Finally, the Post About Novels and Love Stories

So here we are. Last Friday I made a rather bold claim – that all novels are love stories. Since then, a few of you have chimed in with opinions and ponderable things relating to my claim.

Headless Mom (gotta love that name) wrote:

One could argue that regardless of topic, all novels are love stories: the love between the author and his/her words, the author’s love of the story.

Amber asked for examples.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let’s be simple. Like if there were a great children’s story about a doggy wanting a bone and how the doggie hunted for the bone, would the love story be between the dog and the bone? What about the good stories that are just lust stories?

And then yesterday, Seth (who happens to be Amber’s husband) had all kinds of things to say about the claim, including these words:

Can’t an author delicately and intentionally pick words that convey a story that he does not love, but that he is compelled to tell?

And these:

I think that well constructed characters seem to write themselves and I hope that they can chose to move in a way that is beyond the author’s discretion. If so, can characters lack love? Can a situation, or entire string of them, be constructed without love being found within either central or peripheral proximity? Don’t characters and scenes move, from time to time, with hatred, violence–or worse, ambivalence–sometimes without redemption? And if that happens, a novel can be birthed devoid of love.

And also, these:

My point is this: sometimes a story should be allowed to write itself, much like life. If that removes love from the equation, so be it. If that requires love, so be it.

Okay. First of all, thanks to all who have weighed in on this (and will yet today, if you feel so compelled).

Let me begin with the first comment from Headless Mom. In a word, “yes.” This is one of the two reasons I believe all novels are love stories. Now, it needs to be said here (and below) that not all authors love their words or stories equally well. Some may love the act of writing – the discovery of it. Some may love every word they put on the page (don’t let these writers near an editor). Others just may love the dream of being a published author someday.

I believe Seth is right when he says it’s possible to write a story you don’t truly love, that you are “compelled to tell.” But why do you still write it then? Pure obligation? What is the compulsion? Couldn’t there still be a “love story” in there somewhere? Maybe it’s the “love of getting paid” or “a love for the way words sound” or could it be the “love of storytelling” itself?

This is where I segue into the second reason I believe the claim is true. But before I do that, allow me to clarify what I mean by “love story.” I am not suggesting that all novels include a character who falls in love with someone else and then they live happily (or not) ever after. While I think you’ll be surprised to discover just how many novels – in all genres – include this plot element to varying degrees, my definition is broader. For the sake of argument, I’ll use the horror genre to explain.

Consider a novel where evil and blood drip off of every page. Where is the love story? Well, in my broad definition, the love story may be found in the protagonist’s actions. Let’s presume for a moment that the protagonist is a Jack the Ripper style killer. He is in love with… inflicting pain, watching others suffer, and most likely, the color red. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What sort of love story is that?” Well, remember, I’m stretching the definition here.

“Okay,” you argue, “but what if he has no concept of love? What if he’s truly crazy?” Then let’s back up and look at the people trying to stop him. What drives their actions? Is it purely a sense of justice? Or are their actions ultimately driven by the love of life? If so, there’s your love story.

Seth made an excellent point about characters writing themselves. Let me take a moment to agree with Seth’s argument here: Always write, just write. Let the characters tell the story truthfully, according to how they’ve defined themselves.

Now, could some characters write themselves in such a way that they are devoid of love, devoid of any sort of redemption? Absolutely. And that means it is entirely possible you could end up with a loveless story filled entirely with loveless characters as written by a writer who is compelled by something other than love (obsession, maybe?) to put the words on the page. And if this is possible, then my claim is false. (Seth’s a lawyer. I could be 99 percent correct in my assumption, but I’m sure he’d be quick to tell me the claim as written is entirely false even if there’s only a 1 percent chance I’m wrong.)

If such a story exists (or even theoretically could exist), then I’d have to modify my statement to read: Most novels are essentially love stories.

Hmm…I like the way that reads better. I sure don’t want to be someone who denies characters their right to be loveless. Truth is fiction’s greatest ally, after all. So…yes, I think I will change my statement. Good discussions often lead to enlightenment, right? And I have no problem being wrong – especially when I learn something in the process.

However, let me add that, in practice, I can’t recall reading a novel that didn’t include some element of a “love story” either directly described or implied. Granted, sometimes they’ve been messy love stories, or misguided ones, or selfish ones – but they’ve been in there somewhere, driving the characters’ actions, propelling the plot forward. Love matters to storytellers and their stories.

Now it’s your turn. What say you about all this? Have you read a story that is completely void of any love at all? If so, tell us about it.

Oh, before I call it a night, I did want to say something about VenetianBlond’s comment. She wrote:

Meryl Streep said something to the effect that every utterance of “I love you” is actually a question.

