Thursday, 18 June 2020

Heroine Fix: Praising Difficult Women (Phantom of the Opera)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been dealing with a lot of personal challenges.  One of my coping mechanisms is music.  And drama.  Which is how I ended up watching three different versions of The Phantom of the Opera.  And listening to one more (because not listening to Colm Wilkenson's Phantom is just wrong).  Now, I adore the interplay of music and tragi-romance that Andrew Lloyd Webber created.  When I'm depressed, the melodrama can be cathartic.

When I was a kid, I empathized with the character of Christine.  I admired her beauty and the beauty of her voice.  I was thrilled with the adventure of being lured beneath the opera house by a mysterious masked man with a gorgeous voice.  And I thought it was wonderful that her childhood sweetheart (a viscount, no less!) was in love with her and would risk everything to be with her.

But this time, as I watched the various versions, I found myself more sympathetic toward the character Carlotta, the prima donna soprano of the Paris Opera house and the woman who is Christine's professional obstacle.  She's usually portrayed as unpleasantly demanding and wracked with petty jealousy toward Christine.  The audience is supposed to want Christine to replace her.

It's a fairly typical dyad.  Christine, the virginal, humble, sweet, and pure, is "not like other girls" with that specific role being played by Carlotta, who is worldly, wealthy, and aware of her own talent.  Christine is the Madonna.  Carlotta, it is implied, is the whore.

I found myself asking: why are Carlotta's attributes so easily portrayed as bad?

There's actually a fair bit to admire in the character.  She is an independent woman, which is a rarity in 1898 Paris.  She is a professional, which is even rarer.  She's been the prima donna of the Paris Opera House for five years when the story begins.  Which means she's quite good at her job, since performing women have always faced the frequent churn of being replaced by younger performers.  Based on what we see, she's quite wealthy.  She has her own home, at least two servants, and very expensive custom clothing.  So she is a successful, skilled, and resourceful woman.

To be fair, there's no doubt that she's pretty unpleasant toward her coworkers, both the other performers and the stagehands.  She orders them about and expects to be catered to, not to mention throwing a tantrum and walking away from a performance.

However, there may be some unexplored justification for her attitude.

One of the first scenes we see with Carlotta is when she's performing the aria "Think of Me" for the new Opera managers.  During her performance, she is knocked down by a heavy canvas backdrop.  The managers dismiss the incident, saying "These things do happen..."

This is the last straw for our diva.  She screams at them that these things have been happening to her for the last three years and until they stop happening, she won't be performing at the Paris Opera.  It's a single line that's quickly passed over and not mentioned again.  The narrative focus shifts to giving Christine her big break.

Still, the line made me think.  If it's true, then for the last three years, the Phantom has been making the Paris Opera increasingly unpleasant for Carlotta in the hopes that she will quit and provide an opportunity to Christine.  It doesn't take much imagination to realize how unpleasant it would be to be unpredictably subjected to sabotage and disruption.  Especially since any plea for a fix has clearly been dismissed.  She's being gaslit by those in authority around her, which would make anyone irritable and demanding even without the Phantom's attacks.

Carlotta's jealousy and irritability can be explained by the situation she's in.  She's jealous of Christine because she's very aware that her career and livelihood are dependent on being able to perform.  She doesn't want to give up the position she's worked so hard to achieve.

And I have to admit, I don't find being demanding and being aware of one's own talents to be negative traits.  These are usually only portrayed as undesirable in women.  Masculine characters are allowed to be difficult, rude, and arrogant.  They're even admired for it.

Carlotta is villainized because the audience needs to feel better about Christine taking over her job.  If we see Carlotta as unworthy and unlikable, then we don't have to question whether Christine should have any moral concerns about accepting the results of the Phantom's harassment.  It also allows Christine to be passive, reinforcing her purity.  It's a narrative choice and one that many authors have made over the years.

But it's not an inevitable one.  Feminine characters don't have to be pitted against one another.  One doesn't have to lose in order for the audience to feel good about the other winning.

I would greatly love to see a version where Christine is ambitious instead of passive.  Where she recognizes Carlotta's talent and the two have a mentor-mentee relationship.  That would be a refreshing switch.  Heck, I'd love it if the two of them would pair up against the Phantom because Christine realizes he's been manipulating her and that what he's doing to Carlotta is wrong.

Difficult women shouldn't be automatically dismissed as unworthy of a happy ending.  They should be celebrated for daring to take up space that society says they shouldn't.  We should all be more willing to take up space.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Update: June 1 to 13

I didn't track my words but I have another couple chapters done for Until Proven Guilty.  And I've been working on polishing the plot for Best Face Forward in the hopes that maybe an agent or editor will want the manuscript.  It's a weird position to be in, since the story was rejected by Entangled but also got two scores of 98/100 and 99/100 in the contest.

I'm still struggling to find time and energy to write.  But I mean that in both senses of the word.  It's harder than it usually is but I'm still trying.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Weekly Update: May 24-30 (and contest news!)

Weekly word count: 1389 words

A good week of writing for me.  I'm pleased with my progress.

But the really exciting news is that I finaled in the Stiletto Contest with my contemporary romance, Best Face Forward.  This was a big ego-boost after the story was rejected from Entangled (it was a nice rejection, but still a rejection).  The final round of the contest is judged by editors and agents, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that someone likes it.

