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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 16, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


E-Cards and Romance Contest Winners

When emailed greeting cards first appeared, I wasn't much impressed. I didn't mind receiving them, of course, but would never have dreamed of sending any.

That's probably because my taste in Christmas cards runs to cut paper and unfolding art. Plus, we send out Christmas cards mostly to serve as carriers for our annual Christmas letter.

Isn't that why we send Christmas cards? To reassure our old friends that we still remember them, and to be reassured in turn? And the Christmas letter, when people write them, is a way of keeping tabs on how their lives are going.

I know that people often mock those Christmas letters as brag sheets -- or reports on vacations, operations, deaths, and marriages. When I was young, I mocked them too.

But now I'm nearing sixty, and I care very much about all those things -- even the operations! Most of my friends are aging, and I along with them. I try to keep our family letter short and entertaining, but anybody who doesn't care about what's happening in our lives shouldn't be on our Christmas card list in the first place.

It's hard to tuck that family letter into an online card.

(Though there's no reason you shouldn't be able to include your family letter as a .pdf. Why doesn't some online card company offer that?)

(Come to think of it, maybe someone does, and I just haven't found them yet.)

Anyway, one friend of ours has been sending us e-cards from designer Jacquie Lawson's website on many occasions, and as time passed I noticed that the cards were getting better.

Instead of a sappy written sentiment, the emotional impact came from the images and movements in the animated cards.

In effect, Jacquie Lawson (probably along with others I haven't seen) has reinvented the greeting card as a short animated movie.

This year's Thanksgiving card from my friend was so good that I finally became a believer in the animated e-card as a new art form. I went to the website myself to see what else Lawson was doing.

After looking at her demo cards, I subscribed. Her website maintains my email address list, to which I'm gradually adding more people who I think might appreciate the cards.

But the thing that clinched it for me was her brilliant animated advent calendar.

I love advent calendars -- the bright-colored paintings with little square windows you open to reveal the picture underneath.

I've always been a bit of an advent calendar snob, though. I disdain the calendars where the windows are just arbitrarily cut into the picture without any reference to the picture.

The good advent calendars will place windows on actual windows in the picture, or at other spots that might really conceal something. Then, when you open the window, it reveals an image that might really be inside or concealed within the object where the window was located.

Jacquie Lawson's advent calendar tops that. The art is lovely and nostalgic (with a distinct European flair); instead of windows, it has buttons with the numbers of days in December on them.

The advent calendar program checks your computer's built-in date and time, and won't let you open any windows whose date has not yet been reached (though you can always open any whose date has passed).

Of course, you could change your system date, but why bother? The fun of an advent calendar is having a surprise every day.

And the surprises are delightful. Each day has its own little animation, and Lawson's work is almost always charming and clever. Sometimes the little filmette is funny, sometimes it's sweet, sometimes it's sentimental. Just as a Christmas advent calendar is supposed to be.

When I sent Thanksgiving cards of my own to a small list of people, I paid to have Lawson's website attach the advent calendar to each of them. One copy of the advent calendar costs three bucks (cheap!), but if you send five or more, each one costs only two bucks (cheapest!)

Of course, the recipients have to decide to install the program on their computer and then click on it every day to open the big full-screen picture and then click on that day's button. Judging from the comments I have (or haven't) received, fewer than half of those I sent the advent calendar to have actually installed it and used it.

But that's OK. If I sent them a rice-cooker, I would never know if they used it or not. And an unused electronic advent calendar is a lot less wasteful than an unused kitchen appliance!

Those who did install the calendar, though, have loved it -- as I am enjoying my own.

This paper comes out on December 16th, only nine days before Christmas, but what of that? You can still go to the website and buy an advent calendar for yourself. When you install it, you open up the village and click on all the days that have already passed and enjoy the unfolding of the entire town.

Why not go and see a demonstration of one of the daily animations? It happens that the one they chose is charming indeed, but it is not even the best.

Here's the link: http://www.jacquielawson.com/advent/landing

And after you view the advent calendar, you can look at the selection of cards and decide whether you want to pay to join up so you can send cards of various kinds throughout the year.

