Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Makes a Hero?

This week we welcome one of our favorite authors, Mary Blayney, to talk about one of her favorite subjects: Heroes.
What fun to be asked to spend the day with the Rockville8. Not long ago I spent a weekend with most of them at a writers’ retreat that I hope is well on its way to becoming a tradition. In the course of our free-wheeling, food and drink aided discussions, I brought up the subject of heroes. I am going to enlarge on it here because it’s a favorite theme of mine. Thanks to the 8 for giving me a chance to share it with a wider audience.

First one very important caveat: for this exercise I use hero as a gender neutral term, with thanks to Keely for reminding me of that.

For romance writers heroes are our stock in trade. Because the happy ending, or at the least an uplifting one, is an essential element of our stories, the hero triumphs, almost always on more than one level.

Due to early exposure to Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES I’ve been thinking about my definition of a hero for years. After writing more than fifteen books and novella I’ve got it! What fun to open it up for further discussion here.

For me and my characters a hero has honor at the core of his being and is willing to give more than he can afford to give.

Every hero I have written accepts the burden of those two qualities. With gender neutrality in mind, I would say that Charlotte Parnell in TRAITOR’S KISS is the ultimate expression of those elements. Charlotte lost and then rediscovered her honor in a hard school. By the time we meet her Charlotte is willing to give up everything, including her identity, to right wrongs of which she has been a part. Her behavior in living her concept of honor does not ring true with her nineteenth century peers, but it is there as deep and sure as it is in the more conventional hero, Michael Garrett in LOVER’S KISS.

As disappointing as it is, I know not everyone has read my regency set romances published by Bantam or the novellas Berkley publishes. (But, hey, you can always check out the title at

With that in mind, let me give you some more widely known heroes in literature. Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD ranks high as does Sidney Carton in TALE OF TWO CITIES. My favorites are lesser known but worth the effort if their names do not ring a bell: Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith from the book CORDELIA’S HONOR by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Aral and Cordelia meet when they are on the opposite sides of a war set some time in the future. Their journey to a much challenged happily-ever-after is the epitome of honor and willingness to sacrifice. Indeed, it’s hard to decide whose sacrifice is greater. In fact Aral does sacrifice his honor for a greater good, but then Cordelia is willing to jeopardize hers to spend her life with the man she loves. Cordelia’s success at maintaining her honor is the theme of the second half of CORDELIA’S HONOR.

Cordelia and Aral’s journey brings them together for a lifetime that we, as readers, share through the journey of their son, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. In the rest of the books in this series Miles struggles constantly with the same questions.

I would love to know what your definition of a hero is and if you have any suggestions for my list. How about someone loved by readers who does not exhibit those qualities? Both Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara come to mind. Is that why their love story fails? I think that’s the subject for another blog. If I’m invited again.

You can find Mary's latest Novella, "The Other Side of the Coin" in the anthology The Other Side, out now.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Cutting Edge

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in on someone else’s critique. The scene under discussion was a gripping one. The hero and heroine were in danger—and he was at a distinct disadvantage. To my surprise, though, several writers told the author, “Cut his vulnerability.”

Why? Because his situation touched something visceral in each and every one of us. And none of us were entirely comfortable with that.

Now, if you’re a writer, you’ve been to those workshops where the industry's top editors and agents teach us to up the stakes. Make things bad for the good guys, they tell us. Then, make things worse.

But how do we know when things are worse? Well, in real life, our palms sweat and our stomachs knot. It’s the same in fiction.

Of course, there is such a thing as going too far. When your hero is too hot to handle for no reason at all, or your heroine is TSTL (Too Stupid To Live), or your villain vividly violates the deepest taboos of our society and we see it page after page after page, you might consider dialing it back a notch. Because your reader needs to have a knee-jerk reaction, not a gut-wrenching experience.

However, it’s a visceral reaction that gets your readers emotionally invested in the outcome of your story. When your reader laughs or cries or cheers or boos, she’ll stick with you to the end of your novel—and throughout your career. So don’t be afraid to make that heroine a little more brash or that hero a little more vulnerable. Provoke a reaction. Rather than cut those details from your scenes, push the situation to the very edge. That’s what I call the Cutting Edge.

