Thursday, September 30, 2010


I heard the other day that only one manuscript in ten thousand gets picked up by a publisher and turned into a book. That's a whole lot of doomed aspiration (and, alas, a whole lot of crappy manuscripts), and it got me thinking: what sets the winning effort apart from the 9,999 also-rans?

As it happened, I had just finished up judging my share of a writing contest, and the answer lay right before me.

Entry 1 was neat and tidy and grammatically correct (more or less). Set in a familiar time period, it featured a cynical alpha hero and a feisty young heroine. They squabble, they bicker, they play petty tricks on each other, all in an attempt to disguise Their True Feelings. All the appropriate mechanics are in place: the laws of point-of-view are obeyed with religious fervor, the five senses are celebrated with due consideration, the backstory emerges in well-judged snippets of dialogue. I really, really wanted to like Entry 1.

There was just one problem. It was boring.

Entry 2, on the other hand, was a mess. It dared to take place in a wholly unapproved time and place, and mentioned icky things like God. The hero and heroine hailed from non-European cultures. Grammar and punctuation took a romp on the wild side. The author once -- oh, the horror -- switched her point-of-view character IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE!

I loved it.

So what gives? What made me scribble enthusiastic comments all over the last page of Entry 2, and bite my metaphorical pencil with the effort of bucking up Entry 1? What makes a good read a good read?

For the purposes of a digestible blog post, I'll narrow it down to two things: voice and conflict.

1) Voice. While Entry 1 read smoothly, with serviceable prose and suspenseful scene-endings, it just felt...flat. No wit, no zing, no originality. The usual phrases evoked the usual emotions. I'd read this story a thousand times before, and this one had nothing new to say, as if the author's personality had been smothered under the collective weight of a thousand well-meaning critique groups.

Entry 2, on the other hand, vibrated with energy and humor and wisdom, and breathed genuine life into what might have been a generic character pairing. The author's love for the period and culture burst through all those awkward sentence structures and grammatical miscues, and her use of image and metaphor was occasionally brilliant. Could the manuscript have used another pair of eyes, preferably ones attached to an English major's brain? Sure. But that's not what I mean by voice.

2) Conflict. Entry 1 takes place in a time of war and opens with a fight scene, so you'd think the story would rattle with conflict. You'd be wrong. Good romance feasts on the meat of the forces keeping our couple apart, and in this story, every possible external factor ENCOURAGES them to unite. So why don't they leap straight before the altar and into bed? Oh, blah blah need to be true to myself blah. You know, stuff that plagues the minds of pre-Enlightenment couples during the throes of war. I'm being a little harsh, of course, in order to make a point: Nothing's at stake. These two are just going to keep on bickering for a few hundred pages, denying Their True Feelings and junk, and then get married. A writer with a really brilliant voice could make this interesting, but...see #1 above.

The author of Entry 2, on the other hand, puts all kinds of barriers between her protagonists. They're from different cultures, different classes, different regions. Their goals lie far apart. In order to come together, one or both of them will have to give up everything. Who will it be? How will it come about? I want to know.

Now, I'm not saying that Entry 2 is ready to be shelved in your local bookstore. But if I had to lay my money on one of these two manuscripts to beat the ten-thousand-to-one odds of publication, I'd pick the second.

At least, that's the one I'm rooting for.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Whenever my vulgar curiosity needs satisfaction, I turn to the Daily Mail website. What, you've never visited? The DM's intrepid squad of reporters fans out across the globe, leaving no Dumpster unsifted in the quest for sordid celebrity gossip (or, as the DM delicately names it, Femail), so readers are kept up-to-the-minute on which celebrities are too skinny (Angelina!) and which are too fat (Jessica!) and which have just been outed for cavorting with prostitutes while their wives were pregnant.

