Hubby closed his eyes and moaned over the chocolate frosting he’d just put in his mouth.

“So it’s good?” I asked.

“Oh yes.”

“Does it need more cocoa?”


I grinned and took the spoon from him, then headed back into the kitchen to frost the cake. Hubby is the final taste-tester around here, since my tastes tend to be a little different from the rest of the family. He is the safe bet when I’m making something to present to others, like the birthday cake I’m bringing to the in-laws tonight. His mom had requested a healthy cake, but obviously I still wanted it to be as yummy as possible.

As I returned the cocoa and honey to the pantry, a bag of pecans caught my eye and made my mouth water with an idea.

“How do you feel about nuts on a cake?” I asked Hubby.

“On a chocolate cake?”



I laughed — and ten minutes later decided to do it anyway. While it’s a joint celebration tonight, one of the birthdays is my own, and I adore pecans.

My first thought was to put them on half the cake, but I thought that would look silly. So instead, I lined the cake with pecans and figured all those nut-haters out there can have the middle pieces.

While I’m too chicken to have shown it to Hubby yet (it’ll be a surprise!), it seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

And it got me thinking about compromises in general — and specifically, compromises in writing.

Last night we went and saw the new silent film The Artist. I had no idea what the story was, and all along the way I found myself guessing where it would head next: oh, he just bumped into the main actress, so now they’re going to hook up, but oh wait, he has a wife, but his wife doesn’t seem to like him, so maybe . . . but wait . . .

I thought about how much the main character’s pride affected the twists of the movie — which was obviously what I was meant to think about, since his pride was showcased as a big element of the story from the beginning. He wouldn’t have had to struggle so much if he could have worked past that hubris sooner, right?

As a fiction writer, I thought about the compromises we make with our characters. We naturally want what’s best for them. They’re like our kids. We want them to be wise and kind and make good choices.

But the trouble in fiction is that we need to see struggling characters. We need to see them overcome. And often the struggles are from their own making. So it becomes a compromise between allowing the blasphemy of bad choices and steering them toward the good ending we want for them.

And of course the resolutions themselves are usually compromises. George Valentin struggled not just because of hubris; it was also that he couldn’t think of a compromise that would work. His initial idea was a bust. Sometimes compromises occur to us quickly, like putting the pecans on only the rim of the cake, but with bigger issues it often takes much longer to see how the good ending can possibly happen. So another compromise for a writer is trading off between letting the character fail and succeed.

Ha, maybe this whole metaphor is a little crazy — as usual. After all, I do like nuts. But The Artist makes me want to consider the fatal flaws in my characters a little deeper this week and make sure that I’ve made the necessary compromises in my story, so that the characters can make mistakes and struggle and yet still arrive at the resolutions readers will hope for.

I want characters who are fundamentally good in the center — so delicious that we’ll react the way Hubby did to the frosting and forgive them for being a little nuts around the edges. 😉

(The frosting, by the way, is simple: 1 cup cream cheese, 3/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. No need for compromising there! Healthy = real food around here, so butter and cream cheese totally count.)

What are your thoughts on compromise? What character examples can you think of who manage a good balance between successes and failures?

Leave a comment!


True Grit

Everyone who has a particular taste in movies needs a husband like mine. He watches movies as a hobby, fitting them in while working on something else, and then when I want to see something new that I’ll like, he’s got options ready for me.

A few weeks ago I suggested we watch a movie, and he said, “Hmm. What have I got in the queue? Oh! True Grit. You will LOVE it.”

Honestly, it wasn’t a movie I would have seen on my own. I’ve never caught on to Westerns and hadn’t seen a preview for it. But because Hubby knows my taste in movies so well and was so confident about this one, I shut down my computer for the night and went down to our basement to watch it with him.

And yep, I did love it.

