Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thursday's Children Blog Hop: Shivs, Slugs, And Shamuses


"Aw, lay off the business. It's like any other business, only here the blood shows." -Midge Kelly, Champion (1949)

I love a good, hard-boiled detective story.

You know the kind I mean.  The Big Sleep.  The Maltese Falcon.  The Kinsey Milhone mysteries.

I've been watching film noir for years now.  Recently, I realized it's been influencing my writing that entire time, even though I didn't always realize it.  There are a few things they all have in common that continually resonate with me:

1. Flawed heroes.  I love noir heroes.  The best ones are jaded, tortured, self-deprecating, and yet are tasked with protecting what little good exists in the world.  They always come through in the end, but far from being made whole by the journey, oftentimes they're left even more tortured than when they began.

2. Sympathetic villains.  Noir heroes and noir villains are opposite sides of the same coin.  Noir villains are the physical embodiments of the worst aspects of noir heroes.  Everything they do, the hero can understand, even empathize with, because deep down he's thought of doing the same thing himself.

3. Intense locales.  Noir settings play as much a role in the story as the characters do -in fact, they are often characters in their own rights.  Dark, ominous, they aid the villain and force the hero to rely on his wits to solve the mystery and stay alive.

4. Femme fatales.  If the noir villain is the opposite side of the hero, the femme fatale is the hero.  In an interview discussing his new noir series, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), put it best: "They're both making their own moral path through a world that is sinister and secretive. ...(they) are unapologetic about making their way in a world that seems to have no place for them."

5. Uncomfortable endings.  Don't watch a film noir if you're looking for a warm, fuzzy, Happily-Ever-After.  True noir rarely ends well.  Sometimes the good guys don't come out on top, and even if they defeat the villains, it is usually a hollow victory.

A lot of these elements have showed up in my writing.  Now that I've lifted them from my self-conscious, I expect they will even more in the future.

Not familiar with film noir?  Here are a few of my favorites to get you started:
The Maltese Falcon
The Lady From Shanghai
The Big Sleep

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thursday's Children Blog Hop: Body Art

 “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” -Rumi

I've been fascinated by scars since I was a kid.

Every scar is different.  Some add a dash of character.  Others horribly disfigure.  But all require the bearer to reevaluate a piece of their identity.

Scars are the body's way of healing itself.  It's almost miraculous, really.  Even if the object that caused the initial wound is still lodged inside, the body will weave a web of scar tissue around it.  The object becomes part of the body it injured.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who had been badly burned as a child.  She carried scars over 60% of her body.

She was one of the most beautiful people I'd ever known.

She bore her scars with the confidence only acquired by survivors of terrible things.  She was smart.  She was funny.  She was a force.

I've always wondered about the journey it takes to get to that point.

As writers, most of us start with scarred characters -if not physically, then emotionally.  Their internal struggle often makes up the meat of what we write.  At least, it does for me. 

It's not often in our society we get to meet tough -truly tough- people.  Most of the scarred people I've talked to are strong, kind, wise beyond their years.  They've integrated their scars into their personal view of themselves, and they are never the same.

If anything, they're stronger.     

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Burlesque Wednesday: Pearls and Mirrors

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Monday, April 15, 2013

How Tough Is Too Tough For A Romance Novel?

"A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom" -Dick Powell, Farewell, My Lovely 

Romance is not traditionally known as a "gritty" genre.

In one of the first reviews I received for All That Glitters, the reviewer commented on how I had the villain take a life.  She wasn't put off by this- in fact, I got the impression she saw it as a plus- but the fact that she mentioned it at all was telling.

Vivid descriptions of violence or brutality used to be reserved for, well, every genre but romance.  Romance was where you came for the warm fuzzies, the champagne bubbles, the Happily Ever After.  Too much grit was deemed inappropriate.

But romance is changing.  All the genres are.  Self-publishing, especially, has broken, reformed, and broken all the rules again.  Authors have more leeway to write the books they want to write, and readers have access to stories that previously never made it past the editorial board.

