Thursday, 31 December 2020

To Epilogue or Not To Epilogue

Every couple of months, there will be a debate in the writers' corners of social media.  Are epilogues a good tool for wrapping up a story or are they the tool of a lazy writer who should have made the ending clear within the main plot?  In other words, are they useful/enjoyable or not useful/enjoyable?

For the most part, I like epilogues, so I usually just shrug and say "No one's forcing you to read them if you don't like them" to myself and move on to the next amusing cat video.

However, the last time this debate circled, I actually asked myself the question: why do I like epilogues?  Their critics raise valuable points: an epilogue shouldn't be necessary to complete the story, and they are often used as bait-hooks which can leave the story feeling incomplete.  I've been annoyed by some epilogues in the past, so why do I continue to believe that some stories need an epilogue in order to work?

I sat down to figure it out.  And now I'm sharing my conclusions with you. (I'll mostly be talking about romance novels since that's most of what I read these days.)

The most consistent factor that makes an epilogue satisfactory (in my opinion) is the timeline/pacing of the main story and the main characters' relationship.  When I'm reading a fast-paced suspense novel, the epilogue is a welcome opportunity to breathe.  It's a chance for the author to show me that the characters have overcome their challenges and have a smoother path ahead.  Especially in romance stories, I like to know that the characters are still finding their happily ever after with one another, without the stress of saving the world, or being on the run, or whatever other danger has overshadowed the relationship to that point.

Perhaps I'm too much of a realist to put my faith in a relationship that has only existed under high stress and forced proximity.  Especially if the individuals in question have spent most of the story fighting their feelings for one another.  In those cases, an epilogue reassures me that the ending really was the start of a happily ever after.  Seeing the couple a few months or a few years after the official end gives me that contentment.  I don't need them to have gotten married or have kids, or anything like that.  I just need to know that they're still happy and together.

Another factor that makes an epilogue necessary (again, in my opinion) is when the conflict of the relationship has been solved via a grand gesture.  If I am reading a character who has chosen to self-sabotage their feelings (eg.: pushing their love away to "keep them safe" or because "they deserve better" or because the character thinks they'll only screw everything up) then I need to know that they have truly overcome their tendency to run away rather than face their problems.  A grand gesture can be wonderful, but it's only one moment in the character's history.  If there are lots of other moments where they've made the wrong choice, then that one moment isn't enough to convince me of the change.  I need to see that they've sustained it over time.

This also applies when a character is struggling with addiction as part of their arc.  Relapse is an expected and frequent part of recovery, so I need to know they've made it through those initial hurdles.

Critics are right when they say that an epilogue shouldn't be necessary.  All the crucial plot elements and character growth should happen in the main story.  But an epilogue can provide reassurance to the reader.  It gives comfort and a sense of security.

That's what an epilogue should do.  It shouldn't be used to undermine the main story or to solely provide a hook for the next book in the series.  It should enhance and support the main story, relieving any lingering tension for the reader.

I suppose, by this definition, the epilogue isn't necessary.  The conflict has been resolved and what the epilogue shows is that it has remained resolved.  For some readers, they may not need the reassurance that everything continues to be okay.  And that's all right, they can skip it and move on to their next read in perfect confidence.  But for those of us who wonder what happened after The End, an epilogue can be a perfectly enjoyable thing.  Like dessert after a good meal.  It might not be necessary, but it is satisfying.

In other words: "No one's forcing you to read them if you don't like them" so please, let's all agree to disagree and finish by watching this adorable cat video.

Previous Blogpost: Learning From Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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Thursday, 24 December 2020

Learning from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

When I first began to write, one of the common pieces of advice was to learn good story structure from the books and movies I enjoyed.  This is good advice, but I've found that I often learn more from bad stories, the ones I should have enjoyed, but didn't.  Figuring out why those stories didn't work and plotting out how I would have done them differently has taught me a lot about editing and story-telling. (Warning: this post will contain spoilers)

I'm sure I'm not the only one for whom the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a holiday staple.  And I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds herself wincing through the nostalgia.  The story itself is pretty good and it has a lovely message about being true to yourself and found families, but there are a lot of dated approaches and references that grate on a current viewing.  So this month, I decided to think about how it could be updated, while still keeping the good parts.

First off, let's look at what works.  I love the stop-motion aesthetic and think it works really well for a fanciful holiday story.  I like that Rudolph leaves the North Pole to try and find a place that he belongs, but ends up finding it among friends who also don't fit in.  I think that part of the story speaks to a lot of us who felt like outsiders growing up.  From the moment Rudolph leaves with Hermey, the plot flows nicely.  They run into the prospector, Cornelius, and the Abominable Snowman (Bumble).  They float off on an iceflow and find the Island of Misfit Toys.  Rudolph sneaks away, afraid that his nose is drawing the Bumble and endangering his friends.  Then there's a growing up montage, and he decides to go home and confront his family.  He discovers his family is gone and goes to rescue them from the Bumble, but only succeeds with the help of his friends.  Then they all return to the North Pole and Rudolph helps Santa save Christmas.

