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May 16, 2012

All My Son Needs To Know He's Learning In Kindergarten

"So," I asked my 5-year old. "What have you learned in kindergarten so far this year?"

"Well, actually, we learned nothing at all."

Okaaaaaaaaaay, then. Nice to know.

Supposedly, kindergarten is supposed to teach you all sorts of foundational things -- from early reading and arithmetic to sound morals. My son has a different idea about what he's learned. Aside from "nothing at all," these are ten things he's told me he's learned in kindergarten:

1. Dolphins can fight sharks.

2. You have to hide your bakugan during class, otherwise the teacher will take it away, even if you're just fixing it, not playing with it.

3. Aaron is Emily's boyfriend. [Both children are five.]

4. Ants are stronger than dinosaurs because dinosaurs went extinct, but ants didn't. Also, ants can bite humans and it hurts really bad.

5. Speaking of dinosaurs, if you have dino babies, you have to get shots from the doctor. ["Dino babies" = diabetes]

6. If you count by twos, numbers are higher.

7. "TV" is the best word to spell because it's just "T" and "V." Also, we should watch it. [It turns out that this was "not exactly" what the teacher said, and "TV" was not an official spelling word. "But I learned to spell it on my own, mommy!"]

8. Poison Ivy is a plant, and a tree is a plant, but you can climb a tree. It's a bad idea to climb Poison Ivy.

9. Don't tell anyone you pick your nose, or they might say, "Ew."

10. If you pick your nose ten times in a row, it will bleed. My son only knows this because his friend tried it.

May 14, 2012

The Number One Stupiest Hollywood & Harlequin Lies About Romance

There's a stupid myth promulgated in some romance books and especially in Hollywood chick flicks that just drives me crazy. It goes like this: If you hate someone enough, you love them.

Both books and movies do this. On the theory that opposites attract, they put together two people with nothing in common, or worse yet, who actually hate one another, and call it love.

If you are writing a romance, you know it needs tension. Having your characters hate one another and bicker constantly can create tension, but is that really how true love begins? Or lasts? In a word: no.
John Gottmann at the University of Washington has found that couples with a ratio of fewer than five positive interactions for every negative one are destined for divorce.
A story with too much lovey-dovey and not enough tension would be boring, and it turns out this is true in real life too. If you have a too high a ratio of positive statements for negative statements (13:1 or more), your affect comes across as insincere.

When I read or watch a romance where the characters are downright nasty to each other, where they insult each other often and compliment each other seldom, a little bell goes off in my head: I don't buy it. These people don't love each other, and even if they get together, it won't last.

You can have Opposites Attract. You can have Enemies Fall For Each Other. Just keep it real--keep more positive than negative interaction. (Yes, great sex counts!)

Another thing to keep in mind is scale. If the level of negative interaction is high and melodramatic, the level of positive interaction has to be equally melodramatic. That's true in real life as well as in writing. One of Gottman's other interesting findings was that fiery, fighting couples do work. They can throw plates at one another and shout insults, or (in books and movies at least) even duel with swords, as long as their make-up affair is just as dramatic and over the top--and still outweighs the negative bits by quite a lot.

At the other extreme, positive "statements" don't have to be verbal. You can have a quiet couple who demonstrate their love for one another indirectly. He knows her favorite muffin and always brings it too her. On the day, they fight, he doesn't say anything, but deliberately brings her the wrong muffin. When they make-up, he doesn't say anything either, but he has the right muffin.

But don't try to combine them. If he cheats on her with her sister, and she throws a knife at him and barely misses his throat, don't have the make-up scene be a quiet scene in which he gives her a rose and says, "I love you." Really, would that make it okay? No, way. She better find out that her sister used a love spell and then save his life from a three-headed wolf.

When it comes to plotting, the more problems you throw at your protagonists, the better, but be careful when applying this to romance. One of them can have a Big Secret, or even both of them. (I like it when both do, since it evens things out. One problem with a lot of Superhero romances is that the Superhero, almost always a guy, has this Big Secret which he keeps from his girl. She has only her frustration that there's something weird about him she hasn't figured out yet, and it makes her seem shallow compared to him. Sound familiar, Grimm?) But don't keep multiplying it indefinitely. If he has a gambling problem, and he cheated on her, and he's really from another planet, it's getting to be a bit much.

