Unfavorite Tropes, Part 2

3. Babies Ever After, or Babies Make Everything Better.

True Confession: when God was handing out maternal instinct, I must have been taking a bathroom break. In my earliest childhood I had fun playing with chubby-faced cherub dolls that sighed and cried and spoke. I enjoyed giving them names and personalities. Yet sometime in my late teens I came to realize I was imagining fictional characters, not future children. The idea of a living child dependent on me for health and safety and moral guidance struck me then, as it strikes me now, as more than faintly terrifying, a responsibility for which I am not cut out.

This does not make me a bad person, shirking my duty to the human race. Yet neither does it make me a good person, a freer and more enlightened feminist than my friends and relatives with children. In an excellent blog posted on Fantasy Cafe, Michelle Sagara explains why she finds it difficult to write romance: her daydreams have always revolved around being a superhero, not a girlfriend/wife, but she does not view herself as somehow superior because of this. Likewise, while I’ve always had my share of dreams about romance and marriage, I have never really daydreamed about motherhood. That’s why the Babies Ever After trope would be difficult for me to write. It does not spring from any generalized dislike of motherhood or children.

Children I can write about. When I finished Atterwald I was pleased to see that Ricarda’s youngsters, Hulbert and Adelyte, turned out as well as they did. They’re smart and energetic and observant, the sort of children I would enjoy being around. Yet while my heroine, Nichtel, plays with them and bonds with them, her affection for them does not segue naturally into a desire for children of her own. She never thinks explicitly that she does not want children, as does the heroine of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Readers who want to imagine her as a happy mother a few years down the road might do so easily enough. Daydreams of motherhood simply don’t come up in the timespan covered by the novel. I can’t stress enough that its absence is not meant as a political statement. It’s simply a sign of the limits of my own imagination.

My response to the Babies Ever After trope as a reader is a bit more complicated. Some of my very favorite characters in literature are children: young Jane Eyre, telling off her cruel aunt and standing up for her best friend at school; young Anne Shirley, letting her capacious imagination lead her into all kinds of mischief; young Jo March, galloping through the world, a hotheaded daydreamer; Scout Finch, questioning the people and events around her and taking no guff from anyone; and Harry Potter and his friends, repeatedly saving their world with only minor assistance from adults. There’s nothing anti-child about my reading. But is there something anti-motherhood? How many mother’s stories do I find compelling?

My problem, I realize, isn’t with the “Babies” part of the trope as much as with the “Ever After” part, the idea that motherhood signals the end of the adventure, and the part of the personality that took interest and action in the world beyond the back yard either goes to sleep or ceases to exist altogether. There are “mother stories” I enjoy, the ones that show a mom can take action in the wider world while still being a loving, caring mom. Holly Lisle’s Arhel Trilogy is worthy of note. In the last two volumes, Bones of the Past and Mind of the Magic, heroine Faia fights the forces of evil and saves her friends and all her people, all while being the single mother of a very precocious toddler. Patricia C. Wrede’s Caught in Crystal features a more mature single mother, Kayl, with two children, one teen and one preteen. Kayl had wanted to leave adventuring behind but gets swept back into danger. Her youngsters take part in the new adventure and get to witness their mother being a first-class badass.

I may not be maternal, but I don’t expect other women to be like me, and indeed I’m glad for all the women who are not like me. These are the women who write stories about mothers that I can enjoy, the ones who understand through experience that motherhood doesn’t have to be the End of the Story.

4. Ordinary High School Student

My response to this trope isn’t very complicated at all. I’ve been through the American high school, and it’s not a place I’m eager to revisit. I may have been interested in American-high-school stories back when I was there, back when John Hughes was directing movies like The Breakfast Club. But now, as a fortysomething adult, I find a contemporary American high school setting has no appeal for me at all. I may relish a well-written YA fantasy, but only if high-school angst is left out of the plot, or at least kept to a bare minimum. The only modern-day school I want to read about is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, because 1) it’s magical, and 2) it’s British.

