Project Dog, or Maybe You’d Rather Envision this Hero as a Dog

(Not a literal dog, of course).

 This says, "Dog," to me.

This just says, “Dog,” to me *

So once upon a time, I used to do a big corporate training thing for large groups of adults. And since the training involved a lot of motivation and teamwork, which rely heavily on communication, I liked to start off with an exercise called, “Project Dog.”

It’s a pretty simple assignment (and I have no idea who invented it…I stole it from another trainer, who’d stolen it from somebody else). You tell everybody to take a minute or so and write down, without consulting another, what they see in their mind’s eye when they hear the word, “dog.” They can add an illustration if they have time/talent. Then everybody gets in groups and shares their mental construct–their baseline–for “dog.” The (fairly obvious) point is that you don’t have any repeats, no matter how large the group. Everybody has his or her own unique take on the concept of “dog,” so if you extrapolate that diversity to more inherently abstract concepts like “teamwork” or “values” or anything like that, just imagine how complicated things can get. The goal is to show the participants how significant communication is, how we have to make sure everybody’s proceeding from the same definitions, and how important it is that we don’t make assumptions about one another’s baselines…and other management-related stuff like that. A Beagle is not a Chihuahua is not a German Shepherd, and it’s important to know that when you’re embarking on a project with a bunch of Poodles and Golden Retrievers. Ah, “real” jobs. Good times, good times.

 But maybe YOUR dog looks like this.

But maybe YOUR dog looks like this.

It never occurred to me that this would have any bearing on my current career of writing the hot smut, but apparently it does, because the other day I came across a book review that complained about the main characters’ unrealistic hotness. And while one of the characters was supposed to be pretty hot (the hero, anomolously hot, and described as such) the other wasn’t really described in much detail beyond general shape, hair and eye color, and height relative to the hero. And yeah, full disclosure, I knew the heroine wasn’t meant to be particularly smokin’ hot…because I wrote the book. So to see this character described as essentially too hot to allow for suspension of disbelief was startling, and got me to thinking [note: I don’t normally read reviews of my books, nor do I mean to suggest this review was in any way “wrong” or undeserved. It was one person’s assessment, and the way they envision the characters is perfectly valid, a point I’ll discuss more in a bit].

Just what is it I see when I’m writing a character? It depends. Usually I don’t start out with a specific idea at all. Occasionally something will pop into my head, a general impression about how the main characters’ bodies fit together, a vague idea about coloring, that sort of thing. I know I’ll be asked to describe these characters at some point for cover art worksheets, so once I feel like the book is going to be an actual thing I’m going to write, I start a new file and title it, “Casting Couch”. Then  I go on the internet and look at photos, scour various lists on IMDB, browse tumblr, and “cast” my characters. I save the photos in the file as a shortcut for myself, so I have reference material when the dreaded cover art worksheet comes due. Every once in awhile I’ll cast a character so well, I’ll keep the actor in mind during edits and maybe add a few details relating to that appearance.

In general, though, I like to keep it vague. I like to give readers the broad strokes and let them fill in the details themselves. But if they make assumptions about the way characters look, and it impacts their reading of the novel in a negative way, then I may not have done enough as a writer to create the character I wanted readers to see. If the characters start out as blank slates to readers, and I want them to have certain characteristics, it’s up to me to put those characteristics in. That’s been my own assumption in the past, at least, because both as a writer and as a reader my own images of characters are usually nebulous at best. When reading, in fact, I usually don’t conjure any specific images of the hero or heroine until very late in a book, if at all.

 Your dog might look like this. And that is okay. We don't really choose what our dogs look like.

Your dog might look like this. And that is okay. We don’t really choose what our dogs look like.

The danger of thinking you know what “dog” means, of course, is that absent evidence to the contrary, you tend to think everybody else has more or less the same definition of “dog.” But, as the exercise points out, that is clearly not the case. I had always assumed “hero” meant a formless, faceless dude who might or might not ever resolve into any particular shape…that everyone started reading with a blank slate and would assume dead-average (or nothing at all) unless told otherwise. That review told me otherwise. I already knew that in the abstract, just as I know that everybody’s take on a book is unique and uniquely valid. But I felt it was something I needed to think about more, as a writer particularly. So I decided to ask around about it on Twitter, to do a more salient version of Project Dog, to find out what people’s assumptions really were when they started a book. What their baseline was. I asked:

  • So tell me your #romanceassumptions about characters’ looks. If not otherwise described do you assume…average? hot? what?