Many of our favorite books engage us emotionally by pushing us to the Cutting Edge. If you're not sure you can lay your finger on the Cutting Edge, check out these bestsellers from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Lisa Kleypas’ Sugar Daddy, Harlan Coben’s Long Lost to Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and J.D. Robb’s Naked in Death to Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde.

Now it’s your turn to talk to the Rockville 8. As a writer, have you ever stepped back from the Cutting Edge? Why? Did you regret it? As a reader, which of your favorite books push your emotional buttons to the Cutting Edge?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Magical Power of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are a hot commodity these days. You have only to look as far as your local movie theater’s playing of Little Red Riding Hood and Beastly (a retelling of The Beauty and the Beast classic) to see how fairy tales that have been around for hundreds of years are making a resurgence in popular culture today. Authors are taking these age-old tales and adding their own twist for modern readers and movie goers to recreate compelling stories that speak to us in a brand new, yet fundamental way. But is the use of fairy tale or myth really a new trend? No.

The Brothers Grimm first compiled their collection of Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen)--commonly known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales--in 1812. This two-volume compilation started with 156 stories and grew to 211 stories by its seventh edition in 1850. Hans Christian Andersen wrote his version of Fairy Tales in 1835.

James Frey, author of How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, argues that: “[F]undamental mythic storytelling techniques have survived and developed through the millennia and are with us today just as much as they were with ancient man. The hero of popular fiction is the legitimate heir of stories going back untold millennia, and the forms of the stories and the cultural ideas that they illustrate are unchanged. If the modern writer is made aware of these forms and the cultural role of myth in the lives of modern man, he or she will be able to use them as a powerful tool that speaks to the reader at the deepest levels of the unconscious mind” (Frey 31).

He pulls examples from Greek mythology, the Old Testament, Jung, and a myriad of others to support his argument that myth and folklore (or fairy tales)--the stories that communicate the core of a culture’s myth--are just as integral to writers of popular fiction today as they have been to our predecessor. So whether it’s The Frog King (and who says paranormal romance, with a bona fide shapeshifter, is a new development?), Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or Cinderella, writers throughout the years have used this myths to draw their readers on a deeper level into a more profound story.

Popular fiction romance writers have known the power of retelling fairy tales for years. The last cycle seemed to have emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Victoria Alexander wrote The Emperor’s New Clothes in 2004 and The Princess and the Pea in 1996. Linda Jones published Cinderfella in 1998. Christine Feehan wrote Lair of the Lion, a Beauty and the Beast story in 2002.

The stories that the Brothers Grimm and Andersen penned nearly two hundred years ago are as relevant today as they were then. They speak to something deep within us. As Frey explains: “Somehow, mythic forms resonate in every individual human being on this planet. When a human being encounters some version of a myth, the individual responds at a very deep level, subconsciously, and is powerfully drawn to it as by magic. The force of myth is irresistible. Mythic forms and mythic structures are the foundation on which all good stories are built; these forms and structures are the key a modern fiction writer can use to create powerful fiction” (Frey 36).

Whether you’re a paranormal romance writer or a writer fashioned in the mold of A.S. Byatt, using fairy tale and cultural myth can deepen your stories and draw your readers as if by magic. And who doesn’t want that? So dust off your primers (okay the originals are not really children’s stories) and learn your mythic structures. You’ll be glad you did. Magic is at your fingertips. Tap into it.

What follows is a list of fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Hans Christian Anderson’s most famous fairy tales include:
The Angel (1843)
• The Bell (1845)
• The Emperor's New Clothes (1837)
• The Galoshes of Fortune (1838)
• The Fir Tree (1844)
• The Happy Family (1847)
• The Ice Maiden (1861)
• It's Quite True! (1852)
• The Little Match Girl (1848)
• The Little Mermaid (1836)
• Little Tuck (1847)
• The Nightingale (1844)
• The Old House (1847)
• Sandman (1841)
• The Princess and the Pea (1835; also known as The Real Princess)
• Several Things (1837)
• The Red Shoes (1845)
• The Shadow (1847)
• The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (1845)
• The Snow Queen (1844)
• The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838)
• The Story of a Mother (1847)
• The Swineherd (1841)
• Thumbelina (1835)
• The Tinderbox (1835)
• The Ugly Duckling (1844)
• The Wild Swans (1838)

