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What I Learned from Twilight: Writing with Sincerity

Over the three-day weekend, I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight for the first time.

Yes, I know I'm twelve years late to the party. But I never read the book when it was popular for a few reasons.

  1. It was popular, and I was at that stage of late adolescence in which one is obligated to sneer at everything popular.
  2. The movies came out when I was in college. I watched the first one and found it boring, so I wasn't eager to try the book that inspired it.
  3. Over the years I've read countless articles about how the Twilight trilogy promotes traditional gender roles, portrays sex as something dangerous and shameful, and romanticizes stalking and abusive relationships. Who would want to read something like that?

But since I'm gearing up to write my own trilogy for young adults, I need to know my intended audience. It's an undeniable fact that Twilight whipped a significant portion of that intended audience into a frenzy of fandom for many years. So I checked out the eBook from my local library and went in with an open mind, determined to read it without being influenced by any preconceptions or prejudices.

And you know what? The book really does promote traditional gender roles, portray sex as a dangerous sin, and romanticize worrisome behavior. But the book also has its charms, and I understand why teenagers in the 2000s were so drawn to this story.

Twilight is clearly Stephanie Meyer's first novel. The chapters ramble and often go nowhere (e.g., Bella lies in the grass to think about Edward...and that's it). Redundant dialogue tags clutter every page (e.g., Bella makes many sarcastic remarks followed by "I said sarcastically"). No real conflicts pop up until the book is nearly over.

Then there are the bad relationship lessons. If Bella were my daughter, I would sit her down and say, "Sweetheart, a boy who sneaks into your house to spy on you in the dark is not romantic. A boy who physically drags you around while you're shouting at him to let go is not cool. A boy who secretly follows you when you go out of town with girlfriends, who gets angry when other boys talk to you, and who reads your classmates' private thoughts to find out every word you say, is not in love with you. He's pathologically obsessed with you."

However, I don't think any of that would have bothered me if I were fifteen years younger. I would have adored Bella Swan, because she's the very definition of adolescent wish fulfillment.

  • She's a martyr from page one, sacrificing her life in sunny Phoenix to move to depressing Forks, WA because she wants her mom to be happy with her new husband. She hates stupid Forks and its stupid clouds, but she hides her pain behind a cool facade. (Edward: "You put on a good show, but I'd be willing to bet that you're suffering more than you let anyone see.")
  • She's so mature for her age, a vampire who's lived for more than a hundred years comments that she seems much older than seventeen. She had to grow up fast because her bumbling parents couldn't feed or dress themselves without her. (Bella: "My mom always says I was born thirty-five years old and that I get more middle-aged every year....Well, someone has to be the adult.")
  • She's so gorgeous, every boy she meets instantly falls in love with her. Bella's admirers include three popular classmates who follow her around like "golden retrievers," one super cute werewolf, and one glittery vampire who finds her petulant temper so adorable, he's willing to endanger his entire family by using his powers to rescue her from certain death. Repeatedly.

And yet, Bella's voice has charmed millions of readers since 2005. I believe there are two qualities to this character that lure people into the story of Twilight.

The first is relateability. All seventeen-year-olds think they're different from the other seventeen-year-olds, and they're suffering more than anyone could ever understand, and they're way smarter than the clueless adults around them. Bella is what teenagers believe they are, so they can put themselves in her place and feel what she feels.

The second quality is sincerity. Not once did I feel like Bella's character was disingenuous. Self-centered and immature, yes. Fake, no. Meyer didn't create Bella Swan thinking, "This is what teenage girls like in a heroine, so I'm going to give them what they want and sell gazillions of books." She wrote this story because she loved it. I might not personally find the hero's domineering behavior romantic, but it's clear Meyer's own heart was thumping as she wrote those scenes.

It makes no sense that an invincible 105-year-old vampire would move to small-town Washington and enroll in high school, when he could live happily in the wilderness of Eurasia hunting bears. It makes even less sense that he would fall head over heels for a sulky teenager who smells, to him, like the world's most delicious cheeseburger. (Can you imagine falling in love with a wise-cracking cheeseburger?) The romance in Twilight is unbelievable and cliché in the extreme.

