Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Hook - Stage One: Call Me Ishmael

Trying to learn how to write a good book (or maybe a marketable book -- those qualities aren't exactly synonymous) has altered how I read books.

I started a book recently (no, I won't say which one) that *should* have been good, even great.  Stellar reviews, awards & nominations, lovely person as author, theoretically great set-up.  Alas, not a good book.  And even worse, it was bad in all the ways that I'd just spent several weeks trying to eliminate in my manuscript: flabby writing, poorly drawn characters, slow pacing...  I made it a quarter of the way, but wasn't able to finish this book, nominations or no nominations.

So, yes, I can't unring that bell -- maybe I would have liked this particular DNF if I hadn't known how deadly some of the writing was.  Maybe, but I doubt it.  I'm just too cranky a reader.  I was cranky before, but now I'm cranky with a smidge of technical knowledge -- a dangerous combination.

Still, I am having some trouble lining up my reading habits with my new education as a writer.  Are good books good in predictable ways?  Take, for example, the hook.  Everyone says a book needs to have a great hook -- the first line, first paragraph, first set-up -- to pull the reader into the story.

I dunno.  That's not how I buy books.  I never bought a book by an unknown author after reading the first page, say, and was glad I did.  And I have no intention of reading the first lines of a slew of books at Barnes & Noble and buying some just to see if Great First Line = Great Book.

But I did confess to having a substantial number of otherwise-gray TBR books sitting around, so it should be possible to kill two birds with one stone.  I'll look for great hooks and then see if the books that follow live up to the delicious opening. 

Here's what I propose.  I need to log all those books into my TBR database, and while I do that I'm going to post their first lines.  I won't bother to list the title or author (too much work, frankly), but at the end I should have a lot of opening sentences to judge by.  For stage two, I'll read the entire first page of the books with the best first lines, then the entire first chapters of the ones with the best first pages.  Then I'll read the book(s) with the best first chapter(s).  That could be as few as one book, or as many as...a lot.

Oh, and this may take a while, so feel free to comment on any first line(s) that you find intriguing.  That's what they're supposed to do -- get people excited.   (For the purposes of this exercise, I'm treating dialogue a bit more flexibility than a single sentence.  Don't worry, I'm too damned lazy to copy out a lot of text.)  If this works well, I should get my TBR pile cleaned up, several blog posts out of it, and maybe even reduce the backlog just a bit!

Remember, these are in no particular order.  And they aren't exclusively romances, although most of them will be:
  • "What's new with me?  Only everything!"
  • "I never heard your name before.  I don't know you.  I've got nothing to say to you."
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with faashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer.
  • Patrick O'Casey stepped from the hotel shower just as the sports news was beginning on WWL Channel Four.
  • As with most things wicked, the war of the magicians began in darkness.
  • "I know Jean Jacques would send word if he could.  Something must be terribly wrong."
  • Sheriff Gaine squinted up at the gallows and thumbed back his hat.  "Well boys, this is your lucky day."
  • "We need to talk."
  • My ordeal began one summer afternoon when I received a phone call from the Archbishop of Canterbury
  • The Earl of Falloden glanced at the visiting card resting on the salver his butler extended toward him.  He frowned.
  • Four hours after his failed suicide attempt, he descended toward Aerodrom Ljubljana.
  • Miranda Chase leaned against the smoothly worn counter and absently curled a finger around a tendril of hair, rubbing her thumbnail along the hump, creating a soft, steady rhythm of sound against her ear as she devoured the words on the page.
  • Rachel Farris came speeding down the dusky two-lane toward Destiny just as fast as she'd left town almost fifteen years ago.
  • Chloe Turner stared down into the black, roiling water, squinting her eyes against the cool spray.
  • To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be a very iffy day -- that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind -- one of those days when someone who is sensitive to abrupt shifts in weather and suffers them in his blood and brain is likely to change opinion and direction continuously, like those sheets of tin, cut in the shape of banners and roosters, that spin every which way on rooftops with each new puff of wind.
Okay, I think we'll stop with the sentence-so-long-it's-its-own-paragraph.  But fear not, I have more.

To be continued...

    Sunday, December 19, 2010

    In a TBR Pile All Books are Gray

    I'm debating whether to have a New Year's resolution about doing something with my TBR pile.  On the one hand, it's unlikely to have a tremendous motivating power -- I can ignore New Year's resolutions like a trooper! -- but as there are piles of books on the floor of my office (thus preventing me from quilting, another New Year's resolution I fail to keep, year after year), something clearly should be done.

    The real question is, what would I resolve?  Organize them?  Update the database?  (Yes, I have a database; I'm derelict but not immurred in the last century.)  Hide them?

    Don't suggest I actually read them.  That's beyond the pale, even for a doomed-from-the-outset New Year's resolution.  I do read books from my TBR pile from time to time, but it's to be admitted, they aren't the gray books.

    Let me explain.  My TBR pile falls into a few distinct categories.  There are the backlist books -- books by Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Dana Stabenow and Mercedes Lackey that I bought because I know I like the authors and will (eventually) want to read all their books.  There are books by people I know or have met at RWA conferences.  And then there are the gray books.

    Most books turn gray pretty much as soon as I finish ordering them.  I had a perfectly good reason for ordering them -- usually someone's passionate extolling of that book's virtues in a tweet or blog post -- but the recommendation just fuels the acquisition of the book, not its consumption.  Frankly, by the time I get the book in the mail, I've forgotten who recommended it and why.

    Here are some examples:  Love, Unexpectedly by Susan Fox.  Looks like a cute book, but I have no recollection of who loved it and why I got it.  The Rules of Gentility by Janet Mullaney, described on its back cover as a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones' Diary.  I actually don't remember this one arriving, let alone ordering it!  Night Into Day by Sandra Canfield.  The back cover on that one rings a bell, as the heroine has crippling arthritis.  I dimly remember the Twitter conversation that caused me to order it.

    And those are just the books that arrived recently enough to still be kicking around upstairs.  Once they go downstairs to my office, they merge into the gray zone of anonymous books.

    The trouble is that gray books simply stop appealing to me.  Maybe if I kept better records of why I ordered a book in the first place, I'd still see it as a unique work worthy of my attention.  But I think even the notes wouldn't help.  They'd all take the form "[insert name of worthy Internet friend] recommended this as a great read" and eventually even the recommendations would fade to gray.

    One solution, of course, is to join the TBR Challenge, which for 2011 is being run by Wendy, the Super Librarian.  I haven't done this yet, and it makes sense -- every month there's a different genre or differentiation as to the sort of book you're to review.  Now, I don't review romances but I can comment on the experience of taking a book out of my TBR pile despite its grayness and reading it.

    So that's going to be my New Year's resolution:  I will join the 2011 TBR Challenge and read 12 books from my gray TBR pile and thus remove them from the shadows.  As I add more than a dozen books to the TBR pile annually, this is perhaps not going to be a sufficient gesture, but hey -- New Year's resolutions are all about getting started.

    And it will be a dozen more gray books than I read in 2010...

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    The Truth About Legal Research

    Don't want to read a post about legal research?  I'll spare you the details and cut to the simple conclusion.  Regardless of the question, when you're researching the law there is no "right" answer.  Ever.

    I'll just say that one more time:  There is no right answer.  No one is ever "right."  Might as well stop fighting, because you cannot -- by definition -- win.

    Or rather, you can win -- you can win in court, for example, or you can see a law you believe in enacted -- but that's a different meaning of the word "win."  You may have won, but that's no guarantee you were right.

    I know this not because I've won and I'm being humble about it, but because I've been right and still lost.  I'll get to that story in a moment.

