#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Can’t Believe You Did This”

Photo by Niki Sanders on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American city on a river
  • Length: 709 words
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, public displays of affection, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: internalized toxic masculinity
  • Explicit?: Yes

Andy’s head swam with pleasure, with surprise, with an unexpectedly fierce desire. He usually had to work himself up to this point, to coach himself into being excited to get physical.

Rita swept all that to the side by pushing him into an alley.

“I can’t believe you did this,” he whispered. She was biting his earlobe at the time.

“I almost can’t believe you’re into it,” she whispered back. “A lot of men don’t like how aggressive I can be.”

“I like it.”

She chuckled. “I can tell.”

“Is this–are we–” He broke off as she slid one hand around his waist, reaching under his belt, into his pants, to squeeze his ass.

“Not here. And not if you’re not ready to. But I am, so if you want to take me to your place, let’s go.”

How far from his place were they, actually? Would it be quicker to walk there, or go back to the restaurant for his car? But if he left it there overnight, he might get towed. The reality of logistics cooled his blood, weighting it with disappointment at falling out of the moment. “I don’t know. I mean, I want to, but–“

Rita pressed a finger to his lips to halt his backpedaling. “But nothing,” she said soothingly. “If you’re not sure, that’s fine. I’m alright making out like this until we get too cold and have to call it off.”

The brick wall against his back was a giant heat sink. “Okay.” He reached for her, filled his hands with her, slipping inside her coat.

“Yes,” she moaned when he palmed her breast. “Play with my nipples.”

She kissed him as he did, tweaking them lightly through her shirt at first, harder when she groaned and bit his lower lip. He thought his brain might short circuit when she started to grind her body against his, rocking her hips in time with the movement of her lips, a push and pull that had him rutting against her in desperation.

He was desperate, insanely turned on by this woman who somehow knew what he needed from her, knew to step up and get things started because he had a stupid, stubborn block about being the first to ask for intimacy. He was a minute away from coming in his pants from no more than a frantic alley make-out session.

Andy may have been working through some of the feelings of shame he felt at not being the perfect alpha male so many women seemed to want, but he certainly wasn’t going to embarrass himself like that, especially in public where he couldn’t deal with the uncomfortable reality of messy underwear right away. Rita might be cool with it–she might even be wickedly pleased she’d managed to get him off without actively trying–but she might also walk away from his neediness, his anxieties. He couldn’t risk it. “Stop.”

She pulled back, licked her swollen lips. “Okay.” Slowly, she unwound herself from him, and he was actually surprised where her hands had ended up in his distraction, how rumpled their clothing had gotten. “I have a new plan, if you’d like to hear it.”

He wanted to hear literally anything she might say in that tone of voice. Gossip about her best friends, Hamlet’s soliloquy, her grocery list for the week. “Sure.”

“I hate to admit defeat to the elements, but my feet are freezing. How about you take me home, and I make us some hot chocolate?” When he didn’t answer, she grinned. “No funny business, I swear this isn’t a euphemism for anything or a play to take things farther. I pushed you into an alley, but I won’t push you through the door to my bedroom.”

It sounded wonderful, almost too good to be true. But he wasn’t in a mood to question good fortune. And he was cold, too. “I’d like that.”

They helped each other straighten their clothing. Andy felt a stupid little grin on his face that probably matched the one on Rita’s. Their touches were far less personal and one hundred percent non-arousing, but the warm glow between them persisted. “There,” she said, patting his chest gently. “All better.”

He buttoned the collar of her coat for her, tucking her scarf into place. “You’re presentable again, too.”

She grinned and took his hand. “Let’s go.”

This Week, I Read… (2020 #36)

#138 – Wilder Girls, by Rory Power

  • Read: 9/18/20 – 9/19/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A medical thriller
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a book from a genre you don’t usually read
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Disappointing. Honestly, when you line up the blurb with all the content warnings I’ve seen on friends’ reviews, this sounds like a dark and twisting ride through the worst humanity has to offer.

What it actually read like was a confusing mystery with a weak open ending and muddled character relationships.

I’m all for LGBT in YA, in books where romance isn’t the focus, and even in books without happy endings, as long as it doesn’t fall under Bury Your Gays or some other damaging trope. But the dynamics between Hetty, Byatt, and Reese are so messy they aren’t adequately covered by the subplot-level page space they’re allotted. Early on, the language used for the Hetty-Byatt relationship is so intense I though it was Byatt Hetty had a crush on, so imagine my confusion/surprise when it’s actually Reese, the loner girl who I thought was more of a figure of fear/adulation than love. It never seemed genuine, and especially as more and more of the plot relied on Hetty’s need to save Byatt, I was left to wonder why there was even a Hetty/Reese romance subplot at all. It didn’t add much to the story. And even after I knew Hetty was actually into Reese, Reese still sometimes appeared to be genuinely frightening to her.

But I guess that’s a function of the Tox making all these girls less than fully human?

Oh, the Tox. I wasn’t actually all that intrigued by the mystery surrounding it, and there’s so much left unexplained. I actually read most of the third act wondering what sort of ending was even possible for a plot line going down this road, because it certainly didn’t have time to sort itself out for a happy one. The ending was fitting but still disappointing; I wanted more answers, I wanted more resolution, and failing that, I actually wanted more hope. The Children of Men movie adaptation also ended in a grim situation with the main characters on a boat in open water, but it was perfect and brilliant and stuffed full of hope against the despairing tone of the rest of the story. This? This felt more like an intermission between now and a book we don’t have yet. Not a proper cliffhanger, not a proper ending.

I was prepared to let my stylistic complaints go if I liked the story, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the narrative is choppy in a lot of places. The author relies heavily on sentence fragments for description, stringing anywhere from two to five together in a paragraph whenever a character goes to a new place and has to observe what it’s like. Sparingly or in isolation, fine, but once you get whole paragraphs of them, I’m starved for verbs. After a while, it actually gets worse; a sentence will start with a clause that sounds just like those descriptive fragments, but then a complete sentence gets added on the end after a conjunction. It’s bad grammar, and while yes, you can break the rules for a reason, I don’t see that reason here. It’s just bad:

The emptiness of the horizon, and the hunger in my body, and how will we ever survive this if we can’t survive each other?