Yet legions of Meyer fans don't care, because the improbable Bella Swan and the impossible Edward Cullen bare their souls on the page without apology or embarrassment.

Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, A Song of Ice and Fire, the Millennium trilogy...every mega-hit series in the book world, regardless of genre, shares this one common quality, sincerity. A writer can come up with the tightest plot, the wittiest dialogue, and the keenest observations of the human condition, but if she doesn't write with sincerity, her readers won't connect with the story.

What Sincerity Is and Isn't

Sincerity does not mean "brutal honesty." It does not mean pouring out your raw feelings in a feverish confessional, heedless of your audience. It means respecting your readers and making an honest effort to touch their hearts.

In the seventh grade, my drama teacher listened to me read a scene from a play and told me, "Stop acting." He said to be a good actress, I had to stop acting the way I thought actors were supposed to act and be myself.

It wasn't until my twenties that I understood what that drama teacher really meant. The "myself" he wanted to see wasn't my raw self, but an artificial self that would come across as artless to an audience. He didn't want me to stop acting; he wanted me to act like I wasn't acting.

Like actors have to work hard to look like they're not acting, writers need to work hard to make their stories seem effortless. An effective writing voice is not a "natural" voice. It's a lucid voice that appears to be natural. To put it baldly, we need to manipulate people into thinking they're not being manipulated.

Readers don't mind being manipulated. In fact, they enjoy it. They want authors to create stories that will make them feel wonderful and terrible things. They don't want to waste their time and money on books that bore them. They just don't like it when it's obvious they're being manipulated, when they can see the author behind the curtain pulling the strings.

When I read insincere books, I can see the authors pulling the strings. I can sense them attempting to manipulate me into giving them royalties and glowing reviews. The scenes seem too glossy, like they were assembled by machine. The characters give me the same impression I get from politicians whose smiling lips spout whatever they think the voters want to hear.

Sincere books, on the other hand, make me feel like the authors and I are kindred spirits. The scenes seem to be written for me personally, lovingly crafted for emotional punch. The protagonists seem like real people. I'm right there in the story with them, feeling the same excitement and terror and sorrow they do.

How to Write with Sincerity

Conquer your fear of "sap."

There's a certain lie I hear surprisingly often, nearly word-for-word, from the mouths of unrelated strangers: "I couldn't care less what other people think of me."

Many people are terrified that "caring" will be seen as "weakness." This is an understandable fear, because kids are awful. To hide their own insecurities, children and immature adults try to humiliate others for having feelings. Kids who get upset when they're teased are "crybabies." Boys who openly express affection are "gross." In middle school, my friends pestered me to tell them the name of the boy I liked. When I worked up the courage to trust them with this precious secret, they laughed in my face. "That guy? He's a total loser!"

When people are afraid of derision, they create personas that are too cool for emotions and stuff. They roll their eyes at "sappy" love stories and scoff at "cheesy" happy endings. This kind of bravado is mildly exasperating in real life, and it's downright fatal in creative writing.

A sad number of novels, especially ones by and for men, feature characters who act like they're emulating Sam Spade. Macho posturing infuses every sentence. The heroes respond to danger by making snarky quips, and to tragedy by shrugging. They feel nothing, sympathize with no one, and describe members of the opposite sex in the language of frat boys trying to impress their bros in the locker room. (Why, pray tell, must every private eye catalog the breast size and leg length of every female he meets? Do men actually see women this way? Sweetie claims not.)

This problem is less common in fiction by and for women, but we're certainly not immune. In my own writing and in real life, I tend to hide embarrassing emotions under humor. Romance is especially squicky to me. (My middle school traumas might or might not have something to do with it.) I physically blushed at some of the outrageously suave lines Edward Cullen delivers in Twilight. Just the thought of writing anything like that myself makes me squirm in my office chair.

But to write with sincerity, I need to be willing to make myself vulnerable. I know I can't bluster my way through a novel, shying away from any sentiments the snarky porcupines might call "sappy." The sappiness of Twilight is exactly what makes fans of the books and movies swoon. If Stephanie Meyer had worried about whether people would think Bella and Edward are "squicky," she wouldn't be a wealthy woman today.

