Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What to Read When You're Writing

I got a delightful email today from Heather Ashby, a fellow Firebird. She's reading Love in Reality and enjoying it. "It's a lovely oasis between writing/tweaking/polishing my own manuscripts..."

The best thing about Heather's compliment is that I know exactly what she means--not all books "work" as relief when you're knee-deep in your own stories. When you find something that provides that added bit of relaxation, well, it's a good thing.

I'm madly trying to get to "The End" on The Cost of Happiness, Book 2 of The Blackjack Quartet. but I have a cold so I really want something comforting to read when I tumble into bed, exhausted. I don't want what I'm reading to distract or derail me from my own characters or their story.


Which prompts this question: What do you read when you're on deadline, trying to finish a book? What you read while you're writing can make a difference, so you need to pick carefully.

For example, it would be good to match up the heat level. Reading erotica when you're writing relatively euphemistic love scenes can be tricky. (I assume the converse is also true: if one writes erotica, that might not be the time to glom onto YA romances.)

But can you pair up different genres? I've discovered that I can. So, even though my books are contemporary romances about Philadelphia lawyers, certain historical romance novels work very well.

In fact, for me, the current perfect fit is Mary Balogh, because she specializes in letting the reader into the characters' internal thoughts and feelings.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips once announced in a workshop that--unless you were Mary Balogh--you shouldn't attempt the internal monologue. Well, I'm not Mary Balogh, but I can't write characters without including what they're thinking and feeling, even in third person point-of-view.

So Balogh's Regency romances work well as comfort reads while I'm writing. Apart from our shared love of the internal monologue, there's precious little else my books have in common with hers. All the same, I strive to accomplish the same angsty goodness through those glimpses into my characters' thoughts and feelings. I think my current Balogh marathon is helping.

I wonder if this works for writers working in other genres? Would my classmates writing epic fantasy find that reading drawing room mysteries (Sherlock Holmes or Dorothy Sayers) helped them convey that intricate world of multiple characters? If you write horror, would there be synergy reading memoirs by individuals who've seen the worst and lived to tell about it?


Oh--I know: If you're writing about zombies, why not read books by food critics! (Yum! Brains!)

What do you read when you're writing?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Setting the Scene

I need two three-minute bits to read aloud for school. One's for open mike night. That's tough because three minutes isn't long enough to read much of a novel to any purpose. So I just steal from the funnier of my posts here.

Last summer, I modified this post on Deciphering Romance Novel Blurbs & Reviews. Seemed to go over well enough.

This time (which is to say, next week's Stonecoast residency which is also next month's residency, and the first of next year's residencies) I plan to do a shortened version of my post on The Two-Minute Orgasm, possibly just for the thrill of saying "fuck" in front of my classmates.

The other read-aloud is more private. The ten or so students who started in Popular Fiction last winter got together midway through the residency and read aloud to each other, for practice. (I read a foreplay scene, perhaps again for the thrill of using the word "fuck" in front of my classmates.)

This time, someone asked for excerpts that "set the scene," meaning they establish a time and place for the protagonist to move through.

I've selected two really short bits from Love in Reality. First up, the hero visits his parents:
   Rand pulled into his parents’ driveway, turned off the car and sat for a moment, gazing at the perfectly-maintained landscaping. His parents’ house wasn’t large by Bel Air standards, but it sat on a particularly gracious lot, perfect for entertaining. Perfect for his mother to swan around, impeccably dressed, making sure everyone was comfortable. Perfect for his father to entertain industry moguls with his stories of clashes with the network honchos. Perfect for everyone to feel smart and creative instead of just lucky.

   Even the air smelled perfect as Rand opened the car door. He shook his head. All this perfection and he still dreaded the duty Sunday brunch visit. He loved his parents, but he and Alan-Jennings-the-TV-producer (as opposed to Alan-Jennings-his-dad—when was the last time Rand had a conversation with his own father that hadn’t been about the industry?) seemed locked in a tug-of-war over Rand’s disappointing career choices.

   The only imperfect thing the Jennings had to deal with was their son. No wonder he didn’t feel comfortable coming home.
Second excerpt is Libby early in her time on the reality TV show The Fishbowl:
   While the others were chatting about nothing in particular, waiting for the disembodied voice to tell them what to do next, Libby went back into the living room to look around. There was always a challenge involving details of the decor, so no reason not to study for it now. The walls this year were vaguely rounded in places, but they still had the large, built-in fish tanks, stocked with colorful fish. Libby crouched down to see the camera behind the fish tank, getting “watery” shots of the contestants in the background with real fish in the foreground. She memorized the number of fish in each tank before turning back to the living room furnishings.

