Character Study: Don Draper and Walter White

I’ve heard a lot of bellyaching (and accusations) that America has no culture. Sure we do! We’ve got Disney and Pixar, the American Revolution, the Gettysburg Address, McDonalds and Wal-Mart, and absolutely everyone no matter from whence they are extracted has

The American Dream

American_dream2

 

What is it? Well you’re gonna pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get a job sweeping floors or frying potatoes and in a decade or so that hard work will pay off and you’ll move up and up into middle management where you can afford to buy your own house and keep your own spouse. There will be kids. There might even be a dog.

If you’re a real success, you just might get rich. You might become a legend. You’d be the best American Dreamer of all.

Let’s put aside all of the ways this dream might not be as attainable for some as for others, and look at the tall tales of two white men with more privilege than they can bear who are suffering at the hands of their American Dreams.

Don Draper and Walter White.

proto_drapers

Don Draper, main character of Mad Men, was lacking privilege in only one way. He was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with good looks to spare, but he was also a dirt-poor orphan. To erase this blemish, this class-based scar that could prevent his attainment of the dream, he stole someone’s identity. Like you do. No big deal. Then he worked pretty darn hard, for awhile. Schemed his way into a flashy job with serious possibilities for upward mobility. He had learned of the dream and all its trappings at the altar of American advertising, so he scooped up the Cola-ad-wife and had two children with names approved by committee. He became Creative Director, he bought a Cadillac. He had everything, and so much of it.

And yet.

picnic

The poster boy for American Dreamers spent most of his time trying to run away from the picture-perfect life he’d created. Mistresses in the city, a drinking problem, flirting with the idea of becoming a kept man for a eurotrash princess years after having his offer to escape together spurned by Rachel Mencken. He lit match after match and watched his carefully crafted Dream incinerate until he lost the wife and the kids, burned through a second wife, became an embarrassment to his company, and began to see even his physical appeal fade. Don Draper thought he was too big to fail, but he was his own undoing.

walter2

As Don Draper‘s fulfilled but unfulfilling dreams crumbled to wreckage there rose another, the Baby Boomer Walter White. The white, middle-class man had a promising start, his first shot at glory in the form of a start-up in which he was partial owner. He had the benefit of starting halfway up the ladder, higher than Draper by far. While the start-up grew to fulfill all its potential, Walter opted out in a fit of pique on the ground floor. Instead he became a Chemistry teacher, growing bitter and small over the years nursing the feeling that he had been cheated. Until cancer hit and he was galvanized into action of his own behalf, taking another stab at the American Dream as a drug dealer, rationalized by his need for treatment and his family’s need for support should he pass.

heisenbergWalter White didn’t seem to see, or maybe value, that he had already attained the 1950s version of the dream: he had a comfortable house in the suburbs, a wife and son and a daughter on the way, a stable career, and the love and respect of his friends and family. He had it all, even if many would say he could have had more. He wanted more, like Don Draper, wanted it all. To be a legend. As America grew more hyperbolic and loud, Xtreme with exhortations to follow your passion and Just Do It, so had the Dream grown from stability to excess. So he went from drug dealer to drug lord, crafting a new identity much as Draper stole one from a dead engineer in a ditch. He killed, manipulated, poisoned, he called upon people to kill for him whom he did not fully understand.  Everyone he met suffered for their willingness to believe him, to show him compassion, to show him mercy. He had none.

The American Dream has turned ugly for these men, who found it within such easy reach. It is no longer the squeaky-clean promise of a chicken in every pot in exchange for a life of work and dedication. It is now the monkey on their backs, driving them to accumulate and advance. Do better than the other guy, no matter the cost. Have more. Be more. Crush all who would stand in your way and use their fallen bodies to lift yourself higher. King of the mountain. Top of the heap.

Thing is, as Walter and Don could tell you, it gets pretty lonely up there.