Think outside the formula.

I've read some cozy mysteries so formulaic, the authors seem to have used a Betty Crocker baking mix for instant novels.

  1. Pour mix into a large bowl.
  2. Add one love interest, one crafting theme, and one dash of small-town setting. Stir until large lumps dissolve.
  3. Pour batter into a prepared 75,000-word pan. Bake until an editorial toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  4. Cool completely. Top with a picture of a cat.

Then there are other cozy mysteries like that gourmet cake my boss brought in for a coworker's birthday: a decadent gateau with a creamy white chocolate filling and a dark chocolate ganache. Just like I still remember the taste of that cake and want to try others from that bakery, I vividly remember the experience of reading those novels and want to find other titles by those authors. Nobody remembers the taste of a Betty Crocker cake with canned frosting.

Twilight isn't gourmet, but at least it didn't come out of a box. It's like a birthday cake your aunt baked for you from scratch. Your aunt isn't a professional pâtissier, so the layers are uneven, the texture is a little dry, and the cream cheese frosting came out gooey. But the homemade cake still tastes ten times better than a Duncan Hines, because she baked it with love.

Most authors who write formulaic books probably aren't being lazy or greedy for sales. Maybe they think the formulas are better than anything they could come up with. Maybe they're afraid if they tweak the usual recipe, their fans will get upset.

But writing like that doesn't come across as sincere, because there's nothing of the author's heart in them. Readers might close the covers thinking, "That was a well-written book. I acknowledge this author's skills." But they won't think, "Nooo it's already over! I didn't want it to end! I want more books and I want them now!"

Reflections on 2016 and Goals for 2017

Reflections on 2016

People have been saying dire things like 2016 was "the worst year in history." But in the grand scheme of humanity's track record, 2016 was a cake walk. No warlords tore through the U.S. razing fields and enslaving farmers. No dictatorships with aspirations of world domination stormed our shores to slaughter twenty million people. Our next president, whether you like him or not, was duly elected; he didn't invade the White House with a rebel army and name himself Emperor, forcibly take the First Lady and her daughters into his harem, and then command a bloody purge of the country's liberal scholars and their families. Considering what humans are capable of when they lose their heads, I think we're doing pretty darned well.

On a personal level, 2016 was a big year for Sweetie and me. We had a lot of adventures and went through a lot of "firsts."

  • We rented and drove a U-Haul from drizzly Portland, through treacherous Mount Hood, to sunny Central Oregon.
  • We moved into a house with a garage and an enclosed backyard.
  • We learned various things about taking care of said house, and Luna went out to play in said backyard after eight years sitting in the windows of apartments.
  • We made friendly overtures to our neighbors.
  • We graduated to a queen-sized canopy bed.
  • We got new tires for the car.
  • We learned how to use snow chains.

As a librarian, I moved up to an administrative position with more responsibility than I've ever had before. As a web developer, I took on contract work for the first time.

As a writer, I wrote the bulk of my first cozy mystery. I have only five chapters to go and hope to finish two of them before the ball drops on New Year's Eve. I feel like I've made significant strides since the days of Kagemusha, when I cut out whole chapters because they were too hard to write.

Goals for 2017

My goals for 2017 are simple, yet ambitious.

1. Secure an agent and a publisher for my cozy mystery.

I'm confident I'll be able to find at least one literary agent willing to represent my cozy mystery. Unlike my previous novels, Whacked in the Stacks ("WITS") is in an established genre that generates steady, though modest, sales. Two years ago when agents read the manuscript of Kagemusha, they said, "I love it, but I can't sell it." Hopefully this time they'll say, "I love it, and I know several editors who might want to buy it."

2. Write my second cozy mystery.

I have the sequel to WITS planned out, and I intend to start writing it as soon as WITS is polished and ready to go. Though I write comparatively slowly because I work full-time, if I stick to my daily writing schedule, I can finish a novel of this type within six months. I'll start in January or February and aim to finish by June or July.

