WRITING CHRONICLE #35: a conflicted constitution

Via: Daily Prompt – Conjure & Lecture

 

Those who visited my blog in the spring of last year may remember how I came about to publish my ebook Bad Daughter; since, in the greater scheme of things, this is rather a trifling detail, I can’t hold it against you if you do not. Still, for the purpose of this post, allow me to briefly recap the event that led to this mismanaged milestone in my writing career.

Around mid-April 2017, I came to learn about a fiction writing contest being hosted by Amazon UK for international authors old and new to win large in distinction as well as cash. The contest had been open for some time and there was just over a month left to the deadline, after which, the entered stories would be reviewed by a panel of renowned authors and publishing wizards assembled under the banner of, what is basically, the most influential book distributor of our time. A challenging feat, especially given the time constraint, but since the rules were fairly simple, I decided to give it a go. All I had to do was publish a story of above 5,000 words via KDP Select that was never before circulated in any form or medium. Right? Wrong.

My genius plan was that, even if I didn’t win first prize but my story was shortlisted, I could make some very important people in the industry sit up and take notice of my writing. Talk about being jacked up on confidence. What I missed was the inferred rule, i.e. the competition wouldn’t simply be on the storytelling aspect of each entry but will also factor in how much sales and positive reviews they generated before judges even took notice (because, obviously, any competition that commits £20,000 for the first prize would probably attract a hell lot of authors). But misconstruing the fine prints wasn’t my true inadequacy; it was my lack of vision and the inability to set my priorities in the correct order.

I had been toying with a story idea for some time for which I had just enough research materials to concoct a simplified plot with a justifiable character arc to produce a sizeable novella. At the time, I was convinced it was the perfect solution for this short order. Since the premise, too, was a notable departure from what I was used to writing, I felt this was a good opportunity to embark on something new without compromising too much of my time for the novel I was already working on.

It was still women’s literature but I knew even before I began writing that, for the sake of the central theme, the tone and style would have to differ substantially from my previous fictions. While I generally write contemporary romances with elements of chick lit for adults, the story I was planning to write was literary fiction banked on own voices appealing more to YAs and NAs. Yes, I was as confused about how to categorize my novella as this sounds. Already, I was beginning to wrinkle the fabric of my potential success. But I allayed my worries with the knowledge that this story would be published under a new pen name using my first and middle initials instead of the full name [not very original, I know].

As the first draft practically wrote itself, I finally began to comprehend how important a story I had to tell – one that was truly worthy of the public’s attention. Using fear of social stigma to silence victims of child sexual abuse too often begin from home and it needs to stop regardless of the source! Though my grasp of the subject was still not as extensive as my growing interest would have it, my opinion on the matter was decided. The route to fighting back abuse is through discussion, not silence, I felt. So I began to want to use my novella to get that discussion rolling. Perhaps, some vain part of me also egged me on with the notion that the subject may indeed get me past those thousands of entries into the top ten list, but I was also becoming uncomfortably aware that I could no longer play fast and loose with such a fundamental subject as this if I were to succeed.

Perhaps I should have stopped myself from publishing the novella then. Perhaps I should have forgone the contest and strived to write a full-sized novel with a stronger structure and clearer moral before making the ebook available to the public. Alas, I was too myopic to realize that stoking my pride because I had publically committed to entering the contest now could come back to bite my fulsome behind if my story was too inconsequential to impress the readers.

I pushed through and I was actually satisfied with what I had accomplished – over 37,000 words drafted and edited and compiled for publishing in less than a month! And the contest, too, was such a platform to get this story out on. It was like a fire had been lit under me and I had become desperate to get a book published under my name [albeit with only my initials]. The result? In my haste, I wrote my choppiest story to date and put it up for sale. What a stellar beginning to my career as a professional author.

If you are sneering at me, you are welcome to. Heaven knows I have directed enough sermons at me on the detriments of using shortcuts to achieve success. No sooner did I publish the ebook, I decided to rewrite it, to be shuffled entirely back to front. I thank my stars now that I didn’t go for print simultaneously and could sell only four copies of the ebook. Two of them were purchased by friends so I can always tell them when I upload the revised content but I feel sorry for the two schmucks who thought to give an unknown author an opportunity to prove herself. Hopefully, they will get the update notice that Amazon promises whenever an ebook content is updated.

You must be wondering why I have gone off the hinge berating myself on the eve of Valentine’s Day, confessing my most shamefully shoddy undertaking. Well, I know how authors are always chasing due dates; it is entirely easy to break down under pressure or be enticed by the opportunity of a publication, but don’t do it until you are absolutely sure your story is ready to be read by your audience. Not only will you be hampering the opportunity to write that compelling story within you, you will be doing your author self a disservice.

In other words, don’t be an impatient fool like me.

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS #36 – Roomies by Christina Lauren

Via: Daily Prompt – Bewildered

34466910Title     Roomies

Author     Christina Lauren

Genre     Contemporary Romance | New Adult | Realistic Fiction

Publisher      Gallery Books

Publication Date      December 5, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     Broadway, Manhattan, New York

ISBN     1501165844

Synopsis: There’s nothing special about Holland Lina Bakkar; at least, that’s how she views her own existence. The last of six children, she was mostly left to her own devices by her parents before being semi-adopted by her uncle Jeff and his husband Robert who don’t have any children of their own to dote on. Her uncles helped procure her MFA in creative writing so that she may one day compose the Great American Novel, gave her a position as an archivist in the theater where Robert is the musical director for until such time when she writes said novel, and continue to subsidize her measly salary by paying the rent of her Manhattan apartment since inspiration for the novel remains ever elusive. In return, she merely assures them her unwavering love and loyalty and a brunch comprising of eggs Benedict every other weekend. To make matters worse, she has been crushing on the mysterious busker with the hypnotizing guitar-skills (who was already too sexy to be in her league) and passively prowls the Fiftieth Street station where he performs thrice-weekly (though it’s quite outside of her daily route). Then, on the one night she imbibes enough liquid courage to talk to him, she is attacked by a drunk bozo on the deserted platform and is accidentally thrown onto the subway tracks. And while Calvin [yes, she now knows his name] the Sexy Busker does phone in the police to prevent her being killed by the midnight train, she is disappointed to discover that he doesn’t stick around long enough to make sure she’s okay, which does nothing to boost her confidence. Just when Holland’s spirit reaches its all-time low, one of Robert’s star performers resign the ensemble with weeks to spare before the show’s revival and presents her with the opportunity to be the hero for a change. She introduces Calvin (who turns out to have received his music training from Juilliard) to the team and he is an instant hit with the theater’s board members – until they discover his student visa expired four years ago so any media limelight would lead to instant deportation to Ireland. So Holland does the only thing she could do to save the day: she marries Calvin McLoughlin so his dream of playing for Broadway can come true and Uncle Robert’s production can have its debut star. And she? She can be fake-married to the man she’s been secretly stalking for the last six months. No conflict of interests there at all…

Experience (with rudimentary spoilers): I liked this novel so much that I finished it cover-to-cover overnight and then went back to skimming it for notes the following week. The witty narration delivered in the first-person by the heroine charmed me from the get-go while her innocuous-stalker infatuation for the sexy busker made her immediately relatable [you haven’t lived on the edge until you’ve memorized your crush’s classroom schedule]. Moreover, with the international news in every nation running the gamut on a certain country’s immigration policies, this marriage-of-convenience “Green Card” romance couldn’t have found a more contemporary premise, which may have been Christina Lauren’s inspiration and intent. All in all, it made Roomies read very fast and quite effortlessly.

