An American Editor

December 7, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part III)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay was divided into halves. The first half was published previously as “Plot or Characterization? (Part II).” For the first part of this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Though Anne of Green Gables lacks a cohesive plot, it more than makes up for that defect through characterization. In addition, every flouting of modern rules of story structure follows from there and finds its justification. It’s also a book written in anger, often a good spur to the imagination.

Lucy Maud Montgomery doubtless knew about the dire fate of orphans. Prince Edward Island didn’t have an orphanage until 1907, so Anne comes from Nova Scotia in a book set in the late 1800s. Some institutions there were worse than others, and Anne probably came from a more respectable place, one that fitted girls for domestic work. In the Halifax Poor House, orphaned children were housed with adults who had mental disorders until after 1900, and the doors had no locks or even doorknobs. If the children weren’t sexually abused before they left, they’d likely experience that fate once people who wanted cheap labor adopted them. Anne names everything around her but animals — animals were considered of more use than lower-class children, so it’s probably a veiled expression of outrage. Still, it was the Nova Scotia Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stepped in to help abused and neglected children after 1880. Before the 19th century, orphan asylums didn’t exist at all, and the efforts of women’s groups and churches to help were only fitful after that. (The horrifying details are spelled out in an appendix to Oxford’s Annotated Anne of Green Gables.)

In Anne’s fairy tale, the general view of orphans at the time is only hinted at when in the first chapter busybody Rachel Lynde talks of the dangers of letting children from who knows where get too close. Anne doesn’t suffer the prejudice and contempt that was the lot of most orphans in real life. Who wants too much reality in a children’s book?

Despite, or perhaps because of, her grim childhood up until we first see her, Anne is vibrant, full of fantasies and imaginings. In Chapter 28, she tots up her disasters and gives a moral to each of them.

“Well,” explained Anne, “I’ve learned a new and valuable lesson today. Ever since I came to Green Gables I’ve been making mistakes, and each mistake has helped to cure me of some great shortcoming. The affair of the amethyst brooch cured me of meddling with things that didn’t belong to me. The Haunted Wood mistake cured me of letting my imagination run away with me. The liniment cake mistake cured me of carelessness in cooking. Dyeing my hair cured me of vanity. I never think about my hair and nose now — at least, very seldom. And today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic.

I have come to the conclusion that it is no use trying to be romantic in Avonlea. It was probably easy enough in towered Camelot hundreds of years ago, but romance is not appreciated now. I feel quite sure that you will soon see a great improvement in me in this respect, Marilla.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Marilla skeptically.

But Matthew, who had been sitting mutely in his corner, laid a hand on Anne’s shoulder when Marilla had gone out.

“Don’t give up all your romance, Anne,” he whispered shyly, “a little of it is a good thing — not too much, of course — but keep a little of it, Anne, keep a little of it.”

I don’t buy Montgomery’s excuses for her repetition of the scrape plots. But I never minded the repetition when I repeatedly reread the book when I was young. Anne is no doormat — in fact, she’s characterized by anger and feuds — but she’s the creature of a woman torn between feminism and womanly duty. Anne is unconsciously rebellious and unconventional, and she sheds her glory on almost everyone around her, rather as Pippa seems to do in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes, now known more for a verbal gaffe than for its literary merits. As Anne passes along, she opens minds and hearts. So she talks too much and with odd words? Don’t we all in the editing business? Actually, Maud didn’t yammer on — unlike Anne, she was too afraid. But Anne wasn’t afraid. We can put up with her monologues in part because they’re completely in character, and they’re charming and illuminating.

Despite the emotional depth of Anne’s story as she looks for love and a home, Montgomery isn’t sparing on the humor and satire that go along with life in a small town — like busybodies, bad teachers, and boring preachers.