   The decor was like Little Mermaid on Ice sponsored by Ikea—lots of blues and greens with sleek Swedish modern furniture. Tall, spiky potted plants mimicked seaweed and the few paintings echoed the sense of being under water. There were a lot of round shapes, too—rugs, wall art, pillows. Bubbles, Libby thought as she counted them.
 Nothing earth-shaking, but I think they get the job done. With luck, the reader can visualize the space and get a better sense of the character(s).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Next Big Thing

I got tagged by Ellis Vidler, author of TIME OF DEATH in the Interview Meme, The Next Big Thing.

Q. What is the title of your book? 
A. LOVE IN REALITY, available as a digital book from Harmony Road Press.

Q. Where did the idea come from for the book?
A. Watching too much reality TV! Specifically, shows like Big Brother, where contestants are locked in a fictional "house" and have to kick each other off one at a time until a winner is selected.

Q. What genre does your book fall under?
A. Contemporary single title romance. (That just means it's longer, about 90,000 words.)

Q. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
A. What a great question. Rand, my hero, thinks he looks a bit like Ryan Reynolds, but I really don't have a specific actress in mind for Libby. Plus, I rather think the couple on the cover is pretty close.

Q. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A.  Can love flourish when a law student is pretending to be her twin on a reality TV show and the TV producer is using her to write a winning screenplay?

Q. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
A. Love in Reality is published by Harmony Road Press, a "mom-and-pop publishing empire" I run with my awesome husband, Ross. (So, yeah, it's indie-published.)

Q. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A. About three months. Then I completely rewrote it, so add on another few months, and then I rewrote the first third of the story and the ending, so all told, about three years! (That's called "writer's math," kids.)

Q. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A. I'm not sure there is anything similar, but it's funny and contemporary, so maybe Kristan Higgins or Susan Elizabeth Phillips?

Q. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A. It's standard on these reality TV shows for the contestants to talk directly to the camera.  I started to think about the relationship that might develop between the producer asking the questions and the contestant. It seems like a very intimate situation, but still fraught with challenges.

Q. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
A. It's the first book in The Blackjack Quartet, a series of interrelated romances in which Jack "Blackjack" McIntyre plays a role. And then, in Blackjack & Moonlight, he falls in love. (Blackjack & Moonlight was a finalist in the 2012 Golden Heart® contest and will be released in mid-2013.)

Okay, for all you authors out there…here are the rules:

 •Give credit to the person/blog that tagged you

 •Post the rules for this hop

 •Answer these ten questions about your Next Big Thing on your blog

 •Tag two or more writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ta-Da!

Just like that, this is now officially an AUTHOR BLOG!

Okay, I'm not an author yet--Love in Reality will be on sale early next week--but I have a laundry list of stuff to do that's a mile long and includes school work AND writing the next book in the series, so forgive me if I'm jumping the gun.

Plus, I'm excited. Okay, so that's actually nerves. I'm nervous. Nervous that someone will write to me about some hideous mistake. Not the other kind of mistake--the kind where all you can do is thank the person very sweetly and inside you just shrug.

For example, I made a modest effort to learn about how a reality TV show like Big Brother (i.e., a locked house with a motley crew of contestants in skimpy costumes competing to win a lot of money) is made. I even called the production offices. They hung up on me. So if someone who's worked on a Big Brother-style show writes to say, "Boy, are you dumb," I'll write back and agree with them.

But if one of my law professors writes to say, "Did I teach you nothing?" I'll die a little. How embarrassing!

Okay, that's one of the things I'm nervous about. Here's another: Crickets. As in, Cue the...

How mortifying if we publish this, I tell everyone I know it's out there, I advertise, I guest-blog, people review it on Amazon or Goodreads, and...

Nothing.

Not even crickets.

Yeah, okay, so it's unlikely, but it could happen. Even the possibility makes me nervous.

On the other hand, bad reviews? I think I'm ready. Yes, really. Bring `em on. Tell me how hideous you found it, show me (and the world) all the places it could be improved. Tell me you thought it would have more sex, less sex, more of the TV show, less of the TV show, or even you bought a copy thinking it would be about converting a 1970's-era TV set into a fishbowl and boy do you want your money back!

Because at least a bad review is better than no review at all. And way better than those darn crickets.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Write the Book You Would Love to Read

I've given the same advice to two author friends recently and it occurred to me, why not post it at Promantica (aka, the most anorexic blog on the planet)?

Of course you don't need to read the post; my advice is in the title: Write the book you'd love to read.

Here's what I'm talking about. Between various online discussions and the brand new Amazon author rankings, it's clear that some romance authors are doing very well indeed. E.L. James, Sylvia Day, Kristen Ashley, Robyn Carr, Debbie Macomber, J.R. Ward and so forth. Mazel tov to them!

