The Better Medicine

“Life is better when you’re laughing.”

As I thought about what I wanted to write in this week’s newsletter, the options seemed as bleak as the news. We could talk about the corona virus and how to take care during this time, but there is only so many ways to say, ‘Wash your hands and be socially distant.’ I could write about what I usually write about, but it really feels like we should be taking a beat here. So, what’s left? For me, it’s laughter. This is one of tools recommended for people who deal with depression (like myself), and to be honest, I think it would do us all well to look at the lighter side of life. After all, life is better when you’re laughing. I don’t know who to credit for that quote, but it’s true. So to that end, I keep a folder of funny memes in my Pinterest account that I peruse when I need a good laugh and I thought, for today, I would share some of my favorites. Hopefully, by next week, things will start settling down. But if they don’t, I have lots more material to share. We will all be laughing and hopefully, feeling better, if only for a little while. Enjoy.

MemesMemes2

Likable Characters

Let’s talk about likable characters. One of the most important traits the main character must have is likability. And I’m not talking about being a lovey-dovey, saccharinely ‘nice’ person. A main character has to evoke empathetic or sympathetic feelings. Whether they are the good guy or the bad guy, they have to be easy to like.

That’s one of the things I like about Danny King’s The Hitman Diaries. In the book, Ian Bridges is on a quest to find ‘Ms. Right.’ Never mind that he is a professional hitman who racks up an impressive body count in the first chapter alone. Or that he is haunted by the memories of a mother he could never please. Or that he is a loner and intimidating. Ian is a man in search of love and while you understand what kind of man he is when you start reading the book, it’s not long before you start empathizing with his desire to find someone he can share his life with. At that point, you actually like him and begin to root for him to get his ‘happily-ever-after.’

Contrast this to the 1999 film, The Thomas Crown Affair, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. While Pierce Brosnan’s titular character is relateable as a Peter Pan type of a man who doesn’t know what to do with his life, time or money and is constantly looking for that next big thrill, Rene Russo’s character is less so. She is singularly focused on her job, which she does admirably as a woman in a man’s world; however, when it comes to her personality, she is not likable at all: she is conniving and a liar, but her biggest fault to me is her selfishness: in the end, she betrays the man she cares about because she refuses to hear the truth from him. He had been willing to prove his love, then run off with her, but she instead turns him over to the police. He escapes and when the truth she had been unwilling to hear earlier is revealed, she runs off to the predetermined location, expecting to see him there waiting for her. He isn’t there. BUT he does meet her later, after letting her believe she had lost him forever. Her reaction? She threatens him, before kissing him. Even if Mr. Crown was immature and non-committal, he deserved better than that.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of the film and I cringe every time my husband watches it. But when you have a likable character, you have a story that readers won’t be able to put down. So how do you do that?

  • Give your character an interesting backstory. When we understand why they are they are, we care more about them.
  • Make your character vulnerable. A character who is vulnerable, damaged, or hurt physically or emotionally elicits more sympathy from the reader.
  • Give your character goals. A character who strives towards something gives us something to root for.
  • Show your character’s development. How can you show your character growing  into a better person over the course of the story?
  • Make your character self-aware. A character that is aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses are relateable.

There are lots of other great resources available to help you write characters that will win over your readers. So as you plot out your story, make sure you’re paying attention to your characters.

A Bit of Nostalgia This Week

I started listening to audiobooks to fill my almost three-hour daily commute; and for last month, the  service I subscribe to offered a 2-for-1 deal. I jumped on that, of course (because deal) and while their selections were outside of my normal reading range, I chose two books that mildly piqued my interest: How To Train Your Dragon (Book 1) by Cressida Cowell and Redshirts by John Scalzi. I wasn’t totally sold on them, but hey, a deal is a deal.

I was familiar with How To Train Your Dragon from the film series and started with that one. The story was was different than what I remembered from the film, but I enjoyed the book, nonetheless. I don’t normally read the YA adult genre, but this book was fun, especially with the talented David Tennant doing the reading.

Then I started Redshirts. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond the synopsis (the story follows a group of crew members [red shirts] on a military/research spaceship that suffers an unusually high number of deaths from hostile alien attacks during “away missions.”), but I recognized the Star Trek reference and figured I might like it. I was wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was funny, well-written and extremely well-plotted. It was just plain enjoyable. I like most of the books I read, but this is one of the few that I know I’ll be reading again.

I think what I liked most about the book though was the feeling of nostalgia it inspired in me. I grew up watching the original Star Trek with William Shatner (in syndication, of course – I’m not that old). It aired on network television on Sunday afternoons and was one of the few shows I watched with my dad. The time we spent together watching this show wasn’t anything intentional, I don’t think – I probably just wandered into the living room, saw the television was on and sat down with him to watch. But that action inspired a life-long love of Sci-Fi shows and films: all Star Trek shows; all Stargate shows and the movie; The Orville; Saturday afternoons on SyFy; I even liked M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (admittedly, though, I never got into Star Wars). This book reminded me of that time, when life was simpler and could be made more enjoyable by disconnecting from everything else and getting lost in a strange future. Even now, when I want to relax, I make my way to the couch, find a Sci-Fi movie or show to watch and zone out for an hour or two.