The novel is in certain respects a bildungsroman, a book about growth, which is by nature a stumbling process. Thus the Bildung takes a while, at least for Anne. It’s more obvious with Marilla, the spinster who adopted her, and who, incidentally, takes charge of the point of view more often than Anne does, according to Genevieve Wiggins (L.M. Montgomery [Twayne’s World Authors Series, 1992], 39). In fact, the top of the four major storylines that Waterston (Magic Island, 13–14) lists is the growing familial love felt by the repressed Marilla for Anne and by Anne for Marilla, who was an airbrushed and retouched version of Maud’s loveless grandmother. (See Gammel, Looking for Anne, 122 for the technique.) Margaret Atwood pegs Marilla as the real focus of the novel (“Reflection Piece — Revisiting Anne,” originally published in 1992, but easily found in L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture [1999]). Here’s Atwood’s concluding paragraph (226):

It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children. But it is the struggles of Marilla that give it romance for adults. Anne may be the orphan in all of us, but then, so is Marilla. Anne is the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment version, what Montgomery longs for. Marilla is more likely what she feared she might become — joyless, bereft, trapped, hopeless, unloved. Each of them saves the other. It is the neatness of their psychological fit — as well as the invention, humour, and fidelity of the writing — that makes Anne such a satisfying and enduring fable.

Like Burnett, Montgomery was screwed over because she wasn’t a boy, but she also seemed to know that she’d be happier if she didn’t vent her depression and misery in too edgy a way, even after Victorian ideas about the importance of portraying “the beautiful child” had passed.

Everything around Anne plays into Maud’s fantasy of a happier life. Even the descriptive passages, though not what you’d expect in “literary” novels, point up the heroine’s character. As Epperly (30) says, “This rhapsody of light, colour, and sound is the poetic wish-fulfillment of the beauty-starved, love-starved orphan.” And when half the second chapter of Anne is taken up with description, as the old, shy bachelor drives Anne back from the railway station to certain doom, the beauty is fraught with ugly suspense. The reader knows that Anne’s dreams are about to be dashed. So every glorious tree and petal loom over us — darkness visible. Except that the light takes over.

Before Anne leaves Green Gables to get a teaching certificate, she has come to see that her fantasies about herself as a romantic heroine don’t come close to the joy she has right now (Chapter 33).

“Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads. I know Matthew gave me as much love with them as ever went with Madame the Pink Lady’s jewels.”

Even at the end of Anne of Green Gables, when darkness is all around, and when Anne gives up her ambitions and her fantasies — for a time, at least, out of duty and love — it’s all good. Life wasn’t so delightful when Maud had to give up everything to take care of her grandmother — and her grandfather had essentially cut her out of his will despite her years helping out the two of them. But she could dream.

The quiet and introspective Maud was enthralled with her open and talkative Anne (see Gammel 129), as are Anne fans all around the word. Yes, the book breaks rules aplenty. Aristotle, with his insistence of the primacy of plot, would have scoffed at the way Anne’s character drives the story. But the reader is drawn along by her compelling personality and the comic disasters it gets her into. Cohesive plot? Who cares when confronted with such a girl?

Anne is someone you’d like to have a drink with — I’m talking nonalcoholic raspberry cordial, not the homemade currant wine that got her banned from her bosom friend’s company for a time (Chapter 16). Anne is more interesting than Little Lord Fauntleroy, the young hero who made Frances Hodgson Burnett’s fortune and ruined the life of one of her sons. Young Fauntleroy is cute and flawless, and he immediately wins over the embittered and unhappy people in his sphere, whereas Anne, who is far more flawed, takes more time in transforming the people around her. And L.M. Montgomery revels in her character’s flaws. According to Wiggins (26), “In a society bound by convention, Anne is a disrupting influence. She is the rebel, the nonconformist, the independent spirit who appeals to the child reader who chafes at adult strictures or to the adult who sometimes feels restricted by society’s expectations.”

The novel, with its episodic nature, is often compared to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always been more a plot person than a character person, so Anne is only my third-favorite children’s book. Yet I consider Anne Shirley more of a close friend than I do the heroines of my top two, and whenever I’m forced to travel, all three of the plucky girls go along with me.

