Monday, June 25, 2012

Margaret Mitchell and Her Damn Good Story

On a recent trip to Atlanta, I had no intention of visiting the birthplace of Gone With The Wind (GWTW), but somehow between this and that, I ended up at the Margaret Mitchell house.

I’m glad fate led me there. Myths were dispelled and I learned things that both humbled and inspired me. I had to put away unfounded assumptions that Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara were one in the same. Oh, they have their share of similarities, but Margaret Mitchell, I learned, was not the spoiled Southern Belle (SSB), I had assumed. In fact, she was much different.

The Margaret Mitchell house is not the house Mitchell grew up in. That is long gone. It’s not even her house. No, it is an apartment house where Mitchell and her husband rented a cramped three room (+bath) apartment during the eight years Mitchell wrote GWTW (1926 to 1934).

So how did a SSB end up in a shotgun-style ground floor flat with mismatched furniture writing one of the great American novels? Read on, my friend.

Margaret "Peggy" Mitchell was a new sort of Southern woman back in the 1920s. Daughter of a wealthy Atlanta family, Peggy’s behavior scandalized her family and friends. She smoked, wore trousers, cut her hair short and turned Atlanta society on its ear by dancing the sensual Apache Dance at a debutant ball (click to see). Some of her biographers have called Peggy "free spirited," but she was more than that. She was singular in her desire to make her own way in life and, to my great surprise, to right the wrongs of society. 
According to Pamela Roberts ("Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel" documentary), "[Mitchell] was a lifelong rebel who looked deeply into life and challenged the hypocrisy of society whether taking a job as a reporter — or secretly funding African-American education, an act for which she could have been killed had it become known to the public."

Peggy had a disastrous first marriage to handsome playboy, Berrien "Red" Upshaw. The young couple lived with her father in a grand mansion. Red, a wife beater and a bootlegger, was the kind of man my grandmother would have called "no count." Peggy, determined not to rely on her father’s money, went to work and shortly thereafter to divorce court. She began writing for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine where she earned $25 per week.

 Somehow, Peggy made a living writing for the Journal. She ditched Red and married former beau John Marsh and they moved to the little apartment on Peachtree Street, which she christened "the dump." Today, we’d call it shabby chic with an emphasis on the shabby. After settling into marriage #2, Peggy injured her ankle and was sent home to recover. John would make daily trips to the library to get books to feed her voracious appetite.

One day he came home empty handed and history was made. He told Peggy something like this: "You’ve read all the books in the library. If you want to read any more you’re going to have to write the book yourself."

Yep, that’s how GWTW was born, a challenge from a loving but frustrated spouse. Peggy sat down at the tiniest little desk you can imagine next to a high window (you can’t actually see out the window unless you stand on the window seat) in her dumpy apartment and started typing. She used a Remington manual typewriter to pound out 1000 pages of a story she never planned to publish. If fact, she didn’t even bother to write chapter one. When complete, she put the manuscript in a drawer and went on living, never dreaming that one day she’d sell three million books for the unheard of amount of $3 a book in the middle of a depression (1936) and make a whopping $300,000 (from which she would make secret charitable gifts to Morehouse College). She never dreamed that in 1937 she’d win a Pulitzer Prize or that in 1939, GWTW would become the highest grossing film in the history of Hollywood. The movie received a record-breaking ten Academy Awards.

Nope, she put the manuscript in a drawer.

But GWTW was destined to be more. It’s the stuff of legend and what makes it legendary is just what you hear from agents and editors: Write a damn good story with compelling characters. Make me feel something. Well, frankly Scarlett if you aren’t feeling something when reading GWTW then I don’t give a damn. (Or something like that.) Peggy's characters are large than life and pack a huge punch. A slew women (moi included) suffer from Rhettism, a condition whereby you believe you're not truly loved unless pursued by a handsome scoundrel and made love to with steamy abandon. How you get the dishes done, the kids fed and the dog walked with all that steam going on, I don’t know, but that’s my expectation and I blame GWTW.