So in a literary world where there are no hard-and-fast rules, how do you know when you've crossed a line?

There seem to be different standards for different romance subgenres.  Romantic suspense, for example, can get away with more violence than contemporary romance.  In dystopian romance, violence is almost required.  Inspirational romance allows for nearly none.

Personally, I'm playing things by ear.  My story ideas lend themselves to a higher level of violence, so I go with it.  So far, the response has been positive.  I think romance readers are ready for more "toughness" in the genre.

And finally, writers are in a position to deliver.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thursday's Children Blog Hop: Ode To The Asshole

"I'm not a tough guy.  I'm just delivering the truth and the only truth and if you can't deal with it, too bad." -Kevin O'Leary

In a previous post, I talked about what constitutes a "tough" woman (if you missed "Ode To The Bitch", you can find it here).  I wanted to talk about women because oftentimes, tough women are a mystery.  But that post got me thinking.

What about men?

Tough guys have been reduced to caricatures in our society.  The street thug.  The gangbanger.  The dumb goon.  "Toughness" in men is associated with being dangerous, mean, even abusive.

I have a different idea of what it means to be tough.

I've known a lot of tough men.  To the person, they blow the stereotypes out of the water. 

Here's what they've taught me about what it really means to be a tough guy.

Tough guys don't advertise.  If you have to tell someone you're a tough guy -by how you talk, walk, or dress- odds are you're not as tough as you think you are.  The toughest guys I've ever met look just like everyone else... until someone crosses that uncrossable line.

Then watch out.

Tough guys crack jokes, not just skulls.  All the tough guys I've met are rib-shatteringly funny.  I don't know why this is.  Maybe it's a way to diffuse a bad situation before it develops- I honestly have no idea.

It's not exactly a requirement, but if you come across a guy with a wicked sense of humor, odds are, he can hold his own when it's called for.

Tough guys look out for those weaker than them.  This includes women, children, old people, even other men.  Anyone who takes advantage of or tries to intimidate others isn't a tough guy; he's a bully.

Tough guys take care of themselves.  I'm not just talking about in a fight.  They can sew a button, do their own laundry, throw together an edible meal.  True tough guys don't rely on other people to look after them.  They look after themselves.

Tough guys don't start fights- they finish them.  You won't find a tough guy picking fights.  Tough guys know the damage they can do, and in most situations, would prefer to just walk away.

But don't think that means they won't fight.  Hurt someone they care about or throw the first punch, and they'll make sure you never make the same mistake twice.

Tough guys need tough women.  Relationships succeed when both parties are equal.  The only person equal to a tough guy is a tough woman.  She sees through the bluster and the bullshit, and knows a tough guy will treat her the way she deserves.

The opposite is also true.  Tough guys look at a woman other people might dismiss as a "bitch", and see someone who will be able to keep up.  Plus, they love a challenge, and nothing is more challenging than winning a tough woman's heart.

They may not draw attention to themselves, but there are still tough guys out there, if you know where to look.  They are infinitely more interesting -and infinitely tougher- than anything Hollywood could come up with.

And they're the men I choose to base my heroes on.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Ode To The Bitch

"My grandmother was a very tough woman.  She buried three husbands, and two of them were just napping." -Rita Rudner

I love writing about tough women.  My heroines can give a punch, take a punch, take a shot, ride a motorcycle, dance, sing, play an instrument.  If that's not tough, I don't know what is.

But how do you know whether a woman is tough, or just a cunt?  One is not synonymous with the other.  I've known lots of incredibly nice, considerate women who were tough as old boot leather.  I've also known plenty of women who thought they were "tough", but really were just jerks.

So what criteria do I use when creating a tough woman?  The same criteria I use in my own life to determine whether I'm dealing with a bona fide bitch, or just a poser.