Finally, another pitfall to avoid is the Big Gesture that makes up (or is supposed to) for the Big Secret. Hollywood loves to do this. Guy and Girl quarrel for the entire movie. In the Low Point of the movie, they have one final blow-out fight. He moves to South America to be a nose surgeon and she proceeds to get ready for her wedding to the boy her parents like. (Who is usually much nicer than the jerk Hollywood has decided is the hero.) Suddenly, in the middle of rhinoplastic surgery, he realizes he loves her, gives his instruments to his assistant in the middle of the operation and runs to the airport. Then, just as she walks down the aisle, he bursts into the room, still in his scrubs, and cries, "I love you!" She ditches the man at the alter and runs to him and that's supposed to be how they begin their happily ever after.

No. No, no, no, no. This is so grotesque. Seriously, people, other than manikins in bad chick flicks, who behaves like that? Have you people never heard of a phone? Do not interrupt surgery, wedding ceremonies or flights at the airport to shout out your sudden revelation of affection and think that Makes It All Okay. All that does is prove your Bipolar Disorder.

What real people do is call each other up, or chat online, and hash out the issues and then get back together. If that's too boring for fiction (let's face it, it is) then come up with an actual and realistic dramatic moment that can showcase the characters' true feelings for one another. Don't manufacture drama out of thin air--it just comes across as thin.

Remember that cute song about the Yellow Ribbon? It's a great example of the Grand Gesture that works.

May 5, 2012

The Secret History of Cinco de Mayo

It’s Cinco de Mayo.  And the #1 question is how the French gave Americans (and some Pacific islanders) a great excuse to get plastered.  Right behind “Were piñatas really made out of pottery?” and “which beer is best for Cinco de Mayo?”)
Hold onto your bottle openers folks, I shall reveal the secret history of Cinco de Mayo. It began 159 years ago, in the ye olde Nineteenth Century.
It started out so well. All over the world, people were tweeting, “Screw #kings. Let’s rule ourselves. #99%!”
Hello, American Revolution! Bonjour, French Revolution! Hola, Latin American Revolutions! True, the French started lopping off heads almost at once, and the new Latin American nations were as much a republic as the Kardashians are talented. Mexico alone went through fifty forms of government in fewer years. The United States bought some time by putting off the question of whether democracy was compatible with slavery. Spoiler alert... it wasn’t.
So by mid-century, the world was foobar. Democracy everywhere looked like a bad investment. Mexico went to war with the United States in the 1840s. Here’s the weird thing. That war led to civil wars in both countries twenty years later. In Mexico, the Liberals (pro-democracy) blamed the Conservatives (pro-autocracy) for losing the war, not to mention Texas, New Mexico and California. So they fought about that between 1857 and 1861. Meanwhile, you’d think the US, as the winner, would be better off, but noooooooo. They couldn’t decide if those new states should be Free or Slave and there were hard feelings all around, and finally the South…. Well, you know.
The main way the US Civil War relates to Cinco de Mayo is that the Union and Confederacy were too busy with their issues to notice when France tried to own Mexico's ass.
The French at this time were already on their Second Empire (1852-1870). A debauched nephew of Napoleon, Napoleon III, was voted into power under the Second Republic; but then, Hitler-style, he committed an autogolpe and squeezed the Republic into an Empire. His regime reached a degree of extravagance and corruption amazing even by French standards. Imagine all the noble ideals that they sing about in Les Mis, and then imagine Napoleon III, a couple years later, spitting on them. He also involved France in a lot of wars, some successful, others, ahem, less so.

One of his less brilliant ideas was to invade Mexico to set up an Austrian duke as Emperor. (I know. WTF?) The would-be Emperor of Mexico's name was Max. Two chincillas once attacked his face, and he hired them to stay as sideburns.

That brings us to May 5, 1862. A mere 4,000 Mexicans faced a battle-tested army of 8,000 French soldiers--and whooped their ass. The Mexicans were pretty stoked, got really drunk afterwards, and its been a holiday ever since.