How could he be so sure that I would? I thought about it through the movie and since. What did the Coen brothers do so well with this one? Here’s the list I’ve come up with:

  • no-nonsense 14-year-old girl able to negotiate successfully against grown men
  • witty dialogue, which is always a winner for me
  • ornery characters you can’t help loving, even when they’re bickering with each other (honestly, I even adored the “bad” guys, like Ned in those awesome sheepskin pant-covers)
  • clever, subtle humor, as opposed to annoying slapstick
  • emotional attachment, even beyond the characters: her horse, for one, but I also loved her braids and her hat lined with newspaper and the marshall’s eye patch and that rope they circled around them for snakes
  • high stakes — despite a 14-year-old main character, in a Western anyone could die or be dismembered, etc, at any point, as the movie shows us right from the beginning with four corpses readied for burial and a trial describing how many others the marshall had killed
  • flawed men with hero potential, like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon; you knew from the start that they would quarrel through the entire movie and make huge mistakes but come through in big ways when it counted
  • emerging father–daughter type relationship done well; yes, we love to see romantic relationships in movies, but there are other kinds that can win us over too, and when Jeff Bridges races back with Mattie at the end — wow — that’s when you know how powerful their bond had become: my eyes did not leave the screen

Looking over that list, I think emotional attachment overlaps with and trumps all the others. If I didn’t feel emotionally connected to Mattie, it wouldn’t matter that she could negotiate with grown men or that she has a special bond with Jeff Bridges by the end. Emotion is the trump card. How do you appeal to it? How do you make an audience love your characters?

Flaws, yes, or we won’t believe them enough. Coupled with admirable qualities, like true grit (Mattie starts the movie by negotiating to spend the night with three hanged corpses because the undertaker has charged too much for preparing her father’s body). We need a dash of vulnerability, like when Mattie eyes a corpse’s dead hand hanging out and you know she’s at least a little scared; if she weren’t, we wouldn’t feel for her as much, and showing that vulnerability helps us relate to her. And we need to see a sense of honor to know that, despite their flaws, these characters will do the right thing in the end, regardless of personal sacrifice.

Now to get back to making sure my own characters have those things going for them — like plenty of true grit.

What do you think are the most crucial aspects of character?

Leave a comment!

Kids’ Voices, Kings’ Speeches, Irish Accents, and the Damn Arbitrariness of Words

When you’re a parent, you find yourself having strange conversations now and then with your children. Sometimes they go like this (true story):

“Mom! He hit me in the butt!”

“We don’t say ‘butt.’ We say ‘bum.’ ”


“Well. Um. Just because. It sounds better.”

Or this one in the car not too long ago:

The six-year-old drops something and says, “Damn it!”

“Oops,” I say to Hubby. “Pretty sure he got that from me. Oh, man. What if he says that around other people? Then they’ll know that WE talk like that.” To the six-year-old: “You don’t say that at your friends’ houses, do you?”

“I said it at Spencer’s house.”

“Oh, great. Okay, well, we only say it at our house, okay? Because it’s okay in our family, but some families don’t like it.” To hubby again: “Is it a double standard if we let him say ‘damn’ but not ‘butt’?”

“Yes,” Hubby says, “but I’m okay with that because I don’t like ‘butt’ and I’m okay with ‘damn.'”

I laughed. “And what about ‘kick butt,’ like ‘kick-butt herbs’? For some reason I’m okay with that phrase. It’s all pretty arbitrary, isn’t it?”

And of course there was the time that the six-year-old, when he was four or five, pointed at someone’s stuff on the curb across the street, waiting to be picked up by Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and said, “What the hell is that?”

Yeah, we say that too. And we got a good laugh over hearing our kid imitate us. Somehow adult phrases sound so much funnier in kid voices.

Isn’t it crazy how arbitrary we can be about our word preferences? Arbitrary and yet absolute in our opinions.

We refuse to use either four-letter F word in our house, while most people probably struggle to think what the second one is (hint: we have our kids say they “passed gas” instead). I hate the sound of both of those F words, and Hubby does too.

On the other hand, I love the feel of “damn” or “hell” rolling off my tongue. It’s so mollifying when I’m frustrated. I justify it because you can find both of those words in the scriptures, and also because I only damn inanimate pronouns (strictly “it”) and never personal pronouns (like “you” or “him”), as I mentioned in a post back in October.