That's good.  What's not good are the repeated sexist references sprinkled throughout the story.  Any reference to "not for does, this is bucks' work" needs to be ditched immediately.  Next to go can be the references to what "makes Christmas"; such as silver and gold ornaments on a tree or lots of toys.  There are too many families celebrating in too many ways to declare something as a required Christmas experience.  Luckily, those things are fairly minor.  They don't affect the plot and are mostly asides which don't even drive dialogue.

Slightly harder is toning down the rejection from Santa and Rudolph's parents.  It makes them very difficult to like.  I honestly think an updated version would provide a powerful opportunity to examine how painful microaggressions can be.  Most people would already agree that Rudolph's parents treating him as a freak is bad.  But most people don't understand how a careless comment or joke can cause harm.  I would probably write the introduction as Rudolph is shy, his parents encourage him to be himself, but he still faces rejection from the other reindeer.  That would allow the message of self-acceptance to be more resonant.

There is a bit of a nasty undercurrent to the 1964 story.  The misfits are only accepted because they are useful.  But people don't have to be useful to be accepted.  By changing it so that Rudolph has a supportive family, he's got an unconditional place to belong.  And by gaining friends, he learns that he doesn't need to rely on his reindeer peers for acceptance.

It also would add poignancy to the Island of Misfit Toys (which is my favourite part - side note: I wanted an elephant with pink polkadots and a swimming bird).  These are toys that self-loathe themselves because they don't fit in.  Except their differences make them the perfect toys for particular children.  There are people waiting to love them just as they are, which is a fantastic message for a children's movie.  I would make that part more explicit, showing them being happy with different children.

The music would have to be updated.  The songs are mostly forgettable, aside from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Holly, Jolly Christmas.  And since I'm partial to musicals, I'd keep the key points of the story tied into music.

I would also tweak Cornelius.  Rather than having him be a prospector, I'd make him a naturalist or an environmentalist (which is why he knows so much about Bumbles!).  He finds and helps Hermey and Rudolph.

The ending also needs work.  I'm not a big fan of pulling out the Bumble's teeth to make him helpless.  I'd much rather Cornelius be working with him and ends up gentling him so that the North Pole doesn't have to be afraid any more.  And Hermey gets accepted because Santa has a nasty toothache (and that's why he didn't want to eat).  He fixes it and Santa makes him the official North Pole dentist.  Rudolph can still save Christmas, but he tells the other reindeer that he doesn't need them to be his friends.  He knows who he is and he's proud to be red-nosed.

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Previous blog post: Things I Love: December 2020

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Thursday, 17 December 2020

Things I Love: December 2020

 I've decided to start a new monthly feature sharing what I'm currently enjoying.  This year has been so difficult and finding joy has been a challenge, so here's some fun stuff that's made my life livable.


I've been reading Shiloh Walker's Barnes Brother series and Erica Kelly's Rock Star Romance series.

I really like the Barnes Brother books because there's a rawness to them that speaks to me.  In Wrecked, Abby is trying to reclaim her life and her identity.  She's spent a long time trying to be what she should be and trying to fit her life into preconceived boxes.  It's scary for her to abandon that structure and be free.  I connected with that.  In Razed, Keelie is struggling with a guilty past she doesn't want to talk about but is also facing life with a "f*ck you" attitude.  In Busted, there's a beautiful slow burn romance between two people who aren't looking for it any more.  That one is my favourite and the one I've re-read most often.  Ruined is a powerful story about recovery and being true to one's authentic self.

The Erica Kelly series is full of energy and fire.  It pairs some of my favourite things: music and happily ever afters.  Everyone is trying to find success in their own way and the first two books touch strongly on the dangers of addiction and how prevalent it can be in the performance industry.  The third book, Take Me Home Tonight, explores the challenge of finding a new normal after a traumatic event.

This bit is a highly personal reason why I love these books.  My 16 year old son is a huge 80's rock fan and whenever he sees these books on the table, he begins to sing the title songs.

TV Shows:

I've got a couple of shows on the go right now that I'm enjoying.

First and most enjoyment is The Mandalorian.  It's intergalactic bounty hunter single dad catnip to me.  It's Star Wars, it's a "character wanders through different places and becomes involved in local issues" Western-esque, it's a guy learning to be a dad to a superpowered infant.  All things I absolutely love (and all I can share without spoilers!)

