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
C Stuart Hardwick‘s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” tells the story of Jimmy, a man who looks back on his youth and his relationship with Mr. Coanda, an older gent who enjoyed building rockets. The story appeared in the September 2016 issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, one of the top three SF/F magazines out there. Mr. Hardwick is kind enough to offer the story on his web site; check it out!
The piece is an interesting example of a story whose narrator looks back and skips through time like a stone on the surface of a lake. By design, these kinds of stories don’t spend much time in any one scene and don’t delve particularly deeply into any one moment. Lots of work is structured in this manner; one of these is my short story, “Masher Doyle.” Unfortunately, no one has ever read that one. Here are some real examples:
That’s all I can think of at the moment. (Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments!)
What Mr. Hardwick loses in depth of scene by employing this structure, he makes up for in the scope of his story. By taking a look from a distance and zooming along to focus on the important bits, the author is able to chronicle a wide swath of Jimmy’s life.
Come to think of it, a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s work operates in the same kind of way. The “narrator” of The Shining takes a long-distance look at the Torrance family’s fateful winter and skips along to feature the important bits.
The “narrator” of Full Metal Jacket takes a long-distance look at Private Joker’s Vietnam experience and skips along to feature the important bits.
The “narrator” of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes a long-distance look at humanity’s relationship with the universe and skips along to feature the important bits.
The “narrator” of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (developed by Kubrick, though directed by Spielberg) takes a long-distance look at David’s life over the millenia and skips along to feature the important bits.
(Hmm…I’ll bet someone has written a paper about Kubrick and narrative structure.)
The protagonist is a young man (then a grown man) who loves rocketry. As a result, Mr. Hardwick has a duty to depict this love in a realistic way. The story must have verisimilitude: the appearance of reality in fiction. Mr. Coanda and Jimmy must sound as though they know a lot about rocketry or readers might bail, having had the magic spell broken. Let’s look at how Mr. Hardwick handles some of the “smart person rocket stuff.”
He said that in space travel, the cost of a launch is determined by all kinds of things, not just the weight of machinery, fuel, and oxidizer, but also the aerodynamics and trajectory which control how much air resistance and gravity a rocket must fight before it reaches orbit.
I knew all that stuff! The sentence is also a nice summary of some of the most important basic principles of rocketry.
As it staged and staged again, the ground slowly warped into a fisheye ball. When the propellant finally ran out, the Earth was just an azure band beneath the inky black of space.
Mr. Coanda let a handful of popcorn fall back into the bowl. “Holy hell,” he said, “if that ain’t a beautiful sight.”
I was similarly entranced. “How high do you figure we went?”
“I don’t have to figure. I have data. Ah…63,000 feet.”
“Wow! That’s almost in space!”
“Not quite. Minimum orbit’s eight times higher, and then you have to accelerate to orbital velocity in order to stay there.”
I stared at the glowing earthscape. “Still…”
Isn’t the “azure band” part pretty? I love how this bit evokes the kind of awe that we should all have for this kind of science and the author also reinforces that Mr. Coanda knows his stuff and that little Jimmy is very bright, but still learning. The part about the orbit and orbital velocity isn’t totally necessary, but it adds credence to the characters and their milieu.
“And it works terrific,” he said, “It’ll never produce enough LOX to do the whole job alone, but that’s another trade-off. If it can do much better than pay its own way, then–“
Lox? Is Mr. Hardwick trying to get us hungry for breakfast? No, he means “liquid oxygen.” As an enthusiast of Gemini/Mercury/Apollo-era spaceflight, I knew the character didn’t mean salmon. You’ll also note that Mr. Hardwick includes the phrase “liquid oxygen” to give the reader a hint, but it’s not wholly necessary. If the reader doesn’t know the terms, they will just gloss over them while understanding that the characters know what they’re talking about.
I could never, ever pass a calculus class and Dr. William Widnall loses me when he talks about smart people stuff, but he, like Mr. Hardwick, convince me that they know what they’re talking about.
SPOILER ALERT! Just read the piece if you didn’t. Here are the last few sentences of the piece:
I’ve run the camp now for longer than I worked in engineering, but to these kids and the world, I’ll always be the Rocket Man, a mythological hero from a golden age. And that’s fine by me. I’ll proudly wear that title while I fan the flames, till the next bearer comes along to change up the world behind me. It’s not the adventure I imagined for my life, but you never quite know where dreams will lead.
Okay, so Mr. Hardwick is in the same place I was when I wrote “Masher Doyle.” We both told the narrator’s story from childhood to adulthood. Both of us wrote about mentor figures who helped our narrators build themselves up from childhood problems. So what to do with the conclusion of the story?
The last paragraph can be your opportunity to unspool poetry for poetry’s sake. The storytelling is largely over, so why not tip the scales in favor of aesthetic beauty over plot?
Analog, C Stuart Hardwick, Science Fiction
There’s a narrative that dictates how one is supposed to feel after a terrible event occurs. When a family member or acquaintance dies in a car accident, most people feel and act the same way. As Claudius said of the reaction to his brother’s death:
…it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe
The reality is that everyone is different and will respond to trauma differently. In her Prime Number essay, “The Lightness of Absence,” Vanessa Blakeslee tells the story of her reaction to the very sad murder of her cousin and describes how her feelings about the matter evolved.
Ms. Blakeslee introduces the death in the first line, taking advantage of the inherent power in such an extreme condition: “When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time.” All of Ms. Blakeslee’s readers are surely as human as she is, so the release of this exposition earns instant emotion from the reader.
Much more interesting is the way Ms. Blakeslee deals with an emotionally loaded issue in a very calm and methodical manner. If you haven’t read the piece, do so now, as I’m going to discuss the ending. (I even linked it twice.)
Ms. Blakeslee certainly mourns the senseless loss of her “childhood best friend,” but she doesn’t give us a standard grief narrative. Instead, the author confronts a much more unanticipated question and one that invites thought from the reader: “What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared?”
Ms. Blakeslee had a little bit of a problem. How do you create tension and keep people reading when that “weight of loss,” those emotions that were much stronger years ago, are currently absent? The solution is simple: you turn the absence of emotion into the story.
On one hand, I think I would love if the piece were a little bit longer, if we had more of a discussion of the dilemma posed by the end of the piece. Then again, ending the piece with a dilemma forces the reader to go through their own discomfort with respect to the issue.
- There are certain events and conditions that don’t evoke as much emotion in me as they might. Is there something wrong with me?
- Do people say and do things that makes me treat them differently? Is this wrong? When is it wrong?
- How long should I grieve for those I’ve lost and the bad things that have happened to people I love? What does it mean to “get over” a misfortune?
Further, the ending of the piece is appropriate to its length. At 1600 words, Ms. Blakeslee had to avoid some of the more complicated possibilities for the material. So what could be more appropriate than ending the piece with an ethical quandary?
Prime Number, Vanessa Blakeslee