When the great Rod Serling sat down to write a second pilot script for a TV program he was calling The Twilight Zone, he heaped a big problem onto his shoulders. The episode, you’ll recall, finds a man meandering through a small town. He’s utterly alone. Not a person in sight. There are hints of habitation–a burning cigar, a ringing telephone–but no people. The man finds clues for twenty-plus minutes, but for all but a few minutes of the episode, he has no idea where he is or what is happening. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin the story for you.)
Serling really complicated matters for himself. So much drama comes from two or more characters interacting. “Where is Everybody” is a one-man show. The restraints we place on ourselves, of course, force us to write our way around them.
In Luna Rising, Selene Castrovilla‘s titular protagonist isn’t exactly a loner. She has friends (including the enjoyably drawn Sunny), family, and a succession of boyfriends to keep her company. Still, Luna begins the (third person) book very much in her own head. Her husband has freshly come out of the closet. This complicates her life, along with that of her two sons. Luna is only thirty-eight. She’s still a woman and still has the requisite needs. Unfortunately, finding love in her situation is not the easiest thing to do.
The main love interest in the book is an older man named Trip. Will they end up together? Will they go their separate ways? Read for yourself, but remember: the course of true love never did run smooth.
So Luna feels a little lonely. That’s understandable. While she has a support system, she understandably doesn’t know how she is going to handle the changes that are shaping her new life. One of the ways to chart a character’s thoughts and to release exposition is the use of a confidant. There’s so much more you can do with a character and a scene if the character is not alone. Here’s an example: the gravedigger scene from Hamlet:
How different would the scene be if there were no “I knew him, Horatio?” There would be no reason for Hamlet to talk to himself. (I know…not that it stops Hamlet from doing so at other times…) And seeing as how Hamlet is dead at the end of the play, there would be no one to share the sad story of the ill-fated prince of Denmark.
Ms. Castrovilla gives a slightly lonely character a confidant: an imaginary friend named Jiminy. (Yes, after Pinocchio’s buddy.) Here’s how Jiminy is introduced in the first chapter of Luna Rising, before the narrative takes a trip to the past:
Jiminy is a useful character/device in the book because it allows Ms. Castrovilla to do the same work as can be done in a scene with an additional character. Luna certainly can’t tell Trip what she is thinking or how she feels–what a boring romance story that would be–but she can think what she is thinking and have an internal dialogue with Jiminy, who appears in the book a great deal.
Ms. Castrovilla did something very interesting with the characterization. Let’s look at how she introduces Luna’s ex-husband:
So she goes from straight third-person prose into a kind of profile divided by sections. Isn’t this an interesting choice? Ordinarily, exposition and characterization are released in straight narration or in dialogue; the author did something a little different here. It reminds me of the bare-bones exposition of the G.I. Joe profile cards that were on the back of the action figure packages.
As we all know, the value of a choice is determined by the effect it has on the work. On one hand, it could be considered inconvenient to drop such a big exposition bomb so close to the beginning of the book. Maybe Ms. Castrovilla really doesn’t need to tell us that the ex dislikes tomato seeds. Maybe she could release the necessary information in other, more felicitous ways. On the other hand, this is a fun romancey-type book. We’re reading this for enjoyment and to have fun. The bolded profile structure gives us a mental image of Nick very quickly. Ms. Castrovilla suggests other scenes (what it was like when Luna discovered Nick’s activities on the gay site!) and is clear about what Nick looks like. Looks are very important in romancey-type novels. Just the way it is.
So if we put all of this information on a scale, I think that the author made the right choice. She offers similar lists for the other characters in the book when appropriate, and they have the same effect.
Ms. Castrovilla imbues the book with a great deal of pathos and deals with it in much more comprehensive terms than you might find in straight-up romance novels. (The “heat meter” is also lower.) These choices make Luna Rising a novel that has a bigger emotional impact. Instead of chronicling how one finds passion, Ms. Castrovilla illuminates how people negotiate the minefield of love. I suppose it’s easy for two incredibly hot people to fall into bed for a night. This book is much more about how we build deeper feelings and appreciation for the people in our lives, from neglectful parents to our kids and especially the man or woman we love, even if their snoring makes us want to smother them in their sleep sometimes.
Romance, Selene Castrovilla
The news stories seemed too good to be true: Colonel Sanders had written a romance novel(la), just in time for Mother’s Day. Tender Wings of Desire was offered as a free download on Amazon. A lot of the discussion has centered around the obvious: the book is obviously part of a KFC® marketing campaign. KFC® wants to make money, so they came up with the idea to get attention and spread goodwill by hiring a writer to produce a novel that they could make go viral.
While I have my compunctions about marketing and corporations and the like, I immediately thought this was a great campaign and a very fun and honest way for KFC® to build excitement around their brand. Ad industry people have written about Tender Wings of Desire from their perspective, and I am writing about it from the Great Writers Steal perspective: what can we learn from the book?
