Elizabeth: Help Me Out Here

Since reality has been laced with so many inexplicable plot twists and an overabundance of conflict that has me seriously wondering about the Author’s ability to wrap things up in a satisfying, happily-ever-after way, I’ve turned to fiction for solace and distraction.

Like many others, I’ve been comfort-reading old favorites, predominately Golden Age mysteries where truth prevails, the bad guys always get their just desserts, and everyone is smartly dressed.  Much as I’ve enjoyed the distraction, I do have an appalling number of unread books waiting for me to give them a chance.  As a result, I recently implemented an every-other process where I alternate between re-reading a comfortable favorite and randomly picking a new book from one of the teetering stacks of unread books leaning against the walls of my library (virtual and physical).

Last week, Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering was one of the new books that finally made it off the pile and into my hands.  Technically I guess you could say it made it “into my ears” since I listened to the audio-version of the book.  I had heard good things about the story and remembered positive reviews from some of the 8Ladies, so I  was looking forward to an enjoyable story, which it both was and wasn’t.

Perhaps I should explain.

The story, for those who aren’t familiar with it is told from the perspective of the main character, Meg, a twenty-something who has built a successful career as a hand-letterer in New York.  The author did a wonderful job giving the story a sweeping sensual feel, making the descriptions of the lettering and signs almost visible to the reader.  As the story starts, Meg has a goal–she is working on a portfolio of work for a job she is trying to get.  In the past, she designed wedding-related items (which apparently included hidden messages on occasion), but she has now moved on to lettering high-end custom planners.  She is also in the midst of a bit of a creative block.

So far, so good.

Main character:  interesting

Set up:  unique (I can’t remember any other book featuring hand-lettering)

Curiosity peaked:   yes

Next we have the (eventual) love interest Reid who, with his fiancé, had been a client of Meg’s a year earlier when she was doing the wedding item stuff.  As it turns out, Reid and his fiancé didn’t wind up getting married (for Reasons), something that isn’t a surprise to Meg, since she had hidden the message “Mistake” in their wedding program – obviously seeing the writing on the wall before they did.   Reid (a smarty-numbers guy) is working in a job that is making him tense and he can’t wait to get away from New York.

Meg decides that helping Reid see New York through her eyes will (1) help with her own creative block and (2) help Reid like New York more.  That sounds kind of dry, but the two of them together, especially in the beginning when they’re doing that awkward getting together / getting to know each other dance–via games featuring hand-lettered signs around New York–is really very sweet.

So, what’s the problem? you may be asking.

Conflict:  missing

How many times have we talked in the past about the need for goals and conflict in a story?  Stories develop as characters work toward their goals and are thwarted (so to speak).  We spent what seemed like forever at McDaniel studying the conflict box and trying to nail down the conflict lock in our own stories.

-The story is launched when the protagonist pushes to achieve her goal.
-The story is shaped when the antagonist pushes to achieve his goal.
-The back-and-forth cause-and-effect pushing and blocking of goals is the fuel for the story.
-For the story to have a tight structure and focused central conflict, the actions of both the protagonist and antagonist must directly block their opponents’ pursuit of their goals. ~ Basics of Fiction from Jenny Crusie

In this story, Meg has a goal (that portfolio for the new job opportunity), but there is nothing keeping her from that, other than her own creative block.

Reid doesn’t really have a goal.  He’s got a job, but we don’t see or hear anything about other than the fact that it is making him tense, so there’s no conflict.  He’s just there, in the story being tall and broody.

Love Lettering is what I think of as a “slice of life” story.  We meet the characters and a point in time, and then we see them living their lives for a while.  Things happen.  Good things.  Bad things.  But it’s not like the other new book I also read this week–Betting on Hope by the fabulous Kay Keppler–where our girl had a limited amount of time to save the family ranch or else.  This book just kind of flows.

And that’s fine.  For a while.

Love Lettering let us see a relationship build between the two main characters, in an entertaining and often lyrical way, but about two-thirds of the way through I started to think “so what?”  Then, of course, the book took an unexpected turn near the end and I went from “so what?” to “you’re kidding me.”  I was actually surprised to find out that the book was only about 300 pages.   Listening to it, it felt like it was so much longer.

