Turning Reality On Its Head

When reality gets unbearably grim during this nonstop horror show of 2020, fiction seems particularly enticing. For me, it’s a perfect time to plunge into some of the alternate universes that the Netflix streaming service provides. One political drama in particular strikes me as pure wishful thinking, given today’s level of discourse.  It features the first woman president of the United States (and hurrah for the imaginary voters who finally got it right!). Madame President has moved up from her previous position as Madame Secretary of State (as a certain real-life figure once seemed poised to do, until the electoral college bollixed up her chances).

Early in the administration of this fantasy president, Elizabeth McCord, she receives credible evidence of Iranian interference in the most recent election. She vows to expose and punish this attack on American democracy … even though that interference appears to have benefited her! Talk about turning reality on its head. In this alternate world, we not only have a president who is willing to risk her office for the sake of principle, but actually listens to her opponents (as proven by her choice of a Republican vice president), tries to advance legislation that has a chance of helping people not in the wealthiest one percent, uses the military judiciously, and faces down irresponsible politicians who make unhinged threats against her and her family. In short, she applies reason and intellect to the pressing issues of the day. Will this ever be the norm again? After three and a half years of nonstop lies, conspiracy theories, tantrums, and plain rank stupidity emanating from the White House, is there any hope for such a reality?

I have also traveled back in time, to an well-honored classic, to examine this reality-tampering process. The most recent remake of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is quite a departure from the countless earlier versions. The 2019 movie directed by Greta Gerwig is more thematic than chronological. The four March sisters, growing up in Civil War-era New England, were based on Alcott’s own family, yet the author herself reportedly referred to her most popular work as “sentimental pap.” It seems that she was forced to betray her own reality in some ways, in the interests of appealing to the popular reading market of the time. Her original intention was to write a story more aligned with the truth. That would have left her heroine unmarried at the end, as she herself was. However, she allowed herself to be persuaded that the book wouldn’t sell unless it featured a  “happily ever after” ending.

How well does the new movie restore Alcott’s less idealized reality? We see Jo, the novice authoress, stand up to the prospective publisher of her first novel, even when he appears to have all the power. He offers her an upfront payment of $500 in exchange for the copyright. That was sorely tempting to Jo, the primary breadwinner of a poor family. But she turns down the offer, having enough faith in her work to realize that the copyright, in time, would be worth much more than $500.

Yet after token resistance, Jo does succumb to her publisher’s “happily ever after” edict,  just as Alcott did. Gerwig’s movie compromises in the same way. It isn’t certain at first, in this retelling, that Jo will fall for the German professor who courts her during a sojourn in New York City.  In fact, when he has the temerity to criticize her writing rather harshly, she lashes out at him, defending her stories for the pulp market. They might not be great literature, but they bring in cash that her family sorely needs. In the end, however, even this somewhat revisionist movie isn’t about to let Jo end up a “spinster.” The professor grows on her, and his writing advice, while unwelcome at first, turns out to be sound. Some time after she returns home, he pays her a brief, unexpected visit. She almost lets him walk away without a commitment, but her sisters know love when they see it. At their urging, she races through a pouring rain to stop him before he gets on a train bound for the west.

Jo’s three sisters have likewise acquired a new complexity. I’ve often wondered if the real Beth, the sister who died at a tragically young age, was as relentlessly sweet as portrayed in the book. A little research into the actual sister (known as Lizzie) suggests otherwise. As the story goes, the girls’ mother is called away to tend to her sick husband at the battlefront. She asks her daughters to  take up her charitable work while she is gone, but Beth is the only one who actually does. One of her charges comes down with scarlet fever, which Beth knows is beyond her nursing capabilities. She asks her older sisters to pitch in, since they had the fever years before and presumably couldn’t catch it again. When they claim to be too tired or busy, Beth’s normally placid face betrays a moment of anger. Can’t one of them relieve her burden just this once?

As a result, she catches the disease. She appeared to recover from the initial phase, but as time passes, it becomes clear that permanent damage has been done. She eventually succumbs to its complications. In Alcott’s story, Beth accepts her fate, and after much suffering and prayer, even embraces it. Other sources report that on a few occasions, the real Lizzie lashed out at her sisters and others, as she had every right to. After all, their neglect at a critical time was at least partly responsible for destroying her life.

As in all versions of the story, Meg, the oldest sister, and Amy, the youngest, prove to be polar opposites when it comes to marital choices. Meg marries for love, not money, but she’s only human, and sometimes she can’t help lamenting her continuing poverty. By contrast, the latest version of Amy has been generally lauded as a proto-feminist. A rather self-centered child, and later something of a gold-digger in her determination to “marry well,” she’s not entirely sympathetic. Yet who can blame her? Along the way, she faces the fact that her skills as an artist aren’t sufficient to afford her a comfortable living … although she believes in her heart that her earning capability would be far greater if she were a man. Given the limitations imposed on ambitious women, her best option is to make a match that will enable her to pursue art as a hobby, and perhaps serve as a benefactor to others.

