Thursday, May 18, 2006

What Does It Mean?

What does it mean when books that celebrate true affection between two consenting adults are considered childish and inappropriate? What does it mean when a comic book depicting love (not even gratuitous sex) is banned when ones where people routinely destroy each other are acceptable?

I was recently asked when I leant some romance novels out why I still read them. Hadn't I grown out of them?

The question is nothing new. For years, I hid my reading material the way we used to hide comic books inside of our math textbooks. I spoke of romances in a hushed voice, stunned to discover other people read them too.

But through all that, I never stopped reading for long. Where else can you find a book that focuses almost entirely on the moment of connection and the emotions growing from that moment? Despite their trials, whether through kidnappings and murders or just a disapproving father or a business about to fail, the characters hold out for hope and love and all the tender emotions so often missing from our daily lives.

If each of those road rage monsters out there shooting people for fun would read a romance or two, maybe they'd calm down a bit. Maybe if we weren't surrounded by violence in our reading, television and down at the corner store, maybe if each of us could reserve a moment for those tender emotions that bind us together...

Okay, maybe that's taking it a bit far, but I'd be interested in a study of the emotional states and stress levels of people after they read a romance novel compared to reading a thriller. How about compared to reading a literary novel about child abuse or suicide?

I know that romance novels are not out to change the world. They don't intend to so why anyone is surprised, I don't understand. Why is it that mysteries and thrillers (about violence and death) are acceptable and romances (about love) are not? It says something that romance novels make up the majority of annual book sales at least in the US. So what's with the brown paper packages?

I had an interesting discussion once with a Swede I believe about how in his country, the violent books, magazines, and movies were behind the counter and the sex magazines were up front. It's a cultural distinction and a fascinating one.

Now I'm not saying I'm ready to answer the questions that would come from my boys reading porn, but I'd love them to read some romance novels. Sure, the books have passion and sexual tension in them. And they certainly don't hold to the "no premarital sex standard" anymore, but they're about committing to one person. Finding the right match for you and hanging on through all sorts of trouble. They're about optimism and about it all coming out all right no matter how bad it seems. When I'm stressed or depressed, I know I can count on them for just a smidge of positive thought. Where else can you be sure of that? How many people suffer from temporary or permanent depression (non-clinical), whose lives don't even have a spark of hope or optimism? Wouldn't they be better off with material that holds out hope for the future no matter how grim today is?

Okay, here's my Pollyanna moment, but I read a psychological study once that found when people forced themselves to smile, their attitude actually improved. Doesn't it then follow if you can sink into a book with characters full of that same optimism and happiness that some will rub off?

Are they works of literature designed to stand the test of time? No. Can frequent readers quote special passages that touched them in some way? You betcha. That's what romances are all about: touching people's emotions in a way that lingers and gives us something to hold on to. That doesn't sound like something I want to outgrow. I hope I never become too cynical to appreciate moments of hope and optimism. I hope that seeing people achieve happiness, whether in life or literature, always charges me a little myself and offers up energy to share with others. Who knows what type of person I'd be if I didn't read romances? I, for one, have neither the inclination nor the intention of finding out.

Go ahead. Step outside your prejudice and read a romance novel with an open mind. Does knowing the killer will be caught make a murder mystery not worth reading? Then why would knowing that they'll somehow find their way through the obstacles to true love make a romance formulaic and crass? Do they have to die in each other's arms like Romeo and Juliet to make it worth the time? All I'm saying is that few of the people who have questioned my reading have actually read romances, especially not modern (post about 1985) ones. No one questions my SF or Fantasy reading. Or when I read Marx or biographies of Manhattan Project scientists. It's not my reading that lacks variety and scope, so it must be a choice. Maybe after this, some of the reasons for that choice will be clear.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Life's Not Fair!

No, this is not a rant about my latest rejection, about the troubles in my life, or about how my teenager and preteen can't stop poking each other until I squeal. It's just a stray thought I had and it's been a while since I've written one up to share.

At this very moment (yes, I shouldn't be wasting this word count), I am participating in one of my favorite Forward Motion challenges, the May Story A Day. Each year, I promise myself I will participate come Hell or high water, plans, deadlines, even conferences. And each year since the first I've come away mildly disappointed, my story counts dropping from that original success either because of self-imposed edit deadlines, money work deadlines, or even the dreaded word count increase (because a 500-word story and a 5000-word story both still count as one).

Why? Because life's not fair.

There's a whole process out there for businesses called SMART for employ goal setting. I can't remember what all the letters stand for but the critical ones are measurable and achievable. I know that sounds like its coming out of left field, but bear with me for a moment. I watch people compare themselves to others every day, and often find themselves coming up short. Those that come up happy are arrogant and despised. In other words, you can't win.

So I, in my grandest wisdom, decided I couldn't compare myself to others. To do so would be insane. I'll never be able to write as much as Sheila Viehl or Lazette Gifford. I can improve my craft as much as I want to, but in the tangibles, the measurable goals, I'd chosen models that produce at a level beyond me. That way lies burnout, not success.

Sounds pretty put together and mature, doesn't it? Oh, wait for it...that's right. Life's not fair.