(This was obviously super scientific).

I received a lot of answers; it prompted some great discussions with readers and writers alike. I won’t list every single one, but here is a range of them, sorted along a loose continuum from less specific to more specific (sorta). I’m not naming names, because many of the answers came from other writers but I really don’t want to differentiate them from any other reader in this context. I didn’t see any particular writerly trend in answers.

  • My mind says average. I assume the author meant screaming hot, though./ There seems to be a perception that people want to read about gorgeous people. Personally, I like the average ones.
  • I figure somewhere between the two I guess.  Build a pic in my head. Attractiveness is very subjective.
  • I think I pictured them more when I was younger. Does that make sense?
  • I rarely have a good picture of characters in my mind. It’s mostly a jumble of parts. But I assume they’re averagely beautiful.
  • I picture them as someone I would be attracted to.
  • I picture characters as neighbor-hot, or barista-hot…like, attainable attractive? Unless otherwise instructed… // [another person responded] seconded, because the “very very perfect hot” weirds me out. I want there to be some sort of flaw.
  • Like normal level attractive. Someone I might have seen on a daily basis perhaps. Unless he’s described “OMG TEH HOTTEST EVAH”.
  • I tend to picture them as highly attractive for normal people (not movie star hot) but hot neighbor hot.
  • I prefer to imagine that all the heroes I read are smokin’. Only visualize them as meh if the author tells me to.
  • Usually at least movie-star levels of attractiveness. Who wants to picture ugly people doing it? ;) #FiftyShadesofHunchback.

I found a few answers particularly interesting because they didn’t quite fit in the rubric of “how clearly do you see the characters/how hot do you assume the characters are?”

  • the only details that stick w/me are hair color/length & height. All attractive in my head no matter how described. (emphasis added)
  • I assume they’re fairly passable on average, but dead hot to their fellow hero/heroine.

I admit that last one’s my favorite, because it’s pretty close to my own take on the matter (our dogs are similar). However, I know the respondent might look at somebody I find fairly passable and find them unacceptable, or vice versa, so it’s still completely subjective. These last responses also suggested to me that there are really two separate issues here–how much relative hotness a reader assumes as a baseline, and how much of any kind of descriptive detail a reader visualizes.

In the general discussion this question prompted, another writer said,

  • I am SO bad about not actually describing characters. They’re in my head and I forget!

I wonder whether that is bad, though. I went into this whole line of questioning thinking that yeah, probably I needed to start specifying my characters’ relative hotness more clearly. To control the readers’ view more exactly. I didn’t like knowing that a reader might have a different take than my own. I felt like maybe I was failing readers because I wasn’t conveying this evidently important information clearly enough. But the wide range of responses I got–in particular those last two–suggests to me that maybe less is more. Describing characters too closely might actually interfere with some readers’ perceptions, as much or more as not describing them “enough”.

Which brings me to the closing question…what is “enough?” Hair, eyes, height and no more? Only more if it’s salient to the plot? And since this is romance we’re discussing…what level of description is most likely to arouse you without going over the top and killing the mood? What is going on here with our writerly and readerly brains?66c5b30fd9c77c9a746575669a5c63b5-the-least-scary-scary-dog-halloween-costumes

*I lied just a little. While my mental image of “dog” is a beagle of sorts, it is not this specific beagle or even any real-life beagle. And no, it’s not Snoopy, either. My “dog” is from the Little Golden Book called “The Polite Puppy,” and specifically from the illustration in which the puppy is sitting in his food dish (not being polite at all). But I usually tell people it’s a beagle, because that’s so much simpler than going into this explanation about a book I last read some forty-plus years ago. Which just goes to show how very, very diverse the idea of “dog” can get.

Posted in Reading, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 22 Comments

Stepping Through the Wardrobe

Months ago, Tiffany Reisz mentioned something on Twitter about Portal Fantasies, those stories where a character literally passes through some kind of doorway to another world. It started me thinking about the subject and why I love those types of books so much.

Some of the first fantasy novels I ever read, and certainly ones that have deeply influenced me, were portal fantasies. C.S. Lewis’s books, with their magical wardrobe or paintings or other portals to Narnia, are classics of the genre. In passing through the portals, children arrive in a magical world where they are challenged to do battle for good, whether it is against witches or usurping nobles or slaveholders, at a random moment in time or at the end of days. Some are forced to face their own weaknesses, and rise above them. But they lose their access to Narnia as they age and no longer believe in magical lands. It’s C.S. Lewis, so the stories are about a lot more than that, of course. And lately I’ve read a bunch of discussion online about Susan and feminist theory about how her actualization as a sexual being is what keeps her out of Narnia. But that’s not why I go back to these books over and over again.

