Jeanne: Rape Fantasy

Review of Untouchable, a High School Bully Romance by Sam Mariano Rating: **

Protagonist Zoey has become a pariah at her high school after reporting being groped by a member of the football team to the school administration. He was consequently booted from the team, impacting both his chances for a college scholarship and the team’s chances to make the state playoffs.

In the first scene of the book, he and a couple of buddies, including Carter, team quarterback and wealthy scion of an important family in Zoey’s small Texas town, corner her in an empty classroom (in a school that apparently has so much unused space that there are classrooms out of hearing distance of any other humans during the school day) with the intention of bullying her into recanting her testimony and restoring the guy to the team. When Zoey is defiant, things spiral out of control. She is stripped down to her panties and, under the threat of gang rape/sodomy, forced to fellate Carter while the other two look on/stand guard..

(Notice all those passive voice sentences in my description? Writers do that when we want to emotionally distance ourselves.)

After this assault, Zoey has to figure out how to move forward. Her previous #metoo moment has already made her high school life almost unbearable. It will be her word of the three of them. In addition, she has no support at home–her mother thinks she made a mistake by turning the first guy in.

Huddling in bed the next day, she tells herself all she has to do is make it through her senior year and win the scholarship to the college in Pennsylvania that she has in her sights. Then she can leave small town Texas behind forever.

But sociopath Carter follows up his sexual assault by appearing at her house with a container of hot soup, inquiring about her health. Zoey’s mother is ready to swoon that her little girl is garnering attention from the wealthy jock and can’t understand why Zoey doesn’t want to date/marry him. (If I were from Texas, I’d probably find this stereotype really offensive.)

I titled this post “Rape Fantasy” as a reference to Margaret Atwood’s 1977 short story, “Rape Fantasies.” That story chronicles a group of women exchanging stories about how they’d handle a potential rape–all of which end in not-rape as they talk to and connect with their would-be rapists. This book is another such fantasy, where rape isn’t rape if you look at it the right way.

***BEWARE OF SPOILERS BELOW***

Driven by curiosity and a sense of fatalism, Zoey allows Carter to push past her boundaries without consequences. In one scene he ignores first her request not to take her virginity and a subsequent request to wear a condom so she won’t get pregnant. Afterward, she shrugs off this unprotected rape with a kind of “water under the bridge” attitude.

At the end of the book, Zoey and Carter wind up living together in an apartment near the campus of Columbia University, attending grad school and happily engaging in the rough sex they both enjoy.

How did Zoey earn this happily ever after? By being strong enough to endure Carter’s abuse and finding the hidden gem of a guy underneath. What really made me nuts was the implicit statement that if you’re mentally tough enough, being raped doesn’t have to be a big deal.

At one point she says, “We aren’t what is done to us. People are going to hurt us, and it’s going to be hard, and sometimes we might never get closure. We might never understand why… People don’t get what they deserve. They get what they get, and then they have to make the best of it.”

Although, in our imperfect world, Zoey’s statement may be accurate, I don’t much care for it as the theme of a book marketed to teenage girls. I hate to think of any young girl who has endured such abuse being persuaded that philosophical acceptance is the healthy response, and feeling even worse when she can’t adopt that attitude.

I gave this book two stars because it’s competently written. It has a riveting (if horrifying) first scene, believable dialogue and three-dimensional characters with arcs. I didn’t rate it higher because I profoundly object to the notion that women should just tough their way through sexual abuse and treat it like it’s no big deal.

Jeanne: Evolution of a Playlist

When I first started working on Lilith’s story a couple of years ago, I put together a YouTube playlist to use as inspiration.

The purpose of an early-stage playlist isn’t to document the planned book. It’s more of a place to stick a pin in stray thoughts/ideas/feelings you have about the characters and the story. My approach is to try to find songs that capture every bit of potential inspiration, to explore all the different paths the story might take.

Now that it’s a lot clearer in my head, I’m ready to add some new songs and get rid of some.

Here’s my edit of the playlist as things stand today.

Continue reading

Jeanne: Outputs, Inputs, Process

The method that is used to design computer systems is described as “outputs, inputs, process.” That is, you first define what you want the computer system to do (outputs). Next you identify the data you have to feed into the system (inputs). It’s only after you complete the definitions of these two items that you think about processes—the steps that will translate inputs into outputs.

Because my career was in I.T., my plotting process looks a lot like that. My first thought is about outputs–how do I want my story to end? What kind of character arc am I looking for?

For example, in my current WIP, I want the story to end with the couple, demons Lilith and Samael, becoming a loving, human family. For this to happen in a believable and satisfying way, Lilith’s character needs to arc away from rebellion and resentment to trust and joy. Sam needs to arc away from workaholism and ambition to being a family man.