I've enjoyed books by some of these authors, and not the books by others. Some books aren't particularly well-written, which clearly doesn't rule them out of "Ohmigod, you have to read this" status. (In fact, I've come to the conclusion that "the writing's not very good" is often a justification of someone's dislike of a book, but "it's very well-written" is never a selling point in the "No, really, you have to read it" urging.)

Here's the thing. I may never sell the voluminous quantities of these authors because to do so, I'd have to write books I don't personally want to read. How much fun would that be?

Oh, I don't think anyone's writing to the market--those bestselling authors are writing the books they'd love to read, and they've tapped into a huge readership that happens to love the same things.

Sure, that could happen to me, but I'm okay if it doesn't. Sales numbers, book rankings, and author status are all very nice, but they're ancillary to what I can control: the words on the page.

A lot of that is about good writing--believe me, that's the easiest thing to learn or fix--but a lot of it is about the storytelling, which is much harder to gauge.

So what sorts of things are true about books I love to read? Less tension between the hero and heroine. I know this means my books seem to have less conflict, but as I don't like to fight, I don't like to see my friends and family fight, I don't even like to overhear strangers fight, why would I want to write about characters who spat all the time?

I prefer characters who like each other, respect each other, are attracted to each other, and still can't make it work. (I'm all about the back story...)

I like angsty emotions, black moments, and heart-wrenching endings. I love five-tissue weepy reads!

I like sex but if I'm being honest, I can take it or leave it when it comes to a romance I love. What is required is that any sex be specific to those people and that situation.

And I like smarts. Characters with smarts. Plots with smarts. Sassy dialogue. Clever situations. I don't need the characters to have advanced degrees, but if they do, I expect them to act like they do. On the other hand, a street urchin can be credibly inventive. I love that too.

I like characters to be comfortable financially. Rich is nice but not necessary. Just not broke. That said, Rachel in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Dream a Little Dream has to be poor for the plot to work.

I'm sure there's more, but you get the idea. Right now, I'd say I'm writing books I'd enjoy if they were by another author. Not sure I'd love them to the point of saying, "No, really you absolutely positively have to read this!" Maybe someday.

Friday, September 7, 2012

My Summer Holidays

Regular readers Barb and JoDee have asked for that perennial September favorite: the essay on "What I Did Over the Summer." Specifically, how the RWA National conference went.

The answer: I dunno, I was sort of invisible, seems unhelpful, so let me parse it out.

When I was an associate at a Philadelphia law firm, I started quilting as a hobby. I'm not a very good or prolific quilter, but then I wasn't a very good lawyer. Interestingly, I didn't feel like a lawyer when I was with lawyers, I felt like a quilter. And when I was with quilters, I felt like a lawyer. In other words, I always felt different.

A couple years later, I went to a national quilt show and conference in Paducah, Kentucky ("Quilt City"). I was in a class where the instructor asked us to go around the room, give our names, and say a bit about ourselves. Surrounded by quilters, I felt all lawyer-y...until two  women on the other side identified themselves as lawyers. But I was still different: they were from California.

In early July, I went to the second residency for my MFA program, Stonecoast. It's easy to feel like a special snowflake there because we're all different. Sure, we're all writers, but writing is a solitary vocation: each of us writes unique stories, usually in a room by ourselves, and we're convinced no one will ever read them. You'd think since we share the same fears, we'd feel like a tribe and we do, but underneath the war paint, we're alone.

Or maybe I'm the only one who feels that way.

At the Romance Writers of America conference, there's a lot more solidarity. In fact, there are lots of tribes. Long-established published authors make up a tribe. Recently-established but bestselling authors: tribe. Authors of romantic suspense: tribe. Every chapter is a geographical tribe. Authors published by a specific publisher: tribe. Pretty young writers: tribe. And so forth.

I was inducted into a tribe this year: the 2012 finalists in the Golden Heart® contest, aka The Firebirds. We met up at a dinner on the Tuesday before the conference started, and we had official events together on Friday (when we got our certificates saying we were finalists) and Saturday (when the awards were given out). There was even a low-key pool party on Thursday evening.

I went to everything. Nonetheless, at the end of the week, people said, "Hey, where have you been? I haven't seen you."

Interesting. I'd somehow managed the art of invisibility from Tuesday night to Saturday night. It wasn't on purpose--I met up with long-standing friends and met new people too, I attended workshops, parties, and even the Annual General Meeting--but I'm just not good with groups.