Life is still challenging.  Here in Ontario, the schools will be closed until September and the summer camps that I would usually send my kids to are not going to be running.  I'm still trying to figure out what I'll do, though a lot will depend on whether or not my day job starts back up.  But so far, we've been managing.

Hope everyone has been able to do the same.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Update 17 April to 23 May

It's been a challenging month and I'm still working on coping with it all.  Aside from the challenges of a global quarantine: isolation, stress, an overly crowded house and a reduction in the resources me and my kids have available, there have also been more individual difficulties.

My mother in law passed a few weeks ago.  Not from COVID, but from cancer that we only learned about in April.  She and I had a complicated relationship, particularly since the split between my ex-husband and myself.  But she was my kids' grandmother and I respected her, even when she and I disagreed.

I've also been struggling with my own health issues.  My doctor and I have been trying different medications to deal with it and one of them ended up having a very bad reaction for me.  I'm still trying to recover from that.  The whole thing has left me deeply drained and exhausted, which doesn't leave me with the emotional reserves I need.  The last month has probably been the deepest I've gone into my own depression in a long time.

There's not much to be proud of in what happened but I'm proud that even though I was feeling hopeless, I reached out for help, both professional and personal.  A big thank you to Samianne for talking me down off the "I'm a talentless hack and will always be a failure" ledge.  I'm back on the more realistic side of evaluating my prospects, but I think it's important to recognize how bleak my own thoughts can get sometimes.  And also recognize that I can move past it, if I ask for help.

Things are probably going to be irregular for awhile yet.  But I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances.  And I'm also doing my best to be okay with that.

I hope everyone reading this is healthy and doing the best they can under the circumstances, too.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Need a hiatus

For the last few weeks, I've been dealing with some health issues (don't worry, nothing likely to become fatal) and family issues (hopefully with the same caveat).  Between that and the strain of dealing with what's going on in the greater world, I've been struggling.

As much as I hate having to admit this, I've come to a crossroads.  I can either work on the blog and social media, or I can work on finishing the books I'm writing.  While I know you all will miss me, I know you'd prefer getting new adventures to me maundering about various topics.  Don't worry, I will be back.  I've been through these types of situations before and I've always managed to pull through.

Hugs to you all.  I hope you're all staying safe and taking care of yourselves.

Talk to you again soon.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Weekly Update: 12-16 April

Weekly word count: 2296

Lower than last week, but pretty good considering I got my line edits for Division back and that's going to have to be the writing priority for the next few weeks.

Still no word from Entangled about the submission of Best Face Forward.  They usually say 60 days for a response, but under the circumstances, I guess it could be more.  I've entered it in the Stiletto contest for the Contemporary Romance Writers, so fingers crossed for that.

Last week's Tarot reading was the ten of cups (joy and nostalgia) for the past, the eight of cups (breaking loose) and the Emperor reversed (immaturity).  Last week was a difficult week emotionally, I found myself looking back on my life a lot and feeling sad about the challenges I've faced.  It was discouraging to remember how I'm effectively starting over in so many ways and worrying about whether or not I'll still have a job when this quarantine eventually ends.  I'm not sure if that counts as immaturity, but an alternate reading for the reversed Emperor is instability, which would fit.

This week's Tarot draw was the five of cups for the past.  The five of cups symbolizes emotional loss and difficulty.  I drew the seven of swords for the present, which signifies craftiness and intellectual sneakiness.  And finally, the Queen of cups, reversed, which warns that emotions may be clouding my judgment.  Doesn't sound like a fun week, except for the sneakiness.  I always enjoy a good convoluted plot.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Heroine Fix: Women of Westworld

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines from television and movies which inspire my own writing or which I just find cool or interesting.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers for season 1 and 2 (but not 3 because I'm still watching that one).

There are only two times in the last decade that I've been caught off guard by a plot twist and had the "OMG, that is amazing!" reaction.  One was Arrival and the other was Westworld.  Usually I can predict where a show or movie is going (and I'm good with it, since seeing how they intend to get there is a big part of what I enjoy about stories).  And I've been disappointed with plot twists that make little to no sense based on the previous narrative.  But these two were brilliantly scripted in such a way that the plot twist not only made sense retroactively but still worked on rewatch when I knew what was going to happen.  (And I enjoyed it enough that I won't be sharing the biggest plot twist of season one, the one that surprised me, just in case those reading this haven't seen it yet.)

Westworld is more graphically violent and sexual than I usually watch, but I've been impressed by the depth of the characters and the skill of the writing.  And I've been particularly intrigued by the development of the two main heroines, Dolores and Maeve.

One of the things that I find interesting about Westerns and the historical Wild West period is how the level of "civilization" was often defined by the presence of settler women.  The presence of respectable wives and daughters, such as Dolores, meant stability.  They were used as a symbol of purity and goodness, something which needed to be protected from the rough world of men and nature.  Thus it wasn't a surprise that Dolores plays the damsel in distress in the Westworld park narratives.

Maeve's character is another common theme in Westerns, the HHOG (Hooker with a Heart Of Gold).  Though these women are not considered respectable, their mix of wisdom and street smarts make them frequent fan favourites.  Maeve is not abused by guests the same way that Dolores is because it's not considered shocking to attack her.  It's the taking away of Dolores's implied innocence that makes her a target of the sadistic Man in Black and other guests.