Then I think about the inputs that are required to create that kind of story—characters and setting.

In this case, the characters were delivered to me by the ancient Judaic legends contained in the Kabbalah. If you want to read more on my take on the legend of Lilith and Samael, you can download a free short story, “Original Sin,” by signing up for my newsletter on my website.

It’s only after I figure out these two “big picture” items that I turn my mind to the plot–the process of turning my inputs into the outputs I want to see at the end of the story.

That’s still a work in progress.

The backstory is that, 10,000 years ago, Satan decided Hell’s power couple, Lilith and Samael were a threat to his supremacy, so he demanded they split up. As the story opens, trade talks between Heaven and Hell are in the offing and he orders them to collaborate to ensure a good outcome for Hell (e.g. an increase in human misery).

Former human turned she-demon Lilith tries to refuse the mission, but when Satan threatens to take away her immortality, she decides to use the opportunity to sabotage her ex, whose career in Hell has far eclipsed her own.

Even though 10,000 years have passed, Sam has never gotten over Lilith. Figuring that what happens Aboveworld stays Aboveworld, he plans to seduce her back into his bed for the duration of the mission and then abandon her again.

On Earth, Sam leads Hell’s delegation while Lilith handles the administrative details. Her angelic counterpart turns out to be Gibeon, the very angel who predicted the death of her first baby (see aforementioned short story) and told her she’d never have a child that survived infancy. If she does, he will be branded a false prophet, thus ending his career in Heaven.

Then Lilith becomes pregnant, and she must figure out how to keep her child safe from an avenging angel, the lord of the Underworld—and its own father.

Jeanne: Love at First Sight–a Family Legend

On Sunday, Jilly posed the query: Do you believe in love at first sight? In my family, belief in this occurrence has been passed down since the Civil War.

Stock photo–NOT my great-great-great grandfather

After the war ended, in April of 1865, many of the soldiers walked home. That makes sense: only the cavalry would have had horses, and the trains would have been overloaded (not to mention the great sections of track that were destroyed during the conflict).

According to the family legend, my ancestress and her sister were sitting on their front porch in the spring of 1865 when a soldier walked by their place. My ancestress took one look at him and said, “That’s my man if I never get him.”

Her sister thought that was pure foolishness. “You don’t even know him. Why, for all you know, he could already be married.”

As it turned out, he was married–or at least, he had been. By the time he got home, though, his wife had died. He made his way back to the girl who had fallen for him at first sight and married her.

Is the story true?

My great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Peters, was born on Christmas Eve, 1847, in Scott, Virginia. That would make her seventeen when the war ended. According to the decennial censuses, somewhere between 1860 and 1870, Elizabeth moved from Virginia to Kentucky. And on July 12, 1865, Elizabeth Peters married Nathaniel Thornton Arvin in Estill County, Kentucky.

So, it certainly could be true.

But was it really love?

In a world where approximately 1 out of every 20 men in the country had been killed in the previous four years, just the fact that Nathaniel was alive and healthy enough to stagger home probably made him a prize. Elizabeth and Nathaniel stayed married till they died, to the best of my knowledge, but most couples did back then.

What makes true love more likely, in my opinion, is the fact that the story got passed on to Elizabeth’s daughter, Nancy, who passed it on to her granddaughter, my Aunt Louise, who passed it on to me.

Because true love is the stuff of legends.

Jeanne: Character Signatures

I was out for my morning walk one day last week and listening to the soundtrack from Les Miserables when I got to thinking about how each of the major characters have a clearly identifiable musical signature, a theme that, when you hear it, you know the front-and-center character is Javert, or Jean Valjean, or Eponyme, or whoever. Which in turn made me wonder how that translates in written works.

Each of my main characters has one or more identifiers, a brand, if you will. For Lilith, it’s her stilettos. For Satan, it’s his skin, which cycles through various wine colors (from a blush rose to a pinot grigio) as his mood darkens.

Dara, the protagonist in The Demon Always Wins, was notable for the burn scars that disfigured her collarbones and the backs of her hands (unless you were a demon who found them strangely alluring). Belial, the hero from that same book, was identifiable by his signature scent, a mix of vanilla and petrichor–the smell of fresh rain after a long, dry period.

Keeffe, the artist in The Demon’s in the Details, always smelled of paint and turpentine. Bad, her computer-like boyfriend, was always pushing his glasses up on his nose.

In my yet-to-be released Contemporary romance, Girl’s Best Friend, Taylor is a former dancer, and even though a severe injury means she’ll never dance again, she still moves with the grace of a dancer.

What signature traits have you read or written that have really stuck with you?

