Readers, Writers and Protagonists Setting Healthy Boundaries

Warning: This post makes references to violence and sexual assault. If you'd rather skip this post, we completely understand.  Note: Much of what I share in this post I've learned from taking empowerment self-defense and martial arts classes at an organization called El HaLev. Learn more by reading or watching "Beauty Bites Beast" by Ellen Snortland. Melina Kantor ~ By Melina Kantor It seems to happen more often than not. I'm getting into a book, grateful for some much needed down time, and then. . . The hero shows up unexpectedly and unwanted someplace where the heroine feels safe. Maybe it's her home. Maybe it's her workplace. Maybe it's a coffee shop where she goes to unwind. The heroine asks him to go away. He doesn't leave. And then a few lines later, he's kissing her. Worse, the heroine finds this romantic. And I'm not talking about erotica, romantic suspense, adventurous paranormal romance, science fiction or even dark romance. I'm talking about my favorite genre - contemporary romance. The most recent book I've read with this scenario has a pink cover with cupcakes on it. Nothing bad is supposed to happen in a book with cupcakes on it. Right? In my opinion, which I admit might be unpopular, behavior like this is completely and totally unacceptable and belongs in one of David Schwimmer's videos on sexual harassment, not a romance novel. Am I being over sensitive? It's fine if you think so and I might not convince you otherwise. Just please consider this. As romance writers, our audiences include: Think that last one is the exception and not the rule? I wish it were. Sadly:
That is a huge percentage of our readers, and I believe that it's important to be aware that a woman who has experienced certain types of trauma (or any woman, for that matter) might see certain gestures, like showing up outside a woman's window while she sleeps and blasting a love song, or a sudden, surprise kiss that comes out of absolutely nowhere, as more intrusive than romantic. [caption id="attachment_7904" align="alignright" width="336"]Riley and Ben kiss Ben, who Riley has had a crush on since childhood, kisses her by surprise. Look at her hands. Does she look happy or comfortable? (Photo Credit: Baby Daddy, ABC Family/Free Form)[/caption] The good news is that we, as authors of contemporary romance, have a great opportunity to write protagonists who set healthy boundaries and serve as comforting role models. Even better, we have the honor of providing women with tools they can use to keep themselves emotionally and physically safe. But how do we, and the characters we bring to life, figure out and set healthy boundaries? The answer to that is all about assertiveness. Before we talk about what assertiveness is, let's talk about what it is not

The Passive Protagonist

We all need to be safe before we can thrive.

~ Ellen Snortland

The passive protagonist allows her boundaries to be crossed. Love and War and Snow is possibly my favorite episodes of Gilmore Girls. It's so cozy and delightful. [caption id="attachment_7888" align="alignright" width="234"]Max and Lorelai Photo Credit: IMDB[/caption] Except for the part where Lorelai puts up a boundary, which literally involves her front door, and then proceeds to let Max, a man she hasn't known long, trample all over it, much like the guy in the song, "Baby it's Cold Outside."
LORELAI: See, I have really strict rules about dating. I keep my personal life totally separate from my life with Rory. You know, I never want her to feel unsettled or like her life could just shift at any moment.
That could not be more clear, yet max and starts to push:
MAX: What if I promised you that if you let me in, all I'm expecting is a cup of coffee, that's it. Nothing weird or funny. Unless, of course, you're into weird and funny. . . LORELAI: Max!
And then he pushes even more:
MAX: At some point in your life you're gonna have to decide that some guy is worth opening that front door for. I am just volunteering.
Here's Lorelai's passive response:
[Lorelai opens the front door and starts to walk inside. She turns back to him.] LORELAI: Would you like some coffee? [Max smiles and follows her inside]
The next morning, Rory is not exactly thrilled when she finds Max, her teacher, asleep on her couch. At best, Max's behavior is severe chutzpah. At worst, behavior like Max's could, in some cases, be a precursor to date rape. Either way, in this situation, Lorelai is not safe emotionally or physically. So how could she, or the relationship possibly thrive (even with the help of a thousand yellow daisies - which were a problem in themselves)?

The Aggressive Protagonist

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.
The aggressive Protagonist crosses other people's boundaries. For example (language alert):
  No doubt Sally had a right to be angry. And she was dealing with Harry, so there was no real threat of physical danger. In real life though, and by extension our books, a slap like that, with swearing to top it off, could escalate the situation and put Sally in danger. (And imagine if Harry had slapped Sally. Not cool.) Here are two more classic scenes that we all love but should not use as examples for our own protagonists:
  Hilarious, right? Not to mention entertaining. The problem? Julia's rant was filled with things Ray Don could argue with or even just comment on, which could make the challenge of staying at the table and pushing Julia's buttons more appealing. The rant creates a game that has the potential to become dangerous. And by being insulting, she's crossing his boundaries when all she needs to do is put up her own.
  Again, classic and fabulous. The problem is that a door slam, like Sally's slap, has the potential to escalate the conflict. A door slam is aggressive and, as you can see, does not prevent Stan from returning. So what should Sally, Julia, and Dorothy have done? To answer that, let's talk about what assertiveness is.

