Monday, January 16, 2006

Pet Peeves

I'm still plugging away, sort of. Word crashed on me last night, but I only lost a couple of paragraphs and they weren't particularly stunning paragraphs, so I got over it. It's kind of cloudy today and even rained a tiny bit (there was much rejoicing), so I may try to trick my brain into thinking it's late at night so I can try writing more. I learned this morning that FedEx doesn't close on federal holidays like the post office does when the FedEx guy rang my doorbell shortly after ten. I was still in my fuzzy pink robe, so I grabbed a tissue out of the pocket and faked a good cold when I answered the door so the FedEx guy wouldn't think I was horribly lazy to still be in my bathrobe. And then I remembered the holiday and hoped he thought I was just enjoying the holiday. And then I remembered that all the stuff I get from FedEx is either from a publisher or a literary agency, so maybe he'd realize I was an eccentric writer and forgive my odd door-answering attire. And then I realized that he probably doesn't care and won't even remember me (though the UPS guy does recognize me even when I see him in other parts of the neighborhood).

One thing that comes at this time of year that doesn't help with the usual insecurity and paranoia of being a writer is judging books for the Rita awards. For those who aren't familiar with the inner workings of the romance genre, the Ritas are essentially the Oscars of the romance industry (or so the Romance Writers of America like to claim -- I haven't seen that they have the kind of career impact you'd get from an Oscar). As a member of the organization and a published author, I get the privilege of receiving a box of books every January that I have to read and rate by early March. The top scorers in each category become finalists, and then those books get judged by another panel of judges. The winners are announced in July at the RWA national conference at a big, splashy (and usually a bit boring unless you're sitting with my agent) ceremony.

Most of the time, it's an interesting process, especially here lately. You used to get all books from a single, specific category -- all historicals, all romantic suspense, etc. -- but now you get to opt out of categories you don't want to judge and then you receive a mixed selection of books. As in a lot of cases where your reading choices are determined by someone else, that can have mixed results. You may discover something you might never have chosen for yourself that you end up enjoying. Or you may get stuck reading something you'd never in a million years choose to read, and if you're like me, you feel obligated to finish the book in order to judge it fairly.

When I was struggling during my long career dry spell, I kept wondering why I put myself through the torture. If a book I read was really, really good, I'd feel insecure and think I didn't stand a chance. But more often, I'd read something that I couldn't imagine got published, and then I'd either think the editors were crazy or I'd think that my books must really suck if they chose these books over mine.

Now, though, it causes a different kind of anxiety. For one thing, my own book is entered this year, and I'm still not sure whether or not that will do me any good. They now have a "novel with strong romantic elements" category as a catch-all for chick lit, women's fiction and other types of books that seem to be branching off from the romance genre but that don't meet all of the usual definitions of "romance." Unfortunately, "strong romantic elements" isn't all that well-defined. Some people take it to mean that there is a romance, but it's a sub-plot instead of the main plot, while others take it to mean that issues relating to romance come up in the book, even if it doesn't follow the typical romantic structure. In asking groups of people I know about Enchanted, Inc., some said they didn't think it had strong romantic elements because it doesn't have a full-scale romance as a subplot while others thought it totally fit. I guess it boils down to the five individuals who read it for the preliminary round. My agent ended up being the one to more or less twist my arm to get me to enter because, she said, what could it hurt? And besides, given the strongly positive response I'm getting from readers, there's always the chance that I'll luck out and get five judges who respond that way.

Since I'm entered, this year I'm required to judge, and that brings up a new set of anxieties because I start noticing my Novel Pet Peeves, the things that seem to happen in too many romance novels (well, really, in a lot of novels in general, but most of these things involve relationships, so they're more prevalent in romance novels), and once I start noticing these problems in other people's books, I get all paranoid about whether or not I'm making the same mistakes and am just not conscious of it.

So, here's a start on my running list of pet peeves:
1. Plot twists that rely on characters jumping to out-of-the-blue conclusions, with little to no evidence, and then acting on those conclusions. Otherwise known as "Oh, so that woman I saw with you in the restaurant was your sister. Maybe I should have talked to you about it before canceling our wedding" syndrome. Sometimes occurs over time instead of over one single incident, but ultimately it comes down to one person deciding to think the worst of the other person, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I can see coming to the wrong conclusion about how someone else feels about you if you're getting mixed signals or if the signals are ambiguous. If the character has good reason for misinterpreting the evidence, that also works if the author shows the character's mindset and reasons ("Yeah, you'd think that's what it means when someone acts that way, but the last person who screwed me over acted exactly this way, so I can't be so sure anymore."). The book I just read was a really bad offender and had me wanting to bang the characters' heads together because they were ignoring not only the evidence they saw but also what the other characters' best friends were telling them the other person actually said about them. ("She says she doesn't love her ex anymore, she's become good friends with her ex's wife, the ex says there's nothing going on between them, she can't keep her hands off me, she bends over backwards to please me and show me she appreciates me, she goes out of her way to be nice to my friends and family, and her best friend tells me she says she's crazy about me. It's too bad she's still so much in love with her ex that she'll never love me." That, folks, is just plain being dense.)

