In defense of EL James

If you haven’t heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, you’ve either been living under a rock or have been frozen in a cryogenic capsule for the last two decades. Because other than those two scenarios, it would be hard to miss the erotica sensation that is Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. But just in case, watch this:

The movie adaption of the book trilogy launched over Valentine’s Day weekend to a hubbub of hype and consternation depending on what side of the sheets you’ve tumbled so to speak, and in the last couple of days, I’ve seen a lot of self-confessed feminists and a whole slew of mommies blast the blogging sphere with heaps of vitriol against the movie and Fifty Shades creator, EL James. Like this one.

So, unable to stay out of the middle of it as usual, I’ve decided to respond and it goes something like this.

Calm down, ladies. Your daughters aren’t in danger. No one is going to treat your daughter like a tramp if you teach her to be a strong, independent female who is self-assured and sexually confident. It’s not real, it’s just fiction. A raunchy fantasy where one woman wants to be dominated, tied up, and bonked silly by a rich, powerful, and thankfully, hot man. That’s all. There are no hidden messages, we aren’t sliding back to the dark ages, we’re just indulging in some light and inaccurate BDSM for a couple of hours. No biggie. No need to pull the chastity belt out of the closet and dust it off. We’re going to be okay.

And in fact, not only are we going to be fine, we should be personally thanking EL James for making it okay for women to have fantasies like men do. Not June-Cleever-in-an-apron-baking-brownies type of fantasies, not bodice-ripper-something-your-Gran-might-read romance either. No. Raunchy, dirty, sub/dom, willys in your face type of fantasy where it’s okay for women to have a sexual appetite like a man. The fifty shades phenomenon has brought erotica out of the back rooms of Adult XXX stores and into America’s living room. And even into Target. (You know you’ve gone mainstream when Target is selling vibrating c*@k rings.)

Because this is the thing – adventurous sex between two consenting adults isn’t just okay, it should be encouraged. Sexual repression is a ticking time bomb.

In America, we have an unhealthy attitude about sex (Yeah, it’s your fault, Pilgrims). We are more comfortable with watching a man blow up another man with an AK47 than seeing a man’s penis. We are more comfortable watching a hooker being beaten up on a cop show than watching two men kiss in public. Somewhere along the way, we have gotten our signals crossed.

Thanks to Fifty Shades, women are experimenting in the bedroom. They are taking charge of their sexual needs. The public outing of erotica has made talking about and engaging in fun rumpy pumpy normal and that is something we should all be applauding.

Now if you want something to complain about, let’s complain about the writing. No, really. It’s appalling. The fact that you have to slog through pages upon pages of horrible and cliched verbage in order to get to the good stuff (aka the sex) is criminal. In fact, it got to the point where I swiped through the majority of the book until I got to the decent sex scenes. Truly awful stuff. I’ve read some Penthouse forums letters that had better plot. And the later books? Don’t even get me started.

But that’s not the point of this piece and I’m not going to spend reams of time slagging off Ms. James because even if you think the writing is atrocious (Twilight, anyone?) the woman still made bank. And became successful. I have respect for that. I have respect for the fact that she sat down and wrote a book to begin with – most people don’t.

So instead of spending our time worrying about whether or not a white, college girl should be with a made-up rich, white guy, we should more concerned about the issues that affect women in real life: inequality in pay, forced female castration, domestic violence, breast and uterine cancers, just to name a few. Let us put our energies where it matters.

 

 

Kill Your Darlings

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So I am in the midst of getting back on that horse. After a month away from my desk, I’m finally taking the plunge and here I sit. Back. In. The. Chair.

It feels good, mostly. I have missed my Herman Miller chair. I’d like to think it missed me, too, in its own way.

But the thing is that while I missed sitting here, I don’t miss the anxiety when it comes time to edit. By far the hardest part of the whole shindig, edits kick me in the gut every time. And on this book, it is no better than the last one.

Which is kinda surprising, I can’t lie. “Why?” you ask.

I will be truthful with you. Watcher was a rambling hot mess. Even after multiple edits and tear downs, it still was painfully awkward, hence, why I pulled it. I have to live with the nightmare that Neil Gaiman still has an original copy. If I am lucky, he will tease me one day about it, if not, well, that would almost be a bigger relief. That aside, it took a year of sitting on it, to stomach going back to it and ripping it apart some more. And in that painful process, I killed off 30K+ words and two major characters.