Quite a lot, actually!
I absolutely love that Wieden + Kennedy Portland used an honest-to-goodness book as a freebie giveaway. A book! Literature! Not some branded Frisbee or stress ball that will be thrown away the next day! The ad agency is treating a book as though it’s an everyday object that people need. (Which it is.) As reading rates decline, anything that we can do to get people to smile and chuckle about a book is a blessing. We need to get our books into the hands of readers any way we can.
Best of all, the book is good! It’s fun! What else do you want? Yes, it is a romance novel; the genre carries an unfair stigma in some places. The identity of the real author is no secret. Catherine Kovach seems to have been on the scene for the past several years, and points out the unfair attitude some have toward romance authors:
Yes, every writer has different goals, and that’s fine. But don’t we all want to produce work we love and to have an audience for that work? Romance writers (and those who trade in any genre) make their readers happy. Lots of romance writers outsell fancy-pants literary writers who win all the awards. Ms. Kovach has succeeded on all counts and is building her audience.
Let’s look at the most important thing: the book itself. Ms. Kovach followed the conventions of the romance novel without satirizing them. What do we have?
- A free-spirited, beautiful young woman resisting social conventions
- A “more beautiful” sister who loves the social conventions
- An arranged marriage with a handsome royal
- A fancy ball where the women wear pretty dresses
- A midnight horse ride to escape
- A new life of the protagonist’s own choosing, when…
- A handsome stranger takes the protagonist’s breath away.
I got a real Austen vibe from the plot and the prose is solid and fun. Every reader enjoys (or should enjoy) a change of pace every so often. I’m not in the prime demographic for romance novels, but what does it matter? I contain multitudes. So do you. Tender Wings of Desire is a part of a balanced reading diet.
Perhaps it’s just my own perception, but a “balanced diet” seems far more “acceptable” when we’re talking about other kinds of media. Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the fancy-pantsiest possible literature out there. She also loves and has written extensively about boxing, a sport where two musclebound people try to punch each other unconscious. (The sweet science, of course, has its own poetic beauty.) If you look at some of your “literary” friends on social media, they’ll talk about the latest Pulitzer winner and then tweet about The Bachelor. I’d love it if the much of the barrier between “literary” and “entertaining” would fall away. Ms. Kovach fulfills her responsibilities as a writer: she made promises to the reader and kept them. Two promises apply to all books: the writer must give the reader a reason to pick up the book and must entertain him or her.
Now let’s get specific about Ms. Kovach’s prose. Narratively, the book is solid. The handsome Harlan appears virtually halfway through the book. Had Ms. Kovach been making a goof, she would have brought Colonel Sanders in earlier, seeing as how his presence is the “joke.” (She also avoids gratuitous references to delicious KFC® Original Recipe® chicken or their scrumptious gravy®. Or that butter substance® you can put on their flaky biscuits®. I’m hungry now.) Ms. Kovach plays it straight, knowing that a good, entertaining novella will do more good for the reader (and her boss) than a throwaway read.
Here’s that critical moment. Are you ready to see the instant in which Madeline’s life changed forever?
Ms. Kovach does the smart and expected thing; Chapter Five ends on a cliffhanger. The reader doesn’t see the romantic lead, but Madeline does. We get the reaction–Madeline is speechless–and are tempted to turn the page. (Well, to swipe the location or whatever.)
Ms. Kovach also plays with the reader’s current knowledge and expectations in a smart way. She doesn’t need to describe everything about Colonel Sanders’ accent. We’ve all heard it. We’ve all heard Norm Macdonald and others do the accent. Instead, she remains committed to the honest nature of the book and simply writes, “a soft version of an American accent.” The reader’s mind does the rest. No overkill.
No, I don’t expect that Tender Wings of Desire will start a trend in which companies give writers money to produce branded books that are written with a surprising amount of dignity. (And a surprising lack of obvious mentions of KFC®‘s several delicious $5 Fill Up® options.) But here’s hoping that other ad agencies and corporate bigwigs will take note that you can get attention and make money by making literature a small part of your branding.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to resist going to my local KFC® restaurant (where the employees are all exceedingly polite, by the way) to get a 3pc. Chicken Big Box Meal® so my day will end with a HEA, just like Tender Wings of Desire. (“HEA” is romance writer jargon for “Happily Ever After.”)
Advertising, Catherine Kovach, Colonel Sanders, Romance
Logan and Brooke had crushes on each other during high school, but never told each other how they felt. A decade later, they have an improbable meeting in the Caribbean and engage in a steamy love affair that may just turn into something more…
Giving it All is Book 3 of 4 in Christi Barth‘s “Naked Men” series. (Purchase at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or through your local indie store.) The “Naked Men” are occasionally naked in literal terms, but the title refers to the blog set up by the male protagonists. The Naked Men are friends and help each other through their problems. Will Logan and Brooke share a HEA (Happily Ever After)? Time will tell, but there will be a lot of hot lovemaking before we find out.