Here are a few checkpoints for your consideration:

Tough women know when to stand their ground.  I can remember a few times in my life when I should have staked out a position, but didn't.  I can also remember a few times when I did, even though it was messy.

Sometimes, you need to let people know where you stand.  It's called setting boundaries.  Tough women realize when to set boundaries, and they know how to do it.

Tough women know how to roll with the punches.  There are also things that aren't worth getting into a brawl over.  For all the times you need to set boundaries, there are also times to let things slide.  Not everything has to turn into a fistfight.  Not everything should.

Tough women look at people who get angry and offended at everything, and shake their heads.  They prefer to save their strength for the battles that count.

Tough women are fierce friends, loyal partners, and grizzly mamas.  Shit-talkers, backstabbers, and cheaters need not apply.  Whether it be a friend's ex who needs dressing down, or the neighborhood bully who always picks on their kid brother, tough women go to bat for the people they care about.

Tough women know how to drink.  They know how to take a shot, and they know when to stop.  Sometimes they push the limits, but it's never by accident.  I like to think tough women have a special appreciation for straight whiskey, too, but that might just be me.

Tough women know they're not perfect.  The most interesting people have flaws.  Tough women are intimately familiar with theirs.  Sometimes they even work on them.

But you won't see a tough woman beating herself up over things she can't change.  If it's fixable, she fixes it without a fuss.  If it's not, she embraces it as a part of her fabulous self, and moves on.

Tough women know other people aren't perfect.  I used to have a supervisor whose idea of "supervising" was snapping at and putting down our fellow co-workers.  She thought she was being assertive.  Needless to say, no one liked -or respected- her much.

Truly tough women understand people mess up sometimes, and leave room for forgiveness when that happens.  But god help you if you're just an asshole.  Tough women might forgive you, but they'll rip you a new one first.

Tough women know how to change a tire (and other things).  There's nothing wrong with asking for help, but tough women only ask as a last resort.  They'll change their own tire, drill their own hole, build their own fence, cook their own dinner.  If there's something they don't know how to do, they prefer to have someone teach them, rather than do it for them.

They take pride in being capable.  And if the doing gets a little dirty, well, all the better.

Tough women love the feel of dirt under their fingernails.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Thursday's Children Blog Hop: I Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest  

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” -Carl Jung

There's a reason I choose to write about tough, damaged people: it's a subject I am intimately familiar with.

When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with depression, among other things.  I was sent to a lock-down residential treatment center in the middle of a Utah cow pasture, where I lived for a year.  I met a lot of tough, damaged people, some of whom are probably still fighting their demons today. 

I won't detail the whole long, arduous journey back.  Not because I don't want to, but because I can't.  I'm still not really sure what happened.  It just suddenly hit me one day that the only person who was going to change my life was me.  So I did, and I've never looked back.

Still, it's a funny thing, a place like that.  You feel like you're never going to get out when you're there, but then one day you're suddenly sitting in a coffee shop, thinking back on the whole experience, marveling that it's over.  You spend a lot of time wondering if it actually is.

Institutionalization is a powerful thing.

You're not quite "normal" for a while.  It took me a full six months to be able to pee without asking permission.  And even once you get back to "normal", you're never quite the same.

You learn things that change you.  You can't bullshit a bullshitter.  Art forged from despair is the most powerful voodoo there is.  The best lie is the one that fools the liar.  No one can sabotage you better than you can sabotage yourself.  And sometimes in life, you have to find a place to stand.

But perhaps the most useful lesson I learned was how to read people.  Once you know the language of pain, you can recognize it anywhere, no matter what guise it takes.  This is a skill I've learned to temper in my daily interactions, but it's something I use constantly in my writing.

Everyone has a little of the darkness in them.  I explore mine more or less regularly.  I've learned to channel it now, but I remember when I couldn't, and it's made me a more empathetic writer.  When my characters are dealing with their own darkness, I know exactly where they live.

I also know they're going to come out of it.  After all, I did.

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