Still, I was there, so let me tell you what I saw from beneath my Cloak of Invisibility:
  • RWA, as an enterprise, is struggling to keep up with the implications of self-publishing. At the same time, it's trying to keep things like the RITA awards (which go to books published in the past calendar year) relevant to readers. All of this, plus more, came up at the Annual General Meeting, and the reverberations haven't died down yet, six weeks later.
  • One of the bennies to being a Golden Heart finalist is you get to sit up front with Real Authors. I sat next to Jennifer Ashley (aka Allyson James), who was up for two RITAS in two different categories. She didn't win either, but like me, she had correctly predicted who would win in her categories!
  • My favorite workshops are run by people who normally work with screenwriters. I don't know what it is, but they're awesome and I always learn a lot.
  • Dominoes Rule OK: Because I went to a presentation last January at Stonecoast on how to adapt your novel into a screenplay and another one on what screenplay structures teach us, I decided to write a screenplay for my GH finalist manuscript, Blackjack & Moonlight. Because I'd written a screenplay, I joined Scriptscene, a scriptwriting chapter of RWA. Because I'd joined Scriptscene, I got to go to dinner with a bunch of its members, including LA Sartor. Because I sat across from LA Sartor, I got a referral to her editor...who's now my editor.
  • I had not one but two hunky men with me for the awards dinner:
Ross (aka Brit Hub 2.1), me, and Henry (Brit Hub 1.0)
After RWA we traveled to Spokane (lovely city) and Sandpoint, Idaho, where I developed pneumonia. Back home, lots of recuperation, lots of writing, and that was my summer.

How was yours?

Friday, August 31, 2012

From Where I'm Sitting

I haven't blogged here in months. Shame, really. I like this blog. I like writing about romance.



But from where I'm sitting, there are so many topics I can't write about safely. Here's a partial list:
  1. Other authors' books. I have discussed books in the past, but I don't review them. There's a very narrow range of topics in which I talk about a book because something about the book is interesting. Alternatively, I can praise a book to the rafters--no one objects to that--but this leads to a different problem:
  2. Writing. My writing, another author's writing, writing in general. Promantica was never intended as a "writer's" blog, and truly I would post even less frequently than I do now if I limited myself to sparkling observations about the business of writing/revising/publishing. The problem is that I mostly read books as a writer would: I enjoy them but I'm also looking underneath the hood to see how the book runs. I used to be a cranky reader, now I'm a cranky, stuffy reader. Deadly. Even when I like a book, I often like it because of technical matters that most reader can't care less about.
  3. Social media and the kerfuffles therein. Used to write about that, but those halcyon days are past. I don't think I even want to say why. ;-)
  4. Traditional vs. independent publishing. Apart from the fact that much smarter people are writing about this on a regular basis, I myself don't have much to say on this topic. And what I do have can be summarized thusly: I don't believe there's a gatekeeper any more; I see as many typos in trad-published books as in indie books but that's anecdotal evidence at best so who cares; and I just want to read good books regardless of how they get into the marketplace.
  5. My own books. And the pimping thereof. I'll say something on my website about them as they come out, but not here.
  6. My life. Because it's boring. And the few bits that aren't boring are sad, or would constitute self-promotion, or something. I don't have cute kids, my pets sleep most of the time, and my husband is delightful but shy.
There you have it.  That leaves me one topic at the moment: romance. And I haven't had much to say about romance recently until this article popped up: Are Romances as Bad for Relationships as Porn?

Katherine Feeney is just wrong.

Here's why: Porn shuts people out. It's usually a solitary experience, and most people are disinclined to talk about it. Romances can be--and are--shared. So in a relationship where the guy is accessing porn and the woman is reading romances, he's more likely to deny his activity than she is.

Yes, both porn and romance include fantastical images/portrayals of the opposite sex--I'm just talking about a heterosexual couple--that presumably real people can't compete with. I think the instinct to compare and judge is rather more a guy's trait than a woman's. If the guy is looking at a lot of porno women, he may look at his wife and think, "She should exercise more." A woman reading about six-pack abs and bulging manhoods is less likely to view her husband as inadequate and inferior just because there's a super-sexy guy on the cover of a book.

That would be the "real-world" view of these media. How about their inherent qualities and shortcomings? Well, I don't have an absolute view on that. Some romances are poorly written and convey heroines who are TSTL and heroes who should be arrested rather than revered. Some porn, presumably, is better done with less demeaning portrayals of ... oh, who the hell knows. I don't watch any.

More importantly, the original article was trying to tie porn and romances to relationships, which, frankly, gets us to a guns-and-butter point in the argument. Butter can help clog your arteries or it can augment a dish so that it tastes fantastic. Guns can win wars, allow crazy extremists to kill innocent people, or help defend loved ones at home. So what? If I had a stupid statistic about how butter kills more people than guns do, would that even matter?

People matter. The ways in which people read romances, watch porn, consume butter, and use guns -- that's what matters.

And, at the end of the day, it makes about as much sense to blame the romance novel, the porn site, the gun industry, and cows for the stupid things humans do. Whatever else I believe, I wish people would make smarter choices.