And then what really pisses me off is when the truth comes out (the "oh, that was your sister?" part), all is forgiven, and they're so grateful that the other person now believes them. I'm sorry, but if I'm ever in a relationship again (which may be one of the signs of the impending apocalypse), if the guy ever does jump to that kind of "you're cheating on me!" conclusion by taking something out of context and ignoring the kind of person I am, I'm not going to just laugh off the misunderstanding. If that's what he thinks of me, and if that's the kind of person he thinks I am, than he's not someone I want to be in a relationship with. Can you imagine dealing with that kind of paranoia for the rest of your life? So, if a plot has relied on that device to maintain tension, I have a hard time believing the relationship will last. I will admit that I've found chick lit to be as bad a violator of this as romance. It seems like if your plot is running out of steam and you need some tension, it must be easy to let your heroine see her boyfriend out in public with another woman so you can have a big misunderstanding to keep them apart a while longer.

2. The relationship ultimatum. Otherwise known as "It's either your job/the burning building/the fate of the free world or me" syndrome. I may be a traitor to the female sex, but I can't seem to sympathize with romance heroines who pull that "your job is too important to you, so if you don't put me first right now, it's over" routine. They always seem to pull it at a time when something really serious is going on in some other aspect of the hero's life. If he has a big presentation to make that will affect the future of his entire career, that's the day she'll urge him to blow off the day at work and just spend time with her, and if he chooses to go to the office, then he's chosen work over her. Yet it's usually written so that you get the feeling you're supposed to sympathize with her and feel put out that he doesn't think she's that important. The happy ending comes when he realizes that she really is the most important thing in his life, and so he sacrifices the other thing to cave in to her ultimatum and be with her. Romance certainly isn't the only violator of this. It was a main reason I found myself rooting for a terrorist with a properly placed bomb during the second season of the spy series MI-5, when the super spy's girlfriend would decide to pull the relationship ultimatum stuff while he was rushing to save the free world -- the "if you don't come home right now to talk about this, then there's no point in talking anymore" routine while he's racing against time to stop the terrorists from blowing up the summit meeting of all the major world leaders (at least he chose well, but he was heartbroken about it instead of celebrating his escape from the psycho bitch).

This may make me terribly unromantic and may be a reason why I can't seem to sustain a romantic relationship, but I don't think that the relationship or even the other person in a relationship is automatically the number one priority in every situation. It all depends on the context. In general, I'd hope family would come before job, but if it's the all-important presentation that will determine the future of the company (and his future earnings, which would mean it does affect her, too) vs. her just wanting a little more attention, the presentation wins. They can have a picnic on the day when he doesn't have anything major scheduled. A relationship is supposed to be a two-way street, and if she loves him, wouldn't she want him to get what he wants? If she's in a life-or-death situation, she wins, but if it's someone else's life-or-death situation vs. her wanting to spend more time with him on that particular day, the life-or-death situation wins. If you're going to get in a relationship with a spy, soldier, doctor, police officer, firefighter, etc., then you have to realize that there will be times when someone else's good may have to come before your own. The heart transplant, burning building or terrorist plot will probably take precedence over having a picnic that afternoon, and if you ask him to choose, if he's any kind of a man, he's going to choose to save the life. When a heroine in a book pulls that, I want to throw the book against the wall and tell the hero to run while he still can because that's going to be a miserable life if he gives in. It only works if her ultimatum involves something illegal, immoral or dangerous to him with no greater good involved. "If you kill that person, it's over between us" or "It's either the drugs or me" work.

I may sound sexist here, but I don't think I've ever read a book in which a man demands that a woman declare her priorities on the spot or demands that he choose between the most important day on her job and an ordinary day with him. The only fictional situation in which I can recall anything like that happening was near the end of Sex and the City when Carrie's Russian artist boyfriend expected her to drop her life for his, and I didn't like that, either, especially when he demanded she skip her own book party for his gallery opening (although at least he was expecting her to choose something that was important to him instead of asking her to blow off her book party just to go out to dinner and hang around in Paris, which is usually the kind of stuff female characters seem to demand).

I don't think I've used the misunderstanding or wrong conclusion to further a plot. I have had a character misinterpret the other character's actions, but I showed the thought process and logic behind her interpretation, I made sure that both the right interpretation and the character's mistaken interpretation would logically fit each of the other characters' actions, and people who knew the other person agreed with the way the character interpreted things. Plus, my character didn't take drastic action based on the misunderstanding and probably wouldn't have behaved very differently if she had known the truth. If a problem could be solved by two characters talking about it, I like to show a valid reason why they aren't talking about it. Sometimes it is true that the most important things are the hardest to talk about, so I don't believe all problems can be solved by just talking about them if you want to be true to the characters or realistic, but you do have to show why these people aren't talking.

As for the ultimatum, I hate that so much in books and in real life that I don't think I would ever use it. In fact, I tend to enjoy subverting it. I like to set up a situation where you expect the heroine to throw a hissy fit, but instead she tells him good luck saving the world and then goes on with the stuff she has to do. But because I also like setting up puzzles and dilemmas for myself, I may see if I can try to create a situation where this kind of thing absolutely has to happen for the story, and then see if I can make it work in a way that doesn't make me want to kill the characters.

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