Weekend Update

This was the original e-mail from the publisher (names removed):

Dear ArmchairAuthor,
 

Thank you for recently submitting your sample of VALKYRIE. We’ve enjoyed what we’ve read so far, and would like to read more. As such, please send the full manuscript as a Word doc attachment to your reply email. Please put “Requested Materials: VALKYRIE” in the subject line. Once received, we will respond to your submission in 4-6 weeks. After that time, if you have not yet heard back, feel free to follow up via email. We look forward to reading more of VALKYRIE.

 
Sincerely,                    
 
Submissions Editor
Swoon Romance

This was the second e-mail I got about a week later, note that I had not sent my full manuscript as I was still writing it. This was indicated in my submission, and the editor was aware when she requested my sample:

Dear ArmchairAuthor,
 
Thank you for your allowing us to consider VALKYRIE. We appreciate your consideration of Swoon Romance as a publishing partner. However, we do not see a fit for VALKYRIE on the Swoon Romance list at this time. We wish you great luck in placing your book with the right publisher. Should we be able to assist you in the future, please do not hesitate to ask.
 

Sincerely,

Submissions Editor
Swoon Romance

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not busted up about it. As I was writing I began to feel very strongly that Swoon was not the right imprint for this book at all. I just thought this correspondence would be of some interest to the writery folks out there.

100 Things to Write Other Than a Rape

Sometimes, as a person who writes things and occasionally lets people read them, there is a deep desire to write about something in particular. That’s what we call “inspiration”.

I would not look this bemused if a swan was trying to get all up in my business, in front of a crowd no less.

I would not look this bemused if a swan was trying to get all up in my business.

Sometimes there is no inspiration, but one writes one anyway because it is expected. It is also possible to write one’s way into inspiration through diligence. At other times, a subject simply comes up on so many occasions in a short span of the time that one feels compelled to throw one’s quill in the ring.

The gratuitous rape of female characters in fiction is my number one literary pet peeve. I have abandoned one book outright because of it and soured on another that I had quite enjoyed right up until the end. A few weeks ago I was keeping my brother company during a street-sweeping shift and we were discussing the Kill Bill movies, the only Quentin Tarantino movies I somewhat enjoy. He had never made it past the opening scenes due to to the rape of the comatose “Bride”, Uma Thurman’s character. I had actually forgotten that that part even happened, because I usually fast forward or change the channel until it’s over. It’s unnecessary to the story. The Bride’s presumed loss of her child is enough motivation for vengeance, the rape of her insensible body seems like a grotesque bid at titillation.

This week, author Maggie Stiefvater expressed her disgust with the phenomenon of  (generally male) authors using rape as a fallback method to damage female characters. As though being raped is the only interesting/significant/legitimate way to harm a female character or create tension. Some respondents to her Tweets/Facebook post/blog post asserted that this is because rape is “the worst thing that can happen to a woman”. Hmph. It is my feeling that traditional masculinity attaches far more importance to sex and sexual purity than the average woman does, and male writers often don’t realize that if given a choice between being raped and some other horrible thing happening, a woman might well choose to be raped. Furthermore, rape is a violent act that leaves a female character just as pretty/sexy/what-have-you as she was before, struggling internally. Ew, guys. Ew. In good books, girls get to be just as ugly as the boys. Whether that’s spiritually, emotionally, physically, or mentally. I imagine the “worst thing” would vary from woman-to-woman, just like it would vary from man-to-man.

That must be what has gone wrong here! These writers, their imaginations are broken!  To help these limited authors, I have compiled a handy list of dramatic events that might lead to a better story than a female getting raped just because you can’t think of anything else to do to her:

Continue reading

On Knowing What Victory Looks Like

Just as some infinities are larger than others, victories are not one-size fits all.

Earlier this week I was reading this hilarious and bittersweet account of the history of the television show Freaks and Geeks, published by Vanity Fair in a special one-off comedy issue. For the uninitiated, Freaks and Geeks was a high-school “dramedy” that aired from 1999-2000, which put it in competition with melodramatic pretty-people teen fare like Dawson’s Creek. The show had HBO-quality writing, with painfully real characters and long-term arcs.