In the end, all three of the surviving March sisters make peace with their choices. Switching back to modern times, President Elizabeth McCord manages to overcome a bogus impeachment attempt, and actually rises in the polls as a result. It’s all rather cheesy, and perhaps wishful thinking, but reassuring nevertheless. Given the circumstances of 2020, why not? Just now, we need all the happy endings we can get.

My Novels Are Comics (Part 2)

With the world so out of whack at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say to friends, much less strangers, other than “Stay safe.” At a time like this, the normal author-like pursuits of writing and blogging seem irrelevant on one level, although comforting on another. I’ve been trying to draft a new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but conjuring up the comparatively normal world where they unfold feels disorienting, if not a tad self-indulgent.

Accordingly, this could be an ideal time to revisit old stories instead. The problems and traumas we wrote about months and years ago were comparatively normal and recognizable, even if our characters were weeping and moaning over them as if the world had ended. Who doesn’t yearn for the good old overwrought themes of unreliable boyfriends, love triangles, jealousy and revenge, bad bosses and soul-sucking jobs, social awkwardness, and all the rest of it?

I’m also renewing my ongoing effort to envision a few of those old stories as movies. Obviously, there are no production companies or crews available right now to make them spring to life on video, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be envisioned graphically. If my novels aren’t yet movies, at least they can be comics. Trying to encapsulate them in one panel proved to be a challenging exercise, like trying to spit out one of those hyper-streamlined elevator pitches. Of course they don’t look terribly professional, and melding them into social media is a skill I don’t yet have. Enlarging them for better readability tends to make them too humongous. But what does it matter if they’re comical-looking? I guess you could say they are comedies.

 

 

 

 

In The Rock Star’s Homecoming, college senior Imogene has hit on a unique topic for her English honors thesis. Ignoring her advisor’s advice to choose a more traditional subject, she is determined to concoct a theory about the influence of poetry on rock music. Her research will consist of critiquing her favorite band and its lead singer, Jake, who have returned to the campus where they originated for a special Homecoming weekend. She lures the musician to her father’s nearby farm, where the inevitable seduction occurs. Will this help or hurt her academic efforts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Play Ball features fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica, always close but competitive. They are pursuing opposite theories about who plotted the kidnapping of Jessica’s fiancé, Major League ballplayer Manny Chavez. The crime took place just prior to Manny’s scheduled Congressional testimony about steroid use in baseball, which would have implicated several teammates of his. Jessica’s main suspect is Petie Jansen, Manny’s fiercest rival on the team, and inconveniently, a close friend of Miranda’s. Miranda is determined to clear Petie, and to pursue her own suspect. Choosing the most public place available, she confronts Madeline, the daughter of the team’s owner, with the incriminating evidence she’s compiled. Incidentally, she also confirms her suspicion that Madeline has been sleeping with her husband, Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handmaidens of Rock unfolds during the wild early 1970s. Aspiring college journalist Candy has attached herself to a campus rock band. Not caring to be regarded as a mere groupie, she has fulfilled her wildest dream by marrying the flashy guitarist who fronts the group. Then, shortly after discovering she’s pregnant, she catches her roommate in bed with her husband. She vows to take revenge by writing investigative articles that will implicate her former best friend in a plot to fire-bomb the campus theater, and her husband’s band for inciting a riot at a festival.

My Novels Are Comics

Let’s Play Ball

Has there ever been a novelist, whether traditional, self-published, or in between, who didn’t envision his or her story made into a hit movie? With the avalanche of new books apparently hitting the market daily, that would be the best way to stand out–or ultimately, perhaps, the only way. It’s a worthy goal, but unfortunately, Hollywood is unlikely to come knocking on our doors unless we’re already renowned writers, or famous for something else.

Fortunately, there are mini-Hollywoods sprouting up everywhere these days. We live in an era when independent film-making is becoming a major thing. That means it’s at least possible to contemplate turning our written masterpieces into cinematic ones. But novel-writing and script-writing are distinct skills. Knowing nothing about the latter, I hired professionals to turn my first four novels into presentable scripts. I thought they all did a more than presentable job, and that all four would make decent feature films. The scripts are on display at sites like Inktip and Simplyscripts, and get a fair number of looks, but no producer with deep pockets has been wowed as yet.

If someone with only moderately deep pockets ever showed an interest, crowd sourcing would be one way of obtaining whatever additional funding was necessary. Another option might be to extract a few representative scenes from the feature script and make a short film. That would still require locating or organizing a temporary production company. I have succeeded in doing this once. In 2017, I extracted a short script called “Secretarial Spy” from a feature script called “Secretarial Wars,” based on my 2003 novel of the same name. A local film-making group turned this into a 13-minute piece called “The Investigation.” Although many changes were made to my original script, it was gratifying to see at least a germ of the original story survive. And it gave me an incentive to try to repeat that feat for the other three stories.