I want to start this review with the character Holland, who is, after all, the heroine and narrator of this story. Since, in my last month’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post, I discussed the many reasons and ways to avoid writing too-perfect protagonists, my mind was very much attuned to how the authors presented Holland’s flaws and challenges as I went through the book. I was not disappointed but I’d like to address how that could’ve been the case.

In romance stories, too often, the heroine’s flaws are limited to her appearance or some behavioral absurdity that’s really more-cute-than-not, as though she can have no greater aspiration than to charm her romantic interest with her form or demeanor. As if describing her as the hag who chews her hair when she’s nervous makes her somehow relatable to the reader. It’s the debutante ball all over again – there’s the belle and then there’s us.

What’s worse, once the heroine is presented at her worst state, the narrator can no longer remain committed to the image created, leaving the reader at a loss to understand who exactly is the character they are reading about. Big-boned turns out to be code for Amazon-beautiful, extra-padding is really Rubenesque-sexy, it’s really adorable and not dangerous when the heroine drunk-dives into the pool and loses consciousness bumping her head against the tiles on her way in… I have found this especially common among heroines written in the first-person. Gold star to anyone who can guess the multiple-personality romance heroine described by Adam Ellis in the following illustration:

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I understand the temptation of relying on the ugly duckling formula. If the endgame of the romance novel plot is the realization of true love, why not start by presenting the most obvious challenges to that goal – all the visible traits of the heroine that could make her unattractive to her romantic interest? But unless these visible imperfections come with some deep-seated wound or unless there are additional dilemmas that give the heroine’s journey true meaning, I feel that using physical and social flaws to “add dimensions to the character” is a cop-out.

In Roomies, while Holland’s flaws are introduced as her being an average-looking gal with a klutzy comportment that affects her confidence level, we eventually get to see that her self-derision really stems from her awareness that she’s freeloading on her uncles’ goodwill and has yet to discover the purpose of her life. Sure, she’s aware of her physical limitations when compared to the aesthetically varied and rich dating pool of NYC but she knows how to navigate that by playing with her assets. Rather, her real cause for dissatisfaction is that, in an arena surrounded by the creatively successful, she has yet to discover where she fits. That unwritten novel is never far from her mind and that is what I liked about how the authors focused on developing Holland’s character arc. Even through the sexy scenes, even through Holland’s consciousness of having her crush now married and living in close quarters with her, Holland continues to struggle and grow as an individual.

And I love how Holland approaches each setback, each humiliation as well as each realization and triumph with humor and humility. This made her more than the mundane romantic heroine, this made her capable and centered – it made her real and worth admiring. Going back to a heroine’s consciousness of her form and grace; of course, I think it reasonable that they worry about how they look. Every woman, even those living in the remotest locale untouched by media’s image of perfection, feel self-conscious about some physical trait that they would change. So if a romance heroine does grunt and groan over her nose, thighs, or even a pinky finger, it is perfectly acceptable. But I liked how Holland’s self-deprecation when comparing herself to potential female competitions for Calvin’s field of attraction begins with looks but she again re-centers her mind to the theory that she should focus on developing her career and honing her talent than waste time on aspects that she cannot control. That, my friends, is character growth.

Enough about character flaws; let’s discuss the story. As far as the plot goes, I actually felt the whole novel was very realistically written. As I mentioned before, I went through the novel really quickly and without at all skimming on the expositions, but that is not to say that the writing was hurried. In fact, the scenes were really well-paced and what made them so fluent was the wry hilarity with which Holland reflects on each incident in her life, past and present, happy and sad. Events in each scene reveal the changes in the dynamics of her relationships with others, which, in turn, gradually expose the reader to tiny details about these other characters to form a holistic perspective of Holland’s world. For example, I love how Holland picks up Calvin’s little indulgences when he moves in with her – regular use of Chap Stick, going around mostly unclothed around the apartment, being totally casual about reading notifications on each other’s devices, etc. It makes Calvin more human. I could absolutely feel Holland’s infatuation developing into a deeper and more sustainable attachment.

And it also made the romance sweeter and sexier. Holland is not a brash character. In fact, she habitually assesses risks before taking any step, and the one time she decides to jump in with both feet is when she proposes marriage to Calvin, and she is aware how far outside her depth she’s wading. So it’s good to see her return to her cautious self once she is married. She’s consistent and because of that, it is easier for Calvin to know how to behave around her. This is a couple who married for immigration purposes and is living in a small apartment, sleeping with only a door between them. The awkwardness is real. And we feel it. But we also feel how the proximity allows them to become more sexually alert to the advantage of their living situation and the hesitation that accompanies it as well as how they choose to give in anyway. So… the romance is real.

Recommendation: Although the novel isn’t listed under Realistic Romance, I have chosen to classify it as such because I felt that Christina Lauren did a great job in capturing the emotional struggles and perspectives of the contemporary woman in the process of falling in love, that too with a very plausible plot and setting. In a myriad of mediocre romance novels these days, this story puts no pressure on your suspension of disbelief.

 

And now, having learned that the book was written in collaboration between two authors, I’m left wondering how that is accomplished with such graceful management of character and plot development…

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WIRITING CHRONICLE #34: two shakes short to a swelled head

Via: Daily Prompt – Inkling

Remember this moment in cinema?

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Media: Tenor

I recently had a moment like this. Not that it suddenly dawned on me that I have been unwittingly in love with a person who has always been in my life. It was something much more worrisome.

I was discussing the love of Mr. Darcy with a former work associate when I found myself mentally sneering, “Yeah, everyone wants to be Elizabeth Bennet and find their own Mr. Darcy. What they don’t realize is that they are all Marianne Dashwood chasing after Willoughby.” Then I further added to myself, “Lately, it’s been an endless parade of Lydia Bennets complaining about how they have been completely had by Wickham. Well, what can I expect from a Millennial*?”

And then I became wholly ashamed of my less than charitable feelings towards others. Here was a young woman who has always looked up to me for advice like one does a sister and I was abusing her for her romantic aspirations instead of encouraging her to develop the kind of consistency shown by Austen’s heroines. Even the mild-mannered Jane Bennet would be disappointed in me. Shouldn’t the fact that the younger generation is once again picking up authors like Austen be a source of hope? So I proceeded to correct my stance and discuss with my friend all the reasons why the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship prospered.

Later that day, I was thinking about why everyone loved Mr. Darcy so much; why I loved him, actually. And I came up with the following list of traits:

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Media: Giphy

And also:

At heart, he is a noble beast though his pride hides it well

He does not love universally but when he loves, he is ardent and steadfast

He has difficulty delegating and whatever is to be done must be done by him so obviously very capable

He feels deeply, reflects greatly, and holds his own opinions at the highest esteem

He is honest and has no need to deny his feelings or actions

Though he is ill at ease in a crowd or among strangers, he feels no compunction in speaking his mind

He makes short order of assessing people and situations nor does he forgive easily when they fall short of his expectations

He has a superiority complex but only because his mind is so improved

His speech is eloquent, his manners are without art

His actions are made with conviction and confidence

He knows how to handle information with discretion, he approaches life with consistent gravitas

As I added more and more attributes to the list, I became struck by my own reality…

OH MY GOD! I AM MR. DARCY!

[Someone needs to write a fanfiction with that title, by the way]

Apart from the tall, dark, and sexy man thing, of course. But does this mean that all these years I have been in love with myself? Who would’ve thought? If so, how narcissistic is that? The more I mulled it over, the more convinced I became that I might be a borderline egomaniac in my appreciation of the characteristics attributed to Mr. Darcy. If I am ever dissatisfied with myself, I can will away whatever unease I feel with the self-possessed knowledge that should I apply myself to the task at hand, I will succeed.

