Can Marriage Be Easy?

The first wedding dress she put on was it. She glowed with the perfection of its fit while the rest of us cheered our approval. It was already the first Saturday in November, not much time before my youngest sister-in-law’s January date, and we all left the store with the happy vibe of a good sign. Plus a quick decision left plenty of time for lunch!

At Blue Lemon my mother-in-law asked a woman sitting nearby to take a picture of us, mentioning the upcoming event. The woman held up the camera and said, “I want you all to think of the love that you feel for each other today!”


A buzzing sensation tickled my ear—the kind that signals fateful interference. Something important was happening. Read more

To Sunday Afternoons: A Dedication

I’d like to dedicate this post to the one who made it possible. Sunday Afternoons, how I’ve missed you!

A photo from Old House Online that made me think of you. How great you and I would look together in this setting!

In that quirk of Mormondom, the yearly rotating schedule, it felt like ages since I’ve had you to myself. The 1pm church time — lasting until 4pm! — made me rush past you with barely a chance for a wistful glance, as I had a strict appointment with Dinner Prep right afterward (for our exercise routine, set to the rhythm of chopping and sizzling and boiling).

But now! Now that it’s our congregation’s turn to conclude at noon, three weeks in a row I’ve had the pleasure of your company again, the gift of your lavish hospitality. You are the sort of friend everyone needs: so generous and undemanding. Last week’s sweater you helped me crochet turned out well! And the book I had today: excellent. I’m indebted to you for the hours to relax with it. How good that felt!

(Incidentally, I should introduce you sometime. You and the book would get along. If you come across John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, please say hello!)

In the tumultuous busyness enforced by the totalitarianism of Other Days, there’s rarely a scrap of time for savoring words and ideas. Each is pushed out by the next more pressing one. But you, Sunday Afternoon — you understand that relaxation is an oft-neglected task, a necessary indulgence, a luxury as mandatory as breathing. You, like a shelter, provide the space for reclaiming lost thoughts: searching them out and gathering them up and finding a spot for them and pausing over each one to see how it is doing and what attention it needs. You give me freedom to choose words at my leisure rather than rushing to settle on the first that will do. Other Days may boast of their activity, their capacity, their productivity, their exclusivity, but you deserve praise for your charity.

Thank you, kind friend, for being here for me when I need you. It was hard to be without you so long.

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.

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The Author–Reader Relationship

The other day my hubby made a comment about how important he’d realized relationships with clients are in accounting. He said a lot of people might think that accounting is just about crunching numbers, but that if you have to tell a client he owes fifty grand in taxes, it really helps if you’ve got a good relationship. Otherwise, the client’s more likely to complain not just about the amount but about his accountant.

Similarly, in the corporation he used to work for the engineers hated the accountants because they thought the accountants were too picky and giving them too much extra paperwork. So hubby would walk down to chat with the engineers, getting to know them. Once he started creating that relationship, the engineers were more willing to provide info the accountants needed.

I notice this all the time in teaching. Creating a fun, friendly, approachable relationship with my students makes a big difference in how receptive they are when I give them feedback about their writing.

The relationship is key.

So now I’ve been thinking about what else this applies to, like the author–reader relationship. Thanks to technology, suddenly you can read your favorite author’s blog and leave comments on it or send her messages on Twitter and get replies. It’s amazing.

And yet it’s still such a unique relationship. One of my author friends once told me how inadequate she feels at book signings because readers already feel like they know her through her books and it’s almost like they want something intangible — some taste of what they found in the book and want to rediscover by meeting her. It’s sort of crazy and sort of awkward and sort of understandable, all at the same time.

The experience of reading a great book can be so tender, full of a huge range of emotions. You feel like you’ve connected with someone soul-to-soul, like this author is someone who understands you in ways no one else does.

And yet of course the author knows nothing about you. To me it’s such a strange kind of relationship.

I so admire authors who do what they can to cultivate that relationship anyway, reaching out to fans through blogs and Facebook and Twitter and so on, patiently reading through comments and replying as much as they can. It’s tough and it’s time-consuming, from what I’ve observed, but I know as a fan myself the coolest thing is to have an author say they liked your blog post about their book or they appreciated some comment you made. That’s when the author starts to feel like such a real person to me, somebody with whom I’d love to go to lunch and chat for an hour or more.

I’ve also been thinking about the author–reader relationship in terms of what’s communicated in the story itself.

I exchanged emails with one of my early readers this week in which I admitted that I wanted to keep certain elements of the story despite how skeptical the critique group had seemed about them. She replied,

“In no way did I want to discourage it [that element of the story] — I do believe that as writers, we know more things than the readers. And so it’s just a matter of clarifying it to the readers, and I’m sure that’s where you are.”

Despite how cool it is to connect with authors at signings or via social networks, still the most important part of the relationship is the experience of reading their work. I have to create a relationship where the readers can abandon their sense of disbelief and trust me to guide them through the story. I also have to connect them to the characters, providing the conduit for that additional relationship layer.

In other words, just as I show my students I care about them from day one by learning their names, I have to show my readers that I care about them by clarifying every element of the story until it works right.

That doesn’t always mean bowing to their ideas. Last week I let some of my students propose ideas for how to spend our last two weeks of class, and one group proposed having three days off for more time to work from home. Instead I agreed to take them to the computer lab for time to work in class. I happen to know that when I let them “work from home” more than half will just procrastinate the assignment even longer. Once I explained that factor, they agreed with me.

Similarly, as the author I know my story. Often I just have gut feelings about what to include, and then my job is to figure out why those elements make sense in the story and  somehow subtly portray the reasons to the readers.

There will still always be complaints. I’m sure that no matter how cool your accountant is, you’re going to complain at least a little about owing $50,000. There will always be decisions in a story with which some readers disagree. But I’m hoping that if I keep my readers in mind, always, then they’ll see how much I care — both about the story and them.

What do you think about the author–reader relationship?

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