Jeanne: In Memoriam

Rita’s high school graduation picture, 1971

On March 13th, 2021, my sister Rita passed away. I’m one of seven children, but Rita was just sixteen months my senior, so she features prominently in my childhood memories. I’d like to share this story in her memory.

In the 1950’s, like many American families, our family celebrated Easter by coloring eggs. Mom would dissolve little dye tablets in boiling water laced with vinegar–to this day, I associate the smell of vinegar with Easter. Then we’d take a dozen hard-boiled eggs and color them hues that don’t occur in nature–the orange of circus peanuts. the turquoise of Studebaker fenders, the yellow of polka dot bikinis.

The next morning, before we got up, Mom and Dad would hide the eggs in our backyard and claim the Easter bunny put them there. As kids, we totally bought this. After all, it’s no bigger leap to believe in a cheapskate Easter Bunny who simply conceals the eggs you colored yourself than it is to believe in a Santa who slides down your chimney to bring you only the gifts your parents approve (i.e. no ant farms or chemistry sets).

One spring morning when I was four or five and Rita was five or six, we awoke to find that the Easter bunny had visited us a second time that year. Easter had already come and gone, and instead of hiding colored eggs in the grass, this time Mr. Bunny hid sugar cubes.

I can remember this so clearly. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue. The grass was the light green of early spring and the lawn sparkled with dew. Rita and I came outside and headed for our swing-set only to discover a wonderland of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sugar cubes nestled in the grass all throughout the yard.

As an adult, I used to recall this event occasionally and scratch my head. I mean, it made no sense whatsoever. What kind of parent-masquerading-as-Easter-bunny would hide sugar cubes in wet grass? Even if the dew didn’t melt the sugar into a syrupy glop, those cubes would be crawling with ants. A mother who won’t let her insect-fascinated daughter have an ant farm isn’t likely to go down this road, now is she? In my memory, though, the lawn was speckled with blazingly white sugar cubes, still solidly six-sided and insect-free.

Fast forward sixty years. Rita is up visiting from Florida and we drive to the other side of town to visit my brother. On the way home, I tell her about this bizarre memory, expecting her to razz me about my over-active imagination, as she often does.

Instead, she bursts out laughing. “It was hail,” she says. “It was the first time we ever saw hail.”

And just like that, the corners melt off those little white sugar cubes. When I pluck one from the grass and hold it in my hand, it’s icy cold.

I was this goofy little kid who saw sugar cubes, but big sister knew the score and as soon as I thought to ask, she set me straight.

The back of this photograph pictured above reads To a weird little sister. Good luck in high school next year without me to watch your step, so be good. “God bless” Remember Me Always, Rita.

I will, Sis. I will.

Jeanne: Making Choices

This morning I attempted, for the eleventieth time, to watch a romcom on Netflix. That seems like a simple enough task, but I found myself scrolling through menu after menu of movies and TV shows, weighing the way-too-many choices on offer. After a half-hour of roaming through myriad options, my husband emerged from his man-cave and suggested we watch the SNL episode we recorded the night before and my window of opportunity closed.

If I have a criticism about the way life is today versus the way it was when I was a younger (and I’m a Boomer, so you know I have opinions on that topic) it’s exactly this: life has become so overwhelmed with options that the act of making a choice eats up more time than the advantages of one selection over another justifies.

In the movie Wonderboys, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, an English professor ten years on from his bestselling novel. The literary world is waiting for a follow-up, but no one, including his agent (Robert Downey, Jr.), has seen any sign of a new manuscript. Everyone assumes he has writer’s block.

Late in the movie, Tripp shows his star student Hannah (Katie Holmes) what he’s been working on all this time–a stack of manuscript pages approximately three feet high. After reading all 2500 pages, Hannah delivers her verdict:

You know how in class you’re always telling us that writers make choices? Even though your book is really beautiful–I mean, amazingly beautiful–it’s at times very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone’s horses and the dental records. And I could be wrong but It reads in places like you really didn’t make any choices. At all.