Why? What does it add to the story to string a bunch of unlike clauses together? Why is the second “, and” there instead of making them separate, a fragment and a full sentence? (I already returned my digital copy to the library so I didn’t even pick out a sentence myself–I skimmed the quotes listed here on Goodreads for an example, and sure enough, I found several. That’s how common this issue is.)

I try not to be a grammar pedant, but this book brought it right out of me, I wanted to take a red pen to a copy of it and play editor, because the errors happen far too often to be simple mistakes, so I have to conclude it’s a deliberate aspect of the style. And I happen to find it obnoxious.

#139 – And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

  • Read: 9/20/20 – 9/21/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book about an event or era in history taken from the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a diverse/own voices book
  • Mount TBR: 121/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

This novel’s ambitious structure is a departure from the style I associate with Hosseini after loving his first two works: deep and introspective focus on only a few POV characters. Instead, Mountains chooses a sweeping narrative that dips through time and leaps from character to character, no two chapters alike. At first the jumps are small and easy to follow–the new character is generally still a family member of Abdullah and Pari, whom the tale is nominally about. Later on, the new characters and their relationships are harder to pin down, occasionally to the point where I was frustrated until halfway through the chapter or more.

I didn’t like this structure when I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest earlier this year, and I still don’t like it now. Personal preference, of course, but I feel this piecemeal approach does a decent job painting a picture of the larger world of the story, but leaves me feeling detached from the life within it. It doesn’t help that some of these characters are comparatively bland or stereotypical; we spent a great deal of time in Nila Wahdati’s orbit, learning about her from several sources, yet she never struck me as more than a standard “sexy French artist” type, with all the drinking and self-destructive tendencies to go along with it. And she’s by far the best-developed character in the book.

What has impressed me most in the past about Hosseini, especially A Thousand Splendid Suns, is that he’s the male author I trust most to handle female characters properly, with depth and sensitivity. Here, he hasn’t devolved into the worst of “men writing women”–he’s not actively harmful or disrespectful–but all the characters, male or female, lack the nuance I was expecting.

It’s not a bad novel, if you’re approaching it from a broader narrative standpoint. Not at all. But it’s also not at all what I was expecting from him, and I’m honestly disappointed by that.

#140 – The King’s Man, by Elizabeth Kingston

  • Read: 9/22/20 – 9/23/20
  • #1Kpages20 Readathon: Read a book with a trope you love
  • Mount TBR: 122/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

This fell flat for me throughout. I’m sold on some of its ideas–a misguided/evil man coming to terms with his past, an unattractive woman who pursued traditionally masculine pastimes reconciling with the feminine side of herself, the two of them becoming better people through their relationship with each other.

But none of it is executed well. Ranulf and Gwenllian have little chemistry, sexual or otherwise. He spends most of his time mocking her, which read well in the beginning when they were adversaries, but never gained the affectionate tone I expected of a romance hero who doesn’t know how to state his feelings honestly and thus continues to mock. He’s often cruel, even after he realizes his love for her.

Does it say something about me, that I’m more irritated with the hero for his mockery than I am with his long-ago murder of his foster father? Because a) he’s clearly struggling with guilt over that, where the mockery is just who he is; and b) his foster father was apparently a wife-abusing/killing piece of total garbage. I guess I’d rather have a murderer who was learning to be kind that an insecure one who still lashes out constantly at the woman he supposedly loves.

Gwenllian has strong characterization as an “ugly” woman who finds freedom in taking on a role usually denied to women–there’s a reason I see so many pictures of Brienne of Tarth from GoT in other reviews. But ultimately her internal conflict–which side of myself do I move forward with, the leader or the wife/mother–pushes her into an incredibly passive role in the story. Basically, after her marriage, she stops having agency. In the early days of her marriage she’s driven by lust, but as she fails to settle into her role as lady of the keep, she runs home to her mother, who’s plotting a rebellion against the king and wants to use Gwenllian as a figurehead to rally the people.

She spends the rest of the book paralyzed by indecision: she can’t stay and be a part of her mother’s plot, because she doesn’t believe in the cause and doesn’t want to be a traitor; she can’t return to her husband, because she’s not a real woman or lady and she’s overwhelmed by the combination of fear, failure, and love. So she sits around sulking, basically, until Ranulf comes for her and she decides she’ll try being a wife and mother again.

I’m just not sold on it. There are plenty of rich concepts here that could provide boundless interest to a reader, but none of it manifested for me. I was never invested, in the romance, in the politics, in Ranulf’s tortured past. It’s flat. It never hooked me.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “You’re Driving Me Crazy”

Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Rita and Andy
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American city on a river
  • Length: 943 words
  • Key Tropes: dating, new relationship, public displays of affection, aggressive woman/passive man dynamic
  • Content Warnings: none
  • Explicit?: Most of the internal monologue is about sex, but no one is actually having it in the scene

Rita wasn’t a subscriber to the three-date rule before sex, but she could usually spot it when her dates were. Sometimes she was wrong, of course–sometimes a man she was seeing genuinely was that respectful on a first date and beyond, instead of sliding quickly down the ladder towards bedroom eyes halfway through a third trip to a fancy restaurant.

But she had no idea what was going on in Andy’s head, or his body, as they strolled along the riverfront under an intermittently starry sky. Fifth date. The first had been drinks at a pretty casual bar, courtesy of her cousin’s coworker mentioning his brother having bad luck with dating apps. Second was ice-skating, of all things, which she had originally thought was an excuse to be slightly handsy in public–god knows that’s how rom-coms usually played it–but actually, they’d both been confident on the ice, and Andy had spent most of his time with his hands in his coat pockets, skating backwards in front of her so they could talk without shouting. She had rented figure skates, he had chosen hockey skates, so she suspected he’d played as a teenager. He didn’t have the overly muscled body to suggest he still played now, or that he’d ever been serious about it.

