Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No Leads to Yes: Examples for Writers

I saw the Billy Crystal special on cable TV about 700 Sundays where he talks about his youth and how he wanted to be a NY Yankee or a comedian, or a very funny baseball player. I thought about my early ambitions and realized that we come to ourselves through a long series of ‘Nope, not that,’ or even ‘Been there, done that.’

I only wanted to be a writer -- a Great American Novelist. More specifically, I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t want to be Zelda, the wife of a famous writer. The lifestyle was not my focus, but the stories.

I liked how Fitzgerald used anglo words and sneered at the French language that his buddy Hemingway only side-stepped.  I liked that Fitzgerald exposed the pretension of the new money classes and didn’t require a happy ending for a love story.

Later I discovered Lillian Hellman and wanted to be her, except she was so uncomfortable in her skin (when young). She told the stories from the point of view of the women, even though they were victims of the plot rather than driving the plot. Margaret Atwood does something similar, displaying the women as powerless in a stilted marriage or without funds or smarts to make a difference.

But why not a story where the female lead character drives the action?

You will suggest Sylvia Plath, I’m certain. Nope, not that.

There’s Carson McCullers, of course. Southern Gothic was her genre, and I was influenced by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that I read at an early age. McCullers was sorta chewed up by the NYC writer’s lifestyle, though, as was Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

These stories are presented as confessions, a slice of life, illustrations of the era. Plots were outgrowths of situation following that axiom to write what you know.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
– Dr. Seuess

But my life was boring – well-raised, bookish, affluent, Midwestern (not from the South where they seem to suffer more deeply). So … Nope, not that.

I liked action adventure stories like The Perils of Pauline or Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. I wanted the woman to drive a real plot. Why was that so much to ask?

So I read more stories by women in the fantasy genre like Louise Erdrich who brings in mythical elements from Native Americans, and Juliet Marillier’s series about a Daughter of the Forest. The girl protagonist was typically young and imbued with unusual powers of seeing. Other genre writers sent 14-year-old girls into battle in full armor and wielding a 24-inch battle sword. This impossible heroine makes the same choices a guy would make, except she’s gender female (often a cross-dresser like Arya in Game of Thrones). Nope, not that.

I read Robin Hobb’s many series (series-es) that start with The Assassin’s Apprentice. Hobb certainly has the chops for the fantasy genre with immediacy and surprise. (Dragon warming stations: still too funny!) I wondered why the primary character was not a girl. The female characters (in the early series) were relegated to stilted roles of a candle-maker and a misunderstood queen who wielded minimal powers through example and patience. The many lady-aunties accomplished small victories behind the scenes while presenting a benign presence at court. Nope, not that.

Is the same true for you, dear writer who is reading this blog? Do you come to goals for what you want to accomplish by what you know you don’t want to reinforce? Here are some of my standards I impose for my own stories:

·      Girl protagonist (past age 18) who drives the story
·      The protagonist isn’t isolated – knows her mother and sisters and cousins and opponents
·      Real problems that real women have to solve (without pretending to be a boy)
·      Believable obstacles such as no voice in public and no funds to achieve goals
·      A plot that has a crescendo at the end, not slice of life
·      Each character grows during the story arch (even the men)

This last goal is a pet peeve of mine that I call the Lee Remick syndrome. She played opposite Jack Lemmon in The Days of Wine and Roses. They were both drunks and he went through all the stages including getting clean but backsliding. She kicked him out so she could raise their daughter in a stable life, but he visited during his many ups-and-downs. Each time she opened the door, Remick looked the same, not a line on her face. She may have worn the same wig for the whole movie that spanned a couple of decades. Nope, not that.

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