The Assertive Protagonist

"No" is a complete sentence. ~ Anne Lamott
The assertive protagonist does not allow her boundaries to be crossed. I hope it goes without saying, but assertive does NOT mean bitchy. More importantly, leather jackets, combat boots, or even the ability to fight don't necessarily mean much (and can even turn readers off). What matters is that our readers connect and identify with protagonists who set and protect their boundaries, regardless of their personalities or body types. The examples of boundary crossing that we've talked about so far could have been taken care of with two simple words: "Go away!" ("Back off!" and "NO!" work too.) Or by simply just walking away. And when "go away" or the more polite "please leave" don't work, the phrases can be repeated until the boundary crosser gives up. They work because:
  1. There's no way to misunderstand, misinterpret, argue or contradict those statements.
  2. They aren't accusatory.
  3. They are clear.
  4. They don't present a challenge.
  5. They show that the encounter is over, thus ending the power trip and thrill.
Remember that volume is important, but it's possible to be loud and firm without hysteria or yelling. Here's another Gilmore Girls example in which Chris crosses Lorelai's boundaries by forcing his way into Lorelai's childhood home. The problem isn't the argument itself. The problem is that Lorelai engages him by arguing, which is why he doesn't leave. But look at how Emily solves the problem: Here are some more examples of assertiveness for you (notice that there's no need to turn to Wonder Woman or Supergirl, as wonderful as they are, as examples):
 

Creating an Assertive Protagonist

Your protagonist can be sweet as pie, polite and soft spoken, and extremely kind, yet remain assertive. When we create character profiles, many of us spend time figuring out things like what our protagonist carries around in her purse. But we can also do exercises to help us figure out what gives our protagonist confidence, and what she values about herself. Why not start now? Exercise 1: On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being relaxed and feeling completely safe, 5 being completely freaked out and uncomfortable, how okay is your protagonist with the following scenarios (feel free to leave a comment with additional scenarios):
  • A man she's just met tells her that her smile is sexy.
  • A coworker, either male or female, returns from a trip and greets her with a hug.
  • A guy she's been on three dates with shows up at her house without calling first to drop off an earring that fell off in his car.
  • A guy she's been going out with calls her every night and texts her at least 3 times a day.
There are no right or wrong answers here. Your protagonist gets to decide what's okay, without providing one word of justification or feeling even one ounce of guilt. Exercise 2:
  • Write a scene in which your protagonist sets a boundary.
-- and / or --
  • Write a romantic scene in which your hero respects a boundary set by your heroine.

Consent is Romantic

We don't need surprise unwanted visits, kisses or sexual advances to add romance to our novels. One of the most romantic things a hero can do is be aware of your heroine's boundaries, which can be even more romantic than knowing her favorite type of chocolate or coffee. A true hero understands when a woman needs a night to be home alone, do her laundry and order take out, and that some nights, a woman might want to watch her favorite show with him but not talk and not touch. See? How sweet, not to mention hot, is this?
 

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So. I think the time has come to raise a glass and make a toast. Here's to our safety, the safety of our protagonists, and the safety of our readers. Here's to true, boundary-filled, love! To those things, we can all shout, "YES!"

*What are some of the boundaries you set for your characters (or for yourself)? Please share in the comments!

* If you'd like to continue talking about boundary setting, I strongly encourage you to join the group Women Setting Healthy Boundaries, which is run by one of my fabulous self-defense teachers. You'll love the videos she posts every week, and I promise you'll be inspired. *

Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels.  In July of 2012, she moved from New York to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Her family now includes an incredibly sweet yet troubled rescue puppy. Melina likes the color pink, baking, daffodils, teaching girls to code, running her small business, learning to use power tools, practicing self-defense, Krav Maga and karate, and breaking cinder blocks with her fist. All three of the protagonists in the trilogy she's currently working on study empowerment self-defense. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com.

Attn: All the Single Ladies — You Are Astonishing!

~ Melina Kantor Hello, All the Single Ladies, My last post in our honor was about HEA’s and why we are more than capable of writing them. I’m back! I wasn’t planning on writing another post about “single ladies,” but there’s something I feel the need to discuss. Actually, there's a part of that something I’d rather not discuss in public, but I’ll take one for the team and admit that two weeks ago, I went to a singles event at my synagogue. (Yeah, I know. Gasp. Ick. What was I thinking? In all fairness, it was one of the nicest I've been to and with the exception of the problem I'm about to talk about, I actually enjoyed it.) I live in Jerusalem, where being single, especially at my age, is not the norm and something a lot of people want to help me “fix.” There are even matchmakers floating around. No kidding. They’re all very nice, but yeah, things can get a little “Fiddler on the Roof.” So there I was at Shabbat dinner, seated at a table with a randomly selected batch of single men, thinking, as I often do, about how I could work this particular situation into a novel. And then came the speaker. A married male. He had some questions and suggestions: “Think about why you’re not married.” Easy peasy. Because I haven’t met the right guy. Actually, I'd bet that most of the people in this room are single because they haven't found matches who meet their standards.  Plus, I'm busy living my own life.  Do you take the time to talk to yourself and get to know yourself, who you are, and what you want in a relationship?” Oh, honey. I’m single. I spend a lot of time with myself. I think I’ve got the “knowing myself” part covered. As for the what I want? Bless your heart. I actually have figured it out, and I shared it with the world. Thanks for asking, though.” “Confidence will help attract the right person. What do you need to do to develop the confidence you need to attract the right guy?” Look, I may be five feet tall and I have a voice not so dissimilar to Bernadette’s from The Big Bang Theory. I can be shy and introverted at times. I'll never be willing to bungee jump off a tall building.  But if you think I lack confidence, think again.  I sat there annoyed and edgy.  Honestly, I was insulted. Enough with the assumptions. Confidence manifests itself in many forms, some of which may not be so obvious. My single friends don't sit at home in sweatpants, eating Ben & Jerry's and feeling sorry for themselves because they aren't married. They're too busy buying their own homes, writing novels, producing podcasts, moving up in their careers, and, in the case of one friend, running marathons. She's trained for and run seven. Even my single friends with multiple cats do not, in any way, fit the description of a "crazy old cat lady." As for me, I've been busy building a life and a business in a new country. By myself (sadly, my two dogs haven't been pulling their weight). This got me thinking about romance novel heroines, and I had a sudden realization.  Guess what! HEA’s come at the end of a romance novel. Which means that in every romance novel ever written, the protagonist is a fellow single lady throughout the majority of the story. And that means that we’d better portray them as the strong, independent, and confident women they are. So, how do we do that? What are the characteristics of a truly confident protagonist? Let's discuss. Thunderdome style. Ready?