The third date had been a properly fancy dinner, and she had gone into it ready for the invitation back to his place at the end. She didn’t receive one, but their conversation had flowed so naturally that she almost hadn’t noticed until he was driving her home. He had kissed her, at least, their first.

So she knew then she was with someone who wanted to take things slow. Fine. She didn’t have a rule. She had hopped into bed after first dates, after thirds, after a two hours of hot dancing in a club with someone whose last name she never got. One-night stands weren’t her preference, but she didn’t turn her nose up at them.

She couldn’t recall ever having to wait so long before, but she liked Andy, with his solemn eyes and his slightly shaggy hair and the way his laugh got higher at the end as he ran out of breath. She liked how comfortable she felt with him, right away, from the moment he’d found her at the bar that first time.

She was starting not to like how much she wanted to touch him, without knowing if she had permission. If he was interested in being touched. The kiss had been fine, not spectacular, and it hadn’t been repeated.

Her mind had drifted to thoughts of kissing, and she’d lost the thread of what Andy was saying. She tried to focus. Really, she did. But as the river twisted, the sidewalk slanted off to follow it behind some buildings, their fronts marked with bright signage, an ice cream shop already closed for the night, a brewpub still open, a clothing boutique. The gap between two of them beckoned to her, and she reached for Andy’s hand. His words faltered with his surprise.

Rita had never pushed a man against the wall of an alley before, and she found out quickly how much she liked the feeling.

In her heeled boots, she was nearly as tall as him. She leaned into the wall with one hand and gripped the collar of his coat with the other. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said brightly, “but you’re driving me crazy, you know that? One kiss, two dates ago?”

Andy’s mouth gaped open, nothing coming out of it.

“If this is a pose to prove you’re nice and get me to sleep with you, mission accomplished, let’s find a bed and get to it already.” Rita paused as his eyes widened. “But if I’m wrong, and you really are this sweet, is it okay if I take control for a while? Because I want to touch you.”

He licked his lips. “Yeah, okay. Touch me.”

Rita wasn’t sure how much he wanted yet, and her one experience with sex in public hadn’t been the thrill she’d hoped it would be. She intended to keep their clothes on, especially in this cold. She started with a kiss, the type she wanted, slow and fierce and hot, instead of the polite peck she’d gotten from him before.

He responded beautifully, leaning into her as she pressed forward, his hands sliding up her back. She nibbled lightly on her lower lip, and he groaned, pulling her closer.

“Not a pose,” he whispered when she dragged her mouth free of his, across the sweep of his jaw. He must have shaved right before meeting her–no stubble. “I’m just–not great–” He broke off with a deep sigh as she found the right spot, apparently, halfway down his throat.

“At what?” Rita whispered in his ear

“At initiating.” He backed away from her as much as he could, flattening himself against the bricks. “I’ve noticed women like me because I’m friendly, not because I’m smooth.”

“You are friendly,” she agreed, stepping closer to him. Even in the crisp early winter air, he smelled delicious, like musk and pine. And warmth radiated from his body to the point where Rita wanted to rub herself all over him, not only from desire, but for comfort and coziness. “But you’re also hot enough I want to lick you from head to toe. I don’t mind making the first move, if you don’t mind that I have to.”

His head inched forward, asking for another kiss even if he didn’t realize he was doing it. “No, I don’t mind at all.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Day After Day”

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Meredith and Lily
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American town
  • Length: 1,426 words
  • Key Tropes: best friends to lovers, We Need to Talk, bisexual and pansexual MCs
  • Content Warnings: verbal/nonviolent fighting, swearing, brief panphobia issues
  • Explicit?: No

Tomorrow never came. Sure, Meredith woke up and did the things she usually did; she went to work and had a good lunch shift, making nearly twice as much in tips as a typical day, somehow. Her tables were all a smidgen nicer than usual, and more takeouts tipped than she expected, and by the time she clocked out after the initial dinner rush, she had lost track of the running total she always kept in her head.

How had she managed to do her job so well when she’d spent half the time anxious about Lily?

The staff was allowed to keep their phones on them during service, because emergencies were always a possibility, and plenty of the servers had kids. But Meredith never checked hers much, and today she’d been too busy even if she’d wanted to. Whatever Lily did or didn’t text her, it should wait until her shift was over. She even resisted on the drive home. She showered and changed and threw some leftovers in the microwave for dinner.

Only then did she look for messages.

She didn’t have any.

Tomorrow, Lily had said. Well, there was still plenty of “tomorrow” left–it was barely seven. Lily had a nine-to-five office job, but maybe she’d gotten held up, or maybe she needed to relax with a book for a while before she tackled her problems.

Or she might just be quietly freaking out at one end of a suspended conversation, like Meredith was.

A book. Reading sounded like a good distraction. She would grab a favorite from her small collection, liberate a few squares of chocolate from her stash, and take it easy for an hour. By then, Lily would call. Or text, text was fine too.

Two hours later, Meredith woke with a jolt in her chair. Not surprising, she hadn’t slept well the night before. But her neck was angry with her for not being in bed when she fell into her unintended nap.

The uneaten chocolate sat by her phone. Still no messages.

It wasn’t too late in the evening to call her best friend Lily. Was it too late to call the Lily that had kissed her? What were they now? What did Meredith want them to be?

Her thumb hovered over the call button under Lily’s name, but she decided against it. Forcing the issue so soon didn’t feel right, even though she was dying to offload some of her tension. Normally, Lily would be the one she talked to if she was unsure about seeing somebody new.

Obviously that wouldn’t work now.

Day after day followed the same pattern, until most of the week had gone by. Saturday she worked the dinner shift, and she usually tried to hang out with Lily during the day, but she made no plans as Lily’s silence continued.