Agents often tell you to write something that stands out, the breakout this or that, but, really, are there any new plots? Maybe, but mainly I see the most room for breakout in character development. Characters only you can create because of your own individual experiences and creativity. To me, it’s all about characters. Even if you build characters around solid archetypes— like Cinderella—there is still plenty of room for crafting a character that is unique and three dimensional.

Peggy Mitchell had a few other things going for her besides the ability to write a damn good story. She was persistent, passionate, incredibly brave (or maybe reckless) and at some point she believed in herself and her story. She worked hard and she didn’t take anything for granted. She’s a Cinderella character herself in that despite great privilege early on, she experienced the loss of that privilege, called upon her core strengths (storytelling, imagination and passion) and made a success of herself on her own terms.

I left #1 Crescent Apartments at 990 Peachtree Street inspired, by Peggy’s passion and courage, and humbled, by Peggy’s good works and dedication. It was a fortuitous side trip that I will remember for a long time.

How about you? Are you writing a damn good story? Are your characters compelling? How do you make the compelling characters? Tell me about it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Reader Response: 50 Shades of Complicated

So the latest buzz on everyone’s lips for weeks has been Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. A few weeks ago, I decided to read it to figure out what all the hype was about even though it’s slightly beyond my usual reading preference. These days, I predominately read and write romance. So Fifty Shades, I thought, would be a stretch for me, since it’s erotica.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a purist. I’m an academic at heart. I love to read. And for a romance reader/writer, I read more broadly than most. I was a reader before I was a writer. I’m curious. I do read outside my genre. Heck, I’m a recovering literature major, so I had to read a wide variety of literature during my undergrad days. I’m used to expanding my horizons.

So when a book hits big, I take a look at it. Because I want to understand why. Why it’s struck such a chord with readers. Why everyone is talking about it. Then, I want to know what I think about the story. It’s a way for me to engage with culture, tap into a cultural understanding, and respond. In some way, I enter into the dialogue. I’m part of the conversation. And I like that aspect.

I read Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it rocked the book charts and Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins when it blasted the book and movie charts. But, for me, it all started with Harry Potter and The Sourcer’s Stone and then the  Twilight series. I’ve read authors who are outside my genre just because I’m interested in what makes them work. I’ve read Jonathan Maberry who writes horror/thrillers, Tana French who writes mystery, John Scalzi who writes science fiction and Scott Lynch and Neil Gaiman who writes fantasy. And I’ve loved something about each one of them.

Every one of those books expanded my thinking in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I could see what it was that drew the reader in and gripped them, creating the buzz that sold that book and probably the next and the next, because I felt it. I experienced it for myself. Plus, I’ve now become a die-hard fan of many of these writers.

The story may not have been one I’d have chosen naturally. It might not be my preferred reader fantasy, however, because I was willing to take the ride, I learned something new, something I would have been closed to otherwise. And I like that. As a writer, I want to understand the appeal--what makes this book a bestseller. And why readers love it so much. But more importantly, I want to understand why I like it and what about it moves me.

I’ve heard writers tell me again and again, “I’m too busy to read.” It makes me sad to hear this statement. Because when we’re too busy to read, we’re too busy to understand culture and to engage in what’s moving the people who stand next to us at the train station and who live next door to us. We’re too busy to stay connected and relevant with our own society. And when that happens, I think we become ineffective writers.

The beauty of popular fiction (which you are writing if you write romance, women’s fiction, mystery, thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, YA) is that it taps into popular culture. We can move the masses. We can enter into the discussion and become a voice for Everyman, we can connect people, and teach them. How very cool! All from writing novels and staying engaged.

Even last night when I visited the used book store, I was standing in the science fiction section looking for a China Miéville book when I heard three women who were searching for Ann Bishop books talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Who would have thought it could happen? Science fiction-fantasy readers talking about an erotic romance? The cross genre appeal of this book (trilogy) has been staggering.