Remember that mild disappointment? The first year I wrote 20 stories for SAD, the second 15, the third 10, and I'm hoping to match the 10 this year but may end up with eight. Here I am carefully comparing myself, and coming up short. Sadly, I'm not the Dali Lama, Mother Teresa, or Gandhi. I have not achieved Nirvana or any other form of peace. And no matter what I do, I'm slipping further from those goals that I thought matched the SMART logic perfectly.

So being me, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, depressing myself, wondering if I peaked three years ago and now could only face the slow decline into exhaustion and ultimate failure. (By now some of my friends are laughing themselves silly while kicking me under the table :p.)

No, I still haven't found that inner peace and balance. My emotions haven't caught on to what my head has discovered no matter how much I try to pretend that's true. However, I thought I'd share what I have learned in case one or two of you are teetering on that same brink and letting your apparent slippage get you down.

You can wander over to my website for some specific statistics, but they'll show you exactly what I'm talking about. They'll show a steady decline in word count, writing challenge participation, sheer production numbers of novels and short stories. If you read carefully, there's an increase in edits and submissions, but they don't really balance out the deficit.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe in SMART. I still think having measurable goals gives me something to work towards and something tangible to hold on to. However, what I've had to admit is that while my tangible counts have gone down, my intangibles have gone up. I read the stories I wrote three years ago and want to edit them from ground up because I can see the heart of what I was going for, but I didn't get there. I look at the huge number of short stories I completed for the first SAD and most of them are short sketches that qualify for the word story by the barest of margins. I read the novels I wrote this year at a grueling 500 words per hour compared to the 1k+ numbers I used to achieve and they're closer to publication quality than the others are after 2-3 edit passes. Another immeasurable is the number of rejections that seem to be near misses or "doesn't play well with others" as opposed to the standard form letters.

That's just me and my developments. None of these are things that I can use for goals either because they cannot be measured or because they are out of my control. What I'm trying to learn is to recognize them anyway. I need to say that 500 an hour is actually an improvement because the skill of the words on the page is that much greater. That the fewer numbers for SAD mean nothing compared to the quality and completeness of the stories I create. I'm not there yet, but recognizing the problem is half the battle, right?

So anyway, I'm using myself as an example, not of a paragon but of a person who consistently undermines herself :p, but this isn't really about me. I'm trying to reach out to everyone who looks at the tangible and dismisses the intangible because it's hard to measure.

Hang in there. Not only are you not alone, but I'd wager a guess you're (and so I'm) in pretty good company. I'm trying hard to stop taking the easy way out by focusing on the numbers I can post on my website. Instead, I'm trying to look at the bigger picture of where I am now compared to where I was then. Please, feel free to join me and leave that self-condemnation behind. Oh, and if you come up with a way to measure the intangibles? By all means share :D.

Monday, May 08, 2006

WarChild by Karin Lowachee

If you ever needed a sign that the rules can be broken, twisted, turned, and thrown out the window, WarChild is it. Even more, it is Karin Lowachee's first novel, so a newcomer can do so if they do so well.

This is a book you will love or hate. The main character is likeable and the events propelled me along, pulling me in despite myself. However, Jos is also driven rather than driving. He has decisions to make but they are points of emotional manipulation, leaving him to question everything he has ever known or accepted. This is not a simplistic book, or an easy read. It's tangled, emotionally compelling and draining all at once, and the type of book that sucks you in and you don't want to put it down.

At the same time as all the above is true, this book broke not just conventional rules, but the ones I've found in my own reading pleasure. I have some requirements in a story, things that I, as a reader, look for. This book does not offer them. Looking back from the end to the beginning, I can start to see the shape of the book, but going along, I could not. I did not know how it would end, but even more so I could not see any probabilities for how it would. And yet, I kept reading. I even made excuses to read.

There's no question in my mind why this novel won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. It's stunning and it works, though there are so many ways that it could have failed. I'm not saying the story is perfect, or the writing either. There were points when I slipped out of the story and one jarring time jump after which it took a moment to readjust back into the story line. But these pale next to the power and intensity of the novel. Really. Give WarChild a try. No matter what, I can't imagine a neutral reaction to this book as a possibility.

I purposefully avoided most specifics because they could prejudice anyone reading on my recommendation and because there is hardly anything I can say that doesn't reveal something crucial. I suppose I can safely mention that there are several factions in the war covered by the novel, and that the alien culture is not only well drawn, but also well characterized from the various perspectives. Sigh. And then I have to censor my next sentence because it would spoil.

I'll leave you all with one other note, one I wrote when reading the start of the novel. This is the writerly bit, I suppose, though it is a readerly reaction as well:

I was forewarned about the second person POV in the very beginning and this is not something I like in general, but I've never let such a concept stop me from trying something before ;). That said, this second person worked for me. Because I couldn't help myself, I tried to figure out why and this is what I came up with: The beginning of this novel is not written in traditional second person, which forces the reader into an awkward state of trying to wear someone else's skin (okay, my definition of traditional second person). Instead (and this is borne out by how the POV transitions), this second person is really first person in disguise. How I read this is as a first person account told through second person in the narrator's desperate attempt to gain some distance from what happened, to treat it as not having happened to him. It's an interesting effect whether intentional or not, and in this case, quite an effective one.