. These are all things that go to your credibility, but are hardly going to bring about the apocalypse.

The thing is, I’ve read a few books that had lots of amazing 5 star reviews, and realised after finishing that there was nothing redeeming about it and a book with that many typos and grammatical errors, as well as leaps in logic would never on its own get such a good rap. So I know they bought the reviews and I won’t read anything by that author again. Their next book might be a huge improvement, but I’ll never know (unless one of my favourite book bloggers recommends it and everyone else is reading it, then my militant stance will be out the window).

“But your book is good!” is the next response. Thanks, but everyone thinks their book is good or they wouldn’t put it out there. Also, you like me so you’re biased.

Marketing is never going to be my thing and I have enormous respect people who do it well and come up with new and exciting ways to promote their books. People outside the industry might not get why most of us will never buy reviews for $5 a pop, but writers in there for the long haul want to build up goodwill and loyal readers. After all, who is actually doing it for the money?

When exactly are you a “success”?

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I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what it would take for me to consider myself a success. It could be the less than overwhelming response to my last book or the approach of a large numbered birthday, but there has been an unusual amount of navel gazing. If I don’t figure this out shortly, I’m likely to run into something hard and its going to hurt. I don’t do a lot of the angst-filled woe-is-my-life thing generally, so it could just be that I’m not that good at it, but I can’t figure out exactly when or how I could get to the exact spot where I nod my head sagely, decide that I have made it and have a lengthy lie down. If it’s money earned, how much? If it’s book sales, how many? There’s really no end point. Number of books published? What did the last one do?

Lying down is something that I do well (which could be another reason for the aforementioned issues with success) but even so, I have trouble picturing myself relaxing, job done. And this is from someone who has envisioned multiple battle scenes between imaginary creatures with barely a passing sweat. I’ve jumped a few hurdles – I got an agent and a publishing deal – but even then, that’s not quite enough. The agent didn’t sell either of my books and even with a publisher, there is no guarantee of sales. Like a desperate miner panning for gold, I’m hoping the next one will be the one to make it (or the one after that possibly). It’s the hope that keeps you going and the fact that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. But what if I stopped chasing success? It would do away with the nagging feelings of disappointment when things don’t go as I envisioned, but would that just be accepting failure? If there is no hunger (or more superficially the ability to haul out some actual accomplishments when meeting people at parties) is there a reason to get out of bed in the morning, other than small children bouncing on my head?

It was suggested to me by someone recently that maybe I could write a non-controversial, sweet, formulaic novel and possibly make some decent sales. My immediate reaction was NO! Absolutely not! but then I thought about it some more. There is nothing wrong with me doing that, it’s not like I have delusions of grandeur, but deep down there is a fear that even if I did that, sold myself to the devil of commercialism, it still might not sell. And that would leave me in the completely untenable position of having nothing else to blame. I need to hold on to my excuses, along with the idea that I’d rather write something I find interesting than solely for the money. But between you and me? I’d write anything if it was certain to be another Fifty Shades and I defy you to find another writer who’d disagree.