Archive for March, 2010

Some years back I took my daughter to a bookstore for an appearance by Ann Brashares, who was at the time promoting the third in her four-book Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.  Ann read an excerpt, and spoke a bit, and answered questions from the overflow audience.  And two things in particular have stayed with me from that Q & A:

1)  How sincerely interested she was in the opinions of the teen & tween girls who’d shown up to hear her.  “What do you guys think of the cover? Is the color okay?” she asked in the same way you might ask your best friend about a shirt you’re trying on in a department-store dressing room.  (This has nothing to do with the rest of today’s post, but I’ve remembered it vividly.)

2) What she said about writing the character of Bridget, the soccer jock.  Ann herself was not at all athletic, and so Bridget was her chance to sort of try on that life; to think about how a supremely confident athlete’s mind would work; to educate herself in the things Bridget would know about soccer, etc.

This is on my mind today because I’m struggling with writing a heroine whose brain readily grasps things that confound me.  Lydia is a gambler who possesses, as she describes it, “a certain facility with numbers and an excellent memory for what I’ve seen.”  People like that fascinate me, all the more because I’m not one of them.  Writing Lydia gives me a chance to try on a numberish brain at the same time I’m trying on life for a woman in the early 19th century, which is an irresistible double challenge.

But it’s also hard, hard work.  I’ve spent the morning taxing my poor non-numberish brain over Charles Babbage’s An Examination of some Questions connected with Games of Chance.  (Published in 1820, so Lydia couldn’t have read it, but it does give an idea of what a mathematically gifted person with an interest in gambling might have come up with around that time.)

I make it through page 1 okay.  Martingale betting; yup, I know about martingale betting.  I’m with him through most of page 2, when he introduces variables of p and q to represent number of hands (or coin-tosses, or whatever) won and lost.

But at the bottom of the page he assigns the value of 2u to the gambler’s bet.  And there’s got to be a reason for the 2, right?  Otherwise he would just call it u.  However he offers no explanation for the 2.  So I’m troubled.  But I’m forging ahead.

And then comes this:  we may represent the gamester’s profit after one event is decided by 2u(-1)a, a being any whole number; for since the nature of the number a is left undecided, whether it is an even or an odd one, the expression just given will represent either a profit or a loss.

Okay, but where does a come from?  What does it represent?  Dammit, Lydia would know this on first reading.

Seven lines later he’s brought in a cosine.  Okay, I can see that the cosine is optional.  But it’s still deeply troubling.  Then come thirteen lines of plain old text, and I’m actually following along for a bit.  But suddenly he’s referring to a b and a c in addition to the a, and a peek ahead shows grim pages of successively longer and more recondite equations, and I am feeling like a cartoon character with my fingernails dug into the side of a cliff, sliding inexorably down.  What on earth possessed me to write a character who was good at math?

Well.  One thing that possessed me, undoubtedly, is that I do have a numberish brain in the family.  My brother has by now grown used to receiving e-mails with requests like “Please review these rules for a 19th-century version of blackjack and tell me how strategy would differ from modern blackjack strategy” and sending replies like “Well, the obvious big difference is you get to see your first card before determining your wager.”

(Right.  Obvious.  Totally obvious.)

So, off goes Babbage and his Examination, hopefully to be translated into understandable terms.  And next time, I swear, I will write a heroine who’s a spelling prodigy or something.

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Among my non-romance-reading family, I have the highest hopes for my sister-in-law.  She’s a sharp, poised, thoroughly modern woman who I believe might actually be able to get through my book without going, “Oh, my God, there’s sex in here!  And my sister-in-law wrote it!”

And indeed, she’s been the first in my family, since I announced I’d sold a book, to take it upon herself to read a romance novel and see what they’re all about.  Systematic person that she is, she went to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (through odd coincidence, it turns out my brother – her husband – is slightly acquainted with SB Candy) to look for a recommendation, and settled on Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me.

“It was okay,” was her assessment when I spoke to her the other week.  “It was funny and all.  But the ending was just so predictable.”

And I laughed, and told her if she was looking for unpredictability, she’d better look in some other genre.

But I’ve thought a lot, since that offhand exchange, about this whole question of predictability.  My SiL isn’t the only one who uses “predictable” as a pejorative.  I have a friend I go to movies with who’s always guessing the ending, or predicting plot revelations before they happen, and then thinking less of the movie because of it.  And of course, “predictable” is used in a derogatory way in book reviews all the time.  Readers, by and large, want to see something they haven’t seen.  Readers want to be surprised.

And I… don’t, necessarily.

I’ve got nothing against a good plot twist.  The bombshell that goes off a couple chapters into Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady floored me in the best possible way.  But I also get a deep, delicious satisfaction from that moment, very early in the average hero & heroine’s acquaintance, when I can think, “Boy, do these two need each other, and they don’t even see it at all! But they will.”

There’s a pleasure in inevitability, isn’t there?  And I don’t mean the comfort of an escapist happy ending, partly because I reject the idea that happy endings are necessarily escapist, and partly because even uncomfortable inevitability carries a certain satisfaction.  When I saw the movie Up in the Air (skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled), I suspected from about the halfway point that Alex must be married.  Seeing my suspicion confirmed didn’t compromise my enjoyment of the movie at all.  It gave an extra weight of rightness to the ending:  Yes, this is the only way this could have ended.

I’d be curious to know whether impatience with predictability is a recent phenomenon.  People enjoyed the Greek tragedies, even though they must have known, going in, more or less how it would end for Oedipus.  Surely part of the enjoyment of watching Macbeth is that sense that he’s stepped on a conveyor belt of doom, drawing him closer and closer to his inevitable end.

Even as recently as the heyday of Rodgers and Hammerstein, audiences embraced Oklahoma! (not a second of real doubt that Curly and Laurey would have their HEA) and The Sound of Music (of course Maria was going to win over the children, capture the Captain’s heart, and escape from the Nazis) right alongside Carousel (Billy Bigelow dies!) and The King and I (the king dies and there isn’t even a romance!).

So I’m curious:  when did we make the decision that unpredictability > predictability?  And does anyone besides me still like both?

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My editor has given the thumbs-up to my proposal (3 chapters + synopsis) for the second book of my two-book deal.

I aspire to one day be more blase in reading her e-mails.  I always have to do deliberate deep breathing when opening one, for fear of… what, exactly?  That this will be the e-mail in which she’s suddenly come to her senses and realized I really can’t write?

I aspire to greater confidence.  I aspire to a thicker skin.  I aspire to a steady core sense of my writing’s merit, rather than thinking I’m great when I win a contest, and feeling like a talentless fraud when someone points out a flaw.

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My mom, I have no doubt, wishes I’d decided to write something other than romance.  She understands what an accomplishment it is to get published in any genre, and she is genuinely proud of me, but at the same time I know there’s some part of her thinking, “This is why we paid for that fancy liberal-arts education?”  It’s been awhile now since she asked me what happened to my onetime plan to write YA, but I know she’s still holding out hope that I might cross over into some respectable genre.

But she knew I had a big deadline yesterday (3 chapters + synopsis of new book to my editor), and so she stopped by with a store-bought roast chicken that I could reheat so I wouldn’t have to take time to cook dinner.

And I was so touched.  To be supported by fellow romance writers, or friends who think romance is awesome, is one thing.  But this gesture, with its subtext of “I don’t quite get what you’re doing, but I know it’s important to you, and so that makes it important to me,” makes me… just so grateful for the family into which I was born.

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