In fact, the only thing I have truly ever feared in my life is failing to become a revered author. It is the one place where I am not absolutely convinced that were I to practice and push, I would become a best-selling novelist. No matter how much effort I put into the craft or to the purpose of building my author platform, it may all still come to naught. Writing keeps me grounded. It probably even prevents me from using means of manipulation and coercion on others to create little replicas of my personality.

WHEW! Close call, huh?

 

*Dear Millennial, I don’t really think I’m superior to you. Any harsh feelings I may harbor towards you probably stems from a jealous resentment that you have greater social stamina and enthusiasm for life than I do – and so, the fault is actually mine. With all candor, I actually admire your pluck and ability to discover adventure and entertainment in every task that you set yourself to. XOXO

 

Back to the topic at hand, why do you love Mr. Darcy?

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Wednesday Reflections #35 – Bewitching the Duke by Christie Kelly

Via: Daily Prompt – Tardy & Dominant

15746024Title     Bewitching the Duke

Series     Wise Woman #01

Author     Christie Kelly

Genre     Historical Fiction | Regency Romance

Publisher      eKensington

Publication Date      December 6, 2016

Format      eBook

Setting     Regency England

ISBN     1601830289

Synopsis: It’s 1814 and while the upper crust English “Society” has come to consult certified physicians for their medical needs, plebeians continue to depend on the local wise women to take care of everything from delivering babies and setting bones to cleansing homes by burning sage and ensuring a good harvest for the season. Selina White, the wise woman at the Duke of Northrop’s country seat, takes her role in the community seriously, upholding generations of tradition passed down through the female line in her family. Her efforts are appreciated by one and all in the region except the Duke himself, who has deigned to grace his estate after having abandoned it to decline for nearly a decade. Colin Barrett’s disparage of wise women stems less from the growing belief that medicine should be administered only by university-trained male physicians and more from his history with Selina’s mother, the former wise woman of his land whom he blames for the death of his wife and baby during childbirth. So when he unwillingly returns to his ancestral home that holds so many tortured memories to arrange a wedding, only to discover Selina very much active in practicing her craft not only among his tenants but also within his household, he is incensed. First, he throws her out of his home and then he banishes her from his land. However, he miscalculates her determination to do her duty by his people as well as the loyalty said people harbor towards her in return. Pretty soon his servants are sneaking her back into Northrop, hiding her right under his nose in the unoccupied wing of his house, and business recommences as usual. To further complicate the matter, with every chance encounter, the instantaneous attraction that sparked between Colin and Selina when they first met continues to grow – an attraction that begins to transcend their individual prejudices and encounters that become less and less chance on both sides.

Experience: In all honesty, I’m a snob when it comes to book covers. The illustration absolutely plays a part in whether I’ll invest in the book because, to me, it shows that no effort was spared from start to finish. And this book’s cover instinctively warned me to not pick it up. Nevertheless, when I read the blurb and learned the premise of the book, I was intrigued and decided to risk it. It so happens that Bewitching the Duke confirmed both my earlier misgivings as well as my latter anticipations. The premise of the story does manage to uphold the originality it promised and the cover of the book accurately portends its poor execution. However, that is not to say this book was a total loss.

Let’s discuss the premise first, which after all helped me move past my superciliousness. Immediately, we are informed how the advent of modern medicine threatened both the livelihood and the tradition of wise women in the English society even as the poor continued to depend on them because male physicians were more expensive as well as due to the somewhat retained superstitions that surrounded these women’s healing capabilities. We are introduced – though it is kept in the background for most of the novel – the transferal of the role of the “caretaker” of people’s wellbeing from the female to the male, bringing into sentience yet another instance of how the culture of gender inequality became more dominant as the old religions receded further into obscurity. [I should acknowledge here that I love a story that makes me dive into a little history research of my own!] In Bewitching the Duke, the change comes in the form of the Duke of Northrop who openly declares Selina a hack upon his return to the country and uses her mother’s role in the fatal childbirth that prematurely terminated his domestic happiness as evidence. While his tenants and servants continue to store their faith in her powers, he does not make it easy for them to access her services.

This premise also neatly proceeds to generate not only the romantic conflict in the plot, i.e. a man who blames a wise woman for the death of his wife and child cannot fall in love with her daughter who also is a wise woman and vice versa, as well as the character arcs for both the hero and heroine, given that Colin is unable to move past the memories of his loss to allow himself to love again while Selina herself harbors a guilty secret surrounding the said loss. The trajectory of the story is set with ease and since romance novels generally promise happily-ever-after, we know that somehow the two main characters will have to get over their individual issues and the “wise woman” must rise to the occasion to reign supreme. Yay!

Except, maybe the historical accuracy is completely forsaken to keep the premise of novel adjustable to its length and, thus, the level of effort required, i.e. to say, the story was set a century or three too late. By the nineteenth century, wise women had largely receded into the background of society, most of them having suffered enough horrors related to being labeled “witches” to justly hide their abilities from the public. If these women still dared practice medicine, it was in secret. Say, for the sake of the plot, we, as readers, accept that wise women continued to openly practice their crafts in some remote corners of England where people were optimistically more open-minded, the novel completely avoids any mention of the religious persecution and social ostracism “alternative healers” suffered in the historical period immediately preceding the time in which the novel is set. For me, that was a no-no. Even if the author wished to have none of that “cloaked in the danger of religious persecution” mystery hanging ominously over the characters’ heads, why avoid any mention of what had once happened to Selina’s kind when her knowledge and powers still carried the same mysticism as witches? Alas, a lovely premise was thus unhappily stifled for the convenience of the narration and the result was a loss of intrigue and integrity that encompassed the true history of the subject.

The characters themselves were simple enough to follow. I felt, while they lacked depth, the romance between them brewed in a forthright fashion that I could appreciate. They were obviously each meant to grow out of their attractions and dilemmas towards one another rather than alone, which is always appreciated in a romance novel. It cries true of the notion that true love takes precedence over past conflicts. Yet, the characters were put upon more as plot devices than entities in and of themselves and kept switching foot on one another to add more twists that the story could have just as easily have done without.

There was one particular part of the novel where I could not reconcile with Selina’s character. When Colin confesses to her that he thought he saw the ghost of his dead wife in the unoccupied third floor window of his house, Selina does not set his mind at ease even though she realizes he had mistaken her passing the window for his wife’s ghost; instead, she enjoys a private bit of joke at his expense. This does not present a raving endorsement of her character as a human being, does it, especially when considering how tortured Colin has always been about losing his duchess?

I did enjoy a glimpse of the country life in the story though, which retained the essence of the hypothesis the author was aiming for, i.e. the continued importance of the wise woman in a country neighborhood where people can barter for her services and believe in the influences of pagan rituals without fear of ridicule. This is nicely reinforced with a scene in a fortuneteller’s tent at the traveling fair that all the primary romantic characters of the series attended. The fact the fortuneteller’s words are taken more seriously than a simple diversion shows the reader that here is a society that is not entirely jumping to relinquish the old ways. This I found refreshing and reason enough to keep reading.

Recommendation: Despite some flaws, the story is actually an original one and may be appreciated by readers who are suckers for historical romance and mysticism. Just remember, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”

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#AuthorToolbox 07: avoiding perfection

Via: Daily Prompt – Study & Loophole

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sainted characters. It all started when I sat down to watch John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher success Halloween for the first time [yes, truly]. After a month-long Christmas movie binge, I was ready to shake things up a bit and, although fully prepared to be blown away by the cult classic that apparently gave birth to so many of my favorite horror movies from the 90’s, twenty minutes in, it had me rolling my eyes and sighing in exasperation. Jamie Lee Curtis is Mary Sue:

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Media: Giphy

The Virginal Barbie: Despite being all shiny and blonde with a great body, Curtis’s character Laurie is the shy girl-next-door who can’t bring herself to divulge her feelings to the boy she likes, making her the unattached dream girl who won’t give a man any lip.