    Okay, now that we've culled out the casual visitors, I'll expound on this thesis.  I have three stories to share, and they all tell the same thing:  No matter what support you have for your conclusion, it's not right the way the laws of mathematics are right.  Your answer is just very well supported.  As you'll see, that's no guarantee.

    Story #1:  My father started law school in 1938.  Back then students at Yale were required to write term papers, so my dad wrote one on a very recent Supreme Court decision that had overturned 100 years of federal case law and precedent.  My dad was meticulous in his explanations of how the Court got it wrong.

    The case?  Erie v. Tompkins.  This is a case that everyone who's attended law school in the last 70 years has studied -- it's the underpinning of all civil procedure in federal court.  In the pantheon of established law, it's right up there.  But in 1938, it was a shocker because it eliminated the notion that federal courts and all the cases decided by federal courts followed a single common law.  If you slip and fall in Illinois, you may recover in your tort case where under Texas common law, you might not.  For a hundred years before Erie, federal courts didn't have to bother with the state law.  After Erie, state law was controlling on federal courts.

    The point here is that a case we lawyers all take for granted was once a screeching U-turn by the Supreme Court.  And if they could do that once, they can do it again.  So no precedent is ever 100% certain.

    Story #2:  When I was a corporate bankruptcy associate at the second largest law firm in Philadelphia, I worked on a case in which we represented a consortium of creditors in a Chapter 11 reorganization.  Our clients had decided on a course of action that was unorthodox but not against the law.  Our job was to convince the Bankruptcy Court that it was in the best interest of all the creditors to go along with this scheme.  My job was to do the research in support of our motion.

    On the day of the hearing, I trooped down to court with the litigation partner, the bankruptcy partner, and representatives for the consortium.  We were before Judge Fox, a well respected jurist but one lawyers occasionally found unpredictable in his rulings.  The partners had concerns that the consortium's plan was a long shot, but the case law was solid.

    Or so I thought.  In the middle of the litigator's arguments in support, Judge Fox barked at him, "What about Smith v. Miller?" (Not the case's real caption, which I don't recall.)  I hadn't cited the case, so I had no clue what it said, and if I hadn't researched it, there was no way the partners knew what Judge Fox was talking about.  Big time oops!

    Smith v. Miller turned out to be an obscure Supreme Court case from 1945.  I dunno -- maybe Judge Fox had written a paper about it back when he was in law school, but he really loved that case.  He actually continued the hearing for 24 hours to allow us time to read Smith v. Miller.  He basically challenged us to distinguish Smith v. Miller, meaning show why it didn't force him, as a federal judge, to toss out the consortium's proposal.

    As we were leaving the courthouse, the litigation partner said cheerfully to me, "Bet you want to throw yourself out the window, hunh?"  He got that right!  It's an associate's worst nightmare: to give the partners bad or incomplete legal research.

    Only when I read Smith v. Miller, it had nothing to do with our situation!  It was wildly distinguishable except for one attenuated point -- and on that point I found cases from two courts of appeal that flat out said, "Smith v. Miller is distinguishable."

    I was able to breathe again.

    Judge Fox's reaction?  "Neither of those courts of appeal is the Third Circuit, so I don't have to follow them."  Which technically was true.  Even if those courts had compelling reasons for holding that Smith v. Miller wasn't applicable in our type of case, they weren't the appellate court that Judge Fox had to care about.

    Moral of the story?  Judges get to do what they like unless a higher court tells them they can't.

    Story #3:  Even the moral to the last story is wrong.  Judge can do what they like.  Period.

    Here's what happened.  I'd retired as a lawyer when I moved to a large but sparsely populated county in Pennsylvania.  At the time there were about two dozen lawyers practicing in a county six times the size of Philadelphia.  There's one court and one judge.  I had no interest in practicing law here, but then the local D-List celebrity sued the local historical society and I volunteered my services.  That meant our one judge met me.  He wasted no time asking if I'd be interested in taking on court appointments.  I had no idea what that entailed, but what the heck.  I said yes.

    So -- with absolutely no experience in family law, I started representing parties in custody cases, usually involving foster care.  But every once in a while I would be asked to represent a party in a private termination of parental rights case.  Because losing your rights as a parent is a big deal, the county is required to provide counsel for the respondent -- the parent whose rights are to be terminated.

    Now I have no feelings one way or the other about terminating someone's parental rights -- there are cases where it's absolutely the right thing to do and cases where it's not.  As a lawyer, my job was to assess the facts, check the statute, read the relevant case law and proceed accordingly.  Two years ago, I got a client (C) who had been served with papers by her ex-husband (X), who wanted the court to terminate C's rights as the mother to their then-10 year old daughter (D).  I was appointed C's lawyer on a Tuesday and the hearing was on Friday.  Because of C's circumstances, she was "appearing" in court by telephone.

    Now, it's absolutely true that C had been a mess for several years, had abandoned D, done bad things to X (cheated on him, stole money, etc.).  But even though X knew precisely what C was up to (he'd kept in touch with my client's mother), he didn't seek to terminate her parental rights *until* she was seriously getting clean and sober.  Nothing came out at the hearing that contradicted what I understood were the facts: until my client showed any signs of being more than a dead-beat mom, her ex hadn't cared about her parental rights.

    When she was served with the court papers, C learned what state her daughter and X (and X's new wife, their infant son and her two sons from a prior marriage) lived in.  C hadn't spoken to her daughter for 5 years, wasn't able to call or write, and had only recently talked about wanting to play an appropriate role in D's life.

    I didn't do a great job at the hearing, but I got the judge to let me brief the case law.  I had several arguments, but when it came to the "best interests of the child" test, I was in luck.  There was a Pennsylvania Supreme Court (which is our highest court) case precisely on point.  In re E.D.M. had the same fact pattern:  mom had played no part in her children's lives for five years when dad, who'd remarried, wanted his new wife to be able to adopt the kids.  In order to do that, he had to get mom's parental rights terminated.  The Orphan's Court agreed; mom appealed.  The Superior Court (intermediate appellate court) upheld the termination of mom's rights; mom appealed.

    The Supreme Court reversed on the grounds that it wasn't in the children's best interest to be legally severed from their birth mother.  The kids in E.D.M. were 10 and 12, so that was just like my case.  There was nothing in the case about the kids' mother's prior mistakes, so that wasn't a factor.  Basically, the court said that if you weigh the advantages of a child's knowing where she comes from against the custodial parent's convenience, it's better for the child not to terminate the non-custodial parent's legal rights.

    Yippee!  C wins!

    (You know where this is going, don't you?)

    Here's the thing that makes this so shocking.  The holding in In re E.D.M. is binding on the lower courts.  Remember Judge Fox saying that he didn't have to follow the appellate courts that weren't his appellate court?  That's because lower courts are bound by stare decisis, a legal principle that says a court has to follow a case from a higher court where the facts are the same.  Under stare decisis, the judge in my county should have ruled against the dad.

    But he didn't.  And when I moved for reconsideration, he maintained that he wasn't bound by In re E.D.M.

    So I appealed to the Superior Court.  And, in the ugliest decision I have ever seen, they upheld the Orphans Court ruling.  They (deliberately?) misunderstood In re E.D.M. and basically ignored it as binding precedent in the test for what's in the best interests of the child.  And they hid their decision by marking it as not reportable, which means no one will ever be able to say, Hey, look what the court did in In re D. -- we don't have to follow In re E.D.M.  In other words, it's still binding law -- only not in my case.  (Do they even know what "binding" means?)

    So I requested reargument before the entire Superior Court on the basis that the three-judge panel had violated stare decisis.  Denied.

    So I asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case.  I even found a case that was (maybe) just like mine, in which the Supreme Court did apply In re E.D.M. with no discussion of the facts and just reversed the lower courts.  If they did it there, they could do it in my case.

    I lost.

