Bad Dates and Fiction

What does a bad date look like in a work of fiction?

I’m thinking about this because I’ve written a novel in which the protagonist is sexually abused as a small child. As a teen, she isn’t capable of voicing her discomfort in dating. Stemming from her early abuse, her inability to speak her mind has great consequences, including an unplanned pregnancy.

I’m also thinking about this because I am one of the believers that stories

Dept. of Speculation is a great example of a nuanced and conflicted relationship as well as a must-read for its powerful language. All in a very quick read–exactly the kind of literary fiction that asks you to fill in the gaps of intention and motivation.

change lives. When a story is told well enough, its reader can experience an internal change. His brain can be rewired, and he can find himself in empathy with people he hadn’t thought much about before. I want to quote this full paragraph from Scientific American that summarizes the case:

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” [social psychologist David] Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Other studies suggest that it’s not just literary fiction that does the trick; a reader immersed in a good narrative–in a book, on a screen–gains greater social acumen and empathy.  

The Haunting of Hill House is a great classic example of genre fiction (horror) that delves into a woman’s motivations for her behavior.

Conversely, I have a hunch–and here I have no data–that we read too many fictional ‘good dates’ that are nothing more the rom-com version of sexual tension. A couple of people meet, they don’t have anything in common, they don’t like each other, and they fall in love. What happens when we read or see this too often? Will it, too, create an unseen pattern in our brains? If so, why do we keep writing it?

I think there are two reasons: we know that if there is no conflict, there is no story. And people read this stuff.

Writers need to take some responsibility for their work. If we want to see change in dating behaviors, we need to be more nuanced about what a conflict is–all sorts of things get in the way of two mutually infatuated people. People do and will read about them.

Additionally, we should all be having a discussion of the difference between that place where women feel harmed and simple bad dates so that we can, as quoted above “fill in the gaps to understand . . . intentions and motivations.”

Proof that we’re unclear on the difference between bad and ugly is found in the arguments of  cultural pontificators about the case of Aziz Ansari. Some women see the Babe.net article about his date with an anonymous 23-year-old woman as a story of sexual assault; others as revenge porn. Still others are trying to find a middle ground, seeing this as a story of how fraught and complicated dating is and how men and women still don’t get each other. (The very reasonable and thoughtful LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian summarizes the blowback in two related columns here and here.)

Unfortunately, the conversation has degenerated into the sort mud slinging and name calling that does women no good. The Babe author Katie Way called out HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield for calling out “Grace,” the subject of the article. Unfortunately, Banfield refers to the Ansari evening over and over as a “bad date,” when it is something uglier than that. Way responds by ripping into Banfield with one of the most juvenile ad hominem attacks you’re likely to read. “Ashleigh, someone who I am certain nobody under the age of 45 has ever heard of, I hope the 500 retweets on the single news write-up made that burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.” (The complete email is printed in Business Insider.)

Fiction writers, including those who write for the screen, can help get the train on the rails. Rather than continuing to watch people blame one another, let’s ask, “How can we help people to stop participating in encounters that at the very least, make us psychologically uncomfortable and fill us with regret?”

I’m not thinking of a discussion of the workplace, which thankfully is finally being placed under the microscope–or at least under the magnifying glass. I’m only thinking about dating and the use of the term ‘bad date.’ Because, as a society, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the–felicitous?–point of bad dates yet. If a mere bad date were the issue, stories like “Cat Person” would never go viral.

A bad date is still a mutually respectful one. Two consenting adults go out to find out a bit more about one another, to discover whether or not they’re going to click. If they do click, that’s a good date. Often they don’t. When one realizes this, he or she says so, and they part ways. That’s a bad date. Nothing traumatic, no lingering ill will, no future counseling sessions.

For some excellent writing about emotional motivations and relationships that outsiders can’t understand, but that become clear to the reader, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a great novel.

Let’s start the change in our imaginations, where most good things begin. Let’s more carefully craft the point of view in scenes with good, bad, and genuinely ugly dates in our fiction. Let’s stop calling any work of fiction with a female protagonist that deals with the complications of female life ‘women’s fiction.’ Thus labeled, no matter how good a job the author does in portraying female ‘intentions and motivations,’ these books will not be marketed to men, and men are not going to read them. (I’ve more fully expressed my feelings about this label in this Literary Journeys column.) Let’s change the fiction that changes mental patterns because that’s what changes behavior.  