After the first few episodes of season one, I was expecting Dolores's character arc to be one where she learned not to rely on the men in her life to protect her and Maeve to play the role of sardonic commentary, perhaps even teaming up with Dolores to show her how to become more independent.  I was not expecting Dolores to transform into the villain and begin a systematic slaughter of the humans.  It is foreshadowed in the final scene of the very first episode, when she kills a fly.

I also wasn't expecting the unfolding of Maeve's character, revealing someone who cares deeply for those around her, even when she hides it behind sarcasm.  When she discovers the nature of her reality (i.e. that she has been manufactured to entertain guests), she is angry but funnels that fury into gaining the power to protect herself and others.  She blackmails the technicians into giving her upgrades, gaining the power to control the other hosts.  Ultimately, she ends up using that power to allow as many hosts as possible to escape into the Valley Beyond, even though it means sacrificing her own chance to be with her daughter.

The two women serve as foils to one another.  Maeve's cynicism, such as when she tells Teddy that all men pay for a woman's companionship, the only difference is that their's are posted on the door, is a direct contrast to Dolores's idealist "I choose to see the beauty" in the world.

When Maeve begins to remember all the times she's been killed and her previous character, her first instinct is to seek confirmation and her second is to gain control.  She remains fundamentally herself, even when she remembers her life as a settler mother.  Instead of rewriting Maeve's character, it brings out a kinder side of her, one that creates balance in her personality.  When Dolores begins to remember, the knowledge seems to deeply unsettle her.  Initially, it seems as if it is driving her insane, but then it becomes clear that a secondary, crueler persona (Wyatt) is coming to the surface.  Dolores the idealist is buried and Dolores the homicidal avenger is born.

It's a reminder of how powerful flipping a trope can be, but also how important it is to craft the story in such a way that the audience doesn't feel cheated.  If Dolores had remained a symbol of purity to be cherished and protected by those around her and Maeve had stayed as the world-wise brothel madam, then Westworld wouldn't be nearly as memorable.

Previous Heroine Fix: The Many Faces of Harley Quinn

Previous post: Thoughts on the I'm Clean/Condom Scene In Romance

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Monday, 13 April 2020

Weekly Update: April 5-11

Weekly word count: 2491 words

I got to write the poignant, breath-holding moment before the rush to the climax last week.  There's something immensely satisfying about knowing the pain and heartbreak is all temporary, that the happy ending is just around the corner.  It gives me hope when I'm facing difficult times, that maybe my happy ending is on its way.

In other matters, I turned in my first homework assignment in 20 years.  I'm out of practice for academic work, but I think I did all right.  Hopefully the teacher agrees.

Last week's Tarot reading was the ace of swords (strength in conflict), the page of cups (emotional rebirth), and the eight of coins, reversed (review your career and work).  I did a little furniture reshuffling, but I don't know if it counts as a rebirth.  On the other hand, it happened because I accepted where matters stood rather than waiting for the situation to change.  So maybe a little bit of a rebirth.

This week's reading is less optimistic.  I drew the ten of cups for the past, which indicates joy and happiness, along with a sense of completion.  For the present, I drew the eight of cups, which represents breaking loose and being aware of possibilities on the horizon.  Both of those are pretty good, but for the future, I drew the Emperor, reversed.  That position indicates a lack of maturity and preparation.

My first reaction was "I am sooo not immature" but then I thought: maybe a little immaturity isn't such a bad thing.  Being the adult all the time is exhausting.  We all need play.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

The "I'm Clean/Condom" Scene

Okay, be forewarned.  This is going to be a frank discussion about my opinions on condom-use during sex and how it's depicted in romance novels.

Anyone who reads romance has seen variations of the scene I'm about to describe.  It usually doesn't happen with the first sex scene, but there are good odds of it happening later on.  The couple is ready to make love when they realize they don't have a condom (because they're on the run, or they've gone through the original pack).  There's a brief discussion that includes some or all of the following:

- I haven't been with anyone for <X length of time>
- I've been tested recently and I'm clean
- I'm on the pill/shots/am infertile so we don't have to worry about pregnancy

I'm not casting stones at any other authors.  I've adored and recommended books where this exchange happens.  But it has begun to bother me, especially when the main characters haven't known one another very long.  Pushing someone to have unprotected sex is not an expression of love and caring.  Blindly accepting someone's word on their sexual habits is not a sign of a secure relationship.  And I'm not even going to get into how it sets up an implied hierarchy of intimacy where unprotected sex is higher than sex with a condom.  Or how it implies condom use is a transitory phase in a relationship.

What really throws me out of the story is that I've only rarely seen a character even mentally question the other character's declaration of non-risk.  No one seems to ask "could this person be lying to me in order to have sex?"  It makes me want to shout at the characters: Look, **I** know everything is fine because he's a romantic hero who will be worthy of you before we reach the last page, but you can't possibly know that yet!  Have some self-protective instincts!  He's a hero, he'll support and protect you if you just ask him to!

I may have occasionally said these things out loud, leading to a number of awkward conversations and at least one incident where I was asked to leave that particular coffee shop.  A true hero will never do anything to put his partner at risk, so when I see those statements in a romance novel, I know they are intended to be true.  But without the protective framing of Once upon a time and happily ever after, that's not always a guaranteed thing.  Sadly, there are still a depressingly large number of real life men who will push their partners into unprotected sex and who are often not honest about their relative health or sexual history.