Which is the thrust of what I have to say next.

I learned big, painful lessons from that first book. The only thing that kept me going was the passion I had for those characters. And naivety and probably a hint of arrogance, too. But don’t get me wrong, those lessons, I kid you not, were like a million tiny papercuts all over my body and then being dropped into one of those dunk tanks filled with gallons of rubbing alcohol. Get the visual, right?

So when it came to Protector, I tried my best to learn from those mistakes. Cut down on over wordy descriptions, watch for narrative repetitions, keep that pacing tight, and whatever you do, stay away from new secondary characters. No really. Don’t do it. Remember Lamar Jackson? Or Amanda’s baby daddy reveal? Yeah, seriously, don’t even think about it.

The thing is I love characters like I like breathing. I like to inhale them, give them life, exhale them out nice and slow so that they come to life in a slow, glimmer. In my head, Tybee Island teems with all sorts of pedestrians from all walks of life. Each one has a story screaming to be let out. With all the noise in my head, some days, I’m surprised I get anything done.

But I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Sigh. You know what’s coming don’t you?

I have inserted a secondary character, just the one mind you, that was going to play some serious havoc in Betrayer, the next book. I wasn’t sure that I really liked him, but he was creepy, and he had some odd physical attributes that would’ve stuck with my readers. And I’d just got done watching The Killing and was in love with Holder so that didn’t help either. I heard the warning bells, but I ignored them. It would be different this time. I would write him in from the beginning, slide him in insidiously into Paddy-life, make him stick, give him purpose. I swear that was the intention right up until I got to the first hot and heavy scene with Adam and Poesy and then it flew out the window.

I found that I’d written seven chapters and he’d disappeared off the face of the earth and like a complete idiot, instead of accepting that he was a goner, I went back and hacked him into a bunch of other scenes, punching that circle into that damn square like that made any sense.

Oh yeah, I made him work, but not work enough.

So here I sit almost eight weeks behind in my edit schedule , which I thought was going to be a breeze and now I have to rip him out and patch up the holes he’s left in the lives of my other characters. I’m not sure anyone will miss him except Haylee Jane, but the work is enough that I want to punch myself in the face.

I still sit here in my Herman Miller chair. But the work is just beginning.

 

Drafts, deaths, and character betrayal

Yes, I know. Not exactly happy thoughts and fluffy kittens, right?

Life in our household has been knocked off kilter by the death of our beloved dog, Bailey. As a childless couple, our dogs are the next closest thing. It came as a shock to us when Bailey was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease which was literally killing him. After many costly vet bills and several med switches later including chemotherapy, we thought he had the whole thing beat until he went into sudden liver failure. Putting him down was probably the hardest decision I have had to make in my adult life and is still something we are dealing with on a daily basis in our house. God, we miss him.

Our gentle old soul

Bailey: our gentle old soul

They never tell you how quiet it is when they are gone. I keep wondering when it’ll get better because right now, my routine is shot to hell and my concentration is about the size of a gnat’s. Protector should’ve been out by now, but it still sits on this computer with editor comments waiting for me to have the motivation to open it back up. I have tried to sit down and get to it, but it’s just too hard.

So. What now?

Well, I’ve wanted to talk about character betrayal for some time now and given the solemn nature of this post, now is probably as good of a time as any.

Like real life betrayal, some types of character betrayal can make us question an author’s moral integrity, as well as, our own. I can think of two recent examples in the last couple of years that have really stuck with me. For my purposes, I am using one book and a TV drama.

TV first.

I was a pretty die-hard Sons of Anarchy fan. Don’t know why that particular show resonated with me, maybe due to my family’s humble backwater beginnings or maybe the acting was compelling, got me, but I was sucked in, especially when it came to the turbulent relationship of the main protagonist and anti-hero Jackson Teller and the love of his life, Dr. Tara Knowles.

That particular relationship, more so than the outlaw brotherhood, really got me in the gut. The sheer weight of hope that I carried that they would make it out of this awful life alive was staggering. And ridiculous given the fact that it wasn’t even real, but I couldn’t stop the emotion. She was his moral compass, his redemption for all the horrible things he was doing as a biker outlaw. I didn’t know one person who wasn’t rooting for those two.

