Romanticizing Darcy

So I read this article today about how Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy is a less worthy hero than Bhaer from Little Women. I’ll admit here and now that I love Jane Austen and never could get into Louisa May Alcott, so I’m probably biased from the get go. But I also am not the type to enjoy “bad boy” stories, alpha male romantic interests, etc. And so I think this article misses the mark.

One of the fundamental assumptions of the article is that Mr. Darcy changes personality over the course of the novel—Lizzie changes him. I agree that in fiction I find the woman-makes-him-a-better-man thing annoying and problematic. But I’ve never read P&P that way. To me, Darcy doesn’t change. He’s always himself. He just has a really hard shell and a gooey center. Lizzie doesn’t change him, she cracks him open in a way only those close to him have ever been able to do.

Take it from Darcy’s side. Here is a man who (a) must fend off women on a regular basis, and (b) also has a young sister to worry about. He has many responsibilities and a lot on his mind. One can hardly blame him for knowing Mrs. Bennet for who and what she really is—a grasping mama. He’s surely dealt with his share of them before coming to Netherfield. He’s learned to be wary, and he’s put up necessary defences that make him standoffish and seemingly rude. But that’s a matter of self-preservation, really.

I’m probably making excuses because I so adore the book, but I still believe my argument is valid. On the flip side, I do prefer nice men to dominant alphas, which is why there are scads of books I don’t read. I don’t find the alpha male trope hot or romantic. Which is why you won’t find them in anything I write, either. And yes, I think it’s possible to write a nice guy character that is still interesting. (Well, they’re interesting to me, anyway. But maybe I’m alone in that.)

What do you think? Darcy: yea or nay? Is he just a Georgian-era bad boy? Who are your favorite romantic heroes?

Thank an Author?

I’ve seen a resurgence of posts saying some variation of: “The best way to thank an author is to write a review!” I’ll admit I’ve even (re)posted these from time to time.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think readers are looking to “thank” authors.

I’m not saying readers are ungrateful. I just don’t think couching it in terms of gratitude is useful. An author does his or her job by writing what hopefully is a good book. A reader then purchases that book. To many readers, that’s the end of the transaction. Readers figure that when they buy our books, we’ve made our money. They’ve done their part. And then we go and ask for additional work from them and tell them they should be grateful we’ve done our jobs and entertained them.

You don’t see posts saying, “The best way to thank an actor is to write a review!” Or, “The best way to thank a band is to write a review!” Why do we do this for authors then? Do we really think it will motivate readers? In my experience it doesn’t.

I would very much appreciate more reviews. But I’ll equally admit that, after closing a book, my first thought is seldom if ever, “Gee, I wish I could thank that author!” In fact, it’s human nature to be more likely to write a review complaining about something bad than one praising something good. We expect good; we feel entitled to it, particularly after spending our money. When something isn’t good, we’re angry and want others to know it.

(I do write reviews, btw. I post them on my spooklights blog and on Goodreads. If I were a better person, I’d also post them on Amazon. For some reason I can’t seem to ever remember to do that. So I guess I shouldn’t complain when others don’t do it for me either.)

The big question is: How do we motivate readers to leave reviews? We can try explaining the importance of those reviews—that without them, authors can’t afford to keep writing and publishing books. So if you like an author’s work and want more, show your support by reviewing. I don’t know if that would work, but I do believe people like to believe they’re helping, that they’re contributing to a worthwhile cause.

Then again, even without reviews, there will always be authors writing and publishing. So readers aren’t going to lack for books if a few under-reviewed authors fall out of the machinery.

Asking for applause is a tad gauche. And that’s what reviews are: textual applause. (Or boos, if the reviews are bad.) How can authors instill the habit of reviewing in readers? We all know to clap after a live performance; sometimes we even give a standing ovation. But theatre has been around for centuries, and when watching something live, we can see the hard work going into the show. How can we help readers appreciate the same for writing?

