Realistic Romance

This weekend I had the unfortunate pleasure of overhearing a first date. It was obvious they met online and decided afternoon coffee would be nice and safe. The guy looked in his early/mid-20s. Average looking, kind of wiry, and overly agreeable. The woman was older and better looking than he was, and had one of those unnaturally raspy voices that come with excessive smoking or yelling.

She did most of the talking – a brief monologue about marathons she ran transitioned into her love for the Kardashians because they reminded her of her family. The guy was less than impressed. I could practically see the words “shut up shut up shut up” repeating in his brain. I thought maybe we’d make eye contact so I could offer a sympathetic smile, the way I do to people on the subway who are being accosted by unmedicated schizophrenics. But he was too far gone, focusing all of his energy on keeping eye contact and counting the minutes until he could leave. Still, part of me knew that if she offered, he’d go back to her place.

What this poor, doomed couple didn’t know is that a writer was across from them observing everything they said and did (at least until said writer’s friend came and rescued her). If these people were in a novel, I wasn’t sure which would be our main character. Both had a story that independently led them to each other. Or at least to the same dating website. While our hero seemed to grow bored with our Kardashian-loving heroine, I wanted to know more about her. Why was this woman – blond, pretty, athletic – on a date with this younger man whose story about not crashing his bike disappointed her? Perhaps they weren’t in it to find love, but the pretense of going on a date at all seemed like a waste of time.

Neither of these characters – I mean, real human beings – interested me by themselves (she came off shallow, he too bland), but the fact they were committed to putting in an effort was intriguing. Of course, this made me think of how we write romances. Outside of the Romance genre, we write romances all the time in commercial fiction, literary fiction, YA, and even narrative nonfiction. We try to connect our love interests and convince our readers that they belong together, even if circumstances keep them apart.

I’m a fan of love. Reading it, watching it, experiencing it. It’s fascinating. Love is the scariest thing you can let yourself feel for another person. I think that’s the appeal. It’s a fear to be conquered, and not everyone is worth the risk. But when they are, it makes taking that risk all the more rewarding. So what does this have to do with writing? Everything.

Make your character take risks! It’s a phrase writers hear a lot, and it’s one every writer should follow. But risks are meaningless unless we know what the main character is fighting for. So while you’re writing, remember the second part of risk-taking: Give your character a worthy reward.

While I’m a fan of 1st person – the POV of choice in YA – I admit it comes with a price. We see everything through the main character’s eyes so that when it comes time to meet the love interest, we’re presented with only one view. Usually, what we see is the archetype – best friend who’s secretly hot and perfect, hot and perfect crush who’s secretly horrible, the stranger from nowhere who wins the main character’s heart (and therefore ours too). We root for the love interest based on those archetypes, but other than a few personality quirks, we hardly ever get to know who they are outside of their designated role.

The type of YA love I’ve been seeing in my submission pile is like fairytale love. When they aren’t consumed by hormones or in a literal fight for their lives, the characters rarely take the time to get to know each other. You never see Cinderella go on a date because if she did, she’ll realize the Prince is kind of lame (and probably has an awful story about riding a bicycle). If readers can see the love interest has nothing else going for him (or her), it’s less likely they will respect and connect with your main character.

For all the Gale vs. Peeta, Angel vs. Spike, Stefan vs. Damon, and Team Edward/Team Jacob debates, they can be boiled down to the same concept: “Good Guy vs. Bad Boy.” Sure, the bad boys end up caring for the girl and the good guys have some darkness in them, but essentially the same love triangles are happening over and over. Yet consider how different the main characters who’ve faced these choices have been. Katniss, Buffy, Elena, and Bella are all leaders of very different cliques (fighters, geeks with skills, popular/socially accepted, and, um, people who bump into things sometimes?); yet their choices in men are, more of less, interchangeable.

The lack of realistic romance doesn’t stop with YA. Teens who rarely consider who they’re risking heartache for grow up to be the adults I read about in too many commercial and literary submissions when the plot is independent from the state of their relationship. Couples seem to hate each other, or at best, are indifferent. How, then, can I like or trust them enough to care about their story? These characters aren’t real to me. Love exists over the age of twenty. If you’re writing these characters, give me a reason why they need to still be together; make me understand why they are still married. Then, perhaps, I’ll follow them to other parts of their lives.