Who's more confident?

Buffy Summers vs Rachel Greene

Rachel Green

Okay, I'll explain. Combat boots, trucks, and power tools don’t equal confidence. Your protagonist may appear to be tough as nails. You can dress her in leather jackets. You can put her on a motorcycle. But all that is for show. When it comes to confidence, you might want to dig deeper. Let’s take a look at Buffy. She’s pretty tough, right? I mean, the woman had to figure out the plural of apocalypse once saving the world became something she did on a regular basis. Now, it feels like sacrilege to say anything critical of Buffy or The Honorable Joss Whedon, and I hate being mad at my beloved Xander. But when it comes to Riley, I can’t help it. Riley made Buffy visibly shrink. Instead of admiring her for her mental, emotional and physical strength, he was jealous. Ew. Jealousy is more than "not good." It's downright dangerous. And Buffy saw the jealousy and tried to make herself less than to boost his ego. Clearly, the woman needed to blast Ace of Base and "see the sign." When (spoiler alert), Riley was on his way out of the picture and I was waiting to cheer, Xander gave Buffy the most insulting lecture ever, which Buffy not only endured but seemed to take to heart, and then she got all weepy that Riley the Manipulative Wimp was leaving. Seriously? She never should have put up with him for so long. She needed the confidence to know that she deserved better. She needed to make this her anthem: Note: I’ve taken self-defense and am hoping to take more classes. Yeah, it feels good to know that I have the ability to break a brick with my bare hand (pictured here wrapped in ribbon), but what matters to me more than that is the mental strength the class gave me. I have confidence in my ability to protect myself. All of the protagonists in the trilogy I’m working on take self-defense. They wear shirts that say “Fight Like a Girl,” but they never have to lift a finger to anyone. The point is, they could But again, it's the mental strength that matters more. The ability to be alone, make one’s own decisions and take care of oneself does equal confidence. You know who has that ability? Rachel Green. And yes, I do mean the one with the haircut. She left her loser fiance and moved to the city, where she cut up her father’s credit cards and got a job to support herself. Waitress at a coffee house may not be the first job that comes to mind when thinking about success, but for Rachel, even though she wasn’t great at her job, it helped her grow up and develop a whole boatload of skills. She knew what she liked and she knew she wanted to end up in fashion. And that was before Ross. Then, when Ross came into the picture, she had enough confidence to know what she didn’t deserve: She didn’t even fall for this romantic gesture. Don’t you love how she handled this? Look how successful Rachel was by the end of the show’s run. Yes, she ended up with Ross. But that wasn’t because she had to fix anything about herself in order to be in a relationship with him. Ross had to grow and change to get himself up to her standards.

Who's more confident?

Elena Alvarez vs Rory Gilmore

Elena Alvarez

Okay, I'll explain. Brains and success don’t equal confidence. You know those books Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches refers to as “competence porn?” It’s always fun to read about a woman to is great at her job and can take care of herself. You could argue that the brilliant Rory Gilmore is the poster girl for competence porn. You would think that with her high grades, acceptance to three ivy-league schools, and the adoration of her entire town, she’d have just a little more faith in herself. Alas, no. She ended up with Jess even after he spoke to her like this: Um. . . I don't think so. And not long after that, she slept with her married ex-boyfriend. That's right. Attractive, intelligent Rory who could pretty much take her pick of guys lacked the confidence to do just that. So she went running back to Dean. Not to mention that after she got some harsh criticism about her performance as an intern, she stole a yacht and dropped out of Yale. OMGTWFBBQ. Are you kidding me? If she'd had confidence, after that one foreboding night alone cleaning her keyboard, she would have washed that man right out of her hair:  I guarantee that the quality of her life would have shot up, and the Gilmore Girls reboot would have been less depressing. Living “one day at a time” and leaning on female family and friends does equal confidence. Elena Alvarez, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a self-proclaimed "badass" single female veteran and granddaughter of an immigrant from Cuba certainly has role models when it comes to confidence and independence. Her best friend, Carmen, is also pretty incredible. Elena refuses to wear make-up and is never afraid to stand up for what she believes in: For the sake of those of you who haven’t seen the Netflix reboot of “One Day at a Time,” I won’t spoil the show even more. But I will warn you that the father - daughter dance scene of the season finale will rip your heart out and then totally make your year. (Not to mention that the whole storyline with Elena's outfit had me all choked up.) Just trust me on this. Watch the show (it gets better towards the end of the season) and pay attention to the behavior of the women - especially Elena. And check out Rita Moreno opening those curtains at the 0:35 mark: Every woman, single or married, should have that kind of confidence.

