Subjects touched upon herein: character voice, contrast, tension, description, symbolism, foreshadowing, and the meaning of cookies.
If you don’t yet have the book, you can follow along with the excerpt here.
Fourth floor: thumbscrews, analgesics, and ladies’ lingerie
Tally has a very anxiety-driven thought process. My copyeditor called out that her point-of-view scenes cram more thoughts into one paragraph than Ben’s and she tends toward hyperbole (death by starvation, serial killer, etc.), which gives her a more frantic pace, conveying the anxiety stylistically as well as through thought content.
Whether you believe I meant to do that and am clever enough to pull it off or I’m the beneficiary of a happy accident I couldn’t duplicate if my life depended on it, it seemed to work out okay for the book, and that’s the important thing, right? Right.
Anxiety and I go way back. The challenge wasn’t getting it on the page; the challenge was getting it on the page without making it universally unbearable to read. Reader discomfort is awesome. Storytelling is all about reader discomfort — make you a little uncomfortable, give you a little relief, make you progressively more uncomfortable, give you progressively littler relief that you appreciate progressively more because you need it more (junkie), until the final relief of the ending. Readers being so uncomfortable they take relief into their own hands by putting the book down and never picking it back up is a storytelling failure.
I focused on paring down the content of Tally’s anxiety to digestible portions relevant to the story rather than the every-minute-of-every-day reality of the disorder, which would be “realistic” but would create a ton of filler that has no effect on the story, in addition to bludgeoning the reader incessantly with doom, which is depressing and exhausting. Nobody wants to read that. (Living with it is no picnic, either, FYI.)
If nothing else, starting off with the peak level of discomfort gives the writer nowhere to go. Tension and stakes must escalate, and the elevator, by necessity, stops at the top floor. Stepping in and out of an elevator parked at the penthouse for thirty chapters doesn’t meet the discomfort/relief demand. The second time a writer puts the reader in exactly the same position, even if it’s shackled to the wall in a locked room with a chainsaw killer, the reader is more comfortable, not less. She survived the last time she was here and presumes she’ll do so again because there are pages left and there’s been no escalation of difficulty or urgency in the interim to complicate continued survival this time. Since the reader already knows from experience what’s going to happen (maintenance of the status quo), she says, “Been there. Done that. Bored. Bye.” before the writer has a chance to prove her wrong — another storytelling failure.
Tally starts with a lobby-level worry about her job security that most people at some point in their lives have experienced and survived, so it’s relatable and not overwhelming. Then she steps out of the elevator on another floor to be unexpectedly confronted, when she’s dirty and poorly dressed and exhausted and about as far from her best as she’s ever been, with an old flame who has redefined perfection in order to surpass his previous level thereof, which is something a great number of people have experienced at least in nightmares — still relatable, still survivable, still relevant, but the stress is starting to pile on and will continue to do so in every sequence until it breaks her.
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way
Ben exhibits more concern about whether his mom has access to a haircut than Tally does about her mother being dead. There are very different family dynamics at work here. Since that’s going to be a bigger deal later, I’ll talk more about it when it is.
Just wanted to point out the notion was seeded at the first opportunity for contrast.
When life gives you lemons, capitalize on their nipple-like properties
I’m not a fan of premeditated symbolism. Of course, there’s no way to really know unless the writer thereof is trumpeting that information everywhere, but I assume, when a story is beating me repeatedly over the head with THE TOWER IS A PHALLIC SYMBOLOGY!!!!!!!! (or whatever), that somebody was deeply in love with that symbol all along and wrote the rest of the story around it just to give it a place to live. I can’t think of any other reason to elevate a symbol above characters in the hierarchy. Characters provide the context for interpreting the story. Whatever they consume, filter, and expel should rank beneath them in importance.
Symbolism is one of those things you won’t miss if it’s not there and might miss if it is there (unless the author insists on assaulting you with it), so it’s not essential to storytelling and doesn’t need to be and should not be contrived and forced where it’s not necessary. I’m perfectly content to have symbolism-free stories.