And now, because I've read it, I know why.

First, let me say that at its heart, Fifty Shades (the book and the trilogy) is a romance. The story is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Period. In that respect, it’s romance. Yes, the sex gets hot and has crossed the line into erotica. It’s dark at times. And it’s not my preference in a fantasy. That being said, one of the main points the characters (and thus the author) make is that this book allows readers to safely explore their sensual limits. Bingo! That’s a huge appeal for readers.

Isn’t that what the whole reader experience is all about? We safely explore situations and worlds to find and possibly push our own limits--even our sensual limits, if we extrapolate the definition of sensual to include our five senses. It’s why we read. To feel. To sense. To understand what makes us human.

In romance, the journey is often about love--what makes us love that one particular person. In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey is a compelling character. I’d say his woundedness drives the book. We want to understand why he’s become the man he is and how Ana’s love is going to heal him. For me, that’s what drove the whole book and made me buy book two (and three).

So, whatever you’re writing--mystery, suspense, fantasy--find what it is that makes your book compelling. Is it the character like in Fifty Shades and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Or is it the world as in Scott Lynch's books? Or the mystery the reader and the main character need to solve as in Tana French's books? Or is it watching the fear of the unknown or the known develop in front of you as in suspense and horror novels like Maberry's Joe Ledger series? Whatever it is in your writing, find your compelling areas and ramp them up. Give us more. Your readers will love it.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that a reader’s response is complicated because as humans we’re complicated--we bring all of our life experiences to that story, whether it’s a book or movie. And, often, our life experience and preferences shape whether that particular story works for us, if it taps into our fantasy--the fantasy we want to explore in a safe way.

What compels me to read a book may be different than what compels Joe Q. Public. But when you find the common (or uncommon) experience, put it out there. See how your readers respond. You may find your book strikes a chord and lands at the top of the bestseller list to sit there week after week. Yeehaw! But if you never engage, if you never know what’s gone before you or what your peers are writing, you’ll never get there.

So, a few questions to ask yourself:

1.) Are you engaging in the culture by reading or going to the movies or watching television? Yes, it all counts! What medium other than books captures more attention? Movies/television.

2.) What kind of fantasy are you providing your readers?

3.) Do you know what fantasies a reader of your genre wants?

4.) What makes your story/writing compelling? Is it the character? The plot? The world?

5.) Do you give your reader the satisfying off-limits experience they want?

If you’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey, I’d love to hear about what you found compelling. Or, just comment on reader response--yours or what you find from those who read your stories. Let’s start the discussion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beauty Takes Work

My daughter looks so beautiful.  Hair brushed out and styled, wearing a pretty dress, perched on the piano bench she looks like a Victorian watercolor.  As her long, slender fingers move up and down the keyboard, I recall the hard work that went into perfecting her songs.  The hours of practice, learning each piece section by section.  Playing them over and over until she can do them without the music.  And, even farther back, to when she first began to identify the keys on the piano, decipher the notes on the sheet music and then match the keys to the written music.  Only the pianist and those close to her know how much work, time, frustration and joy has been poured into learning to play.

Writing is like that, too.  When I watch a novelist during a TV interview, dressed by a stylist, hair and make up applied just so, it all looks so easy and glamorous.  And if you don’t think men need make up on TV, check out the 1960 tape of Nixon debating Kennedy.  Just saying.

The author kicks back against the low-backed, neutral-colored sofa while the interviewer asks questions.  They chat about how they developed the characters, how long it took them to write the story and how it’s close to their heart.  The audience has an image of days spent in front of the keyboard in some beautiful setting, fashionably dressed, sipping their beverage of choice out of crystal stemware.

There might be people out there who write this way.  It’s just that I’ve never met one.  Most people I talk to put on their most comfy and usually their most hideous outfit.  I’ve often found that the stylishness of an outfit is inversely proportionate to its comfort.   They write when and where they can, pushing for word counts or pages, and trying to wring just a little bit more from themselves before they stop. 