The Rock Star’s Homecoming

While waiting for a production company to materialize, another option is story-boarding.  This basically involves making comics, or graphic narratives, out of your proposed movies. I signed up with a website called Storyboard That, and gave it a try. It’s not quite like having real people recite your dialogue and enact your ideas, but it’s a start. To storyboard an entire feature film, which might require 100 or more panels, proved a little beyond the website’s present capability, so I tried to boil the strips down to a more manageable size.

It can be fun to illustrate a story this way, although it has its limitations. The characters that the website offers in similar age groups tend to look alike, although some of the women are more hefty or hip-looking than others (and at least one that I used is obviously pregnant). The men are either bearded or not, or dressed in business attire or not. The expressions, physical stances, and clothing color can be altered. You can also use your own pictures as backdrops or props. Captions are useful to set the scene, as a narrator or voice-over would.

Handmaidens of Rock

Sizing things correctly is probably the greatest challenge, and is part of what makes this style of comics truly comical. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features two college roommates who drive to New York to pick up the rock band that has agreed, despite its expulsion from the school two years before, to appear at the annual Homecoming dance. Placing the two girls inside a moving car was challenging, to say the least, since the steering wheel alone turned out too humongous for any reasonably sized driver to handle. In Let’s Play Ball, a young sportswriter, engaged to a star baseball player, is appointed to throw out the first ball at a championship game. It proved difficult to confine her to the pitcher’s mound, as she dominates the entire field, literally. For Handmaidens of Rock,  I tried to depict a young, nervous girl appearing onstage to sing lyrics she wrote herself, alongside the guitarist she loves. He backs her up admirably, taking up the whole backdrop, in fact.

Well, it’s better than nothing. Until that day when your story excites some hot-shot director or producer, here is a way to force your narratives, kicking and screaming, into life.

Riverdale Runs Wild

In a fit of nostalgia, I recently watched the two seasons of “Riverdale” that are currently available on Netflix. I thought it might be fun to re-experience my childhood enjoyment of the Archie Comics, which captured teenage life in a small town.  I wasn’t yet a teenager when I started reading the comics in the early 1960s, so they mostly gave me a sense of what I had to look forward to, assuming  my own teenage years turned out fairly normal.  There were characters that represented all possible stereotypes … nice and well-behaved Betty, vampy and privileged Veronica, all-American Archie, lazy Jughead, cool-cat Reggie, dumb jock Moose, and so on. In later years, more characters were added to increase the diversity of the cast.

I identified most with Betty, who had a blond ponytail and  a sweet, innocent-looking face. Although she was friends with raven-haired Veronica, she was uncomfortably aware that “Ronnie” was sexier and richer than she. To complicate matters, they both liked Archie and took turns dating him, although Ronnie was also known to flirt with the more suave Reggie. Would typical teenage dramas like these be enough to carry a modern-type streaming series?

Apparently, Netflix doesn’t think so. (Spoiler alert for anybody planning to watch this). The series begins with a literal bang … the murder of a popular student during summer vacation. His family immediately comes under suspicion, since his parents are a little creepy and his twin sister isn’t known to be a good girl. In fact, it comes to light that she was helping her brother run away from home with Betty’s older sister, who was pregnant with his child, when the gunshot rang out. That’s the mystery that sets all of the intrigue in motion, and then it keeps piling on. During the subsequent school year, more murders and attempted murders pop up. Someone who calls himself the Black Hood is wreaking havoc and sending cryptic messages to the newspaper … and also calling Betty’s cell phone, although she has no idea why she’s the target of his weird rambling. And as if this weren’t enough, copycats terrorists get in the act and strike at various times, such as during a mayoral debate and a school musical.

I found myself wondering if I could possibly identify with this wildly enhanced version of Betty, who still has the ponytail but not the innocence. I guess I could, if I suspected my dad was a serial killer, and especially if I had managed to develop sufficient journalistic skills while working on the school newspaper to enable me to uncover some horrifying clues. And maybe if I came to realize that I, too, harbored a certain “darkness” within that could compel me to commit murder for the greater good … even if my intended victim were someone I had thought for a short time was my long-lost brother.

