Sunday, January 29, 2017

Understanding My Life-long Fear of Materialism

An Eerie Disquiet

I don't remember how old I was the first time I felt it. Maybe eight or so? Maybe a little older. I was in a video store with my parents. This was in the early days of movie rentals. You know, DVDs did not exist, so the shelves were lined with VHS cases, but only the cases, so you could easily see what movie you were grabbing. The actual cassette was in a black plastic case with the video store's name written on the front. These cassettes were kept behind the counter to prevent people from stealing them. And video rentals were for one night only. It was the one night rental that made the experience so poignant.

I saw a little girl, maybe four years old, trailing behind her mother. The mother was holding a stack of movie cases, more movies than anyone could possible watch in a single day (this was before binge-watching was a thing), then turned to her daughter and said, "So you want to get all of these?" The little girl nodded and I felt like my world was collapsing around me.

Why? I didn't figure that out until just a few years ago. At the time I explained it away by saying, "I really don't like greed." I didn't know of any other way to say it.

Feelings of Disgust

The reaction was even stronger when I watched the movie Labyrinth for the first time. Well, really every time I've ever watched Labyrinth I've felt it. The scene in question is right after Sarah eats the cursed fruit and forgets that she is looking for her baby brother. She stumbles into a junkyard where she meets a woman who hands her her favorite teddy bear and says, "Is this what you're looking for?" Sarah nods. Then the woman takes her to a room that looks like her bedroom and starts handing her all of her favorite childhood toys. Sarah sits, saying nothing, as the woman piles more and more stuff into her lap. Finally she begins to remember, and says she has to go, but the woman says, "Everything you've ever cared about is right here." I have always hated that scene, and it is still a hard one for me to watch. I just feel so...I don't know...gross whenever I watch it.

Again, I didn't figure out why until much later.

Moved to Tears

I always hated westerns as a kid. The first one I saw that I actually liked was Young Guns II. You should know that I was eleven when that movie came out and probably on the cusp of being sexually aware, so I think it was all the attractive men that made me like it so much. I became absolutely obsessed. It was odd that I felt that way because when the first one came out just a couple of years before I wouldn't even watch it. It was a western. And it had the world "guns" in the title for crying out loud! It was not a kids movie and certainly not a girl movie, so I just dismissed it off-hand. Then my mom talked me into watching it one day and I had to admit it was every bit as good as its sequel. But there was one scene that really bothered me.

The scene is near the end. It's when they have gone to their friend Alex's house to warn them of an impending assault, but it turns out to be a trap. So now they are all in the house, along with Alex and his wife, fighting for their lives. Alex decides he has to get his wife to safety, so he starts to pull her toward the door, but she has been filling her arms up with a collection of dishes, and protests when her husband suggests she leave them behind. As she is struggling with him, she keeps saying over and over, "I want my dishes!"

Oh my goodness...that was always the worst scene in that movie for me. Actually used to make me cry. But I wasn't crying for the poor woman whose life was falling apart. I was crying because, while her life was falling apart, she only wanted her dishes.

What It All Means

It took me years to figure this out. Like I said, it didn't come together in my mind until fairly recently. What I've realized is that I am profoundly disturbed when I see someone using material things to fill a deep emotional need. The mom in the video store was probably trying to ward off tantrums and buy herself a few peaceful hours in her home. Sarah felt deprived of her father's love and clung to her toys as a way to ease the pain. Alex's wife (I'm sure she had a name, but I don't remember it) was watching her world crumble. Her very life was in danger, as was the life of her husband. She was hanging on to her dishes as the one thing from the life they had built together that she could take with her.

Apparently I knew at a very young age, even if it was only on a subconscious level, that material possessions do not fill emotional needs. They do not make the pain go away. They just clutter up our lives with useless junk, which only adds to our stress.

