The awkward middle novel in the trilogy

I’m finishing up the second novel in the Klauden’s Ring series, and I’m struggling with the cliffhanger not-so-happily-ever-after ending that this middle book seems to require.

My characters have overcome some major challenges in this one. Lives have been shattered, vows have been broken, loyalties have been strained. But they are still standing. Mostly.

And I, the reader who LOVES her happy endings, who will get so frustrated with a sad ending that I have been known to toss a paperback across the room in a fit of rage–I find myself heading inevitably in that direction. It’s not all going to work out perfectly in this one. Life is too messy, issues too unresolved, truths just barely beginning to show themselves.

I know it has to happen this way. I know that there has to be struggle before the happy ending can come and actually feel like it’s been earned–and Peter S. Beagle taught me that happy endings can never happen in the middle of a story. If they can happen at all–because nothing ever really ends.

No worries, though, dear followers of Hannah and Rory. They will return in book three, battered, a little bedraggled and beaten, but they shall return, and I promise that book three does have an ending (and spoiler: it will be  happy one…for most of them). But as someone heading directly towards the Empire Strikes Back ending, I apologize in advance. But sometimes, characters have to struggle, have to weather the storm, and then the next, before they can actually get to the end of the road, or as King puts it, the inevitable clearing at the end of the path.

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began, but for now, this is a dark part of the path, and if we are to truly appreciate the sunlight to be found on the other side, we need to follow them now through these tangled trees, even though this whole forest looks ready to reach out and strangle us.

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“There is nothing new under the sun…”

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Is there anything new under the sun? A friend of mine once worried that she had nothing to contribute to the ever-growing body of words. “How can my story be worth reading?” she asked. “It’s not original. This story has been done over and over again.”

True, I told her. The events in the story may have happened in another story. And maybe I had even read that story, or imagined it myself.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because she had never told that story. And that’s what makes it worthwhile. No one could tell it like she could. No one else would tell it like she would. I don’t care how many monkeys you put in the room, even if they can eventually recreate Shakespearean plays, no one else will put those words together in quite that way. No one will focus on the things she will focus on. No one will emphasize the features that she thinks deserve emphasis.

And so I told her that her story was worthwhile, was valuable, was worth sharing, and it was worth doing all of that as only she could do it.

I think this is a valuable lesson for those of us writing now, in a world flooded with words, flooded with stories and versions and retellings about anything we have thought about. Harold Bloom wrote about the anxiety of influence, the idea that because all authors unconsciously absorb the patterns, tendencies, styles, etc. from the books they read, they also unconsciously repeat those motifs in their own writing–thus making their own writing an amalgamation of the ideas they have collected over a lifetime of reading and listening and watching and learning. All current writing is influenced by the writers and thinkers of the past. You can’t escape the influence. And so, there is nothing new under the sun, and it’s all been said before. Maybe, but you’ve never said it before.

You can hate on Stephenie Meyer and her vampires all you want, but she definitely struck a chord with her readers. And what did she write about? Vampires plus high school romance. Both of which have been done before, and done again and again and again, and yet, Meyer’s story captivated millions of readers. Some of them may have read their Stoker, or maybe they had only heard of vampires from tv or movies, but it didn’t matter. Readers drink it in anyway because this was a new story, a slightly different tale with small changes (sparkle anyone?). I write cheesy romances with vampires–done and done and done again! But my vampires are MY vampires, and no one else would write about them the way that I do. And that’s why I should write about them.

So don’t worry if your story isn’t brand spanking new original. Don’t worry if it’s been done in ancient times or in a movie last year. You haven’t done it yet.

Give it a try–who knows what chords you may strike?

 

And Romance isn’t dead…

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Since I spent lat time explaining my definition of “cheesy,” I thought Id’ spend some time today with the rest of my descriptor for my book–romance. Yes, my book is a romance–but in more ways than the traditional character A sees character B across a dimly lit room, Bam!, the sun comes out, the world makes sense, the birds are singing all day long–even while they fight off the villain together–and they ride off into the sunset together. Yeah, I’m a sucker for that kind of romance.

But I spend my days talking about the rest of romance, the part that writers seem to have left in the bowels of history. In literature, Romance means a story written in a Roman language–and for most of history, that means Latin (eventually, Latin will spawn the romance languages–French, Spanish, and Italian). So, a romance is a story that those crazy Roman invaders would bring with them, sharing the tales of adventure in their native tongue. Those stories are awesome, and so of course people started to retell them to all of their friends–some of whom did not understand Latin. So those tales were translated into Old English and French–and then the French started to compose their own stories–and suddenly there is a group of stories classified as romance that may or may not involve happy couples kissing and/or swearing eternal devotion to one another.