    Now, of course, I'm not the point here.  I've heard from C recently, so I know she's okay.  It's really just a matter of time before she meets up with D -- there are too many points of contact.  Plus, C at least knows what she did wrong for so many years.  She may even feel there's some justice in how this case turned out.

    I know better.  I know that some number of judges willfully disregarded the case law, the best interests of the child, and the facts (all of which, by the fifth brief, I'd gotten pretty good at arguing) just to let the dad win.  I don't know why.  But I do know (with reasonable certainty) that if I'd been an associate at the number two law firm in Philly when I wrote those briefs, C would still be that girl's mother.  But as a no-name court-appointed lawyer, I had no clout.

    Ultimately, politics -- of some sort -- won out over legal principles.

    That case broke my heart.  I quit practicing law.  I have no faith in the state judiciary and I don't ever want to step into a Pennsylvania state courtroom again.

    The real question is: was I right?  As close as a lawyer can, I got the law right.  But no, I wasn't right.  Because in the end -- in the real world -- I lost.

    I don't believe in right answers any more.  And you're not going to convince me that they exist.  When you've seen what actually happens in the world, certainty is a luxury no realist can afford.

    Tuesday, December 14, 2010

    This Post is Just Meh: Recycling My Own Ideas

    True story:  I wrote the blog post you'll see below, called "The Sweet Spot."  It wasn't my best, but hey, it's the holidays, I'm busy, you're busy, I can't hit every post out of the park, etc., etc.

    Then I went looking for a photo.  I found one that looked familiar...because I'd already used it.

    Yup.  I wrote the same blog post twice.  Here's the original.

    And doesn't that just prove the point: at some point, a lot of writers run out of steam and, unaware they're even doing it, recycle their own work.

    Wow.  I'm not even published yet, and already my work is on its downward trajectory. 

    Having admitted already that my first full romance (well, written in this century -- and the less said the better about books I wrote in the last century!) is never going to be my best effort, I've been thinking recently about the evolution of an author's work.

    I realize the "sophomore slump" is more prevalent in other artistic endeavors, particularly music -- where a band's or singer's first album has lots of great songs and the second may not be so wonderful.  But I don't find that to be true in romance novels.  I can think of precisely one instance where an author's sophomore effort seemed less crisp and skillful than the debut novel.  Mostly, I think, romance writers get better and better...

    ... Until they don't.

    I see this a lot on Twitter:  "Oh, I loved her books, but the recent ones just didn't do it for me..."  "I've stopped buying her books..."  "The last one was just meh..."

    So if the first few books aren't an author's best and the most recent aren't her best but still we love her as a writer, that means there has to be a sweet spot -- that range of books when a writer's craft has developed and her creativity and passion for the genre is at its peak.

    How does a writer know when she's no longer got it, when her books aren't hitting the sweet spot anymore?  Presumably not from sales, because those undoubtedly increase *after* the sweet spot is achieved.  We know this because people are constantly discovering some writer and then scurrying around to scoop up her backlist.  Part of that is just the time shift, like not even knowing about Eva Ibbotson until more than 25 years after she was originally published.  But sometimes it's the case that you try an author late in her sweet spot and think, "Oh, wow -- she's great," and glom all her previous books.

    I distinctly remember reading a Mary Balogh back when she wrote for Signet Regencies.  I didn't like it and so didn't buy her other books.  (Oh, stupid, stupid me -- those old single-title Regencies are worth a packet!)  Decades later, of course I see what I was missing, so I've got a tidy pile of her back list waiting for me.  But there are rumblings that she's already past her best, or her most recent books aren't as good.

    Of course, people can disagree about which books are good and which not, but I suspect most discerning readers can tell the difference between a good book and one that was just so-so.

    Some authors avoid the sweet spot problem by stopping writing while still in their prime; LaVyrle Spencer comes to mind.  Others, like Pat Gaffney and Barbara Delinsky, change genres -- does anyone know their "women's fiction" books well enough to say if they're enjoying a renaissance in their writing?  It would be nice to think that changing genres re-energizes a writer and starts the cycle over.

    How does a writer avoid the decline in their writing?  Sorry -- it's a rhetorical question; if someone had the answer, it would be worth more than those early Balogh romances!  Maybe they don't know it's happening, the way I'm not convinced I'm getting deaf.  (My husband mumbles...)

    I hope writers are writing because they want to be, not because they're obligated by multi-volume contracts or (worse) the mortgage payments.  But then I like to believe writers actually make a living wage from their efforts, and we know that's not often true.

    Writers presumably keep writing because they want to keep writing and they're still thinking of characters and backstories and plots and HEAs.  And as long as people want to read their books, who can blame them?  It's not like there's an objective way to see that your books aren't as good as they used to be.

    Friday, December 10, 2010

    We Are The Borg

    The New York Times published an article recently about the sale of romances as ebooks.  The article was entitled Lusty Tales and Hot Sales: Romance E-Books Thrive.  Gee, how many clichés can they get into one headline?

    To the Times' credit, this article is deemed to be part of their usual book section, but in every other sense, it might have been in Business:  it's really about the publishing industry.  The thesis was pretty simple: it's embarrassing to be seen reading romance novels, so this drives the sale of romance ebooks so that commuters like Smart Bitches' Sarah Wendell can read them in public.

    Two things:  1) I'll admit I take advantage of the anonymity of e-reading when it comes to erotica.  Heh heh -- I was reading a dirty book at Disney World last week and no one noticed.  (Never mind the fact that most of those books are only published in digital formats...)  2) Of all the high faluting reasons to buy or not buy an e-reader . . . I missed the one about being able to "pass" as a properly literate person.  Oh, so that's why I bought a Kindle?!  Silly me.

    The article was offensive in a lot of ways, but it was also consistent with the snobbishness the Times has demonstrated with regard to fiction.  If Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult are right about the hierarchy, male literary fiction authors rank above female literary fiction authors, who may (or may not) rank above male genre writers, who rank above female genre writers, and so forth.  Genres are ranked as well: mystery/thrillers over science fiction over women's fiction over chick lit over ... well, romances.

    Go look at the Times article:  there's no discussion of romance novels themselves, their authors, the sub-genres, or even of the reading experience apart from the whiff of disdain about the covers.  No, none of that matters.  All that matters is that we, as readers, spend a lot of money on books and now, it seems, we spend a lot of money on ebooks and we do that because we don't want to be seen as readers of romances.  Basically, romance novels are a bunch of words with a happy ending and a cheesy cover.  No, really -- the article mentions the necessary happy ending twice, as though that's the only thing that identifies a romance novel as such.  (Now, if the Times had run an article about the diversity of romance novels, emphasizing that the only universal element is the happy ending but along the way pointing out all the sub-genres, thousands of authors, etc., etc., I wouldn't mind so much.  But when "the happy ending" is the only feature they care to mention?  No.)

    But wait till you see how they describe readers:
    If the e-reader is the digital equivalent of the brown-paper wrapper,
    the romance reader is a little like the Asian carp: insatiable and

    It's the potato chip argument all over again: we'll read anything (provided it has a happy ending) and we're undiscriminating.  But easily embarrassed...

    And don't you love how we're reduced to a single personality?  We are THE romance reader.  Not a multiplicity of romance readers -- a singularity.  We have a hive mind.  We are The Borg.

    Wow.  Not only did I miss the memo about how I should buy an e-reader so people can't see that I'm reading bodice-rippers, but I missed the ominous statement, "You will be assimilated," when I first picked up a romance novel over 40 years ago.

    This is so obviously ludicrous that if it were anything other than The New York Times -- "the newspaper of record" -- I'd shrug and ignore it.  But coming from the New York Times, I have to say it.  That's just stupid.