Some comic relief is provided by the irate principal of Riverdale High. He has ample justification for his daily temper tantrums and habit of summoning kids into his office to hear his diatribes. His school is hardly a well-oiled machine; it’s barely a school at all. Most of the kids (except maybe Moose and Reggie and a few gang members) are obviously smart enough to solve complex mysteries that baffle even the chief of police. They’re at an age when they should be thinking about college and taking demanding AP classes in preparation. Even the formerly lazy Jughead has been reconstituted as anything but that, although he sports the same trademark wool cap in every season and situation. He’s probably the most complex of the revised characters, an aspiring writer and crusader for good who is also a gang member. He’s dating nice-on-the-surface Betty in this scenario, but since his dad used to be the leader of the pack, that side of his nature  is never far from the surface.

Schoolwork at Riverdale High is an afterthought, if that. I never saw any of the kids do a lick of homework, although they sometimes tell their parents they have a lot of it. That’s just a handy dodge, it seems, to avoid supervision at home. Once left alone in their rooms, they’re free to get on their computers and phones, not to write themes or work out math problems, but to exchange the latest scandalous news and clues. Nor do the kids adhere to any curfews, as they always seem to be roaming the streets in the dead of night. Once in a while they do sit in a classroom, but the lesson at hand never grabs their attention. How could mere schoolwork compete with their real dramas?

To put it mildly, this is quite a new take on an old classic. There is barely enough time for all of the red herrings introduced in every episode to be chased down. Did the producers go too far in turning what used to be innocent entertainment totally on its head? Or are they just having some fun by pulling our legs?

Corralling A Hot Mess

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts in my semi-illustrious self-publishing career. I have finally disposed of a story that has been cooking inside my brain forever, that has kept on haunting me even as I set it aside and went forward with other unrelated novels because they seemed to come easier. I’ve somehow corralled the scraps of this tale that have lurked ever since I first began to entertain an imaginary friend in childhood. That “friendship” has persisted well into middle age. She still hangs around, advising me and leading by example, since she possesses all the aggressiveness that I lack. She’s the leader of the story, a composite of strong women I have known and admired, while the character based on me is the follower. The story has always been called “Sycophants,” even as it went through revisions too numerous to count. I fear it’s a somewhat self-deprecating title that pegs my heroine, Imogene, as less than heroic, although she does manage to conquer a few demons here and there.

The outlines of Sycophants came to me during my college years in the early 1970s. I was an introvert who tended to gravitate toward the take-charge personalities in my dorm. My college was in rural Maryland, a very pretty spot, but I often longed to escape to New York City, over 200 miles away. A previous novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, published in 2007, dealt with college roommates Sara and Imogene as they embarked on a road trip to the big city. Their mission was to bring back the homegrown band fronted by Sara’s brother Jake, now a famous rock star, to perform at the annual Homecoming concert. Sycophants is a sequel to that novel, in which the original characters have grown up and are now laying the groundwork for their fondest dream, a movie production company. My blurb describes Imogene as a country girl by birth who determines to leave the farm where she grew up and join her former roommate in this exciting venture.

I’ve “finished” the manuscript for this story a few times before, only to abandon it as awkward, uncontrollable, and illogical. In short, it was a hot mess that wouldn’t seem to cool down. For starters, I didn’t know enough about the movie business, and what would be plausible in a do-it-yourself situation in the late 1980s. So I began to read numerous books about all aspects of film-making. I presented the first chapter to a critique group that gave it a real beat-down, leaving me incredulous as to how I could have made so many missteps in just twenty pages. Since traditional publishing was the only real option then, I queried a few places. A few literary agents admitted to liking the concept, but that was as far as it got.

The various manuscripts for Sycophants have a storied history, grinding through all kinds of primitive technology. I typed it on my first computer, purchased around 1987, a Kaypro which had no hard drive and could only store ten pages at a time on floppy disks. Over the years, as the available technology evolved, I transferred it to each new computer. There were times when the ideas flowed smoothly, and other times when they got tangled. I started from scratch more than once.

Now I’m done with it … at least for the moment. I had what I thought was a semi-decent rough draft by May 2018. I reread the whole thing to make sure it was minimally coherent, at least to my own eyes. My current critique group, a much more helpful bunch than the previous one, had beta-read it a few pages at a time, making many useful suggestions. However, that system didn’t allow for an overall assessment. I found that the story hung together, but that the language needed either tightening up or fleshing out in numerous places. I went through the rewriting process at least five times between May and October.

Finally, after farming out the cover design and line editing, I decided to publish directly to Amazon for the first time. My previous four novels were published by iUniverse, and received the Editor’s Choice designation. The last two of those novels, Let’s Play Ball and Handmaidens of Rock, went through the full developmental edit process, which I found thorough and professional. This time I went with only a line edit, not the full process, simply because I had rewritten it so many times myself that I just couldn’t face doing it again. I was something of an editor myself in my Federal government career, and I critique other writers’ work on occasion, so I’m not totally helpless in that area. Still, this feels something like walking a tightrope without a net. But having decided that perfection is the enemy of progress, I determined to let  my “life’s work” fly. At least I’m confident that the professionally designed cover reflects what the book is about … amateurs and semi-amateurs trying to worm or pay their way into the movie business.