These stories, often called medieval romances, usually involve an adventure of some kind, a quest or journey where the protagonist has to accomplish a goal (sometimes the rescue of the classic damsel in distress but not always). Often there is an supernatural element, usually they take place in locations with faraway exotic names (for the listeners, that is), and sometimes the protagonist gets married at the end. People still call them romances, though, since they are derived from those old Roman stories that were translated from Latin.

The French take this genre by storm, embellishing that old story about a warrior named Arthur with an entire world–Camelot, Excalibur, the English Queen who is seduced by a French knight who uses his lance, a lot. Did I mention that this was right after the Norman Invasion when the French conquered England, claimed their land, and spent the next few hundred years changing their language? (Take that, England! Your English King loses his Queen to a sexy French chevalier!). That aside, these are the romances that endure, and they generally break up into four different categories or what we English majors call Matters:

The Matter of Rome includes any stories that deal with Roman or Greek elements (Trojan war, Greek gods, etc.).

The Matter of England includes any stories that deal with King Arthur (Camelot, Excalibur, Holy Grail, Fisher King, etc.).

The Matter of Britain includes any stories that deal with English knights who aren’t connected to King Arthur (King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Gamelyn, Robin Hood, etc.).

The Matter of France includes any stories that deal with Charlemagne and his paladins (Roland, Oliver, Bayard, etc.).

Some of these stories involve a sunset backed passionate kiss; some do not. But all are romances.

Remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school? It’s subtitled: a romance. Why would Hawthorne do that? According to his definition, his story includes an adventure (mostly psychological) set in an exotic location (Puritan New England, a place as foreign to Hawthorne’s 1800s than it is to modern readers) with a hint of the supernatural (mysterious letters in the sky, Pearl as demon-child, etc.). Yes, the story is about two people who got it on, but it is as far from a contemporary romance as you can get (spoiler alert: they don’t live happily ever after).

So, history lesson on romance over. The next time someone dismisses a romance novel as a waste of time, remind them that romances have a long and hefty literary history that involves many twists and turns.

I write cheesy romance novels: adventure, excitement, supernatural, and yes, some kissing.

On “Cheesy” Romances

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When people ask what type of stories I write, I often tell them I prefer “cheesy” romances, and I mean this in the modern sense of the words.

Cheesy, of course, is my adjective of choice, showing that my writing is like cheese, those thick, gooey, satisfying layers of flavor that enhance whatever they are draped across. Cheesy also shows that my writing isn’t meant to be an entire meal; it’s a snack, something to tease the senses and delight the mind, but without the necessary depth and breadth that make up a meal. Even a cheese plate in a fancy restaurant is not meant as a full meal–it’s a nice touch, a great chance to sample different textures and flavors, but it’s not meant to replace the grand affair that is the entree.

What I mean when I describe my work as cheesy is that my stories are not the Great American Novel–and that’s ok. The English teacher in me knows that literature, great literature, often reveals some fundamental truth about what it means to be human–and I think my stories skim the surface of that goal, revealing depths beneath the ice but not quite dunking the reader into the murky symbolic depths.

I spend my days reading, teaching, and discussing literary works. I know what it feels like to have an author smack you over the head with theories about life. And I enjoy those moments. Sometimes. I love the feeling of diving into the wreck, as Adrienne Rich so aptly describes, unraveling the secrets and squinting into the spaces between images. But I also appreciate not getting dunked into watery chasms of biographical significance and cultural commentary, especially after a long day spend showing my students the way with a spare SCUBA tank and a flashlight. Sometimes I just want to waterski across the surface of the work, to quote Billy Collins. I want to read without work, without careful attention to detail and nuance. I want to stand under the shower of words and let them pour over me, sliding across my skin without having to chase them, corral them into sense and convert them into meaning. And on those days, at those moments, cheesy romance is my escape. I can meet new people and watch them do new and exciting things and not have to focus on what the blue curtains really mean. Yes, sometimes I find those meanings without meaning to (once an English major, always an English major), but I like not feeling pressured to find them, to decipher the hidden symbols and unearth the subtext.

So when I write, I create the stories that I want to read when I’m tired of reading into every little thing. My tales are snacks, refreshing glances into new worlds with different people, and if they do have some universal truth lurking within, it’s generally the effect of storytelling at large rather than a conscious effort to make the story mean something significant.  And so my stories are always cheesy.

There are plenty of entrees out there; go out and enjoy them. Inhale them, savor each bite, study each sentence and dissect each word for its meaning. Literature is vast and powerful and worthwhile.

But when you need a break from that level of focus, when you just want a quick snack that’s satisfying the need for a story, check out some cheese. You deserve it.