3. Start on the first book of my YA fantasy trilogy.

To be frank, my love for cozy mysteries as a reader is not the only reason I decided to write one. WITS is a training novel of sorts. It's a fun, light story I knew I could finish within a reasonable time frame, instead of fussing over it for years and trying to turn it into my magnum opus. While working on it, I experimented and found my optimal writing schedule—from 6 am to 8 am on weekdays—and I trained myself to stick to it and write a couple of pages every day.

My real magnum opus will be the steampunk wuxia trilogy. It will be much harder to write than the cozy mysteries. (A) The setting is an exotic fantasy world. (B) The plot is an intricate epic of intertwined romances and mysteries. And (C) the scenes will be packed with high-flying sword fights and heartbreak. I can write comedy easily enough, but action and tragedy are challenging for me.

After I finish the WITS sequel, I'm going to take another stab at Book 1. My first stab missed the mark because I tried to write it in the third person. Then I read The Moonstone and realized the key to pulling off this story will be to create distinct first-person voices. I don't know if I can finish Book 1 by the end of 2017, but I can at least start the first half. I'll be very proud of myself if I can finish the first book by my thirtieth birthday in March 2018.

Mystery Tropes I Wish Would Die #2

My winter vacation starts today! For the next two weeks, I get to spend my days like a lady of leisure: sleeping in, eating bread pudding for breakfast, and lounging around all day in my pajamas reading and writing books.

Over the past couple of weeks I've raced through great stacks of cozy mysteries from the public library. Some of the books I finished and liked, or even loved—Rhys Bowen and Rae Davies are now on my list of "Writers I Wish I Could Meet for Tea." Other books I put down after the first couple of chapters. The prose was hard to follow, or the protagonists rubbed me the wrong way, or the plots never took off.

Many of the books, even the ones I liked, tragically fell victim to some of my least favorite cozy mystery tropes. When I see one of these tropes pop up in an otherwise lovely book, it puts me in a stormy mood for the rest of the day.

1. The Domineering Love Interest

Trope Description

The smart, independent heroine butts heads with an arrogant, smirking detective. The detective insults her intelligence and orders her around. The heroine bristles, but she can't help noticing the piercing blue of his eyes or the manly strength of his arm muscles. In the middle of an angry confrontation, the detective pins the heroine against the wall and smothers her with kisses. The smart, independent heroine melts into the jerk's embrace.

Common Variations
  • The smirking love interest is instead a sheriff, an investigative journalist, and/or an old flame.
  • The smirking love interest is a shameless playboy who flirts with every woman in sight, and when the heroine gets upset, he teases her for being jealous.
  • The smirking love interest takes on the role of "protector" a la Edward Cullen. He bosses the heroine around in the name of keeping her safe, and he drops suave lines like, "If I leave you alone for one second, you get yourself in trouble."
Why This Trope Exists

Prior to very recent history, arrogant SOBs were the archetypal heroes of Western fiction. Who do we think of as the great romantic heroes? The judgmental aristocrat Mr. Darcy, the cynical bully Mr. Rochester, and the puppy-strangling sociopath Heathcliff. Though readers and writers surely don't find disrespectful behavior a turn-on in real life, we're trained from childhood to think it's super-duper romantic in fiction.

In addition, anger and fear are easily confused with romantic arousal. When we read scenes that make us angry or afraid—like scenes of powerful men shouting at petite heroines and pinning them against walls—our hearts start thumping and adrenaline starts rushing through our bloodstreams. We falsely interpret the scene to be "exciting" and "romantic." Scenes of men treating women with respect, in contrast, are "boring."

Why I Hate This Trope

I can't respect a heroine who pines for a jerk who treats her like a dog he can pet, abuse, or ignore at his whim. Worse, I can't understand her. When men push me around—and some do try, on occasion—I am the exact opposite of attracted to them. My heart flutters for selfless gentlemen, not for insensitive boors.

My enjoyment of many a great book has been ruined, or nearly ruined, by an atrocious love interest. I'll be reading along, loving the spunky heroine, and then she suddenly starts acting like a spineless fairy-tale princess because a haughty prince has pretty blue eyes. Even in The Black Hour, a book I admire in every other respect, the whip-smart heroine falls for a cocky reporter who needles her every chance he gets. I skimmed over those parts and prefer to pretend they don't exist.