But in Amazon’s system, is anything really finished? The files are always available to be unloaded, revised, and reloaded. To my disgust and chagrin, there were a few errors that I didn’t catch until I had the published paperback in my hands. Formatting errors, as long as they’re few and far between, don’t trouble me much. That seems unavoidable, with all the format changes that a manuscript has to go through to be readable on various devices, as well as ready to print. At least the story seems to flow and cohere as well as I could make it. The one thing that made me break out into a cold sweat was discovering that I twice used the wrong name for a minor character. I cursed myself, while wondering if anybody else would notice or care.

I’m sure many of my fellow authors have stories churning in their heads that they can’t seem to finish, but that won’t let them go either. These days it’s fairly easy to go “live” with your books, whether they’re perfect or not. Do you ever get to the point where your work is absolutely finished, and never to be touched or altered again?

A novel about film-making can’t exist without a video, so here’s the link:

Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

Can I Invent My Own Genre?

It’s been twenty years or so since self-publishing first became a viable thing. Two decades of growth in the indie fiction field have made it increasingly clear which writing styles and marketing tactics tend to be most lucrative. The “secret” to writing bestsellers is to define your genre and audience and satisfy them for all you’re worth. If you can manage to grind out several books in a series, you have the best chance of creating a steady revenue stream. That means developing a theme or formula that can sustain more than one book, exercising as much creativity as you can within those boundaries, and repeating the basics as long as your readers keep snapping it up. Writers who can do this also seem able to turn out books at supersonic speed.

Employing this “secret” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Personally, I don’t seem to have the skill that it requires, but that doesn’t make me bitter. On the contrary, I rejoice for those who can do this, since it makes all of self-publishing more legitimate. I remember all too well the days when gatekeepers stood in the way of aspiring authors, letting in a privileged few and making a point of mocking the rest of us and worse, wasting our time. I used to read or listen to advice given by “professionals” in the field who pretended to “encourage” those of us on the outside. Their real purpose was to keep us prostrating ourselves before the gates, so that they could pretend to stand in some beatified light from above that had blessed their own efforts. Now we can tell them what to do with their “advice.” It’s been exposed, if not as fraudulent, then at least as archaic.

Some of us have problems with genre. I’m not particularly a fan of romance, science fiction, mystery, or dystopian themes (although I’m most tempted to try my hand at the last one, in light of the disastrous presidential election of 2016 and its increasingly scary aftermath). I define my stuff as chicklit, generally speaking. Does it follow that just because I don’t write to suit a more exact genre, that few readers will get my stuff? I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read long, complex, character-driven, woman-dominated stories, and tends to write in the same vein. Stories like this take a while to read and absorb, and accordingly take forever to write. One of the reasons this process is so arduous is that I go where my characters take me, not necessarily where the market dictates they should go. My stories usually feature a relatively weak heroine who is trying to get stronger. All I can say for her is that she’s not quite as big an idiot at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her life isn’t totally straightened out, although it’s getting there. Can a story like that represent a category in itself? Maybe we could call it the Incompetent Chick Genre.

If I depended on confused and indecisive heroines to move plots along, they’d spin their wheels for 300 pages. So I surround them with stronger characters, often female, who aren’t afraid to yell at them to get off their asses, and then show them how it’s done. In Secretarial Wars (2003), an ambitious but easily frustrated secretary, Miriam, needs such a push. She works for a Federally funded grants program that she suspects is subject to corruption, but doesn’t know how to prove it. She encounters Pamela Whittle, a college professor who has been rejected for one of these grants, and has determined not only to figure out why, but to reverse the decision. Whittle carries on with this plan until she becomes part of the corruption, at least in Miriam’s opinion.

When my critique group read Secretarial Wars, they took to Whittle much more than they did to Miriam. Like most writers, my colleagues enjoy playing the game of choosing which famous actors should ideally play the lead roles in any prospective movies based on their stories. The role of Whittle, according to the group, would be perfect for Kathy Bates, who is well known for her portrayal of dynamic, sometimes crazy women. In fact, it seems that every strong female role I come up with is a perfect fit for Kathy Bates. How about a new trend based on this phenomenon? We could call it the Strong Female Rescuer Genre.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I imagined a close but uneasy relationship between fraternal twin sisters who have taken radically different paths in life. Miranda is a government bureaucrat with a lawyer husband and a house in the suburbs, while Jessica is a sportswriter who sacrifices normal career prospects, relationships, and financial security for many years in order to establish a magazine. Jessica’s publication finally catches on, and her personal life seems equally settled when she becomes engaged to a Major League ballplayer. Her less conventional path seems to end up making her both happier and more successful than her twin. Then the balance of power is knocked off kilter again when Jessica’s fiancé is kidnapped, and circumstances plunge both sisters into the investigation … with Jessica harboring suspicions against Miranda even as she requires her twin’s help.