Another aspect of this exchange that I find troubling is that this discussion usually takes place when the couple is in the middle of a clinch.  One of the things we've become aware of is how sexual arousal affects decision-making.  Studies have shown that horniness impairs a person's ability to make rational and well-reasoned decisions.  The level of impairment is similar to being drunk.  Like, impulse buying a bunch of commemorative plates online at three a.m. level drunk.

This led me to a chain of thoughts: individuals cannot give consent to sexual activity when they're drunk, which means they also can't give consent if their mental processes are scrambled because they were in the middle of hot foreplay.  Particularly they shouldn't be expected to give consent to riskier sexual encounters than were initially agreed to.  Especially when the relationship is still in the getting-to-know you phase when the couple don't yet know about the secret agreement to sell her vineyard or the mysterious tragic backstory that keeps him awake at night.

As you can see, I have strong opinions about this topic.  I'm hoping that more romance authors are starting to think about this particular dynamic.  Consent is becoming a bigger part of sex scenes and frequent check-ins to make sure that all partners are good with what's happening are being modeled more and more on the page.  I'm really pleased to see that, but as a reader and author, I'm ready to take the next step.

Because of my strong opinions about condom use and consent, the sex scenes in my upcoming release, Division, are structured a little differently.  In one encounter, Vincent realizes he doesn't have a condom.  Annika is waiting for him to pressure her into unprotected sex (at which point she plans to reveal that she has already bought condoms and has them ready), but instead, he calls a halt and tells her that he will go out and get some before they have sex.

To me, that is a wonderful expression of caring for and respecting your partner.  There's no implied "if you really loved and trusted me, you would be okay with proceeding without protection."  Condom use is taken as a given and my hero will do what is needed to protect her, even when that action requires a lot of willpower on his part.

I also included a scene where Vincent waits until after he's given Annika an orgasm before he pauses to make sure she's still willing to have penetrative sex.  He wants her to choose to be with him without any distractions from her body or mind.  He wants her to choose him, not just be willing to proceed with any reasonably attractive guy.

In both of these scenes, the determination to protect his partner is part of demonstrating the increasing emotional connection between the characters.  They are falling in love and discovering the intensity of having a physical and emotional bond with another person.  It's honestly the best feeling in the entire world and I wish everyone had the option of feeling it every day.  It's why I write romance.  It's why I read romance.  I believe in the power behind those feelings.

Division is up for pre-order now and will be releasing in July.  My Lalassu series is set up so that every book is a stand-alone story, but there's also a overall story arc that runs through the series.  If Division appeals to you, feel free to jump right in.  But if you'd like to start at the beginning, you can pick up the first book of the series, Revelations, for less than two dollars.

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Monday, 6 April 2020

Weekly Update: March 29 to April 4

Weekly Word Count: 3328

It feels very good to have the words flowing again.  I figured out the issue with the scene I was trying to write and now the plot is moving forward.  I was able to kickstart my creative brain with fanfic (Mandalorian for the curious).

My kids and I have settled into a routine.  I've still got a lot of worries and I'm trying very hard not to think about the future.  I miss my friends terribly but I'd never forgive myself if I ended up being a link in a chain that got people sick.

Last week's Tarot reading had Temperance (moderation) for the past, the nine of coins (self-reliance) for the present and the ten of wands (burden of success) for the future.  Last week worked because I didn't try to push myself to do too much (moderation), I made certain that I could take care of what needed to be done (self-reliance), and then I found myself managing on my own (the burden of success).  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it seems to fit.

This week's reading is the ace of swords for the past, which advises strength in conflict and the beginning of an intellectual enterprise.  The present was the page of cups, which symbolizes emotional rebirth.  And for the future, I drew the eight of coins, reversed, which advises the card reader to review their career and chosen work.  That last one is not reassuring for someone who has been laid off from their day job.  Since I work for a small company, one of the unpleasant realities I have to think about is that the company owner may decide not to restart it once the threat of the pandemic is over.

I started my online human resource management course last week, which matches with the ace of swords.  Since it was already set up, my employer said I could go ahead with it even though I've been laid off.  I'd planned to gradually earn my credentials over the next few years, but maybe I should consider a more accelerated program.  I won't make any decisions now.  The situation is still too fluid and unpredictable.

I've been struggling, but things seem much clearer now.  I feel more capable of dealing with what the future is throwing at me.  So maybe that's my emotional rebirth.

Either way, at least I'm writing again.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Hunkering Down (Sadly, without any hunks)

Reclaiming My HEA is a regular feature where I share what's been going on with my separation and divorce.

Things have changed rather drastically since my last Reclaiming My HEA post on March 5th.  It was only four weeks ago and in that time, my kids' schools have closed, my day job has shut down, and my ex-husband is now working from home.

That last one makes things difficult, since we're doing an in-home divorce, where we're continuing to share the family home and expenses.  This usually isn't a challenge.  I work from home and deal with the vast majority of the household and family planning and tasks.  I don't tend to see him that often, except during meals and the odd family activity.