Jeanne: Satan’s Daycare

I’m currently working on the section of The Demon Wore Stilettos where our protagonist (I’m not even going to try to get anyone on board with thinking of Lilith as a heroine at this point) has discovered that she’s pregnant. It’s what she’s always wanted, but now she’s faced with figuring out how she, a single demon whose job requires extensive travel, can raise a child on her own.

As she comes to terms with this reality, she visits Hell’s daycare center, where things are just as topsy-turvy as they are everywhere else in the underworld. I had some initial ideas about what such a nursery would look like–kids running with scissors, kids playing with matches–but I wanted a broader range of ideas, so I put out a call for suggestions in my September newsletter.

(Don’t get my newsletter, but you’d love to, along with a free short story just for signing up? Click here)

I won’t be able to use all of the great ideas people submitted, but they made me laugh, so I’ll share them with you:

  • Projectile vomiting–complete with 180 degree head turns.
  • Running around on the ceiling
  • Playing mean pranks on the teachers
  • Biting
  • Playing with cleaning solutions and chemicals
  • Clogging toilets
  • Sniffing glue
  • Cutting each other’s hair
  • Watching porn 
  • Stealing the teacher’s wallet
  • Cursing 
  • Putting goo on things
  • Grabbing toys from each other and banging each other over the head with them
  • TV on 24 x 7
  • Junk food and caffeine all day
  • Peanuts everywhere
  • Classes in bullying, lying, stealing and manipulation

Some of these ideas remind me of early Dennis the Menace cartoons, back when they were a lot edgier than the sanitized version that made it to the big and little screens. (I remember a D the M cartoon where Dennis has placed matches between the bare toes of his sleeping father and, with a grin of pure devilment on this face, is about to light the first match.)

Or Charles Addams cartoons like this one.

Do you have any other ideas you’d like to throw out?

Jeanne: Rating My Reading, Part 1

Last week, over on Jenny Crusie’s Argh blog, she mentioned that she’s been reading so much romance recently she’s developed her own rating system. It’s a highly personal (read: idiosyncratic) system but it sounds like it works for her.

The book I’m currently working on, The Demon Wore Stilettos, would definitely lose points under Jenny’s system because there’s going to be an epilogue and it’s going to have a baby in it. The whole book revolves around a pregnancy my heroine waited 12,000 years to experience and after all that it would be a breach of reader trust not to show the damned baby (that’s not just me being a potty-mouth. That kid is the product of two of Satan’s minions. It is going to be a very difficult child.)

Sorry, I wandered off-topic there. Anyway, Jenny’s post got me to thinking about what my own rating system would look like. I would add points for:

  • Strong, interesting protagonist with a clear, imperative goal
  • Strong, interesting antagonist with a clear, imperative goal that is mutually exclusive with the protagonist’s.
  • A plot that shows the two of them putting their all into reaching those goals, with twists and turns that catch the other (and me) unawares.
  • Language that occasionally surprises me with a unique and original image that gives me a clear picture of something I’m unfamiliar with or lets me see something familiar in a new way.
  • A setting that takes me somewhere I’ve never been with such richness that it feels like I live there for the duration of the story. 
  • Demonstration of an understanding of human nature that goes beyond what you can see on the average TV show.

If I were to take all the books I’ve ever read and rate them based on the above criteria, it would look like this.

***** Five stars would be reserved for books that changed my worldview in some way, or opened up a vista into a strange new world and left me permanently enriched.

**** Four stars would be a really good book, substantially above the ordinary because of one or more of the characteristics listed above.

*** Three stars would be the vast majority of the books I’ve read–solid stories, well-told, with empathetic characters in interesting situations.

** Two stars describes books that fail on one or two the of items listed above.

* One star books fail all or most of my criteria. Typically, I do not finish these books.

How do you rate your reading?

Jeanne: The Room Where It Happens

Michaeline’s post on Saturday about writers’ fantasy getaways to magical places that enable them to whip through their WIPs made me realize, once again, that my version of that fantasy is like the theme from Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home.

20200829_135905I write best in my writing cave, a 9.5′ x 11′ room that was added onto the back of my 97- year-old house in the 1950’s or 60’s (along with an extra bathroom/laundry room and a ridiculously useless hallway that I’ve converted into a mudroom/cloakroom/ ironing room).

Before Covid-19 entered our lives, I went on occasional junkets to beaches or faraway cities to write, but I seldom (almost never) returned home with any additional words written. Sadly, the one time I actually got a substantial number of words on the page, I wound up throwing said pages away after I decided the book was headed in the wrong direction. 😦

I’ve come to the conclusion that I write best in familiar surroundings. That’s partly 20200829_135916because my kids are grown, I currently have no pets, and my husband is a very low-maintenance kind of guy. But it’s partly because the room is really well-suited to writing. It has space for my ancient desktop computer (if all you use is Word, Excel and Chrome, you don’t really need a state-of-the-art computer), a couple of printers (one black-and-white laser printer and a color multi-function device that scans and makes copies, and a couple of fairly up-to-date laptops that I use when I travel.