I don’t pretend to have answers. I just think it’s worth posing the question. In order to get more reviews, we need to examine the culture around writing and publishing and reading—we need to figure out how to add that final step of reviewing to the chain so that it becomes a regular part of the cycle. And to do that, we need to understand how people read and what motivates them. If and when they review, why? Only when we have a clearer picture can we hope to make better progress . . . and get more reviews.

Luck & the Ladder

This morning, author Chuck Wendig posted a really nice Twitter thread about maximizing your luck as an author. Here’s the first tweet:

If you click on it, you can then read the entire thread.

Chuck (if I may be so informal) makes a lot of good points. Writing isn’t a meritocracy. You can work really hard and still not succeed. In a society that has shown us again and again in movies, television, and yes, books, that hard work always pays off, this can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Luck plays a pretty significant role in success . . . of any kind, really, but we’ll stick to writing for now. But as Chuck also notes, you can maximize your chances. Write a really good book, or better yet, write several.

Now, I’ll admit I always bristle just a little when an already successful person tries to pat me on the head and give me advice. I suppose they think it’s helpful, but it’s a little too diffuse to be truly useful. “Go write some more” isn’t some great kernel of knowledge. Still, I know Chuck and his ilk mean well when they hand down their opinions and musings like gods spitting peanut shells from their thrones in the clouds. So I try to take it in the spirit it’s intended.

One piece of advice he gives, however, is to write more. And besides the fact that pretty much everyone gives that advice, it only serves to kick people like me—slow, deliberate crafters of tales—in the gut. I write 1-2 books a year. I know I should write more and faster, but I simply cannot. It’s not for lack of trying, but you might as well tell a fish to climb a tree. It isn’t going to happen.

Does that make me a bad writer? It’s an honest question; I have no idea.

Chuck also points out that writing to market rather than writing what you want to write is probably not the best choice. And he talks about helping other writers by talking about them and their work, introducing them to agents and editors, building community . . . But I’ve written in the past about how a bunch of new writers can’t really help each other much. They need established authors, editors, agents to reach down the ladder and pull them up a bit. And yet it seems like once someone gets a few rungs up the ladder, their interest in helping those below wanes. There are a few reasons for this. Some people, once they’ve made it over the hurdle, feel like others should have to do it themselves. I did it and no one helped me, so why should I help anyone?

Others feel like it’s a zero-sum game. They think if they help anyone else, they’ll lose their chance at making it all the way to the top. They’re afraid helping others will pull them back down a rung. They’re afraid of losing the tenuous position they’ve worked so hard to establish. They begin defending their territory rather than opening the borders.

And some are just frightened and overwhelmed by the cries for help. I imagine it looks a bit like a scene from a zombie movie. Say there’s a mass of people trying to make it to the ladder that leads to safety. They’re swarming around the bottom of this ladder, desperate. And if you make it partway up, and you look down into this mass of humanity, it looks pretty scary. You wouldn’t even know where to begin to help any of them. If you reach down, they’ll hungrily grab at you, may even rip your arm off. As it is, they make break the ladder before you can get to the top. So maybe this feeds into the previous observation, that need to defend your space lest you be dragged back down.

Then again, maybe you build more ladders. Maybe you throw some ropes over that wall so lots of people can climb.

Actions, amIright? I know we’re writers, but sometimes we still have to do instead of relying on our words.

It’s one thing to post a long Twitter thread cheering people on. That’s nice and all, but even if the thread is true and reasonable and posted with the best possible intentions, it’s no ladder.

It’s fair of you to ask at this point, “Okay, so what do you do to help other authors?” Well, I’m not all that successful yet, but I still try to help those coming after me, or even my peers. I give workshops on the writing and publishing process. I let fellow authors know of opportunities I think they may be interested in. And I’m an editor, so I help my selected writing groups by giving feedback that I’d normally charge for. I do what I can, and hopefully one day I’ll be in a position to do more. If the zombies don’t get me, and so long as no one pulls up the ladder before I can get there.

Self-Exploitation

I was listening to a podcast today about upcoming movies for the year, and the podcasters went off on a tangent about a dad’s memoir about his son, and how this dad has also written powerful essays about things he and his son went through. (I’m being intentionally vague here. Why should I shill for this guy and his movie? Though I’m sure it would be easy enough to find out which one I mean.)