I was three-quarters through writing the rough draft of WCAD when I wondered about the relevance of the sticky door buzzer. It gets a lot of mentions to be just something to provide a stage direction against. Rough drafts are for getting from Point A to Point B, not connecting every little thing, but I was close enough to the end that I was thinking about all the things that would have to be fixed in the next draft, and I didn’t want to waste time writing anything else about the buzzer if I was going to end up cutting it all because it served no purpose.
So what is the buzzer? It’s broken. It’s a source of stress. It signals unwelcome intrusion. It’s a persistent problem nobody has gotten around to fixing for, apparently, at least thirty years. It heralds the arrival of another persistent (albeit better-looking) problem.
A broken thing in a life full of broken things. A source of frustration in a life full of frustration. Another problem Tally doesn’t have the energy to figure out how to fix. A problem Ben temporarily resolves for her.
Oh, dammit, that sounds symbolic.
No, I don’t expect you to know any of this on the test. I have to be able to justify having everything in the story, so I had to give it significance and develop it or take it out. Since I could give it significance and develop it, I did.
I’ll go into how it develops later, as it develops.
Who’s the fairest of them all
I explained in Chapter 1’s walkthrough how I feel about mirror gazing. I have an equal distaste for mirror-less self-description. My hair gets in my eyes all the time. My curly, L’Oreal Excellence 4A Dark Ash Brown with an ever-increasing number of gray roots, medium-length hair that I’ve been trying forever to grow out escaping in whimsical tendrils from my high ponytail inadequately secured with a black fabric-covered elastic band that has lost too much of its snap to remain in place has not, ever, in my lifetime, gotten into my eyes that are more green when I wear blue, more blue when I wear green, and olive when I wear olive and have gold rings around the pupils.
Invisible familiarity: If you see something every day, you do not think anything in particular about seeing it again today.
The fact is, if most characters were never physically described, the absence of that information would have absolutely no effect on the story and you wouldn’t miss it because it’s not necessary information for comprehension. Your imagination would fill in appearances you find suitable for heroes and villains and bosses and parents and friends and waitresses and every other role. The story world in your head would not be populated by grayed-out mystery man avatars.
One exception would be when some element of physical appearance is plot relevant. If an interracial romantic relationship is a primary conflict, it’s worth pointing out that the characters aren’t a generic white couple before the first appearance-related conflict arises. If a character lost an arm when an attempt to close an interdimensional hell portal went awry, that’s going to have some effect upon her manual dexterity during the story and should be noted well in advance of her getting in a one-fist fight with whatever escaped hellspawn she subsequently encounters. This goes back to planting seeds: If it’s going to be important later, hint at it now. On the other hand, if it will never be important (as most physical description will not be), the story doesn’t require it and should be cleansed of clutter.
Generally, in a romance novel, some physical appearance is plot relevant in that these characters will probably be sexually attracted to one another, which in most cases involves a large element of visual appeal.
That is, visual appeal to the other person.
It’s perfectly natural to have a character look at someone eye-catching and have more extensive thoughts than “hair” and “eyes” and “mouth.” Yeah, we assume they have the default collection of body parts, unless otherwise noted. We need to know why those parts are more captivating than the last bunch of parts the character barely glanced at (i.e., Tally never having noticed Shane had lips), so this is the time to give us some details — from the perspective of the person observing those details.
Noteworthy things should always be noted by the person noting them — the only person who can explain why those things are of note to that person. Even if those things are noteworthy to others, the reasons aren’t transferable. Another person might take note of Ben’s shaggy hair because young people these days are so slovenly or because he’s a potential client for the noter’s barber shop or because there’s a huge black market for human hair plugs and they have to be harvested from somebody. Tally sees his shaggy hair and thinks about using it to steer kisses. That’s a big difference in interpretation coming from her.
Hence, Ben describes Tally (in less-than-flattering terms that nonetheless lead to the conclusion that she’s still perfect), and Tally describes Ben (as her most beautiful nightmare), and the reader gets the idea that these two like looking at each other, regardless of whatever else may be going on between them (and also gets the idea that there’s plenty of “whatever else” going on between them).
It’s not hair color, eye color, height, weight, and complexion that matter. This isn’t a police report. You can promptly forget all that if it’s not to your liking and substitute whatever you’d rather see in your imagination. The blueness of Ben’s eyes neither causes nor resolves any future catastrophe. (You can’t say you weren’t warned about spoilers.) The sole function of that information is to make it clear Tally thinks he’s pretty.