This makes me think: Is it possible that a novel devoid of love could actually be asking the question, “do you love me”?

Okay. Have fun with all this. I’ve got to work on my novel now. It’s a love story. Really, it is.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Since today’s post is so philosophical, tomorrow’s is going to be pure fun. I’ve just come back from the future and brought with me a list of 7 upcoming fiction trends. You’ll have just enough time to write your book before the trends hit full stride. Thank me tomorrow, then thank me again when your book has usurped the entire front display in Barnes & Noble. See you tomorrow.

All Novels Are Love Stories (But This Post Isn’t)

I think it’s Monday. Is it? I had these great plans to write a clever post about how every novel is essentially a love story in disguise, but those plans got derailed by Real Life. So instead, I’m just going to offer this bit of writing advice (I’ll get to the “love story” post another day): Sometimes you just don’t have anything to say.

I don’t mean “sometimes you don’t have anything of value to say.” I mean sometimes you just don’t have anything at all to say. When these times come, it’s not about writer’s block – it’s about being empty. There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are related to the Real Life we live apart from putting words on paper. Maybe your cousins showed up unexpectedly and in the midst of the noise and chaos your muse not only ran away with all those brilliant ideas, she took your laptop, too. Maybe you’re over-tired because your child has been sick or the dog keeps puking in the middle of the night or your spouse suddenly decided it was a good time to take up snoring. Maybe your One True Love left you, and while there are a thousand broken-heart stories lining up in the queue and preparing to spit and spill onto the page, in this moment you are simply stunned to silence.

Whatever the reason, you’ve just got nuthin’.

If you have a deadline and that deadline is today, you’ll have to find a way to put words on paper. Even if they suck. (Unless you can buy another day – but you know my feelings about deadlines, right?) What if you don’t have a deadline? Or if the deadline is self-imposed (like the one for this blog)? Then it’s perfectly okay to say nothing at all. Don’t beat yourself up for not meeting your word count.

It’s just a season.

Meanwhile, deal with the Real Life stuff in front of you. Catch fireflies with the cousins. Take a long nap. Or curl up in the fetal position and cry. Whatever the Real Life stuff calls for.

When the time comes, you’ll have plenty to say again. Probably more than ever before.

And remember: Just because you aren’t writing right now doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer.

You are.

And so am I. And maybe tomorrow I’ll write that post about Love Stories.

Or not.

Peace.

One Friday Thing

It’s been a long week. My brain is scrambled, my heart more than a little broken. But I didn’t want to leave this page blank, so here’s the “One Friday Thing” promised in the title:

All novels are love stories.

Discuss.

I’ll tell you why I think it’s true next week.

Thanks for stopping by. Now go tell your significant others “I love you” and have a good weekend.

More Good Words from Contest Entries

As promised, here are a few more entries and excerpts to illustrate just how talented all of you are. I had a great time hosting this contest and loved reading all of your entries. I am well aware you have a limited time to spend reading blogs and I’m grateful you have taken the time to read this one. Please let me know in comments or via email what I can to to improve the blog (I mean, apart from promising you first place in all subsequent writing contests).

Okay, now the good stuff.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

(Here’s one I really liked, but it’s almost double the word count so I didn’t feel comfortable bending the rules that much to include it in the top 10.)

“He’s doing it again,” she told me.

“Doing what?”

“It.”

I looked out the window of our bedroom.  Our neighbor was outside on his watch.  The light for our floor was directly above our window.  It was five in the morning, and our neighbor was up for his run.  He pressed the buttons setting the pedometer or stopwatch or whatever the hell else that thing did that made it beep so loudly.

“Tell him to stop,” she said.

The beeping persisted.

“You first,” I said.

We both lay there, the beeping continuing.

“Jesus,” she said after a while.  “I need higher standards in men.”

I took the pillow she’d stolen from me in the middle of the night (like she always did) and placed it under my head.  Turning in the bed, I heard our neighbor the runner stretch.  The silhoutte of him was was visible.  He had on a shirt, but straggling strands of hair jutted out from his shirt and shorts.

“Go away,” she shouted.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said.  I’d fallen asleep for a moment, but now I was awake again and remembering she probably wasn’t shouting at me, unless I’d farted in the bed again.

“Go away,” she shouted again.

The man stood up.  For a moment, I thought he’d become aware after weeks of her intermittent commands at him to program his watch elsewhere.  Then he sent one leg back and stretched out in a lunge while the beeping started again.

“If he doesn’t have a heart condition and if that isn’t some kind of lifesaving monitor, so help me God,” she said.

“You’re as noisy as he is.”

“I live here.  I can be as noisy as I damn well please.”