So, to recap, Redshirts was a worthy read. If you enjoy science fiction, Star Trek, or just want something light and funny to read, check it out. This is definitely one book I’ll be rereading soon, if only for the trip down memory lane.

Motivated

Did you miss me? I was on vacation two weeks ago, but for only one week and then the next week, I took a vacation to recover from the original vacation. It wasn’t stressful. Empty-nest vacations are completely different than family vacations (if you are in the position to take them, I highly recommend them). But what I discovered after I came back wasn’t so much that I wanted to stay on vacation (though that wouldn’t have been the worst thing), but that I was unmotivated.

I imagine I’m not the only one, especially at this time of the year. The newness of the new year has worn off, you’re a little more tired, a little more willing to sleep in and do ‘it’ later. Procrastination becomes your best friend. You put off going to the gym regularly, eating right, losing weight, getting in shape, starting your business, working on projects, that book you want to write, that new habit you want to create, something you want to do this year that you didn’t do last year. Less and less gets done until the progress stops.

Ugh. It’s depressing just writing that sentence.

But for me, that’s where I am. The progress hasn’t stopped, but it has slowed down. And before I go any further, before I encourage this downward slide any more and completely lose the momentum I had, it’s time to find the motivation to get back to where I started. How do I do that? Motivational quotes! Sometimes, hearing what others have to say about getting unstuck helps you find your motivation.

“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.” Roy T. Bennett

“Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.” Roy T. Bennett

“Believe in yourself. You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you imagine.” Roy T. Bennett

“Keep going. Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going. Tough situations build strong people in the end.” Roy T. Bennett

“Pursue what catches your heart, not what catches your eyes.” Roy T. Bennett

So Roy Bennett, author of The Light In The Heart, had a lot to say about the subject. But he brings up a good point in each quote: it’s my choice. No one can get me motivated but me. However, the most helpful quote I discovered was this one:

“Don’t think, just do.” Horace

The truth is, I think too much about everything I have to do and as a result, I tend to think my way out of things. I need to stop doing that. If you’re in the same place, know you’re not alone. Find the words that will push you into action and then act. That’s my plan.

American Dirt

I’ve been waiting for the controversy to die down before writing about it, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to, so here’s my two cents about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. In the book, Lydia, a bookstore owner, is forced to flee Mexico with her son after her husband and family are killed by a local cartel boss (at a quinceanera). She joins the migrants moving north, hoping to find refuge, but also learning about the people she travels with.

The book received high honors and praise; and was chosen to be the next pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Ms. Cummins also secured a film deal out of it. So with all that, American Dirt must be great, right? 

Not according to Myriam Gurba, an American author of Mexican descent. She was asked to review the book and had some choice words about it … none of which were good (her review, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature, is worth the read). This is her best line:

“The nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this seems to be the general consensus amongst Latino writers, who say that despite the author’s claims that she spent five years researching the book, Ms. Cummins’ depiction of Mexico/Mexicans is insensitive, flawed and stereotypical; perpetuating the ignorance around ‘the faceless brown mass at the border’ she claims she is trying to serve. Also complicating the issue is Cummins’ ethnicity: she identified as white in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2016, but now (conveniently) has Puerto Rican ancestry.

The internet, of course, exploded with offense (because the internet does that). The arguments went something like this: if the book brings attention to the immigration issue and gives a face to the people trying to find refuge in the United States, isn’t it worth the flaws? Also it’s just a book, a fictional story with no bearing on real life … what’s the big deal? The other authors are probably just hating because they didn’t get a book/film deal. Or they didn’t get picked for Oprah’s book club.

This, however, was the argument that hit home: only people of color can write stories of color. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I think people of color can probably tell their stories better than someone who hasn’t had the same experience. But I don’t know that I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think conditions have to be met. Actually, let me rephrase that: an investment by the author has to be made, an investment that includes research, but also a lot of blood, sweat and tears. You have to live that life, in the same way Jane Goodall lived amongst the apes she later became a conservationist for. If you can’t make that level of investment, you can’t represent the people or cause you’re trying to present.

This made me think about the stories I plan to write. Most of my main characters are Latin women, because it’s my experience. But reading all this has made me question whether I have a right to tell any story from the standpoint of a character who is of another race, or culture. Even as a Latin woman: I am of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican descent – am I qualified to tell the story of someone who is Mexican? If I am not mindful of the stereotypes I might be perpetuating, and if I haven’t done my homework on the culture, then the answer is no. My representation would be irresponsible.

That’s something I think is lacking in this book. Research doesn’t equal experience. And sometimes it’s better to walk away than hurt someone else with the pictures we paint.

I’m not one to tell anyone else what to read or what not to read, but I’m happy to recommend books: here, here and here are a few lists of great books to read instead of or in addition to American Dirt.