For me, portal fantasies are entirely about the fish out of water experience and, maybe even more importantly, the chance to redefine yourself. It’s about experiencing some place so new, so foreign to your “real” life, that you see things more clearly than in a world where you pretty much know what to expect and so don’t really pay any attention at all. It’s about being cut off from all of the expectations that others have of you and that you have of yourself, and figuring out how you’d truly want to be, if you got to start over.

Portal fantasies where a group of people go through, like the Narnia books, or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians & its sequel, aren’t my favorite, because the group dynamic, the existing expectations that other people have, continues in the new land. I like it best when the portal only opens for one person. Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams & A Man Rides Through were exquisite reads for me for just this reason (in addition to the insanely detailed worldbuilding and brilliant characters). One woman slips through the portal in these books, a completely passive woman in her “real world” existence. But in Mordant, the people she meets are convinced, because of the fact of her arrival if nothing else, that she is clearly a power player in their machinations. And over the course of the two books, the heroine becomes active and sees herself as someone who can make things happen. So much so that when she is unexpectedly returned to the “real world”, she is able for the first time to act there also, despite her actions going against the expectations of those who know her.

Sadly, I have not yet found a truly magical portal in this world (although if you think I haven’t opened every wardrobe I’ve ever encountered and stuck my arm in to feel the back wall, you don’t know me AT ALL), but there are events in life that can do this for me.

Going to college was one. I come from a family where, although it was always assumed I would go, neither of my parents actually had a college degree when I was a kid. My mom went to secretarial school and then took classes at an excellent community college by us when I was in junior high, getting straight A’s and her Associate’s Degree. My dad dropped out of Southern Illinois University, convinced the Army that the psych classes he’d taken meant he should spend Vietnam counseling returning vets in Hawaii, and then skipped straight into business after that. Neither of them came from a history of parents walking their kids through elaborate application processes. When I applied to colleges in high school, I had no idea what I was doing. We hadn’t spent the summers of my sophomore and junior years visiting nearby or far away campuses (as I later found out people I went to school with did…they checked out dozens of schools!).

I somehow ended up visiting the two schools I applied to: University of Illinois (35,000 college students living in cement cell blocks six hours south of Chicago in the middle of the cornfields) and Mount Holyoke College (1900 women living on a wooded fairytale of a campus in the Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts, 1500 miles from home). I am still unclear as to how my mother could afford that visit to Massachusetts, where we walked around the campus of a school I had fallen in love with almost entirely because of the beautiful photographs in their brochure and the fact that there was a stable on campus. (I find it pretty funny that, years after I’d stopped taking horseback riding lessons, I was still pulled by the fantasy so strongly that it influenced my choice of colleges.)

A very large chunk of my senior class was heading to U. of I. People who’d known each other since kindergarten would now be spending another four years of their lives hanging out with the same friends, heading to class with people who had already pegged them as sweet or bitchy, shy or the party drunk. If I hadn’t already had a hint of a different way, I don’t know if I could have resisted this option. It was safe, comfortable. To be anonymous was the biggest change I could hope for at my big state school.

But I’d been working, sometimes more than one job, since I was old enough to get a worker’s permit. I’d worked at a grocery store, a clothing store at the mall, a movie theater, and a bank, all before I graduated high school. And at every one of those jobs, no one knew me before I started on my first day.

It wasn’t magic. But it was…something. I was terminally shy as a girl, so much so that I didn’t call my own friends, because I wasn’t sure they would want to hear from me. And while most of that was me, absolutely, a part of it was knowing that my role was already decided for me. I hadn’t been living in my hometown since birth, but being there from fourth grade on was enough. I was the sweet, smart, shy girl. That’s it. That was my role.

Even my name was already fixed for me. I had decided as a little girl that I didn’t like Amy Jo. It was too complicated, too hard to explain to little kids who didn’t understand why I had two first names. “So, Jo is your middle name, right? And what’s that short for, Josephine?” Same questions, over and over again. So I’d decided I would only use Amy. Much simpler. And that was it. The decision I made in elementary school followed me for years, even when I’d started to realize that Amy Jo was cool. Was different. Was maybe more me after all.