Yet my main objection to the trope is the word “ordinary,” at least as many writers seem to define it. All too often, “ordinary” is simply code for “has no hobbies, interests, or ambitions before the Call to Adventure comes along”; the Ordinary High School Student is a blank slate awaiting definition through adventure (usually if a boy) or romance (usually if a girl). I don’t see how anyone with any kind of inner life can fit this concept of “ordinary.” I would much rather see a young protagonist with interests and ambitions and maybe an actual skill or two, confronted with a situation that could change his/her picture of the future. These “ordinary” blank-slate types, after all, don’t seem to have much to lose.

Interested people are more interesting people, whatever their age.

Coming Soon: Part 3

Winnie Dog at the Georgia Renaissance Festival

Hello, everybody.  This is Matt, Nan’s husband.  While Nan is hard at work on her latest writings, I thought I’d share Nan’s latest YouTube video!

As you may know, we have two pets that we call “four-legged children.”  Most businesses tend to not approve of us bringing our furry animals into their establishments.  But, every now and then, pets are allowed to accompany their humans for a day of fun.  One such event, the Georgia Renaissance Festival, allows humans to bring their dogs and cats (and, this year, pot-bellied pigs) on “Pet-Friendly Weekend.”  Last weekend was such a “pet-friendly” weekend.  So, naturally, we took advantage of the situation by bringing our cavachin Winnie with us.

This isn’t Winnie’s first visit to GARF.  We brought her last year and she had a great time.  We saw lots of performers at the festival, including Barely Balanced and the Tortuga Twins.  Even Hey Nunnie Nunnie, everyone’s favorite singing nuns, gave Winnie a blessing.  But the true highlight of last year’s trip to GARF was seeing Winnie react to my eating of a turkey leg.

Long considered a standard of Ren Fair food, the turkey leg has given me much culinary delight since I started attending GARF in 1997.  But last year, the experience was enjoyed even more by Winnie Dog.  Her tail started to wag, her eyes popped out of their sockets, and she got up on her hind legs begging for something, anything, from that bone with all that meat on it.  (She did get some pieces that fell on the ground.  But we cannot confirm if any of those pieces even reached the ground!)

This year, we decided to see if we could replicate the experience.  Alas, while Winnie didn’t go into raging begging, she did manage to keep her attention on that turkey leg and wonder why more of it wasn’t falling on the ground, or why her Daddy didn’t share even more of the succulent treat that is the GARF turkey leg.

Recorded on April 26, 2015, at the Georgia Renaissance Festival, here’s Winnie “BoogerBean” Ceccato watching with rapt attention…

So, do we need to bring Winnie back next year?  Let us know in the comments!  And thanks for reading!

Teaser for “Neighbor Haint”

“Hope Caudle wore a black wool gown in mourning for herself.

She’d died when she was twelve, that dreadful year the smallpox had cast its cold, vicious shadow over Cupid’s Bow. That community was too small for any death to go unremarked, particularly that of a raven-haired, dark-eyed beauty whose gift for singing and guitar-playing had brightened many a local occasion. But that year her death was merely one of many, and the town had its hands so full of battling the relentless disease that no one noticed her body never made it to the churchyard. Her mother and sisters laid her to rest in their back yard, a private ceremony in the dark of night. They’d mumbled solemn words over a mound of fresh-turned earth, their heads hanging and their hands crossed over their hearts, as was proper.

Seven years later the mound was covered with grass, with no wooden cross or symbol to mark it. No one but the mother and sisters knew the grave was there, and they never spoke of it, or of Hope, to any of their neighbors, as if they meant her to disappear from the townsfolk’s minds as she had disappeared from the earth. But one reminder lingered, wandering the house in her plain, coarse gown, putting her hand to any chore her golden lily sisters didn’t care to do — which meant anything involving mop, broom, scrubbing brush, or cooking pot. Hard work was all the ghost was good for, with her face so repulsively scarred. Everyone had been so sure Hope Caudle would grow into the town’s most beautiful woman.”