It’s natural, I think, to feel that prick of jealousy when some [other] author is being touted. And of course I can’t help thinking, Sure, and of course it’s a man and his son, because their stories are valued. But then I have to ask myself whether I’m willing to pillage my own history for the attention it might win me as an author. And the answer to that has always been: No.

The truth is, I don’t want to be known for some of the things that I would become known for if I did that. If I decided to write about some specific aspects of my past—things I prefer to keep quiet; things I would rather not rehash or relive—I would then walk around with a label on my forehead. And I don’t want that. I don’t want the first thing people think of me or associate with me to be XYZ. I’d rather be taken on my own merits, even if they are mediocre.

Also, if I start talking about them, everyone will want me to talk about them. And I already don’t want to talk about them.

This has been a conscious decision all my life, so I can’t really be annoyed when someone takes the other road. After all, it does take a kind of strength to share these personal things.

Sometimes I’m told that I owe it to society to share my past, that to do so would help others. But I’m not convinced of that, and I don’t think I bear that burden. I’ll share my stories in my own way, in fictitious ways. I will plant the truth like seeds in my make believe. That is enough for me. That is as close as I want to get to opening up my chest and exposing my heart.

And whether anyone else likes my stories, which are my garden, and whether anyone else notices the sprouts of what has been planted, well . . . That’s rather beside the point, I think. A good story stands on its own, regardless of its creator’s history. A beautiful garden is best viewed in the absence of the cultivator.

It’s Not Yours

Yesterday I read this article in which Martin Freeman, who played John Watson in Sherlock, rants a bit about alternate readings of the text. Namely, he insists that there’s nothing gay in Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, it was never played that way.

My initial gut reaction was, “Wow, that’s a really strong and seemingly homophobic reaction.” But what I think really bothered me about it was the suggestion that the however many viewers who read the text differently had somehow done it wrong.

The moment a book or film or television series meets the public, it no longer belongs to the creator(s). Not the writer, not the actors, not the director, etc. It becomes the property of those who engage with the text. They get to read it and interpret it however they want. It may not be what you intended, and some interpretations may be a stretch, but there is no right and wrong.

One of the first things they taught us in Radio-Television-Film courses at uni was “encoding” and “decoding.” This is the fundamental of all communication, from speaking to writing to filming. You say something, or write something, or perform an action, and the listener/reader/viewer takes that information and decodes its meaning. Some messages are fairly simple. There are only so many ways my son can interpret, “Clean your room.” But if I want to be really clear, I might break it down into: “Put all the clothes on the floor in the laundry basket and make your bed.” Otherwise, his idea of “clean” and mine might not be the same.

When dealing with books or film or television, however, the author of the text is not there to explain the work as the reader or viewer engages with it. Nor would we want them to be. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie with someone explaining everything as things happen. Part of the joy of reading and watching shows is extrapolating information for ourselves. Our brains like having to work.

Look at all the fan theories for various shows, the online communities. People love taking things apart, breaking things down. And the choices they make for that process—the lines along which they break things, the metrics they use—are going to be wide ranging and, at the same time, very personal.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a queer reading of Sherlock is par for the course. There is a grand history of queer readings of all kinds of things, and to stomp your foot and say, “No!” is childish and naïve.

When I’ve been asked about—or sometimes told—things that appear in my books and stories, I don’t say, “You’re wrong.” (Well, maybe if they have a detail or fact incorrect.) I say something like, “That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way.” Or, “Well, that’s not what I had in mind at the time, but I see where you might read it that way.” There’s room for everyone and their ideas, after all, and I’m just flattered they’ve taken the time to think that much about it.

Thing is, I know I can’t control how people will receive my work. I know that, once they’re holding that book, it’s no longer mine. It’s theirs, and they will interpret it however they want, in whatever ways work for them. To throw a little tantrum over it would be unprofessional to say the least and smacks of dictatorship at the worst.