Who's more confident?

Amy Farrah Fowler vs Maria

Amy Farrah Fowler

Okay, I'll explain. Knowing what you like, not conforming, and asking for what you want does equal confidence.  I don't even know how to start talking about Amy Farrah Fowler. She slices brains with the utmost precision. She dresses the way she feels most comfortable and doesn't adjust her style to fit in with the more classicly trendy Penny and Bernadette. She enjoys playing the harp and isn't shy about singing: And she takes zero s*&% from Sheldon: Best of all, when it comes to sex. . . well, this says it all: In fact, Amy and Sheldon's relationship has sparked a whole new conversation about consent. Feeling pretty does not equal confidence. Is there a more romantic movie than West Side Story? Wow. Isn’t it beautiful? I could listen to the songs, which I used to sing when I studied voice, on a continuous loop. Isn’t Maria confident? She stands up to her family and recognizes how gorgeous she is: If only she didn’t feel pretty just because she was “loved by a pretty wonderful boy.” There’s just one other tiny, itty bitty little thing. . .  Uh, Maria? A boy like that? Really? Because you know, he um. . . would and did kill your brother. Well, that, and you’ve known him twenty-four hours. She was an ingenue. Clearly, she didn't realize what that leads to. Yes, conflict fuels our stories. But in my opinion, there is such a thing as too much conflict. How about this version of the story: Maria sends Tony’s ass to jail, helps her family’s business thrive while she figures out what she wants to do in life, and marries a guy who is actually deserving of her (and isn’t, you know, a murderer). So. . .  As you can see from these examples, plenty of women who are in relationships a) don’t know what they want and b) lack confidence. You know what else? If the argument that men are attracted to confidence was 100% true, Julia Roberts would have gotten herself off the streets and into more “decent” clothes before Richard Gere was attracted to her. (And by extension, Eliza Doolittle would have lost her accent on her own before Henry Higgins gave her a second glance.) We wouldn’t all have that at least one friend who settled for “low hanging fruit” (those are the words of a dating coach from that afore mentioned singles event) because he showed interest in her and she couldn’t handle being single for two minutes. Being saved by a man who boosts your ego does not equal confidence. If your protagonist’s journey involves gaining confidence, please oh please let the source be just about anything that’s not a man. We, as romance writers, are trained to think about conflict and character arcs. But you know what? In the end, a “happily ever after” has more to do with chance, chemistry and sexual tension than anything else. All of that self-discovery and contrived confidence building matters a lot less (if at all). Getting married is NOT an accomplishment. Yes, relationships take work. But. Natalie Brooke says is best:
“You don’t have to have a brain, drive or special skill set to get married. You just have to have a willing partner.”
She also points out that:
“It is 2016 and being popped the question is still more celebrated than academic and professional pursuits of women. Yes, college graduations and landing a great career and receiving wonderful promotions are all received with happiness from friends and family, but not even close to the same level of elation received when you announce that you are getting hitched. This is my experience, at least.”
So, Single Ladies. You haven’t found your match. That's very much okay. Don't ever let anybody tell you that being single is a) a problem and / or b) something for which you should be blamed.  Don't ever settle:  
"Playing with matches
A girl can get burned
So,
Bring me no ring
Groom me no groom
Find me no find
Catch me no catch
Unless he's a matchless match."
Most importantly, never forget that you, like the protagonists you write, are astonishing:
“There's a life That I am meant to lead A life like nothing I have known I can feel it And it's far from here I've got to find it on my own Even now I feel it's heat upon my skin. A life of passion that pulls me from within, A life that I am making to begin. There must be somewhere I can be Astonishing Astonishing I'll find my way I'll find it far away I'll find it in unexpected and unknown I'll find my life in my own way Today"
Hopefully, the same is true for your protagonists. Oh, and hey. Don’t worry. Just like last time, I’ll leave you with some Beyonce (By coincidence, I found this video thanks to a Facebook post from the organization that offers my self-defense classes):
“They love the way I walk 'Cause I walk with a vengeance And they listen to me when I talk 'Cause I ain't pretendin' It took a while, now I understand Just where I'm going I know the world and I know who I am It's 'bout time I show it (ahh)”

* What traits do you like to see in a confident protagonist? Feel free to give examples! 

Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Her family now includes an incredibly sweet yet troubled rescue puppy. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com

Giving and Receiving Critiques [Repost]

melissa~ By Melina Kantor  You can’t get very far in the writing world without learning, and quickly, that writers need to develop a thick skin. Our work is always out there for critique partners, reviewers, agents, editors, and readers to read and pick apart. As scary as this may be, it’s actually for the best. Every writer, no matter how talented, no matter how famous, needs to be edited and critiqued. It makes the stories we’re dying to tell so much stronger. Critiques are a necessary evil, kind of like going to the dentist. The thing is, no matter how harsh they may be, critiques should make us excited and eager to keep writing. That’s why I think that knowing how to give and receive critiques is so important. Here’s my list of the top five things I feel are important when giving and receiving critiques. Giving Critiques: 1. This, I hope, is obvious, but critiques should always begin with something positive. No matter how rough the work is, there’s something in there to praise, and the author deserves to hear it. Without any positive feedback, the writer has no reason to continue working on the story. 2. Don’t argue. If you make a suggestion and the writer you’re working with doesn’t agree, don’t push. Remember, it’s not your story. Once you've made your suggestion, your job is done. 3. Don’t try to rewrite the story. Yes, if you were to write the story, you’d probably do things differently. But you’re not writing the story, so all you can do is point out what didn’t work for you and answer any questions the writer may have. 4. Focus on the craft and the story, and not your own personal taste. For example, you may not like a particular protagonist, but that’s your taste and not necessarily helpful information. What can be helpful is to point out specific issues you have with that protagonist, such as, “I didn’t understand her motivation for. . .” or “Her goal wasn’t clear to me.” Those are clear-cut issues the writer can go back and work with. 5. Don’t talk down to the person you’re critiquing, and keep your attitude positive. Don’t assume that they don’t know as much about writing as you do. Remember, all stories go through countless drafts and always need work, and your job is more about giving feedback than teaching. Receiving Critiques: 1. Be gracious and thankful. Your critiquer has put a lot of effort into helping you make your story stronger. 2. Don’t argue. You have every right to disagree with what your critiquer tells you, but they have a right to their opinions. However, if a critiquer points out a valid issue with your story but you’re not comfortable with their suggestion as to how to fix it, it can be useful to politely discuss what you’re trying to do and talk about other possible solutions. 3. Get a second opinion. Two heads are better than one, and it’s funny how critiques differ. One reader may absolutely love a scene that another reader suggests you cut. 4. Listen to your gut.  It’s your story. You don’t have to make a change to your story just because one critiquer suggests it. But if more than one person points out the same issue, do take a second look and try to come up with your own way of taking care of the issue. 5. Please, please don’t take everything personally. Yes, we put a lot of ourselves into our stories, so critiques can feel extremely insulting. But remember that every writer gets critiqued, and critiques aren’t about you. They’re about making your story stronger. So, dear readers. What do you think about critiques? Do you have any experiences to share? What, in your opinion, makes a successful critique? Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Hist her at http://melinakantor.com.

There’s a Diva in my Basement [REPOST]

melissa~ By Melina Kantor Note: This is based on a similar post that originally appeared here. Melina no longer lives in the building described below, but The Divas are willing to have a long distance relationship.  Some people have nightmares in their closets. Some people have boys in their basements (and not in a serial killer way). My basement, however, has a diva infestation. I’ve never seen them, but here’s a picture of their ancestors, The Nine Muses:

The divas live in a private section of the basement that I never get to see, and are way more girlie than I. They decorate with daffodils, gerbera daisies, and a lot of pink. They’ve stocked up on champagne, tiaras, boas, and big squishy chairs. They have really fast Internet that never, ever, ever goes out so they can order shoes, books and chocolate whenever they want. The divas sleep on mattresses with marshmallow-like pillow tops and feather beds, with Egyptian cotton sheets (the thread count, of course being about 1,015). When I moved from California to New York, the divas agreed to come, but they still insist on having café au lait and pain au chocolat flown in from Café Fanny in Berkeley every morning. Incidentally, the café’s delivery men are smoking hot, as were the moving men the divas hired to move their many belongings across the country. Their taste in music differs from mine. Yet, they have control of my iTunes account, so sometimes I find songs by the Bangles and The Cure on my iPhone, usually as part of a playlist for the book I’m working on, and I listen, happily. And they have a huge thing for glittery pens and flowery sticky notes. Whatever works, right? So that’s why my writing space is full of junk like this, and why my computer cover is pink. The deal is, I give the divas what they want, and do what they want, and in return, if they’re feeling happy, they shout messages up the stairs. Only I can hear them. What kind of messages do they send? Here are a few gems: “Your hero and heroine have to help a goat deliver her kid! Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, make it a breech birth. BTW, the goat’s having twins. You don’t know Jack about goat births? No worries. Get thyself to YouTube.” “Force your heroine to do karaoke! Trust us.” “You’re naming your heroine Polyhymnia, after the muse of sacred hymns and poetry. Just go with it. You can call her Polly. You have our permission to joke about how she wants a cracker. You’re welcome.” “Guess what?!? Your heroine’s ex just got engaged. Sucks to be her!” “Your hero and heroine are in the process of removing each other’s clothes. For the first time. Bwah ha ha. Oh, wait. Uh oh. The village is on fire! Did you hear us? There’s. A. Fire! They better get their clothes back on. NOW! So much for that.” And they absolutely love when my heart is broken. They sit back on their divans, basking in the schadenfreude. “You know the playlist that guy gave you? We know you want to delete it, but no! Your heroine has to listen to the one the song that breaks your heart, over and over again. Mel, don’t argue! We know that’s him playing bass. But in return, we’ll let you import a picture of said guy into your Scrivener file, and label it villain. You want to win NaNoWriMo, right? That’ll get you at least 7,000 words.” They were so right. Not only did I win NaNo the year I wrote that book, I wrote tissue worthy heartbreak scenes. And there you have it. For the writers among you: What are your muses like? For the non-writers among you: What inspires you and sparks your creativity? I’ve got to run. The divas are getting snappy. I’m supposed to be revising. Ciao! Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. You can hear more about her writer crazy at http://melinakantor.com.