Sometimes as I’m writing, I can’t stop thinking that this is the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever seen.  But I try to keep going anyway in the hopes that at least some of what I’m putting to paper will be worth keeping, especially after editing. 

Writing has glamorous moments, especially if you are published.  Mostly, though, its just hard work.  Work I like most days.  If I didn’t, there’s no way I would do it.  Sitting on the sofa watching TV in the evenings is easy.  But it doesn’t bring the satisfaction that writing does.

I watch my daughter take her final bow.  I see the satisfaction on her face derived from working hard at something, succeeding, and then sharing it with others.  That’s what writers do—we work hard, reach for success, and then share it with others. 

I’d love to hear how you interpret your own sheet of music.  Tell me about what has worked for you in the past with regards to getting your writing completed, revised and, if you have done so, published. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Decoding the Pick-Up Line

If my web research is any indication, the pick-up line has been around for eons. Primitive man with his protruding brow and lantern jaw was probably the first to utter: "Hey, Baby! Wanna take a ride my woolly mammoth!" My husband (52 and still cute) swears that pick-up lines are a Hollywood fabrication, but his perspective is skewed. In his single days, he didn't need a pick-up line, he needed a bat to keep the women at bay.
Not everyman is so lucky, hence the development of mate attracting strategies like brawny muscles, dimpled chins, dancing skills, muscle Tees and, yes, pick-up lines. It’s obvious to me that crafting and employing pick-up lines—however lame—are part of the male brain’s hardware, as inseparable as football and beer.  Let me share two examples that prove my point.

Example #1. On Friday, following eleven hours without food or coffee and some unpleasant lab work, I hightailed it over to Starbucks looking like hell and feeling as grumpy as Hades with hemorrhoids. While waiting to order, I tried to distract myself by watching a cherubic toddler with a mop of ringlets drive his mom nuts. Seeing where my attention was focused, the elderly gent behind me, sidled up, winked and quipped, "Hard to believe, but I had curly hair too." 
The man is bald. With liver spots. Eeuw! That was bad, but this was worse: his wife was standing with him and she immediately began to chant: "I see you flirting." It was an awkward moment and I wondered briefly if she was going to smack me with her cane and call me a harlot. Happily, I survived that experience, but it helped me understand how deeply ingrained that need to connect with a potential mate can be--even if one's mating days are over and even with a woman as dangerously grumpy and rumpled as myself (OK, so I looked a little fresher than his octogenarian wife). 

Example #2. Our family doesn't watch TV. We're woefully out of sync with popular culture. We're word nerds reading massive quantities of books each year. I write this to demonstrate that nature, not environment plays a key role in Example #2. My son turned eleven in February and with the passing of the year came signs heralding puberty: sudden modesty, feet the size of canoes, and, scariest of all, an interest in hygiene. This is a child who has never willingly brushed his teeth or combed his hair, now he is grooming. He is also practicing a move and pick-up line that has shaken me to my core. Seems he's channeling Nick the Lounge Lizard, a character created by Bill Murray that is hysterically funny when it's not your kid. The move goes like this: he cocks one hip out, gives two thumbs up, winks, makes a clicky sound with his tongue, and wraps the whole thing up with, "Hey Baby! Wha'tzup?"
Where did this come from? Other kids you suggest. Yeah, maybe, but I gotta tell you it looks pretty natural on him. I think it's his inner caveman swimming to the surface in a torrent of newly released testosterone. Let's face it: guys want to get their hands on all our girly goodies and pick-up lines are part of their tool kit.

Biological anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher would say it differently. "The sex drive evolved to motivate our ancestors to seek coitus with a range of appropriate partners. Attraction (and its developed human form, romantic love) evolved to motivate individuals to select among potential mates, prefer a particular individual, and focus courtship attention on this favored mating partner."