The only way to make sure people read your text the way you want them to is to never write or film it at all.

Six Years: A Reflection

Six years ago today we put our six-year-old, our three-year-old, and our two-year-old on a plane and came to California. Although my husband had visited the state for the job interview, I never set foot in it until it became my home.

That was nothing new, actually. I had a history of moving to places sight unseen. I’d taken a train to Boston for graduate school, never having been anywhere on the Eastern seaboard before, and on the first day of class I met the man I eventually married. And while I didn’t love Massachusetts, it seems there was a destined reason for my having gone there.

Still, twelve years later I was more than ready to leave.

California is, in many ways, easier to love. That’s why so many people live here, I suppose. Which is one of the things not to love: the traffic. Massachusetts had that, too, but it’s worse here.

California does have an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables all year ’round. And it only has snow if you want it. (Here they “go to the snow,” to which I say, “no thank you.”) Of course, it also has droughts, or at least it has in recent years. And earthquakes.

Ever since I was young, I imagined I would live in California some day. I had the opportunity to go to school here, but I couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition. I was offered an internship that I had to turn down because, again, I couldn’t afford to move and get a car and live on no wages. A producer I worked for asked if I’d like to work in the L.A. office, but I foolishly said I’d rather finish my degree. (Maybe not foolishly; I would not have met my husband if I’d taken that path.)

Still, I had faith I’d get here. That I was meant to be here. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right all those other times. Or maybe every path was different and this is just the one I ended up on. Maybe after twelve years of seasonal depression and panic attacks in the Northeast, I’d finally earned this reward.

Well, I didn’t earn it, my husband did. He works hard, and when I finally broke down, he acted quickly to move me to a place that would be better for me mentally, emotionally, and physically.

We landed, six years ago, at 9:00 p.m., which was midnight Eastern time. The kids refused to sleep on the plane ride, so they were punchy and cranky as we made our way to the rental car counter. And we were all hungry. It turned out there was an In-N-Out Burger near our temporary housing, so our first official stop in California was the drive thru.

Now, every year on Pi day, we get In-N-Out and then eat pie. It’s a happy tradition, something we all look forward to. And I look forward to many more happy years here, too.

Proust Questionnaire

I came across this Proust questionnaire that Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) answered. He admits on the questionnaire itself that he was “jaded” at the time. So I decided to try answering the questions myself, or at least some updated ones I found on Vanity Fair.

__1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Not having anything I have to do and being free to do only what I want to do.

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

Oddly specific, but it’s being trapped in a car that has gone into the water.

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Selfishness.

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Similar selfishness. Really it’s the way others don’t take anyone but themselves into account.

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

. . . ??? I’m not sure I admire anyone.

__6.__What is your greatest extravagance?

Being a writer.

__7.__What is your current state of mind?

Open.

__8.__What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Exercising and eating healthy.

__9.__On what occasion do you lie?

To spare feelings. Not lie, exactly, but soften the truth.

__10.__What do you most dislike about your appearance?

My jawline. I think I will want a facelift some day.

__11.__Which living person do you most despise?

Donald Trump.

__12.__What is the quality you most like in a man?

Gentlemanliness.

__13.__What is the quality you most like in a woman?

A lack of jealousy.

__14.__Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Sure.”

__15.__What is your favorite color and flower?

Indigo; daffodil.

__16.__When and where were you happiest?

London. Just wandering the city on my own.

__17.__Which talent would you most like to have?

The ability to draw.

__18.__If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

My dependency on others.

__19.__What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Raising good kids. (I hope.) If that fails, at least I’ve written some decent books.

__20.__If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A cat of some sort.

__21.__Where would you most like to live?

Abroad.

__22.__What is your most treasured possession?

My laptop.

__23.__What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Rejection.

__24.__What is your favorite occupation?

Being productive.

__25.__What is your most marked characteristic?

Laziness.

__26.__What do you most value in your friends?

Loyalty. I like people who value me as much as I value them.