The Sharpest Tool in the Shed: Not only is she at the top of every class, she’s probably also psychic. She is the first to notice the man-in-the-mask watching her and her friends as well as the only one who continues to sense his foreboding proximity throughout the movie.

A Goody-Two-Shoes: She can’t break rules properly even when she tries. The one time she allows herself to be peer-pressured into smoking a little pot, she ends up right in front of the sheriff. Though her transgression goes unnoticed, she chooses to walk the straight and narrow for the rest of the movie.

The Old Reliable: She always picks up the slack. She can be counted on to drop off keys to a real estate client for her father, make popcorn for her babysitting charge, and relieve her best friend from babysitting duty while the said best friend spends the night doing the dirty.

It’s Lonely at the Top: Early on in the movie, we see her experiencing all the teen angst that accompanies an austere lifestyle and become sympathetic to her plight.

A Badass Martyr: Even when the killer slices open her arm, her first lookout is to make sure the kids are safe, maternal instinct in guerilla warfare mode. And she’s pretty resourceful with a knitting needle too. Who doesn’t love a girl who can simultaneously knit and kick butt when called to action?

DIE, FEMINISM, DIE! But, even aside from the misogynistic rigmarole, that is a tall order for any character. And while I accept that, in horror movies, death following sex is expected, by the end of the movie, I was convinced that the only reason Laurie survived was that she didn’t show any skin. By the end of the movie, I wanted to throw her out the bedroom window. Sadly, while I believe the makers of Halloween intended Laurie to be The-Li’l-Lady-That-Could, fiction writers are equally prone to creating accidental Mary Sues. I would have to say, tar me with the same brush.

MY TOO-PERFECT CHARACTER

Only, mine was a Gary Stu. When I first started writing I’ll Be True in 2012, I understood little about structuring plots, developing characters, weaving conflicts, or building tension, etc. I was confident I had a voice and was often praised for my diction, which was good enough to publish the first draft of my story on a public platform, a.k.a. this blog. Besides, I was too hopeful that having an actual audience would cure me of my habit of abandoning stories before they were finished being written. Embarrassing as it is to admit, it wasn’t until I wrote the entire novel and read back all twenty-six chapters to myself that I realized my protagonist’s romantic interest, who also happened to be the second MC, was insufferably unspoiled.

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Media: Tenor

Matthew Halls was a wish-fulfilling Mr. Perfect I had written when I was going through a rough patch in my longstanding relationship. He looked good on paper, was always the voice of reason, and had the luck of Indiana Jones with a heart the size of a blimp, talent oozing out of his pores, and sexual appeal enough to melt the staunchest woman’s core (which he promptly did). He had little in the way of challenges other than to convince the heroine that she loved him enough to call for a change in her attitude towards relationships. In other words, he was unreal, he had no character arc, and I was, literally, driven to tears of frustration. Worse, in the process of creating the perfect man, I committed the cardinal sin of treating my hero like a plot device. [His hideous magnificence remains unedited in my posts should anyone care to torture themselves]

WHY AVOID TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?

If the above examples of Mary Sue and Gary Stu do not convince, here’s how too-perfect protagonists may lead to bad fictions:

saintToo perfect to be human. Readers are everyday flawed people so a character who is free of flaws becomes unrealistic and one that is hard to relate to. Besides, it is very hard to sympathize with a holier-than-thou character in peril because they make us feel less than our best selves, so a reader would not feel as vested in seeing the character through to triumph.

No challenge too great. Too-perfect protagonists come with broad skillsets that make accomplishing goals and overcoming obstacles very easy for them and their one-dimensional quality boring for the readers. Plots are driven by conflicts and, with a Johnny-On-The-Spot, the tension never quite gets the opportunity to build up properly, which can cause the reader to disconnect too early.

Well, what’s there left to hope for? People want to read about ordinary characters persevere in extraordinary ways. A character in a similar or slightly better circumstances than the reader can motivate the reader’s aspirations towards life; conversely, a character who has all the assets one can desire to lead the perfect life might make a reader want to go to sleep and never wake up. After all, who can compete against Batman?

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Media: Me.Me.

To be fair to us, authors, it’s too tempting to write the too-perfect character. Even if we, ourselves, do not fit the mold of our ideal person [because, really, who does?], we wish to see it come alive somewhere – live [vicariously] a little. Writing heroes is also more comfortable than writing anti-heroes or villains because subconsciously we are worried how that might reflect on us as human beings. If we do remember to sand the edges by inserting a couple of character flaws, we are just as quick to make excuses for them. Should we write them real challenges, as creators, it is in our nature to mother them into victory.

At our worst self, we’re lazy and don’t want to sweat by putting in the level of thought and work hours necessary to clean up after a messy character: Stories are made of struggles; struggles need solving; someone’s gotta do it; why not Mary Sue? But every time we throw miracles in our character’s path, we are chiseling away at the compelling story we could be writing. As an outsider looking in, readers tend to discover conflicts sooner and notice opportunities for resolution faster than the characters themselves, which may prompt vexation in the reader but also cause them to hold on.

 

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Think about it, how often have you groaned during the stairwell chase scene when the protagonist runs up the stairs to get away from the predator? It seems their gut instinct should be to run down and let gravity do most of the work as they look for the quickest exit from hell. Unless, of course, the character is Batman, in which case he wouldn’t be running or, if he did, he has probably already sent out a signal and the Batplane is waiting for him by the rooftop. As a kid, I had promised myself that I would learn to drive, ride a motorbike as well as a horse, and hotwire a car, just so if I ever needed to escape a villain, I would be all set. I haven’t yet learned to do any of that, am clinically overweight that I’m too lazy to remedy, and have low stamina that I blame on my intellectually-inclined personality. If my life was a novel and I a Girl Scout, I’d be the first to be eaten by a bear during camp. So… obviously not the protagonist of my own story.

 

HOW TO AVOID WRITING TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?

The good news is, if caught in time, an author can put a flawless character back in his box. It requires careful examination and takes a few nips and tucks to fix perfection but it can be done:

Give. Them. Flaws. Well, that’s obvious, but here are a few tips to remember as you do –

  • It’s best not to depend on flaws that are superficial or an in indirect praise such as a crooked nose (who’re you kidding; you know that’s sexy) or being a total klutz (wasn’t Meg Ryan absolutely adorable in French Kiss). The surest way to make the flaw compelling for the readers is to ensure that it is mired in the character’s past and has had time to fester to become a real problem.
  • The flaw shouldn’t be too blatant or exaggerated. Flaws lose credibility when demonstrated in absolute so they should never be dealt as such, unless the intention is to mock. Most people work in gray areas and so should the character’s flaws. Only sociopaths are completely sure of themselves all the time.
  • The flaw needs to be persistent until the character learns to reign it in, which should happen at approximately the same time as the plot reaches resolution. The last thing the story needs is the narrator telling the reader about the character’s flaw but when the time comes to show, the character works in an opposite manner.
  • A flaw that connects back to the central conflict in the plot is a great flaw. Flaws bear significance to the story when they cause the character to take a misstep that challenges their goals.

For that matter, stop fixating on their endowments. Yeah, yeah, he’s hot-stuff but must she swoon every time he walks into the room? The more words are spent describing the protagonist’s pros, the less time is used to show their cons.

Turn their strengths into a source of weakness. Shakespeare was a genius in romanticizing flaws. The same qualities that would establish a character as a hero in the beginning of a play would cause their tragic demise by the end. E.g. the bravery and determination that returns Macbeth victorious from war transforms into unchecked ambition where he kills the king he swore to serve before turning mad with guilt and paranoia, which eventually leads to a bloodbath under his tyrannical rule and then his death.