But each year, when class started on the first day and a new set of teachers called roll for the first time, I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth when they said my name. The whole class full of kids would tell the teacher for me, “It’s just Amy.”

How do you explain to several hundred kids that you’ve changed? That you’re not the same person at sixteen or seventeen that you were when you were eight? It’s too late and too hard. Or at least it was for me. I didn’t have it in me yet to push back against that inertia.

But at my jobs, there were no classrooms full of kids shouting out that my name wasn’t Amy Jo, and so I could reclaim it. There was no expectation that I would sit silent and smiling and be an observer. And so I didn’t always. Like I said, it wasn’t magic. I didn’t turn into the life of the party. But I talked. I cracked jokes. I called up my co-workers and went out with them to parties where no one knew me either.

I was still sweet and smart and shy. When I first used a curse word in front of co-workers at the mall, they all gasped and said, “Amy Jo! You don’t swear!”

But I wasn’t only sweet or smart or shy. I was also funny. And the one who would take dares. Or invent wild assassination scenarios with the burnouts who RPG’d and whose goal in life was to work at the renaissance faire.

For the first time in years, I was able to be more me. Even if it was only at work. At school, I was still the same person everyone expected me to be, because I didn’t know how to break out from that heavy blanket of expectation. It was still too hard.

But when the time came to choose between the giant state school with half my senior class or the tiny women’s college halfway across the country where not one person from my high school would be found…

Well, you know what I picked, right?

I picked the magic portal.

I spent four years far from home, from anyone who’d known me, and I figured out who I was as a person. And yes, when I went back home, it became easier and easier for me to hang on to my new, real me, instead of the expectations of people who’d known me for years.

(I’m guessing that the time I bumped into a crowd of old high school acquaintances on Michigan Avenue while I was wearing my Doc Maartens and black leather motorcycle jacket was as startling for them as it was for me. I found out years later that one of them remembered me from that day as being a short-haired lesbian, even though my hair was past my shoulders and I don’t believe our ten minute conversation including anything about sex partners, because apparently a take-no-shit attitude and a motorcycle jacket do that.)

I figured out that every time I tried something new, traveled to a new country or took a new job or tried a new sport, it was the chance to step through another magic portal. A chance to redefine myself, to escape the expectations I put on myself. And it’s still hard. I had to run three half-marathons and two marathons before I called myself a runner. I had to sell my third and fourth books before I believed I was a writer, and said that out loud to people.

Every time, man. I have to figure out if I going to step through the magic portal.

Of course, as I got older, had a kid, became just a tiny bit more weighted down with responsibilities, there are fewer magic portal opportunities for me. But thinking about this whole idea brought me to the realization that I’ve found the best one of all.

Writing is my magic portal. Turns out that I’ve been trying to slip through it my whole life. It’s the way I keep taking risks, keep exploring things that scare me. I can redefine myself every time I sit down and start a new story, because there is no limit to what boundaries I can push on the page. But it takes a choice every time. Am I stepping through the magic portal, or staying here where it’s safe? Because the safe zone is always expanding. Just writing a book that other people would read and judge was scary enough at first. So my first several category romances were traditional. Safe. But the more I write, the more magic portals I choose to step through. Whether it’s erotica or lgbtq romance or multicultural romance. They’re my boundaries that I’m pushing every time and it turns out that being terrified is almost the same thing as being exhilarated.

Susan lost her access to Narnia. Whether it was because she put on lipstick and kissed boys or because she just stopped believing in the magic of stepping into a strange new land and finding herself lost again, needing to figure out how far she could push herself in her own adventure, I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t ever want to lose that magic.

Hat tip to Ms. Reisz for helping me figure out that I’ve spent my whole life trying to get through that magic portal. And that I will always, always know just where to find one.

Got any magic portals of your own? Or a favorite magic portal book? I’m always looking for a good one…

Posted in Formative Wonk, Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | 20 Comments

Die Another Day

Trigger warning in this post for abusive relationships.

I got an edit letter today from a new editor and it crushed me like a grape.


Some of the things in it, I wasn’t surprised by. I had a general feeling of not-quite-right when I wrote those parts, but I wasn’t sure, so I kept them because, overall, I liked them and I think part of me just wanted them to fit, so badly.

But other things in the letter completely threw me for a loop, and what it all boiled down to was that what she read in the manuscript and what I had been trying to write in the manuscript were two completely different things.

My clear, utter failure made me want to lie down and die.