There is the small matter of how the Mexicans finally kicked out the French. Sadly, it wasn’t on May 5. The French threw another 30,000 soldiers into the war and conquered the country, briefly bolstering Emperor Max. This was not Max’s first attempt to rule someone else’s country at someone else’s behest, by the way. Previously, he had been installed as Big Cheese over some Italians before getting the boot. That should have taught him a lesson, but some people are slow.

Another fun fact: France and England almost came in on the side of the Confederacy during the US Civil War. France told England under the table, “If you do, we will.” The perfect opportunity for England to declare war came when the Union stopped a British ship and bullied two envoys. The British were outraged and considered escalating. But Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s German husband, heard of the affair and told her that it would be terrible for Britain to support the cause of slavery. The Queen passed on this sentiment to Parliament, who moderated their response to the incident. Long story short, England decided not to give military assistance to the Confederacy.

The French felt that if things changed, and they did intervene, Mexico would be a great staging place for their armies. Just imagine if French armies, based in Mexico, had fought in the US Civil War.

Imagine the disappointment of Emperor Napoleon of France and Emperor Max of Mexico when the Union won the Civil War. Max, always generous and never smart, invited defeated Confederate forces to set up a Colony inside Mexico’s boarders and continue the good fight for race-based servitude.

The US now turned to Mexico and said, “Hey, we may have our differences, but the one thing we can both agree on is that France had better get the hell out of Mexico.”

France fled, Max lost his head, and Mexican independence was restored, though for decades afterward, until her death in 1927, Max’s mad wife, Carlotta, insisted that everyone address her as “Empress.” As for Emperor Napoleon, he finally picked a war with the wrong nation, and spectacularly lost the Franco-Prussian War, and his throne, in 1870. The French were so famously humiliated by the Germans in that war that they nursed the grievance straight into WWI, and that was why they were determined to humiliate the Germans at the Treaty of Versailles, which in turn humiliated the Germans and led to WWII.

Meanwhile, Cinco de Mayo was only a regional holiday in Puebla, Mexico for a long time, until it was taken up as a way for international corporations to help folks celebrate Mexican-American heritage. And that’s only right. Because if those 4,000 brave Mexican soldiers hadn’t made France waste another year conquering the country, France might have had time to amass troops in Mexico to use to help the South and the history of freedom in North America would be very different.

May 4, 2012

Pros and Cons of Perfectionism

I have an interesting book called Brain Lock about how to overcome Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with meditation techniques.

The way that OCD works is that the part of the brain normally reserved to signal DANGER is overactive. That's why a person can know, intellectually, that they turned off the stove, but still feel, at a "gut" level that something is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.... It's not the gut but the brain that is flooded with those feelings of danger.

The interesting thing is that the more someone with OCD gives in to the temptation to appease that sense of danger--be it check the stove, count the numbers, reorder the shelves or wash hands one more time--the worse the sense of danger grows, and the more the person "has" to do in order to try to make it right. It's a loop.

I don't have OCD, except when it comes to writing.

When I'm writing the DANGER zone of my brain can definitely get caught in a loop. One scene is wrong, so I need to change it. That scene now works, but another scene now makes no sense, because of the changes. I have to change that scene now. But now another scene is disturbed....

You know that scene in Fatal Attraction, where the crazy woman sits up late at night, just flicking the light switch on and off, obsessed with her lover? I am that crazy woman. Just replace a lover with a book. It gets to the point where I am so in love with the book that I begin to hate, I pick fights with it, I go for a long time refusing to speak to it, and then, when that doesn't work, throw things at it.

Like I said. Crazy woman.

On the desk around me are dozen little notebooks filled with successive outlines. There's another batch of hypothetical outlines on Excel files on my hard drive. I have been working on Wing (book 5) and Blood (book 6) later books simultaneously. They all have to hang together. But there is a danger, I realize, in endlessly seeking a perfection which doesn't exist.

Because it has to be right. It has to be perfect. And what drives me mad is that I know it won't be, it can't be. I can never truly do the story justice.

I am going to try to take a page from the advice for those with OCD. Relax. Let go. Get on with it.

Just as soon as I rewrite this scene.