The book Anne of Green Gables is in effect a miniseries. The famous TV miniseries, which I’ve never seen, apparently has a cohesive plot. But the problem with that plot is that the focus seems to be on a happy romantic ending between Anne and her nemesis, Gilbert Blythe. Unfortunately, that’s not what the first book in the first trilogy is about.

In this first book about Anne, we watch the character as she careens and careers through life, trying, like Maud, to reconstruct a lost family. Maud couldn’t, but Anne did.

And there’s no place like home.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

December 5, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part II)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay has been divided. The second half is scheduled for Wednesday [see “Plot or Characterization? (Part III)”]. For the first essay in this series see, “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Write what you know? I tried to write a romantic fantasy loosely tethered to a miserable job I once held. Consider this story: The heroine, an uptight but understatedly gorgeous newspaper copy editor, has a run-in with a billionaire because he dislikes one of her (completely accurate) headlines. He gets her fired without meaning to, and atones by hiring her in public relations. And he falls for her utterly because she keeps correcting his grammar. Of course! Everyone loves that!

I worked that plot up when newspapers still had copy editors. Now it’s too far divorced from the real world to sell.

But many authors manage to take darker elements from their past and turn them around to make them happier and more elevating.

A great case in point is the story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables and several sequels. Like many romantic heroines, she’s an orphan, cast adrift and unprotected. That yields instant drama, which grows even more dramatic for Anne when she goes to a house on Prince Edward Island hoping to find a real home at last after years of drudgery and starved emotions. She burbles happily all the way from the railroad station to the house in Avonlea, and then discovers that the aging brother and sister who live there wanted a boy to help around their little farm. Anne’s adoption was a mistake.

Still, despite a defect of temper, she’s plucky and witty and loving, and she manages to fight through the disadvantages of her life and through other people’s prejudices against orphans and girls with gumption and imagination.

Scholars know a lot about the story behind the Anne books because the author, Lucy Maud Montgomery (aka Maud), wrote hundreds of pages in her journals. (The standard biography is Mary Henley Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008). We know, or can know, about the largely depressing life Maud led, from living with and catering to rigid and repressive grandparents after her mother died and her father hared off west. Or, perhaps more accurately, we know about her impressions; who knows the truth? And we “know” that the girl was ecstatic when her beloved father summoned her from Prince Edward Island to what’s now Saskatchewan. But instead of finding a true home, she discovered her true mission: to provide free child care for her stepmother. Soon back with her grandparents, she was later lifted out of a severe depression by writing Anne of Green Gables. She married a man as prone to depression as she was, and the older of her two sons was a mooch, an adulterer, and a thief. Because of the sad state of medicine in the first half of the 20th century, Maud and her husband were treated for depression with barbiturates, to which they became addicted, and they were poisoned to boot with bromides (outlawed for humans in the United States since 1975). Did Maud commit suicide? (See Rubio 550ff. and especially 575ff., for the larger picture; for a shorter discussion, see Mary Beth Calvert’s “Perspectives on the Circumstances of L.M. Montgomery’s Death: Was It Suicide or Accident?”)

In any case, there was no happy ending here. But just as misery can make great comedians, it can also make compelling authors, ones who don’t wallow in their despondency but who transform it; as Irene Gammel says in Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic (2008), 40,

Maud believed that literature should engage with the real world by transforming negative realities. Never should a reader’s pleasure be spoiled by the fact that some of the cheeriest episodes in Anne were sparked by the darker side of life. Indeed, Maud’s losses and disappointments fueled her imagination into high gear, transforming bleakness into hope.

Anne isn’t Maud’s alter ego. She’s her altered ego.

And if you want to see a boatload of copy editors gasp and swoon, to say nothing about Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, just mention Anne. And yet the novel breaks many of the sacred rules of current fiction.