These are the opening paragraphs from “Neighbor Haint,” my short story published in Gilded Dragonfly Books‘ newest anthology, Finding Love’s Magic. Care to see the rest of it? The collection is now available on Kindle through Amazon.com for the sale price of $2.99, for one day only, Friday, May 24, 2015.

New Kindle Buy!

Finding Love’s Magic is available on Kindle at Amazon.com! Gilded Dragonfly Books is encouraging all interested readers to purchase their Kindle copy on Friday, 4/24/2015. I know I’ll be purchasing mine! Take a trip to Cupid’s Bow, a small town quite close to Savannah, Georgia’s most romantic city, and see what surprises love has in store.

One of the things I enjoy most about reading and writing for the GDB anthologies is the strong note of optimism that pervades them. The stories are warm and sweet without being cloying, rich in sentiment and sympathy without lapsing into sentimentality and bathos. I point to my contributions for Haunting Tales of Spirit Lake and A Stone Mountain Christmas with a great deal of pride. Finding Love’s Magic promises to be the sweetest of all of them, and I take special pride in “Neighbor Haint.”

Unfavorite Tropes, Part 1

Fiction enthusiasts, beware: TV Tropes.org will lure you in and hold you with its vast catalog of tropes and its numerous examples of each. The homepage takes care to make clear the distinction between a trope and a cliche. While cliches are hackneyed repetitions, evidence of a faltering imagination, tropes are patterns, and the site sheds light on the infinite number of forms these patterns might take. It’s a dangerous site for anyone interested in the power of Story. It will take up hours of your life. Trust me. I know.

TV Tropes is as useful as Goodreads in pointing me toward books I might want to read, and conversely, pointing me away from those I might (for now) wish to avoid. It also gets me thinking about how different tropes may turn up in my work as a writer. I benefit from being aware of them, since I don’t want certain ones to work their way into my stories unconsciously.

I’ve been building a short list of tropes I’m inclined to shun, as reader or writer or both — unless, of course, they should prove an inseparable part of a story that demands to be told. (The mind should always be open to exceptions, after all.) Before I begin, I should make clear that the presence or absence of such tropes does not indicate whether a story is, in general, worth reading. Many excellent stories have employed my unfavorite tropes, and by no means do I suggest my readers should automatically avoid them.

1. The Smurfette Principle

This trope is most often found in action-adventure, thriller, science fiction, and fantasy. In its most common form, it’s the inclusion of just one sympathetic female character in a cast dominated by men. If you think this sort of thing is found only in testosterone-driven stories with male protagonists, you’d be wrong. Plenty of female authors surround their female protagonists entirely with male characters. Much is made of the position of Elena in Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten as the only female werewolf in her pack and indeed, in the world. Since she interacts almost exclusively with her pack, she doesn’t have much of a chance to exchange words with another female character. In Patricia Briggs’ Masques, heroine Aralorn exchanges (very few) words with exactly one female character in the novel’s entirety — a child who subsequently disappears from the narrative. Why Armstrong, Briggs, and other female writers seem so keen on isolating their heroines from all other women is best known only to them, but this isolation is a sticking point for me.

A sub-type of the Smurfette Principle might be called “Exceptional Woman Syndrome,” in which other female characters do appear, but only as two-dimensional contrasts designed to highlight the heroine’s awesomeness. In Gail Carriger’s entertaining historical fantasy Soulless, for example, we have the smart, unconventional protagonist, Alexia, and them we have her shallow, stupid, cringingly conventional mother, stepsisters, and “best friend.” The mother and stepsisters are blatantly unsympathetic, but why such a smart woman as Alexia would choose to spend time in the company of a drooling moron like Ivy Hisselpenny is perhaps the story’s greatest mystery (along with why Alexia’s father would have been attracted to her mother in the first place). The absence of anything like mutual respect from this “friendship” actually makes Alexia a little less sympathetic than she might be. Perhaps this was Carriger’s intention? The heroine is supposed to be soulless, after all…

I find the Smurfette Principle bothersome for two main reasons. First, the only woman in the cast, the sole representative of her gender, is often loaded down with so much of what the writer might term “strength” that she doesn’t get the chance to be interesting or complicated; she’s less a believable person than a collection of PC traits. A fine blog with an attention-getting title, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” points out this problem.