Writer Crazy – Brought to you by Goats

melissa~ By Melina Kantor You know how new doctors say that they don’t feel like real doctors until they hear themselves being paged? Or how new teachers say that they don’t feel like real teachers until kids call them Mrs. / Mr.? When I started writing, I desperately searched for something to make me feel like a real writer. I knew publishing wouldn’t happen over night, but there had to be something else. Then, it came to me, thanks to this episode of Will Write for Wine (best podcast ever – listen ASAP). Writer Crazy. I needed to experience it for myself. My writer crazy started innocently enough. My first documented episode of the crazies was getting onto a bus, MetroCard in hand, and forgetting to swipe it. See, my characters were in the middle of an intense discussion, and seeing as they were hanging out in my head, instead of a bar or other perhaps more appropriate venue, I was eavesdropping. I mean really, I had every right. It was around that time that I started taking pride in the tufts of dog hair floating across my floor. What? Writers have time to sweep? But those things just weren’t enough. I wanted a true story of crazy to wear like a badge of honor, along the lines of Kristan Higgins making out with her hand, that showed my deep dedication to my craft. And then. . . Okay, this is going to sound odd, but stay with me. I’m known for my love of goats (and sheep, “and stuff”). Yes, cute goat videos are all the rage these days, but my obsession goes back a long way, and I’ve got photographic evidence to prove that I’m a trendsetter. [caption id="attachment_5638" align="aligncenter" width="285"]goatcollage With my uncle in a cherry orchard, Crete, 1983.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_5636" align="aligncenter" width="240"]10178077_10202891522542613_5176950591007394381_n A baby goat won by a village local in a lottery. My FB friends named him Cornelius.[/caption] See, I’ve got family in southern Crete. So I kind of know about goats (and sheep, "and stuff"). Right before I wrote my first book, I was on vacation in a Cretan village called Loutro. In this tiny paradise accessible only by boat, goats were everywhere. A few even came to say hi to me when I was relaxing on my beach chair, and yes, I always said hello back. I’d float in the sea, look up at the mountains and watch them while listening to the beautiful sounds of their bells. Those experiences seeped into my story. Not long after, I found out that a colleague had spent his spring break on a goat farm to help with kidding season. Once I realized what “kidding” meant (I’m slow, especially after a long day of teaching), I got really excited because there’s a scene in my first book wherein the hero and heroine help a goat deliver her twins. One of the babies is breech. [caption id="attachment_5631" align="alignright" width="240"]photo1-300x197 Joel is the hero of that book, not the colleague.[/caption] So I bombarded him with all sorts of questions, and when he mentioned a breech birth, I spat out, “Oh yeah, I saw something like that when I was watching goat births on YouTube!!!!!” At which point, he took a giant step backwards. Oops. I never did get a chance to explain the reason for my research. As soon as I got home, I made a page of “goat notes” based on what he’d told me. (Please note the sparkly pink ink. Yes, I cave into the demands of my muses.) Well? What do you think? Does this earn me my crazy badge? [caption id="attachment_5632" align="alignleft" width="180"]18723_10204822503575932_30456339463059572_n Why there are goats in the middle of a big city, I can't tell you.[/caption] I live in Jerusalem now, only a few blocks away from a school that, for some reason, has a yard full of goats. My dog doesn’t care about them, and may even be a little jealous, but I drag him there often to check on my crew. Um, I mean do research. See how cute? Goats have been prominently featured in each of my books, which take place in Crete. My  friends fill my Facebook timeline with goat related fun (for which I thank them). Here’s the thing though. I need to move on from goats, so my current WIP focuses more on donkeys. But fear not. It has a few goats wandering around too. We’ll see where the donkey thing leads. So, writer friends. Now that I’ve confessed my deepest, darkest, writer crazy, why don’t you do the same? That’s what the comments are for. :-) Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. You can hear more about her writer crazy at http://melinakantor.com.

Yiaourtopita – Greek Yoghurt Cake

melinafive~ By Melina Kantor Hi Everyone! I’ve got Katerina here, the protagonist from my most recent NaNoWriMo project. She's anxious to speak to you about a recipe. She's getting all deep and philosophical and saying it represents her or something. You'll have to excuse her. She’s a baker. She’s always doing that. But she’ll have to wait while I give you all a bit of background. I’ve got family in a tiny village on the southern coast of Crete, right on the beach. The photo of me in the Greek dress was taken in a nearby cherry orchard when I was five. I base a lot of my stories in a fictionalized version of the village. Until now, my stories have all taken place during the summer. For this book, I tried something different. This story takes place in the winter, when the village is free of tourists. Another fun fact? Winter brings about a whole new selection of pastries, which comes in handy when writing a story that revolves around a bakery. Okay, Katerina. Have at it! (Note: Between you and me, this recipe is actually my mother's. Not Katerina's mother's. Shh. . .)