When I say I’m a fan of love, I don’t mean either of these extremes. The type of love that lasts – whether in novels or in real life – is the kind that’s present and real and remains constant. Teen romances won’t have the emotional complexities of adult relationships, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know who our main character is falling in love with. Likewise, mature adults won’t even use the word “epic,” let alone think of their relationship as such. But passion and true affection doesn’t need to die after high school.

We all might be attracted to certain “types,” but no one falls in love with types. We fall in love with people. And it’s terrifying. Your job as a writer is to make your readers feel just as scared and just as willing to take those risks, and to let them know that it will be worth it long after the story ends.

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends.

Personal Politics

If you’ve been in the blogosphere and Twittersphere today, you may have heard about this article, which told the story of two authors who were told by an agent to “straighten” their gay characters. The authors, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, weren’t sure if the agent in question had a personal stance on LGBT people, or if the decision was about LGBT characters who, in his or her opinion, might have been marketing liabilities. After you read the article, and this blog post, please check out the #YesGayYA hashtag on Twitter. Agents, editors, and authors who write and accept LGBT characters have been saying some very reassuring things over there. (While I have yet to contribute to the hashtag, let me just say that I am one of the agents who seek out LGBT characters!)

This introduction is my way of talking about a larger issue. It’s one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Like the authors of the article, let me just repeat that I do not know, or even assume, that the agent’s political or religious beliefs affected their decision. I choose to believe that the agent thought straight characters would gain a larger audience, which is a little sad and misguided, but it’s not sinister or even homophobic. Still, I think it warrants the question, should someone’s personal politics affect their business choices?

Like I said, I’ve thought about this before today, and to me the answer is no. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume, based on things I say in real life and online, that writers are aware I’m a liberal. It’s part of my personal belief system, and while I try to keep it at bay in a professional setting, things do slip out. I don’t ever want to get into a political discussion on my blog because that’s not what it is for, so allow me to explain why I bring this up.

Sometimes I get queries that have agendas. And sometimes writers will query me with them because they think I share their desire to spread that agenda. I don’t. I never will. It’s true that I wouldn’t feel comfortable representing a book whose purpose is to promote a belief I don’t share – particularly if it’s one I feel strongly about. However, there are other queries that clearly have an anti-Republican stance, and the fact these writers think I’d want to spread that stance is insulting. On the other side of it, some projects might even have a story about a specific “liberal” cause I personally believe in, but I have absolutely no interest in perpetuating something so overt. These types of books are sometimes called “issue books,” and plenty of agents represent them. They even seek them out. But those books make me uncomfortable most of the time because it’s hard to talk about a specific issue without choosing a side. Good fiction, in my opinion, should come without political motive. When a story is good, the reader will interpret their own meaning from it. One person’s cautionary tale is another person’s happy ending.

There have been books I love – even projects I represent – who have characters who think in a way I do not, or have underlying themes that aren’t always in keeping with my personal philosophy. It’s an important part of this business to know what will offend vs. what might be disagreeable. If the hero of your story happens to be a religious man who thinks marriage is between a man and a woman, then he can still be a hero to me even if I disagree with him. However, if your story is about a religious man who tries to stop a gay marriage law from being passed in his home state, then to me he is no longer a hero. It’s a fine line, but it’s there.

If you’re ever in a situation – and hopefully you’re not – in which an agent or editor tells you to change a character in a way that fundamentally alters that character’s livelihood, then don’t be afraid to ask why. If they claim a marketing standpoint, then go do market research to try to prove them wrong. Or look for other agents and editors who might think differently. (Note: I mean look to see if they exist. Don’t leave your agent on the spot.) If it seems unanimous that the agent might have a point (or mostly unanimous since nothing in this business ever is), then try to consider their suggestion.

But if you think the agent or editor is imposing personal politics on you, then you have every right to reject them. If they aren’t willing to compromise their morals, then you shouldn’t be the one who has to.

The article I linked to is sad, but it doesn’t speak for all of us. I think most agents and editors do put aside personal politics for the greater good. Stories are what matter. Writers are what matter. Readers are what matter. If your work speaks to readers, we will find a way to work with you.

What The Fudge?

In high school, my AP English teacher gave us the freedom to choose which book to read individually for our final paper. She tried to push Catcher in the Rye by adding “you’ll like it; there’s swearing in it.” (Despite what you may believe, based on the name of this blog, I did not choose Catcher. I had already read it, so I chose Lord of the Flies.) I remember she specifically added the “swearing” bit because when I had read it I didn’t even notice those words were there. I was too wrapped up in the ball of emotion that was Holden Caulfield and the journey through New York City to pay attention to things like that. If he swore at all, then it was as natural and as necessary as any other word.