*

When the publisher of Cindy Woodsmall's Sisters of the Quilt trilogy sent us five copies of the trilogy to give away to our readers, instead of giving them to friends and family as Christmas presents, or giving them to a random real estate agent to locate possible recipients for us, we did the honorable thing and had a contest.

People who wanted a copy of the trilogy were required go online to our entry form and "tell us in 25 words or less what a good romance novel should be like." I further defined this by saying, "Let us know what you think is most important to make a romance worth reading."

There were about fifty submissions, and all of them were thoughtful and well written. It's hard to work with a mere 25 words, so some people made lists of single words, others wrote short phrases, and two wrote haikus. Most people, though, wrote complete sentences. I enjoyed all the approaches.

In fact, if these contest entries allow me to make a fair judgment, romance readers are literate, aware, clear-thinking, and sincere.

The entries fell mostly into these five categories:

  • Advice to writers of romance novels
  • How a good romance novel should make readers feel
  • The pros and cons of the formula that romance novels follow
  • How to stay in love, even if you're married
  • Funny ones

Not everyone requested anonymity, but we decided not to publish any of the winners' names, in case they are going to give their prizes as Christmas gifts. And to avoid the possibility of somebody googling their address and breaking in to steal their copy of the trilogy. Readers of Amish romances are always playing little pranks like that.

Here are the top five entries (in my sole judgment):

Fifth Place: A haiku about the romance formula:

Not a perfect girl.

A hero jaded by life.

Then she wins his heart.

The other haiku in the contest came very close (though the sender gets no prize):

Genuine people

Put aside their selfish ways

To unite in love.

Fourth Place: One of the entries about how romance novels should make the reader feel:

A good romance novel reminds us that love is eternal -- sometimes unexpected, rarely without complications, often unavoidable, always life-altering -- but, eternal.

Third Place: This falls into the "keeping marriage alive" category:

A good romance novel should remind you to act a little more like you did at the beginning of your marriage.

This is excellent advice, but because only women tend to read romances, the reminder usually goes to the spouse who needs it least.

Second Place: This entry is clearly designed as advice to romance writers:

Makes you love the characters enough to want them to love each other. Then, doesn't gross you out by making them slobbery lovers.

I'm going to have that one printed up on a t-shirt.

First Place: Not that the places matter much -- all five get the same prize. But in my judgment this was the very best:

It should remind me why I fell in love with my husband, and encourage me to feel that excitement and tenderness again.

In other words, all ye husbands who resent the time your wife spends reading romance novels, think again. It may well be that reading romance novels is the only reason she didn't boot your sorry insensitive boorish butt out of her boudoir years ago.

While jackboot feminists officially disapprove of romance novels, those of a gentler stripe do read romances and have opinions. One entry included the stipulation that the "heroine does some things better than the hero and he's okay with that."

One entry went straight to the nub: "A good romance is what Lady Gaga is not caught in."

Some of the entries, including one of the winners, came from men. One would make men the bellwethers of a good romance novel: "If a guy wants to read it and tells others, it's excellent."

Another man has apparently been roped into reading romances against his will: "A hopeful story of two honorable people finding common ground, with an explosion for the compelled male reader." Then he added, "Sorry, hoping for a free anniversary gift."

He may not have won a copy of the Quilt Trilogy, but I did send him my own novel Homebody, which has a pretty good romance -- and an explosion at the end. So he earned a free anniversary gift after all.

I can't tell from the sender's name if this one came from a man or a woman, but I think it nailed the formula of at least one subgenre of romance fiction: "Boy. Girl. Quirk. Earthquake. Zombie Apocalypse. Vampire and/or werewolf. Vampire and/or werewolf killer. Many dead vampires and/or werewolves. Kiss. Hollywood ending. Supernova."

How the Romance Novel Makes You Feel:

"Unpredictable, passionate, and full of sparks, a good romance novel's push and pull of love's development evokes sympathetic tears and joy in the reader."

"A good romance has only one requirement: the reader has to care." (And thousands of would-be romance writers wish you would tell them how to make that happen every single time.)

"The story makes you yearn for the characters to bond together and find true happiness. You delight in their discovery of each other."