Second, having a heroine interact primarily or exclusively with men furthers the anti-feminist notion that only men truly matter in a woman’s life. Nearly all relationships are drawn as potential romances, unless the male character is significantly older than the female lead (and even then it’s often not much of a stumbling block). No matter how strong she supposedly is, she lives for love/sex or she doesn’t live at all. Universal heterosexuality is also implied here.

Surely a woman’s life can be wide and complex enough to hold room for all kinds of relationships, and surely some of those relationships can be with other women. In Atterwald, my heroine Nichtel first learns about love from her foster-mother, Ricarda, a capable heroine in her own right. Even though they’re apart for many pages, Nichtel’s relationship with Ricarda is a significant force in her life throughout. In all the novels I have planned for the foreseeable future, I intend to have at least one female character matter to the heroine, and to free the heroine from the need to carry the Burden of Awesome on her shoulders alone.

2. Cast Full of Pretty Boys

I define this as the phenomenon of a book, movie, or TV show gaining a huge female fanbase even though its female characters are few, underdeveloped and/or unsympathetic, because hey! Hot guys! A review I read once on Goodreads encapsulates the problem I have with this phenomenon. The female reviewer questioned the introduction of a girl character in the second book of a boys’ adventure series, when the first book had no female characters at all. Was the girl added so girls would read the book? Then it was pointless, the reviewer said, because “girls want to read about guys.”

This strikes me as sad, not because I can’t see any value in any book with an all-male cast — hey, I loved The Hobbit, though I admit I still like to imagine Bilbo and at least one of the dwarves as female — but because I find it a regrettable commentary on the way girls are written in a lot of middle-grade and young-adult fiction. As I noted in a previous blog, too many writers peg adventure stories as “for boys,” while love stories are “for girls.” Young female readers with a taste for adventure probably do “want to read about guys.” If girls in action-driven stories were better written, and served more of a purpose in the plot, then those readers might enjoy reading about girls as well.

For my own part, I’ve lost my taste for stories where girls and women are left out of the adventure, no matter how hot the guys are, unless there is a sound reason for leaving them out — for instance, a historical military setting. Of course I enjoy reading and watching a hot guy in action, but only if there is a capable, courageous, and root-worthy gal working alongside him. I try to imagine myself writing a story in which women linger in the background (if they’re there at all) while a cast of exceptionally attractive men dominates the scene, and my imagination won’t reach that far. Since as a reader I have no interest in those stories, why would I write them?

Coming Soon: Part II

My Cinderella Is Alive and Well

I come to my blog page today with happy news: a new short story publication! Gilded Dragonfly Books‘ anthology of romantic tales Finding Love’s Magic, set in the fictional small town of Cupid’s Bow, near Savannah, GA, is now available for purchase. Included is my story “Neighbor Haint,” which I adapted from my first ever play for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, “The House Across the Way.”

I mentioned in my earlier blog “Fairy Tales and Me” that “The House Across the Way” is my take on the Cinderella myth. You know the one — persecuted heroine breaks free of her abusive situation thanks to the appropriate application of magic and the love of a man a few rungs above her on the social ladder. Not long after I posted that blog, I got the commission to write a story for Finding Love’s Magic, and since “Nothing-at-All” and “Christmas Rose” had done well when adapted to prose, I set about transforming “The House Across the Way” into “Neighbor Haint.” In doing so, I revisited the Cinderella myth. There’s something about Cinderella that keeps us coming back, even if we suspect she may not be good for us.