    Look at all the debate in comment threads and on Twitter.  We don't have a hive mind.  Hell, some romance readers are so contrarian that if I say white, you can bet they'll mention everything from ebony to onyx.  Complete with footnotes, if possible!

    I would like to get huffy and demand how we got here -- to this bizarre notion that 75 million people (the number mentioned by the Times of people who read at least one romance last year) think as one  -- but then I realize we're supposed to be happy the Times mentions us at all.  We're not only The Borg, we're invisible.

    Except when we spend money.  Look at how many romances end up on the New York Times bestseller list -- we may have a hive mind, but we're The Borg with disposable income.

    Of course, you may disagree.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    The Chinese Carved Ball

    There's a moment in Mercedes Lackey's The Serpent's Shadow when the heroine, Maya, is looking at a Chinese carved ivory ball.  It's actually a solid piece of ivory carved to have a dozen free-floating balls one inside another -- like a matryoshka doll that you can't take apart.  That's the skill of it, of course, that the person who fashioned it used phenomenal skill to reach in and carve out the next smaller ball, all through the holes of the larger balls.

    I saw one of these when I was a child and was entranced.  I own one now -- it's badly damaged and much smaller, but it looks a bit like this one in the Smithsonian -- and it still strikes me as miraculous that so much detail can be gotten into one object. 

    It's not a very evocative object -- I can't imagine crying at the sight of one -- but that doesn't diminish from its impressiveness.

    And that's precisely how I feel about The Serpent's Shadow.  It's not a moving book; there's not a lot of suspense and no angsty goodness.  But it is intricate and fascinating.

    I'm convinced there are at least as many spheres in The Serpent's Shadow -- 12 different things going on in one book.
    1. A romance.  Hero, heroine, conflict, resolution, happy ending.  Not the most compelling romance, but it delivers.
    2. A thriller.  Villain with plans for world domination that have to be foiled, etc., etc.
    3. Fantasy.  The Serpent's Shadow is an Elemental Masters novel so there are mages whose power derives from one of the elements.
    4. A historical novel.  We get the Suffragettes, of course, but also the fashions of the time.  There are fun details, like Maya's disgust with the internal combustion engine, and the popularity of all things Egyptian following the excavation of King Tut's tomb.  My husband says that Lackey gets some details wrong, but so what if an apothecary would have dispensed pills in envelopes or boxes and not in bottles like we're used to.  I suspect she got a lot more right than wrong.
    5. A feminist tale, as are most (all?) of Lackey's books.  Maya is a doctor in Edwardian England, so she has to fight a lot of discrimination from that male-dominated field.
    6. A lesson in the history of medical practice.  Not too gory, though.
    7. A tract on racism against Asians.  Maya is the daughter of an English gentleman and an Indian woman, so she is ostracized by both Western and Eastern societies.  One Asian character reflects how at least in London there are others Hindus, whereas they would stand out far too much in America.
    8. At the same time, it's not a white-washed book.  My copy has a cover that depicts Maya accurately, as least as to her skin tone and appearance.  Of course, it's a painting (it would have been hard to get all the animals to sit still for the photograph), but I can't think that makes a difference.
    9. A workshop on Hindu religious beliefs, including the various deities.
    10. A treatise on the class structures of both Edwardian England and India, with the added fillip of the logical extension of class divides to the fantasy elements.  As a "half-breed," Maya is below even an Untouchable in India, and as a woman, she's unworthy in England.  But as an earth mage, she's not a lot better.  Lordly mages don't much like the hero, a former ship captain turned entrepreneur (he must reek of trade!) but he's a useful water mage to have around.  Women, however, and the lower classes, are simply not acceptable even if they're powerful mages.  As earth mages tend not to want to be in the city, the special men's club for mages doesn't have an earth mages -- and they're disinclined to accept Maya.
    11. An episode of Animal Planet.  Maya owns two mongooses, a peacock, a falcon, a monkey, an owl, and a parrot.  They're a bit special, but in ways that still fit their animal natures.
    12. A fairy tale.  Honestly, I'm a nitwit because despite the bright red apple on the cover, and the fact that the last Elemental Master's book I read was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I completely missed the obvious:  The Serpent's Shadow is Snow White.  Seven animals = the dwarfs.  Villain = wicked witch.  Snake fang = spinning wheel needle.  There's even an enchanted mirror!  But in many ways, my stupidity is further evidence of Lackey's skill -- she presents all these parallels in a very unDisneyfied way.  I could have missed it entirely and still felt the book was complete on its own.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010

    The Happy Ending

    I broke off from reading the New York Times "100 Notable Books of 2010" (linked by a friend on Facebook; if I thought she read my blog, I'd give her a shout-out) to make this request:
    • Could the "Best of" lists specify which books have happy endings?

    I can hear the bleatings of "literary" types -- who's to say what's a happy ending and what isn't?  Maybe a failed relationship *is* a happy ending, right?

    Okay, sure.  I can see that in theory.  But as a reader, I really don't want to read a book, get invested in the characters, follow their lives for a few hundred pages, and end up "sadder but wiser."  That's not a happy reading experience for me.  It's rarely even a rewarding reading experience.  I've done enough "sadder but wiser" in my life.

    I would read more general fiction, if I knew, not what the ending was going to be, but whether the ending would leave me upbeat :-) or downcast :-(

    Not actually that hard to figure out, it seems to me.  And not particularly subjective.  We can disagree about whether we liked a specific book, whether we think it's worth reading, but I suspect most of us will know if we finished a book :-) or :-(

    I, personally, finished Bel Canto by Ann Patchett feeling :-)

    With the NYT list, though, who can tell?  Is the word "haunting" in a blurb enough of a clue?
    TO THE END OF THE LAND. By David Grossman. Translated by Jessica Cohen. (Knopf, $26.95.) Two friends are deeply involved with the same woman in this somber, haunting novel of love and loyalty in time of conflict, set in Israel between 1967 and 2000. 
    I suspect that one's going to be :-(

    How about this one:
    ONE DAY. By David Nicholls. (Vintage, paper, $14.95.) Nicholls’s nostalgic novel checks in year by year on the halting romance of two children of the ’80s, she an outspoken lefty, he an apolitical toff. 
    I can't be sure -- but I'm guessing :-(

    This one sounds fun:
    ANGELOLOGY. By Danielle Trussoni. (Viking, $27.95.) With a smitten art historian at her side, the young nun at the center of this rousing first novel is drawn into an ancient struggle against the Nephilim, hybrid offspring of humans and heavenly beings. 
    I suspect it would be a :-) although not perhaps a romantic happy ending, what with one of the protagonists being married already to Christ...

    But then Angelology seems like it might be a thriller -- which is to say, a genre.  Thrillers, mystery, science fiction, and, yes, romance are all genres.  For some reason, they almost always deliver the :-)

    I know they're not alone.  Some books in literary fiction do so as well, but a lot don't.  I wish I knew which did.  Those I might read.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    The Good, The Bad, and The Facelift


    I feel as though I've crawled out of a very deep hole.  I'm blinking my eyes in the sunshine, wondering where the last ten days went.

    The answer is, they went into my computer in the form of words.  I did win NaNoWriMo, which is to say I wrote more than 50,000 words of a new novel.  I'm not "done," though -- I wrote 40,000 words to the approximate middle of the book, then skipped to the end.  I was so desperate to get it done, at least by NaNo standards, that I raced through an awesome last chapter (well, the book will still need an epilogue, but the nominal last chapter is killer), looked down and saw my word count (as per Word) was 49,999.  So I typed "The End" and hit save.  (Actually, NaNo's validator gave me a few hundred extra, so as far as NaNo is concerned, I got up to 50,338.)

    Believe it or not, this is Pennsylvania, not so very far from where we live.                      