This next one starts out like advice to the writer, but ends up with the reader's ideal response:

1. Avoid saccharine sappiness at all costs

2. Keep sex minimal and ungratuitous

3. Make me want to kiss my husband

You don't feel like kissing your husband without the help of a romance novel? Sounds to me like somebody's husband needs to get that tooth-brushing habit the health teacher was always going on about.

This one makes a dangerous connection: "A good romance novel should be like fine chocolate; enjoy it while you have possession of it and then savor the story for weeks afterwards."

If you savor the chocolate for weeks afterward, you may have a toothbrush problem, too. But I know what she really means, and I just have to point out that both good romance and good chocolate can lead to serious rapid weight gain.

"Falling in love is at once addictive, confusing, frustrating, and exhilarating. A good romance novel should re-create those feelings in all their glorious unpredictability."

This reminds me of what a fourteen-year-old boy once said to me, when I cruelly pointed out that he probably wouldn't end up married to the object of his passion. "I know it's not going anywhere, but that doesn't mean I don't think about her all the time."

Maybe romance novels are all about couples therapy: "Through deep characters, it should encourage people to explore and understand their own relationships more completely."

I'm not sure this works. When I was in college I tried applying the principles I learned from romance fiction to my relationships.

Formula romances seemed to encourage me to seem dangerous or unpleasant at first, and only gradually let the woman of my dreams see what a sweety I was. None of them stuck around long enough to discover the sweety part.

Marital Advice from Romance Fiction

Husbands, if you pay attention to nothing else in this column, read and memorize this list. These women are telling you what they want -- and so far are getting mostly from books:

"A good romance novel should make the heroine (and by extension, the reader) feel treasured and empowered, because that's what ideal love should do."

"A good woman finds a good man and marries him, without being forced to lure him into marriage with her body." (Of course, I lured my wife into marriage with my body, but when you're desperate, you use whatever you've got.)

"A good romance novel should show us what love can be, even amidst hardship, showing us the best of two imperfect people." What this means, guys, is that when things are going badly for you -- or her, or both of you-- that's when you need to treat your wife the best.

Some of the entries offered advice to young people about how they ought to arrive at the decision to marry: "It allows the reader to get wrapped up in the initial infatuation and the eventual love solidly founded on choice and truth rather than emotion."

Did you get that, all you young-and-in-love whippersnappers? Emotion may start things off, but you don't marry until your rational mind catches up and gives its approval.

"It should contain real love rather than lust, and deal with the joys and struggles that such real love entails." To which I can imagine a cynical editor at a publishing house replying, "Yeah, but the romances where they squeegee like squirrels sell twice as many copies." Though actually I hope that isn't true.

"When the characters must learn to respect each other's dreams even when those dreams may prevent them from being together, that is good romance." I'm trying to parse this. You mean that if their dreams conflict, you want the romance to end with them saying sayonara and going their separate ways?

A young woman writer said, "For my romances (and romance novels) I need deep characters that reflect my own inner stirrings, with complex relationships that acknowledge both virtue and vice."

I'm not sure that it's a good idea to conflate romance novels with one's own romances. Life goes much more smoothly when the relationship isn't complex, and when you both try very hard to get rid of all vices. Complexity plays much better in fiction than in real life.

At least that's how it seems to one old man -- and to this contestant: "Each protagonist's presence should improve, rather than enable [the bad behavior of], the other. And even their conflicts and disagreements should be, via loving commitment, part of their harmony."

"A good romance should be more about a couple's long-term compatibility and goals than their physical characteristics and hormone levels." OK, come on, now you're just talking like a mom.

Nobody's going to read a romance novel where the hormones are inert, everybody looks ordinary, and they carefully check out their compatibility and make lists of goals. That's what businessmen do when they're discussing a merger.

"The way to a woman's heart is through love and faith and trusting each other." That's what my mom told me, and in the long run, it turned out to be true. But I sure spent a long time getting through the stage where women only go for the guy with money or an athletic build. I was never that guy -- I was the dull trustworthy one.