I think I also see in these situations a warning. I am an introvert. I like to be alone. There are times when I would rather be with a book than with other people. But I have to be with people. I have to come out of the books some time, otherwise I'm using a material thing (a book) to fill one of my needs (companionship). And some small part of me knew this when I was as young as eight years old.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why It's Important To Let Your Characters Tell Their Own Stories

Yes, It Really Works That Way

This is the most surprising thing I've learned as an author. I remember fighting it in one of my early attempts at writing a book. I had a married couple who were supposed to love each other to Saturn and back, but every time they had a conversation they started bickering. Then, when the wife started noticing strange occurrences in the house (it was a ghost story), she told her husband and he didn't believe her. And she got angry because he wasn't taking her seriously. I was alarmed. This wasn't how their relationship was supposed to work! They were supposed to be the perfect couple. I just had to work the story back around to their delirious love for one another. But every time I wrote a scene with both of them in it, they started arguing again. What the heck! I thought I was doing something wrong. I thought I was allowing my story to go in a direction it wasn't supposed to go. What I found out later was that wherever the characters want to go, that's where they're supposed to go.

An Example To Illustrate My Point

I'm going to use the television series Nip Tuck as an illustration for both the right and wrong way to go about character development. Okay, I know the show isn't on anymore, so I'm not going with anything current. And I know there are people out there who never watched it because it just wasn't for them. I mean, it got pretty raunchy at times with its graphic sex scenes and even more graphic surgery scenes. So if you missed it and you're perfectly fine with that, then I'm perfectly fine with that too. But you'll still be able to follow my line of thinking because I'll give all the examples you need to understand what I'm talking about.

The Sad Story of Christian Troy

Before there was Christian Grey, there was Christian Troy. The similarities between the two characters are so striking that for a while I was sure Fifty Shades was written by a disgruntled Nip Tuck fan. I found out later that I was wrong and if you don't know that story there are plenty of places to google it. I won't explain it here because it's beyond the scope of this blog post.

From the first episode of Nip Tuck it was clear that Christian's character was designed to melt the hearts of the show's female fans. In the first scene we are introduced to his charming side. Okay, he's a womanizer, but at this point who cares? He's handsome. He's intelligent. He's a successful doctor. And he's apparently great in bed because later on when he takes Kimber back to his house she doesn't seem to be complaining much. By the end of the episode we see a little deeper into his psyche, into the parts of him he doesn't reveal to the women he sleeps with, or even to his best friend. It is revealed that the patient they have just treated is a child molester, then we see a flashback to Christian as a little boy. It's fairly subtle, but the implication is strong that Christian was abused as a child. A later episode confirms this to be true. So right off the bat we've got a character who's handsome and charming, but who's been through some seriously traumatic crap in his life. In love with him yet? I think a lot of women were after that episode aired.

Then later Kimber comes back. Remember Kimber? He had a one night stand with her in the pilot, made her feel so crappy about her body she had to call the office and schedule some minor cosmetic surgeries, hinted that there might be the possibility for some kind of relationship between the two of them, then dumped her in the rudest possible way. She disappeared for a few episodes, but now she's back and she's pissed. An odd relationship forms between the two of them at this point, but it quickly becomes clear that Kimber is pretty darn far from being ready to forgive and forget. Then she asks Christian, "Why couldn't you just love me?" His response is typically jerk-like, but it broke my heart just the same. He says, "It's not your fault. I've never loved anyone." Aw...poor Christian. Let me be the one to teach you how to love.

Well, it turns out Christian does learn how to love. Only it's not a woman who teaches him. It's a child. One of his one night stands comes back into his life to inform him she's pregnant. At first he's understandably distraught, but then his sense of responsibility for the baby kicks in and he finds himself doing the kinds of things for this woman that a husband would do for a wife. Christian Troy being all domestic? Yeah...that's what impending fatherhood does for him. Of course, it's eventually revealed that the baby isn't really his, but by that point he loves the kid so much he can't imagine abandoning him. The scenes with Christian and that child are all so touching I still get goosebumps thinking about them.