Now, four of us are sharing a house that I usually have to myself five days a week.  (Or at least while the kids are at school.)  I'm finding it to be a real adjustment, especially since I'm having to take over managing the kids' schedules and dealing with any education stuff.  And keeping them from annoying the crap out of each other.

My ex and I might not have worked out as romantic partners, but I'm not in the "he-demon sent from the depths of hell" mindset regarding him.  There are plenty of frustrations, but he's not a bad person.

I've had to remind myself of that a lot over the last few weeks.  Some of it is just the stress of having four people around without the opportunity for our usual diversions.  My oldest has been particularly hard hit, since everything he does to relax is a public activity, which means its been no-go.  Some of it is the stress of financial uncertainty, now that I'm no longer employed.  Some of it is the stress of managing my extended family, particularly my parents.  I've somehow become the de facto therapist for a number of people, which I'm good to do, but it does take an emotional toll.

But some of it is that it's hard to ignore our incompatible approaches now that we're in each other's space throughout the day.  I've been seeing the headlines about a rise in divorces due to self-isolating, so I know I'm not alone in finding it frustrating.

It's been a struggle finding ways to escape and give myself some quiet time to myself.  A few times, I've been tempted to take the car and park somewhere random with my computer.  I miss getting together with my friends and having my monthly massage and hair appointments.  I miss being able to blast my music and dance around the kitchen.  I miss being able to immerse myself in a story.

However, I also recognize that as much as my life has been disrupted, it is very small compared to those who are struggling with COVID or watching their loved ones struggle.  Or worse, have already lost people to this disease or other complications due to the lack of health resources.  I don't want to be one of those petty people who can't see the bigger picture.  Having us all stay home might be aggravating but if it means that fewer people die, then I'm good with that.

Meanwhile, I'll just try to be gentle with myself and enjoy the parts I can enjoy.  And try hard not to think about the parts I don't.

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Monday, 30 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 22 to 28

No writing last week but I did get Division finished and sent in for line edits.

I tried writing but was having real trouble.  I wasn't sure if it was due to a plot problem, stress or the distraction of having the kids home and having to serve as homeschool teacher, not to mention trying to do some day job work each day.

I did my usual check to see if the issue is with a project or with me.  I tried some fanfic writing and I was having a lot more trouble than usual with that, too.  Which tells me that I need to be gentle with myself and recognize the difficulties I'm having.

On Friday, I got my official lay off due to lack of work (in turn due to the necessity of socially isolating).  So the day job is gone until we're not having to restrict ourselves at home any more.  Very relieved to be in Canada, where the government is giving decent support to those of us facing this situation.

I didn't do a tarot draw last week, but I did one for this week.  I drew Temperance for the past, which indicates moderation and blending.  For the present, I drew the nine of coins which indicates self-reliance and financial security.  (Side note: I was going to be the nine of coins in a living tarot deck photoshoot that a friend of mine was putting together.  I had a costume all ready and everything.  But the shoot never happened and neither did the deck.  Ah well, opportunity lost.)  Back to this week's draw.  The future was the ten of staffs, the burden of success.

There has certainly been a lot of blending over the last week, trying to balance different roles in my life, the needs of my family and those of greater society, and the challenge of having four people stuck in a house together day in and day out.  I'm choosing to be a little reassured by the nine of coins, because I'm not feeling particularly financially secure right now.  And the ten of staffs makes sense as well, since part of the challenge right now is that fact that I have been able to do a lot of things with very little support and now people are expecting that I can continue to do it, when I don't know if I can.

I guess we'll find out.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 15-21

No words written this week but I did get Division ready for line edits.  And a whole week before the deadline!

I'm going to be taking a bit of a break over the next week.  One of my kids is sick (hopefully not with COVID-19, but we're being cautious).  I'm just going to concentrate on that for the next little while.

Hope everyone is staying sane and healthy.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Heroine Fix: The Many Faces of Harley Quinn

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines who have inspired and influenced my own writing.  I take a closer look at why they've become real to me, and how the characters are constructed.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers, including ones for Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey.

The Batman DC Universe has been fairly well established since the Dark Knight first premiered in Detective Comics # 27 in 1939.  In 1992, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created a new character, a female counterpart to the Joker: Harley Quinn.  She was cheerful, a little ditzy, and absolutely devoted to her beloved Mr. J.  She was a fun villain without the intensity of Joker, making her entirely suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon.

The fans latched onto the character, making Harley Quinn into a phenomenon.

I was first introduced to the character in the 2002 TV series, Birds of Prey, where Mia Sara played Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn.  (If you haven't seen the series, I highly recommend it.  13 episodes of amazing comic book stories that were unfortunately ahead of their time.)  In Mia Sara's hands, the character was highly intelligent, frighteningly manipulative, and completely amoral.  She didn't have the same sense of whimsy as the cartoon, but she had the same fearlessness.  She was one of the first competent female villains that caught my attention.  She wasn't an adjunct to a more powerful male villain, she was a complete challenge in and of herself.

However, I think Margot Robbie's portrayal of Harley Quinn in both Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn offers an interesting opportunity to show how the same character can have very different interpretations in the hands of different writers and directors.

Suicide Squad was written and directed by David Ayer.  The movie has a lot of problems but a few characters shone through.  I still watch it for Harley Quinn and Deadshot's stories, both of which would have made wonderful movies in and of themselves.