Comments on the Romance Formula

Here it is, in a nutshell: "Girl meets boy and doesn't like him. Boy likes girl and tries to change her mind. Hijinks. Girl decides she likes boy. The End." Now that you've memorized it, you too can write romance novels and chick flicks.

"They should get together in the end. Neither of them should die. (Nicholas sparks needs serious therapy!)"

"Even though you know how it's going to end, the characters are likeable enough that you enjoy getting there."

"There should be intrigue (a love triangle or somesuch), stolen kisses, brazen announcements of one character's love for another (preferably in written form) and, of course, a happy ending."

What intrigued me was the preference for love to be declared in writing. I think of a certain post-it note in Sex and the City, and have to conclude the guy had the right idea after all.

Maybe that "in written form" thing explains why teenagers in love will text each other while sitting on the same sofa. Even so, I suspect an awful lot of "brazen announcements of one character's love for another" are still being declared by mouth. Or delivered by hand.

"It should make me cheer for the hero and never lose respect." This sounds good until I remember Daphne du Maurier's brilliantest-romance-novel-of-all-time, Rebecca, in which I spent half the book inwardly screaming at the narrator, "Show a little spunk! And while you're at it, get yourself a name!"

"It should be fresh, and avoid the rampant cliches that infect the 'chick flicks' and novels of our age. The characters should be real people."

Alas, romance has long been an editor-controlled genre, and if a writer strays too far from the formula (i.e., the cliches), the editor pulls tight on the reins.

The exception, though, is "chick lit," which is loosely defined as "romance novels for and by women who majored in English." Here it's an absolute requirement that the heroine deliberately violate all the romance genre cliches.

Of course, that is rapidly becoming the formula of chick lit. I'm not sure you can ever get rid of cliches. So I think that if you don't like the cliches of romance fiction, you probably should be reading something else.

Which you will enjoy until you notice the cliches of that genre. Every literary community has their own cliches and formulas. They're only bad when a college professor notices them and calls them "cliches" instead of "tropes."

This last expression of the romance formula baffled me, I'm afraid: "Romantic hero on neverending quest. Obstacles serious and humorous. Mostly, a happy story. Another device or quest to occupy secondary characters. Intriguing hero's romantic interest."

Is it just me, or does this sounds like the blueprint of a Terry Pratchett comic fantasy novel?

Advice for Romance Writers

"The mind's the sexiest part of the body -- and that's where a good romance should happen, in the mind. The best novels provoke the imagination." Unfortunately, that's precisely the principle on which pornography works, too.

"A good romance novel should avoid love at first sight unless it really needs to be love at first sight. Make them work for it."

This advice is half right. One of them needs to be in love at first sight, while the other one absolutely cannot fall in love right away. That's why it takes a whole movie or book to tell the story. If neither of them falls in love at first sight, then they go their separate ways and you don't have a story.

"Characters that you either want to be or want to be with." Yes! Exactly! A good romance novel needs, above all, to be good company. In the movies, you need a nice woman who shares your own dreams, and a man that you wish you had come to the movie with.

"A story of a relationship that is first and foremost real enough to believe in, but still dramatic enough to fantasize about." I think this actually describes an aspect of most good fiction, regardless of genre.

"Sex should be treated artistically, not pornographically." Personally, I don't care how artistically you try to write the sex. It'll never be as good as the sex you don't attempt to show us at all. And in period pieces, there shouldn't be any sex at all.

"A good romance novel creates feelings that are new to you, or that are too bold for you to have ever embraced them personally." Actually, there aren't any new feelings. If a reader is young or innocent enough, all the feelings are new. How many romance novels does it take, then, for you to have felt everything so nothing is ever new again?

"Idealistic without losing touch with reality." Come on, if real people didn't lose touch with reality from time to time, there'd hardly be any marriages at all. Though the ones that did happen might last longer.

"Characters who remain true to their values." Actually, in a lot of recent romance novels and chick lit I keep looking in vain for characters who have values.

"No dithering. We know the hero and heroine end up together; dithering is annoying." Um ... by this definition, the whole novel is dithering, isn't it? I think you mean that whatever it is that delays them coming together should be believable and fascinating.

"No vampires." I couldn't agree more.


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