We all know we have to change that narrative.

Note: I wrote this several days ago and decided to let it stew. Meanwhile, I saw an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jennifer Weiner about how reading romance novels can help men understand what a good date is. (She uses the term ‘bad date’ in the way that I’d like to get away from, but she makes a good case that romance novels include some solid sex ed and answer the question ‘What do women want?’) I primarily read commercial, upmarket, and literary fiction. But I have read some romance that I’ve really enjoyed. Ara Grigorian has been able to avoid the whole throbbing manhood/member thing and write about pairs of thoughtful adults who find one another and love. I reviewed his novel Game of Love here.

Gabrielle Prendergast Interview

Zero Repeat Forever, which is Book I of The Nahx Invasion. She teaches screenwriting and creative writing and has written for television, print, and online. She lives in Vancouver, BC and was kind enough to answer some questions about the writing life and her recent publications.

VW: I want to focus on Zero Repeat Forever as I just finished it, but I’d also like to ask a few questions about your writing for Orca Book Publishers. Some writers, even writers of YA fiction, may not know of Orca, which is a Canadian publisher that serves struggling teen readers. I first learned of Orca when I became a teacher librarian. Our reading classes would come to the library, and I needed something that would interest the students. Over the years I read and book talked many novels from Orca imprints. (Two of yours that I recommend are The Frail Days and the recent Pinch Me.) I am deeply grateful for the existence of such books and I know many teens are as well.

I’m wondering how an author decides to write books for ‘undiscovered readers’—a term that is so much better than ‘reluctant readers.’ Does the publisher approach you based on your other work? Do they set specific limitations on vocabulary and the length of the book?

GP: While Orca has a sort of stable of authors who often write these books, they accept submissions from any Canadian citizen or permanent resident. When you’re writing for the “hi/lo” series, they usually contract the books based on a chapter outline and three chapters. My editor invited me to submit for “Limelights” (The Frail Days)  but I decided to submit for “Soundings” (Pinch Me) on my own. The aim is a reading level of about grade 2-4 for “Soundings,” so we just go on what our writing software tells us.  With “Limelights” the reading level was a bit more flexible. The word lengths are pretty strict though. 14-16K for “Soundings” and around 20-25K for “Limelights.” Vocabulary is not exactly simplified but we choose words carefully and use short sentences.

VW: All of the Orca novels I’ve read have an upbeat message; characters often solve problems in original ways. Is this something that Orca asks for or did it occur naturally in your work?

GP: For those series, yes I think that’s what Orca wants, though they don’t specifically ask for it. Since they are aimed at undiscovered readers we don’t want the kids to feel miserable at the end! I also feel that when writing for kids, stories should be resolved in some satisfying way, maybe not in the first book, but by the time the series ends. That said, I always feel like at the end of a YA or middle grade novel the story is just starting, since the characters are still so young with their lives ahead of them. I could write a sequel to every book I’ve ever written!

VW: The storyline of both The Frail Days and Pinch Me involve teenage musicians. One of the things I enjoyed in both these novels was how the characters’ natural creative drive was part of the problem solving. It’s so tiresome that young people are made to think that their creativity is not an asset and that cultivating it is a waste of time. Thanks for helping to prove otherwise! Are you a musician in your life outside of work?

GP: I was a musician as a teen. My band was called Fall Down Go Boom and The Frail Days is dedicated to the other members. Two of them still play together and work as professional musicians in Toronto.

VW: I’d like to turn the conversation to Zero Repeat Forever, the first book of the Nahx Invasion. It’s a work of science fiction in which an alien race of tall, armored anthropoid beings have invaded the world and seem bent on the destruction of the human race. Our human protagonist is Raven, who along with some friends, has survived the initial invasion because she is at a camp in the wilderness preparing for the summer campers to arrive. As survival becomes difficult, Raven encounters Eighth, a Nahx, who, like all Nahx, is voiceless and follows directives he receives in his mind. Circumstances require that they attempt to work together, a situation that creates its own set of dangers.