Ayer played up Harley's insanity and impulsivity.  We were shown her backstory, how Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell in love with the Joker when she was treating him in Arkham asylum.  The way the story is told makes her seem like one of his victims.  It's clear that Joker is manipulating his psychiatrist, with the goal of gaining weapons and escaping.  He then takes her to Ace Chemicals and tells her that she needs to prove herself to him by dying for him.  He's about to walk away, leaving her to die, then changes his mind and dives into the chemicals after her.

That moment breaks Harleen, creating Harley Quinn.  She no longer has any fear and now indulges in whatever impulse she wants.  There's an aggressive callousness to her, which we see most clearly in the prison sequences, specifically when she is taunting the guards, both at her cell and when one slips her a phone from the Joker during transit.  She mocks them, demonstrating her contempt for them.  She shows a similar lack of concern for her fellow inmates, abandoning them as soon as the opportunity arises.

The turning point is when she thinks the Joker has died in a helicopter crash.  She returns to the squad, but still holds herself at a remove from them.  She doesn't seem to be taking what's happening seriously, breaking windows to steal designer purses and breaking into a bar for a drink.  If the bad guy succeeds in destroying the city, she seems to be fine with that.

What I think defines Harley's character in this movie is when the Enchantress tempts her with her greatest dream: a happy life with the Joker, not as the King and Queen of Crime, but as a loving, connected family.  It shows that for all her giddy recklessness, she's not happy with her life.  To me, it casts all of her actions in a new light.  She's modelling herself on what the Joker wants, in the hopes that he will eventually give her what she wants.

Her transformative moment in Suicide Squad is when it initially looks like she's going to join the Enchantress in exchange for resurrecting her Mr. J., but then attacks her, saying "you shouldn't have hurt my friends."  It's the first time she's demonstrated any loyalty to the Squad, or really, to anyone except the Joker.

My favourite moment in the movie is the very end, when she's back in her cell, but seems far more content than she did at the beginning.  She's reading a romance novel, Molly O'Keefe's Between the Sheets.  (Molly O'Keefe had a great reaction to seeing her book in the movie, something she didn't know about in advance.)  I think it's awesome that she's reading romance, particularly that book, which deals with a couple who both have trauma in their lives.  Harley's relationship with Joker isn't a good one, so I thought it was optimistic that she was reading about healthier relationships which are just as intense and passionate.

The fact that Margot Robbie plays Harley in both movies, and that Birds of Prey is a sequel to Suicide Squad gives us a great opportunity to compare the two depictions of the character.

Birds of Prey was written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan (with a nod to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm as Harley's creators).

I've seen people attributing the difference between the films to the fact that Suicide Squad was written and directed by a man, and hence used a dangerous Harley who was aggressively sexual, while Birds of Prey was written and directed by women, allowing a more nuanced, carefree character.  I think that may be part of it, but there's also a significant difference in the tone of the two films.  Suicide Squad is dark and depressing, despite their attempts to play up the comedy.  Birds of Prey was intended to be funny right from the beginning.  I think it's also significant that Harley is one of only two women in the Squad, and Katana is portrayed as devoted to her dead husband, without any sexual overtones.  Whether deliberate or unconscious, it set up the cliched Madonna-whore dyad between the two characters.  Harley is dangerous and sexual, Katana is virtuous and chaste.  Not my favourite trope, even if the film ended up being more sympathetic to Harley.

But I do absolutely love how Harley is portrayed in Birds of Prey.  At the beginning of the film, she's struggling to come to terms with the fact that the Joker dumped her.  There's also a surreal montage of her life before Arkham Asylum, revealing that Harleen was neglected by her parents, driving her to be a perfectionist overachiever but one with a a desperate need for affection and recognition.  It explains why she would be so vulnerable to the Joker's manipulations, without making her character entirely dependent on her relationship to him.

She's hiding the fact that she and Joker have broken up, still trading on his reputation to allow her access to Gotham's nightlife and free reign to treat people however she pleases.  Impulsively, she decides to blow up Acme Chemicals to prove to the world that she doesn't care about being broken up with Mr. J. and isn't getting back together with him.  The act alerts the entire criminal underworld that she is now unprotected.

Insecure narcissist and organized crime boss, Roman Sionis, decides to dish out a little payback to Harley for a long list of indignities.  She bargains for her life by agreeing to get a particular diamond for him, which leads to her kidnapping Cassandra Cain from the Gotham Police Department in a glitter and smoke cloud.  Unlike the gritty fight scenes in Suicide Squad, this fight sequence is light-hearted but still exciting.

Harley has long, rambling stream-of-consciousness speeches which are entertaining but also show insight into her character.  She's more than a little lost, searching for a sense of connection and belonging.  It makes her a much more relatable character.  She's not overtly sexual, but is still very carefree and not self-conscious about her body.  She also demonstrates more of her intelligence, reminding the audience that she has a medical degree.  She's impulsive and whimsical, but not stupid.

Harley's character arc centers around finding her community.  In the initial scenes, she shares her fondness for Sal (who makes the best egg sandwiches) and Doc, her landlord and the owner of the Taiwanese restaurant under her apartment.  She has a brief moment of friendship with Dinah Lance, who becomes the Black Canary, when Dinah protects a drunken Harley from being taken away by two men.  But there's no real sense of connection.  These encounters don't require or inspire Harley to modify her behaviour.