Make them do something you find truly objectionable. This may even be out of character where the one time they do something wrong, they get caught and then are left picking up the pieces for the rest of the story.

Put them back in the real world. The universe, even one existing in a fantasy, is governed by its own laws, which no character is above. As such, when the character defies the rules of this universe, there should be repercussions for the character to deal with. Their actions will have an effect on other characters just as they must be affected by it.

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Avoid deus ex machinas. Remember that one time when we were driving down the I-10 and were almost abducted by aliens but then a pterodactyl swooped in and ate the aliens before flying off into the sunset? Yeah, never happened. Not even on The X-Files. Sudden supreme forces that step in without preamble to save the day for the protagonist just make the plot ridiculous.

Pass some of your character’s skills to others. The protagonist can’t be an expert on everything or be everywhere at the same time – nor should you ask them of it. Instead, insert other characters into the story who are able to take over some of the protagonist’s responsibilities. Even Harry had Ron and Hermione; and Dumbledore and the Order of Phoenix and the DA and Snape and a bunch of other dead guys, etc.

What I’m trying to say is, in case you lost the plot in that circuitous ramble, unless you have decided that a Mary Sue/Gary Stu works for your story, they best be avoided. But, hey! as the original Mary Sue was written as a satire to parody the unrealistic heroines in some of the early Star Trek fanfictions, sometimes they can be the key ingredient to a successful story.

Whew! My obvious flaw is the inability to edit because this has gone on for long enough. But I would love to read about what are your thoughts on too-perfect characters.

Perhaps there is a Mary Sue that you feel spoiled a story for you or one that worked out really well? Or, like me, maybe you once wrote a Gary Stu who you eventually had to kill but who imparted you with great insight before his death?

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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Wednesday Reflections #34 – The Christmas Wife by Elizabeth Kelly

Via: Daily Prompt – Brilliant & Undulate

28028105Title     The Christmas Wife

Author     Elizabeth Kelly

Genre     Contemporary Romance | Holiday Romance | Christmas

Publisher      Elizabeth Kelly

Publication Date      November 29, 2015

Format      eBook

Setting     USA

ISBN     9781926483528

Synopsis: Deacon Stone, CEO extraordinaire of one of the world’s largest independent toy making companies, is in big trouble. His dear grandmother has finally lost her marbles and threatened to bequeath her controlling shares of the family business – the same toy company that Deacon worked his buns off for over the last decade to rescue from certain bankruptcy – to his greedy ill-equipped cousin if he doesn’t marry before Christmas. Not only does Deacon have an aversion to tying the proverbial noose around his neck but the real challenge is that he has less than a week to do the deed. When his best friend suggests he hires an escort to be his wife for the month, he brushes the idea off as incomprehensible. Then six-years-old Hattie, the daughter of his weekly maid Claire Brooks, glides into his living room, breaks a priceless figurine, and hands him the answer. As single mom Claire gets fired from the cleaning company for the damage caused, Deacon pays an apology visit to the Brookses’ dilapidated apartment to find them living in a state of destitution. Furthermore, he discovers their eviction notice, threatening to render the mother-daughter duo homeless, and suddenly a wife-for-hire doesn’t sound implausible. He realizes that Claire being a dedicated mom in dire straits would never reveal the duplicity of their marriage to anyone for fear of psychological repercussion on Hattie and promptly offers the family shelter in exchange of a marriage of convenience. He even sweetens the pot by offering Claire a hundred thousand dollars as long as they can maintain the charade until New Year’s Day when his grandmother would sign the shares over to him. For Claire, there really is no contest when given a choice between defending her dignity and securing a comfortable future for her daughter. And as long as she can put up a convincing act where everyone believes her marriage to Deacon is real but Hattie doesn’t get too emotionally drawn in, everyone can leave the marriage unscathed come new year. Except once married, the volatile sexual chemistry between Deacon and Claire begins to take precedence over a promise to remain detached and when Hattie and Deacon begin to form new bonds, fake family starts to look dangerously close to the real deal.

Experience: I rated this book 5* on Goodreads – not because I found it “amazing” (as the site’s rating system defines) or even because it was technically flawless. But because, having tried and failed to enjoy the works of a series of newly discovered [by me] authors in 2017, I was tearfully relieved to see that Elizabeth Kelly remembered to dot her i’s and cross her t’s before publishing the novel. And it seems this work was self-published too so bravo!

The book itself banks on an evergreen plot structure in the romance genre – a marriage of convenience – that it liberally peppers with lots of sensual scenes between the newly married couple and then honeys up with the beautiful formation of parent-child bond between a reluctant stepfather and a guileless child. It’s not an ingenious story arc but it guarantees success. I don’t think Kelly aimed to wow her readers with this but rather tried to provide them a homey romance to snuggle up with during the holidays – at least that is how it came across to me and, for once, I’m grateful for the salute to simplicity. Whereas recently I have read too many novels desperately gunning to discombobulate readers by adding an inordinate and unnecessary number of plot twists, The Christmas Wife chose to remain old-school and I found that refreshing. I fell in love with romance novels while reading the early cozy romances written by Sandra Brown and this was sort of a throwback to the sensations they aroused – The Hallmark Channel with a crackling fire smoking up the pages.

Another groan factor for me in 2017 was reading how comfortable so many authors are about treating their characters like plot devices, randomly called to action or left to collect dust as the scene of the moment requires. As though everyone but the main characters is afterthoughts. I have read an actual scene where the hero and heroine – secretly in love with each other – are arguing over something absolutely mundane that the heroine’s roommate is helping to moderate, when because the heroine ingenuously trips and the hero gallantly catches her, they become wholly engrossed in discovering adorable freckles on one’s nose and golden flecks in the other’s eyes, having a conversation that would consume minimum ten minutes in real life while the roommate is floating in the background like a ghost stuck in time without any occupation or even objection to being ignored. While the interaction between the hero-heroine was certainly titillating, the roles of the other characters felt insignificant and implausible. This actually was approved by a notable publishing house and then went on to becoming a YA bestseller. And no, the book didn’t get better after that; rest of it was just as inane.

In a happy contrast, Hattie received a salient role in this novel, despite being a child character in an adult romance. Usually, one would find a novel featuring a single mom/dad using the kid(s) to simply cutesy up the plot – like a pet. They may be part of the conflict or the charm but mostly inactive other than when required to either foil or foster the romantic plot. Not Hattie. She got as much downtime with Deacon as her mom and actively contributed to selling the beauty of “fam-dom” to the resolutely-single hero. And not only did she build bonds with the stepdad but also charmed a shrewd grandmother and formed an alliance with a member of the opposition (the son of that inept cousin trying to weasel away Deacon’s company). This novel was not about only the romantic characters. Kelly did not forget the little people – or rather, the little people had large parts to play.

Meanwhile, the adults behaved like adults and not hapless props acted upon for the sake and break of the romance. Here, the hero and heroine made informed decisions unlike a lot of recent romances where the main characters take rash decisions in the beginning of the novel and for the rest, are juggling the pieces of their lives while they choose to remain blind to the changing dynamics in the said romance or become easily misled due process of salvaging their egos. Conflicts invariably equal to secrets and miscommunications. Again, Kelly broke the mold when neither Deacon nor Claire is relegated to such star-crossed roles. Throughout the novel, both characters had an active hand in how their marriage would be upheld, in its catch or release, whether tightening the hold over their congealing relationship or letting go. They weighed their options as well their constraints before entering the marriage, they chose to become sexually involved letting the other know their individual limits in the relationship, and, when necessary, they each backed off and allowed the other enough space to get their bearings sorted. I felt it was their understanding of each other’s wants that made the ebbs and flows of tension so well-paced and believable. Despite the odds that brought them together and despite the fact that they entered a fake marriage, they always remain a truthful ally to one another. In this lie, they are a unit and that makes each partner a strong support system for the other – in a way, a much healthier foundation for marriage. And it was a relief that the tension was not dependent on yet another incident of “forgot to pass the message” or “didn’t reach the venue quickly enough to stop the villain from gaining center-stage”.