The latest in that illustrious line would be 24-year-old footballer Wayne Rooney, a star player for Manchester United and the England national team, whose response to the scandal is that he's "not prepared to take any s--- off the wife and her family" and "if she can't handle it and it's over, so be it." If this sounds a bit jaded, well, Rooney's been there before: he's already well-known among football fans and Femail readers alike for his teenage encounter with a 48-year-old hooker known (affectionately, one presumes) as the Auld Slapper.

At least wronged wife Coleen can take comfort in the fact that she's not alone. From Elin Nordegren to Sandra Bullock to Silda Spitzer, the wives of high-profile men have put up with a lot of high-priced competition over recent years. Or maybe the cheating was always going on, and today's offenders are just unlucky to have come of age in a time of instant news and transparent privacy. The Rooney affair came to light when Juicy Jeni -- one of the ladies involved -- sold her story to a tabloid, prompting a wave of disapproving website commentary that she was dishonoring her profession.

Whether it's the reap-the-rewards mentality of successful people, or our modern capability for rationalizing and entitlement, or the diminishing sacredness of sex in Western society, we've heard any number of reasons for the infidelity epidemic. Rooney's petulant comments suggest that he knows he did a bad thing, but can't summon the moral fiber to blame himself for it. As an athlete, he ought to be well-acquainted with self-control and physical discipline; apparently, though, he chooses to save all that effort for the football pitch, where it's appreciated by legions of worshipful fans rather than a single nagging wife in the yucky throes of pregnancy.

Anyhoo. The Daily Mail will feast on the story for a week or two, and then the Rooneys will probably reconcile and have another baby, and Femail will move on to obsess over the speed at which Coleen loses her pregnancy weight.

Which means the next celebrity cheating scandal can't be far behind.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


With the Franzen vs. Ladywriters dispute in full kerfuffle last week, I thought I'd better start reading me some Jennifer Weiner over Labor Day weekend. (I'm saving Freedom for the kind of late-autumn evening in which the yowls of sociopathic songbird-eating cats drown out the sound of acid rain beating against the roof of the nearest corrupt Halliburtonesque corporation.) So this post was meant to be a serious examination of women's fiction and its place in the modern literary landscape.

Alas, my feeble ladywriter brain is easily distracted by trivialities, and instead I found myself thinking about fat.

Cannie, the brilliantly-portrayed heroine of Good in Bed -- I began with the earliest of the Weiner oeuvre -- spends much of the novel battling the demons of body image on the way to her happy ending, and reminded me in many ways of Min, the heroine of Jennifer Crusie's more comic-toned but still weight-obsessed Bet Me, which I'd also read recently. In fact, I've come across a lot of books featuring curvier women in the past several years, all of which celebrated the beauty of ample endowment and the men who appreciate a well-rounded figure.

I couldn't be happier. I love reading about women of all body types, from dainty to athletic to lush, and it's about time that fiction recognized the beauty of diversity. A woman is loveliest when she's in tune with her natural shape, and both Weiner and Crusie tell this truth with aching eloquence.

But what about the dudes?

In each of these books, and others playing the same theme, the heroine ends up with a man of about one-percent body fat. He doesn't always have a pretty face, and he may not be muscle-bound, and he may measure in a shade shorter than the requisite six-two, but by God he hasn't got an extra ounce of padding on him.

Now it's great that our curvy women end up with what American society considers attractive men, but just how far are we pushing back the fat-is-ugly stereotype if it still applies to guys? Why, Cannie herself dismisses one man as "paunchy," and every fellow she's attracted to happens to be stick-skinny. What gives?

Biology might answer back that softness is womanly, and hardness is manly. Fine, but aren't we supposed to be beyond biological stereotypes? Or maybe a publisher would argue that these books are all supposed to be fantasy anyway, and novels without mantitty wouldn't sell. But doesn't that just misjudge so-called women's fiction, and women in general?

What do you think? Have you come across a novel with a less-than-lean but still-desirable hero? Would you like to see a guy with a love handle or two?

(And as for that serious post about Franzen and Weiner and literary vs. commercial fiction, I might as well forget it, because Ron Hogan has a much better version over at