A new one that I'm catching up on is Suits.  I love law shows that actually look at the law and this one is full of geek references and witty dialogue.  This one got me with an exchange between Harvey and Mike.  "What's the gun for?"  "We're going to go start a knife fight."  I was braced to DNF the series quickly, but instead I got sucked in by the amazing characters.  
The heroines are wonderfully written and complex individuals.  I love Donna's independence and competence and Jessica's cool superiority and control.  I'd probably love it more if it was all about them, but the heroes aren't too bad either.  I'm on Season 3 and I'm even starting to have a grudging admiration for Lewis Litt.

And one more that I'm so thrilled to find on my Disney plus plan is Once Upon A Time In Wonderland.  It was a single season but I enjoyed it so much!  I wasn't a fan of the original Once Upon A Time but I caught the Wonderland version while channel flipping and just adored it.  (Eventually I went back and did enjoy the original but it took effort.)  The season arc is a beautiful romance novel between Alice and Cyrus (a genie) and has a brilliant set of villains with Emma Rigby as The Red Queen and Naveen Andrews as Jafar.

Fictional Crushes and Fanfic

I have a fickle heart when it comes to my fictional crushes.  Or maybe it's just a broadly appreciative taste for hotness in all its wonderful forms.  But no list of the things that I'm enjoying would be complete without the imaginary stories I find myself composing.  Creating a little fanfic is one of the primary ways I cope with difficult situations.  It never fails to re-energize me.

I've had two which have dominated my imagination of late: Pedro Pascal as The Mandalorian and Gabriel Luna as Ghost Rider (from Season 3 of Agents of SHIELD).  For my Mandalorian fanfic, I created a plucky, cheerful Force-sensitive engineer (think Kaylee from Firefly as a Jedi) who joins the Razorcrest to keep it flying and to watch over Baby Yoda when the Mandalorian is busy mandalor-ing.  For Ghost Rider, I paired him with Firestar (from The Amazing Spider-Man and Friends Saturday morning cartoon) but I made her an independent superhero who is also working as an accessibility consultant for the university that Robbie Reyes's paralyzed brother attends.  The two of them team up for justice and vengeance.

And of course, each partnership ends up having Feelings.  And Kissing.  And More Feelings.  Because the lack of that is why I write superhero romance to start with.

And I have to share one cool (though minimal) brush with celebrity.  A friend on Twitter wished me a good night's sleep.  I replied that I'd gotten it, including a weird dream about me and Gabriel Luna being in a pancake making contest.

His twitter account liked it!  I had a moment of geek excitement and no one to share it with.  Luckily, I can share it now.


Last but not least, I'll share the songs that I've been finding myself playing on repeat a lot.  Losing myself in music is my preferred form of meditation and I often connect songs with scenes or stories.

I've been listening to ADONA's Hit Me With Your Best Shot (a cover of the Pat Benetar classic that was featured in the Birds of Prey movie).  It's a haunting, slow version of the original and to me, it's perfect for someone slowly standing up against someone who has been hurting them and refusing to back down.  

Another one I've just been loving is Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande's Rain On Me.  It's an energizing pop-dance song.  I love the harmonies between Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande and it instantly gets my toes tapping.

Previous blogpost: Reclaiming My HEA: Better Living Through Crushes

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Thursday, 10 December 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Part Three - Better Living Through Crushes

Reclaiming My HEA is a monthly feature where I share my progress through my separation and divorce.  Starting last month, I'm including snippets of a therapy exercise where I imagine myself in a healthy relationship.  The purpose is to remind myself of what a supportive, caring partner would be like, to try and offset the effects of over a decade without one.

I was recently asked to list off the names of people that I find attractive.  Hmm, thinking about cute guys... what a hardship.  Being firmly committed to my psychological recovery, I devoted myself to the task.

I am nothing if not thorough for my mental health.

As I compiled my list, two things became very obvious.  First: I have a lot of crushes.  Second: every one of those crushes are on fictional characters.

In some ways, it's not surprising.  Thirsting about fictional characters has none of the potential complications or ickiness of fantasizing about real world people.  One knows the inner heart of fictional characters, so there's no danger of discovering that one's crush is actually an asshole.  (Unless assholery is what works for you.)  Fictional characters are safely remote, never disappointing a person.  There's no risk of rejection or any other unpleasant consequence.  They're the safest kind of crush there is.

There's another bonus, especially if, like me, the fictional characters also tend to be superheroes.  They're also capable of larger than life actions.  They have superpowers.  They possess superior fighting skills.  They are deeply protective, especially when they love someone.  They are knights (in shining armor or otherwise) who are always willing to ride to the rescue.

In my fiction, I like a balanced rescuing on all sides.  However, I will admit that the idea of being rescued is extremely appealing to me.  In reality, I've been exhaustively doing the rescuing for a long time and it would be so refreshing to have someone else to rely on.  To not have to be on guard all the time.