But then, at the same time, I can be so horribly fickle. During a warm weather day a week or so ago, I was talking outside with some moms in the neighborhood about the rating change for The King’s Speech. Hubby and I had seen the R-rated version and absolutely loved it, F-word and all. Once in a while, even though I dislike the word in general, it can work well and even be strangely tasteful in a particular context. When my neighbor told me they’d subbed the F-word with the S-word to make it PG-13, I was appalled and declared that I wanted the artistic integrity of the original version preserved. (Yeah, they looked at me like I was nuts, which I am.)

Who decided which of those is worse? Okay, yes, if you think about the semantics, I suppose what F means is worse than what S means. But with just the sound of the word? Both have a harsh sound, that hard, plosive consonant ending (as opposed to the soft ending of “damn” or “hell”). If I had to pick, merely according to aesthetics, I’d choose F simply because the “uh” vowel sound isn’t quite so awful on my ears as the nails-on-a-chalkboard “sh” followed by “ih.”

And then there’s the accent to consider. I don’t think I’ve ever liked either word said in an American accent in a film or real life, but with an English or Irish accent? It can be almost lovely.

We went and saw The Swell Season when they came to Salt Lake shortly after their song “Falling Slowly” (in the movie Once) won an Oscar a few years ago, and Glen Hansard used the F word all over the place in his narratives between songs, but he explained that it was his Irish way of getting back at the British by speaking an effed-up version of their language. Hilarious! I laughed and enjoyed the whole concert, not finding the word grating at all.

Maybe that’s because it sounds like a completely different word with an accent. It gets that tidy “aw” sound, like “clock,” rather than the trashy “uh” like “puck.” But even “tidy” and “trashy” are arbitrary labels, made up by me as I’m writing this, based on no authority but my own fickle opinions.

Where am I going with all this? Just that I find it funny. I get a good laugh at my own idiosyncracies, so sometimes I like to display them so others can have a laugh too.

Anybody else this way? What taboo words are you fine with and what others do you shun? What exceptions do you make?

Leave a comment!

p.s. sorry about my failure to post on Friday. It’s been a busy few days with grading final papers to give back to students last night. My 1010 students have now flown the coop, and while I’m sad to see them go, I’m looking forward to a month off before summer classes start. I’m planning to post again this Friday and get back on schedule.

Dissection for a Good Review

In the writing classes I teach, when we cover analysis and argument, we discuss the importance of how and why. As with any lesson, the challenge is making the concepts tangible, finding concrete examples that will have my students going, “I get it! That makes total sense.”

Thanks to a few vague kitchen product reviews, an unfortunate purchase, and a simple-but-elegant mechanism, I think I can now prove the essentialness of how and why.

Last weekend, I bought oat groats. I had never even seen what they look like, but in reading about rolled oats versus steel cut oats, it suddenly struck me that it was another case of “this OR that” and I abandoned both in favor of flaking my own oats for the freshest possible oatmeal.

Um, only trouble? Equipment. I’m not sure how pioneers and others rolled their oats, but when I searched how to do it, I found relatively few options. The reviews I read made them all sound more or less equal for flaking oats, as in “they all get the job done, no problems,” so I bought the cheapest one and figured that would do it. After all, I only need to roll about a cup of oats at a time for oatmeal. No sweat.

Oh, not so. That cheapest roller (cheap at $45 — still a large chunk of money!) arrived in the mail last Monday, and it felt too light, too flimsy. It rolled the oats, but they were thicker than I expected (even though I’m used to old-fashioned oats) and half the time I’d be turning the crank and nothing would be coming through because all the groats were jammed at the top, refusing to be squashed between the rollers. I had figured it would take five minutes or less to roll a cup of oats. With that thing, in five minutes I only had a third of a cup.

Hubby happened to walk into the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. as I was trying to get the oatmeal ready for breakfast. I also had wheat berries grinding in my Family Grain Mill powered by my KitchenAid stand mixer, and Hubby’s astute observation was, “Why can’t you use that thing for oats, too?”