Sunday, Meredith started her day by knocking out all her chores and baking a pumpkin pie. The cleaning was fueled by rage at her best friend ghosting her for a week; the baking, her attempt to medicate her rage with soothing kitchen time and plenty of sugar. It half-worked, because by afternoon, she wasn’t as angry but still had too much energy to sit around and wait for Lily to decide she existed again.

She packed up two slices of pie and drove over. When Lily answered the doorbell, her face went still with shock, then she looked away guiltily.

“Busy?” Meredith asked in her most chipper tone. “I brought pie.”

Lily stepped back to let her in.

As much time as she spent there, Meredith knew where everything was. She got plates and forks in the kitchen while Lily hovered in the doorway, watching. She held out one plated slice of pie and Lily took it without comment. Meredith’s rage reignited at Lily’s continued silence in person.

“Are we going to talk about this?” she demanded. “Because if you were drunk enough to screw up and you want to take it all back, you should say so. I don’t know if that would work, but we could try, if that’s what you want. But I don’t want my best friend ignoring me anymore, so here I am.”

Lily’s shoulders sagged, and she took her plate to the table, sitting down. “I haven’t called you because I don’t know what I want.”

That was a start. Meredith sat down too. “It seemed pretty clear you wanted me. At least, you did then.”

“I do now, too. But Mere–” She sighed and dug her fork into the pie. “I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have kissed you, I had no right to.”

“Did I, or did I not, tell you to ask me on a date right then instead of waiting? Was I not perfectly clear that I was into it, at least once I got over my surprise you’d kissed me at all?” Meredith shook her head. “Listen, I get that half our friends don’t think I’m queer enough to belong. I say I’m pan, and they see me dating yet another guy, and they look at me and think I’m a straight girl pretending. I’m not. I’m interested in women, but I can’t explain why they never seem to be interested in me. I’m not butch, I’m not femme, because of my job I can’t die my hair wacky colors or shave half of it off to prove I’m queer, I’m just me and apparently I read straight and so women aren’t falling at my feet.” She ran out of breath there and stopped to drag in a deep one. “I thought you knew me better than that. So if any of this uncertainty you’re feeling is that you had no right to kiss me, well, permission first is always better but I was one hundred percent okay with you kissing me, alright?”

“Mere–” She must have expected an interruption, because she paused there. “Okay, I’m an asshole, because yeah, some of that had crossed my mind. But it’s not just that. You’re my best friend!”

“I’m your best friend enough to know that half the romance novels you read are friends-to-lovers. So why is that a problem in real life? I’m here. I brought you pumpkin pie. You told me a week ago you were going to ask me on a date tomorrow. I’m not impressed with your punctuality, Lils. Am I going to have to ask you? Because I will, I just thought you wanted to handle that yourself.”

Lily finally took a bite of the pie. “This is really good,” she mumbled.

“I know.”

“And you’re really pissed off.”

“Yep.”

“I’m sorry I freaked out?”

Meredith sighed. “Are you, though? If you got cold feet and you don’t want to go through with this, I’d rather you say so then ghost me.”

“Did I ruin everything?”

“I don’t know yet. But you will if you won’t talk to me.”

“Okay, but–but I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what I’m doing, Mere, and that’s what I’ve been freaking out about all week! You know better than anyone outside my exes what an awful person I can be in a relationship. I’ve always felt lucky that you’re such a great friend anyway, because I know I have a lot of flaws, and I’m working on that, but it’s hard. So pardon me for not wanting to ruin the best relationship I do have by trying to turn it into something else!”

“Good! Yes! Thank you!” Meredith applauded like she was an acting coach praising a student. “Real honesty!”

Lily shoved a forkload of pie into her mouth and thumbed her nose at Mere. “You can be pretty awful, too, you know,” she said after she chewed and swallowed.

“I’m a bitch when I’m angry, fully aware.”

“Too bitchy to even eat the pie you brought.”

It was true, Meredith hadn’t touched it. She lifted the slice, skipping the fork, and took as big a bite from the pointed end as she could.

“Much better,” Lily observed. “Are we friends again?”

Meredith couldn’t talk yet–too much chewing necessary. She nodded.

“Can we get pizza for dinner and open a bottle of wine and do our usual whining about life tonight, like usual?”

After a huge, painful gulp, Meredith spoke. “I will allow one episode of a shitty reality tv show as a breather, but after that, we’re figuring this out. Over pizza and wine is fine, but I’m not letting you put me off again. I did that for a week and all it got me was heartburn.”

Lily laughed. “Skip the pizza, then? I’ve got some of Mom’s chicken noodle soup in the freezer, you love that–”

“Lily.”

“What?”

“It’s a metaphor.”

“For how crazy I made you?”

“Exactly.”

From My Art Journal #15

I’ve been great so far this month writing in my personal journal every day, which is not for sharing. My various art journals have seen less consistent action, but I’ve got some pages worth showing off.

I’m still working on Learn to Draw 2020, though the source of my lesson material and homework has changed since my last update: I’ll have to do another soon. More of my “art” time has gone to that than the fun journaling stuff.

Still, if I want to get back into the habit, I need to stay accountable. I said I would try to make this series monthly again, and here I am, even if I don’t have many pages to share.

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Hate You”

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Generic gritty fantasy, so far
  • Length: 1,491 words
  • Key Tropes: betrayal
  • Content Warnings: kidnapping, imprisonment, discussion/fear of torture
  • Explicit?: Sex is only mentioned in an off-screen context

Mila flexed her wrists, testing the ropes for the hundredth time. Without a blade to hand, she wasn’t getting free, and her captors had searched her thoroughly. They’d even found the small knife hidden in her belt buckle. She was weaponless, defenseless, tied to a chair in a cold, damp room. The blindfold didn’t help.

But she’d been waiting for hours for someone to come in, to ask questions. No one had. The waiting itself was a mild form of torture, she supposed, but she preferred it to the more involved kind. She wasn’t hungry or thirsty enough yet for that to compound the problem.