This may seem like a strange connection, but bear with me. I’m working on an article that has caused me to read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture.  One of the many things he says about good writing has to do with why readers connect with characters: “The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?”

While Zero Repeat Forever is exciting and fast-paced in terms of danger and hope, one of the wonderful things about reading it is that a teen and an alien have a very engaging ‘human’ relationship. This is an achievement because Eighth can’t speak. Did you model their relationship on any that you know? How did you come up with the sign language that Eighth uses?

GP: Oddly Eighth’s side of the relationship is inspired by the way animals form relationships with humans. You know how cats bring strange little gifts to you or dogs seem to be trying to understand you when they turn their heads to the side? And how loving and non-judgemental companion animals are, sometimes even to people who neglect or mistreat them. And of course how they can eventually thaw even the coldest hearts. August [Eighth] is a bit like that with Raven, very loyal, maybe even by his very nature.

Raven’s side is partly Stockholm syndrome, partly the relief of being able to vent all the rage she has built up inside her. She basically has a tantrum in one scene and afterwards she feels like a changed person, all her rage is gone. One reviewer described her as a “hot-head” and that’s fairly accurate. She was having a bad year even before the invasion and never was able to fully process all her feelings. That with the loss of Tucker [her boyfriend] and the terror at what’s happened to the world was too much. Being with August was like a safe place where she could rage and be alone to think and work it all out. And not be judged for it. That’s key.

August’s silence is one of the things that makes him perfect for Raven. She has to verbalize her way into understanding him and everything that’s going on while he just listens. She needs a good listener.

The sign language was inspired by tactical hand signals used in the military, which the Nahx adapted to be a more complete communication system. The idea is that anyone who is denied language will spontaneously develop a communication system with whatever tools are available to them. This has been observed in deaf kids who are denied sign language instruction – they invent their own languages which can be quite complex.

I watched a lot of ASL videos also, just to get a feel for how sign language looks. I also took a course in Auslan (Australian sign language) years ago, so I kept those lessons in mind too. That said, Nahx language is meant to be a “sign system” rather than a complete sign language.

VW: I really enjoyed the settings of Zero Repeat. Although it takes place in real (Canadian) spaces, you needed to make your reader see and feel them. I’m a good example—I live in Southern California, which sadly, is on fire right now even though it’s technically winter. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s truly cold, yet I felt Raven’s suffering when she lacked the proper gear. In creating a dystopian world, do you use any of your own experiences with nature and neighborhoods? (I’m wondering if you’ve nearly drowned in freezing water. . .)

GP: I certainly called upon my childhood enduring Saskatchewan winters. I’ve never nearly drowned, but I have swum in many a near freezing lake. It’s…refreshing! We spent a lot of time outdoors as kids and the winter cold was both beautiful and terrifying. It was important to me that the winter be almost like another antagonist in the book, someone you can’t turn your back on, you can’t trust. Someone who will kill you if given the chance.  

VW: Writers and readers alike are always interested in the title and cover illustration of their favorite novels. Both the title Zero Repeat Forever and the cover illustration of a dandelion splashed with liquid metal are based on important events and themes of the novel. They are wonderful choices for the North American edition! Did you know right away what the title would be? Did you influence the cover art or was that a decision that was out of your hands? Why does the UK edition have a different cover that looks more like a Stranger Things connection?

GP: My agent suggested the title, and I immediately loved it as it was already such an important scene in the book. I had no influence on the cover(s) but loved both of them when I saw them. I think the UK cover skews a little younger and less literary, which is where they wanted to aim the book, I suppose. All they said was that they thought their design would work better. I love them both!

VW: Characters must suffer in order to grow, yet many authors have a hard time putting theirs through some of the worst moments. Both Raven and Eighth suffer mightily. Did you have a hard time with that? How do you manage to drag your characters through a life of torment?

GP: It was easy enough at the time, but the more I wrote, the harder it got to punish them. I don’t think anyone wants to read books about people with perfect lives, so I don’t write them. But, in particular, I didn’t want to sugar coat the reality of war, invasion, occupation. These are present day situations for a lot of people. Some reviewers have praised the “realism” in ZRF, which is ironic given that it’s science fiction. But I did try to keep as much as possible grounded in reality to make it feel real.