I read a number of the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, curious to see what others had thought of the story.  On Amazon there are a number of quotes from high-profile authors and the book has averaged a little over 4-stars, so there are definitely fans.  I was interested to see a number of reviews that basically said, “it’s not the book, it’s me that’s the problem,” and the number who just weren’t into the “lettering” aspect of the story and found it to distracting or confusing (I actually really liked that part).

These two review snippets kind of capture my thoughts on the book:

 It was a nice steady story throughout, with no particular major storyline or event as such, though there is a small twist towards the end. ~ Amazon reviewer

It’s okay! Had its moments but could have been better.. ~ Amazon reviewer

So, here is the question I need help with:

For those who have read the story, what did I miss?  Was there really conflict there and it was just too subtle for me to see?

For those who haven’t read the story, can you have a strong story without the dreaded conflict lock?  Or does that just give you a story that would be so much stronger if only it had a conflict lock?

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Help Me Out Here

  1. Long comments ahoy! I was pleased to read your post today, Elizabeth, because I have read this book. I had a similar reaction and wondered if it was just me, because I don’t read a lot of contemporary and I’d heard so many positive things about it. I haven’t reviewed it or commented before because I like to keep my reviews and recommendations positive, and I had mixed feelings about this one. But since you raised the question… thoughts about the book here. More general thoughts about conflict in a second comment.

    I really liked the premise of this book. I loved the descriptions of the art of hand-lettering and Meg’s interpretation of the signage around New York City. That was fresh and vivid and fascinating and (rather like Reid) it made me see NYC in a completely different light. I really liked the inciting incident–Meg hiding messages in her work and getting caught out. That has a kind of Austen-esque feel to it, and it gives us some great insights into her character. I bought into the notion of her creative block and was very happy to go along with the idea of Meg and Reid wandering around the city, seeing it from very different perspectives, getting to know one another, and doubtless each finding the answer to their problems.

    All that said, I felt let down by the romance/relationship arc, which after all is the point of the book. I thought much of it was down to Reid. Because he wasn’t able to be honest with Meg about his reasons for hating the city and for leaving, they didn’t ever develop a real relationship. It didn’t have turning points. They didn’t grow to understand one another. He just turned up and disappeared, repeatedly, being hot and moody and grumpy. For me they didn’t have much of a genuine connection, let alone a credible love story.

    And I disliked the ending. Firstly because I thought the style and tone of it didn’t match the rest of the story. I didn’t feel as though that was the kind of story I was promised when I read the blurb and the opening scene. It didn’t feel like a twist. More like hitting a wall–as though it had been bolted on to wrap up the story. Secondly because I didn’t believe in the love story by that point. And thirdly because as a former CFO/COO/CEO in a number of businesses, including some listed ones, and thus also having a lot of friends and ex-colleagues in industry, I found it cartoonish and not credible–the exact opposite of all the loving details about hand lettering and fonts and signs, which were insightful and convincing.

    I’ll be forever glad I read it though, because it’s made me see New York with new eyes 🙂

    • Jilly, I have to say that I’m glad it isn’t just me. Your breakdown of the story aligns with mine. It also seemed like there were opportunities lost with the story. For example, the “hiding messages in her work” bit. It was alluded to, and we specifically saw it in Reid’s case, but I would have liked there to be more exploration of that in order to add depth to Meg’s journey from passively inserting messages in her work to actively confronting issues.

      And that ending did not match the story promise – at least for me. It almost felt like an “I need something big to trigger my characters to get the results I want’ kind of ending. The letter from Reid seemed inconsistent, based on what we’d seen of him in the story, and was something that had me shaking my head.

      That said, there were parts of the story I really enjoyed and with some judicious skipping of the parts that didn’t work for me, I could still re-read it as an enjoyable novella. I really did like the games and the New York / signage parts.

  2. Can you have a strong story without the dreaded conflict lock? I think you can, though I think most stories would be better with one.