  • The book is episodic, in many ways a series of short stories — not surprising, because Montgomery started out as a short-story author and even cannibalized some of her earlier stories in writing the book. But there’s no complex or unified plot, and Anne doesn’t change very much for the first two-thirds of the book.
  • In How Not to Write a Novel (2008), 36, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark say, “NEVER use two scenes to establish the same thing.” Anne is rife with repetition. For much of the book, you’ll see paired chapters, with Anne first in a scrape because of her rabid daydreaming and then triumphant (see Elizabeth Waterston, Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2009), 16. And Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; an updated version is available; its new preface covers the explosion in scholarship about Montgomery between 1992 and 2014, among other things), 21ff, notes five confession/apology scenes, full of self-drama until the last one.
  • The narrator is omniscient, which is not surprising in older children’s books, particularly those with a fairy-tale bent. But the point of view wanders even within scenes. And even, in a sense, in the first sentence.
  • The first sentence is 148 words with three semicolons, and the voice shifts several times; the main POV could be said to be the brook’s (see Epperly 20):

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

  • Anne’s speeches are similarly long and winding; take this 239-word example from the novel’s fourth chapter:

“Oh, I don’t mean just the tree; of course it’s lovely — yes, it’s radiantly lovely — it blooms as if it meant it — but I meant everything, the garden and the orchard and the brook and the woods, the whole big dear world. Don’t you feel as if you just loved the world on a morning like this? And I can hear the brook laughing all the way up here. Have you ever noticed what cheerful things brooks are? They’re always laughing. Even in winter-time I’ve heard them under the ice. I’m so glad there’s a brook near Green Gables. Perhaps you think it doesn’t make any difference to me when you’re not going to keep me, but it does. I shall always like to remember that there is a brook at Green Gables even if I never see it again. If there wasn’t a brook I’d be haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that there ought to be one. I’m not in the depths of despair this morning. I never can be in the morning. Isn’t it a splendid thing that there are mornings? But I feel very sad. I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here for ever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”

  • Lengthy descriptive passages feature heavily in the novel. Nature is especially big league, and Epperly counts eleven sunsets. Compulsive adult readers might enjoy the botanical and geographical help offered in Oxford’s The Annotated Anne of Green Gables (1997), though I don’t remember worrying about any of it when I read the book over and over as a girl.
  • Montgomery litters her work with numerous allusions to songs, books, poems, and plays from the 19th century and before, most of which her modern audience wouldn’t have read. (See The Annotated Anne at appropriate places in the text and in the appendixes starting on p. 452.) Two in particular seem somewhat inappropriate for a book aimed at young girls. Yes, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is still often read in high school, perhaps as a cautionary tale against adultery, but Anne comes to grief over the poem at age 13, and she regrets that she didn’t get the dramatic part of Guinevere — instead, she almost dies when playing the dead Elaine. The allusion to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes is brief, but it’s clear that Montgomery had read the poetic drama about an innocent walking past adulterers, murderers, suicides, prostitutes, malevolent students, an assassination plotter, and even a Monsignor who is tempted to kidnap Pippa, his brother’s long-lost heir, and force her into prostitution.

So why does the book succeed? My answer lies in the second half of this essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

October 24, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part I)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: For subsequent essays in this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part II)” and “Plot or Characterization? (Part III).”)

Anyone can write romance and make big bucks off it. You just have to know the formula.

Sorry. I was dreaming. Romance fiction used to be the most reliable way to make money in fiction. In 2011, unknowns could breeze into Amazon and other such places, and their indie stuff would sometimes rake in amazing sums. One untutored author I know picked up a million bucks in her first year of indie fiction. Harlequin wouldn’t have her, and what’s now Harlequin Enterprises had long been accused of paying most of its authors on the down side.

Unfortunately, the marketplace even for indie romance is glutted now because everyone sees romance as a quick and dirty way to make a few bucks without breaking much of a sweat.

I’ve been reading short-form romance fiction for more than four decades. So could I write it for the indie market? Of course not — it takes a careful understanding of the audience for this sort of work and an odd sort of wit.

It’s also essential to put out roughly (the word roughly used advisedly) a book every two months; otherwise, readers find someone else to glom on to. I’ve been able to edit contemporary romance, but writing romance and winning readers can be tough. And the rules for success are many and often confusing.