The only objection I had to the novel, though, was that there was no concrete foundation to build the romantic arc upon. What I mean is, while there was oodles of lust between our romantic couple and all, there was no other reason for one individual to fall in love with the other individual. Perhaps I felt this way because there was no real character development in either Deacon or Claire but only the outlook of the “ideal family” they created and fell into character with. Throughout the novel, the most we see of each character as individuals is that one is a hardworking bloke while the other a dedicated mom but everything else they undergo is purely circumstantial. Thrown in such close quarters, any set of individuals would form these bonds, an adult unless heartless would melt towards a precocious child, a married couple with the opportunity and license to initiate a sexual relationship may take advantage of their conjugal rights. And in the process, these people may develop soft corners for each other but it seemed that it could be any rich rescuer or any mother-daughter act that would have done the job. I think it was here, in the enriching of the characters, where simplicity took away rather than added to the novel. But then again, since the novel was no race to becoming the next great American romance, this deficiency is easily overlooked.

Recommendation: If you’re ever in need of an uncomplicated and soothing romance with a little heat, look no further. And you know as well as I that Christmas romances are good to read all year round.

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WRITING CHRONICLE #33: a last shout out to new beginnings

Via: Daily Prompt – Almost & Finally

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We’re almost at the finish line. A minute to go before it’s 2018 in Bangladesh while many of you have already welcomed in the new year and others are preparing for this evening’s celebrations.

So I thought I’d leave a final note for this year. It’s been good enough. Perhaps not as fast as I would have liked for my career as a novelist but I still wrote a lot more fiction and on the craft of writing fiction than I have in my entire adult life. I discovered a few good reads that I fell in love with and read a lot of things that I absolutely hated – but most importantly, each material provided me with some learning to improve my own fiction writing skills. Also, my blog took off and has now come into its own confident form.

Speaking of which, to work more on my novel writing, I will only be blogging once-a-week in 2018 unless something major prompts my quill to superfluity. I will be alternating the weeks between my WRITING CHRONICLES and WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS posts – i.e. except for the third week of each month when I will be dedicating said week’s posts to my #AuthorToolboxBlogHop community.

So to all my readers and fellow bloggers,

A HAPPY NEW YEAR & EVEN HAPPIER READING!

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #33: The Shop Around the Corner VS. You’ve Got Mail

Via: Daily Prompt – Proclivity & Confess

poster2b-2bshop2baround2bthe2bcorner252c2bthe_01Title     The Shop Around the Corner

Starring     James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Frank Morgan

Director     Ernst Lubitsch

Writer(s)    Samson Raphaelson and Miklós László

Genre     Romance | Comedy | Drama

Release Date     January 12, 1940

Filming Location     Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Culver City, California, USA

Parental Guidance     TV-G

IMDB Rating     8.1

Synopsis: Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is the First Salesman at the Matuschek & Co. boutique store, which has allowed him a rather comfortable bachelor’s living thus far. Sure, his relationship with the store’s owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is more-often-than-not contentious given that, whenever invited to share an opinion, he ends up challenging the old man’s decisions for the benefit of the store; nevertheless, he also knows that his longstanding tenure with the company and faithful efforts towards its success is appreciated by the big guy, albeit grudgingly. Besides, with a wonderful staff under his supervision, Alfred wouldn’t change a thing about his life. That is, until a steady mail correspondence with an anonymous woman has him wondering about married life and he decides, come Christmas, he will ask Matuschek for a raise. Just around the same time, a woman walks into the store and tries to cheekily talk Alfred into giving her a job by applying to his optimism regarding the upcoming Christmas sale that is likely to demand additional help. Alfred is less than approving of having his gullibility played upon by this Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and refuses her a position. However, Klara, with her salesmanship, manages to impress Matuschek into hiring her and what follows is weeks of resentful verbal combat between Alfred and Klara where neither is aware that the other is the secret pen pal each has been gradually falling in love with. With just a week to go before Christmas, the epistolary lovers decide to finally meet and Alfred gets ready to ask Matuschek for a raise. Alas! His recent exchanges with the boss, who himself has been rather preoccupied with marital problems, is rockier than usual and Alfred ends up getting fired instead of being promoted. When Alfred decides to keep his date anyway, he discovers his mystery girlfriend is, in fact, Klara and there ensues a disastrous evening for both. Meanwhile, other events bring on unforeseen twists of fate for Matuschek that does not bode well for anyone related to their “shop around the corner”.

youve-got-mail-posterTitle     You’ve Got Mail

Starring     Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan

Director     Nora Ephron

Writer(s)    Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, and Miklós László (play)

Genre     Romance | Comedy | Drama

Release Date     December 18, 1998

Filming Location     Manhattan, NY, USA

Parental Guidance     PG

IMDB Rating     6.6

Synopsis: Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is the owner of an independent children’s bookstore in Manhattan, NY. It was whimsically named The Shop Around the Corner by her late mother, who had founded the enterprise as the local creative resource for children, from everyday reading requirements to the most unusual literary undertaking – a responsibility that Kathleen was only too happy to inherit and now upholds with relish. All this, and her reflections on the mundane topics that interest her, she relates to a mystery man she met in a chat room many moons ago and with whom she has since been keeping up a steady e-mail correspondence. Though neither reveals any particulars about their lives that may compromise their identity to the other, it is clear that their online relationship gradually takes precedence over their individual longtime love affairs. Enter Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the heir to the mass book retail chain Fox Books, who has been entrusted to expand the family business nationwide and whose current project is ready to commence operation, literally, just around the corner from Kathleen’s store. Kathleen’s fellow storekeepers are wary of this major corporation, which they feel should be considered a formidable adversary, intending to seduce readers away with its cutthroat discounts and designer coffee. Kathleen, however, feels Fox Books’s impersonal salespeople and overstocked shelves are no threat to the knowledgeable service and rare book collection that The Shop Around the Corner provides. At first, it seems that Kathleen’s predictions will ring true, as the community rallies around her store. Even Joe, who harbors something akin to survivor’s guilt over all the independent establishments he has put out of business, becomes enchanted by Kathleen’s naturally gracious disposition towards her patrons and genuine desire to help young readers connect with the world of books – though he cunningly hides his identity from her. However, when Fox Books begins operation, sales at The Shop Around the Corner begins to decline. And when Kathleen discovers Joe’s deception about his professional identity during a later chance encounter, she vehemently condemns him as a spy and the two cross words. Yet, each continues to remain unaware that the other is their online confidant. So while on cyberspace, Joe guides Kathleen to “go to war” with her rival, in the business world, a bitter struggle for survival ensues between the two that forces each to discover a previously dormant side to their natures – and maybe learn to accept the other for their better sides in the process.

Experience: THIS is what watching romantic comedy is all about – discovering the many ways people overcome everyday challenges to learn about their individual weaknesses and strengths to converge as a unit that is better for being a whole. I don’t know how many times I have seen You’ve Got Mail. My DVD experienced its share of wear over the years before I finally laid it to rest when online streaming became the norm. Therefore, it’s funny that it took me so long to get around to seeing The Shop Around the Corner, the original movie from which the famous Hanks-Ryan feature was remade. What did I discover? Well, despite the much higher rating on IMDB for the old B&W classic, I think Nora Ephron made a vast improvement. So much so that it deserves discussing.