“Because the oat roller attachment for that costs twice as much as this thing.”

“But if you’re going to use it all the time and have this big a headache every time, isn’t the more expensive one worth it?”

Bless husbands who can say such things! Neither of us likes to spend money, and I’d been trying to be frugal, but I am so glad he nudged me toward a better quality purchase.

Yesterday I drove to a Bosch Kitchen Center and bought the display model flaker mill (they were out of boxed ones, and I was thrilled to get a discount for the used version). It was heavy in a good way — substantial, quality — and I was excited to test it out.

Today I hooked it up to my hand crank (too lazy to drag out the KitchenAid for just a cup of oats), and it worked marvelously: a steady stream of thinly rolled oats poured out of the bottom.

Then I dismantled it and discovered the difference.

In the cheap unit, how it worked was that two rollers turned toward each other on the theory that they would pull the oats down between them and squash them, but that had a number of problems. Why? First of all, you could only get the oats as thin as the space between the rollers, but if the rollers were too close together the oats would never go down between them in the first place. That’s why I kept turning the crank and sometimes got a few, sometimes none, because you had to wait until the textured grip of the rollers caught each groat just right.

In my higher quality version, one roller presses the oats against a steel plate, the space between the roller and the plate narrowing to create a funnel that forces the oats down at an even pace. 

Smarter design, improved function.

So here’s my writing analogy of the week: to really figure out what makes something better — whether you’re reviewing kitchen equipment or a movie or novel, etc — you have to take it apart and figure out how and why it works.

If I’d come across a review explaining to me the difference between the $45 model and the $80 (used) model, I wouldn’t have bothered with the cheap one in the first place.

I’m not a reviewer myself, but what I appreciate about book or movie reviewers who do their job well is that they don’t just sum up the story and whether or not they liked it, but they dissect it and describe the how and the why.

For example:

How does the writer keep the audience hooked?

  • With gimmicky tension created by withholding information or tossing characters into ridiculous and unreasonable situations? (**cough, cough** The Proposal, where they invented an excuse to have Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds run into each other naked.) 
  • Or with genuine tension based on realistic circumstances and situations that explore character through difficult decisions? (Every amazing book I’ve ever read, but first movie example that comes to mind: Gladiator, where Russell Crowe is pitted against the last wishes of a soon-to-be-murdered emperor and the power-hungry delusions of the emperor’s love-starved and emotionally unstable son — not to mention fighting for his very life, his family’s life, and the well-being of the whole country and a woman he cares for.)

Why does the writer include certain elements?

  • To fit a formula — whether a popular trend or a genre “recipe”? (Again, I’m going to pick on romantic comedies that create certain characters just to have the “nerdy best friend” and other formulaic roles filled.)
  • Or to serve a purpose unique to that story? (I’m thinking of books like Whirligig where the author makes the main character unlikable, normally a sin in novel-writing, in order to show the enormous change he undergoes in the course of the story.)

By including how and why, the reviewer helps me anticipate whether or not that movie or book or kitchen gadget will work for me. Maybe I like certain genre formulas and so a movie with a nerdy best friend will be perfect for me. Maybe I don’t like the tension of realistic drama and would rather have the gimmicks so I can just be entertained. Maybe I’m not going to use an oat roller very often and so waiting for the groats to squash between two rollers is fine with me due to the price difference.*

Also, as a writer, analyzing the how and the why of my own story is absolutely the key to improving it. How would my character react in this situation? Why is this scene crucial?

Anyhow, you get the idea. Any thoughts? Run across any great reviews lately?

Leave a comment!

*In case anyone’s interested, here is the rest of the price story: even at Costco, I felt like I was paying way too much for relatively few rolled oats. With the oat groats (which I bought in a 50# bag from a grain distributor for $28), it’s not only fresher — no chance of being rancid — but 1/2 cup of groats rolls into 1 cup of oats, so I’m getting twice as much for the same price. This means that even my $80 gadget will pay for itself pretty quickly since we eat oatmeal twice a week and I make my own granola. Hooray for tools that provide both better health and spending!