Michael Chabon, Wonderboys, 2000

I’m having a similar problem with my current work-in-progress. I finally finished a first draft of The Demon Wore Stilettos but as I make my second draft revisions, I’m confronted with Too Many Choices. I think I need a method of prioritization. Options include:

  1. SIMPLIFY. Given that I have a history of throwing way too much unrelated stuff into my stories, simplify might be a good revision watchword.
  2. JOY. Taking a page from Marie Kondo’s book and trimming out things that don’t give me (and therefore probably won’t give my reader) joy, might also work.
  3. THEME–Now that I’m on my second draft, examining the theme(s) of the book and sticking with those could be a good guiding principle.

Of course, you can see what’s happening here. I’m not only having problems making choices, but problems making a choice on how to make choices. When I worked in IT, we used to call this “analysis paralysis”–when you get so caught up in the potential issues of a project that you don’t make forward progress.

Suggestions for working my way out of this morass welcome!

Jeanne: Spring Fever

We’re getting an early spring here in southwest Ohio–days in the 50’s and 60’s–which is perfect for spotting nesting owls

Great Horned Owl

and for locating woodland ephemerals.

Winter aconite

Snow Trillium

Siberian Squill

So, although my second draft is lagging well behind where I planned and there’s always promotional work waiting for my attention, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Spring fever always makes me think of this poem:

I Meant To Do My Work Today

by Robert La Gallienne

I meant to do my work today—
   But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
   And all the leaves were calling me. 

And the wind went sighing over the land,
   Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
   So what could I do but laugh and go?

Jeanne: Rewrite the Stars

Rewrite the Stars, the debut novel of Christina Consolino, will be released next Thursday, March 18th. To kick it off, she is giving away a signed copy to a lucky Eight Ladies’ reader in the U.S. or an ebook anywhere worldwide.

Sadie Rollins-Lancaster is legally separated from Theo, her husband of fifteen years. Because of Theo’s PTSD, they still share a house and responsibility for their three children, who range in age from eighteen months to eleven years. Neither is in any hurry to sign the papers that will finalize their divorce until a chance encounter at the local grocery on Father’s Day brings Andrew into Sadie’s life.

She sets aside the initial surge of attraction she feels toward this handsome stranger, but life has other plans, throwing Andrew in her path several more times in the ensuing days. This could easily feel contrived, but in Consolino’s deft hands, it feels more like what happens when we hear something new to us and then re-encounter it twice more within the next twenty-four hours. Perhaps it isn’t so much that Sadie never seen Andrew before as that she’d never noticed because she wasn’t paying attention.

The story alternates point-of-view between Sadie and Theo, giving us an unsparing picture of the very real struggle Theo has with the legacy of his service in Afghanistan. Although he’s agreed to their planned divorce, he’s also struggling with whether to let their marriage reach its conclusion, despite the fact that it was he who initiated their separation. He loves his children very much, and on good days he remembers how he felt about Sadie back in the day.

With solid and, at times, lovely writing, Christina Consolino’s novel tells the story of a woman trying to balance old love and new without harming her husband’s attempts to heal or wrecking her children’s lives in the process. She is a genuinely good person, with more compassion for others than for herself, but the pull of new love is heady and strong.

If you’re a fan of stories that center on women making the journey through life in the face of both adversity and joy, Christina Consolino’s Rewrite the Stars is just your ticket. You can pre-order it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

To enter the drawing, just leave a comment below letting me know you’re interested. I’ll announce the winner next Tuesday and make arrangements to get you your free copy!

Christina Consolino is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in multiple online and print outlets. She is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan, and her debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, was named one of ten finalists for the Ohio Writers’ Association Great Novel Contest 2020. She serves as senior editor at the online journal Literary Mama, freelance edits both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing classes at Word’s Worth Writing Connections. Christina enjoys warm cups of coffee, good books, and long runs outside.