My two music-inspired novels, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) and Handmaidens of Rock (2014), both unfold partially on college campuses. I made use of my own experiences as an academically conscientious but socially awkward coed in the early 1970s. In those days, the friends I made tended to be stronger personalities than I was. More often than not, I let them set the tone of the relationship. The heroine of “Homecoming,” Imogene, feels herself getting crushed between two powerhouse roommates. One is a hopeless snob, and the other is the sister of a rock star whom Imogene worships from afar, and eventually gets to meet. In “Handmaidens,” aspiring journalist Candy struggles with a bad freshman roommate, who hypocritically criticizes her timidity with the girls in the hall while systematically badmouthing her behind her back. Although that situation mirrors my own unhappy freshman experience, I did not leave my small-town school, as Candy did, for the more congenial and diverse surroundings of a big university. I stuck it out, and eventually found my niches.

All in all, the “incompetent chick” in my stories resembles me, while the “strong female rescuer” is the more dynamic friend who swoops in and takes over. If I were casting a movie based on this dynamic, any number of ingénues could play the innocent girl.  But I couldn’t do without Kathy Bates, or a Kathy Bates type, to move in and threaten to blow her off the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Fantasy Doing The Trick?

I’m not a big fan of made-up worlds. I’m more of a realist in my literary tastes. I prefer stories that could conceivably happen to me, with familiar and accessible settings, as opposed to the wildest flights of an author’s imagination. Not since childhood have I been easily captivated by fantasy, science fiction, and tales of ancient times. Nor do I readily identify with wizards, zombies, space aliens, and kings and queens of antiquity.

So what accounts for a recent, growing urge to immerse myself in the unreal? Is the real world becoming too much for me? Alternate realities seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a country with a crazy president, who brags about his willingness to launch real missiles at an equally unstable leader who thinks he is capable of launching them right back.

I’ve dipped into the anti-realism craze before. I read the first Harry Potter volume, The Sorcerer’s Stone, and downloaded the movie a few years ago. I recently finished reading the first volume of Game of Thrones. Do I get what the excitement is about? Absolutely. JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at drawing audiences into their made-up worlds and mapping them out in rich detail, giving them believability and their own inner logic. When everything is so alien, it takes extra effort on the part of the reader or viewer to grasp it. Dangerous and unexpected things lurk around every corner. The main characters go looking for danger, since they are by nature heroic, driven, or at least extremely curious. Both tales feature the occasional woman or girl who behaves as heroically, or more so, than her male counterparts.

We first glimpse Harry Potter when he is about to leave drab reality behind and become a wizard-in-training. His new school is chock-full of magic, while the outside world remains ordinary and predictable. To be sure, weird things were happening to young Harry before he ever heard of Hogwarts, but he did not associate those incidents with magic. He was a maltreated orphan whose treacherous relatives covered up the truth about his parentage, and thus tried to deny him his destiny. Although he begins to realize his true nature when he arrives at Hogwarts, that place isn’t entirely different from the public schools we all recognize. I had a flashback to junior high when I glimpsed the crowded, turbulent dining hall at the school of magic, where much the same bonding, intrigue, and sometimes nastiness goes on. I felt for young Hermione when a fellow student calls her out for her abrasive personality and superior attitude. She runs off and cries, but manages to gain some perspective and humility when she falls into the hands of a dumb but dangerous troll. The only two fellow students who have made her acquaintance, Harry and Ron, at least care enough to help her out of that jam. A mighty threesome is launched.

Harry could live a relatively safe life in school, just learning his magic lessons, but that proves impossible. As the blood of his deceased parents courses through him, he and his two friends keep testing the boundaries. The first time they venture somewhere off limits, they encounter a three-headed dog. As if that weren’t scary enough, they discern that the dog is guarding some kind of secret. Of course the kids can’t rest until they uncover it. Along the way, they discover that some of their fellow students, and even one or two adults, are not necessarily supportive. They’re either jealous, or covering up the schemes and plots of the shadowy Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. Despite being one of the original founders of Hogwarts, Voldemort is also responsible for Harry being an orphan. We learn that possessing magic powers isn’t enough; one must also learn to use them for good.

