Monday, December 28, 2009

Divine Misdemeanors

Over my long Christmas weekend I read two books just for fun. Not because I know the authors, am planning to review them for anything, or think I might learn something. Not because they are market research, are in a genre I've ever written in, or were chosen by one of my book clubs.

I did not write. I did not blog. I did not use my cell phone or pull my laptop out of its satchel. I hung out with my family, played Nintendo, went to see a movie, and read.

Both novels I completed were the latest in long-running fantasy series. Besides that similarity, the two books differed greatly.

And I found myself thinking: at which stage in an author's career does the editor stop editing? Is it deadline pressure - the market demand for a book every six or twelve months pushing novels to the printer before they've had the appropriate amount of development? Or is it authorial pressure - I've become way too important for you to touch my beautiful prose? Or is it something else entirely?

I've always enjoyed Laurell K. Hamilton's story telling. She creates fantastic worlds and then teases me with just enough of a glimpse that I want more more more. But I frequently want more of some bits and less of others. The stories themselves are fabulous and compelling fantasies. But the writing does get in the way sometimes.

Early on in the Anita Blake series, the reader was subjected to lengthy examinations of the need to match the swoosh on one's black Nikes to one's t-shirts. And in one novel every single character used the phrase "ass deep in alligators" so frequently I thought it might make a dangerous drinking game.

But the books move quickly and the first person point of view - even though the narrator frequently frustrates me - puts me front and center in scenes that feel all too real. I just wish the characters would stop bickering so much. Some dialogue can remain internal. And quite a lot of internal dialog can be excised altogether without losing substance or voice. (Yes, I get the need for the characters to argue. But how often in real life do people really ask the police to step aside and put their investigations on hold so witnesses can have lengthy discussions about their personal lives, feelings, and relationships?)

So. The new Merry book. There's some of the writing style stuff that always takes me out of the story - the constant bickering, overly sensitive characters, and too-frequent pauses in the plot for exposition.

But there's also a compelling mystery and intriguing developments in the over-arching series plot. I finished the book feeling like I was just getting started. I wanted the rest of the story, the one that was picking up steam as the novel ended. So of course I'll buy the next book, and the author's strategy works very well.

I just wish there'd been less "telling" throughout, especially in dialogue - both internal and external. (This particular narrator tends to talk directly to the reader and over-explain her world to us.)

But additional editing could have smoothed over some of the rougher bits and reduced quite a bit of the repetition. (You've already explained that "thank you" is a deadly insult to the fey twice in this novel. I think readers get it without a third full explanation.)

In the end, I buy the books. In hardcover. And I'm only one of many who does so. So what the author's doing is working; each of her novels is an instant New York Times Bestseller. But in the interest of making the best book possible, it would be nice if there was a little more editorial oversight. (I'd like to point out here that Hamilton is FAR from the only successful author whose down-series titles seem to suffer from a lack of editorial guidance.)

For instance, did I really have to learn that the main character would like to go wash her face and brush her teeth, planned to go wash her face and brush her teeth, did go wash her face and brush her teeth, and HOW she washed her face and brushed her teeth four times in less than a page? Perhaps not. (Sadly, this is a real example.) Perhaps that could have been cut altogether and the author could have given me a little more information about the new faery sithen in Los Angeles.

Or perhaps it's a sign of a good story-teller that I - a mere reader and fan - am so engrossed in the story that I want to control its direction.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On First Drafts

I've written four novels in the last three years. Wow, that sounds cool when I add it all up. Especially when I stop to think that I'm getting better and faster at writing fiction all the time.

But I didn't set out to write four "practice" novels before I started polishing even one for submission to agents.

It makes sense, that I'd have to practice, learn, improve before being ready to create something worth publishing.

But I can't think about that and still write.