 ~

I may be five feet tall. I may be soft spoken. I may have big green eyes that look like they’d be better suited for a child. At the moment, I’m wearing a pink turtleneck sweater. But don’t let all that deceive you. If you meet me, you’ll probably tell me I’m sweet. You might even compare me to the sweet confections in my bakery’s display case. That would make me cringe. (Not that you’d notice.) PastryCollageIf you took the time to look deeper, you’d see that yes, I’m sweet (although my mother might sometimes tell you otherwise), but I’m so much more. Underneath my sweet exterior, I’ve got hidden spices, a streak of tartness, and even some alcohol. Just like my yoghurt cake, which we call yiaourtopita. I know this with certainty because I have a special power. All the women in my family do. We can speak to a person for only a few seconds and immediately know which pastry they’ll like, which pastry represents them. Then, we magically figure out a recipe that is exactly to the person's liking. This makes us a hit on the birthday / name day / baptism / wedding / holiday circuit. My friend Evi is tough and complex like kalitsounia, a cookie stuffed with cheesecake-like filling. Yiannis, the little boy who lives next door, is gooey, soft, sweet, and messy like loukoumades, honey soaked fried dough. So, if you’d like to get to know me, bake up a batch of my mother's yiaurtopita, which she invented just for me. You’ll see that it’s a strong, sturdy cake, as far as cakes go. It's not fussy and fragile like those cakes that require beating egg whites. I don't have time for cakes that require such nonsense. I’m running a bakery all by myself during one of the worst economic times Greece has ever seen, all while trying to get my ex-boyfriend to give back the thousands of Euros he stole. Even worse, there’s a new baker in town, and he’s totally in my way. I’d say all this makes me as strong and sturdy as my yiaourtopita. I'll assume you agree. Now, go preheat your oven to 350 and get to work.   Ingredients:
  • 1 c butter
  • 2 c sugar
  • 6 eggs, well beaten
  • 1 c plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 tsp baking soda diluted with 2 oz cognac
  • 2 c flour
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 c sugar and 2/3 c water (for the syrup)
  Method:
  • Melt butter and allow to cool slightly.
  • Beat butter and add sugar gradually, beating thoroughly.
  • Add eggs and yogurt; continue beating.
  • Add soda, cognac, flour, cinnamon and cloves and beat well.
  • Pour into 9x13” pan.  Bake at 350 for 1 hour.
  • Simmer syrup for 15 min.  Pour warm syrup over cool cake.
  In my opinion, yiaourtopita is best served with a cup of muddy Greek coffee (without sugar – the cake has enough and why ruin the purity of the coffee). Or, better yet, a glass of ouzo. Or even a shot raki (which, by the way, I tolerate surprisingly well). Here are some other bakers baking their version of yiaourtopita, for those who'd like a visual:

Kali Orexi! Bon appétit! Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com  For more of her recipes, go to http://melinakantor.com/?page_id=22

Attn: All The Single Ladies – Write Those HEA’s!

melissa~ By Melina Kantor  We’ve all heard romance authors say some version of this before, right? “I’d like to thank my husband. It’s because of him that I’m able to write happy endings.” It’s a sweet sentiment, and a very nice thing to say during a RITA acceptance speech or in an anniversary wish on Facebook. Maybe, for these authors, getting married was a path to writing romance. As long as they aren’t giving their husbands credit for their own accomplishments as writers, that’s great. They’re lucky women. But we single romance writers can also write heartwarming, gorgeous, happy endings. How do we do it? Let’s discuss. As Max Medina pointed out to his students (let’s not dwell on the fact that I got this piece of trivia from an episode of Gilmore Girls and not from a high school English class):
"There's a certain slant of light, winter afternoons that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes." That, my friends is the first verse of a poem by Emily Dickenson. Now read some of those tonight, and as you do, consider the fact that Emily Dickenson writes convincingly about passion and about the world in spite of the fact that she lived as a virtual recluse. It'll help you appreciate her mind.
You see? If Emily Dickenson can do it, so can we! Here are my theories as to why.
  • We’re human. We’re wired to tell all sorts of stories. We instinctively understand story structure. That’s because we understand human emotion.
  • We’ve read romance, seen romantic movies, watched our family members and friends fall in love, and in many cases, been in love ourselves.
  • Romance novels are fiction. Yes, we authors insert ourselves into our stories, but our characters live their own lives. We’re just here to tell their stories. If they want to go to the moon, we can send them. If they want to perform open heart surgery, we let them.
  • Most of us, single and otherwise, have been burned at least once in the dating world. Yes, the stories we write are fiction, but wow is it fun to throw in little gems from our own experience. We can turn our ex’s into villains, or rewrite our experiences the way we wished they’d turn out. Not that I’d actually turn an ex into a villain. Oh wait. I lied. I totally would and I have.
  • I can’t speak for all single romance writers, but I know what I want in a guy. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof. I know what would make me happy, which means I can write characters who are just as confident in what they want, make it almost impossibly difficult for them to get it, and then celebrate when love finally conquers all.
  • We have imaginations. Enough said.
There you have it, single ladies. Fear not. Keep writing those happily ever afters! I’m sure there are many reasons I haven’t mentioned. Feel free to add your own in the comments. I’d love to hear them. Apologies for the earworm, but I can’t resist leaving you with this. Enjoy! Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels. In July of 2012, she moved to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com