    My NaNo book is -- yes, I'm going to say it -- strong.  The characters are fresh and interesting, their motivations clear (to me, at least) and they have a good time with each other long before they have their black moment and subsequent HEA.  Even without six months of revisions -- which it will get -- it's got a lot of the things I know it should have.  It's "hooky," meaning it starts with a bang.  It's fast-paced.  And it's fun.  (Also, according to my husband, funny.  I don't know about you, but I have no idea if I'm writing anything funny until I hear someone laugh.)

    My NaNo book, Blackjack and Moonlight, is The Good.

    A book I started 18 months ago, The Cost of Happiness, is The Bad.  Oh, not irretrievably bad.  But I know when I go to look at it, I won't be able to save much, if any, of what I wrote back then.  So I'll start from scratch.  In fact, I've thought of a very hooky opening that helps with a lot of the problems I know that manuscript must have.

    Luckily, I had written less than half of The Cost of Happiness before putting it aside and starting Love in Reality for last year's NaNoWriMo.  Love in Reality -- and boy, is that an ironic title under the circumstances -- is the first in a four-book series of interrelated stories.  Here's the "family tree," if you will:

      1.  In Love and Reality,
    • Libby Pembroke and Rand Jennings fall in love.  
    • Libby's uncle, Jack McIntyre, shows up in Chapter One, 
    • As does her twin sister, Lissa, 
    • A law school classmate, Meghan Whalen, shows up in Chapter 4
    • And Rand's college roommate, Phil Gaffney, shows up near the end.
      2.  In The Cost of Happiness,
    • Meghan Whalen falls in love with Dan Howard,
    • And Dan used to work with Jack McIntyre, who has something important to do near the ending
      3.  In Blackjack and Moonlight,
    • Jack McIntyre falls in love with Elise Carroll,
    • Libby graduates from law school
    • Libby and Rand get married 
    • Phil is Rand's best man
    • Lissa is her sister's maid-of-honor
    • We suspect Phil has feelings for Lissa
      4.  In Book Four (tentatively titled Lost and Found),
    • Phil Gaffney and Lissa Pembroke fall in love

    I've also got some ideas about Elise's friend, Christina, who works at the same law firm as Dan Howard.  Libby & Meghan's law school may support a romance down the road, and Rand may make a documentary film that triggers a romance.

    D'you see how it might be nice if I can rescue Love in Reality?  Not vital, I suppose -- Blackjack and Moonlight will be a fine book whether anyone knows how Jack's niece got her guy -- but Love in Reality is square one for a lot of books.

    Love in Reality was The Ugly book.  Flabby writing, features that didn't fit in a harmonious or elegant fashion, and more than a little of that "only a mother could love this" quality.  But worth the effort of trying to tighten it up.  So I gave it a facelift.  I rewrote large chunks of the first 5 chapters, including the opening.  I switched the point of view in certain scenes.  I made my characters less blah.  And I tightened the writing throughout the book.

    It's a bit like Frankenstein's Monster -- did I do enough?  Are the scars too glaring?  Can people stop staring at those pegs sticking out of its neck?  (In case you're wondering, here's the most obvious and unavoidable problem that Love in Reality has:  twin sisters with the easily confusing names Libby and Lissa.  For plot reasons, that's just gotta be there.  And maybe readers will hate that.  I can predict now that agents and editors will hate it.  But just as Boris Karloff had disconcerting pegs sticking out of his neck, I've got two sisters with nearly interchangeable names.  His performance survived the pegs -- we'll see if Love in Reality can survive the Ls.)

    I expect I'll find out in a few months if the facelift was a success.  I've submitted Love in Reality for the Golden Heart contest for best unpublished manuscript.  Is it perfect?  Most definitely not.  Is it dramatically improved from how it had been, just two months ago?  I think so.

    But here are the two things I know for sure:  First, I have never worked so hard on anything, academically or professionally, in my life.  Which sounds boastful but is actually a very shameful admission, if you think about it.  (And if any of my former clients is reading this, yours was the case I worked super hard on.  Of course it was.)

    Second, I know I've improved as a writer.  Not just because the 50,001 words I wrote for NaNoWriMo this year are vastly superior words arranged more attractively than the 36,012 words I wrote back in the summer of 2009.  The real way I can tell I've improved is that as I was trying to carve a leaner, more attractive book for my Golden Heart entry, I became more aware of what worked and what didn't.  I'm know I'm a better writer because I can see I've become a better reader.

    Let's just hope I'm a decent plastic surgeon...!

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    This Poor Excuse of a Blog Update

    I'm terrified to tell you what I've been up to, because it could only give you a far-too-accurate idea of how I have what's called "a wishful relationship with time."

    The short version goes a bit like this.  My NaNoWriMo is going great guns (I'll pass 40,000 words tonight with 8 days to go) but Love in Reality is still on life support and I really, really need to get in there, do the blasted sextuple bypass surgery, suture it up and tell it not to eat so many fatty foods in the future.

    That's about all I have to tell you.  I want to submit Love in Reality for the Golden Heart contest, which means I have 8 days for that as well.  (Actually 7.5 days, but who's counting...)

    So, two deadlines (yes, I know I don't have to finish NaNoWriMo, but that's the one I'm really enjoying -- hell, I was writing while waiting in the doctor's office this afternoon...) and Thanksgiving: quite a week.

    If you're jonesing for a longer Promantica post, here are some oldies but goodies.  Enjoy -- and have a great Thanksgiving!

    A post about the power of music in movies -- do we want that also for books?

    The post where I admit I (very nearly) liked a Judith Ivory romance

    A very long (don't say I didn't warn you) post on five Regency romances with heroines in some 19th C. version of the sex trade.

    And, appropriately enough, a post acknowledging that while I might be busy, I have WAY more free time than virtually all of you.  Which makes me tip my hat to you all over again.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    It's Not Wrong, It's Different

    I went to my RWA chapter meeting on Monday night.  November's meeting is traditionally a brainstorming session.  We were to bring a problem from our writing so that the other members could brainstorm solutions.  There were five of us there: two published but not yet established authors, and two newbies.  I fall in between them: I've got a completed manuscript, a partial manuscript, and am writing a third book for NaNoWriMo.

    I had a minor problem to bring up, and someone did say something helpful, so that worked as planned.  The rest of the experience was bizarre to the point of being surreal.  And fitting -- today is the one-year anniversary of Promantica's first post.  That RWA meeting reminded me that it's not wrong, it's different -- which pretty much sums up the spirit of this blog.

    Here's what happened.  My NaNoWriMo book is about a very new judge and a lawyer who first encounter each other in court.  Judge Jack McIntyre has to recuse himself from a case 20 minutes into a hearing because the moment he sees Elise Carroll he knows that he's in love with her.  She protests, on the grounds that they've never met each other.

    "Haven't you heard of love at first sight?"
    "That's a myth, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny," she retorts.

    Jack and Elise -- both thirtysomethings -- enter into an odd romance.  He wants to woo her, but is smart enough to see that she's skeptical of his intentions.  She figures that while he's crazy he's also hot, and on the principle that the best way to get men to leave is to give them what they want, she decides to sleep with Jack.  She doesn't want the wooing with candlelight and fine wine, but she'll happily take the rumpled sheets.

    Being lawyers, they negotiate a contract: every other date will be in one side's preferred style.  Jack gets "romantic dates," Elise gets "sex dates." 

    The problem I presented for brainstorming was this:  After four dates, I was getting close to the point where I needed Jack & Elise to fight about something superficial, in that way that couples fight about the toilet seat but they're really airing their frustrations about something else.  So, what could they fight about?

    As I say, I did get a great idea as a tangential by-product of the discussion, but the discussion itself was highly frustrating.