Jeanne: Selling the Unsympathetic Heroine

One of the toughest sells–possibly the toughest sell–in the romance world is the unsympathetic heroine. By “unsympathetic” I don’t mean a heroine who lacks sympathy for the other characters–although she may. I’m referring to the literary definition of sympathetic: A sympathetic character is a fictional character in a story whom the writer expects the reader to identify with and care about, if not admire. (Wikipedia)

When I began work on The Demon Wore Stilettos, my upcoming novel about an author who sells her soul to Satan to make the New York Times bestseller list, I wanted to give her a possible way out, so I devised a clause in her deal with the devil that says if she performs an act of total altruism between the time she signs the contract and the day her soul falls due, she’s off the hook. (You will be unsurprised to learn that Hell has a very narrow definition of what constitutes altruism.)

This setup means the external plot arc is about Megan’s efforts to do something Hell deems perfectly selfless. Logically, this means her internal character arc is along learning to be less self-centered.

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Jeanne: Vonnegut’s Story Shapes

Kurt Vonnegut once said that his biggest contribution to the culture was his master’s thesis, rejected by the anthropology department at University of Chicago, wherein he theorized that if you graph stories along two axes (good fortune to ill fortune on the vertical axis and beginning to end along the horizontal axis), there are only eight basic shapes. If you want a scholarly take on this topic, I recommend this article. If you’re okay with something less erudite, stick around.

  1. Man in a Hole

Man begins with slightly better than average luck but immediately falls into a hole of ill fortune and has to dig himself back out.

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Jeanne: The Messiah Trope

Last weekend, on the recommendation of my 16-year-old granddaughter, I watched the Winx saga on Netflix. The story opens as 16-year-old Bloom arrives at Alfea, a boarding school for fairies. The school also has a wing for “Specialists”–non-magical but gifted fighters. Alfea is a training ground where the students are taught the skills needed to protect the Magix realm from the Burned Ones, an army of horrifically burned creatures whose touch generates an infection that will kill the recipient if the Burned One isn’t quickly eliminated.

Bloom has grown up in a human family. When she reached adolescence and her powers as a fire fairy awoke, she unintentionally set the house on fire, resulting to third-degree burns to her mother. After being recruited to Alfea, Bloom is initially told there were family genes somewhere far up her family try, but she eventually learns she’s a changeling–a fae infant who was substituted for a human baby without the human parents’ knowledge. Over the course of the 6-episode series it becomes clear she was born to save Magix from the Burned Ones. (She’s also self-absorbed and a bit of a mono-maniac about finding her real parents.)

That got me to thinking about the Messiah/Savior trope in children’s fantasy literature. A few features of the messiah figure are:

  1. They were born for a specific purpose.
  2. Their birth/coming may have been foretold.
  3. They are way better at fighting and/or magic than their peers.
  4. They are often orphaned or half-orphaned
  5. They have often been fostered in a family outside the realm they’re supposed to save, and come to the job as adolescents.
  6. They have often been badly treated by these caregivers, giving them an inner resiliency.

Examples of child saviors are:

  • Harry Potter–enters wizarding world at age 11.
  • Frodo Baggins–sets off on a quest to destroy the One Ring at age 51 (which is much younger for a hobbit than it is for a human)
  • Anakin Skywalker (but he turned to the Dark Side) –9 in Episode I–The Phantom Menace and 19 in Episode II–Attack of the Clones
  • Luke Skywalker–sets off to save the galaxy from the Empire’s battle station at age 19
  • Katniss Everdeen–steps up to take his sister’s place in the Hunger Games at age 17, setting off a chain of events that will bring down the repressive government of Panem.
  • Jonas in The Giver is 12 years old when he becomes the Receiver, charged with keeping memories of the before-times for his community, which has elected to take away life choices from people as a way of preventing discord.

Recently, I’ve been reading the Kate Daniels books by husband and wife writing duo Ilona Andrews and it occurs to me that Kate appears to be another example of a messiah character. I’m only on the fourth book and at this point I don’t know if she winds up saving her world (though I suspect she does) but she definitely checks most of the other boxes.