This Week in Chick Lit

banners broker ~ By Melina Kantor  Hello Everyone. I hope you're all having a somewhat relaxing and enjoyable summer, and that if you're in one of the many places where it's really unspeakably hot right now, I hope you're staying cool. This week, I came across an article on the appeal of chick lit. I'm sure that those of us reading this blog could come up with a billion reasons to love chick lit, but Lucy Walton had some interesting points:
When I pick up a chick lit, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, that although I have not read it; I am going to like the ending. Despite their predictability, they are still addictive. I often ask how new writers make the modern chick lit not a cliché as this is such an easy trap for a authors to fall into. I am assured that with the diverse careers women now have (compared to Austin days) that can take them anywhere in the world. This can be the basis of many a story previously untouched.
What do you think? Have a great weekend! Melina writes contemporary women’s fiction with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel and enjoys turning her adventures into research and inspiration for her writing. This summer, she and her dog will be moving from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com.

[Repost] Shiny Happy Characters

~ By Melina Kantor When I was 27, I had to leave New York and move back to California. And back into my mother's house. Now, I love my mother. And I love her house. And it would be wrong to complain about living in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. But I was 27, and in love with New York. But even with my recent MA from Columbia, I couldn't get a job with a salary high enough to be able to live there. The plan was to go home for one year, and save enough money to go back. I could not have been more miserable, and I was not at all shy about saying so. One Sunday morning, I came downstairs and tried to make breakfast. There was nothing I wanted. Sure, the kitchen was well stocked, but I wanted take out from one of my favorite restaurants in Manhattan. The kitchen could have been filled with fresh baked pastries straight from Paris, and I wouldn't have cared. Cue the tantrum. I went to the living room and gave my mother an ear full. I was a failure. I would never be 27 again, living the life of a single girl in the city. My opportunity was lost. Even if I went back in a year, which by the way I was absolutely, positively going to no matter what just you watch, I was going to be 28 and it wouldn't be the same. Everything was ruined. I was a complete and total failure. Okay, so I was being dramatic. Forgive me. Being around my mother causes me to act like a teenager. My mother waited for me to finish, and looked up from the couch. Her response? "You've been reading too many of those books with pink covers." In other words, too much chick lit. Now, I think we'd all agree that there's no such thing as too much chick lit. Her point was that I was reading about too many 27 year old single girls in New York, living the life I wanted, and having their happily ever afters, and that none of it was real. I still thought I could have made the "chick lit style life" my reality if I'd just tried a little harder. But my mom was right. I was reading about too many protagonists who had great shoes, cute apartments, cute pets, good jobs, great social lives, and a love interest. Yes, of course there are plenty of 27 year old women who do have those things. But many of us, especially in big cities, don't. I know many readers read chick lit to live vicariously and escape. But honestly, there are some books that used to make me feel awful. I still refer to the protagonists in those books as "shiny happy characters." I'm not saying that characters can't be happy and successful. I'm not even saying a character has to be likable. I just think that even in the lightest and happiest of stories, it's important that the protagonist have her fair share of struggles and challenges, and not just guy related. Otherwise, it can be hard to relate. Especially for those of us who live in real New York apartments where we keep our blow dryers on the bedroom floor because our bathrooms have no outlets and our socks in a drawer under the television because we don't have an inch of space to spare. I did move back to New York after a year. I got a decent apartment. And a job, and a cute dog. I made friends and built a life. But still, life's not shiny. Not at all. And my friends' lives aren't shiny either. My characters all live in New York, are in their late twenties, and single. But I do my best to keep it real. In fact, my tantrum in my mother's kitchen inspired a scene in my first book. What to you think? Do you enjoy living vicariously through "shiny happy characters" or do you prefer a protagonist with some real challenges? Leave a comment and let us know! Melina writes contemporary women’s fiction with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com.

This Week in Chick Lit

~ By Melina Kantor Hello Chick Lit Fans, Happy Friday. And happy summer! June is here, which hopefully means a lot of us are on or soon to be on vacation. Which means there's more time for writing! But we all know it's impossible to write if we don't a) take time to relax and have fun and b) allow time for some inspiration. That's why I loved these to posts about summer movies and TV: These posts from Chick Lit Central are all about chick lit authors and their favorite movies. This post from Heroes and Heartbreakers is about June TV premiers. In case any of you feel guilty for indulging in movies and TV when you should be writing, just remember how much movies and TV shows can teach us about writing. Although eventually, we do have to write. . . If you need a boost, check out this post from Novelicious: Top 5 Writing Tips from Alice Peterson Stay cool this weekend! Melina writes contemporary women’s fiction with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel and enjoys turning her adventures into research and inspiration for her writing. This summer, she and her dog will be moving from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com.