When I put everything on hold one November to draft my first novel, I refused to let myself edit or revise. I set aside all my fears and my internal editor. I told myself - as I typed furiously - that my prose sang. I told myself that I was writing The Great American Novel. I told myself that it would sell immediately after I finished it, before the end of the year, certainly. I told myself I'd be on Oprah and The Today Show and I'd make buckets of money faster than I could spend them.

That's what I had to do in order to get the story down.

Later there was plenty of time for doubt. Too much time, probably. I grew afraid to go back and reread. What if it's really really bad? And, of course, some of it is. But some of it is not!

Every step of the way, I have doubts. Is this the right direction for this story to take? Have I chosen the right perspective, style, character to tell the story? Would anybody want to actually read this? I know what's going to happen next; is it obvious to everyone? Does this suck?

One of my critique partners has a very different writing style from mine, and a different taste in reading materials to go along with it.

Earlier this week she told me, "I really like your story, your plot, your characters. I just think you need to work on your prose." She can't stand my pacing, my descriptions, my sentence length patterns, my sentence structures.

Maybe she's right, or maybe we just have different tastes. Either way, it's a bit disheartening to hear that your story and characters are good, if only you could just write.

Best not to think about that during a first draft. During the first draft, every time your fingers hit the keyboard, magic happens. Genius is transcribed. Something is created from nothing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mario Brothers Are Back

Sure, I've said that I don't sleep. I've said I'm busy. But I've also suggested that all work and no play makes Sarahlynn a sad, dull girl. So I play, too!

When dinner's in the oven and the girls spontaneously go downstairs to play for a few minutes, I break out the Wiimotes. When the girls go to bed on time and I want to goof around before picking up my freelance project, I break out the wiimotes.

Paul and I are playing the new Super Mario Brothers for Wii. We got it on vacation over Thanksgiving and our first experiences were with four person cooperative play with Paul's sister and her husband. Chaos! Impossible! Also, hilarious. My throat began to hurt from laughing so hard.

Since we've been home, Paul and I are questing together. This is both good and bad. In the hard stretches, it's really nice to be able to rely on someone else. If your character dies, your partner can pop your little safety bubble and bring you back into active play. And when you feel like you can't stand to fight through a stupid dungeon one more time, maybe your partner will stomp the monster and complete it for you.

On the other hand, I tend to play worse in cooperative play because I know I'm not fully responsible.  And with the way the game's set up, your partner tends to kill you a lot.  Inadvertantly, of course.  But say I'm jumping up through a series of sliding ledges.  If I stop or slow, I'll fall off.  But if my partner isn't keeping up and he falls off the bottom of the screen as it scrolls upwards with me?  He dies.

Paul (aka Luigi) also tends to jump on my head and shove me off cliffs a lot.  This problem happens much less frequently now that we've acknowledged that he simply must lead.  I don't mind following a lot of the time.  And here we are back at my review for The Surrendered Wife!

Seriously, I think it's great for couples to play together, whether it's tennis or board games or Nintendo.   And home-based games are fabulous once schedules are tied to wee ones.  (That was a tiny wiittle pun.)  Maybe this is WHY my freelance project is dragging on so long and WHY it takes me forever to finish editing a completed novel.

Or maybe it's what keeps me sane so that I can continue working.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is it the weekend?

No, I'm not complaining about a long Monday. Quite the opposite. I feel like it must be the weekend soon. I have that fabulous Thursday night feeling.

Thursday nights are great because there's only one work day between you and the promise of unstructured, fabulous weekend. (By Friday night I'm sometimes too exhausted to experience the excitement fully. And let's not face the fact that weekends are simply not as unstructured and carefree in reality as each looms in my fantasies.)

But back to tonight and my Thursday night/weekend feeling. Yesterday I was exhausted and depleted. I'm no more caught up on sleep tonight, and I'm still tired but I'm rejuvenated. What's the difference?

Book club.

I had dinner one-on-one with a fabulous friend tonight. Then we walked next door to my favorite coffee shop for our book club. A group of wonderful women sitting on couches, talking about a book, sipping hot drinks.