Despite its medieval trappings, Game of Thrones strikes me as a more recognizable world than Hogwarts. We have the daily news to remind us that not much has changed since the so-called dark ages. The constant, bloody feuding between at least seven distinct houses described in the book is all too familiar to the modern observer. Vestiges of that world rage on in the tribal warfare of the Middle East, and many other places. Even if lords, ladies, and knights are no longer defending strongholds and castles, we still have endless religious and national quarrels and grievances. Who can sort out the allies and enemies in the interminable fight to overthrow the Syrian government? Countless nations have put an oar into that mess without any clear idea of an end game. They may agree that ISIS is the embodiment of evil, but they seem unable to join forces to remove the menace. Besides the intractable quarrel between different branches of Islam, there are also Kurd nationalists on the scene whom the US sometimes support, except when we’re obliged to designate them as a terrorist organization to placate our on-again, off-again ally, Turkey. Sometimes we appear to be on the same side as the Russians and sometimes on the opposite side. Who will the winners be if Assad actually falls? Not that it looks like he ever will.

It’s easier to keep track of the houses contending for the Iron Throne, even with their extended families and retainers and bannermen and outriders. Most readers’ sympathies will be with the family that seems to have valid historical reasons to believe it was usurped in the old days. At least in this world, there are no major religious quarrels going on, although some folks worship the old gods and some prefer the newer ones. Everyone seems to speak a Common Tongue, while more obscure languages are spoken on the outskirts of society.

The implements of warfare are what make this world so different from the one we know. It takes real heroism to be a warrior, as there is no avoiding the enemy. It’s all hand-to-hand combat with swords and lances. There are no fighter jets dropping bombs, no drones, no suicide car attacks, no assault rifles. Amputations are the most common injury in battle. Unless they result in decapitation, they’re considered mere flesh wounds, not serious enough to stop a true fighter. Combatants are always threatening to slice off the manhood of someone they intend to humiliate, and feed it to whatever wild animal is lurking about. And this proves to be no idle threat.

Some of the characters have a ring of familiarity. Robert, the sitting king when Game of Thrones opens, reminds me in some ways of Trump, although he’s much smarter and more self-aware. Robert admits that he felt truly alive and engaged when he was fighting for the throne; the actual job of ruling bores him. He fills his days with entertainment, putting on banquets and tournaments he can’t afford. The young ruler, Joffrey, who replaces Robert on his death, is Trump-like in his childishness. He is given to empty bragging and impulsive decisions, which need to be modified and countermanded by his more mature advisors. At least Joffrey has an excuse; he really is still a child, not a 71-year-old man.

These stories have some romantic potential. Unfortunately, the budding Romeo-and Juliet-style romance I anticipated between Joffrey and Sansa, the daughter of Robert’s loyal retainer, fizzles out for the time being. I thought it had a chance even when Joffrey and Sansa’s father clash, since it appears Sansa clings to her romantic notions for a brief time. Then Joffrey goes so far as to put her father to death as a traitor, and still has the insufferable arrogance to insist that the marriage will go on. As for romance in Harry Potter, I assume it’s waiting in the wings for the kids to mature in later volumes.

Fantasies like these have the power to divert us when real and potential disasters, both natural and manmade, loom everywhere. Sometimes I feel that existential threats like nuclear war and climate change are getting alarmingly close, yet I can still go to the Mall or to restaurants without meeting a gang of marauders who might decapitate me for having the wrong family name. Stories also remind us that life is never easy, even in fantasyland. The reptilian core of the human brain has always lurked barely underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any time. Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, may not be a real person, but he isn’t so different from people we know, too many of which are in positions of power. At least our real enemies aren’t magical, so presumably we have a fighting chance. Too bad we’re not magical ourselves.

My Girls Are Unlikable

Why do readers and critics of chicklit fiction demand likable heroines? When asked why this is so important, some say they can’t get into a story unless they find themselves rooting for the central character. They must be able to identify with her, or at least care what happens to her. They’ll concede that everyone has flaws, and a perfect heroine would be dull, but she must overcome whatever foibles are standing between her and a happy life.

So how flawed can a heroine afford to be? Must she achieve near-perfection during the course of the narrative to allow the reader to develop the necessary sympathy? Do readers really strive for such perfection themselves, or think they can achieve it with such a person as a role model? In the process of writing four novels, I’ve come up with imperfect and perhaps even unlikable heroines. I never thought they were bad people, just a little messed up. Of course they tend to be self-absorbed, but aren’t most young people like that? That’s how I defend them from naysayers.

In Secretarial Wars, a story inspired by one of my office experiences, the recently divorced secretary Miriam is still sleeping with her ex-husband, although he wasted no time marrying someone else. That’s certainly not nice of her―in fact, it’s called adultery. She actually gets a kick out of risking discovery by the volatile and jealous second wife. Miriam’s professional goal is to shed her secretarial identity and become an investigative journalist. This presents a conflict of interest, as her efforts to uncover malfeasance at the office make her something of a turncoat to the agency that pays her salary. Along the way, she takes some tentative steps toward personal happiness, but without benefit of a real epiphany that would lead to a character makeover.