VW: As Zero Repeat Forever is the first book of a series, I wonder if you had the general plot outline for the entire series before you began writing or whether the story develops as you write.

GP: I had a general idea but a lot of that has changed. I feel like the world has changed a lot recently and some of my ideas no longer felt relevant and fresh, so I changed them.

VW: Writers tend to suffer because they have to deal with so many rejections. Do you have any advice in terms of dealing with rejection? Have you always had something new coming out, new work, so that rejection was more easy to accept?

GP: I have a neurodivergence that makes dealing with personal rejection sometimes catastrophically hard. But for some reason, I think that makes professional rejection much easier. I get nervous, but I’m never hurt by criticism or rejection or my work because I see that as separate from me.

But yes, I do always like to have a few things lined up, not so much for making rejection easier but more to keep up the momentum of my career.

VW: You have written in a variety of genres and for different age levels. Do you try different methods of writing/different writing styles just to see what works? Or does a specific genre seem like a natural match for the story from the outset?

GP: I pretty much know how each story is going to be told and who the audience is. A lot of that is because I always have a “comparable” or “comp” in my mind. Comps for ZRF included The Hunger Games and Divergent. The comp for Pandas on the East Side was Because of Winn Dixie, etc.

VW: Writers always ask successful authors about their writing routines—such as whether they write daily. Since no two people are alike, I find it strange that anyone believes in a magic schedule. However, I do know that all people have fluctuating energy levels that affect their schedules and can derail their plans to write. Do you have any hints for increasing creative writing energy when you need it?

GP: I try to write pretty much daily, though sometimes I give myself breaks. Writing with a friend (not co-writing, just you writing your book and them writing theirs) helps. At the end of the day, you can compare notes and discuss your word counts, etc.

VW: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

GP: My pleasure.

The birth of the great white whale engenders thoughts about staging fiction

Today is the anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851. So I was thinking about that novel when I happened to read Jane Friedman’s blog post “What Writers can Learn about Voice from Opera.” * While these two things may seem to have nothing in common, they connected for me because I have only seen two operas live; one of them was Moby-Dick.

I didn’t like Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was required to read it as a college freshman. Too much whaling, too philosophical in its musings and too much boiling of blubber. I was glad to be done with it and never looked at it again until I was finishing a master’s degree in English. I was working full time as a high school English teacher; I was going to school part time in the evenings; my husband was also working full time as an educator and working on a PhD. In my last year of the program, I was pregnant. During the final spring semester, I was so overtaken by nausea that a photograph of food—say a billboard advertising a hamburger—would make me vomit. The professor told the class that I was quitting and wouldn’t be back—something he had incorrectly divined when I once had to leave a class session after running to the restroom. He was the only teacher I had in my program who was an asshole, but I was determined to stay in the class because I had a timeline goal.

The following fall semester, I was doing independent study of the heavy hitting American classics and would also take qualifying exams. Moby-Dick was the most difficult of my reading material. But this time I loved it.

I would deliver my first son during that semester. I wasn’t allowed to have a doctor of my choice, but had to see whoever showed up at each of my appointments. In the final months of the pregnancy, the doctors all gave me a quick up and down, telling me I was too fat, and that I should get more exercise and drink nonfat milk. I had been drinking nonfat milk for more than a decade, and I was exercising as well. So I started walking in all spare minutes though these were the Southern California dog days. Finally, a mere week before I delivered, there was no doctor to be had for my appointment and a merciful nurse practitioner poked a finger into my calf, making a deep dent. “You don’t need more exercise,” she said. “You need to put your feet up and get some of this water off.”

My experiences over the months of pregnancy—the harried schedule, the illness and uncontrollable vomiting, the ballooning weight, the dismissal by unsympathetic doctors, and the fact that I was carrying not only a baby but, apparently, my own internal ocean, affected my experience of the novel. The words were the same, but, both internally and externally, I was in a new setting. I felt the close quarters of the ship. I was trapped with the belittling doctors who held authority over me. I caught myself in philosophical musings about my future at all odd moments.