    The two authors in the room insisted that Elise, my heroine, is very unsympathetic and unlikeable.  Now, I don't get the point of such a comment.  First, why would they say that?  Because I have a heroine who thinks a relationship based on sex is reasonable?  Because she doesn't immediately want to get married and have kids?  Because she's not melting in the face of Blackjack McIntyre's charms?  If these authors really believe that, then I have a few folks here in Romlandia for them to meet!

    But leaving that aside -- because ultimately I *do* need to be concerned with how readers see Elise -- where's the utility in telling a writer that her heroine is unsympathetic?  If the character is irredeemably unpleasant, telling the writer isn't very helpful, and if the character is sympathetic, telling a writer the opposite isn't very helpful, and if the character maybe just needs to be zhuzhed a bit to up her likability quotient, stating "she's not sympathetic" seems particularly unhelpful.

    I get it, though -- it's brainstorming, there's no self-editing or censorship allowed.

    The other issue that the authors had was with the entire set up.  They kept saying to me, "What are these characters' goals outside the romance?"

    And the answer is pretty simple:  They don't have any.  When the book starts, Jack is working to be a good jurist, which takes time and practice -- not a very sexy goal.  Elise is a year away from being considered for partnership, but she's more focused on doing a good job.  At the time these two meet, they're mostly focused on their careers.  If you'd met them separately, you might have admired them, but not been very interested in their personal quests.

    But together?  Spontaneous combustion.  These people are sharp.  I love the way Jack and Elise interact.  Here's the scene where, frustrated and angry, they negotiate their "contract":
       “Fair enough.  You’re absolutely right.  We didn’t spend enough time yesterday negotiating terms.  By all means let us do that now,” he said.
       “I don’t want to negotiate terms, Jack.  I want to take you upstairs, unwrap you like a present, and get sweaty with you in my bed.”
       “I understand that, Elise.” He made her name sound like an epithet.  “I decline that generous offer.  My counter-offer of dinner at a five-star restaurant is clearly unacceptable to you.  So let’s try to find some middle ground.”
       “There is no middle ground,” she protested.  She crossed her arms over her chest.  Clearly the poky nipples weren’t working for her.
       “That’s no way to enter into the spirit of negotiation, Elise.  You said yes to something last night.  What was it?”
       “I told you.  Hot, steamy sex.”  Ugh.  She sounded like a petulant teenager, which wasn’t the way to win this war.  She straightened her shoulders, lowered her arms and got into the spirit of negotiation, as he’d called it.
       “But I take your point,” she said in a calmer voice.  “Let’s see.  I want sex, and you want five-star restaurants, correct?”
       Jack inclined his head slightly.  Still wary of her tricks, she supposed.
       “Okay, then,” she went on.  “How about we trade?  One date goes your way, the next my way.”
       “But not on the same night,” he said.
       She had to keep from smiling.  “Of course not.  We’d spend all our time arguing who’s half of the date had lasted longer.  No, I’m talking about alternating dates.  You get one, I get one.  That sort of thing.”
       He appeared to consider that.  “I get to go first.”
       “Because it’s traditional to take a woman to dinner before having hot, steamy sex with her,” he pointed out.
       “God, Jack, that’s so last century,” she laughed.
       He grinned.  “I’m a last-century kind of guy.”
       “Okay, I’ll concede that point.  On my dates, however, the food has to take a back seat.  No cooking for me, or expecting me to cook for you.”
       “Why not?”
       “Too romantic.  If I let you cook for me, then next thing I know, you’ll have white tablecloths and a Gypsy violinist here on one of our sex dates.”
       “So what happens on one of your uh, ‘sex dates’?” he asked.
       She cocked her head to one side.  “Jack McIntyre, if you have to ask, I’m going to feel sorry for the news anchor and that biologist babe.”
       “Nonetheless, answer the question,” he insisted.
       “Well, sex, of course.  Styles, positions, locations, and frequency all to be negotiated on the specific date.  I’m, um, flexible,” she said, looking up at him with a saucy grin.
       “I can well believe it, minx.”
       “And as I don’t deny that food tastes pretty good after hot, sweaty sex, the host for the sex date will either have something ready to eat, or be prepared to phone for traditional take-out food, such as Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, pizza, etc.  If it can be described as gourmet, it’s non-compliant with the stated intent of the sex date, which”
       “May the host of the sex date offer the guest wine?”
       “If the host so desires.  I don’t mind a beer with my pizza, on occasion,” Elise said.
       “Beer.”  He seemed disconcerted by the idea of something so plebian.  Welcome to my world, bub.
       “It’s not too late to change your mind,” she offered.
       “On the contrary, I’m more excited than ever,” he said coolly
       “Mmm.  I could tell,” she drawled.
       “One question.”
       “Who supplies the condoms?”
       She burst out laughing.  She couldn’t help it.  “The host of the sex date is expected to have a sufficient supply of appropriately-sized contraceptives that are free of defects and well within their sell-by date,” she said.  “And if you try to get me pregnant, Jack, as a sneaky soap-opera ploy to marry me, I’ll...I’ll tell Judge King.”

    Now, if Jack and Elise don't appeal to readers because they're not on some Vital Quests that Create Conflict, then I'll take my lumps.  I'm writing the book I want to read.

    But my approach -- take two interesting people, have their paths cross in a very synergistic way, and watch what happens -- doesn't fit the mold.  One of the authors very kindly informed me that (and this is as close to verbatim as I can make it), "A romance is when guy meets a girl, and they like each other, but they each have an external goal that causes conflict and keeps them apart, but eventually they realize that they would rather be in love than apart."

    I disagree with that.  I don't disagree that it's an accepted structure for a romance novel.  I disagree that it's the only accepted structure for a romance novel.  I've blogged about this before.  There are romances where the two people are kept apart for nearly the entire story by the conflict, and only come together in the end, but there are also romances where the characters are together nearly the whole time.  There are vitally important characters who are defined by their goals, motivations, and conflict, but then there are those characters who are defined by personality, mindset, intellect, skills, and world view.  All my favorite books have been more about who people are than what they do.  Plus, I like to see how people interact and solve problems.

    In Blackjack & Moonlight, neither Jack nor Elise knows how to love someone romantically.  He sees his courtship to be like any other legal campaign to be waged: gather information, figure out how best to present your case, and win.  She sees his courtship as craziness, a delusion he'll snap out of eventually, at which point they'll go their merry ways.  The fact that he never loses actually undercuts his sincerity; she's just a campaign to him.  The fact that she is a delightful companion undercuts her insistence that she's not emotionally engaged with him.

    But really, these people have to realize in the course of the story that they want to love each other and they need to learn how.  Most people don't need 90,000 words to realize that the difficulties are all caused by polarity -- turn one magnet around and they'll snap together -- but then most people aren't as smart as Jack and Elise.  I'm a great believer that smart will get a body in trouble faster and longer than nearly anything external.

    Is my book wrong?  I doubt it.  It may not be any good -- I still have to do a good job writing it -- but it's not wrong.  It's different.

    Happy Birthday, Promantica!

    I want to thank everyone who has ever read a Promantica post, commented, or recommended it to someone else.   From time to time I've had something to say, and here's where I've said it.  It took me a while to realize that there was no point arguing with people -- I'm entitled to disagree, but they're entitled to their opinion.  It's not wrong for them, either.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    NaNoWriMo, Dr. Diesel & Me

    I feel as though I'm halfway through a two-year course on how to write a novel.  I got my midterm grades recently, and I'd say I'm straddling a B-/C+ grade.  I do some things well, but I'm committing what I think of as "first-novel" errors:  clunky exposition to establish the backstory, the characters lack that extra 10% of zing that readers want, and I still have problems knowing where to start and stop scenes.