I hadn't even read this particular book (though I will!). It didn't matter. I feel . . . better.

Last week I found myself in an unpleasant conversation with a woman who Does Too Much. We all know this woman, I believe, or perhaps we know her brother. This woman feels guilty if she sits down to watch TV with her husband in the evening because she's not doing something productive. She does a lot of good and useful things in her community. But she's also frazzled, burned out, resentful, and negative.

A few of us were trying to explain the importance of taking care of oneself, saying "yes" to volunteer gigs that rejuvenate but setting down burdens that we're tired of carrying.

"Your group of younger moms is better at that, which is why so much falls on the rest of us," she replied.

Yowch. In this case, her criticism was poorly aimed. (She was talking to a group of very active and involved volunteers.) And I know that her problem is internal rather than external: being unable to say no, taking on too much, carrying others' burdens needlessly at times, and not taking time to replenish her reservoirs.

So tonight I'd like to thank my loving husband for encouraging me to do the things that make me feel whole, and thank my friends who help me relax, refill, restore. I am grateful, and I am well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm discussing The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle.  When I decided to tackle this project, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

It happened so simply.  I was clicking around on the web and stumbled upon a link to the author's website.  "I remember when that book came out," I thought.  "It sounded absolutely crazy and got tons of negative attention. I wonder what ever happened with all that."  Feeling in the mood to gawk, I clicked over.

The first thing I noticed was that the author considers herself a feminist and says the approach is about surrendering inappropriate control over one's husband (and others) rather than returning to the 50's or rebelling against feminism. Huh. That didn't sound so bad.  But why didn't she just say that, then?  The title of the book must really be misleading.  ("I adopted the world 'surrender' as my mantra, because it was shorter and more to the point than saying, 'stop trying to control everything.'" P. 19.)

I decided to read the book and review it.  I went into it with an open mind, reassured by what I'd discovered online.  What I discovered within the pages of the book was that the negative reviews I'd read were justified, the charges I'd discounted were true, and the approach really is about surrendering to your husband.

But also.  There's a TON of great stuff in here.  I've never read a book that gets so much wrong and so much right at the same time.  In the same chapter.  On the same page.  I'll be reading along, thinking, "Yes, right, good point, that's a good reminder, I really could be doing better at that."  Then, all of a sudden, KAPOW!  Did she really just say that?  Oh, yes, she did!  And since the book is extremely repetitive, there's no chance of quickly skimming over or pretending that you just misread the crazy extreme to which Doyle takes her advice.

 So I'm reading along, reading about the principles of a surrendered wife:
  • Relinquishes inappropriate control of her husband
  • Respects her husband's thinking
  • Receives his gifts graciously and expresses gratitude for him
  • Expresses what she wants without trying to control him
  • Relies on him to handle household finances
  • Focuses on her own self-care and fulfillment.
Right, good, OK, yeah, uh-huh, wait. Back up a minute.  Yes, the husband must ALWAYS control the money.  Completely.  The wife should not participate in household budgeting, check bank statements, determine how her bonus check will be spent, carry a credit card, etc.  She should tell her husband what she wants to pay for groceries, gas, going out with girlfriends, massages, etc.  He gives her what he decides is appropriate in cash.  Repeat process monthly.  He manages the accounts and pays the bills, even if they are a two-income family.  Finances are never discussed.  She just expresses her wants and he gives her the money or he doesn't.

Now, Paul and I have managed our finances various ways with various degrees of success.  (Separate post on this later.)  For us, by far the healthiest method - meaning that it works the best and makes BOTH of us happiest - is when we have a financial plan that we create and maintain together.  Not so, says Doyle.  We're sacrificing intimacy (?!) and missing out on the best part of surrendering by my participation in household finances.  As long as a husband is not physically abusive (if he's emotionally abusive he will stop once his wife starts "surrendering") or struggling with an active addiction, he must handle all the money.