A Rare Treat: Great Parents in YA Stories

Guess what Hubby got me for Valentine’s Day? Great YA lit in movie form!

We stumbled across Easy A about a month ago when we were surfing the cinema channels on Dish Network (because that’s what our lives have become: no chance to get to the theater without three kids in tow, just waiting for movies to come to us via satellite while the little monsters are sleeping). The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (“smart,” “witty”) immediately reminded us of one of our all-time faves, Juno, so we paid the six bucks for instant access and settled in, two thirty-year-olds watching a high school movie — and loving it.

Emma Stone is fantastic, of course, and is the perfect blend of self-assured and vulnerable with this character. But what absolutely sold the show for me was the first moment we meet Olive’s parents. The casting said it all. When I saw Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson on the screen, I fell in love. Could a young adult character have any better parents? No! Every line they gave just made me love them more.

I have to include at least one clip:

(And in case, like us, you kept rewinding to figure out what the “clever word play” is that she says, I finally caught it on my tenth time through: “grist.” So the movie gets bonus points for improving my vocabulary.)

The day after we saw Easy A for the first time, Hubby asked, “So how can we be as cool as those parents in the movie?”

“I was thinking exactly the same question,” I said. “But I haven’t figured it out yet.”

I’ve thought about it a lot, actually. For one thing, it’s dang unusual to see cool parents in a coming-of-age story. The protagonist generally has a lot more leeway for adventure if he or she has been orphaned, either by death or neglect. In this case, Olive Penderghast gets leeway by having parents who are . . . what would you call them?

They don’t freak out about her lingerie-esque wardrobe, but they do point out to her that they are becoming concerned about it. They don’t freak out when she takes a boy up to her room and closes the door, but at one point when she’s alone with the door shut, growling because she’s mad, her dad comes in and says, “Are you okay? It sounds like you’re having sex in here.” It’s a funny line, but enough to show us that her parents are aware, and it becomes touching when Olive doesn’t reveal the source of her frustration and the dad doesn’t push her to, just saying, “Give ’em hell.”

On the one hand, I’ve wondered if her parents should have stepped in more. Not for the sake of the story, which as I mentioned sort of requires parents to be hands-off. Just for the sake of good parenting. Or is the space they give her part of what makes them admirable to Hubby and me?

I’ve been aware of “space” in the family a lot lately. As I’ve learned more about nutrition I’ve been changing up our diets a lot, which, with four boys in the house, is enough to cause some grumpiness. You know, the way to a man-boy’s heart and all that. Food is important. And I soon learned that my best approach was to back off from everybody a bit. The six-year-old especially needed space to come around on his own. If I insisted he try a new food, he would cry and we’d have a battle. If I waited, he eventually discovered that whole wheat corn bread didn’t actually taste that different from white flour corn bread.

Today he even shocked us by saying, when his dad offered him banana bread for dinner, “No, I need to eat something healthy.”

(Never mind that the banana bread has no sugar or white flour and so is actually healthy in that sense.)

So maybe hands-off parenting really is the way to go. Let the kids learn for themselves.

But I think the secret is also to let them know that you’re aware of them, watching out for them, ready to talk with them when they’re ready. Joke with them, let them know you know what’s up, spend time with them.

Yeah, I think if Hubby and I can be like Olive Penderghast’s parents, we’ll be doing pretty well.

What do you think? What great parents have you encountered in YA movies or books? Any you want to be like?

Leave a comment!

When Love Triangles Become Dodecahedrons (i.e. Complicated)

On Friday, my friend Chersti posted a great blog article about successful love triangles, using the movie Casablanca to explain five guiding principles for awesome angst: equal screen time, winning moments, unknown outcome (as opposed to obvious outcome), equal chemistry, and character growth influencing choice.

My only question was . . . what do you do when things get more complicated, when there are more than three characters involved and some of the sides are unrequited (i.e. unequal chemistry)? Because I might sort of have that going on in my novel . . .