We go back a long way, Cinderella and I. As a child I loved the 1950 Disney animated feature and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and I even loved The Slipper and the Rose, the live-action musical with songs by the Sherman Brothers and with Richard Chamberlain (an early crush of mine) as the Prince. But it wasn’t until I was in graduate school at Auburn University and began to work on my dissertation that I really examined the story at close range. I chose to write about fairy-tale patterns in Victorian fiction, and my first chapter concerned three versions of the Cinderella story: Charles Perrault’s iconic “Cinderella” (Cendrillon), the Grimms’ “Aschenputtel,” and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

The Perrault story is the source for most film and stage adaptations, but I found that to my grown-up mind, it suffered by comparison with the Grimms’ version. Perrault’s story is all shiny slippers and beautiful gowns, while the Grimms go to dark places, with a heroine in mourning for her lost mother and two villainesses mutilating their feet to make them fit the golden shoe. But what struck me most was the difference in the heroine herself. In Perrault, that cute-as-a-button fairy godmother is the source of all the story’s magic, and she dresses Cinderella like a doll, with Cinderella herself contributing very little. Grimm’s Aschenputtel, however, engineers her own transformation from drudge to incognito princess, thanks to her spiritual connection with the spirit of her lost mother, embodied by the tree Aschenputtel planted on her grave. Perrault’s Cinderella has to leave the ball or risk being exposed as a commoner, while Grimm’s Aschenputtel chooses to leave. Aschenputtel is much more in control of her own fate. True, the ending is the same: rescue comes in the form of marriage to a prince. It’s tempting to judge the story harshly on these grounds alone, but to do so would be to forget that Aschenputtel is not a modern-day heroine with an abundance of choices open to her. She does her best with the options she has, and that may be why her story has such lasting appeal.

Most of today’s writers who take on the Cinderella myth like to play with it, to reshape it so that it falls more into line with contemporary ideas of what a heroine should be. This malleability is part of fairy tales’ staying power, and “sticking with the script” is not necessarily a virtue. The 2015 Kenneth Branagh film, though generally well reviewed, came in for some criticism because he chose to tell the story straight, in a faithful adaptation of the 1950 film, rather than looking for ways to tweak and twist. I have to admit I’m not in a rush to see the film, though I may catch it on Netflix. “Have courage and be kind,” the advice Cinderella receives from her dying mother (interestingly, this comes more from Grimm than from Perrault), is sound, but I wish some room could have been found for “Be clever.”

I may still value the fairy tale and even have a soft spot the classic Disney film (in which the heroine does have a personality, even a touch of humor), but the retellings I favor these days don’t play the story straight. I prefer the movie Ever After, in which the tough, bookish Cinderella rescues the Prince from a gang of thieves by hoisting him onto her shoulders; Marissa Meyer’s YA science fiction novel Cinder, in which Cinderella is a cyborg mechanic; and Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, in which Ella’s inability to disobey her heartless family is the result of a stupid fairy’s “gift.” I’m also fond of the Native American version of Cinderella, in which truthfulness and insight, rather than beauty, lead to the heroine’s deliverance. In looking at our various Cinderellas, we should consider how and why they are rewarded. Need it be all about passive patience and gorgeous clothes?

“Neighbor Haint” is set in the mid-1800s. My Cinderella figure, Hope Caudle, is a smallpox survivor, but her vain mother, deeply ashamed of the girl’s scarred face, pretends before the community that Hope died of the disease. In true Cinderella fashion, Hope is used as a drudge by her mother and lazy sisters. She doesn’t try to escape, as she’s convinced her ravaged face will earn her the loathing of anyone she might meet in the outside world. But she manages to use two of her chores, cooking and quilting, as channels for self-expression. She keeps her imagination sharp as she seizes upon her few opportunities to read and watches, from her window, the house across the street (hence the title of the ARTC play). No magic comes to her aid. She doesn’t transform. Instead, her compassion for the son of the house, in the aftermath of his father’s death, may offer her the key to escape her prison.