In Doyle's case, she was a competent professional woman who managed the family finances with financial planning software.  Her husband, on the other hand, doesn't plan ahead for how each paycheck will be spent.  He pays bills as they come due . . . most of the time.  (Once their electricity was shut off because he didn't get around to paying the bill for a while.)  He snapped at her when she commented about retirement.  Later, he admitted that he snapped because he was feeling guilty that he hadn't contributed anything to their retirement account "in a long time."  Doyle explains that this is a very good thing!  He opened up to her and shared his vulnerability!  Yay!  Surely that's worth more than, say, a plan for financial security.  I was never able to determine why she was certain that a couple can't have both, just because it didn't work for her.

Back to the benefits of surrendering financially.  One is perpetual dating.  A wife expresses her "wants" and allows her husband to please her by addressing her desires as he sees fit.  This allows for them to go out for dinner or take vacations without her worrying about whether or not they can afford it.  It also allows her to be pampered and taken care of.

There's a lot about that in the book, all the gracious receiving of sweet, beautiful, luxurious things.  A wife NEVER offers advice (or her own opinion about anything to do with him, his job, his decision to move the family, his buying a new car, etc.) even if asked.  She never asks how her husband is feeling.  She is given an allowance.  She is taken care of and given gifts.  She focuses on her own needs and fullfillment.  Any problem or issue she doesn't want to deal with herself she turns over to him.  In many but not all ways she sounds like . . . a child.  This impression was driven home for me in one of the sample exercises at the end of the book.  The wife should write a list of things she is grateful for about her husband and give it to him as a gift (great idea!).  She should write one item from her list on each page of a small notebook and then decorate the pages with crayons.  I'm sure Daddy will appreciate that thoughtful touch!  (For a more adult version, I've hidden notes with things I appreciate about my husband in his computer bag or suitcase. He appreciates and enjoys this, especially when I include chocolate.)  

This review is already too long and still barely scratches the surface.  (For example, Doyle acknowledges that husbands frequently will not be excited by taking over all these responsibilities, and she offers strategies to ignore his objections.)  I will say that I've gotten a lot out of the book and am using some of what I've learned, to good effect.  But not all of it. 

Yes, it's important to relax in the car and stop gasping, suggesting alternate routes, and slamming your foot down on the imaginary right-side brake all the time.  But not mentioning it when you know your husband has gotten on the interstate headed the wrong direction even if he doesn't notice his mistake until you've gone a hundred miles out of your way?  That's not just crazy, it's disrespectful, like NOT pointing out the spinach in a good friend's teeth and letting her walk around like that all night.

In addition to an incredible amount of repitition and some seriously wacky advice, Doyle also does a ton of generalization.  Men are like X, Women are like Y, for true intimacy to develop relationships need a huge difference between X and Y, if you do this then he WILL do that, etc.  This type of lazy pseudo-psychology drives me batty, but apparently it sells books.  It also makes people who don't fit these so-called norms feel like something's wrong with them.

Doyle's husband apparently hates to talk about his feelings.  So, according to her, ALL men hate to talk about how they're feeling and we should never ask how they're feeling since we're not their mothers or their therapists.  Of course some men don't like to talk about their feelings.  Some women don't either.  And probably most people dislike being grilled and interrogated the way she reports talking to her husband before "surrendering" to him.  And of course it is possible to ask someone how they're feeling in a caring and nonjudgmental way that doesn't make you seem like their mother or their therapist.  The problem isn't with the topic, it's with the approach and underlying intent.

In conclusion (finally!) I found this book a good read.  I'm glad I read it.  I plan to keep referring to it.  But all the wacky and offensive things in it made the good things harder to trust and accept.  Perhaps in revision Doyle could write a mainstream version that leaves out some of her more extreme ideas about how in order for a marriage to succeed, one must lead ALL the time and the other must follow in EVERYTHING.  Or maybe someone else should write that book.

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