Okay, we're at the end of season 1 now and we've established a certain story arc. We've discovered that, among other things, this show is about Christian and his journey from womanizing jerk to sensitive caring guy. But he has to go through a few more tragedies before his character can really become all he's capable of being. The first tragedy is losing custody of the baby when the biological father comes back on the scene. Oh my goodness, I don't think a TV show has ever made me cry so hard. Christian is broken after that, and as he's trying to put himself back together he finds he can't go back to the life he had before. He's been shown that there's more to relationships than just sex, and he's ready to explore some of that with a woman. He enters into what is probably the first monogamous relationship he's ever had. It doesn't work out. He finds that the woman he's chosen is just not the right one for him, but in their time together she helps him feel all the emotions he's run away from in the past. Again, some incredibly touching scenes came out of all that.

Then we come to the end of season 2 and Christian is attacked by a serial rapist who began making appearances a few episodes prior. Again, his life is spiraling out of control. Again he looks to a woman to help him find his way. This time it's Kimber. His feelings for her grow to such a point that he finally asks her to marry him. Christian Troy, married? It's not in keeping with his personality from the first season, but so much has happened to him by this point that it's perfectly believable. He's finally found that place within himself where he's capable of loving. Where he doesn't need to be with a different woman every night just to prove his manhood. Then Kimber is kidnapped on the day of their wedding, and Christian thinks she's walked out on him. He's furious. And he goes back to his old womanizing ways in order to work out his feelings of being stranded at the altar. But when he discovers what really happened to Kimber, he's overcome with remorse. He wants to renew their relationship, but she's been through too much and can't continue with him.

So now we're in season 4 and we'd like to expect the steady growth we've seen up to this point to continue. But something very unfortunate happens in season 4. It's like the writers have realized his character is nothing at all like he was in the first episode and they want to restore him to his former glory. So they force him to morph back into a womanizing jerk. Only this time the actor has begun to go bald and has put on a few pounds, so there's this whole annoying story arc where Christian becomes obsessed with his physical appearance to the point that he misses the birth of his best friend's son because he's having liposuction done at the moment the wife goes into labor. Really, Christian? You leave your best friend alone at a time like that because you're too vain to accept you now have love handles?

It only gets worse as the show goes on. The writers strip him of everything that made him a likable character. They stop focusing on his inner turmoil over that fact that, let's see, he was molested as a child, he fell in love with a baby he thought was his son only to lose the baby to the biological father, he was raped by the same man who kidnapped his fiancée and caused that relationship to come to an end, and on and on and on. In season 4 it's like none of that stuff matters to him anymore. But for the love of God don't let the man have love handles. That would be the end of the freaking world.

The Moral of the Story

The point is that as a writer you may have an idea of who you want your characters to be. When they begin to develop their own personalities and move in directions which are different from the ones you envisioned, you may be tempted to reel them back in and put them back on the path you originally designed. Don't give in to that temptation. Please. Let Christian Troy become the good man he wants to be and not the womanizer you thought he was supposed to be. Your audience will thank you. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lessons In Life From the Blue Ridge Parkway

This is the true story of my experience with the Blue Ridge Parkway, but in writing it down here I absolutely intend it to be a metaphor for how we deal with the new and unfamiliar in our daily lives. Read into whatever you want. It is likely that what you think it means is close to what I was thinking while I wrote it.

How I Heard of the Blue Ridge Parkway, And What I Learned Later

When you're raised by a mother who's afraid of everything, it colors your early perceptions of the world. In some areas you rebel, determined to show her that the thing she fears is not so bad after all, but other times you believe every single word she says. That's what happened with the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I did not grow up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I did grow up within a day's drive of them, which made them a frequent vacation destination. I knew my mother feared mountain roads. The way she clutched the door handle, the way she spoke in urgent tones to my father, every time we drove on them, was a big clue. As a child I did not realize that not all mothers react that way on narrow, curving roads. I thought it's how everyone felt. After all, on a road that dangerous, the utmost care is needed to ensure that the whole family does not perish in a ravine.