We often talk about sex in YA, violence in video games, and other things that might not be “appropriate” for our nation’s youth. While the question of gratuitous language does come up, it’s discussed – on the whole – far less. I should mention that when I talk about “colorful” language in books, I’m not just talking about YA. If anything, teens use curse words way more than adults because, like drinking, adults learn when to hold back, when it’s appropriate, and when to indulge.

I bring this up because I was recently reading a manuscript – one that I was excited to begin – and I could not get over how many F-bombs were on the first page. Obviously this narrator was mad. But I didn’t know who he was, why I should care, if the person he was angry with really was a “bitch,” as he claimed, or even where he was. It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn’t ready to take on as a reader. The narrator went on to drop this language into conversation, and every time it felt forced and unnatural. Eventually I had to give up on the story because it was so distracting to read.

Certain things are translated differently when they are on the page, which is why, as novelists, you need to be more conscious of the image you project. Writers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet don’t have to worry about that as much. (If you’re familiar with their work, you can probably guess why I chose them as examples.) They aren’t writing for the page. In the flash of a single image, their world, setting, and even character can be immediately established. As a result, their characters can say whatever the fuck they want.

Novelists don’t have that luxury. Yes, their characters can say whatever they want, but when they can say it matters a little bit more in books than it does in movies. It takes longer to introduce your character and establish a connection to your reader – especially if you’re writing in 3rd person. First-person narration might makes things easier since you’re establishing your main character’s voice right from the beginning. Even still, the reader needs to understand his or her POV before they’re forced into it. 

Now, lest you think I’m just being prudish about “the devil’s words,” I’ll admit that not all swear words are bad and no one needs to be sheltered from them. Sometimes they need to be added, not taken away. If your character finds himself in some seriously fucked up shit, then he better call it like he sees it. Even the mildest person in the world will let out a quiet “motherfucker!” when they stub their toe. It’s natural and sometimes a curse is the only word that can sum up events.

Whether you’re writing YA or adult fiction, treat swear words the same way you would any other word. Sometimes they need to get edited out, and sometimes they fit so perfectly that the reader barely notices them. If you’re ever in doubt about whether you’re being excessive or not excessive enough, just ask yourself two questions: Is this something my character would say? and Does this type of language fit the situation? Like with most things, there are exceptions to rules and ways to bend them, but in most situations, answering these two questions will suffice.

I’m of the mindset that almost everything can be appropriate for all ages if done properly. Why hold anything back if it will resonate with your audience and enrich your story? But make smart choices. Swear words are just words the same way sex and violence are just actions. They each have a slightly heavier weight than their counterparts, sure, but ultimately it’s up to you whether your story needs carry it.

Methods to the Madness

Every writer has a different approach to writing, a different method. My writing process, for example, has to involve a pen and paper (at least at first), and a very fragmented style. Meaning, if I get a scene in my head, or even just a line I think sounds good, I write it down. It is never, ever the opening paragraph. Then I’ll get an idea for a different scene, and write that, but it is rarely the scene that directly follows what I just wrote. Eventually they all come together.

There are also linear writers who can’t move on until the opening scene is secure. That, to me, would take forever. I’d be staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours if I was forced to think of beginning before I could continue. But they would probably think my process takes forever, and then we’d both disagree with someone else’s third approach.

Other choices writers are faced with when deciding which method works best for them are usually along the lines of “paper or computer?” “inside or outside?” or “gin or coffee?” But, the process that most fascinates me about writing is revision. You cannot be a writer and not revise. And then revise again. Something unavoidable, like the actual writing of words themselves, often means that it involves an entirely different approach.

I love revising more than I love writing a first draft. I don’t usually finish a first draft before I begin revising what I already wrote. But of course, there are those who loathe the revision process with a passion that rivals our collective disdain of whoever slighted Sandra Bullock this week. What are your methods and opinions on revising? I have a feeling you’re all going to say something different.

Lastly, something else that I’ve been wondering lately, as I ask for revisions, is what do writers prefer to hear from agents or editors? Would “complete re-write” would induce vomiting? Is it better to hear “add more” rather than “delete?” Things to ponder…

Enjoy the hot weekend everyone!