Then Kurt Sutter, creator, writer, and part-time director of the series did something that not only disturbed me, but pissed off every female fan in all of fandom – he made Jax cheat on Tara. With a whore. While Tara was in prison for trying to help out his club. She’d been in there less than a week.

What a bastard. Both of them. And every female SOA fan took to the internet and spouted their fury. It was bloody impressive. Hell, I was one of those women.

Outrage doesn’t really cover the gamut of emotion that most women felt at that betrayal. A lot of fans felt that they had been duped, buying into this idea of “unequivocal” love – that no matter how much of a monster Jax had become, his love for Tara was untarnished and coveted. Wrong. I think in that moment, Sutter took away not just our hope, but our innocence as well. When Sutter unexpectedly killed off Tara at the end of Season 6, I was done. To this day, I still think that he made a mistake.

Second case. Outlander. Spoiler alert. Jump over this bit if you’re not up-to-date on the books, okay, well, like three of the books because I haven’t read them all either nor am I likely to. I’m over it.

But before I was over it, I was hooked in. Not really the first book so much as the second and then the third maybe. Like the closeted romance junkie that I am, I was digging the relationship between Claire and Jamie Fraser. Not so much Claire because still now, I don’t find her a very likable character in a lot of ways – I mean who abandons their only child regardless of age and not being funny, I don’t know any women who’d ever forgo seeing her would-be grandchildren forever. Not realistic. No, really, it isn’t.

That aside, I rooted for their tumultuous relationship, cheered them on when they finally realized their feelings for each other and yes, drank up all those sex scenes like a thirsty man on a desert island given a margarita. I bought in, the whole thing, even when she got pushed back through the stones. (Sci-fi story, my ass, but that’s another rant).

But the deal breaker for me was when Jamie Fraser practically raped an annoying yet virginal young woman who then became pregnant with his bastard child. Yes, she was horrible, but Gabaldon went too far for my liking – not just in the forced sex arena, but also, allowing the character to become pregnant. And this is my reasoning:

Yes, Claire is gone, perhaps forever, and Jamie is still a man with man needs, so sex is inevitable, but for him to end up with a son out of it, when the love of his life, is stuck in another century raising his other child, is downright wrong for me *and* also seemed out of character (along with wedding stupid Laoghaire). I can’t say it any more plainly. I wasn’t seething like I was with Jax Teller, but I was definitely in the groaning and eye rolling territory. You just can’t do it if you’re going to bring them back together, not without there being this massive wedge between them forever. Children change everything.

So back to the question of character betrayal. Characters lie, cheat, steal, kill, maim, and do all sorts of underhanded things all the time and yet we still forgive them. When does it cross the line?

This is an important question for me as an author because inevitably, my own characters step off the right path or in some cases, run head long onto the path of destruction, destruction that is almost always caused by some sort of betrayal. And it is something of a theme for the next book, Betrayer. Yep. It’s even in the title.

The bigger question is what betrayal is acceptable versus betrayal that makes a reader walk away?

I can tell you from the above examples that romantic betrayal is almost always a deal breaker. For women. Who are the majority of my audience. Jax Teller poisoned his relationship with his wife (and redeemer) Tara the moment he made eye contact with Colette. To have Tara walk in on them having sex was the final twist of the knife. Every woman watching that scene would’ve punched her fist through the TV and ripped his balls off if they could’ve. And at that moment, everyone knew that Jax Teller was not going to get the happy ending. Ever.

With Outlander, I still don’t understand the legions of loyal fans. Jamie’s betrayal of Claire’s memory is easier to swallow, sure, but when they do get back to each other again, you wonder why you even cared to begin with. Their relationship which seemed so fiery yet utterly inseparable becomes . . . boring. I know. I really said that. So while I was outraged earlier at his behavior, by the end of whatever book I was at (American colonies one with Bri and the annoying guy), I just didn’t care. Their relationship had lost the spark and it felt like Gabaldon was flogging a dead horse (here comes the hate mail).

There is a fine line with betrayal and what you can get away with whether it’s the white lie or a gruesome murder. Yes, some people still root for the anti-hero, just think Dexter. The question is how to know the difference and knowing your audience well enough to know when too much really is too much.

Problem is I’m still trying to work that out.