I have never ridden on the Blue Ridge Parkway with my mother, but she told me the story of the first, and only, time she and my father drove down it. She was relating to me the tale of a particularly frightening trip they took up to the mountains. She talked about narrow, twisty roads, sheer drop offs that seemed to stretch into eternity, steep inclines, and the need to creep along to avoid driving right off the side of the mountain. Then she said the sentence that would affect my life for a very long time. She said, "And somehow we ended up on the Blue Ridge Parkway!"

Her tone of voice said it all. What she was telling me was that she and my dad had accidentally (it must have been accidentally because why would anyone intentionally seek out such a place?) found themselves driving along the most dangerous road in America. Possibly the most dangerous road in the world. I could feel the fear radiating off of her as she related the story to me. She talked about shoulders so narrow nothing could be seen through the passenger's side window but sky. She talked about curves so sharp they threatened to come to life and willfully throw the car from the road. She talked about how she didn't think they'd ever get off that infernal highway and how she feared for her life the entire time.

I got the message loud and clear. Never, ever, drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway if you value your life.

Then I met my husband. And my husband loved the mountains. Still loves the mountains. If we go too long without a trip up there he starts to feel restless and depressed. And, heaven help him, the man loves the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I don't remember the first time he mentioned it to me. We may have been married at the time, or we may still have been dating. I don't remember the conversation which led up to it, either. All I remember is him turning to me and saying, "One day I'd like to drive the full length of the Blue Ridge Parkway."

I was stunned. Horrified. When I finally recovered my capacity for coherent speech I told him what a terrible idea that was. The Blue Ridge Parkway? We'd be safer walking into Mordor and staring into the Cracks of Doom.

I saw the disappointment on his face as soon as I finished giving my warning. Apparently this was a life-long dream of his and I had just crushed it beneath my shoe. But that didn't matter. I had done him a service. I had given him vital information which would hopefully keep him alive until he reached a ripe old age.

Then one day we were on vacation together in the mountains. And he was talking the whole time about wanting to drive the Parkway. And I was trying to talk him out of it. We were in the car, and there was sign pointing to the ramp where you get on. "Let's do it!" he said. And he did it.

My heart was pounding in my chest. I was not ready to die. Though I was not usually one to be fearful in the car, this was the Blue Ridge Parkway, for crying out loud. The road which had been luring hapless motorists to their deaths since it opened. And now we were driving on it.

What did I discover? I discovered a well maintained road. I discovered a road that runs over relatively (considering how high up in the mountains it is) flat ground. I discovered a road with a considerably smaller amount of twists and turns than many other mountain roads I had been on in the past. I discovered a road with broad shoulders, wide enough to pull the car over and be completely out of the path of oncoming traffic. Most importantly, I discovered a road which was safe.

It took a while (years in fact) for me to become completely comfortable driving it. My first impression of it, seen through the eyes of my mother, had penetrated too deeply to be exorcised through only one encounter with the Parkway. And it took my husband even longer to realize I was finally willing to give the road a chance.

Now we drive at least a piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway almost every time we visit the mountains. We have found amazing camp grounds, hiking trails, and picnic areas along this scenic highway. It's a beautiful place which no longer inspires any fear in my heart.

My mother, on the other hand, is still terrified of it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Indie Book of the Month, January 2017

Why I Wanted to Start Featuring Indie Books

I was becoming quite the hypocrite. I'm an indie author, and I firmly believe that indies can write good books, but I was becoming more and more hesitant about actually picking them up and reading them. Why? Because the first two indie books I tried to read were awful. Worse than awful. They were atrocious. The mistakes went so far beyond typos and the occasional misplaced comma that I couldn't even finish them. And I never fail to finish a book. Ever.