It's perfectly possible to create an exciting romance line without resorting to Slap-Slap-Kiss tactics. A loud clash of personalities is only one type of conflict. There are many other internal and external conflicts you can use to force two lovebirds apart and add tension to their relationship.

2. The Conveniently Oblivious Heroine

Trope Description

Near the end of the book, it becomes glaringly obvious to the reader which of the suspects is the real killer, but the heroine hasn't yet cottoned on. The real killer knocks on the door, and the heroine cheerfully invites him in. She answers a phone call from her friend, and the friend says something that makes the heroine realize, "Oh my gosh! Real Killer is the real killer!" She spins around to find a gun pointed at her face.

Common Variations
  • The heroine rushes to meet Real Killer's girlfriend/sister/mother and tell her breathlessly that she knows who did it. Real Killer steps out of the kitchen with the gun.
  • Real Killer helpfully offers the heroine a ride to the police station, and she accepts. The heroine chatters about her latest discoveries, which will surely help the detectives solve the case. Real Killer compliments her on her brains and pulls out the gun.
  • The heroine has a flash of insight at midnight and must go to a dangerous location right that minute, alone, to make sure she's right. She decides she shouldn't call the police or tell anyone where she's going, because what if she's wrong? She steps out of her car, and Real Killer steps out of the bushes with the gun.
Why This Trope Exists

Modern mystery readers expect a life-threatening confrontation at the climax of every novel, so somehow writers have to wrangle the heroine into one. The easiest way to do it is to make her waltz right into the line of fire.

Why I Hate This Trope

It's highly frustrating when main characters grab the Idiot Ball because the plot won't work any other way. For the author's convenience, the previously intelligent heroine suddenly becomes dumber than a scantily clad co-ed in a horror flick. Frustrated readers will be left screaming, "Don't go into the dark woods alone, you numbskull!"

Instead of handing the protagonist the Idiot Ball, a writer could do any of the following, or more.

  • The heroine figures out who the villain is and tries to protect herself, but the wily villain breaks through her careful defenses.
  • The heroine aids the authorities in approaching the villain in a safe way, but something goes wrong.
  • The heroine willfully dives headlong into danger to protect someone else.

3. The Wise-Cracking Psychopath

Trope Description

As soon as he points a gun at the heroine's face, the real killer instantly becomes a witty mustache-twirling villain. He discards any semblance of his previous personality and inexplicably morphs into a 1940s Hollywood gangster, tossing off flippant one-liners and all but laughing "Mwahaha!" as he locks the heroine in the bakery freezer to die.

Why This Trope Exists

I have a couple of theories about why cookie-cutter psychos are so common in cozy mysteries.

First, cozy mystery novels are often installments in long-running series. It's a tall order for one person to come up with twenty unique murderers with believable motivations.

Second, writing about unique murderers with believable motivations is emotionally draining. Writing about two-dimensional cartoon villains is easy because they feel nothing. They just rant a bit in a superior tone and then get shot. Writing about three-dimensional human villains is exhausting because they're drowning in tempests of emotions. To write in their voices, you have to brave the storms of rage and panic and despair yourself.

Why I Hate This Trope

Cozy writers might think psychos waving guns around makes the climax more exciting, but in my experience, it's just the opposite. As soon as the villain starts twirling his mustache, I lose any emotional investment I had in the story. I know the rest of the book is just going to follow a clichéd pattern. I think, "Well, now the villain is going to brag about how he pulled off the murder—yup, he did—and now he's going to march the heroine into that freezer—there they go—and now the smirking love interest is going to charge in and save her—yay, there he is."

My favorite mystery endings of all time didn't put the amateur detective in physical danger at all. The strength and excitement of the denouements came from the villains' confessions, and the way my heart wrenched for them even as I despised them for what they'd done. The ending of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night is nothing more than a maid throwing a tantrum, but I felt for her a lot more keenly than I ever did for any nosy caterer fleeing for her life from a crazed killer.