Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White

This month’s selection, The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White, falls into a category I don’t normally read which is contemporary women’s fiction. After attending a session presented by Ms. Claypole at a recent workshop, I decided to read it since it sounded interesting.

The story is told from two points of view: Tilly Silverberg, a widowed gardener with a young son living in rural North Carolina, and James Nealy, a recent transplant to the area. Despite starting out in rural North Carolina, the bulk of the story takes place in England. Tilly’s mother suffers a fall, breaking her leg, which prompts Tilly to return to England with her son to spend the summer there helping her mother. The other reason is because James keeps hounding Tilly to design a landscape for his house even though she repeatedly tells him no.

The main characters are an unlikely pair since Tilly has chosen to isolate herself from society since her husband’s death three years ago, falsely blaming herself for following through with his living will decision. James suffers from OCD, anxiety, and other crippling mental health issues who has retired from his business at age 45 to work on conquering his issues. Due to James’ OCD, he persists in recruiting Tilly to design a garden even hopping on a plane to England to join Tilly and her son. Throughout the book, the two of them struggle to battle past ghosts which affect their current situation.

I had a hard time finishing this. More than once I wanted to just bag it but kept on reading because there were glimmers it would get better and more interesting. Except then I’d get disappointed as the story would slow down, the characters would become too self-absorbed, and unrealistic subplots would come into the picture.

It didn’t help that I didn’t care for either main character nor did I find the supporting cast very interesting other than Tilly’s son and mother. Why Tilly felt the need to lie about a potential life-threatening situation, only confiding in James, is beyond me. I genuinely don’t understand why her ex or James find her attractive. She’s nice and a good mother but she doesn’t offer much else other than an extensive knowledge of plants.

I found James’ behaviors and lack of impulse control scary more than endearing, while I understand he suffers from OCD and anxiety, a point hammered home ad nauseam, the way he acts from jumping on a plane to England because he can’t take no for an answer, to hiding important information like he has a grown son, bugs me as a reader. I supposed I’m to give him a pass because he’s good looking (debatable at best) and rich. Ahh, that lovely trope of no matter how messed up the male lead is emotionally, if he’s hot and rich, he gets away with it without too much second-guessing.

I suspect I was supposed to love Tilly’s zany best friend Rowena but she felt out of place and a stereotype. Another supporting character was Tilly’s childhood sweetheart who just happens to be going through a divorce at that exact same time and escapes to the village they grew up in. Naturally this creates a (forced) friction between James and the ex both of whom are competing with the ghost of Tilly’s dead husband.

The book is painful in trying to shoehorn in a romantic connection between Tilly and James. It takes too long to get to either of them explaining their feelings and when it does, it’s just awkward and unrealistic. If the book instead focused on developing a friendship between James and Tilly rather than a romance, I think it would have worked better.

Another thing that bugged me about the book was all the overwriting the author did. One of my biggest pet peeves and something I notice more with contemporary women’s fiction is how many questions are asked. For James’ personality it made sense to hear him internally questioning what he said and did since it was part of his personality but when both characters do it, it’s incredibly irritating. A lot of that could have been cut out which would have tightened up the flow of the story. Another issue I had was how inconsistent the author was in resolving twist both large and small.

 

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Unfinished Garden 2 pencils out of 5. It was forced and inconsistent in all areas but at least the scenery descriptions were lovely.

Weekly Musing: Picture This

This week I thought I would do something different. Something hopefully less wordy then my posts of late, a little bit more fun, and something more visual because sometimes that is the best way to express a thought. Or in this case just to brag a little bit about my writing space.

A while ago I found a link with pictures of 40 creative people, most of whom were writers. What’s so neat about looking over these pictures is how these people were either completely messy or completely organized, nothing in between. Granted some of these spaces have been preserved and thus tidied up for tourists.

My own writing space has evolved over the years and continues to do so. In our old house I took over a spare bedroom that overlooked the park behind our house with a boring view of the desert.

Now my writing space is different. When we were looking at houses, one of the requirements was that I had to have my own space and it had to be fairly good size. What I got was a loft all to myself although it is technically considered a bedroom since it had a full bathroom.