You know how sometimes you hear actresses complaining that Hollywood greatly prefers telling stories about male rather than female characters, that there are more hero-centric movies than heroine-centric? If you watch The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail back-to-back, you will realize that it ain’t all wack. The original screenplay was filmed entirely from the perspective of James Stewart’s character Alfred Kralik even though the plot aimed to show how a pair of mystery correspondents who, despite acting as foils to one another in their physical realm, unbeknownst to them, may fall in love over anonymous letters. It is a meeting of the minds that transcends all other superficial qualities one regularly seeks in one’s mate. It is the realization that even daily interactions with a person may only reveal so much about them to form an honest verdict of their character. Indeed it is a story that deserved to be told from both sides of the veil since something must’ve made Klara Novak fall in love with a man she knew not in person as much as Alfred did with her but alas! Luckily, Stewart is a talented actor and the story does not suffer from his singular presence on the screen. Also, the steady earnest gaze of his soulful long-lashed eyes is dreamy beyond comparison.

Mercifully, some six decades later, women finally gained greater access to the rein in Hollywood and thus could endeavor to do better. Ephron put on her hard hat and rewrote the screenplay to tell the story how it should have been told. By adding just twenty minutes to the plot, we are presented deeper insights into both the main characters’ backstories, discovering who they are as individuals and not just the superficial perception that each form about the other. I love how, this time, the screen presence is equally divided between Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox. I love how both the lead characters are allowed time away from one another that demonstrate their actual individual lives and responsibilities. We no longer witness who they are just over a series of arguments. They are given ample room to breathe as separate entities so that when they come together, we can savor the full-bodied texture of their romantic endeavor.

And I’m grateful that we can have more of those letters read to us – letters that were the key component to the main characters falling in love. With The Shop Around the Corner, by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t see why Alfred and Klara finally choose to be together – not after all we initially see is how horrible each is to the other when they personally interact. It almost seemed that when it finally came for the curtain to fall, the two couldn’t walk away from each other simply because they had held fast for so long to the idea that the person writing the letters was the love of their lives that admitting they were wrong would be too great a blow. I did not see love but resignation. Comparatively, in You’ve Got Mail, whatever compromise each character makes with their ego is more believable – in fact, it seems like no great sacrifice. When Joe and Kathleen first begin to fall in love, we can see why those letters compel them to emotionally stray from their respective lovers despite the uncertainty that lurks in their minds regarding the moment they should really meet lurks. When they finally fall in love, it is a person with whom they know they can genuinely share the mundane realities of life – that they once only discussed over letters – without becoming bored. It’s also love that blossoms because two people allowed themselves to wait around long enough to be proven wrong about the lacking of the other’s real self to see how great the other person truly is. The months of war becomes only a prelude to a love that is irrevocable and a friendship that is enduring.

Which brings me to the main gripe I have towards the makers of the original movie. It’s not so much as the lack of focus on the female lead character – Margaret Sullavan did receive first billing in the credits, so there’s that at least – but the fact that Klara is never given the opportunity to rise in our esteem. In fact, if I ever re-watch The Shop Around the Corner, it will only be because Alfred managed to impress me with his integrity and resilience; and should I turn myself away from the opportunity to re-watch it, it will be because Klara managed to annoy me with her myriad of character flaws. Klara is self-serving, whether she is talking a customer into purchasing an unnecessary and trivial cigarette box by pawning it off as a candy box or suddenly complimenting the supervisor she despises to get out of working late on a night she has a date. Klara is manipulative in a way where she repeatedly tries to lead others in conversations so that they would give her what she wants but think it was their own idea. But most of all, Klara is spiteful; she demonstrates a natural tendency to say hateful things, attacking Alfred with a certain regularity and feels no remorse for the hurt they cause unless it has a chance of coming back to bite her in the ass. In comparison, we see genuine guilt etched in Kathleen’s face when she witnesses the hurt her words cause Joe; it is immediate and it is sincere even though she is reluctant to admit that she is at fault. And even though when she does get around to apologizing she also slips in a compliment to herself by professing it is uncharacteristic of her to not be a nice person, we also can be sure she truly is sorry to have caused hurt and that she knows that she has no right to do so. And since there is no self-interest in her apologies other than to rectify a misbehavior, the apologies are not hollow. While Kathleen’s personality just takes a wrong turn every time she comes into close proximity of Joe Fox the corporate big shot, we can’t be as sure that Klara is not self-promoting and mean. So when Klara claims she had found Alfred attractive, it rings abrupt and false, but when Kathleen cries she had hoped her mystery man would be Joe, we have to believe her. Frankly, I feel that, once the novelty wears off, marriage between Kathleen and Joe has much higher chances of survival than Alfred and Klara.

Recommendation: Giving a final recommendation at this point seems superfluous, but unless you wish to do a comparative analysis of the two features, spare yourself from watching The Shop Around the Corner. Contrarily, my heartiest wishes to you for watching You’ve Got Mail; they rarely make sensible romance movies like that anymore.

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #32: Holiday Affair

Via: Daily Prompt – Relate & Calling

holiday20affair001Title     Holiday Affair

Starring     Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, and Wendell Corey

Director     Don Hartman

Writer(s)    Isobel Lennart and John D. Weaver (story “Christmas Gift”)

Genre     Romance | Comedy | Drama

Release Date     December 24, 1949

Filming Location     Paramount Studios, Hollywood, California, USA

Parental Guidance     TV-G

IMDB Rating     7.2

Synopsis: Mrs. Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) is a young widow with a precocious six-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Though Timmy is too conscientious of the daily challenges his mother must face to ever ask for anything that might hurt her dignities in being unable to provide, Connie slogs away at her job as a comparison shopper to make a comfortable living. An indubitable friendship exists between the mother-son duo that prevents her longtime boyfriend Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) from gaining an official entry into their family. Though he is a fairly successful lawyer, cares for Timmy dearly, and an all-around nice guy who promises to provide a safe loving home for Connie and her son, she repeatedly turns down his marriage proposals, assuring him that when her heart is fully recovered from the loss of her army husband, she will ask him for his hand. But then Connie meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a children’s section salesman at the department store where she purchases a train set on Christmas sale for her client. When Connie returns the toy the day after her purchase, Steve calls her out on her deception but, instead of passing her on to the store authorities, he takes pity on her and writes her a refund. As a result, Steve loses his job and spends the day assisting Connie in her professional shopping. Through a series of mishaps, Connie and Steve are separated and then he eventually ends up on her doorstep, much to Carl’s consternation. What follows are days of confusions in which Connie proposes to Carl even as she is drawn to Steve for his forthright manners, Timmy has his first temper tantrum, and a mysterious Christmas present arrives from “Santa”. Oh, and yes, someone ends up in jail.

Experience: Traditionally, December is the month when one would find me immersed in Christmas jollies. I sing, watch, and read all things red, green, and snowy. Since it’s been a month since my post-surgery recovery began, keeping me from any physical activity beyond eating, rolling over in bed, and making the obligatory trips to the loo, my winter binge began early this year whence it progressed uninterrupted. And though there is a bounty of Christmas entertainments out there, I eventually had to play roulette on what to watch next. And sometimes when you toss it up to fate, you end up catching a big one. I have to say, Holiday Affair was an unexpectedly heartwarming and sensible romantic comedy that just about made my season.