I rolled over and felt the pillow sink away, my head plopping down onto the single, thin pillow left.  Sighing, I got up, pillow in hand, and went into the living room and lay down on the couch.  I drew the thin blanket lying on the couch over me.

“What are you doing?” she called from the bedroom.

“The Jitterbug.”

She was quiet a moment.  The runner was not.  It was so unreasonable an amount of beeps that the watchmaker seemed culpable.

[Brad]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

(This one is a clever short story with a cute twist.)

I hate the cold and dark. One or the other isn’t so bad, but both? Torture.

He’s forgotten me again…Oh, don’t worry, it happens.

Richard is getting older and, unfortunately, more forgetful. We’ve been together nearly 20 years now. I came along right after he retired. Even after all this time he still fondly calls me a “gift”. I suppose it’s just his way, Richard is a soft touch for anything even remotely sentimental I’m sure that’s why I’m still around.

Such a sweet man, it’s so sad his wife died suddenly like that, just days before he retired.  I know Richard is still missing her. Sometimes he talks out loud like she’s right there in the room with us. I try not to let it bother me, but it worries me sometimes.  I’m afraid one of his kids will walk in here without him knowing, hear him talking like that, find me in here next to the car keys and frozen peas then bustle him off to a home!

And then where would I be?

Why I’d most likely stolen by some disgruntled orderly or crazy lady with a penchant for wristwatches.

Now that would be a shame.

[Rachel]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

(Here’s another clever entry that works as a fun short story.)

I ran into the bedroom for another watch with a stopwatch function. I sat down, closed my eyes and hit “start”. Then I tried to distract myself with something that couldn’t help me keep track of the time by normal means. But what? I attempted to remember the presidents in order, but got stuck around Polk.

I lay back, frustrated. What could I say to Brigitte to make up for being late again? Or was getting to bean me with my own wristwatch enough? Good thing she’s so freakin’ cute, with those green eyes and the spiky red hair…

OK, that was probably enough. I hit the stop button and declared to the empty room, “Two minutes and 3 seconds,” opened my eyes and looked at the display: 00:02:03.000.

I felt the lump on my head again. Slightly raised, perfectly circular, about one inch in diameter. In the mirror, it looked bruised purple, but no open wound. The sick feeling intensified, and I barely made it to the bathroom before losing my lunch.

Okay, I thought. Okay, calm down. So this is either a very realistic hallucination, or I’m now the proud owner of the world’s most boring superpower.

[Andrea]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

(And here are some excerpts from a few of the other entries.)

He was sure his heart tocked to each tick of the beast on his wrist, and he wished he wouldn’t glance at it every few beats as he quick-walked through the summer heat of city sidewalks. But the incense of anticipation rocked him, and he inhaled it like oxygen. [Nicole]

***

My heart raced and I started to pace nervously as the noise became deafening. Music, laughter, splashing water – even girls screaming in delight couldn’t pry my mind off the thought of her being alone with such a Casanova. [Stefne]

***

I wasn’t entirely alone in the bedroom, though I’d wished to be.  Instead a constant pounding of Tom’s images flooded my mind, penetrating me with the rough-stubbles along his jaw-line, his course sandy tresses, and even the coldness of his gold-rimmed wrist watch. [Marcie]

***

Fascinated, the man reached out to nudge the object, half expecting it to be hot. He smiled as he held it in his hand, caressing its smooth cool surface, captivated by each intricate detail. He stepped closer to the fire when he noticed unfamiliar markings on the circular centerpiece. As he scrutinized it, he noticed movement within. He tapped it sharply to determine if it was alive. [Jana]

***

He had ceased to wear it as a timepiece, instead, it was a memorial. [Malia]

***

I had to squint in order to read the tiny numbers that were clearly meant to be legible only to children. And gnomes. How could I be so stupid? I scolded myself. It had happened to me once before, but twice? I closed my eyes and put my head down on the table.  It was going to be a long wait. [Holly]

***

With each painful, methodical step he obsessively checked his watch.  He had been walking for seven hours and twenty-one minutes.  He figured he had another hour of daylight.  The expanse of the lava field in front of him seemed endless but he had already come too far – going back was not an option. [Patricia]

***

“It’s a beautiful watch. I’ll give you $200,” she heard. The pawn shop owner’s voice interrupted her foggy stream of thoughts. “Done,” she replied without hesitation and picking up what was left of her pride, she left. [Tara]

***

Yes, of course, I have my fair share of sleepless nights where I’m tossing in a too-warm bed and flinging sloppy pillows back and forth — one side of my ribs to the other — all because the only thing worth doing more than sleeping is thinking about how much time I still have to fall asleep before the morning alarm. [Liz]

***

Anna wasn’t sure exactly when she realized the world was synchronized, but she was sure it had all started when her alarm went off.  The persistent machine woke her gradually, and above her head the upstairs neighbor seemed to be stomping in time to the rhythm of her alarm. [TTC]

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One final thing – If you would like me to offer a few editorial thoughts on your entry, email me and ask. And tell me if it’s okay to offer my thoughts on the blog or if you’d prefer them in a private response. Since it’s my busy season, it might take a while for me to respond, but I’ll make every effort to offer at least a couple of thoughts to help you on your way.