She tugged on the bindings again, then took a deep breath and consciously relaxed her body. Fighting the rope simply to pass the time would only hurt her and wear down her patience. If that’s why her unknown captors had left her alone so long, she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

Instead, she turned her mind to rescue. Until someone entered this room, she had no opportunity to escape. She might be able to come up with a plan once she had spoken to someone, gleaned even the slightest hint of information about where she was. They might even untie her for a time to eat or drink, if she cooperated, though that was a slim hope at best.

No, until she knew something more, she had to hope someone was coming for her. Petralla wouldn’t sit still for one of her guild mates being kidnapped, but who knew when the news would reach her. Mila wasn’t even sure who, if anyone, had seen her abduction. She’d made as big a ruckus as possible, but Lower City residents tended to keep to themselves unless they scented profit in the wind. If an enterprising young lad had recognized her armor or her insignia he could find a reward for reporting the incident. But Mila didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious, so she didn’t know how far she was from home. Rescue planning took time, and so did travel.

Even given all of that, Petralla was the most likely to come for her. Herself, or a team of guild mates sent by her. If Mila wished for a daring and romantic rescue from her lover instead, the situation was more dire. Belken wouldn’t know what had become of her without a ransom note; he was away on business, not due to return for nearly a week. He wouldn’t have heard of her kidnapping through any normal means.

Her heart ached. She hadn’t seen him since the harvest festival, when they’d spent hours strolling the marketplace, sampling whatever fruits looked best, buying the small bottles of early goldenwine, almost too sour to drink but somehow the perfect complement to cheese and fresh bread and the sweetest fruits of the season. They’d lounged on the grass in a park long after sunset, and very nearly made love there as well, until rustling from nearby bushes told them someone else had the same idea. She’d laughed and blushed at her own embarrassment, and he’d taken her to his small apartment above his jewelry business and ravished her quite thoroughly in private.

When she’d said goodbye the next morning, she hadn’t thought that might be the last time she’d ever see him. He traveled for business often, as he preferred to source his gems personally rather than rely on the inflated prices of importers. And he loved the travel for its own sake. She had often wished she had the freedom to go with him and see other lands, but her work kept her close to home.

He was due back before the next royal tourney. She would get free of this predicament, and he would come home, and they would sit in the stands and watch knights and guardsmen and humble young lads hoping to move up in the world, as they fought for prizes and praise and the amusement of the masses. Mila promised herself that goodbye was not her last.

The door opened with a creak, and a light came into the room. Small, dim through her flimsy  blindfold. A candle, probably. “Hello?” she tried.

“Hello, love,” a familiar voice said.

“Belken?” It couldn’t be. She was hallucinating; she had been held without food or water longer than she had guessed, and her imaginings had conjured him. He was on his way home from–from–well, she couldn’t remember where he’d gone this time. But he couldn’t actually be here, rescuing her. She had expected Petralla.

“Here, let me get that.”

She waited to feel his hands working on the ropes around her wrist, but instead, the blindfold was lifted from her head. He looked little different by candlelight here in her stone prison than he did lying in his own bed. His hair wasn’t standing wildly in all directions from the interference of her fingers, but his eyes shone the same way when he looked at her. “How…how on earth are you here?”

“It’s not what you think.” He turned to the wall, where she could now see a small table with a chair that looked like a match to her own. He dragged over the table and set the candle on it, then the chair. When he sat, he faced her, close enough to touch knees. “I’m sorry.”

“Untie me,” she said. But she already knew he wouldn’t, or he would have already.

He shook his head. “I need a favor.”

None of her guild mates had ever accused her of being the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but she understood that something was wrong, and that Belken wasn’t there to save her. She didn’t have enough information yet to figure out the rest, but enough to kindle the first fires of anger in her chest. “What’s going on?”

“I need you to steal the guild ledger for me.”

Mila’s hands went numb and her lips, cold. Her shock was a physical thing. “There’s no reason you’d need that if you were a simple jeweler. What is your merchant identity a cover for? Are you–” She swallowed, trying to guess at the most likely enemy. “Are you a Bone Trader?”

He looked away, all the confirmation she needed. Her lover, a human trafficker. The betrayal hurt like every muscle in her body had been torn to shreds. “Was I targeted? Because I can’t believe someone looked at the guild roster and decided I was most likely to break.”

Belken laughed. “No, Mila. You weren’t targeted. I was.” He sighed. “Do you love me?”

She resisted the urge to spit in his face. She had no moisture to spare. “Until you walked into this room a few minutes ago, yes.”

“I still love you, though. I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t. I was targeted because I fell in love with you. I haven’t been lying this whole time. I am a jeweler, and when we met, I wasn’t a Bone Trader. I’m not really one now.” He reached forward to caress her cheek, though she cringed from it. “They have my sister.”

The rest of the story fell into place. Except… “The younger sister you barely ever mention to me, who lives far away, who I’ve never met. How do I know she exists?” If he’d been lying to her at all, whether from the beginning or only more recently, he could be lying about a sister to gain her cooperation. “I won’t betray my guild, my family, for someone I’ve never met, who might not be real.”

“I never thought you would.” He sighed again, more heavily, and dropped his hand. “I told them this wouldn’t work. I told them I couldn’t convince you. Maybe if they’d let me tell you my tale before they abducted you, instead of after, you might have believed me. I’m sorry it came to this.” He stood. “I’m going to lose you both.”

Even if he had betrayed her, even if all or part of their love had been a lie, she didn’t want to be alone in the dark again. Fear squeezed her heart. “Belken–”

“My deadline is midnight,” he said sadly. “That’s about three hours away. I could stay and beg, but we both know that won’t work. They put me in an impossible position, Mila. Please believe I never wanted this.” He lifted the candle, studied her face. “Unless you want me to stay?”

“What happens after midnight?”

“The gloves come off.”