The manuals and the trends in the short romances that I like to read fly in the face of Aristotle’s position that plot comes first and characterization second. Here’s what the ancient philosopher says about tragic drama in his Poetics:

The plot then is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character [ēthos] comes second. It is much the same also in painting; if a man smeared a canvas with the loveliest colors at random, it would not give as much pleasure as an outline in black and white. And it is mainly because a play is a representation of action that it also for that reason represents people.

To Aristotle’s way of thinking, giving characterization pride of place offers up something like modern art. It can be pretty, but not everyone gets it.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published doesn’t agree. In Chapter 7, we learn that “Characterization is probably the most important element of your story.”

Former Harlequin author Leigh Michaels might seem to find middle ground here in On Writing Romance. Though she says that character is all-important in romance — see Chapter 3, “Essential Elements” — she has to start out with the framework, which means plot. I have to add that The Complete Idiot’s Guide mentioned above also walks you through plot before moving on to character. But we’re all romantics. And those manuals were written before the indie revolution.

And if your romances go on for only 55,000 words, you can’t flesh out even the protagonists, let alone add vivid minor characters. Or at least the standard conventions since about the year 2000 won’t let you do that now. The hero is almost always an “alpha male,” quite often a billionaire (even if he’s a backwater fire chief), with a fear of commitment and often bent on ill-considered revenge. The heroine doesn’t have to be a virgin anymore, thank heavens, but she has to have greater moral fiber and less money than the hero to be able to delta her alpha.

Still, writers who focus on characterization give it the old college try. It took Harlequin/Mills & Boon some time to allow the man’s thoughts into the equation, and in the beginning it was a good thing, but now it can be all thought and little action, even in the sex scenes. We get pages and pages of mooning and lust and insecurity, but the plot doesn’t move forward. In fact, the conflict and the revelation scenes are sometimes lost in what I’d call not head-hopping but head-hugging drama.

And at least in indie romance, this tack seems to fail. I’ve followed a few authors of contemporary indie romance on the Amazon boards, and the only one who has been making it consistently into the top 100 of paid Kindle authors of any stripe doesn’t seem to be distinguished by good characterization or good writing. Tight and careful plotting doesn’t even matter all that much in her books. But a lot happens, and there’s a lot of conflict.

One more thing is important in the indie market. The author I just mentioned is careful to put out a new ebook roughly every two months. You have more leeway in publishing houses, but for readers of Kindle books and the like, fans will wander off to other writers if the adrenaline fix isn’t in quickly. And they can get thousands of cheap or free fixes through sites like BookBub and BookGorilla. I amassed more than a thousand of them before I bailed. No, I haven’t read them, but you never know when you’ll get desperate.

Customer reviews on Amazon, iBooks, and the like can be useful. The first batch isn’t — fans on an author’s “street team” (in this case, people committed to promote a favorite writer on social media), or the invited group of Facebook beta readers, will be urged to rush off and give five stars.

Soon after, you’ll get the grumblers. “I paid for this?” In the one-star reviews, you’ll see a lot of people recoiling at the filthy language and explicit sex scenes. Yes, you have to wonder why the poor saps didn’t do a little more research. “Sweet” and “inspirational” romance is out there and easily found, though it doesn’t sell the way sex does. Go figure.

But the other complaints head another way. Some dissatisfied customers speak of cardboard characters — what did they expect from barely edited romance fiction? — yet readers seem to growl more often that the protagonists are thinking or feeling all the time and that it all gets boring. The thrill is gone when you’re slogging through the initial disgust and the endless sexual tension on the way to the “HEA” — the happily-ever-after — when there’s nothing to watch. And you should see the howls from readers when they thought a book was going to give them the story that they really wanted but left them hanging at the last minute. You got the first book for free, perhaps, or maybe for 99 cents, but you have to buy two or three more to find out that Aristotle was probably on to a good thing.

After this cliff-hanger, we’ll learn better things about the value of characterization next time. Maybe.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

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