So, to copy Chersti’s great post, I thought I’d look at an old movie as well: The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn.

Things are complicated, all right. Cary Grant loves his ex-wife Katherine Hepburn, who thinks she loves her fiance “George Kittridge,” who worships Katherine Hepburn, who has an alcohol-induced fling with reporter Jimmy Stewart, who is infatuated by her but loved by “Liz” his photographer partner. 

To sum up: Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and “Liz” the photographer all suffer from unrequited love through a good chunk of the movie.

Also: it doesn’t feel like we’re ever really meant to root for George the fiance. The story sort of stacks the cards against him.

“George,” Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart;
“Liz” and Jimmy Stewart

What do you do with that?

Some of Chersti’s principles still apply, I think. While there’s not much mystery about George losing in the end, there IS mystery on Katherine Hepburn’s end. She truly doesn’t know that she doesn’t love George; she has to figure it out through the course of the movie as she grows as a character and finally decides between three guys in the end.

And because Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart both have plenty of screen time and plenty of “winning moments,” there is a bit of a mystery about which of them Katherine Hepburn will choose. Both of them have proven to be equally worthy of her in different ways.

But what’s especially great about the unrequited aspects of the triangle is that even if those poor characters aren’t stirring their intended’s heart, they are stirring the audience’s.

We feel so bad for Liz and admire her for the way she handles rejection. Our hearts break when Cary Grant watches Jimmy Stewart propose to Katherine Hepburn because we see the agony on Cary Grant’s face and have come to admire him as a character, too.

I think that often “chemistry” is something that those on the outside can see better than the people on the inside. It’s clear to the audience almost from the beginning that Katherine Hepburn doesn’t belong with George. It’s clear to the other characters, too. It’s also clear that Jimmy Stewart belongs with Liz. And while we wonder about Cary Grant because he’s the ex (read: failed once already), still the audience and the other characters realize he’s Katherine Hepburn’s match before her character does.

In that way the outcome is obvious, but it’s so clearly not obvious to the characters inside those relationships that the tension of the movie is created by wondering whether or not and how and how soon they’ll see things clearly.

And that’s sort of true to life, isn’t it? With my first boyfriend in college, when I would call and talk about him with my mom, she could tell without ever having met him that he wasn’t right for me. She was nice about it, just dropping subtle hints like, “Isn’t that kind of a red flag?” but the trick was that I had to grow and realize things about myself before I was ready to see what she saw and break up with the guy.

Nicely, the things I learned from that experience helped me recognize my hubby when we found each other later on. Just like Katherine Hepburn’s character learns enough about herself to realize that she loves and needs and wants Cary Grant.

Ta da! Or really . . . ditto. Because it turns out that all I’ve done is reinforce Chersti’s post. Her five aspects seem to hold up even in complicated situations.

And maybe what I’ll add is that the most important chemistry of all for a character is with the audience. If the character gets enough screen time to shine with winning moments and to prove to the audience that he/she deserves a chance with his/her love, the unrequited aspect will just make us sympathize more, make us root for that character more, and make us hope that his/her love will treat him right by the end.

On the other hand — and here’s a whole different problem — what if the unrequitedness isn’t going to be remedied in the end? What if you’ve got an odd number of characters and one of them, like George, just obviously doesn’t fit in the match up?

That happens to be the issue in my WIP.

In The Philadelphia Story, the solution was to make George less likeable than the others. He’s an okay guy, but just okay. Not a Cary Grant or a Jimmy Stewart. And he doesn’t really get much screen time or any winning moments. By the end, in fact, his nobility of character is tested and he fails.

What if I don’t want to handle it that way? What if I want to let a certain character have winning moments, prove to be a great guy, etc, but his growth through the book teaches him that he’s not the right guy for the girl he’s pined after and he hasn’t met the right one for him yet? Maybe that’s where it does get complicated. How do you show that the growth is more important than being in a relationship?

Let me know your thoughts on any of this, including books or movies that do love dodecahedrons well.

Leave a comment!