I’m proud of my own contribution to Cinderella mythology, and I hope you will enjoy it.

From My Bookshelf: Musical Heroines

In my adolescence, I made two huge back-to-back mistakes. When I was twelve, I quit the piano, and when I was fifteen, I gave up the flute. At the time I could come up with ample reasons for both, but I will never fail to feel a pang of regret at what those decisions cost me. I can sing, and thus give voice to other people’s music. But when I gave up my instruments, I lost the means to find my own tunes.

That’s a big part of why I’m moved to write stories about heroines who are gifted musical instrumentalists. When I read the Russian folktale “The Tsaritsa Harpist,” I seized the chance to turn it into the ARTC play “Sarabande for a Condemned Man,” which I’m now in the admittedly slow process of turning into a novel. In Atterwald,  Nichtel can weave magical visions through the music of her violin. In my prospective follow-up The Nightmare Lullaby, Meliroc discovers vital truths about the nature of life and love as she composes melodies on a xylophone-like graft from a magical carillon. Music and magic are strongly linked, as music taps into the listener’s soul in a way no other art form can quite manage.

I’m far from the only writer who has discovered this. I’m stepping in the large footprints of some very gifted story-smiths. Here are some of my favorite books which feature musical heroines:

1. Elizabeth Haydon, The Symphony of the Ages series: Rhapsody, Prophecy, Destiny

In a sequence from Prophecy, heroine Rhapsody seeks martial training from a warrior mentor, Oelendra. This mentor seizes Rhapsody’s lute and throws it on the fire, calling it a “distraction” from the vital work of learning swordplay. Neither exploding in rage nor letting her get away with it, Rhapsody explains in clear terms why music is essential to her being, her weapon of choice. For one of the few times in the fantasy genre, the master apologizes to her pupil. The series has its flaws, but this scene will always be special to me. (Fortunately the lute is not Rhapsody’s only instrument.)

2. Anne McCaffrey, The Harper Hall of Pern series: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums

Intense, gifted, and regrettably unloved, young Menolly finds her only joy in music. After a time of struggle, her talent leads her to a new home where she can thrive and to a far better family than the one she was born into. Menolly is a gifted composer as well as instrumentalist, and McCaffrey provides us with plenty of examples of the lyrics she writes.

3. Allison Croggon, The Books of Pellinor series: The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow, The Singing

Young Maerad’s musical talent is merely the first sign of her immense power. Here, magical music is a means to heal the world, and despite obstacles the reader might think insurmountable, Maerad finds a way to make it.

4. Emma Bull, The War for the Oaks

This is one of the few works of contemporary fantasy that I actually enjoy, and for me its biggest selling point is its heroine, the unstoppable rock musician Eddi McCandry. Not a glitzy, overproduced puppet of image consultants, Eddi plays the guitar and composes her own songs. Her musical gifts prove crucial when she must take a stand against malevolent elves.

5. Rachel Hartman, Seraphina and Shadow Scale

A half-dragon caught in the middle as tensions between humans and shape-shifting dragons escalate in her home kingdom of Goredd, court musician Seraphina has her hands full. Yet even with the fate of two races riding on her shoulders, she still manages to find time to exercise her musical gifts. Like Menolly and Eddi, she is a composer, and in one beautiful sequence from Seraphina, she uses music to clear her vision and put her confused heart in order. (These two books may be the best pieces of YA fantasy fiction written this decade, for more reasons than this. Highly, highly recommended.)

6. Michelle West, The Broken Crown

This is only the first volume of The Sun Sword, a sprawling epic fantasy with a huge cast of characters, but in this one, the musical abilities of Diora, one of several heroines, are among the focus points. Diora lives in a country where women are denied any overt form of social or political power. Her magnificent voice and her skills as a harper are her only means of creative expression and self-assertion. Over the course of the novel, she slowly but surely comes to understand the power she can wield. I look forward to seeing where it takes her as the series goes on.