As you can see I have not one but two desks. One holds my laptop and is nothing more than a simple heavy-duty plastic table. Messy but still somewhat organized if only for me. It’s odd having a messy space because I’m a pretty organized person and can’t stand to have things out of their right spot. Yet when it comes to the space I spend a good chunk of my day, a little mess is fine. I can still find things including the desk top itself so no harm, no foul. Computer Desk

My other desk, free of electronics, is my actual writing desk. Admittedly, though, there are times I write in other places but this is my primary spot. As you can see, it’s a bit more organized as the space itself is an actual proper desk. I love it and the chair is really comfortable. Although it isn’t open like my other desk, I think the closed in space works well for me. Makes for mostly distraction free writing. I also have on it reference books I use most often. Tucked away in a drawer are legal size pads for when I’m just brainstorming or revising. Writing Desk

Since my writing sanctuary is a loft space, the one thing I didn’t get was a view. All I have are a couple of windows that look out to the side of the neighbor’s house. At least the cat enjoys the view. Windows and bookcases

As you can see I do have somewhat adequate room for bookcases although if I don’t stop acquiring books I’ll run out of space. I also have filled up pretty much every available piece of wall space with various things including 2 white boards, a map of the United States, and a dry erase calendar to help me keep track of deadlines and events. I’ve even tacked stuff up on the closest door but that’s as part of research for a book I’m working on. Corner Whiteboards

There you have it. My lovely writing space. Not my ideal but it’s more than functional especially when I consider the floor as additional work area. I love it for its openness and being completely separate from the rest of the house. Definitely my own personal corner of the world.

 

Weekly Musing: Retirement Home

This week’s musing is inspired partially by a book I recently in addition to my own observations and discussions of writers and general readers alike. Of late I’ve been thinking more and more about tropes I see in books or in the shows and movies I watch. A few months ago I touched upon tropes in romance that make me not want to read much in that genre, but this musing is much more general.

Recently I finished Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett and while it kind of confused me and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not as a reader, as a writer I appreciated what the author did. The book centers around a trio of witches and it is immediately clear these are not your typical witches and this book isn’t going to be your typical mash-up of fairy tales and fantasy. He twists so many of those tropes on their heads that it honestly keeps the reader guessing at how it will end.

This got me thinking about tropes I see a lot of that really annoy the hell out of me. Below are some of those I wish would be retired, or at the very least, if they continue to be employed, take a cue from Pratchett and others and flip the script.

Lying: I don’t know why but I’m noticing this in a lot of late. When I say lying, I’m referring to the kind where one character doesn’t want to tell another character, usually a loved one, a secret because they want to protect them. Yet they have no problem being truthful to a relative stranger or a new acquaintance mainly because that new person has quickly figured out what the big secret is from the start. Naturally wayyyyyyyyyyyy too much time is devoted to whether or not the loved one(s) will find out/be told the secret. Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, they will. They always do unless they happen to die.

So why freaking bother with this crap? I know it’s about drama but it’s so colossally annoying. I’m not saying people need to be 100% because no one is, but to string the truth out for hundreds of pages for no reason other than to manufacture drama is damn taxing. How about layering the lies? Or telling half-truths? Or slight omissions? Or if a character must go down the lying route, delve deeper into the motivation beyond the character believing they are protecting others because we know they aren’t.

Perhaps the character should start with the truth from the beginning. That, in and of itself, can generate all kinds of drama. When we think about our own lives, there are times when we feel comfortable telling the truth to someone that later on it turns out to have been a big mistake. Yet for some reason when it comes to literature and TV and movies, characters constantly lie, lie, lie. The burden is enormous and causes bigger problems then there really needs to be.

Nerds: While I believe the geek shall inherit the Earth, I would like many of the stereotypes and tropes associated with nerds to be retired. As a nerd I will admit that while it’s nice seeing my fellow geek brothers and sisters represented, it’s also annoying because so often the various degrees of nerdiness is ignored.