Mila shut her eyes. “I hate you,” she hissed. “And they can’t expect I’ll do what they say after they’ve tortured me. What’s to hold me to it once they’ve turned me loose to steal the ledger? I’ll run, and you know that.”

Belken sat back down, returning the candle to the table. Its light bounced off the tears that fell freely down his face as he leaned forward for a single brief kiss. “I do know that, love. So do they.” He sighed again and scrubbed roughly at the tears with the heel of one hand. “That’s why they’re going to torture me instead.”

#Sunday-Romance Serial: “I Love You, You Idiot”

Photo by Ray Reyes on Unsplash
  • Introducing: Meredith and Lily
  • Setting: Contemporary; unnamed/generic American town
  • Length: 1,093 words
  • Key Tropes: best friends to lovers, the big reveal, bisexual MC
  • Content Warnings: alcohol, prolific swearing, cheating mention
  • Explicit?: No, but sex is discussed frankly

Meredith stormed out of the bar. The wet August heat persisted even near midnight. If she walked home, she’d melt from sweating, but she was angry enough to want to work of the energy. I actually liked this guy–

The sound of her name shouted down the sidewalk stopped her high heels in place. So it was going to be a sidewalk scene, as if her humiliation in the bar hadn’t been enough. She turned around.

Lily was jogging towards her. “Meredith–”

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“But he’s–”

“This is the first guy in a year I’ve had a good feeling about, Lily. You know what a shitty run of luck I’ve had. Don’t we all get together and bitch about ourselves every week? The guys have been lobbing me their friends and coworkers for months and none of them stick! So you come crash my date with Jess–”

Lily tossed her head impatiently. “I didn’t set out to ruin your night, Mere. But when I happened to run into you two and I realized your ‘Jess’ was the same asshole ‘Jessie’ who cheated on me with a married woman, yeah, I felt compelled to speak up. Pardon me for being a good friend!”

“That was four years ago!” Meredith snapped. A man passing on the other side of the street gave her look. She’d been too loud, so she lowered her voice. “Are you sure it’s him? And even if it is, dammit, Lily, I really liked him. He was treating me so much better than the last few guys who never got past a first or second date.”

Lily stepped close enough to lay her hands on Meredith’s shoulders. One of the straps of her top slipped under the pressure, but Lily smoothed it back into place. “I’m sorry this is hard on you, but I refuse to be sorry for interfering. Yes, it’s him, and okay, maybe he’s changed. Maybe he would never cheat again. But you deserved to know, and I knew you hadn’t slept with him yet. I wasn’t going to bite my tongue now and tell you later, only to find out you went with the three-date rule and got lucky tonight. Wouldn’t you rather know before then? That he might already have a girlfriend somewhere, that you might be the other woman?”

Meredith closed her eyes and leaned forward to touch her forehead on Lily’s, one of the benefits of having a best friend the same height. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. I hadn’t made up my mind yet, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t considering going home with him tonight. So thanks for cock-blocking me, I guess.”

“Any time.” She giggled. “Though I’d call it saving you from inevitable disappointment. He wasn’t that great in bed. Adequate at best.”

A matching giggle sprouted from Meredith’s throat. “Now that I’m not angry anymore, I’m embarrassed. Is my taste in men that bad? Also slightly tipsy and more horny than I’d admit to anyone but you.”

Lily’s hands tensed, gripping Meredith hard enough to make her notice her own bones. “Best friend’s privilege, huh?”

Meredith wasn’t anywhere close to drunk enough to miss the odd note in Lily’s voice. She pulled back, opening her eyes to study her friend’s expression. “Lily?”

“Well, I kind of ditched someone back there to come after you.”

Oh. Lily had been there to fish for a hookup. “Sorry. You can go back–”

“She’s probably already chatting up someone else, she seemed just as eager to get laid as I was. Can’t blame her for passing on the disaster bi who had to go rescue her friend from the clutches of an evil man.” She laughed softly, but Meredith didn’t think her heart was in it.

“New plan, then.” Meredith took Lily’s arm and swung her around. “Let’s go back in, and I’ll be your wingman. Woman. Whatever. We’ll find you somebody else.” She tottered on her heels as she headed back to the entrance, but after two steps, Lily wasn’t following, so she had to stop. “Lils?”

“I don’t want anyone else.” The combination of streetlights and neon signs made her face a patchwork glow of colors, but the sadness there was plain enough. “You’re more important. Let’s get you home.”

Meredith tugged on her hand. “But there’s an entire bar filled with sexy people for you to pick from! Right over there! Who knows, we might even find me somebody worth dating.”

“No, Mere. I’m not going back. The bar full of sexy people will just have to do without me for a night.”

“But why?” Meredith wailed. It was such a perfect solution.

“Because I love you, you idiot.” Lily tugged her hand, this time, hard enough for Meredith to stumble right into her. She planted a kiss on Meredith’s face, catching the corner of her mouth. Had she been going for the cheek and missed? Or was she aiming for Meredith’s mouth?

Despite the heat, Meredith shivered. “Lily,” she breathed. “Am I an idiot? Is there something I should have seen before now?” She braced for a bark of laughter, for Lily to claim she’d misread the situation.

It didn’t come. Lily kissed her again, and she didn’t miss. Her lips were soft, and as soon as they parted Meredith could taste something fruity and sour, the remnants of the last drink she’d had before interrupting the date. The zing on her taste buds translated to a jolt of electricity down her spine.

“I’m going to keep being the responsible one,” Lily murmured as soon as they broke apart. “We’ve both been drinking, and we’re both horny as hell. So we’re going to get you home safe, but then I’m going home too, okay?” She stole another quick, glancing kiss. “You’re not a hookup. So tomorrow I’m going to call you and ask you on a date.”

“Ask me now,” Meredith whispered.

“Tomorrow.” Lily pulled away completely and dug her phone out of her purse. “I’ll get us a ride and drop you off.”