    Fixing it is easy.  Basically, I need to take a completed manuscript, pick apart some of the seams, patch in some better material, and then iron it flat so that no one can tell it was ever in poor shape.

    Here's the hitch:  I have to weave the fabric myself, and in the process, I have to do a better job than I did the first time around.

    Okay, there are two components to this.  NaNoWriMo's helping me with the first, and Dr. Diesel (in the form of my Ford New Holland 1620 tractor) helped with the second.

    NaNo first.  I'm 30% done with my NaNo novel, which is 15% done for its intended length.  (NaNo only requires 50,000 words, but I'm aiming for single-title contemporary which is at least 80,000.)  And it's a lot better than the completed manuscript, which I started during NaNo last year.  The characters have that 10% extra zing, their internal monologues are more natural, and their dialogue has better pace.  In fact (shameless self-aggrandizing here), I've been reading it aloud to Brit Hub 2.1 as I complete each chapter.  Reading something aloud is a pretty tough test, particularly for first drafts, but I think Blackjack & Moonlight holds up.

    Which is all very well for B&M, but what about Love in Reality, the completed manuscript that needs an overhaul to replace all the clunkiness with sleek new writing?  Well, here's where Dr. Diesel comes in.

    I'm about as good at accepting criticism gracefully as the next person, but I am better than I used to be.  I used to fear constructive comments as if each one were tipped with curare.  Now, they merely terrify me.  The challenge is to make myself read the remarks of contest judges and my writing coach, absorb the criticism, figure out how to fix the problem, and then go back to the loom to make the new material.

    For some reason, this process kept triggering all my old fears about poisoned darts.  I started thinking it was going to kill my spirit, kill my determination to go on, and so forth.  I couldn't figure out how even to get started, I was that scared.

    Then I mowed the meadow.  (Not a euphemism, by the way.)  We have three meadows.  They get mowed in the autumn after a killing frost, which was late this year.  So, on Sunday, I got out the tractor with it's brush-hog mower attached and started on the smallest meadow, which is between our house and the main road.  It's slightly less than two acres and normally takes a couple hours to mow.

    See all that fluffy stuff?  That's our south meadow in autumn.  The power lines show where the road is.

    Everything was going well and I was maybe halfway done when I needed to stop the tractor to clear out the air filter.  No biggie -- this is the downside to mowing in the fall when all the plants are covered with fluffy seeds.  The fluff clogs the air filter (which is just a screen in front of the engine) and the engine temperature slowly rises.  When it gets to the red zone, I clean away all the fluff and start back up again.

    Only, this time the tractor wouldn't start.  So I had to leave it, make a call to the local guy who services Ford New Holland tractors, get instructions on what to do and then go out yesterday morning and try again.  (All credit goes to Brit Hub 2.1, who went out first and dealt with some of the issues.)  Sure enough, with the instruction and help I could get the tractor started and get back to business.

    Kind of like revising my manuscript: it's broken, I need advice on what's wrong and how to fix it, but then I got to get 'er done.

    Which is when I remembered something about mowing our meadows.  We live on a sloping property.  The other two meadows I can mow going up and down the slope, but for historical reasons I've always done the south meadow in ever-shrinking rectangles.  And because the meadow isn't a true rectangle but more wedge-shaped and because it slopes to the south and to the west, there's only one bit that feels completely stable.  All the rest of it feels just a bit tippy.

    Wrong season, different mower, and I weigh 50 pounds less now, but that's the idea

    Which inevitably gets me thinking about the tipping point of a Ford New Holland 1620 tractor.  But yesterday, it hit me.  Even if I knew with certainty that the tipping point was 30 degrees off level and the worst slope I face is 15 degrees off level, it wouldn't keep me from getting scared when I'm mowing those bits.  The knowledge is cerebral; the fear is instinctive.

    I used to mow that particular meadow several times each summer, and the second or third time would be a lot less scary that the first.  My body learned from experience that the tractor simply doesn't tip over.  Sometimes experience is a better teacher of what we can survive than abstract understanding.

    So yesterday, after finishing the mowing, I rewrote the opening to Love in Reality.  Today I'm going to read the collected comments of judges and critics to the next section.  I won't enjoy it, and I'll be scared, but I know it won't kill me. 

    And I won't tip over.

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    Some Links in the Chain

    I'm still thinking about the "Sisterhood of the Breathless Pants," but really, just about sisterhood.

    So forgive me, but this post isn't going to be about romance novels at all, and not even about a relationship that shows up much in romance novels.  The four women in Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet are effectively sisters, and their conversations are the best bits in those books, but few of us would read them if they were only about the relationships among the women.

    And yet, as women, some of our most important relationships are with siblings -- either we have sisters, or we are sisters.  If we don't have siblings, we almost certainly have one or more close friends, even a best friend whose relationship spans decades, geography, and life circumstances.

    I have siblings, but I don't.  There are three people out in the world born of the same parents and who shared a home with me for substantial chunks of time, but the bonds of sisterhood that should have arisen from my being their sister never formed.  I recently stopped trying to forge those bonds (by age 50 -- and with my own sister in her 60s -- I finally got it that it wasn't going to happen) and I'm content with my sibling-less state.

    But my post about RWA has me attuned to the world of sisters, whether by blood or choice.  Here, then, are three links to show that I understand it's not all or nothing.  Women have a lot to offer, and often do.  Sometimes they don't.

    First up, Deborah Tannen.  I really should sit down and read all her books because every time I read something by her, I'm struck with that wonderful sensation of learning something new that I already understood.  In this recent piece in the New York Times, entitled Sisters and Happiness, she writes:
    So the key to why having sisters makes people happier — men as well as women — may lie not in the kind of talk they exchange but in the fact of talk. If men, like women, talk more often to their sisters than to their brothers, that could explain why sisters make them happier. The interviews I conducted with women reinforced this insight. Many told me that they don’t talk to their sisters about personal problems, either.

    That insight would seem to apply to the RWA-type of sisterhood.

    I certainly feel better -- about my writing but other things as well -- after I've talked with my critique partner.  We rarely talk about anything other than our writing, but as that topic encompasses a broad range of relevant issues from contest results to strategies for getting published, the sheer fact that we're talking means we're connected and not alone.  We're sisters, of a sort.

    The New York Times' review of Tyler Perry's For Colored Women, out today, suggests the complicated interplay of women's lives.  I read the review aloud to Ross, partly because Perry is a fascinating man and partly because Manohla Dargis made the movie her "critic's pick."  At the end, I said I'd like to see the movie, but he was concerned it might be a downer.  We may both be right.

    Finally, this blog post is making the rounds.  My militantly liberal 23-year-old niece and a 50-something Republican law school classmate both linked to it on Facebook -- and if that isn't evidence of the marvel that is Facebook I don't know what is.  It's the story of her 5-year-old son and his "Daphne" (of Scooby-Doo fame) costume.

    If I were a mother, I might have read this post very differently, as it's a subtle account of the gender politics and childrearing issues associated with a boy's decision to cross-dress (even if he's a decade away from having any knowledge of cross-dressing as a gender/political/sexual activity).

    But I read it as a woman who'd blogged recently about women coming together, or not, as sisters.  In her post, Nerdy Apple Bottom shows that sisterhood (i.e., of women who are all parents of the same aged children) doesn't always cross over gender/political/parenting divides.

    Which is sad.  Maybe sad for her kid, but definitely sad for her.

    I hope she had a sister to talk to about it.

    Sunday, October 31, 2010

    The Sisterhood of the Breathless Pants

    N.B.  In a few paragraphs, I'm going to offer a cliché, "It's not you, it's me."  Please know when I write that, I mean it sincerely and without a trace of irony or sarcasm.

    When I went to RWA National in July, I got one message loud and clear, even if it was never expressed quite this bluntly:
    Never badmouth a fellow romance writer or her books.  Ever.  No exceptions.