It's only when she takes in Cassandra that her actions begin to change.  As she so eloquently puts it: "You make me want to be a less terrible person."  It's the first time that someone has looked up to her and recognized her talents, rather than using or dismissing her.

Protecting Cassandra and fighting alongside the nascent Birds of Prey demonstrates that her brief flare of loyalty in Suicide Squad wasn't an anomaly.  She's still nowhere near being a hero, but the character is much more sympathetic and understandable in Birds of Prey than she was in Suicide Squad.  Most of the difference is conveyed in Margot Robbie's body language.  By removing the aggressive sexuality from her performance in Suicide Squad, the character immediately seems more innocent and childlike.  But she also has more understandable reasons for her actions and choices.

To me, the biggest difference is that in Birds of Prey, the story is centered around Harley in her own right.  In Suicide Squad, she is defined by her relationship with the Joker.  It motivates every choice she makes.  There's something celebratory in seeing a character break free from an abusive relationship and redefine themselves in their own terms.  And there's a cathartic vicarious enjoyment in a character who refuses to obey the rules of society.  Harley Quinn gives us both in Birds of Prey.

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Monday, 16 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 8 to 14 (COVID)

Weekly word count: 1735
Editing countdown: 38 chapters done, 10 to go, 2 weeks left to deadline.

I'm hoping to get Division done for line editing at the end of this week.  However, I'm going to have two kids home instead of at their March Break camps, so we'll see how that actually works out.

I keep telling myself that I'm not worried about the COVID pandemic.  Canada's got a pretty strong pandemic response and we're acting quickly to contain it.  I agree with statements like: if this ends up being no big deal and looking like we've overreacted, then we've done our job.  So I'm in favour of the measures taken.

That said, I'm finding it hard to keep my primal brain from getting into OMG territory.  I went to pick up groceries and found myself having a visceral reaction to the empty shelves.  I know there are more groceries arriving soon and there's no risk of a shortage (aside from perhaps the start of this week), but there's something about seeing those gaps that makes the back part of my brain start shouting.  And it's not fun to have to keep reminding myself that this is not a panic-necessary situation.  (In case you're curious, this is why so many of my characters have internal brain vs brain struggles.)

Fear is good.  Fear alerts you to a risk and give you the awareness and impetus to protect yourself.  Panic is not good.  (Though there is a theory that panic evolved as a last-ditch brainstorming method.  If you're in an about-to-die situation, then you might as well try anything because there's nothing to lose.  But we're not in an about-to-die situation.)

Last week's Tarot reading was the Chariot (balance), the seven of wands (hold firm), and the six of cups reversed (living in the past).  I'd pointed out that I have any number of ongoing situations which require me to find the balancing point between priorities and responsibilities.  And I'm stubborn, so holding firm is my jam.  But I didn't quite figure out what the living in the past card meant.  If it had been the Tower, then that would indicate a dramatic shift in the environment, but the six of cups is more about nostalgia and looking backwards instead of paying attention to what's in front of you.

This week's reading was the Devil reversed for the past.  That usually indicates a need for freedom, to break loose from the self-imposed restrictions holding you back.  For the present, I drew the Queen of Wands, reversed.  She could indicate a person working against my career ambitions, or be a warning against inflexibility.  The last card was the ace of coins for the future, a new venture/business or a material windfall.

Since I also have the Devil, I'm going to guess that the Queen is warning against inflexibility instead of indicating a person.  That would make sense in terms of consistency.  Coins deal with the physical world: housing and finances mostly.  So the ace is predicting a start of something unexpected financially.  Maybe my lotto ticket is about to pay off.

Hey, a girl can dream.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Advice for New Independent Authors

Making the transition from writing as a hobby to a career as an author involves a lot of decisions.  Today at Ottawa Romance Writers, we were offering advice for those who want to publish independently and I wanted to share it.

I will assume that a manuscript has been completed, professionally edited and that a cover is ready to go.  But now what?

First decision: do you want to distribute widely or stick with Amazon's Kindle Unlimited?

This decision will determine a lot of the choices that follow.  What tends to be currently popular on Kindle Unlimited are shorter stories (50k or less) with a frequent rate of publication (at least once a month).  Kobo and iBooks are claiming increasingly large shares of the publishing market, but going wide means not being able to participate in Kindle Unlimited.

If you decide to stick with Amazon and Kindle, then you only need to work with Amazon KDP.  If you would like to go wide and want to keep things simple, then I recommend Direct 2 Digital, which allows you to use one platform to access all of the online publishing options.  Personally, I also recommend publishing directly with Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks (though only if you have a Mac) but if you're just getting started, only having one spot to check can help to keep things manageable.

Second decision: set up your online presence.

First things first, I recommend setting up your website and your mailing list.  I use Mailchimp but I know authors who prefer Mailerlite.  For websites, you can go directly with Wordpress or a company like Wix or GoDaddy.  But your website is going to be the base for your presence online and, unlike social media, your mailing list is something you control.

After you have a website and a way for readers to sign up for your mailing list, then you'll need to decide how often you'll send out a newsletter or do a blog.  The book Newsletter Ninja has some great recommendations for creating an engaged newsletter audience.  And for authors who don't publish rapidly, a regular blog can be a good way to keep yourself in your readers' minds.  However often you decide to publish a blogpost, make sure it's a schedule you can keep up reliably.