“Lily–”

She met Meredith’s stare. “Tomorrow,” she insisted. “I didn’t mean for it to happen like this, Mere. I wasn’t sure I meant for it to ever happen at all.”

There was pleading in Lily’s tone, and for once in her life, or at least once in their friendship, Meredith saw the edge of the cliff in time to stop herself from falling off of it. “Okay. Tomorrow.”

My Serial Fiction Returns: #sunday-romance

Photo by Jiroe on Unsplash

For the last month, I’ve been participating in a new romance-centered writing event on Tumblr: Sunday Romance.

We get a prompt, we write a short piece responding to it, we get reblogged for participating and nice comments from other writers/readers. There’s a tag for “clean” fics and a tag for smut. It’s fantastic and I’ve enjoyed participating.

But I hadn’t talked about it here yet because it was new, because I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick with it (though there’s no harm in missing a week or being late with a prompt or anything, we’re all just having fun and building a romance-writing community within the larger writeblr umbrella.)

Over the four prompts so far, I’ve written about three new couples–I went back to my first one for the third prompt. Which officially makes it a serial! I don’t know how many series-in-progress I’ll end up with as the weeks roll on, and let’s be honest, none of them may ever end properly, as I made sure to do with “Grace and the Greek Warrior,” way back in 2015 when I was writing flash fiction and prompt responses far more often in an effort to bolster my creativity and develop my style.

So embarking on any given journey is taking a risk that it will never go anywhere, fair warning. But I’ve gotten a good response to each of them, and I thought it would be helpful for me to collect them here, and fun for you to read them. I’m enjoying writing short-form fiction again, even if they’re not true “short stories” like I used to write in high school and college; it’s fun to focus on one scene without much in the way of expectations, without the pressure of “how does this fit into a novel-sized plot,” without knowing ahead of time where it’s going to go.

As each ficlet will need its own post for organization’s sake, expect a spree of extra posts this week to get this project up and running. After that, ideally I’ll add a weekly post on Sunday afternoon for the piece I wrote that morning; if I’m short on time for whatever reason, some weeks I’m sure I’ll squeeze it in on Tuesday instead.

Stay tuned for the first entry this afternoon!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #35)

#135 – This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples

  • Read: 9/10/20 – 9/11/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Read a book published in 2020
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a new author [which I chose to interpret as “read a debut novel published this year” to define “new”]
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

This is so far outside my normal reading sphere that I’m having difficulty articulating what I liked about it. I’m always interested in LGBT+ stuff; I should be reading more indigenous authors; I’m okay with supernatural elements, slightly less comfortable with spiritual; but I almost never read crime novels.

It’s an odd mix, and it doesn’t always quite work, but overall it’s a strong debut. I felt for Marion, and his history is intertwined with that of his town/reservation, and some strange goings-on. I read this in just under a day; the pacing was definitely compelling enough to keep me going. I didn’t always like any of the other characters, though I found it interesting that Shannon’s POV chapters were generally written in second person, a framework of him talking to himself, because of his issues. Most writing advice tells us all to steer clear of 2nd, but I like it here as a mode of characterization, even if I didn’t necessary like Shannon at first. He comes around in the end, mostly.

The weakest aspect is definitely the many, many side POVs and the lack of clarity when switching to one of a) who our POV even is, and b) how they’re related (in the story, or in some cases, literally blood-related) to Marion. While I recognize much of the cultural content/history given in these vignettes was necessary to the story, I didn’t appreciate having my attention diverted in so many directions, or frequently waiting to get back to the present-day storyline. It’s a serious complaint, but not one that would prevent me from recommending the book to anyone interested in the subject matter–I picked this on a whim for a reading challenge and I’m surprised by how much I liked it, given its dissimilarities to my usual genres.

#136 – Autobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizanovsky

  • Read: 9/11/20 – 9/14/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author whose real name(s) you’re not quite sure how to pronounce
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book you picked because the title caught your attention
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Russia (or by a Russian author)
  • Mount TBR: 119/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I rarely read the introductions in any book that has one. I’d rather get to the actual content, and often I don’t have the academic grounding to understand half of what the introduction’s authors have to say.

This time, I went back and read it after. Counter-intuitive, I’m sure many people would say, but I was vindicated by Thirlwell mentioning Italo Calvino as a similar author, because I read The Complete Cosmicomics earlier this year and found Corpse to be strikingly reminiscent of it. The subject matter of any individual story between the two could be wildly different, but they all felt the same in their treatment of the “fantastic” as a blend of real, absurd, and academic.

Like my reaction to Cosmicomics, I’m left here with the feeling of “I wish I understood this better so I can appreciate it more.” I’m no student of philosophy, and while I have enough knowledge of Russian history to connect it to the dismal, censorious atmosphere of the stories in Corpse, beyond that I have no ground to stand on. I love absurdity in fiction; but this is high-minded, philosophical absurdity outside my ken. I always felt like I was grasping at the edges of what Krzhizanovsky was trying to say–I could see connections forming between identity, time, brokenness, and storytelling. I feel confident in stating his stories are mostly about some or all of those things, most of the time. But as with Calvino, deeper meaning eludes me; I value emotion most in my fiction, not philosophy. I would rather grapple with characters than concepts.

This is a challenging work that I’m glad I attempted, but not something I’d shout from the rooftops as a general recommendation. It’s weird and interesting, and I’m vaguely sad that this author was never recognized for his fiction in his lifetime because of censorship. Even if I can’t appreciate his work fully, clearly he deserved better than what he got.

#137 – At This Moment, by Karen Cimms

  • Read: 9/15/20 – 9/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 120/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This would be a decently compelling story if it were the novelization of a B-movie-level biopic of a famous musician. It’s only good if it’s about someone I already care about, or at least want to hear gossip about; as a piece of total fiction, it doesn’t do a great job getting me invested in characters this miserable.