While I love B&W cinemas to bits, the element in midcentury romantic comedies that, I always felt, there could have been less of are the comedic devices used. The farce, the puns, the slapsticks, the double entendre, the frequent cases of mistaken identity – there was just so much of it back in the days. Yes, I fully appreciate how much writers and directors of the time relied upon such ruses to reward the audience with some much-needed relief from the mounting romantic conflict but I have often found them just as unnecessary to the plot as not and their impacts somewhat forced. I admit there are actors who managed to efficiently portray these “funny accidents” in a believable way, but the accidents themselves are distracting nevertheless – and not altogether relatable. Or rather, if you miss such a scene, you haven’t missed anything momentous to the story arc. I was happy to see that Holiday Affair kept these parlor tricks under tight wraps and rather focused more on satire and situations, observations and even self-derision to generate humor, often delivered with deadpan sobriety. This produced an effect much more in keeping with the struggles that surrounded the young family of a fallen soldier and those who come into intimate contact with them. Even the little plot twist involving the jail scene, though surreal and absurd, managed to amplify the consistency of each major character, helping them forward with their respective character arcs.

No, instead of slapstick comedy, this movie presented some truly insightful scenes that endeared it to me. I loved Steve’s direct approach towards nailing Connie’s issues with love and romance. He does not apologize for his feelings for her but he can also understand that she needs to make her own decisions and would not settle for scraps. I love how Carl does not blind himself to what is happening, his character is consistently loyal to Connie’s happiness but he also knows that his own happiness cannot be achieved by ingratiating himself to another. But most of all, I love how even little Timmy is so self-aware and willing to be taught and guided onto the right path, even when he is having a hard time adjusting to the surmounting changes in his life. He can appreciate the reasons behind the actions of the adults around him and truly is a responsible little man even as his soul is uncorrupted by self-interest.

In fact, it is the sincerity and generosity of each major character that onsets the conflicts in this movie. Connie is falling in love with Steve but doesn’t want to cheat Carl out of the conclusion to their relationship that he has been awaiting so long. Carl is pleased that Connie is finally ready to marry him but is unsure what brought on this change of heart and doesn’t want her to sacrifice herself. Steve is forthright about his feelings but, though often lacking tact, he is insightful and tries to help everybody. And little Timmy, a child with such a generous heart that he would sacrifice a deeply coveted toy by first hiding his desire from his mother and then by returning the gift to help a friend out with the refund, inadvertently brings on some terrifying crisis. It seems that everyone’s self-dilemmas get in the way of everyone else’s happiness. But even when one character accidentally acts as the foil to another’s wishes, you can’t blame them for it. Generosity of spirit is the making and breaking of all conflicts in this movie and that’s what makes it a great Christmas story.

Finally, a note for Gordon Gebert, the child actor playing Timmy. Bravo! According to his records, Holiday Affair was his first credited role on screen but to see him act, you would not believe it. As the saying goes, the kid had a calling. Yet, for some reason, the character Timmy was considered a small role by Hollywood standards, which I feel is a total failure to recognize talent – since he had as many dialogues and scenes as the lead actor, which he performed with great gravitas. Gebert went on to perform in other roles in tinsel town though not in anything well-recognized. An utter underutilization of human capital, if I saw any. Not for little Gordon though; he went on to become an architect.

Recommendation: I really really liked this movie. To reiterate, it was rationally hilarious and had intelligent characters that benefited from the honest efforts of the actors who portrayed them. And most of all, it touched all the right notes that call out to the bounty of Christmas.

291966-season-s-greetings

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WRITING CHRONICLE #32: of recovery and waste

Via: Daily Prompt – Silent & Bliss

So I have returned – my health rallied and my mind itching to get things moving. Though my doctor has informed me that I will need a second [precautionary] surgery to fully eliminate any danger, it will be some time before she again puts me under the scalpel – or scoop, in my case.

Gruesome.

Anyway, I realized something about my author self in this past month of doing little more than lying in bed. I’m never more desirous to work on my novel as when I am experiencing a physical or scheduling constraint. It’s just as when I was slaving away like a house-elf for the corporate sovereigns. Then, too, I was desperate for the day when I would finally break free of my executive commitments and start writing the stories I am meant to write.

The day after my farewell at the office, I sat down at my laptop and wrote for nearly seven hours in one stretch. That first day, I had become unaware of any physical want that may draw me away from my creation; the consciousness of hunger, bladder pressure, or optical stress lay dormant before the high of being able to write without accountability to anything but the words adding pages to my manuscript. I ended up drafting the second half of my first [complete] novel in just over three months. Ecstasy!

That raw energy petered off all too quickly. Not that it bruised my ego at the time, as I fell back on the comfort of the new diversions that came my way. First, it was the online fiction writing course I did at the beginning of this year, which took eight weeks to complete. The exercise spurred me into writing a series of random flash fictions and short stories. By the time that was over, I was blogging on a daily basis. The challenge of responding to the WP Daily Prompt was so attractive and exhaustive that I allowed it to become an excuse to not begin editing my novel – after all, editing isn’t as much fun as drafting.

Then there was the Amazon writing contest, which at least got me to draft, edit, and publish my first [sellable] novella. A major milestone. And because I managed to accomplish the feat in less than a month, I felt motivated to dedicate more of my time and effort to writing fiction and consciously reduced blogging to twice a week. Sad to say, I didn’t devote myself to the endeavor nearly as much as I should have.

The shameful truth is I became lazy and complaisant. There’s plenty of time, I thought. After all, if I can produce and amend over 37,000 words for publication in less than 30 days, how long can it take to revise one 75,471-word draft? All I need to do is give two months to the task; maybe even less since the chief story was already written down. Pffft! Piece of cake! I got this!

And then this surgery. BOOM! Suddenly, my mind was flowing with scenes and prose, plots and characters for a new novel. Suddenly, I knew exactly which chapters I needed to slash from my first novel and what I should write to replace them in order to arrange the arcs of the story and characters into one cohesive piece. Yet, there I was, having to hold back the reins because I couldn’t even so much as sit up on my ass as type a page on my laptop.

Oh! How I writhed. I could take pills to allay the sting of my wound but there wasn’t any respite from the slow agony of the words blooming in my head, awaiting harvest. I was on edge with the heavy knowledge that these ideas could slip away just as quickly as they surfaced if I didn’t document them fast enough. This galvanizing commotion could quell at any moment. It made me irritable.

But, still, I misdirected the blame.

Arrogantly, I assumed that my problem was the inability to convert all this creative verve into anything productive. That it should return at such an inopportune time. If it weren’t for this stupid surgery, I could be listening to the symphonic clacking of the keys on my laptop, basking in the pride of writing fiction once more. The fault lay in my illness.

The fault did lay in my illness but the true nature of that illness dawned on me only when I went for a follow-up at the hospital. “Another surgery in a few months’ time.” No sooner did I realize that there will be another episode of lengthy convalescence in my near future when I wouldn’t be able to write that I finally came to term with the real threat. That I had been whiling away not-writing fiction for many months before the surgery took place. That before the advent of this renewed desperation to work on my novels, I had so easily settled into recuperative sluggishness because it was no different from the sedentary state I was already living. The recovery period is a mere month or so; what was I doing with my time when I was healthy?

I wasn’t having a mortality crisis but neither was six weeks a death sentence. Instead of grinding teeth over my temporary infirmity, I should be frowning upon my enduring wastefulness. Because despite my confidence in being able to write and publish a novella in under a month when I put myself to the task, the truth was that I wasn’t putting myself to the task. So I haven’t got this at all. I lacked industry, I lacked commitment.

Because speaking of that mortality crisis I wasn’t having, six weeks could have been a death sentence. It would have been a sorry end if I didn’t have at least one or six bestsellers to my name when the time came. And how mortifying when all those people who called me foolish for giving up a flourishing career to build castles in the cloud were proven correct. How would I even show my face to them then? Closed casket for me!

You know, we, writers, often take procrastination as part and parcel of the profession. We console ourselves with the idea that idleness does not really exist for us because we are always observing, formulating. A more stirring precept to hold fast to would be that we are slowly dying. There is just no time to waste.

So? Write.

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