__27.__Who are your favorite writers?

Tana French, Kate Morton, Ben Aaronovitch, Shakespeare, Jane Austen

__28.__Who is your hero of fiction?

Peter Stoller. I know I created him, but that makes him my hero.

__29.__Which historical figure do you most identify with?

No idea. Which is impressive since I love history. But at the moment I’m drawing a blank.

__30.__Who are your heroes in real life?

The everyday ones: police, firefighters, etc. People who do real work that matters.

__31.__What are your favorite names?

Alexander, Evangeline, Robert, Elizabeth

__32.__What is it that you most dislike?

Spiders.

__33.__What is your greatest regret?

Missed opportunities. So many times I said “no” when I should have said “yes.”

__34.__How would you like to die?

I wouldn’t. But if I have to, in my sleep, please.

__35.__What is your motto?

I like the line from the Tabitha’s Secret song: “All is nothing in moderation.”

Did I Hear That Right?

There are some words and phrases that, because I was a precocious reader as a child, I understood out of context but didn’t truly comprehend. One that comes to mind is: “bleeding like a stuck pig.”

I don’t know where I first read or heard this phrase, but for the longest time I had a mental image of a piglet that was stuck trying to get under a fence. I didn’t quite understand where the bleeding came in. Was the fence sharp? Maybe it was made of barbed wire? Who puts a barbed-wire fence around a pig sty?

Only years later did I stop and think, Maybe not “stuck” as in, you know, stuck. Maybe “stuck” as in “stabbed”? Stuck with a knife?

Then I wondered for a while why anyone would stab a pig. To butcher it?

And finally: Maybe “pig” in the derogatory sense? Like slang for a police officer?

Well, it made more sense than an actual pig stuck under a fence anyway.

I still don’t know if that’s actually what that phrase is referring to, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I know what it means in use, if not its extrapolation. (And sure, I could look it up, but where’s the fun in that?)

Okay, I have eight paperback copies of The K-Pro to give away. To enter to receive one, simply tell me in the comments about a word or phrase you misunderstood and how you came to learn the truth. Please keep it clean. I don’t mind hearing how you learned about a sexual innuendo so long as you don’t get graphic about it. If more than eight people comment, I’ll use a randomizer to select winners. Entries accepted through 10:00 p.m. PST, Monday 19 February. I look forward to hearing your stories!

CDs Save the Day

My car is seven years old, but because I don’t drive very much, it has only 58k miles on it. It’s a great car and will probably last forever at this rate, the one drawback being that, due to OS updates, it can no longer pair with my phone and I can’t use my iPod in it any more.

Satellite radio has its limitations, namely in that it doesn’t play only songs I like and want to hear. It also plays the same handful of songs repeatedly. So while I appreciate the lack of radio advertisements, I still can’t enjoy my satellite radio for any length of time.

BUT. My car is also just old enough to still have a CD player. And I am just old enough to have an album full of CDs that I couldn’t bring myself to part with. Good thing, too! Because I am now enjoying these CDs again and remembering what it was like to listen to a complete album in its intended order.

We have no other CD player, not in another car, not in the house. There’s this idea that everything can exist “in the cloud” or digitally or whatever, but sometimes you actually need physical media. Technology moves so fast that the physical world can’t always keep up. And it doesn’t always need to, either. For me, right now, CDs are fine. In fact, they currently work better for me than the latest, newfangled thing.

Sometimes we race ahead just to see how far we can go. And that’s fair. It’s natural to test our limits. But just because we can go farther doesn’t mean all the stuff we’ve passed by on the way is worthless.

New isn’t always best, or even better. Sometimes new is just new and nothing more.

IWSG: Regrets?

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Question of the Month: As you look back on 2017, with all its successes and failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

I recently posted a retrospective of 2017 in terms of my writing, and overall it’s been a really good year. However, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do some things a little differently! For one, instead of releasing one book in February and another in May, I’d have spread them out more. I had strong sales over the summer, but due to a lack of anything new (except my Moriarty story), things began slumping come October. Well, I attribute at least some of that slump to having no other big release. I know part of it is probably holidays, too. I really should write something seasonal . . .