I chose a small-town college setting, like the one I experienced myself, for The Rock Star’s Homecoming. Imogene, a college senior, rants and raves because her unreliable boyfriend Steve won’t commit to taking her to her final homecoming dance. What will that mean for her chances to leave college with the all-important “Mrs. degree”? To makes Steve jealous, she allows herself to be seduced by the rock star who returns to campus with his now-famous band to play the dance. Since her strategy kind of works, has Imogene learned any real lesson? At least she realizes that she wants more from her post-college life than just a husband.

Handmaidens of Rock also involves girls sleeping with musicians, although the three who hang out with the band called AMO certainly have career aspirations of their own. The way they use the musicians to acquire fame and fortune in their own right might not make them the nicest people. Still, if they didn’t grab some benefits from the arrangement, the arrogant band members would be far too inclined to treat them as mere groupies.

In Let’s Play Ball, fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica penetrate the world of baseball while pursuing widely different career paths and personal lives. Miranda is a bureaucrat with a stable job and what looks like a solid marriage to a lawyer. Jessica, by contrast, is a sportswriter who has sacrificed conventional career prospects and relationships to establish a magazine that pursues controversial topics. After a long struggle, she makes a success of it, and becomes engaged to the major league ballplayer who was the subject of one of her most famous profiles.

All hell breaks loose when that ballplayer is kidnapped, and Miranda is caught sleeping with a teammate whom Jessica suspects of participating in a wide-ranging plot. Obviously, Miranda is no paragon of virtue, although she claims to have been driven to it by her cheating husband. Jessica’s self-righteousness doesn’t endear her to readers either. She tends to regard herself and her fiancé as perpetual victims, and is too quick to accuse everyone in sight of participating in the vast conspiracy to destroy her perfect happiness.

I’m hardly alone in creating less-than-virtuous heroines. Famous authors have been known to do it, although they rarely make their girls totally unlikable. If they do, critics and online reviewers savage them. For example, Candace Bushnell has created a plethora of heroines in her many chicklit novels, including One Madison Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and the best known of all, Sex and the City. The four SATC girls who were featured in the television series and movies tend to rise from the confusion as fully realized characters, simply because we’ve known them for so long. Carrie the writer is the most relatable to me, but Miranda the career-minded lawyer, Charlotte the homemaker, and even Samantha the nymphomaniac publicist are likable most of the time.

In one instance, however, many of Bushnell’s readers think she went too far. Trading Up features a total narcissist in Janey Wilcox, a superstar model with Hollywood aspirations. This novel has received more one and two-star ratings than I have ever seen on Amazon for a famous author. The description reads: “Modern-day heroine Janey Wilcox is a lingerie model whose reach often exceeds her grasp, and whose new-found success has gone to her head. As we follow Janey’s adventures, Bushnell draws us into a seemingly glamorous world of $100,000 cars, hunky polo players and media moguls, Fifth Avenue apartments … Unseen forces conspire to bring her down, forcing her to reexamine her values about love and friendship―and how far she’s really willing to go to realize her dreams.”

This description is somewhat inaccurate, in my opinion. As far as I can see, the only “reexamination” Janey undertakes is to figure out why she hasn’t hit the big time as forcefully as she expected. She latches onto a Hollywood mogul by pretending to write a screenplay, only to be exposed as a fraud. She marries another star maker who actually loves her and tries to help her, but he proves to be a dead end, forcing her to “trade up” again. There is no come-uppance that would make Janey a better person. There is only a vague discontent that keeps her moving on.

The soulless heroine isn’t a totally modern phenomenon. In fact, Edith Wharton raised the topic way back in the early twentieth century. Bushnell was perhaps giving us a sly wink in that direction when she had her character Janey propose Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, as a film subject to one of her producer lovers.

Wharton’s heroine in that novel, Undine Spragg, was like Janey in a different era, lacking the Hollywood glitter. Undine marries three times, leaving a trail of destruction and never looking back except to offer self-justifications. Her first husband, who doesn’t share her taste for high society, bores her. He is too busy trying to support her and pay her bills to keep her amused. When she moves on, she abandons her young son, until she later sees some benefit in having him with her. An ensuing custody battle ends up destroying her first husband. Predictably, once she wins the child back, she neglects him. Her second husband has a noble title but not enough money. Her third husband does have enough money, but rather crude manners.

Wharton sums up Undine’s dilemma: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Both Bushnell and Wharton suggest that their heroines are trapped in the societies they inhabit, and are therefore perhaps not entirely to blame for being so ruthless. Undine was born into an era in which marriage provides the only outlet for an ambitious woman. Similarly, Janey is social-climbing in a community that values her beauty much more than her mind.

Both authors have created beautiful sociopaths, who by definition are incapable of change. Does that mean they’re unworthy heroines, as many critics suggest? I find them fascinating in their own way. Sociopaths may be disturbing and infuriating, but they are people too.