Some nerds are born, gifted with high intellect and naturally drawn to certain things. Some nerds are made, discovering the older they get they really are a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan because that stuff resonates finally. Not all nerds wear glasses. Fun fact, near-sightedness is actually the dominate gene, not perfect vision. Not all nerds are dateless and sexless. Not all nerds are adverse to showers and personal grooming. Not all nerds are stick thin or morbidly obese and have a diet which consists solely of Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Not all nerds are fashion adverse or horribly awkward.

Like every other stereotype out there, yes, there are people who fit the mold but by and large, nerds are a diverse group of people. Some are really into comics but not computers. Some are really into computers but not into science fiction. You get the idea. So let’s try to retire the nerd trope especially as more and more things associated with a fringe group have become mainstream and socially acceptable.

Angsty hero/heroine: While I’m all for a well-rounded and well-developed character, I’m getting a little bit tired of a hero/heroine who either starts off full of angst or through the course of the story becomes more emo. Oddly enough this is usually related to all the lying the hero/heroine does. Hmmm, wonder if there might be a correlation?

I think this became popular because it’s a quick and easy way to add depth to a character. Kill off someone close to them or have them be forced to kill someone, bam! Instant guilt and darkness. Oh, but some of us in the audience are getting tired of that. Again, it comes down to how to add drama to the story and make the hero’s life as trying as possible. But for all the darkness very little thought is put into bringing light into the hero’s/heroine’s life unless through a love interest. This in and of itself is something that should be relied upon less.

Heroes don’t have to be Mr. or Miss Happy All the Time types of people because no one is. The appeal of a hero is how they pick themselves up when things get bad. The hero’s journey can inspire us, but if you make the hero too full of angst we just don’t care.

Women Who Kick Ass: Let me preface this by stating I have fond memories of 1990s/early 2000s TV as having a lot of great female characters. It was awesome and great as a girl growing up seeing women who had something to offer beyond looks. However, partially as a result of this I noticed a trope developed. It was Women Who Kick Ass. The main problem I have with this is it gives the impression that the only way to be a strong woman is to literally be a strong woman. Apparently a woman who isn’t physically strong isn’t a strong woman even if her strengths come in other areas.

I get why this became popular especially over the last couple of decades. For too long history, society, culture, literature, TV, and movies have treated women as something so weak physically that this must mean women are the lesser.

So how do we fix this problem especially with the massive social and cultural upheaval the 1960s and 1970s bring us? Go in the complete and opposite direction. Yet even with women embracing the idea they aren’t weaklings, there is still a struggle on how to present a strong woman as feminine.  Xena may have been a warrior princess but let’s face it, her outfit wasn’t the most practical. We can kick ass as long as we look good doing it.

Hmmm, but what if you are un-athletic? Or not cute? Or both? What if you are the quiet female? Not necessarily passive and full of no self-esteem but just someone who’s more introverted? In an attempt to pump up the self-esteem and image of women that we can do anything that somehow got translated into in order to be able to do anything, you must be physical and kick ass. I get not wanting little girls to grow up believing they need a man to solve everything for them. Or to give little boys the impression females are dumb but Women Who Kick Ass ignores other things that make a female strong.

 

Like everything else, these tropes are what I see most commonly that I’m getting tired of. These things are cyclical and a few months or years from now it’ll be another set of tropes that will be popular. Granted the reason why these exist and continue to be used is because as a reader or viewer we still respond to them. I’m not trying to say that using any or all of these tropes are a bad thing for a writer because there are plenty of writers who do a great job with tropes to make them feel fresh and still relevant. Again that’s when taking a trope and adding some kind of twist to it.

Yet part of me can’t help but think buying into these tropes is just cheap and lazy writing. It’s far easier to go with people’s expectations rather than digging deeper and deeper into characters and story. It feels like to me it’s a way to shut the door on the endless possibilities that exist within the infinite universe of a writer’s mind. For my own works, there are times when I do make a conscious decision to at least try something different. Sometimes I think it works but admittedly there are times it doesn’t work. At least it’s worth giving a try.