I like this Dr. Fisher gal. During my research, one of the most illuminating articles I read was Dating & Mating Rituals Decoded (click here) where a journalist and Dr. F. go out on the town and observe these rituals first hand. It sort of reminds me of a conversation Marlin Perkins and Jim Folwer might have held on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

"Lookee there Jim, the woman in pink has twisted in her seat and is using the classic broken wing tactic."

"Yes Marlin, you’re right. She’s sending the protect me message to the guy in the Prada sneakers. It’s guaranteed to catch a man’s attention every time. And, yep, look, he’s taking his café latte and moving to her table."

Dr. Fisher’s research breaks down the why of how we humans go about finding our perfect mate and for anyone writing romance, she seems like a pretty juicy resource. For instance, Fisher tells us that a very successful tactic to attract attention is the "tried-and-true five-part flirt." You catch someone’s eye, cock your head to the side, raise your eyebrows, look down, then away. Yeah, I seem to remember doing that a time or two.

The five-part-flirt is a technique commonly used by women. So what techniques do guys use? Secure, confident, kinda-man-you-take-home-to-Mom-n-Dad, guys might say, "Hey that’s a nice computer case. What brand is it?" But not all men are created equal, so here are some of the pick-uplines I gathered from friends, colleagues, and web research. My extremely scientific analysis suggests that as a tool, the pick-up line comes in seven flavors—like schnapps. I think we can decode these attempts to secure potentials mates thusly:

1. Complimentary - Mother said to allways compliment my date on her appearance.
  • Does heaven know it's missing an angel?
  • If I told you you have a beautiful body would you hold it against me? (Country music song by the Bellamy Brothers) 
2.  Sexy - Yeah, I’m hot, I’m sexy, you want me, and my head is so big I can barely get through the door. OR, I’m hot and sweaty looking at you and my inner wolf is howling at the moon.
  • "Wanna play a game? You can be Little Red Riding Hood and I’ll be the Big Bad Wolf." Jacob from Twilight 
  • You look like a princess from outer space. (Ellen Byerrum)
3. Humorous - I feel like such an ass; I better make her laugh or else she’ll gag.
  • "I hate being pawed."  "Maybe you've never been pawed properly." (Loretta Young and Lyle Talbot in She Had to Say Yes)
  • "That’s a nice dress. Where’s the rest of it?" (Andy Garcia to Nancy Travis, Internal Affairs)
  • Hey baby, what's your sign? Caution, slippery when wet, dangerous curves ahead, or yield?

4. Romantic - My inner wolf is howling at the moon and you've just swept me off my feet.
  • "I used to live like Robinson and Crusoe, shipwrecked among eight million people. But one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were."  (Jack Lemmon to Shirley Maclaine, The Apartment)
  • (Guy holding his phone.) "I just got a call from my future and it told me you are in it."(Robin Covington)
  • You're why cavemen chiseled on walls (Jack Nicholson, As Good As it Gets)
  • "Rhett, don't. I shall faint." "I want you to faint. This is what you were meant for. None of the fools you've ever known have kissed you like this, have they? (Clarke Gable to Vivian Leigh, Gone With The Wind)
5. Lame- I think I'm sexy but it's a mirage.
  • I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I bet I can make your Bed Rock.
  •  Guy: "Haven't I seen you someplace before?" Girl: "Yes, that's why I don't go there anymore"
  • "Do you wash your pants in Windex? Because I can see myself in them." (Austin Powers)
  • If you were a new hamburger at McDonald's, you would be McGorgeous.
 6. Revolting - This needs no decoding.
  • Do you want to dance? No? Well, I guess a screwing is out of the question?
  • Gee, I’d like to take a bite out of your eyebrow. (Keely Thrall)
  •  "Suck me, beautiful." (Chris Klein to Tara Subkoff, American Pie)
  7. Too-gross-to-print - Let's not go there.

Got a line to share? Click comment and hit me with your best shot!