But here’s the thing. (You knew there had to be a “but,” didn’t you?) I didn’t actually die. And this won’t actually kill me. And, in the end, I embrace these moments of life reaffirmation for the reminder that there is no greater peace than that which is achieved through struggle, there is no greater appreciation than that which is gained through loss, and there is no one I’d rather be than someone who has fought and lived to see another day.

Besides…there are worse things in the world.

I know. I used to hate it when people said that to me, and you might still hate that platitude after you read this. But for me, that reminder, that there is worse, and I have lived it, is usually the most effective way to pull me out of those blue moods, when the world has contracted to the most painful pinprick of a moment, in which I want to lie down and die.

In fact, once upon a time, I lived a life so different from the one I live today that I look at photos of myself from back then—a decade ago, now—and I know that most of my regrets come from that particular period in my life. Because I can still transport myself back there, with just the wrong word or a misplaced thought. It has taken a decade, and will continue to take the decades ahead, for me to accept those experiences as a vital part of me, in spite of how dead they made me feel.

The story is this: I got married at a young age and had a baby within the first year. I supported us financially, but I traveled a lot for work (like, five days a week, every week, except for two weeks at Christmas) and my then-husband had a low-paying nine-to-five job, so he did the bulk of the childcare during weekday evenings.

It was not a good relationship. Over the course of our marriage, I grew increasingly wary of being alone with my husband. I began dreading going home because I didn’t want to be called stupid, or overweight, and I didn’t want to be blamed and harangued for him oversleeping and being late for work. I hated that I wasn’t allowed to tell my child that I loved him. It inevitably triggered an angry protest. What about me? I love him, too! Tell him that we love him, not that you love him.

I used to cry in my hotel rooms at night, away from my baby and away from any tether to myself. I felt like I was constantly flailing, trying to find purchase, and it was so incessant that it became my normal. I withdrew from my family and friends. I stopped sewing. I stopped writing. I stopped creating.

Only now, years out, after I’ve learned more about relationship violence and how it can manifest in ways other than physical abuse, do I understand how skilfully my now-ex-husband diminished me. I was afraid to say anything lest it be wrong. I was afraid to make decisions lest they be wrong. I was just wrong.

I—the real, fundamental me—had lain down and died.

There were a lot of factors that contributed to my final realization that this was a bad, bad relationship. There were also a lot of factors that contributed to my ex-husband gaining primary custody of our son, and a lot of them came down to how I played the traditional “male provider” role in the marriage. I have my son for weekends, school vacations, and summers. I pay child support. I am a noncustodial mother, and the ridiculous—absolutely ridiculous—stigma attached to that status is a topic for another post, some other time. But suffice it to say that I not only had to find the strength to resurrect myself out of that marriage, but I also spent the year during my separation and divorce, fighting the urge to lie down and die, over and over and over.

It was like getting the shittiest edit letter ever and not being able to do anything about it. The twenty-six-and-some years of my life story had already been written in stone. No deleting huge passages so that the pain would never have to happen, or rearranging blocks of text so that the college degree came easy. Not even any fine tuning, so that words were softened, paths were widened, and friendships strengthened.

I believe there is no greater peace than that which is achieved through struggle, there is no greater appreciation than that which is gained through loss, and there is no one I’d rather be than someone who has fought and lived to see another day.

I truly, truly believe this. With the help of so many beloved friends and family, I came out of that time of my life transformed for the better. I lost, and I live with that loss every day. But I’m alive, and I rejoice in my life, and that it what made the difference in the way that I view things like edit letters.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-19433-1386577562-28[1]Not failures. Second chances. An opportunity to rewrite someone’s life story. And, in doing so, take back pieces of my own.

So…back to this morning, when I read this edit letter that bowled me over with the immense weight of my own shortcomings. I read it, and then I took a few minutes for silent self-loathing and dejection before I let the little know-it-all in my brain wake up and remind me that I had chosen this editor specifically because I knew she would make me grow as a writer. I chose her because I wanted a challenge. I chose her because I wanted to learn from her, and in learning, live. Lying down and dying would defeat the purpose.

All of this to say…for those of you out there struggling with rejection from agents or publishers, for those of you who get harsh feedback from critique partners or depressing edit letters that make you want to lie down and die…

Don’t. Please don’t. Cry. Rage. Tether yourself to fellow writers, or online classes, to gardening or TV shows or whatever keeps you from drowning. But don’t die. Live on, be who you are, and don’t let anyone else or even any perception you might have of yourself to diminish who you are. Get up, and write the story you want to live.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 25 Comments