They looked like real public school kids, too.

They looked like real public school kids, too.

That was its downfall.

I only watched two episodes of Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired, for the same reason my husband still won’t watch Roseanne: it was too real. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and the episodes I watched (“Tricks and Treats” and “We’ve Got Spirit”) made me laugh out loud but also felt all too familiar. Plus, it aired on Saturday night. Even I, a sort of amalgam between Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club characters (or Bill Haverchuck and Ken Miller), had things to do on Saturday night. Like attending Star Trek parties.

In the Vanity Fair article, creator Paul Feig and Producer Judd Apatow recall their horror when their network head went from an on-board public school attendee to a clueless product of prep school and the ivy league. Someone experientially incapable of “getting” the show, arriving just before it launched. They also recall a push from the network to give the kids “more victories”, a sentiment that grew among the execs as the season progressed.

There were victories, it’s just that a non-nerd or a non-freak might have a harder time recognizing them.

  • When Bill Haverchuck caught a fly ball after maneuvering his way to the infield of a P.E.-class baseball game, that was a victory. It didn’t matter that jocks-on-base were tagging home while he celebrated with his team of disenfranchised nerds. He got to play shortstop. He caught the ball. Victory.
  • When ne’er-do-well Freak Daniel Desario allowed himself to be uncool and finished his first Dungeons and Dragons campaign as Carlos the dwarf, stumping his dungeon master, it was a victory. Not just for him, but for each of the self-doubting geeks at the table who felt just a little more accepted for having the wannabe-James-Dean on their team.
  • When Ken Miller was brave enough to drop the sarcasm and got to make out with Tuba Girl at the laser light show, victory.
  • When the Freaks showed up to cheer on Lindsay Weir at her Mathletes competition. Victory.
  • When Millie and Lindsay reconnected as friends during a night of babysitting, when Bill explained the convoluted plot of Dallas to his gym-teacher/mom’s boyfriend, when bully Alan admitted to a hospitalized Bill that he’d always envied Bill’s self-acceptance and social-life: victory, victory, victory.

There are more possible victories than winning Prom Queen, kissing the hottie of your dreams, or being carried off the football field to thunderous applause. Freaks and Geeks understood that: its victories were personal, unique to each of its characters, and more meaningful for it. The writers even had the guts to show that sometimes the things we have been conditioned to believe are victories do not actually feel all that victorious (Sam discovering that dream-girl Cindy Sanders was not much fun as a girlfriend, Neal’s experience as a guest at the popular crowd’s makeout party). As an adult I have watched the entire series multiple times, cringing and cheering for its characters and remembering how it all felt from the safety of adulthood. It was a triumph of writing ahead of its time, a fact noted by creators who can point to present-day programs of similar craftsmanship like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Do you know what victory looks like for your characters?

Like a Creature Naive and Indued

It’s to be a drowning, then.ophelia02

This morning I opened my inbox to two e-mails from Pitch Wars coaches. One was a straight-across not-for-me from coach Nazarea, which is of course fine. Each to their own taste. The second was this considerate and constructive piece of feedback from coach Sharon (my wild-card, if you recall):

Hi,
 
Thank you so much for submitting to me. I thought the premise sounded cool, but the pitch lacked a bit if substance for me. This is classified as NA Light Fantasy, but no where in the pitch does it give me any clue as to what the fantasy elements are. That’s important. I also found the numbering in the prologue confusing. There’s also some errors – incorrect dialogue formatting (dfdds,” He said – should be a little ‘h'”for example) and you should have it more polished than this for a query.
 
I thought I would let you know that Entangled are looking for NA submissions and you might want to consider pitching to them after you’ve done some revision on your query pitch and manuscript.
 
I wish you all the best.
 
