Cinderella – The Gold Standard of Fairy Tales

Old, Old Fairy Tales:
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The Romance Plot Thread

Enjoy them or despise them, a romantic plot thread, as long as it’s not gratuitous, enhances most stories. Otherwise, Top Gun wouldn’t have had the guy get the girl in the end.  An Officer and A Gentlemen was the same story simply written for a female audience.  

What makes a romance work?  Tension.  Sexual, emotional, or intellectual, in whatever combination the audience demands.  A timeless romance conquers all three.  But, the early fairy tales were largely confined to the emotional sphere, restricted from offering any sexual images, the intellectual reduced to symbolic mysticism.  The tension was by necessity all emotional.

Face Time

In the earliest versions, Cinderella attends three balls, seeing the prince each time.  Afterward she runs home with him chasing her in vain.  In Snow White there was no interaction with the prince until he’s attracted to her when she’s in a glass coffin.  I’d hate to examine the psychological meaning of that symbol.  For Sleeping Beauty, her prince charming was a mercenary lured by the promise of riches, never having set eyes on her.  By comparison, Cinderella’s prince knew who she was and sought after her desperately.  Being desired for who you are is a powerful emotion, and resonates beyond gender definitions.  It’s a more complex concept adding heft to the feelings evoked.  That’s the appeal, and the reason Cinderella has been co-opted as a modern story more often than all the other fairy tales taken together.

Foreground vs. Background

In the original version, Cinderella had no fairy godmother; it was the little critters who helped her.  She worked her tail off for that wicked stepmother.  By contrast Snow White was a silent symbol of purity and submissiveness.  The evil Queen and the amusing dwarfs dominated the stage.  Snow White’s one effort was to eat the poisoned apple and fall into a coma.  It was about the same with Sleeping Beauty.  She pricked her finger and fell asleep.  A comatose heroine isn’t much of a role model, or much of a role.

Cinderella is a cultural icon, an action figure who sets the baseline for feminine aspirations and desires.  That’s why she’s eternal, appearing in one form or another in every generation.

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Iconic Romantic Heroines – Intro

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I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good romance story. It’s not surprising since Disney has been inoculating the female population with their fairy tale versions of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for generations now. Add in the role models created by Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and the Bronte sisters, and it’s understandable that woman have been thoroughly conditioned to look for a story with a distinctive type of heroine. Within that genre though, there’s an elite echelon of the iconic romantic heroine.

She’s not quite as daring as a Super Hero, but she needs a specific set of qualifications to become a cultural institution. Moreover, those same qualifications are what lead her to the happy ending. That’s the first rule of a satisfying romance; the heroine gets her man at the end, even if he’s only a poster board character barely mentioned until the final act. She doesn’t want him in the middle or at the beginning either. The post-wedding storyline is where real life begins and that’s what we’re trying to get away from.

The primary characteristic of every romantic heroine is purity of motive. She must be oblivious to all evil intentions. Snow White was so naïve she never figured out the jealous Queen wanted her dead.  Sleeping Beauty was unconscious for most of the story, no chance of an impure aspiration there.

But, what makes one heroine the perfect image of what young women aspire to while others stay in the shadows as vague, ill-defined personalities?  That’s what the next series of posts will be about. A look at those female characters who have become iconic romantic heroines, the first among equals, the ones who embody the secret desires and fantasies of what we wish all women could be.

If you have a favorite, let me know.

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The Truth About Workshops

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Taking a manuscript into a critique workshop is an expedient and sometimes necessary step to understand how readers view and respond to any given piece you’ve written. At their best, a workshop is a coming together of equally skilled and similarly committed writers under the guidance of a master of the trade, both as writer and pedagogue.

I’ve never been in one of these.

My experience has been in workshops where there was a broad sampling of participants, in both writing ability and commitment to the process. Some felt more like a beauty pageant, or worse, poker game, than a learning experience. It’s almost unavoidable, the collective, nuanced accounting of who’s the most skilled, the most inventive and the most likely to be published, tainted with the underlying fear that you may be the runt of the bunch. Oh sure, there will be the “what I love about your work” comments, and a few helpful suggestions, but unspoken is the competitive racking and stacking that goes on inside everyone’s head. Is his novel more likely to be published before mine? Did the group respond better to her story or mine?

Add in instructor bias and group dynamics being what they are, a workshop can very quickly devolve into an exercise in group- think based on the instructor’s preferences and prejudices. If minimalism is the favored style, then luxuriously layered descriptions, or a steady stream of consciousness loaded with emotional nuance are going to get less than enthusiastic reviews. Reading the instructor’s work beforehand can help to identify those biases. But, the knowledge can be a double-edged sword. If you don’t particularly enjoy their style or genre, that can prevent you from fully appreciating their comments and suggestions, and thus undermining what might well be good advice.

If you venture into the arena of a workshop, measure your sense of accomplishment not by how popular your manuscript was, but how much you learned about it. And, be sure to remind yourself that Kafka’s work would have been skewed, roasted and trashed with great enthusiasm in the beauty pageant of most workshops.

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I recently attended a weeklong workshop at the venerable University of Iowa.  This was my second year, and it seemed this time around more was gained from the experience.  It was an advanced short story workshop. 

Here are a few of the insights I took away.

Keep your promises.  The craft books all say it, Chekhov’s gun being the best example. Nevertheless, until it appears in your own work, it’s hard to see a promise made at the beginning that wasn’t kept.  In my case, I’d set up the reader to expect a resolution to something on page one, and didn’t realize it. It took a seasoned reader to point it out. My first instinct was to delete the promise until I realized it would be a more satisfying read to come up with a plausible way to keep the promise.

Combine Characters. Short stories are inherently, well, short. Too many characters, especially if they serve a nonessential purpose in the story, should either be eliminated or better, combined with an essential character to get the work done but without unnecessarily confusing the reader.  If multiple characters are needed, say a bar scene, don’t try to give names to everyone, but do give a sort of handle, or code to differentiate the masses for the reader.

Titles Should Do Double Duty.  We went through several examples of titles that were both intriguing and satisfying.  Here’s a change I made to one of my own. The title went from “The Frog with the Red Spot” to “What Did the Frog Say”. The latter came from an actual line in the story. Using a line within the story is a much better set up. The reader discovers the meaning of the title while immersed in the story.

Why is more important than How or What. Getting characters moving, talking and acting is important, but the action shouldn’t get in the way of understanding why a character made one choice over another. Whether through interior dialogue, or gestures, a character’s intent is more meaningful than the action itself. A reader will keep a tally of questions if the writer doesn’t provide the emotional logic behind the action.

The Page Two Move. The story starts in the dramatic present and then suddenly comes to a halt on page two as the author stops to provide the back-story. The more a story unfolds without flashbacks full of only description and exposition, the more interesting it is for the reader. Stay in the dramatic present as much and as long as possible.

Subjecting your story to a room full of strangers is a painful experience. However, often strangers are the ones who help us see our story for what it can be, and offer suggestions that can satisfy the reader even more. And, that’s what it’s all about.

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Fantasy of a Closet Writer

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If I wrote and drew a comic strip for a daily paper I’d sit down every Sunday morning with coffee and pen at the kitchen table, hopefully with a gentle eastern sun coming in at a good angle, warming my shoulder maybe, and I’d sit there and dream about my characters, doodle them into a week’s worth of life as a sermon, a communal service with friends. After the party breaks up everyone leaves and I’d wait for the next Sunday morning to arrive.

If I were a magazine writer I’d work on the first day of the month, no matter what day of the week, I’d perch on a stool, my elbows on a desk, head hanging over a blank page and I’d think about what troubles the world, or who is most irritating or obnoxious on the current stage, and I’d not want for an opinion which I’d scribble out at first before committing a typeset to the piece but before long I’d have a framework, two to four points of some self import and I’d begin the tapping out into a one, two or three thousand word piece, whatever my editor tells me, I easily adopt, but these editors I work for or with all these years they learn quickly and sometimes quite severely to never suggest a topic, that is for me to decide on the first of every month, no matter what day of the week.

If I wrote an advice column, I’d read each letter in the evening, after dinner but before a walk, then I’d take a warm bath and go to bed and in the morning write whatever words of warning or guidance or veiled contempt I’d have to offer, but I wouldn’t like this writing as much because it’s a daily grind of masticating another cow’s cud.

If I were writing a novel I’d turn off the phone service, and find a soft blanket to wrap myself with for the duration, I’d write morning to night, night to day without regard for anything or anybody, my only friends and acquaintances would be the characters, no television, no radio, no iTunes or You Tube, no internet, no night out, no dinner plans, no vacation, no nothing until the last page written, the last tear dried, the last sentence typed and then I’d go out into the world flushing in disbelief, exhausted, sore and asking for a life.

If I were a poet I’d keep a little notebook and pen with me at all times, ready for the words that would fall from heaven, the rhymes and rhythm coming to mind at any and all times, I’d lay in the grass and gaze at the sky, blue or gray, cloudy or clear, waiting for the rain of verse to fall. I’d work all the time but it would be a joy, a discovery to accept the gift of poetry.

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