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales:
• The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich
• Cat and Mouse in Partnership
• Mary's Child
• The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was
• The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids
• Trusty John or Faithful John
• The Good Bargain
• The Wonderful Musician or The Strange Musician
• The Twelve Brothers
• The Pack of Ragamuffins
• Brother and Sister
• Rapunzel
• The Three Little Men in the Wood
• The Three Spinners
• Hansel and Gretel
• The Three Snake-Leaves
• The White Snake
• The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean
• The Fisherman and His Wife
• The Valiant Little Tailor
• Cinderella
• The Riddle
• The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage
• Mother Hulda
• The Seven Ravens
• Little Red Riding Hood or Little Red-Cap
• Town Musicians of Bremen
• The Singing Bone
• The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs
• The Louse and the Flea
• The Girl Without Hands
• Clever Hans
• The Three Languages
• Clever Elsie
• The Tailor in Heaven
• The Wishing-Table, the Gold-Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack
• Thumbling (see also Tom Thumb)
• The Wedding of Mrs. Fox
• The Elves & The Elves and the Shoemaker
• The Robber Bridegroom
• Herr Korbes
• The Godfather
• Frau Trude
• Godfather Death
• Thumbling's Travels (see also Tom Thumb)
• Fitcher's Bird
• The Juniper Tree
• Old Sultan
• The Six Swans
• Sleeping Beauty or Little Briar-Rose
• Foundling-Bird
• King Thrushbeard
• Little Snow White
• The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
• Rumpelstiltskin
• Sweetheart Roland
• The Golden Bird
• The Dog and the Sparrow
• Frederick and Catherine
• The Two Brothers
• The Little Peasant
• The Queen Bee
• The Three Feathers
• Golden Goose
• All-Kinds-of-Fur
• The Hare's Bride
• The Twelve Huntsmen
• The Thief and His Master
• Jorinde and Joringel
• The Three Sons of Fortune
• How Six Men got on in the World
• The Wolf and the Man
• The Wolf and the Fox
• Gossip Wolf and the Fox
• The Fox and the Cat
• The Pink
• Clever Gretel
• The Old Man and his Grandson
• The Water Nixie
• The Death of the Little Hen
• Brother Lustig
• Gambling Hansel
• Hans in Luck
• Hans Married
• The Gold-Children
• The Fox and the Geese
• The Poor Man and the Rich Man
• The Singing, Springing Lark
• The Goose Girl
• The Young Giant
• The Gnome
• The King of the Gold Mountain
• The Raven
• The Peasant's Wise Daughter
• Old Hildrebrand
• The Three Little Birds
• The Water of Life
• Doctor Know-all
• The Spirit in the Bottle
• The Devil's Sooty Brother
• Bearskin
• The Willow-Wren and the Bear
• Sweet Porridge
• Wise Folks
• Tales of the Paddock
• The Poor Miller's Boy and the Cat
• The Two Travelers
• Hans My Hedgehog
• The Shroud
• The Jew Among Thorns
• The Skillful Hunstman
• The Flail from Heaven
• The Two Kings' Children
• The Clever Little Tailor
• The Bright Sun Brings it to Light
• The Blue Light
• The Willful Child
• The Three Army Surgeons
• The Seven Swabians
• The Three Apprentices
• The King's Son Who Feared Nothing
• Donkey Cabbages
• The Old Woman in the Wood
• The Three Brothers
• The Devil and His Grandmother
• Ferdinand the Faithful and Ferdinand the Unfaithful
• The Iron Stove
• The Lazy Spinner
• The Four Skillful Brothers
• One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes
• Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie
• The Fox and the Horse
• The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces
• The Six Servants
• The White and the Black Bride
• Iron John
• The Three Black Princesses
• Knoist and his Three Sons
• The Maid of Brakel
• My Household
• The Lambkin and the Little Fish
• Simeli Mountain
• Going a Traveling
• The Donkey
• The Ungrateful Son
• The Turnip
• The Old Man Made Young Again
• The Lord's Animals and the Devil's
• The Beam
• The Old Beggar-Woman
• The Twelve Idle Servants
• The Three Sluggards
• The Shepherd Boy
• The Star Money
• The Stolen Farthings
• Looking for a Bride
• The Hurds
• The Sparrow and his Four Children
• The Story of Schlauraffen Land
• The Ditmars Tale of Wonders
• A Riddling Tale
• Snow-White and Rose-Red
• The Wise Servant
• The Glass Coffin
• Lazy Henry
• The Griffin
• Strong Hans
• The Peasant in Heaven
• Lean Lisa
• The Hut in the Forest
• Sharing Joy and Sorrow
• The Willow-Worn
• The Sole
• The Bittern and the Hoopoe
• The Owl
• The Moon
• The Duration of Life
• Death's Messengers
• Master Pfreim
• The Goose-Girl at the Well
• Eve's Various Children
• The Nixie of the Mill-Pond
• The Little Folk's Presents
• The Giant and the Tailor
• The Nail
• The Poor Boy in the Grave
• The True Bride
• The Hare and the Hedgehog
• Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle
• The Peasant and the Devil
• The Crumbs on the Table
• The Sea-Hare
• The Master Thief
• The Drummer
• The Ear of Corn
• The Grave-Mound
• Old Rinkrank
• The Crystal Ball
• Maid Maleen
• The Boots of Buffalo Leather
• The Golden Key
• Saint Joseph in the Forest
• The Twelve Apostles
• The Rose
• Poverty and Humility Lead to Heaven
• God's Food
• The Three Green Twigs
• The Blessed Virgin's Little Glass or Our Lady's Little Glass
• The Little Old Lady or The Aged Mother
• The Heavenly Marriage or The Heavenly Wedding
• The Hazel Branch