Sharon


My main struggle writing my pitch was to make it clear that it was fantasy, without giving away the entire story as the fantasy elements come into play late in the narrative. I had hoped the Pied Piper reference would help with that, but I agree that the pitch was a bit light and generic. Longtime readers will know that I cannot punctuate dialogue correctly, even with a style guide right by my side. Pretty bad, considering how much dialogue I write. I need an in-person lesson so I can ask all my questions. I appreciated Sharon’s suggestion of a publisher seeking submissions, and when I asked her permission to post her e-mail she offered to promote the entry on her Twitter. What a nice lady. I have good instincts.


What I did not have was an e-mail from my first choice coach, Summer. I still don’t. Optimistically, I hoped that this meant she had chosen me so I went over to Brenda Lee Drake’s website to check out the list of announced teams. No dice.


So what did I do after I discovered all of this? I thanked both coaches for their feedback. I thought about my manuscript and the contest. I knew when I wrote The Grove that it would be a hard sell. It takes some familiar story elements and make different choices with them. It is not straight up fantasy, and some of the choices I made in the plot are not what the average YA reader might expect, or what the average YA/NA publisher would be comfortable publishing. It doesn’t vomit all of the characters and the plot up in the first five pages, which is what bombarded agents and editors will look at to decide whether or not they give the whole thing a shot.


What I did not do: cry, yell, throw things, delete my manuscript, or look into getting a job in a cubicle.


After thinking about my manuscript, what I liked about it and what made it unique, I thought about what it had in common with other books I had read recently. Ones I had really enjoyed. Then I thought about who had written those books, and I looked up who had published them. This was my list:


Little, Brown
Knopf
Flux
Dutton
Scholastic


One or two of those publishers are the kind one doesn’t really get a crack at without proven success (Scholastic). The others are smaller or newer houses that take risks with their YA and NA. Some have given opportunities to high-concept novels, or those with challenging themes or non-traditional formats. You won’t find me submitting to Stephanie Perkins’ agent (though I have enjoyed her books)!


I also thought about Createspace, and using my free copies as a NaNoWriMo winner to get my book published and out to readers. I have a feeling that what it needs most is good word-of-mouth.  It is entirely possible to get copies printed up and send them out to other book bloggers and my teenaged/new adult relatives to pass amongst their friends, selling them via PayPal here on Ink and at our local indie bookstores. One of the blessings of non-traditional publishing is not having a committee suggesting that you change characters’s names because of other popular books, or tone down events to make them more palatable to a wide audience.


I wrote the book I wanted to read. When I was editing, I still wanted to read it (it was kind of a problem, I would forget I was editing and just start reading along). I still believe that there are other readers out there like me who will want to read it. There is a vacancy in the market for a book like mine: one that starts with a failure and ends with a tragedy but smiles the whole way there,  and I will find a way to get it to those who can relate.

Pitch Wars: In for a Penny

It’s done, folks! My three Pitch Wars e-mails have been cut, pasted, formatted, and sent off into the night. No getting them back now! Nothing left to do but continue tweaking my manuscript and chew my nails down to bloody stubs.

Ew. I don’t even bite my nails anymore, unless one breaks. Then ya gotta smooth things out. I’ve decided to keep track of my progress through this contest/opportunity here on Ink. Hopefully I will get more than two entries worth (1. I applied! 2. I was rejected by EVERYONE EVER.)

On that note, here is the query I put together:

“Fallen achiever Autumn Kavanaugh is trying a new lifestyle on for size, but when her fifteen-year-old sister gets caught up with Autumn’s new friends, Autumn will be forced to choose between everything she’s ever known and a world she never imagined could exist.

After flunking out of college in the city, nineteen-year-old Autumn returns to her small hometown and picks up a tedious job at the local big-box hardware store to fill her time. An invitation from her charismatic coworker Silas introduces her to a side of Ashby she’s never experienced: wild outdoor parties where pleasure is the only purpose, attended by a mix of attractive new acquaintances and the children of the town’s most successful adults. When her younger sister is drawn into this new social scene, Autumn begins to realize that Silas might not be what she needs in her life and that their relationship may be more than coincidence.