So, it was the right time and place for me to read Moby-Dick. I understood why it is one of the great American novels. Years later, because I couldn’t stand the fact that my husband, who didn’t major in literature but rather psychology, hadn’t read the book, I bought an audio version with my favorite reader, Frank Muller. My husband loved it. I decided I might as well listen to it to refresh my memory. Oddly, what came through in Muller’s reading that I had completely missed as a grad student was bright comedic moments. That I was no longer worried about catching the ‘deeper meaning’ had to be part of that. But it was Muller’s voice that was giving me a fresh reading.

To give a character the appropriate voice is a lesson of Friedman’s post on listening to opera. When, almost exactly two years ago, I cajoled my husband into going to a modern opera based on the novel (“You liked the book, right?”), I did experience voice in a fresh way. (There’s nothing like an operatic tenor swearing to strike the sun if it insults him). The staging itself gave me a new emotional understanding of the lives of the characters.

While the stage was crowded with the large masts and intricate rigging that would be foremost in a 19th-century whaling ship, the transformation of the back wall into the curved hull of a ship with several hooks embedded in its side was brilliant minimalism. The crew used the metal grasps to climb as though they were steps in the rigging or a ladder. They would grab them and be thrown about to indicate a storm. They slid down the sides of the ship in more tossing or in readiness for work. With the addition of simple projections, this single ship scene seemed to change over and over, allowing us both the confined sense of the ship’s deck and its bowels as well as the broad emotional stretch of a vast sea. While the opera couldn’t contain the entire philosophical depth of the long novel, the production was great stuff if you needed to know how it feels to be locked down with a madman.

I might not have been willing to go to the opera, even though it was Moby-Dick, if I hadn’t been tricked into my first opera about a year and a half before. In fact, if I had known I was going to see an opera, I might have feigned a cold. I had season tickets for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which, as you might guess, usually performs symphonies. Nevertheless, their season always includes something outside the box. And so I was present at the Disney Concert Hall for a performance of the Mozart and Da Ponte opera Cosi fan tutti.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, think about the Shakespeare plays with mistaken identities, of characters in disguise. Cosi fan tutti is a comedy on the fecklessness and infidelity of women, a few of whom who throw over their fiancés (whom they believe to be off at war, but who are right in town in the guise of Albanian suitors), in a ‘love the one you’re with’ move.

The Disney Concert Hall is not a space designed for opera productions, but the staging was brilliant. Perhaps, because of the fame of the architectural design, you are familiar with the interior of the concert hall. Though the wood is warm, its curves suggest waves. The organ acts as a centerpiece to the audience members, and its pipes look like the leaping splash of ocean foam. (If you haven’t seen it you should check it out online and then go in person.)

Since I’m looking at production here, let’s put aside the worthiness of the music. Outside of it, we have a dated story about the lack of integrity in women. Yet through staging and costume, this sexism is turned upside down. Men are shown to be as fluid in their values as women. The very ground the characters stand on is fluid. As I mentioned, the Disney Concert Hall has a wavelike atmosphere. In this production, the stage curved and swirled, continuing the ocean theme. There was a whirlpool concept at the center of the floor which looked alternately like water and a nautilus. The floor actually moved–part of it was solid, part was some sort of fabric over hydraulics so the waves went up and down. A curve of the inner circle would become a high wall and then recede.

The costuming also contributed to malleability. The devious men show themselves to be just the same as the women when their clothing expands from pants into dresses in the wedding scene. This very original, perfectly conceptualized staging extended the themes of turbulence in love, of infidelity and fickleness. Everyone is flawed and this allows the audience identification with the characters. I’ve never seen a more beautiful, emotionally articulate setting.

If characters are hard to develop, think about your own settings. I’m guilty of writing dialogue for characters who seem to live in a void. (I’m lucky they don’t start hallucinating from sensory deprivation.) The opportunity to experience creative staging is a reminder that environment contributes to character development. In novels, it helps readers to make the emotional connection to the character’s destiny that will keep them turning the page. Indulge in stagecraft.

 

*If you don’t follow Jane Friedman, you should. She’s one of the most helpful writing advisors you’ll come across.