But I knew there had to be some indies out there who actually knew how to use the English language. I just needed to find them. And because I'm an indie author myself, I knew that if I could find them, then promote them to the world, I'd be helping myself too because, hey, if one indie book can be good, others can too. And that includes my books. Right? Well, I hope so.

There's also the whole networking thing, which I pretty much suck at but I'm trying to get better. These monthly features are a first step.

The Criteria I Thought I'd Follow

I was not going to feature a romance. A couple of reasons for this. First, it's never been my favorite genre. Over the years I've been gradually drawing the conclusion that if you've read one romance you've read them all. Frankly, they bore me. These feelings were most likely driven home by the fact that the last two romances I tried to read were Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. So, okay, I have a tendency to read two books from a certain category, then judge the whole category by those two books alone. I should work on this. I am working on this. But I still wasn't going to feature a romance because, in addition to not particularly enjoying them, I also believe the indie market is saturated with them. I'm an indie author who dares to write something else, and I feel I'm getting lost in the shuffle. Even finding bloggers to review my books is a challenge because so many websites only review romance novels. So I was planning to find books which were close to my own genre and feature them. It was all part of the branding thing. I write paranormal books, so I should be showcasing paranormal books on my website.

I was also specifically looking for an author who knew how to follow the rules. Dotted every i. Crossed every t. I'd have been willing to overlook minor punctuation errors because I know I haven't fully mastered the art of the perfect comma and would never judge someone else for struggling in an area where I struggle, but I did at least want to see a general command of the language. That means no errors in verb tense. No misused homophones. Basically my plan was to be a grammar Nazi in my choice of a book.

When a Book Takes Me By Surprise

The book I chose made me rethink all my rules. First off, it's a romance. But I actually liked it. I know. Shocking, right? I was still fighting some prejudice toward this genre even as I was reading it and was thinking, "Do I really want to feature this book on my blog? I mean, I said I wouldn't do romance." But every time I put the book down, all I could think about was wanting to pick it up and read some more or it. If a book is affecting me that much, how can I not choose it for Indie Book of the Month?

The book also breaks some fundamental writing "rules". There are a few examples of wonky verb tense. There's some head hopping. There are some data dumps. But the thing is, I didn't mind them. In fact, the book is so well written in every other respect that I'm almost ready to assume those departures from the rules were deliberate. Reading it, I did not get the impression that the author was making the standard "newbie" mistakes. Rather, I got the impression that this is an author who knows what kind of story she's trying to construct and she's bending a few rules because she likes the effect she achieves when she does that. I may be wrong, but in the end it doesn't matter because this is a darn good book and I'm not going to nitpick the details.

So What Is the Book?

Under Winter Lights by Bree M. Lewandowski. Yes, it's a romance, but it's also so much more. It is about a young dancer. A newbie in the world of professional ballet. A dancer who constantly worries she doesn't have what it takes to be a success. Even when she is given the principal part in the company's latest production, she still struggles with severe self-esteem issues. Then, of course, there's a handsome male dancer who tells her how wonderful she is and tries to restore her confidence in herself. And from that grows the romance.

It was the ballet which pulled me into this book. If you've followed my blog you know some of my history with dance. I quit ballet as a child and didn't look back until I hit my twenties and realized dance was the one thing that was missing from my life. I now take ballet classes. I take tap and jazz. I do Highland Dance competitively. But the fact remains I'm a thirty-something with unfulfilled dance dreams. This book allowed my to live my dreams vicariously through the characters. The descriptions of classes, clothing, warm-ups, music, etc. are so vivid I felt like I was really there with Martina. When she stepped out on stage, I stepped out on stage with her. The world presented in this book is a beautiful one, but like all beautiful things it has a dark side. The author does an excellent job of showing both the beauty and the darkness of professional ballet.

My Recommendation

If you like romance, buy this book. If you like ballet, buy this book. If you know nothing about ballet and want to learn a little something, buy this book. You won't regret it.

Here are the links: