Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Things That I Love: Orphan Black

For my previous Things That I Love, read here.

I'm always the last one to know.

That's an exaggeration, but not a big one.  I usually discover awesome shows only after their awesomeness has been proclaimed to the world.  Such was the case with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland.  And such is the case with Orphan Black.

The buzz surrounding Season One and early Season Two brought me to BBC America, even though I watch maybe five shows a year, and usually never on channels not named HBO or AMC.  I knocked back 10 episodes in two days -- hooray for On Demand and marathon viewing! -- and never looked back.

Orphan Black is the type of show that could not have worked even five years ago, due to the special effects required.  It is an amazing blend of technology, writing, and acting.  If any of those parts failed, the show would fail.  Fortunately, they seem poised to succeed for quite some time.

So?  What's It About?

From here, there will be spoilers for Season One and what's aired of Season Two!  You've been warned!

Orphan Black is a Canadian-produced show set in the present or near future.  Most of the action takes place in the Toronto area, though some is also set in the northern United States.  It starts with British-born Sarah Manning, roughly 30 years old, returning to the Toronto area from a place unknown.  Sarah is a con artist, trouble maker, and a bit of a drifter.  So when a young woman commits suicide by jumping off a train platform right in front of her, Sarah doesn't miss a beat: she takes the woman's suitcase and hustles off.  The problem is?  That woman was her identical twin.

Sarah plans to clear out the woman's bank account and leave town with her foster brother, Felix, and her young daughter, Kira.  However, it turns out that the woman, Beth Childs, is a cop wanted for questioning in an incident where she shot and killed an unarmed person.  Before she can escape, Sarah must impersonate Beth and answer for her actions.  As Sarah learns more about her, she learns that Beth killed the woman for her own protection, because Beth wasn't just Sarah's twin, but a clone.

Sarah soon comes into contact with three other clones: Katja, a German who is shot to death in the pilot; Cosima Niehaus, an American getting her PhD in microbiology at the University of Minnesota; and Alison Hendrix, a suburban Toronto soccer mom with a penchant for crafts and firearms.  Then there's Helena, the Ukrainian clone out to kill them all, who may have a deeper connection with Sarah than the rest.

All were born in 1984 to different parents.  All are part of an experiment by the Dyad Institute for reasons that are still largely unknown.  Some are crazy fast healers, while others suffer from mental problems or lung conditions.  Only Sarah is capable of giving birth.

Sarah, Cosima, and Alison begin working together to learn what Beth knew and what the Dyad Institute is after... and to preserve their own safety.

Why It's Good

This could have been one of those sterile sci-fi shows filled with jargon and weird, stilted performances.  Instead Orphan Black is wonderfully accessible and human.  While much credit goes to the writing, the acting deserves first recognition.

Oh the Acting.  This show could not have worked without Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany playing the clones.  It would have been so easy for her to turn them into caricatures.  Hey look, there's the British punk rocker with the cockney accent, with her exaggerated surly toughness!  There's the cool an' frody "if it feels good, do it" California chick!  There's the ultra uptight suburban soccer mom!

Maslany could have turned them into caricatures, but she didn't.  Instead, she fully inhabits each clone, giving them subtle differences instead of ones that beat you over the head.  These differences can be seen in their posture, the way they hold things, their language, their accents.  For instance, Cosima is more relaxed than Alison, yet in a different way than Sarah.  

Sarah pretending to be Alison
Then Maslany adds another layer when the clones have to pretend to be each other.  Alison as Sarah adopts the comically exaggerated cockney accent before settling into something close to the real thing.  Sarah as Beth or Cosima seems distinctly uncomfortable, and in times of nervousness, lets some of her British accent slip.

And what's more?  Maslany's clones have chemistry with one another!  Much credit belongs to the effects department for creating such a seamless juxtaposition of the clones (more on that in a bit).  But you also have to wonder how in multiple-clone scenes, Maslany manages to react so believably to the other clones, when in reality, there was no one else in the room.

I can think of only one other actor who could do what Maslany does: Enver Gjokaj in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.  Even skilled veterans like Tony Colette in The United States of Tara make their personalities seem more like caricatures.  Granted, Colette had the challenge of embodying a teenager, a grumpy redneck, and a 50s housewife, while Maslany's characters are all the same age and gender, but still -- only one of those personalities felt like a different person as opposed to a caricature.  Which is to say that if you think what Maslany does is easy, it isn't.

That takes nothing away from the other performances.  The other standout actors are Jordan Gavaris as Sarah's droll gay foster brother, Felix -- with a British accent that doesn't miss a beat, despite Gavaris being Canadian -- and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Siobhan Sadler, or "Mrs. S."  In the first season, she is mainly there to disapprove of Sarah, but in Season Two, her role has become much meatier.  As for Gavaris, he not only has to have chemistry with Sarah, but also with Alison, a clone who is nearly her opposite in nature.  

The Special Effects.  Special effects are probably the one area where the show could have afforded to slip up.  Since the acting and writing are convincing, viewers probably could have overlooked cheesy split screens where the clones never touch one another.  But Orphan Black wants to ensure that the deception is complete.  So not only do the acting and writing convince you of the different clone personalities, but so do the special effects.  This is no Parent Trap -- the characters are constantly in each other's space.  They hug, or hit (in Sarah's case), or lie on top of each other.  When they are not sharing space, you frequently see one in the foreground and one in the background.  As a result, you forget completely that you are watching one person perform all these roles, leading to situations like one critic wishing that the actress playing Alison looked
Sarah and Cosima
more like the actress who played Sarah.

The Writing.  As with the acting, the writing could have easily become broad and caricatured.  Let's see what kind of wacky hijinks we can come up with when clones switch identities!  Or it could have gone the other way, becoming a dull, ponderous scientific exploration.  Instead, Orphan Black not only keeps its central characters human, but it also constantly reminds viewers of the high stakes.  Each episode is packed with action and reveals, most of which just further the mystery.  At the same time, the show understands that there is some inherent humor in cloning and switched identities.  When it does tackle the "wacky" premise, like Sarah pretending to be Alison at a potluck, it somehow never feels forced.

At 12 episodes in, I wonder if the writers will be able to maintain the breakneck pace.  I wouldn't mind if one or two episodes slowed down enough to give the clones more time to interact, and ask each other basic questions that you would expect from twins who never met.  Do you feel the things I feel?  Have you ever done the things I've done?  So far, there haven't been many of those moments.  Maybe there never will be.  Or maybe the show's intent is to dole them out here and there, in between hectic chases and shocking reveals.  While at the same time asking: are clone "sisters" as connected as twin sisters, and are clones any less human than non-clones?


With its premise, acting, and writing, Orphan Black has become one of my favorite shows, joining a very small group.  I will be interested to know what they do with Rachel Duncan, the posh Brit clone who runs part of Dyad Institute.  As well as how Orphan Black will approach the other mysteries, such as Mrs. S's past, why Kira and Helena have super-fast healing powers, and how Felix is connected, if at all.  And as the number of clones increases, I wonder if Maslany will be able to give them all the same subtle distinctions that she gave the first few.

Is it Saturday night, yet?

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Fanfiction and Fiction Writing

A few days ago, the 15th anniversary of a milestone passed: I had my first fanfics published on a major fan website.  They were Daria fanfics on the now departed Outpost Daria, then the mecca of all things involving the MTV cartoon.  I remember trembling when I saw my fanfics listed among the two dozen under the "New Updates" header.  Now it was official!  I feared abusive comments, but mainly expected to be ignored.

Days passed and comments trickled in... and not only were they positive, but two of them even came from Daria fanfiction's top dogs at the time!  I printed out each email and tucked them into a folder, which I still keep around.  The positive feedback left me warm and floaty, and dying to write more!  Burnt out from revising my historical novel (ironically, a proto version of my current one), I found writing scripted "episodes" of my favorite show to be invigorating.

The stories in my head began to multiply and form the beads of lengthy plot lines.  Those plot lines took six years to complete.  You can find them here.

Fanfiction awoke my desire to write real scripts, and thus in 2001, my long odyssey in Hollywood began.  Now in 2014, I am no longer in Hollywood and haven't written a fanfic since 2007.  I look back on my fanfiction stage with both gratitude and regret.

Why Regret?

Maybe because unlike the fandoms of A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I chose a fandom that was treated like spoiled garbage by the show's overlords.  So while other fandoms had anthologies published of their works, other webmasters sold their sites for multi-million dollars, and other fandoms' creators praised their dedication, our passion and talent were ignored.

Another regret stems from my mistaken assumption that teleplay writing would be like fanfic script writing.  Fanfic script writing was fun.  It was liberation.  Even when I encountered story roadblocks and frustrations with rising fan expectations, I felt alive and in control.  My stories could be as long as I needed them to be.  I could do whatever I wanted with the characters.

Art I did for one of my fanfics.  I was dedicated.
Teleplay writing is a discipline.  You have a little more freedom when you're in the writers room, but if you're on the outside looking in, like I was, you must conform to certain rules.  In my case, I wrote "spec" scripts -- or pretend scripts -- of popular television shows that I entered into competition or sent to agents.  Spec scripts had to be 30 pages for a half hour or 60 pages for one hour, no exception.  They had to be on white paper.  They had to include as little scenery direction as possible because what mattered was the dialogue flow.  Yet they had to be better than a real episode of the show.  And they had to be of current popular shows, even if you rarely watched them.

While I felt moments of pleasure here and there, writing teleplays felt mainly like writing ad copy for soap or kitchen appliances: it was how I tried to make a living, but it did not feel creative.  With one exception -- a television pilot that I wrote in 2004.  Though it conformed to structural parameters, it was my story and characters.  Perhaps that's why, instead of being a finalist or semi-finalist in competition, I finally won first place.

My biggest regret is that I did not wise up sooner and start writing all original material.  I was never happy writing specs, and getting into a real writers room was always a slim prospect.  Maybe if I had started writing original pilots, screenplays, and prose stories, I would have found success a different way.  At the very least, I would have a longer writing resume -- somehow literary agents are not impressed by a background of fake script writing, even if those scripts did well in competition.

But Yet... There Is Gratitude

Yes, gratitude, because fanfiction taught me how to write stories.  Before those first tentative efforts in 1999, I knew how to create characters and write dialogue, but not how to carry a plot from start to finish.  Three-act fanfics gave me a structure to follow -- set-up, build up, payoff.

My first fanfic scripts were tentative, but (I'd like to think) grew more sophisticated with time.  As developing stories on a small scale became easier, I also became better at developing larger arcs.  I had already written a novel at age 18, but it lacked a true beginning, middle, and end.  Fanfic writing taught me how to make a storyline progress, to the point where I had multiple story arcs covering several hundred pages.      

Though practice helped me improve, I also had the wisdom of other fanfic writers to guide me.  While many fanfic readers were eager to blanket everything with a vague "That was great, more please!", there were some who gave excellent, incisive feedback.  It helped that many were talented writers themselves.  Some became my beta readers, helping to guide me around many narrative plot holes.  I applied what I learned to my teleplay writing, and most recently to my prose works.

I also think that fanfic and teleplay writing really improved both my pacing and dialogue.  Though it turned out to be a mixed blessing: because script writers are encouraged to avoid lengthy description, I still struggle to write description in my prose stories.  (Though part of that is the nature of what makes "good" description, which is worth an entirely separate post.)

Finally, writing fanfic put me in touch with several wonderful people, many of whom I still know.

So while I wish for a longer writing resume, or that I knew how to describe the sun rising in a completely new way, I believe that my life is better for having written my first fanfics 15 years ago.

Now where is our damn anthology, MTV?

The above Daria image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  The other image is mine so I can do whatever I want with it.  Mwahahaha!   

Monday, April 14, 2014

Impressions of The Book of Mormon (the Musical)

I saw The Book of Mormon back in January and intended to write something about it, but got swept up in my Downton Abbey recapping.  Even though it isn't a movie musical, it likely will be soon enough.  And knowing co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, it will involve puppets…

The Book of Mormon premiered in 2011 on Broadway and has been a smash hit ever since.  Its basic premise sprung from the minds of Stone and Parker, whom many know as the creators of South Park.  If you have ever caught a South Park marathon, you are probably aware that the duo has had a fascination with Mormonism for many years, as shown in the classic 2003 episode: "All About Mormons."  Both Stone and Parker grew up in Colorado, where they knew several Mormons, also known as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

Most of us know of Mormonism as that religion in Utah.  Or that religion Mitt Romney belongs to.  Or that it's "sort of like Christianity," only with polygamy.  Those a little more educated know that Mormonism is a religion of 15 million people worldwide and has banned polygamy officially since the nineteenth century.  However, to most of us, Mormonism remains, in many ways, a mystery.  It was a mystery that Stone and Parker decided to investigate, with their conclusion being: "Okay, Mormonism is a little weird (okay, a LOT weird), but the people who practice it are nice."  For all of Stone and Parker's renowned anti-political correctness, I think they sanitize Mormonism a bit, but I'll touch on that later.

So Stone and Parker had this fascination with Mormonism and some experience writing musicals (see South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut).  However, they had very little experience with Broadway.  One evening, when they were in New York, they caught a production of Avenue Q, co-created by Robert Lopez (recently of Frozen fame).  It turned out that South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut  was an influence on Avenue Q, and the duo quickly paired with Lopez (and a co-creator who would drop out later) to work on The Book of Mormon.  While Stone and Parker brought the idea, Lopez would steer them through the Broadway show building process and (in my opinion) polish some of Stone and Parker's ragged edges.

The end product is a musical that is funny, politically incorrect while also touching, and sometimes thought provoking.  With little effort, it could be transferred to the big screen… with puppets. 

Plot Synopsis

There be spoilers below!  You have been warned!

"Elders" Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham are among several Mormon teens who have just completed training for their mission -- a two-year stint at a location chosen for them, where they will preach about the Book of Mormon and try to convert as many locals as possible.  Elder Price is a golden boy who everyone believes will do great things, while Elder Cunningham is a screw up with low self esteem and a penchant for stretching the truth.  Elder Price hopes that "Heavenly Father" will send him to Orlando, Florida, home of "the happiest place on earth."  Instead, he receives a tougher assignment: converting wary residents of a village in Uganda, with Elder Cunningham as his sidekick.

Elder Price tolerates Elder Cunningham, but quickly finds Uganda too much to handle.  The village is poor, and the people are terrorized by a warlord who wants all of the women circumcised.  After seeing one villager murdered in cold blood, Elder Price flees, leaving Elder Cunningham to take up the mantle of leader and rally the villagers.  

Realizing that the villagers yearn for the Book of Mormon to address their problems, Elder Cunningham lies about what is in the Book.  It is enough to convince the villagers to convert to Mormonism, but causes problems when the Mission President pays a visit.  Yet the villagers' new faith allows them to rise up and defeat the warlord, with the help of Elder Cunningham and (recently returned) Elder Price.  In the end, all involved realize that the act of believing, in a way that makes you stronger, matters more than the specific beliefs.  The villagers are so appreciative of Elder Cunningham that when they begin their missions, they preach about the Book of Arnold.

The Good

The Matt and Trey Effect.  To fully appreciate The Book of Mormon, you must be familiar with South Park.  For those who are not, South Park revolves around four foul-mouthed boys in suburban Colorado and a supporting cast of eccentrics.  Over time, much like The Simpsons, South Park has developed several memorable characters and "isms" that viewers will recognize in The Book of Mormon.

For instance, at one point you see the South Park devil.  Then there is Jesus, speaking with Mr. Garrison's voice.  Then there is Elder Price's victory dance at the end of "I Believe," mocked in so many South Park episodes.  Then you have Elder Cunningham sounding like Cartman after he has grown a touch too full of himself.  And so on.

But more importantly, with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, you have a complete lack of reverence.  With it comes a desire to question and poke holes in cherished beliefs.  That is usually refreshing, though as I'll go into later, it also reveals their blind spots.  Because they push the envelope with practically everything, they don't get the blowback that many other artists or commentators would.

In this case, Stone and Parker are not shy about stating their belief that Mormonism is fucking nuts.  The founder, Joseph Smith, found "golden plates" that told about Jesus Christ's appearance in America -- plates that he somehow could not show anyone?  And the native American tribes were once white... because they were Jews who sailed from Judea?  And some of the tribespeople were dark because of their wickedness?  And God has his own planet, and each Mormon can have his own planet as well?  And...

Stone and Parker are also not shy about claiming that Joseph Smith was a huckster.  However, they acknowledge that hucksterism can be used for a good purpose (see Elder Cunningham) and that the people who believe the claims are not necessarily bad, and may even be perfectly decent.

In this way, the South Park duo are fond of turning expectations on their head.  Hucksterism is bad... except when it's not.  Belief in things that aren't real is wrong... unless you know that they're not real.  By doing this, Stone and Parker constantly force viewers to reevaluate their beliefs about a subject.

The entire structure of The Book of Mormon follows this pattern.  If you knew nothing about Stone and Parker's work, you might assume that it would follow 99 percent of other stories where the "hero," Elder Price, rises up and takes on life's challenges after overcoming major doubts.  In fact, that is even how his journey is characterized during the Tony awards, before The Book of Mormon's most famous number: "I Believe."

But Stephen Colbert was wrong.  "I Believe" is not about Elder Price reaffirming his belief after experiencing doubt.  Sure, it looks like the "hell yeah!" song from any other musical, where the hero rises up just before the final battle, but it's not -- it's a fakeout song.  Elder Price sings it because he is jealous of Elder Cunningham's fame.  Since Elder Price was the one who was supposed to reap the glory (as shown in the song "You and Me (But Mostly Me)"), he reasons that he is meant to do something even better than what Elder Cunningham has done: reform the unreformable warlord.  Instead, his plan goes horribly (and hilariously) wrong.

Elder Price's journey is learning to accept that he's not the hero of this tale, but the sidekick.  And that faith doesn't just involve rigid belief, but flexibility and change.  That said, taken out of context, "I Believe" seems destined to be the most misunderstood song since "Born in the USA."

The Lopez Effect.  As much as I appreciate Stone and Parker's humor, it can get too nasty and over-the-top at times, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth afterward.  (See, for example, Jambu's fate in "Free Willzyx.")  While it's possible they learned to rein in their excesses for The Book of Mormon, I have to think that Robert Lopez had a softening influence.  So while there is a lot of tasteless humor in this musical -- almost everyone in the village has AIDS; one villager thinks the only way to cure it is to rape a baby; Elders Price and Cunningham constantly mispronounce the name of the female lead character, Nabulungi -- it never taints the overall tone and message.

I also credit Lopez with giving The Book of Mormon a polish that is missing from many South Park episodes.  The musical is tightly paced, sharp humored, and filled with elaborate musical numbers that it carries off with aplomb.  While South Park episodes can be clever, too often they have a ragged, rough-around-the-edges feel to them, most likely because Stone and Parker churn them out in a matter of days.

Oh Yeah, and the Songs Are Really Good!  Not only does The Book of Mormon make interesting observations, but it works extremely well as just a musical.  The songs are catchy, clever, and fun.  Some deliberately mock existing songs, and in many cases end up being better (see "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" versus Wicked's "The Wizard and I").  Some express poignancy when you least expect it.  Even as you laugh at Nabilungi thinking that friendly warlords "help you cross the street" in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," you recognize her yearning for a better place.

Many of the songs feature large choreographed dance numbers.  A typical example would be "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," filled not only with Satan and other "baddies" sent to hell (like Johnnie Cochrane: "I got OJ freed!"), but also a Mormon no-no, coffee in what looks suspiciously like Starbucks containers.  Dancing Starbucks containers.

The Problematic

Matt and Trey Again.  While Stone and Parker deserve credit for being so fearless with their targets, their criticism can at times be facile and somewhat limited.  For instance, their basic message in both "All About Mormonism" and The Book of Mormon is: they may be weird, but at least they're really nice.

My experience with Mormons is that yes, many are very nice.  Yet I doubt the Church of Latter-Day Saints would receive the criticism it does if it were simply a weird church with nice people.  Doesn't that describe most religions?  The Book of Mormon does not even touch upon some of the biggest criticisms, including gender discrimination.  Of all the "Elders" in "Hello!", note that none are female.

Yet from what I've seen of Stone and Parker's work, they don't seem to think that gender discrimination -- or racial, or sexual orientation, etc., etc. -- is a real problem.  Rather, for them, the problem occurs when people become offended.  The Stone and Parker universe is filled with oversensitive types who become hysterical in response to actions that are either innocuous or non-existent.  Whether they have a legitimate gripe is a point not worth pursuing.

I don't think I need to spell out the reasons why Stone and Parker would be so blind.  I'll just say that another one of the duo's weaknesses is that they try to have their cake and eat it, too.  Most episodes of South Park seem to say: "We'll rip the thing you most love to shreds, but hey, don't be offended, because we're just funnin' ya.  It's totally okay to love that thing, just don't be an asshole about it."

Having tolerance is always an important lesson, but somehow it seems to cut just one way.  It's okay for Stone and Parker to rip on people who like to drive hybrids, for instance, but if you take offense at their one-dimensional portrayal, you're just an intolerant asshole.  It's okay for them to laugh at Al Gore for believing in ManBearPig, but if you like Gore, or believe in global warming, and feel their portrayal is off the mark, you're an asshole.          

With regard to The Book of Mormon, the duo poke endless fun at Mormonism's dubious beginnings, but don't expect a deeper critique of the Church and its practices, or of religious hypocrisy in general.  And to the extent that you are offended by their constant poking at the Church, the message is: hey, it's cool, believe what you want, even if it is stupid.


Nonetheless, The Book of Mormon is a fun, well-crafted musical that kept me entertained and had me racing to buy the soundtrack.  I don't know if or when it will hit the big screen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were sooner rather than later.  

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  Also, I take no credit for the cool storyboarding in the final YouTube video.  Click on the YouTube link and leave comments for the artist!               

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: The Crimson Petal and the White

This will shock you: when I sat down to write my neo-Victorian novel, I was not exactly aware of the current market for my genre.  I simply reasoned that if people still liked books written 150 years ago, they would be just as happy to read a more modern take.

Turns out that knowing your market is pretty important.  One reason is because when you write a query letter, it is often ideal to suggest that your book resembles Book X, which was written in the past 10 to 15 years and sold bazillions of copies.  I did some Google searches, but the neo-Victorian market was surprisingly sparse -- most well-known books like The French Lieutenant's Woman had been written decades ago.

So I went onto Victorian listserv and asked for some examples of popular recent Victorian novels.  One of the examples mentioned was Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (2002).  Since that seems to be the most popular recent example, that is where I will start.

My purpose in reviewing books like Crimson is this: (1) to note what aspects of the Victorian Era they incorporate; (2) to see what "modern" elements they bring; (3) to see what works and what does not work; (4) to see how well it conforms to expectations of "what will sell"; and (5) whether it's a good story.  And most importantly, tying into No. 5: why was it successful?


I will just say right off: The Crimson Petal and the White breaks all of the rules.  Breaks them?  No, it laughs at them, sticks out its tongue, and says "Neener, neener!"

At 850 or 950 pages, the novel far exceeds the preferred 100,000-word length for historical fiction.  It ignores the needs of editors and publishers for slim novels that aren't a monster to shape or too expensive to produce.  Perhaps that's because while Crimson was the first novel Michel Faber wrote, it was not the first book he published.  The Dutch-born Scotland resident first published a book of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall (1998), then a much-slimmer novel, Under the Skin (2000), which won him critical acclaim.

Therefore, Faber had a bit more flexibility to debut his enormous second novel, which apparently took two decades and 85 historical experts to bring to fruition.*

That said, is it a good book?  I thought so, for the most part.  It had some wonderful aspects and some really problematic ones.  Many people criticized the ending, but to me, that was less of a problem than the story structure that brought us to that point.  Overall, I would call it highly readable, but flawed.

One Goodreads poster characterized Crimson as an "almost bad" book, stating that "almost bad" was worse than "bad" because "almost bad" teased you with the possibility of being excellent, before letting you down.  For me, it's the reverse: Crimson is "almost excellent," which is better than an excellent book.  Excellent books tend to be praised and forgotten, while almost-excellent books leave a reader forever thinking about them, pondering alternate scenarios that would have elevated them and their characters.  That's what The Crimson Petal and the White does to me.

Plot Synopsis

Before you go any further, keep your wits about you, for I shall be disclosing spoilers.  Other reviewers treated you like a friend, made you believe that you belonged, that you could read their impressions without learning major plot details.  Only now do you realize that you are not on Amazon, where reviews fade from memory the moment after you read them, and reviewers are too hurried to leave their full impressions.  You fear that it's too late to turn back. 

The novel is set in London, from 1874 through 1875.  It revolves around a teenage prostitute named Sugar, who works in a brothel run by her mother, Mrs. Castaway.  Due to Sugar's unusual intellect and willingness to do anything a male customer asks, she draws the attention of William Rackham, reluctant heir to a successful perfume business.

William becomes so enthralled by Sugar that he decides that he wants her only for himself.  To that end, he vows to master the business and become a success in order to make Sugar his kept woman.  Initially thrilled with her freedom from Mrs. Castaway's brothel, Sugar comes to find her life tedious and fears that William will eventually lose interest in her.  She therefore convinces William to take her into his household as a governess to his young daughter, Sophie.  There, Sugar becomes intrigued by William's wife, Agnes, even secretly reading diaries that Agnes had discarded.

In a separate subplot, William's brother, Henry, wants to become a clergyman, but doubts his fitness after he experiences lust for his friend, social reformer Emmeline Fox.

As Sugar draws closer to Sophie, she and William grow further apart.  The true break occurs after the unstable Agnes disappears and is presumed dead.  William eventually terminates Sugar's employment, and Sugar responds by kidnapping Sophie and taking her on a long journey to an undisclosed location.  William rushes out to look for them, but finds nothing.

The Good Aspects of This Novel

The strengths of The Crimson Petal and the White lie in Michel Faber's use of language, his ability to create vivid imagery and memorable characters.

Language.  The imagery leaps out at you right away.  In another example of rule breaking, Faber does not begin with first person or third person, but second person.  "Keep your wits about you; you will need them," the unnamed narrator insists, before the reader is assaulted by "icy wind," sleet "like fiery cinders," and "smells of sour spirits and slowly dissolving dung."

Faber uses this painterly approach with all of his scene setting.  The result is that the reader feels fully immersed, able to see and smell everything present -- for better or worse.  You not only get to experience the luxury of a dinner party during the "season," but also a gruesome ritual where prostitutes use a caustic douche to scrub themselves free of semen in an effort to avoid pregnancy.

Historical Detail.  Such detail would not be possible without Faber's research into the period.  Billed as the novel Dickens would write if he weren't constrained by Victorian mores, Crimson benefits from Faber's access to materials on the real lives of prostitutes during that era.  The research appears quite solid for the most part, only occasionally showing cracks (would upper-class ladies have really attended funerals back then?).  If at times Faber's use of it feels a little too showy, its overall effect is to create a vivid, wholly authentic portrait of life in the mid-1870s.

Characters.  In addition to scene setting, Faber knows how to sketch out interesting characters.  First there is Sugar, described as having an almost masculine body and a skin condition; yet there is some elusive quality that makes her more irresistible than conventionally pretty women.  She inhales all kinds of reading materials, and is therefore better spoken than many of her fellow prostitutes.  In her spare time, she writes a violent novel that aims to tell the "true story" of a prostitute's life.

Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Castaway.  Not really how I 
pictured her.
It takes a while before the reader gets Sugar's uninterrupted point of view (a problem that I will touch upon later), but once you do, it is hard to put Crimson down.  For the most part, her evolution from cynical prostitute to properish lady is convincing.  However, what struck me as truly excellent was the way Faber wove instances of Sugar's past abuse into the narrative.  There is no specific scene of Sugar's mother being evil; instead, brief moments of her cruelty are scattered throughout the novel's second half, forming a disturbing whole.

William Rackham is similarly painted in detail -- his hair alone could be a separate character.  Likewise, Agnes is given depth due to her strong Catholic faith, despite being the novel's "mad wife in the attic."

Even more minor characters get their due.  Emmeline Fox is such a strikingly original woman that she could drive her own subplot or even her own novel.  As for Henry, the reader learns almost too much about his beliefs and the depths of his inner pain.  

The overall effect is that you care about these characters, or if you don't care, you are at least curious to find out how their lives end up.  Which is why, no doubt, so many readers were outraged that The Crimson Petal and the White ended where it did.

The Problematic Aspects of This Novel

Characterization and vivid imagery allow the novel to overcome its shortcomings, which are mainly structural and plot based.

Structure.  Just as Crimson grabs you instantly with its strong imagery, it also presents a problem: its structure is just odd.

The novel begins in second person, with the narrator acting as a bustling tour guide -- "Go here!  Don't go here!  Follow this person!" -- before settling into third person the rest of the way.  The narrator informs you that you need the "right connections" to meet the main characters, before introducing you to the first character: Caroline, a prostitute on Church Street.  Faber provides a vivid account of where she lives, where she sleeps, what she eats, and the life that led her to prostitution, leading the reader to conclude that if she is not the main character, she is at least an important supporting character.  Then she meets Sugar and... goodbye, Caroline: you will hardly appear again.

If this were Les Miserables with a cast of thousands, this might not be so problematic.  But just six characters take up most of the epic length, some of whom I liked far less than Caroline.  Furthermore, it seems odd that Faber devotes so many pages to the horrors and degradations of Church Street when Sugar no longer lives there.  At least now that Sugar has appeared, the reader will learn about her home life and be introduced to William Rackham, right?

Wrong.  Just as the reader has Sugar alone, she idly passes by a carriage, and all at once, the narrative switches to William's perspective.  So much for making the "right" connections for a proper introduction.

The effect is that Sugar remains mostly at arm's length for the first third of the novel -- which, given its heft, is quite a while.  Maybe Faber wanted to deliver her appearances in tantalizing bits and pieces, but for me, it made that first third a tough read.  A few pages of Sugar stuck between innumerable pages of Henry and Agnes.

These structural issues persist even after the first third.  Faber often seems to be writing in free form, tossing out a scene because he feels like it rather than because it makes sense or builds momentum.  The tour guide narrator pops up now and then, but is mostly absent until the end of the novel.  Perspectives shift at random, turning characters whose thoughts you knew intimately into mysteries.

Plot.  Then there is the novel's plot problem -- namely, Sugar's storyline is the only one to progress.  With Agnes, it first seems as though she will have a good story arc involving struggles to overcome her ailment; but soon, Faber makes it quite clear that she will never improve.  So despite some progress here and there, she mostly lapses into illness or is doped up in bed.

Yet that is substantial movement compared to Henry's subplot.  Henry wants to be a clergyman, but he can't because he is in love and lust with Emmeline Fox, and at some point, they changed the rules and said that Anglican parsons couldn't marry?  And he is so, so tortured about it!

Henry's dilemma would have made more sense if the Rackhams were Catholic.  As it stands, a good subplot could have been carved out in which Henry finally admitted his love to Emmeline, or Henry helped Caroline, or Caroline helped Henry.  Instead, Henry's subplot ends in an abrupt, crude manner without any growth or resolution.

As for Emmeline -- an intelligent, eccentric, yet respectable woman who reforms prostitutes -- she seems destined to play a major role in Sugar's storyline.  Instead, she does not meet Sugar until near the end, being otherwise suspended in Henry's plot.

It is hardly a coincidence that once Henry and Agnes's chapters cease, the novel's pace picks up considerably.

Characterization.  While Faber's characterization is strong enough to make you feel that certain characters deserved better, it is not without some significant holes.

The biggest of them involve William's character.  William begins the novel a sad-sack, yet fun-loving fop with no head for business.  Then, in less than six months, he evolves into a heavyset man consumed by business above all else.  While in the first third of the novel, the reader gets his thoughts almost uninterrupted, by the end, the narrative has shifted to Sugar's point of view and William's actions are largely a mystery.

Does he love Sugar?  Does he love Agnes?  Why does he insist on making Agnes believe that Sophie does not exist?  Would Agnes be that much worse off knowing she has a child?  Does William start avoiding Sugar because he realizes that she can never take Agnes's place, or because he can't get an erection?

Sugar as played by Romola Garai.  I pictured her more as a
ginger Uma Thurman or Hilary Swank.
Sugar herself is not free of character issues.  In the beginning, it is tough to feel anything for her because not only is she at arm's length, but she seems cynical and hard.  Faber missed an opportunity by not sketching out her home life sooner.  Among other things, he might have explained how she became so much more learned and cultured than the other prostitutes -- enough that she alone speaks English with a "proper" accent.  Was it Mrs. Castaway's influence, or did she just feel like stealing library books one day?

Once Sugar moves out of Mrs. Castaway's brothel, her character and motivations become easier to understand.  Even so, some of her actions draw question marks.  She becomes fearful that William will start to forget her, so her answer is... to make herself available to him all the time?  Because if there's one thing men hate, it's a challenge?

If Sugar were as savvy as suggested, you'd think she would realize that with people like William, less is more.  If she wants him to desire her as madly as he did in the beginning, she should try to make herself less available.  Instead, Sugar decides that the next step is to go from being a perfume-scented, well-dressed kept woman in a grand suite to... a dowdy governess in a cramped room upstairs.

Sugar does it in order to become indispensable to William, because at his side, there would be no limit to what she could do.  But she seems to have not considered the implications of becoming William's servant.  Moreover, "at his side" in what way?  Most likely by becoming Mrs. Rackham after Agnes dies, but Faber never has her state it, as if fearing that it would make her less sympathetic.

So instead of a storyline where Sugar yearns to be Mrs. Rackham, only to change her mind once she gets to know Agnes, Faber has it so Sugar's ambitions are vague, and her main desires seem to be keeping William interested and learning about Agnes through her diaries (which turns out to be nothing we didn't already know).  It's as if Faber had an earlier draft where Sugar had more defined ambitions, but changed it after someone complained that Sugar "wasn't very nice."

Maybe Faber would claim that he left things vague on purpose, to make the reader feel like a john who did not get everything he hoped for.  But then why devote 800-plus pages to the characters at all, including multiple scenes where the same situations play out over and over?  It is fine to leave some things about the characters unexpressed, but there should at least be some sense of a plan, even if that plan is very carefully hidden.  Too often, it is unclear what the greater scheme is, or why characters behave the way they do.

Overall.  So while Faber creates a world filled with undeniably rich sights, sounds, smells, and characters, it left me wanting.  I can only imagine how much better The Crimson Petal and the White would have been if Henry and Agnes had real character arcs, or if Emmeline or Caroline were given more pivotal roles.  Again, the tragedy isn't that the novel ends so abruptly, but that it wasn't better structured throughout.

Why Is the Novel Successful?

One reason for Crimson's popularity is that so many people were absorbed in the characters' lives.  And while I may not feel like buying Sugar a Christmas present, I can certainly see the appeal.

That said, I suspect the novel would not have received nearly as much attention if not for one thing: Teh Sexx.

Descriptions of foreplay and sex abound in Crimson, many of them equal parts fascinating and gruesome.  Nipples get twisted; semen glistens on pubic hair; one character's penis gets a rather luxurious bath.  The descriptions of the consequences of sex are also there, from the prostitutes' douches to one chemical mix used to induce a miscarriage that is so horrifying, I have trouble buying that the character who used it walked away as easily as she did.  (Part of me believes that after her miscarriage, she bled so heavily that she was taken to nearby St. Thomas's Hospital for a hysterectomy, and that the rest of the novel's events were part of her fever dream.)

While the novel has enough to recommend it, its status as "the book Dickens was too prudish to write" must have surely piqued countless people's interests.  Come for the sex, stay for the character development.  Though it worked in this case, I'm not sure it's a model that other neo-Victorian authors could follow.

That said, good characters and an intriguing premise are the only two things about Crimson that conform to the "what will sell" specifications.  Otherwise, the novel thumbs its nose at conventions old and new, and is probably all the better for it.


So while The Crimson Petal and the White is not flawless, it is still highly readable and enjoyable.   Apart from some basic elements, it is also a very different novel from my own.  Well okay, in both novels, a main character has sex with prostitutes, so there's that.

Crimson is a worthy addition to the neo-Victorian genre, and if Faber ever writes the sequel that fans have clamored for, I will be among the first to order it.**

* Go read the Acknowledgements in the back if you think I'm joking.

** The Apple (2006) answers some questions, but not all.                

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Novel Update: Adventures in Agenting!

In my last novel update, where I gave an overview of the genre (neo-Victorian historical fiction) and plot, I also briefly discussed my plans for selling Rage and Regret.

