Deep into my sixth novel, tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, I keep falling back into the same patterns that often got criticized in the past. It seems I can’t help doing it the way I always do it … mixing genres, hitting on multiple themes, creating frenetic plots and a plethora of characters who try to find their way but don’t totally succeed. My stories strive toward resolution, but that end point isn’t necessarily clear-cut. I prefer some uplift at the end, but “happily ever after” eludes my heroines.
That must be why I’ve never been able to write a traditional romance, although I tried a few times. The truth is, I have trouble even reading them. I might not bother to finish when I can predict the ending from 50 pages away. Contrived happy endings make me want to scream, “But that’s not real life!” So is this a valid excuse for not writing in a more popular vein? Or am I simply lacking the polishing skill that might result in a more neatly resolved story? “But life is too complicated for that!” I exclaim. Is that just an excuse for failing to simplify the story for the sake of clarity?
Some of the most critical reviews I receive are the most expensive ones. The reviewers are paid to be thorough, so their criticisms are often more exacting than those of the verified purchasers who just pick up the book hoping to be entertained. In my fifth novel, Sycophants (2018), my heroine, Imogene, is a country girl who moves to New York City, the place of her dreams. After suffering through a series of unsatisfying jobs, and an equally unsatisfying marriage, she hooks up with her former college roommate Sara to work as a publicist at a new film production company. Sara’s idea for a debut movie, one with strong political overtones, takes her to Washington, DC, which happens to be my hometown. The movie becomes a sprawling monster (much like the novel, if you want to be mean about it).
One reviewer complained that the plot slows to a crawl for several chapters when Sara becomes inaccessible in DC, leaving Imogene to her own devices in New York. I had hoped that turn of plot would give Imogene an opportunity to grow professionally, but the reviewer counters that the ballooning cast of characters around her on the job tends to compromise such development. All those background characters, including Imogene’s estranged husband, certain hangers-on at the production company, and a third former college roommate, tend to be, in her view, underdeveloped and formulaic. A fair point, but I wonder how much character development you can do without writing a 1,000-page novel.
The reviewer gives some credit and then takes it away. For example, she finds the confluence of developments in the second half of the novel frenetic and unbelievable, but concedes that the sped-up plot adds energy. Thankfully, she does find the exchanges between the characters convincing, although the chaotic plot tends to counteract that. I suppose it’s the age-old problem of deciding which is more important, character development or plot. Concentrating on one tends to dilute the other. Maybe the most skilled writers can do both equally well, but the rest of us can’t seem to win, either way.
Another reviewer complains that my characters don’t spring off the page like flesh-and-blood human beings … something I’m sure we’d all like to achieve, although it isn’t easy. For example, Imogene doesn’t feel like a country girl to this reader. If she did, she’d always be carrying the sights, sounds, and visceral memories of the country with her. But, I protest, that is the world she’s trying to escape. She does return home for a while when the city has exhausted her too much. But re-immersing herself in that life, with her parents always insisting that she help with the farm work and routine household chores, only makes her anxious to leave again. Further, the reviewer questions the small-town campus origin of many of the characters, and wonders what was so unique about that environment to affect them for years afterward and cause them to remain intricately linked. I might refer her to my earlier novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007), which puts many of those characters back in that college setting, but I concede that’s not a reasonable response. Still, I can argue from my own experience that such lifelong connections certainly can originate at a relatively small college.
It could be that simplicity of plot and satisfying romance are incompatible with heroines like mine, who want more out of life than true love. Sometimes they aren’t particularly good people, or at least not the kind that readers root hard for all the way through. Gilded Prisons is a sequel to an earlier story, Let’s Play Ball (2010), which featured a seemingly irredeemable villainess. That same woman emerges as something of a heroine in Gilded Prisons, although still deeply flawed. Is it possible to create a villainess who does evil things, but has an underlying motive that is somewhat understandable, and perhaps also a few redeeming features? I guess we’ll find out when Gilded Prisons sees the light of day.