I don’t know how many of my readers or friends have picked up a romance novel recently, but I maintain that we are all missing out if we don’t work them into our balanced reading diet. They’re fun! And why are they fun? Because the author is focused on making sure that the reader is having a good time. He or she makes some very clear promises and (one hopes) fulfills them. As I pointed out in my GWS essay about Wendy S. Marcus’s The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of, the narrator in a romance novel can add greatly to the fun. Ms. Barth uses her narrator to great effect in Giving it All.
No matter what you write, the narrator’s persona must fit the purpose of the work. Or as Hamlet said, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Take a look at the opening of the beautiful but dark and sad Thomas Keneally novel Schindler’s List:
Keneally’s narrator makes it very clear that this will not be a laff-a-minute joy ride. Look at the chauffeur’s joke–“icy as a widow’s heart.” That’s sad. The widow (and the teller of the joke, I suppose) don’t express full empathy and humanity. We are told this is a story about evil. We read “the beast” and “fatal human malice.”
The narrator of Schindler’s List establishes the tone of the book and sweeps the reader along with him or her. Giving it All is a very, very different book (obviously) and deserves a different narrator. And what a fun voice it is!
Ms. Barth’s narrator fits the plot and the characters, doesn’t it? If you’re willing to read a romance novel, you are probably having a good time with this narrator. (If reading about people seeing each other across the room and feeling sexual attraction is a problem for you–Brooke gets her chance–then you probably aren’t going to pick up a romance novel.) The narrator of the book doesn’t stand at a distance; he or she is right beside the reader, acting in the same manner as a person with whom you are sharing guy talk or girl talk. The tone is so much fun and invites you to pretend that a buddy just jabbed you in the ribs and said, “Hey, bro. Isn’t that that cheerleader you had a huge crush on in high school? Shoot. She’s looking good. You should say hi.”
Which is a good way to introduce another reason that Ms. Barth’s book is successful: Giving it All appeals to a universal desire. Didn’t we all have at least one big crush in high school? No matter how happy you are in life, no matter how many years have passed, doesn’t the memory of the proverbial Little Red-Haired Girl or Boy have a place in your heart? Young crush love is very pure. Sure, Brooke and Logan wanted to have sex with each other when they were in high school. But because they were teenagers, their hearts unscarred by life, there was a purity to their feelings. Readers enjoy living vicariously through literary characters…particularly the ones in romance novels. Ms. Barth taps into these common desires, gaining easy access to the reader’s heart.
Giving it All is a satisfying read, not only in the context of the romance genre. Ms. Barth includes plenty of “heat,” as romance people say, but also makes the reader care about Brooke and Logan and their individual problems. Perhaps most impressive (and pleasing), the men in the book feel like men. They speak like men and think like men. Sometimes we love to say cruel things to our friends. Sometimes we are 100% focused on our redhead friend lying beside us. Sometimes we just want to provide for everyone we love.
The book, like the relationship between the protagonists, is not merely a white-hot sexual bacchanalia. It’s also the chronicle of two people falling in love…after a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.
Christi Barth, Loveswept, Romance, Schindler's List
Hey, everyone. It’s time to be a little bit jealous of Wanda E. Brunstetter. But not too jealous; that would be a sin. Ms. Brunstetter has published a lot of books and has a devoted audience for her Amish inspirational romances. I know many people aren’t literary omnivores, but I love reading all kinds of books, even though I’m not exactly in the stereotypical demographic for these kinds of novels. Still, Ms. Brunstetter has a lot to teach us. More importantly, she writes fun books and fulfills every promise she makes with her books.
Check out this book trailer for the first book in The Amish Cooking Class series: The Seekers.
The novel is centered upon the farm of Lyle and Heidi Troyer. They are a proud Amish couple–but not too proud; that would be a sin–who have a beautiful place in Ohio. Lyle is an auctioneer and Heidi decides to make a little money and to share her gift with others by teaching a weekly cooking class.
I guess I’ll introduce the first lesson here…Ms. Brunstetter very wisely came up with a conceit that allows her to put a bunch of drama-prone characters together. Think about it. While Heidi Troyer is a very calm and dignified woman who has most everything figured out, she surrounds herself with people who have far more problems than she does. Ron is a Vietnam War vet who ends up camped on the Troyer property when his RV breaks down. Kendra is pregnant and her family has turned her away, not that doing so will stop the baby from arriving. Eli lost his wife and is looking for companionship. See? All of these people have discernible problems and needs. Guess what? Ms. Brunstetter allows the characters to grow and change based upon their interactions and their own internal struggles. (And maybe Heidi has her own problem that needs to be solved…)
We certainly can’t fashion every single one of our stories in this way, but creating a nexus of conflict and drama is a time-tested tactic for teasing trouble out of our characters. Here are some examples:
- Cheers, the bar from Cheers, is populated by a number of well-drawn characters who unite in one place. Each of them have their own problems and needs and the writers wring drama (and comedy) out of having all of these characters in the same place.
- Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca is a meeting spot that facilitates conflict. Everyone goes there. The Nazis, the French, ridiculously beautiful refugees played by Ingrid Bergman…everyone. Placing everyone in the same nightclub allows the drama to blossom. (If you haven’t seen Casablanca, please do so. It’s for the best.)
- Eerie, Indiana is the new home of Marshall Teller, a town where all kinds of creepy and cool things happen. The gents who created the TV show, José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, created a place where weird and wonderful things can happen. The show could have (and should have) run forever.
Heidi’s Amish cooking class offers Ms. Brunstetter near-inexhaustible opportunities to cycle interesting characters in and out of the orbit of the Troyer kitchen. This seems to be the plan, as The Seekers is Book One of a series…
This is an Amish inspirational romance-type book, so you know there won’t be any of the flashy kinds of conflict on offer. The international spy rings, serial killers and terrorist attacks will appear in other kinds of books. Still, Ms. Brunstetter allows her characters to be unpleasant, particularly in the context of the genre and story. Ron, the Vietnam vet, repeatedly lies to the Troyers and takes advantage of their hospitality. He even steals from his hosts. Kendra made “one little mistake” and got pregnant out of wedlock. Ms. Brunstetter does not examine these themes in the same manner as writers in other genres might do, but she is still allowing her characters to misbehave and to do things that the Christian characters shouldn’t do. The principle applies to characters in all genres. On occasion, I read YA books in which the teenagers are impossibly polite and respectful of the opposite sex. Not only does this kind of attitude pose problems creating drama, but it’s also not realistic.
Those who write Amish books have a problem that is easily transferable to all other authors who include other languages in their work. The Amish are generally fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch and the language is a very important part of their culture. (As it is for every culture.) Ms. Brunstetter has an obligation to include the language in her dialogue–the characters would use these words!–but she must also ensure that the audience knows what she’s talking about. Let’s take a look at an example of how the author handles this problem:
See what she does? She italicizes the word the reader probably won’t know and then defines it in the following line of dialogue. We were already told that Lyle is married to Heidi, so we know fraa = wife. Kichlin = cookies. There are other ways to handle the problem, but this is one.
I’ve read a few of Ms. Brunstetter’s books, and The Seekers is as fun as the others. The world that the author creates, this Amish version of Ohio, is everything that her readers want it to be. It’s simple. Plain. People still have conflicts, but they resolve them calmly. (And with the help of God, as her target readers expect.)
The great strength of this book (and of so many others in the genre) is that the authors make promises to the reader and keep them. Ms. Brunstetter promises the reader in this case, that they will learn about Amish food, they will see characters solve their problems together and with the help of their religion and that the book will be a calm and unobjectionable read that has a discernible conclusion that wraps everything up. (Aside, of course, from the story strands that will likely be taken up in subsequent books.)
I don’t know how many Great Writers Steal writers have given the Amish inspirational genre a chance, but they should. A writer must have a balanced reading diet.
Amish, Amish inspirational, Romance, Shiloh Run Press, Wanda E. Brunstetter
Friends, every writer has his or her own story and their own unique path to success. As a guy who has been writing seriously for a couple decades and who has immersed himself in the writing world for as long, it’s been a pleasure to learn my craft from writers and work in every genre. I may certainly be incorrect, but I have seen a widening schism between “literary” writers and those who work in genre and other non-“literary” arenas. (What does “literary” mean? Who knows?) We miss out a great deal if we don’t at least dip our toes in the other parts of the storytelling ecosystem. If nothing else, we are missing out because these genres often outsell “literary” work and genre fans are often wonderfully passionate.
I tend not to discriminate; my goal is to be able to enjoy as many stories as I can. That certainly includes the romance genre. I had the pleasure of seeing Wendy S. Marcus give a talk at Oswego State in which she talked about her work and her journey. Ms. Marcus came to writing later in life than I did, but has published far more books than I have and knows a great deal that they don’t (but should) teach in MFA programs. In brief, Ms. Marcus wasn’t a big reader until she picked up a Harlequin romance on a whim and became hooked. After a while, she made that same move every writer has made: she figured she could do better than some of the books she read. So she started putting words down on the page. Once she had built up a support system of critique partners and started sending out her work, she began publishing for Harlequin, Loveswept (Random House) and eventually on her own. Continue Reading
2016, Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith, Oswego State, Romance, Wendy S. Marcus