Okay, we know they’re hot for each other. Do we ever need to mention their looks again? In this application, I think, yeah. When someone’s got their hooks into you, you don’t stop thinking “damn, those eyes are beautiful” or “damn, that smile takes me out at the knees.” Even if you see them every day, they still strike you from time to time with their extraordinariness — whatever makes them different from all the forgettable eyes and smiles and whatnot. You won’t see it harped on in huge blocks of text like this again, but Ben and Tally will remain physically aware of each other, just tighter focus on one sensory detail at a time when it’s relevant to what’s going on.
They each got a lot of attention at first sight because (nodding back to Chapter 1’s walkthrough again) threats to comfort and security heighten awareness, and they’ve both suffered a major breach with this surprise encounter.
Omens, portents, and prophecies, oh my
Still in Act I. Still heavily engaged in setting up what’s to come, although there’s no Big Obvious Official Foreshadowing of a specific major event.
- a professional screwup — expect either evidence or explanation of that description
- even if she had a talent for defending herself — expect her to not have that talent and to be in a situation where it would be a useful thing to have
- she desperately needed the income — expect financial difficulties to be an issue
- most of the customers looked at her as if they’d rather lick the bottom of a garbage can than eat food she had prepared — expect hostility toward Tally from the townsfolk
- no matter how shitty things seemed at the moment, they could always get worse — expect things to get worse
- Like most men, his gaze seldom ventured above her clavicle. — expect what lies below her clavicle to be attention-getting (and note that she thinks of this in terms of the behavior of others rather than calling out her own appearance, which would fall under the heading of “same shit, different day”)
- what she’d done every time Ben Fielder sucker punched her — expect sucker punches, since he’s done it so often she’s developed a protocol for dealing with it
- God forbid she ever got to use that five minutes to relax — expect her to have difficulty finding time to relax
- She’ll even deliver you a pizza if it’s on her way home — expect somebody to get a pizza
- her next, inevitable mistake — expect beyond the usual fear of mistakes and a reason for it
- At least this time the wake-up call hadn’t included a proposal — definitely expect that to come up again, since they’ve both thought about it
- He’d always saved her for dead last — expect her to always feel last in his affections
Again, a bunch of tinier leads exist, too. Many seeds lead to a bountiful harvest and all that.
The molasses-spice cookies I grew up with, which I had always known as gingersnaps, were soft and chewy.
I was greatly distressed the first time someone outside my family offered me a gingersnap and handed me a hard, dry, flat thing I feared would break my teeth. Apparently, the latter is what is accepted by the general public to be a gingersnap.
So that anyone I offered a molasses-spice cookie in the future would not be misled into thinking I would hand them a teething biscuit, I scribbled out “Gingersnaps” at the top of the old family recipe and wrote “Ginger Unsnaps” — at the time thinking of the Un- only as antithetical to the tooth-shattering consistency of The Other.
As it turns out, I never had the opportunity to refer to them by name or share this riveting anecdote because anyone who gets within cookie-offering distance says, “Oh god, those smell great,” and starts shoveling them into their face before it’s necessary for me to speak, and I will seize any opportunity that presents itself to get out of speaking.
Only when writing a book including both baking and pants being unfastened did I make the “unsnaps” connection.
Yes, I did consider renaming the heroine Ginger and calling the book Ginger Unsnaps, but that sounds a little too much like a porn remake of Ginger Snaps, so I restrained myself so as not to mislead those who would make that same association and be disappointed to find it’s just a plain ol’ romance novel without any teen werewolf menstrual sex (although WCAD does make mention of giant-spider sex for the arachnophiliac demographic).
I am all about the consumer advocacy.
Also to that effect, since someone asked (I assume in search of the means to cause someone to get fat, lose all his teeth to cavities, and erupt in acne in an attempt to put an end to unwelcome erotic fantasies), here’s the recipe.
That seems like everything noteworthy to me about Chapter 2, but if you have a different perspective, comment away. The walkthrough for Chapters 3 and 4 will be up next Monday, and I’ll add those chapters to the excerpt for those following along prepublication.