Grove is a New Adult Light Fantasy novel partially inspired by the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It is author K.L. Eden’s first novel. “

Bluh. Writing that was harder than writing the book.

Why is this picture all boys? And the one above a man? Do we still think boys are the only ones who do any remotely competitive things? Is it not 2012?

Here are the three “Team Captains” I chose to submit my entry to:

Summer – She won me over with GIFs and wacky, sarcastic humor. I feel like she is the kind of reader who would appreciate the voice in my manuscript.

Nazarea – Her interest in retellings and steamy romance-y bits put her in my top 3.

Sharon – It was actually the header design of her blog that made her my third choice (over Erica). Her stated interests are not quite as directly in line with my manuscript as my other two choices, but with a blog design like that I think there may be a lot about The Grove that will appeal to her.

From here until December 12th it’s a waiting game as the coaches read our excerpts (the first five pages) and choose their teams. If one coach isn’t so into my stuff she can throw it back into the mix for another coach to snag, so I’m not quite living and dying by the three I chose based on their blog entries. Right up until I sent the entries I was dying of anxiety and nerves, but now that it’s done? Nothing. They’re sent. No use worrying.

Check back here on the 12th to find out if I am drowning my sorrows in cookies or celebrating my victory with cookies!

A Case of the Cowardlies

Yellow-bellied

Which is really just a raging case of perfectionism. I have written a new prologue to Grove, deleting a lot of the old one and absorbing the rest into the new. I have heavily rewritten parts of the first few chapters and made a few major changes to the characters and writing. There’s a good balance of what I had and what I want, and I have the first five pages that I need to submit for this Pitch Wars contest ready to rumble. Two-thirds of the novel needs editing, but it’s finished and I can edit it by the 12th when teams are announced. Entries are due by the 5th, Wednesday. Why am I chickening out now?

Perfectionism. All it really means is that it is not possible for anything to be good enough. Nothing is perfect, and to a perfectionist that doesn’t just mean “could be better”, it means “not ready”. Which means everything, forever will be not ready unless some other non-perfectionist comes along and says “hey, cool!” and grabs the thing we are obsessively fiddling with from our overly judgmental hands. My husband is often my catalyst, my non-perfectionist telling me “It’s good: turn it in, submit it, show it, get it out there. Get paid for it!” Luckily, he’s very honest, so I tend to trust that he won’t tell me something is good just to soothe the frazzled perfectionist in me. Instead, he tells me to eat something or go to bed.

Productive. What a lucky lady I am.

This does not solve the perfectionism problem. I keep telling myself that there is no harm in trying, just write the damn query already and send the three e-mails. The worst case would be that no one picks me for their team and I am back exactly where I am today, which is not so bad. Best case would be selling my novel and having extra money and more people to discuss it with. If you haven’t noticed, I am trying to talk myself out of my cowardly spell with this blog entry.

When I read the team captain’s blogs I feel like I am so ready, and when I read my novel I think it could be so much better. It’s good, and I like it, but it could be more. More exciting, more meaningful, more thrilling, more more more.

You can let those first two go by but I think I’ll swing if it’s all the same to you, Casey.

Then I go read my reviews on Goodreads and think about how I am a lot more harsh on books than most other people are. I think about how I hold myself to that same standard, a tougher one even, because I don’t cut myself any slack the way I try to remind myself to do for others. I think about people out there who might enjoy my book if they had the chance to read it. I think about authors like Maggie Stiefvater and Stephen King, and how their writing has grown and developed greater depth over the course of their careers. I think that I will grow, too.

Which probably means I shouldn’t let every single thing I write languish until the day I have grown “enough”…because I will probably never be able to identify that day.

So that was the wind up, and here comes the pitch.

Hoping to connect.