The Winner

If I open this post by saying something like “all of you are winners” will you promise not to throw up? Okay, then I will. Here’s why that statement is absolutely appropriate and not merely a “line” to soothe the pain for all but The Chosen One: you took on a writing task…and completed it. That’s a big deal. Do you know one of the biggest differences between published authors and unpublished authors? The published authors actually completed their books. Okay, there’s a whole lot more that goes into getting published, but I can assure you you’ll never get published if you don’t finish your book. (This is a sentence I must read aloud to myself every day until mine is done.)

So congratulations on a small accomplishment. Now, just do that 400 more times and you have a novel.

Did you read Jenny’s comment about the first five finalists? She said the entries were “like the first paragraph of books I wouldn’t be able to put down.” That’s high praise for 200 words, and exactly the point of the exercise.

Some of you wrote great short stories for the contest, but since I was looking more for scenes that imply a larger story, I graded them a little lower than the rest. (I’ll show you a couple of them tomorrow anyway, because it’s not easy to tell a story in 200 words and you did a good job.)

So, about these top 10. I want to tell you why I liked each one. If you haven’t already read them, please do.

Melissa’s entry caught my attention because it presents a complex relationship between father and daughter and yet doesn’t pretend to resolve it in 200 words. Even though the writing itself is spare, the implication of the larger story – what precedes the excerpt and what follows it – makes it interesting to me.

I waffled a bit about selecting Terry’s entry for the top 10 – not because it wasn’t well-written, but because it feels a little bit like a short story rather than a scene. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see this as an opening to a unique novel with a quirky protagonist. It was Terry’s distinctive “voice” that lifted the entry into the top 10. (More on “voice” in a future post. Voice is important. Maybe the most important thing of all.)

Machelle’s entry caught my eye because of the conflict between the two characters and the interesting use of the watch. I’ll admit I have a minor issue with the POV shift (I think it would be even stronger just from the woman’s POV), but there was enough here to compel me to want more. The brief interplay between the characters told me something about their history and was a nice set-up for the last two lines. I like it that the story could go a lot of different directions from here.

I loved the emotional impact of Robin’s scene. (I admit it, I teared up.) Like Terry’s scene, I wondered at first if it was a bit too short story-ish, but the twist she writes into the last lines could easily be a springboard into a novel about a contentious relationship between father and daughter.

R. Alexander’s zombie scene may be a familiar idea, but it was well-paced and interesting and just did everything right. I can only presume that the battle rages on long after the character’s proclamation of doom, and that’s a story I want to read.

Because I’m all about honesty, I need to tell you that Mark is my brother. His entry was also a bit short story-ish, but I liked the way he used the watch to tell us about the protagonist and his nemesis – and I can imagine this being expanded into a story about those two people meeting later in life as neighbors or co-workers. Could be a rather funny story.

Wendy’s scene is intriguing to me not only because of the relationship between father and son, but because of the curious premise. It’s the stuff she doesn’t say that makes me want to know more. “This is the day…” she wrote. Well, was it? And if it wasn’t, would the day ever come? A good scene is bigger than the words used to write it.

Stance’s scene is packed with details that imply a much greater story, and after just 200 (plus a few) words, I want to know more about this character and what is prompting a visit to the grave. I also like the way Stance seems to be developing a unique voice, too.

Adam’s post-apocalyptic scene caught me off guard (in a good way). It took me a couple of reads to fully appreciate the contrasting textures, but this is just the sort of writing that grows on me. I like being stretched as a reader, and Adam’s entry does that. Plus, his protagonist has a unique and compelling voice. I want more of this.

And finally, Seth’s entry. Yes, this is my top choice. The vivid descriptions and the surprisingly rich characterizations are terrific, but it’s the voice Seth imbues in his words that gave his entry the edge over the other great scenes. So, congratulations Seth, you win the gift card and the Santa Yoda.

And once again, thanks to everyone who entered. I’ll have more good stuff from entries in tomorrow’s post. Don’t miss it. And keep reading, okay? As long as someone is out there, I’ll keep filling the blog with words. And contests.