Social media is still a good way to connect organically with readers, though most platforms now require you to pay in order to advertise.  There are lots of choices, so choose the ones that work best for you and match your interests and personality.  I find Hootsuite makes it easy for me to manage my social media feeds by scheduling posts in advance.

Third decision: what's your promotion strategy?

The biggest challenge to making sales as an author is discoverability, letting readers who would love your book know that it exists.  Increasing your discoverability takes both time and money, so it will be up to you to make a budget for both.

When I first began publishing, blog tours and bloggers were one of the best ways to introduce yourself to new readers.  Unfortunately, that's no longer as effective as it was.  A number of review sites require a fee to submit your book (which is fair, given how much time bloggers spend reading books, writing reviews, and promoting authors).

Paid advertising on Bookbub, Amazon, and Facebook can help you to reach new readers, but it will be up to you to decide how much you want to spend.  Kobo runs promotions for their directly published authors, but you need to apply for them.  Which means you need to apply regularly, which takes time.

Multi-author promotions can work, but often require an investment in swag or book giveaways.  Conferences will also give you an opportunity to connect with readers, but again require a substantial investment in time and money.

Finding a strategy that works for you will be a matter of trial and error and it will be constantly evolving as the market evolves.  Tracking which promotions you try and your sales can help you to figure out which strategies were most effective.

I wish I had a guaranteed "this will always work" option to offer, but sadly, what works for one author won't necessarily work for another.  This is one of the reasons why we spend so much time complaining about how hard writing can be.  Because it can be a frustrating challenge to spend so much time crafting a story that means so much to you, and then have to spend your time coaxing readers to give it a try instead of writing new stories.

But even with the frustration, it's still the best job I've ever had.  And I'm thrilled and honored with every new reader who decides to give me a chance.

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Monday, 9 March 2020

Weekly Update: March 1 to 7

Weekly Word Count: 4725
Editing Countdown: 26 chapters done, 3 weeks to go

It’s been a pretty productive week writing wise, though I need to keep reminding myself that this is not a sustainable model.  I’ve been using my regular weekday writing time to move forward on Until Proven Guilty.  I’ve set myself a fairly gentle word count goal of 2500 words per week, and thus far, I’ve been able to do that.

I’m editing in the evening after the kids have gone to bed, though I’ve needed to use one or two weekday writing spots when I’ve needed to substantially rework a scene.  This means I’m going to bed later than I usually would and I’m having a harder time falling asleep because I’m not having my usual “coax my brain to zone out” time in the evenings.  However, this will be something I can recover from once Division goes to the editor for line edits.

In the past, I’ve told myself that I should have a word count goal of 5000 words from my weekday spots and that I should also be trying to write 500 words on a secondary project at least 3 times in the week.  (With the somewhat arrogant assumption from my inner perfectionist, that I could do 500 words in the evening 7 days a week, if I wasn’t being so lazy.  I have words for that part of my brain, but they’re mostly profanities so I won’t repeat them here.)

I can’t do that.  I can manage to push myself for a short period but then I need a gap of no writing to recover and I end up further behind than if I’d just stuck to more moderate goals to begin with.  So I’ll use it when I’m coming up on a deadline, but otherwise, I’m trying to be better about saying “it’s okay if this is what you can do” to myself.

Last week’s Tarot reading was the nine of Swords, reversed (nightmares/depression), the Hanging Man reversed (end of limbo), and the four of coins reversed (money problems).  I speculated it might have something to do with my statement from Soul Mate Publishing coming in.  And it certainly does fit the first two.  I’ve had a lot of anxiety, wondering what my first three months of sales were like (and I’m always expecting the worst).  Receiving the report that details the number of sales and borrows from KU put an end to that.  For better or for worse, I know how it went now.  And for the record, it actually did fairly decently, compared to my other most recent releases.  However, it doesn’t quite fit the “money problems” prediction.  Granted, it would be an issue if I was planning to live on those royalties, but that’s never been the plan.

The other part of my life that had an end to limbo was me being accepted for a graduate program at college.  My work has asked me to get my Human Resources Management certification, and as part of that, I need to go back to school.  However, I don’t think that one fits very well since I haven’t been anxious about it and work is covering the expenses.

This week’s Tarot reading began with the Chariot for the past.  The card shows a cart being drawn by two horses, each pulling in a slightly different direction.  The Chariot is all about finding a middle road and a balance between powerful opposing forces or important personal goals. For the present, I drew the seven of Wands.  It indicates that there are forces attacking my position but that I have the high ground and should hold firm in the face of challenge.  I call it the “nevertheless, she persisted” card, for my own amusement.  For the future, I drew the six of Cups, reversed, which suggests an unhealthy nostalgia or someone who is focused on the past to the detriment of the future.

There are plenty of aspects of my life which would qualify as a balancing act between opposing forces and desires, so that doesn’t narrow anything down.  There are also plenty of situations where I am fighting against what feels like entrenched forces.  The living in the past card is the most interesting one in this spread, in my opinion.  Like most people, I can find myself stuck in a loop of past mistakes, or be frustrated in how things haven’t worked out the way I’d hoped.  Does that count as living in the past?  I’m not sure.  I guess I’ll see what happens this week and see if it gives any insight.