The question is: what would I consider a rescue?  I don't need someone to snatch the mystical McGuffin or rip apart the fabric of space-time.

What I want is someone to give me a hug when I've had a hard day.  Someone who will tell me that they have faith in me and who will offer to help me, whether it's something simple like getting dinner started or more complicated like researching different school choices.  Someone who doesn't have to be asked to participate in the household.  Someone who wants to help and support me, because that's what people who are in love do for one another.

And, to be honest, that seems more fantastical than a guy who can bench-press a helicopter right now.  But I have to believe it's possible.

This month's snippet is my own version of a rescue.

   It had been one hell of a day.  From the moment I woke up, it seemed I was falling further and further behind.  My to-do list kept getting larger and larger and everything seemed to be utterly crucial.  As I struggled up to the house with grocery bags, I was so exhausted and overwhelmed that I was ready to cry.

   I fumbled with my keys, dropping them into the snow.  Great.  I put down the heavy bags, wincing at the icy chill on my fingers as I plucked the ring from the fluffy ice crystals.  Before I could shove the key into the lock, the front door opened.

   "Hey, I thought I heard the car," he said. "Let me give you a hand."

   My brain was too tired to come up with anything witty.  "I thought you were out of town until the weekend."

   He easily hefted three of the overloaded bags, leaving one for me.  "I finished up early.  I missed you."

  "I missed you, too."  The words were automatic, though the sentiment was genuine.  Or at least it would be once I got enough rest to wake up my benumbed brain and heart.  As I stepped into the house, I stopped, unable to believe my eyes.

   The toys scattered all over the floor had been tidied up.  My stack of library books was gone and a new selection waited in its place.  A neat pile of envelopes waited for my perusal.  He'd cleaned, gone to the library, and checked the mailbox.  My jaw was slack as I stumbled through to the kitchen.

   Pasta bubbled on the stove and a pan of tomato sauce simmered on another burner.

   He cooked dinner.  Tears pricked my eyes.

   "Hey, what's wrong?" he asked, concerned.

   "Five seconds ago, I was worrying about the kids eating late and having to pay late fines and when I was going to pick up the gift for the birthday party this weekend and my computer broke at work and people kept yelling at me because nothing was working and--"

   "Got it."  He wrapped his arms around me and planted a kiss on the top of my head.  "Bad day."

   "Yeah."  I sniffled.

   "I got you," he whispered in my ear.  "You don't have to do it alone any more."

Previous Reclaiming My HEA: Part Two - Practice Makes Perfect

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Thursday, 3 December 2020

Missing My Writing Retreat

 Usually, the first week of November finds me on a beach in South Carolina with 10-12 other writers, enjoying a writers' retreat.  For 2020, even before the pandemic hit, we were nervous about being in the United States during what was expected to be a highly polarizing election.  With Corona, it became a non-decision: any thought of the trip was cancelled.

Writing retreats are one of the ways I keep up my writing progress through the year.  I've got a lot of responsibilities at home, plus a full time job, so my writing time is pretty minimal.  In a typical year, I can manage 4000-6000 words per week, but on a writing retreat, I can often do 20 000 to 25 000 words, which is a major jump forward.  Being able to just concentrate on my writing, plus the fun, energy-boost of being around some amazing and entertaining folk turns on the creative flow at full volume.  (The relative warmth and sunshine helps too, energizing my inner lizard from winter sleep to summer productivity.)

I really miss having that break this year.

Pictured: not this November

However, I have a bunch of unclaimed time-for-time through my day job, so I decided to try an at-home writing retreat.  I've been managing about 1000-1500 words per week since the kids went back to school in September.  For my writing retreat, I did about 8000 words, which puts me within a chapter or two of finishing my WIP.  (For those looking for perspective, a 300 page book is about 90 000 words, and my books tend to be 100 000 to 130 000 words.)

It's hard not to compare what I usually do on a writing retreat with what I was able to do this time.  Usually I write for about 5-7 hours throughout the day.  For this week, I wrote for 2-4 hours.  I am very aware that my energy levels are still quite fragile and that I needed to be able to preserve enough to function as a parent during the evening.

I'm glad I took the time.  It felt good to be able to concentrate on my writing.  I've had to switch my writing time from the afternoon (when I was traditionally able to do 1500-2500 words in 90 minutes) to the morning (where I'm only able to do 500-700 words in the same amount of time).  Usually I have to turn off my computer when the words are just starting to flow and I can feel my brain starting to spark with ideas.  For this week, I could keep going and it was a real pleasure.

Going back to the regular routine is hard, but its necessary.  I do like my day job and the people I work with, but it's not my heart's calling.  I keep hoping that someday I'll make enough money with selling stories to support myself and my family.  That would be one of my happily ever afters.