It also occurs to me that heroine of my first book, The Demon Always Wins, checks a lot of these boxes–Dara was born to save Belial; she’s better at demon-fighting than anyone else (in part because few others recognize the presence of demons in this world); she was orphaned as a small child; she was brought up by her grandparents, who were absorbed with fighting demons.

Funny the stuff you internalize without ever realizing it.

Jeanne: The Sign of a Master Storyteller

Have you ever picked up a book and within a few pages or even just a few sentences found yourself relaxing back into your chair and smiling because you already know that you’re in for a great ride?

Recently, on the advice of Eight Lady Jilly (who found it from a recommendation from This Is a Good Book Thursday on Jenny Crusie’s Argh blog) I picked up Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster. The prologue (which is titled “An Ominous Prologue”) is only half a page in length. It shows someone named King Aeros activating a gate to a non-faerie realm.

His touch fell upon a stone acorn buried among the leaves. He drew up ropes of magic, filling the air with his signature of storms and metal, and twisted. The space between the stone columns shimmered.

“The Iron Law is revoked. The Mortal Realm is open to us once again.” His smile widened.

It was not a nice smile.

And just like that, I was hooked. It was clear from the nine-paragraph prologue that Ms. Lancaster was a masterful storyteller and that I was in good hands. I finished the book late last week and it kept its promise.

That got me to thinking about other times I’ve had that experience of knowing right off the bat that I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, gave me that feeling.

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.

It did not end well.

I loved that book enough that a few years later, on the strength of Ms. Taylor’s descriptions of Prague, I took a riverboat cruise from Paris (which I’d always wanted to see) to Prague. Both were amazing (and the rivers in between, with neat German vineyards climbing steep hills on either side, weren’t too shabby either).

Another book like this is Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. Before the first chapter, there’s a statement:

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Jeanne: What’s Your Point (of View)?

I recently read an adventure romance that, like most romances, had two point-of-view characters–the hero and the heroine.

That held true for the first couple of hundred pages. Then there was a very short (seven paragraphs) scene where a group of men snuck out in the darkness and attempted to kill the hero. For that scene, the author switched to omniscient point-of-view as we saw the men sneak up on the hero’s sleeping form and beat him to death.

Except, as we learned once those seven paragraphs concluded, the hero sensed they were coming and hid in some nearby trees and watched as they “murdered” his empty bedroll.

The reason behind the decision to write this little scene in a different point-of-view seemed pretty obvious: the author wanted to create add tension by appearing to put the hero in serious danger.

On balance, though, I disagreed with that choice because:

  • Once an author sets up a pattern for how POV is going to work in a particular book, they’ve set an expectation in their readers. Although I suspect POV changes are much less visible to readers who aren’t writers themselves, I also think that at a subconscious level readers sense something has changed and find it unsettling. Introducing a whole new point-of-view deep into a story creates a cost in terms of the cohesion. The story doesn’t hold together quite as tightly as it did before the wandering murderers trooped into that clearing, spears raised.
  • Given that the author was unlikely to actually kill off the protagonist halfway through the book, it wasn’t a believable ploy, so the goal of adding tension wasn’t achieved.
  • The cost/benefit was further thrown off-balance by the brevity of the omniscient scene. We barely had time to register that we were no longer a single, familiar character comfy in his bedroll but instead a crowd of would-be assassins sneaking through the forest with murder on our minds than the scene was over.

I’m not talking about staying in deep third but switching from one character to another (although I think introducing the viewpoint of a different character late into a manuscript isn’t a great idea, either) but completely changing the rules of how this story will be told–from “inside” the main characters to far outside them.

So, in my opinion, the cost of writing this very short scene in an unprecedented POV far outweighed what was gained. Please share your thoughts in the comments. Disagreement not only tolerated but welcomed!

Bonus Question: Do you notice point-of-view in the books you read?