The room has counters along both sides, with an assortment of junk drawers and cabinets underneath, and bookshelves along the top of the room, where I keep dictionaries, craft books and approximately 1000 tablets and notebooks because I’m forever finding myself out in the world with time on my hands and nothing to write on.

It also has a couple of windows that look out on my working-class neighborhood. Some of my writing buddies have amazing views from their writing rooms–Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. I suppose after a while I’d become so accustomed to the beauty that I’d stop gawking, but my view is okay. The windows are enough to keep me from being claustrophobic without creating a distraction.

20200829_140123

There are a couple of closets at one end of the room. On the closet doors I tape up things like maps and floor plans that I need to keep track of the “where” of my stories. Right now the left-hand door has floor plans of the United Nations Conference Center in New York City, where much of my work-in-progress, The Demon Wore Stilettos, takes place. The right-hand door has a tourist map of Sedona, AZ, where I plan to set my next project, a rom-com series about a family of five siblings who are suddenly left in charge of their parents’ tour business and each sibling has a different idea about where they’d like to take the business (and a chance at love along the way, of course).

It’s not a particularly pretty room, but it’s homey and very practical. What kind of space do you use when you’re being creative?

Jeanne: Plot Peeves

In the rain.

On Sunday, Jilly talked about plot preferences.

Today, I thought I’d flip that and talk about plot peeves–the things that annoy and frustrate me in stories.

(Hold onto your umbrellas, kids, cause I’ve got a lot of them.

No. 1. Failure to show the climactic moment. No, I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, calls the “obligatory scene,” the scene the author has spent 300+ pages making you anticipate and is therefore obliged to show you.

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness. The best example I can think of is an episode from the show Elementary (Season 6, Episode 12) called “Meet Your Maker” where Holmes and Watson are asked to locate a missing woman who was a financial dominatrix. (Hard to explain. If you want to know, you’ll have to watch it.) After 40-ish minutes of various plot twists and surprises, they locate the missing woman, who has been kidnapped and forced to craft untraceable guns (because of her sideline as a toymaker). Unfortunately, by the time the show reached this point, all those twists and turns had eaten up all the show’s runtime. The writers chose to skip the “freeing the captive toymaker from the bad guys” scene and jumped to the denouement where everyone was congratulating each other. What the hell? Continue reading

Jeanne: Using Tropes for Marketing

Falling Again for the Single Dad

A friend who writes category romance for Harlequin recently told me she’d been instructed to include a minimum of three well-known romance tropes in the first chapter of her next book. Since she writes for the medical romance line, that means there are actually four tropes in that crucial first chapter.

 

Category romances, in case you don’t recognize the term, are very short (50,000 words, or around 250 pages), very simple (single main plot, no subplots) novels that revolve very tightly around the building relationship between the two main characters.

A trope is a recurring theme or device in a work of literature. Some well-known romance tropes are:

  1. Single dad
  2. Friends to lovers
  3. Enemies to lover
  4. Second chance at love
  5. Secret baby
  6. One night with consequences
  7. Marriage of convenience
  8. Forced proximity
  9. Billionaire
  10. Fake relationship

And lots of combinations of the above.

Settings can also be tropes, as can the professions of the characters (e.g. doctors, cowboys, CEO’s).

I’m always keen to figure out new ways to appeal to potential readers. Harlequin sells a lot of romance novels. If they think tropes make for good marketing, who am I to argue?

My current work-in-progress incorporates enemies to lovers, second chance at love, one night with consequences and forced proximity.

Here’s my first cut at a blurb featuring my four tropes:

She-demon Lilith has waited thousands of years for a chance to get back at her ex-husband, Sam,  for walking away when Satan ordered them to split up.  Now Satan has assigned Sam to lead Hell’s delegation in trade talks with Heaven, and Lilith to handle the administrative details. It’s the perfect opportunity to even the score.

Faced with an unwinnable battle, Samael, demon of pride and head of Hell’s legal division, did the sensible thing when Satan ordered him to abandon the love of his life—he moved on. But he never got over her. Now he has another chance. When Lilith overlooks reserving a room for him in the conference hotel, he simply he moves into her room. She’ll never be able to resist his demon wiles at such close quarters.

Lilith’s resulting pregnancy comes as a shock to both of them. Their reactions differ but they agree on one thing: Satan must not be allowed to get his hands on their child. Can Hell’s power couple resolve their differences and escape Hell to join the world of PTO’s, school lunches and youth soccer?

And if they do, will Earth ever be the same?