Sunday, March 6, 2011

True Confessions

I have a confession to make.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I’m a pantzer. I’ve always been a pantzer. You know the type. The writer who knows a couple of plot points then starts writing to see what happens. Or, the one who has a character they really, really like then throws obstacles in front of them to see what occurs.

It’s worked pretty well. I’ve finished some manuscripts. I’ve placed in some contests. But, I’ve always felt like things were off kilter. The plot just wasn’t enough of something.

There weren’t enough echoes that reverberated throughout the story. Ideas that I’d start at the beginning I didn’t use to their potential. There wasn’t enough—and I shudder to say this—structure.

Structure. The thing my creative side has railed against since the beginning. My day job has plenty of bald-faced, there’s-only-one-way-to-do-this structure. Codified laws, regulations and guidelines to be followed or else. So, my writing has always felt like a walk down a breezy beach, stopping where I wanted to pick up the shells that I like, not the shells someone else told me to like. Jumping into the water periodically or digging in the sand to find a sand crab.

I get to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, how I want to do it. There are no laws governing me when I write. Or are there?

Two weekends ago many of the Rockville 8, along with other great writers, spent a weekend on retreat. Some writing was done. But a lot of concepts were discussed, too. Some of the writers took time out to prepare presentations and discuss books and movies as examples. They generously shared what they have learned or discovered.

There are so many theories on how to plot that I won’t even go there. But while we were talking, this thought occurred to me: They’re all good. They’re all valid. And they’ve all been successfully used by someone. For years, I’ve been buffeted by all of the classes I’ve taken. The presenter will say “This is how I’ve done it.” The author is a multi-published success so this must be the Holy Grail. “The Way To Be Published.”

But somewhere during these successful author presentations, almost all of them said something like “This is the way I do it. However, you need to find your own process.” I know this intellectually. Knowing this emotionally is a whole ‘nother story.

So, here I am, rambling. Pantzing, really. I see the plotters rolling their eyes. What’s the point of all this musing?

The point is that the conversation we had Saturday night about structure really galvanized me. I think I may have found the beginnings of a spreadsheet/flowchart that I can work with-another aspect to my process. I spent the Sunday night after I returned home figuring out where my scenes fit into the structure that I decided to use. I deleted, added and rearranged scenes.

I’ve used spreadsheets for years. Footed and cross-footed them. Ticked and tied them. Reworked them. Rearranged them. Programmed them to calculate all sorts of things. But I never really used them for writing. Again, wanting to be the wild-child writer, I didn’t want to fool with that. I was off the clock.

Sunday night, while I was tinkering with my plot points, I had a lightning bolt to the brain. Studying my little spreadsheet, I discovered the worst thing that could happen to my main character.

And it will happen. I see it now, on my spreadsheet, that it must.

Tell me about your plotting process. I’d love to hear what is. Or, in the case of you pure breed pantzers, what it isn’t.