    I like stories where the main character is forced to grow and change. If that happens, the story escalates, and the MC is transformed by the end of the story, I don’t mind if the transformation is caused by circumstance or a collection of characters rather than an antagonist with a conflicting goal. Frex, one of my favorite books (and a regular comfort re-read) is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, in which Maia, a teenage half-goblin princeling, overlooked and living in exile, unexpectedly becomes Emperor of the Elflands. He finds himself at court, clueless about the deadly politics, and must find allies, solve his father’s murder, survive threats to the throne and his life, and decide what kind of emperor he wants to be. Maia doesn’t begin with a goal, he reacts to a very extreme set of circumstances. And there isn’t one antagonist with a conflicting goal, but lots of characters with their own goals. I think it’s a really good book.

    In his workshops on good blurb writing, Bryan Cohen says the headline stakes for an attention-grabbing story hook are usually love, death, or enlightenment. Romance–will she find love? Suspense–will she escape the murderer? Women’s fiction/general fiction–will she overcome the challenge and find peace/happiness/whatever? I think as long as the story escalates and answers one of these questions you can have a good story without a conflict lock.

    That said, I do think most genre stories are more compelling with goal/motivation/conflict. Take one of our mutual favorite authors, Loretta Chase. I really like Lord of Scoundrels and The Last Hellion, and I’d say those are Goblin Emperor-style stories–the main character has an antagonist in the sense that there’s a strong character to push them to grow and change, but not one that has a conflicting goal. I also really like Mr. Impossible, where the adventure plot has a conflict lock (rescue the heroine’s brother) and an antagonist driving that conflict, but the power of the story (for me at least) is the hero/heroine emotional plot, which is a Last Hellion type grow-and-change escalation. But I think the reason my absolute all-time favorite Loretta Chase is Miss Wonderful is partly the setting (Derbyshire!), but mostly because the hero and heroine both have strong and credible goals, and they are mutually exclusive. So the hero and heroine are in powerful, unrelenting conflict from the beginning of the story to the end. The internal/emotional plot drives the external one, and vice versa. It escalates to a clever and satisfying ending. Best of all possible story worlds, imo 🙂 .

    • Thank you, Jilly, that explanation is very helpful. I hadn’t heard the “headline stakes” idea before but that really makes sense.

      It’s funny, when I think of Lord of Scoundrels I definitely think of there being a strong conflict, but really there is more trouble than conflict, isn’t there?. If the conflict is that Jessica is trying to save her brother from Dain and Dain is trying to pretty much ruin the brother, then the book would be a very short one, but the story evolves to Jessica rescuing Dain from himself and on we go. Fun and engaging definitely, but not really a conflict lock.

      I am going to have to pull out my copy of Miss Wonderful. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times and I feel like I need to give the story another try, since I can no longer remember the details why I re-read the other books in that series but not that one.

  3. I read Love Lettering, and I liked it. But the funny thing after reading these comments is that I don’t remember any of it except the walking-around-New-York bits. I was a typesetter at a high-end type shop for only three years, but it fundamentally changed how I look at fonts, signs, and lettering, and for me to see the word “Helvetica” in a novel almost made me swoon. The notion that this character liked to look at type fonts as much as I do is so rare in the fictional world that I felt an instant bonding. (I thought the biggest conflict was when she said she could make a living doing hand lettering. Um, yeah, no.) Also, I believe I’ve seen some of those signs in NYC, so double enjoyment there. Did the story have conflict? Was the hero honest with her? Don’t remember, don’t care. This one sticks with me for the typography alone. Five stars! 🙂

    • “to see the word “Helvetica” in a novel almost made me swoon”

      I love that, Kay, and that that you felt such a connection to the story. I know I always love it when I read a story (or see a show) set some place I am familiar with and I can recognize specific spots.

    • I haven’t read that book, and based on everyone’s feedback here, I’m not sure I will but I think you and Jilly have put your finger on the thing that makes readers connect with a specific book. It happens when something in the book–fonts, Darbyshire–has a specific meaning to them. And when that happens they’ll forgive almost anything else.

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