The past month or so, I have been signing up for all sorts of "how to sell your novel to agents" events.  Two involved listening to an agent's webinar and getting feedback on the query letter and opening pages.  One involved attending a local pitch fest and getting to talk to some agents and editors in person.

All were informative and gave me a much better sense of what agents want, and the market, below.

Pitch Fest

Not wanting to spend $500 or more on a writers' conference, I was pleased to learn that for a much more reasonable price, I could attend a smaller pitch fest sponsored by a local women writers group.  Be in a room with real-live agenty people who could give me more specific feedback than "It just didn't grab me"?  Where do I sign up?!

So I got up on a rainy Saturday and went to the four-hour event.  The first hour, the mixed group of women and men divided into a few different groups to work on our pitches.  Not only was it interesting to hear other people's story ideas (damn, the human mind is limitless), but also a relief -- no one else was doing my idea!  In fact, I spoke to only one other writer doing Victorian England, and his was a YA set 20 years earlier.

My pitch?

Rage and Regret is a neo-Victorian, upmarket historical novel.  High-concept-wise, it is Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South meets The Godfather.  [Or alternately, "The Godfather in crinoline."]  It involves a clash between growing industry and the traditional English countryside.

I then go into the basic details about "wealthy young Isabella Warpole" and her desire for revenge on the factory supporters she blames for her mother's death.  Basically a very stripped-down version of the plot.  I talk a little about her journey from anger to character growth.  If I have time, I also mention:

It is the first of a proposed six- or seven-book series, where ironically, we see Isabella begin at one extreme -- hating, blaming factories -- and end at another extreme -- one of the most powerful industrialists in Victorian Britain.  While the book stands on its own, part of the future pleasure would be watching Isabella's journey from one place to the other.

The most disappointing aspect of the pitch fest was that I did not have enough time to sit face-to-face with every agent I wanted to meet.  I got to speak with only three who represented my genre.  One asked me to send her the first 10 pages.  The other two appeared to like the genre and basic storyline, but thought that my novel needed to be shorter.  Because it turns out that the average historical novel is, in fact, even shorter than I thought: 100,000 words max.

Here is what I felt when I heard the news:

While it's true that only two agents told me this word count (actually one preferred 90,000), I'm sure this is the preference on the whole.  I thought it would be tough to cut my book down to 120,000, the high end of "acceptable," but I don't think my novel would survive shedding 40-50,000 words.

That said, there was a certain comfort in hearing such a cold, bloodless reason for rejecting my novel.  I could see that

  • It wasn't because "that genre doesn't sell."  If anything, more than one person's eyes lit up when I mentioned I had written a neo-Victorian novel.    
  • It wasn't because "the story doesn't grab me" or "I don't see how I can care about the protagonist."
  • It wasn't because it was "too quiet."
  • It wasn't because I hadn't done a good job selling the novel.

It was length, pure and simple.  Lengthy manuscripts are tougher to sell to editors of publishing companies than manuscripts in the "acceptable" range, and are more expensive to produce.  Doesn't matter if your story is great.  Simple economics.

It's easier for me to accept that publishing companies don't want to spend more to produce books than that agents and editors suffer from unreasonable prejudice toward people who write long, automatically assuming long word counts equal lack of editing or discipline.  I hope they don't think that way.

Some other things I learned:

  • There are some pre-conceived ideas of Victorian/neo-Victorian novels that really need to be present for people to be interested.  One of them is romance.  Like Jane Austen novels, Victorian country house novels are associated with inheritance and romance.  Luckily my novel has a pretty significant romance between Isabella and her cousin, Arthur. 
  • Scenes that start with someone's funeral are not great novel openers.  So said one agent/editor I spoke with briefly, the only one to glance at my opening page.  It's possible that he was just trying to sell his own approach, but maybe not.  I'll have to see what the agents to whom I sent my query/feedback think. 

Agent Boot Camp

My other recent agent experience involved a Writers Digest boot camp with agents from a notable literary agency.  We were each assigned to an agent, with whom we had a two-day Q&A session on a message board.  Then we sent our selected agent our query letter and first five pages for them to critique.  My agent had until April 7, but she sent me her feedback ahead of schedule.  

She said both the query letter and the first five were well written overall, and suggested that I be more specific with some details for my query letter.  She had a couple of suggestions for my first five, both of which were fairly minor.  (Anyone who wants to see an earlier version of my first five pages can go here.)  Other things I learned:

  • Unlike the agent at the pitch fest who read my first page, this agent really liked that I started with a funeral.  Different strokes for different folks.
  • She also said in the Q&A that she likes first five pages that show "voice," set the scene, and added a mystery that compelled the reader onward.  Since she liked my first five pages, I guess they did those things, even if the main character was not in the first chapter.
  • She really liked the revenge aspect.
  • Finally, she commented that my manuscript should be shorter.    


I still have feedback from another agent pending, but that might not be for another month, so I'll leave it there for now.  My agent experiences have netted both positives and negatives.  On the positive side, my story and genre seem to generate natural interest.  My query letter and first five pages (at least) are generally well written.

On the minus side, there's the length issue, which is even worse than I thought.  I just joined a well-respected writers club, so I will try to get someone with experience to look at the manuscript and see whether it could be realistically tightened without chopping everything to pieces.  If so, I would make those alterations.  Otherwise, it may be off to Plan B or C: either sell my novel series to a small press, or write another (shorter) book altogether.

Special thanks to the good person at fanpop!, where I found the Paperman .gif.