As a “romance,” it’s alarmingly lackluster. There’s no romantic or sexual tension beyond Billy and Kate’s initial courtship in the first 10%–after that, they’re together and it’s a roller coaster of family problems, poverty, drinking, drug abuse, lying, manipulation, and eventually cheating and a half-assed cliffhanger where they’re happy but there’s a huge secret hanging over their head.

Nothing about it is what I want from my romances, even when I indulge in angsty/sexy New Adult titles. The tension I want–why aren’t they together yet, what obstacles are in their way–was entirely absent. The tension this story gave me–will they make it work–was far more about their lying and poor decision-making than it was about their love. They must be in love because they keep insisting they are, but they both treat each other like garbage, so I’m not convinced. Billy is abusive from the beginning and eventually acknowledges his anger issues but does little to move past them. Kate is a classic people-pleasing doormat who borrows most of her personality from her token gay best friend. I was never rooting for them, because they’re terrible together.

Even the supposedly central conflict of Billy’s career vs. his marriage–which pops up every few chapters to remind us he’s got dreams–is deeply flawed, because from where I’m sitting, it’s not his marriage holding him back from stardom, it’s his constant cycle of substance abuse and self-sabotage. I’m not rooting for him to succeed personally, either.

This never read like a romance to me. It’s a wandering tale of two messed-up people making each other worse for a few years and having some babies in the process. If the loose plot thread of Billy’s big screw-up is supposed to get me primed for reading the next book, it failed, because I’d rather Kate finds out he’s a cheater and dumps his ass.

Writing Homework #21: Improve Your Character Description

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

There’s a standard set of traits many writers will default to when introducing or describing a character: height, eye color, hair color, skin tone, sometimes weight. I include myself in this group–I made a big deal in the What We Need series that Paul was tall and blond and Nina was short and dark-haired. I tried not to refer to those traits too often, and I know plenty of other description happened too. But if someone who read my books once was asked to describe them years later, I’m sure they’d give an answer similar to what I just said.

I’m not saying these things aren’t useful to mention–the reason they’re so common is that they’re generally obvious, the sort of traits you’d notice right away when meeting someone. (Eye color maybe not so much; I’ve seen a strong pushback in various writing circles against making it a key feature, because eyes are small and hard to see clearly without being quite close to someone. In a long-distance relationship I had in my younger days, I misremembered my boyfriend’s eyes as brown after we met, and when I saw him again they were actually hazel with lots of green!)

The problem comes when a) that’s all you get for a character, height, hair color, general body shape if you’re lucky; or b) when it’s treated like a checklist, and the story breaks for a full paragraph including all of the traits the author has decided are important, for every single character. (No, no, I haven’t forgotten that torture, Dreams Underfoot.)

I want to make it clear, I’m not advising anyone to never use these traits. I want to examine what can be done when you’re not limited by them.

What else do people want to see in your characters?

  • Imperfections. A skin tag on the side of their neck. Acne, chicken pox scars, stretch marks–they’re not just from pregnancy, or limited to women. A spot on their jaw where they missed using foundation. Makeup not hiding their freckles even though they tried. Even beautiful people aren’t perfect, so show us that.
  • Details that tell us about more than their appearance. A wrinkled shirt might be a sign they don’t care for their belongings, or that they had to wear it overnight for some reason. Rounded shoulders and sagging posture could mean they’re simply tired, but also might indicate they hunch habitually, to seem shorter or less threatening, or because of a sedentary job. Jeans torn out at the knees might be a fashion statement, or they might belong to a hobbyist skateboarder who bails a lot.
  • Go beyond the visual. We notice how people look when we meet them, but also how they sound. What’s their voice like? Their laugh? And what about how they smell? It won’t always be obvious, but any scent strong enough to notice would convey information. Perfume or cologne implies a certain care for how they present themselves, even if the scent itself isn’t great to other people. If someone smells like cut grass, they might be a landscaper. Shampoo or lotion can smell like just about anything, and choosing a scent says something about what they find pleasant.
  • Body language. How much personal space do they keep around them? Are they a hugger? How do they stand or sit? What are they doing with their hands while they talk?

Compare:

Ryan was tall and raven-haired. His blue eyes stared at me from across the bar, and I shivered under the intensity of his gaze. [yes, I went full-on bad-romance description, thank you for noticing]

Even after Ryan sat down and ordered his drink, his head was level with mine. The bar lights added gleaming bits of pink and blue to his dark hair. His pale eyes tracked my movements as I mixed his cocktail, but I wasn’t sure I liked the attention.

The first description is serviceable, sure. We might be able to pick Ryan out of a random lineup with that information. But what do we learn from the second description that we don’t get in the first?

  1. The narrator-bartender is probably fairly short, if a tall man sitting down is still on an even eye-level with her.
  2. The bar is lit with pink and blue, though it’s not clear what kind of lighting: neon, strings of Christmas-style lights, or something else.
  3. We don’t know his precise eye color, but given the established setting, it’s more reasonable to notice his eyes are light instead of dark. Would naming an exact color even be accurate with the colored lighting already mentioned? Probably not.

And I didn’t even get to things like his scent (probably not applicable in a bar setting) or his body language or his imperfections. Body language cues would be a natural next thing to include as he took his drink; imperfections would only come up if the bartender sticks around long enough to notice.

As usual, I’m only scratching the surface. Character description is a deep topic, and though I’ve given general advice to shore up common weaknesses, you could go a lot further, and what traits to include will also depend on your personal style and the needs of the story.

On to the actual homework: If you have a WIP currently, revisit your primary/initial description for each major character. Note your tendencies on what’s included and what you consistently ignore. Rewrite each description in a separate file (I’m not ordering you to change your actual project for my homework assignment!) but hang on to it if you found the exercise helpful.

If you don’t have a WIP handy, find pictures of people from image sites and practice on them. Try to give the barest possible “standard” description you can, while including details you usually wouldn’t. Because this is practice, make them as long as you want; longer than you’d probably use in a story. Do this for at least three individuals, and try to use models that don’t look anything like each other, so you have lots of ground to cover.


Need to catch up on your assignments?