    Yeah, I can see how that's a good policy for RWA to promote.  And I've tried to abide by that.

    At the same time, there seems to be a reward for being compliant with the No Dissing rule.  In every speech I heard in Orlando at RWA National and at NJRW's "Put Your Heart in a Book" conference last week, there was at least one point where the speaker referred to her dearest RWA friend(s).  Women who had been there for the speaker during divorces, the death of a spouse, bad reviews, professional successes and set-backs.  Women the speaker couldn't have done it without.

    I get the impression that's the quid pro quo for the No Dissing rule:  You won't be alone.

    I understand the concept.  I've joined an organization with thousands of members who share something with me -- my love of romances, at the very least.  Two thousand people attended RWA National; even a regional conference like NJRW attracts over 400 writers.

    But what's supposed to be a reward for following the No Dissing rule turns out to be, for me, just more work.

    We're getting close to the "It's not you, it's me" part.

    Here's what happened at NJRW.  The speakers were dynamic, the workshops were really helpful (seriously -- better even than the ones I took at RWA National), and the venue was great.  But on Saturday afternoon, a famous writer (a woman whose name I recognized and whose books I've read) asked me, "Are you having fun?"

    I had to think about that.  I knew the answer, but was this a situation where I should lie?  For whatever reason, I told her the truth.  "No.  I'm not having fun."

    And I wasn't.  I was learning a lot, and I was doing the stuff I needed to do (querying agents, networking, etc.), but it was work, and not the fun kind of work.

    My inquisitor wasn't happy with my answer, which she took to be evidence I was depressed that I wasn't (yet) successful as a writer.  "You need to stay positive, keep in the moment, remain focused," she insisted.

    I turned to her.  "It's like that line in the movie, 'What we have here is a failure to communicate,'" I said.  "I've said nothing to suggest I'm not staying positive, keeping in the moment, etc.  I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, but it's not fun.  It's work."

    I pretty much shut up after that.  Oh, other than telling Famous Author that she appeared to be 23, which must have sounded really snotty coming from me but which was, ironically, a true statement.  She has really pretty long blonde hair, and she looks very youthful.  But I wouldn't blame her for being offended; overall, I was not polite to her.  And I'm sorry about that.

    What I couldn't explain was that just being in the same place with 400 other romance writers is, for me, not fun.  I'm supposed to feel energized, released from the solitary nature of writing.  I'm supposed to enjoy the sorority of women (because while there are men in RWA, really, it's about the women), who love and care about each other, help and support one another, and truly wish for your success as much as their own.

    Okay, so here's where I tell you that it's not you (all of you reading this who are fellow writers -- or are women), it's me.  I'm damaged.  Put me in a room with a hundred women -- hell, put me in a room with ten women -- and I'm at Def-Con 5.  At the end of an all-women meeting recently, I noticed one person and thought, "She looks nice."  Then it hit me: she was the only one who hadn't said anything.

    I come by my distrust naturally.  I have a sister, and my 50+ years with her does not serve as a template for a healthy, supportive relationship with another woman.  Rather the contrary.

    Which should be the end of this post.  So sorry, RWA members.  I apologize for failing to appreciate one of the best things my annual dues affords me: instant admission to the Sisterhood of the Breathless Pants.  I'm sorry I was rude to the Famous Writer (and former Pep Squad member?).  I regret not being able to show the right spirit, like joining the let-down-your-hair; so-great-to-get-caught-up events like Saturday night karaoke in our slippers.

    The last line was going to be:  It's not you, it's me.

    And then I read this:  a publicity piece about Kelly Valen, the author of The Twisted Sisterhood.  It's a book that grew out of this article in the New York Times, which begins,
    MY life’s greatest sorrow stems from my inability to feel close to other women. At 41, I’ve cautiously cultivated a few cherished female friendships. But generally I feel a kind of skittish distrust and discomfort when dealing with most women, particularly women in packs.

    Apart from the part about cautiously cultivated friendships, I can really relate to what she's saying.  I too am nervous about women in packs.  Like you find at an RWA conference.  And in Romlandia, our corner of the Internet.

    Incidentally, read Valen's story -- it's hard not to feel for what she went through.

    She literally joined a sorority and got kicked out in the most painful way imaginable.  She is in a position to compare the cruelty of men (she was raped) with the cruelty of women, and she knows which scars are worse.

    I don't have any of that.  My fears are not the result of trauma at the hands of women in college or grad school.  But because of what I did go through, I'm guarded around women quite specifically, and I think that's because a small but significant number of women are capable of cruelty to other women.  I've seen them do it.

    More specifically, I've seen women exclaim their feminist ideals and then stab another woman in the back.  I've compared this to someone insisting that "it's all about preventing cruelty to puppies and kittens," while keeping a dog on a four-foot length of rope in the backyard because otherwise he barks too much.  What's the defense, that's he's the only dog in the world who deserves to be mistreated?

    By being so guarded, am I missing out on wonderful relationships with great women?  You bet I am.  I know there are a lot really special women out there, women who would do anything for their friends.  If I met such a woman one-on-one, I might be able to see how special she is.  But I tend to miss her in a group because I'm too busy avoiding the rare woman who thinks it's okay to be mean.

    Part of this dynamic is the insistence that we women have to stick together to oppose institutional sexism, to fight for equal rights and commensurate pay, to protect each other from the savagery of men.  And it's all true: we have to do all those things.  But why are those efforts mutually exclusive with complaints about the cruelty of women against women?

    I wonder sometimes if the women who scream the loudest about the necessity of a united female front are the ones who can trash another woman and feel completely justified about it.

    So, yeah.  It's me, all right.  But it's also us.  We are complicit by not taking a stand against both the cruelty and the insistence that women can't complain about other women.

    I think if I saw more self-policing, I might feel better about my membership in the Sisterhood.

    Friday, October 29, 2010

    Heresy in Three Parts: Part 3, Love is Not All You Need

    Yup, the most heretical thing I believe about romance novels is that love alone is not enough.

    Love is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the HEA.  Knowing that they love each other is nice, but I need more.  I need to know the couple will be financially secure, healthy, and happy.  And it's that last one -- happiness -- that is the most contentious.

    I do not believe -- in real life or in fiction -- that love alone can make you happy.

    What I do believe, though, is that love has transformative powers.

    Love can make the timid brave, the lonely more social, the awkward more confident.  Love can help heal the damage wrought over the years.  It just can't do any of these things alone.

    It's not enough for the characters to love each other, or even to be in love with each other.  They have to love each other in ways that contribute to each other's happiness.  There has to be a synergy there, a sense that the couple together is stronger than the individuals apart.

    I fell in love with my first husband when we were both 24.  We didn't marry each other until we were 42.  That's because I knew the first time that love wasn't enough, that we didn't have what we needed to make a go of it.  We weren't there yet.  There was no big fight, no wrenching scene.  We didn't even "break up."  I just left, and didn't see him again in a romantic light for nearly two decades.

    Timing is everything in real life, and I appreciate romances that show something of how two people are perfect for each other at that specific point in time.  In Balogh's Slightly Dangerous, it seems significant that Wulfric has married off the last of his siblings before he finally meets Christine.  In Spencer's Morning Glory, if Will comes along to Elly's farm while her husband is still alive, he maybe gets a job but he doesn't get married.  Chances are, he gets shipped overseas and -- with no one to come home to -- he maybe doesn't make it.

    I also need to know that the characters meet each other as equals, both adults in the transactional sense.  In Mary Jo Putney's The Beast of Belleterre, Lord Falconer rescues Ariel.  Very parent-child, that rescue.  He desires her as a woman, but won't let himself approach her as an equal.  I don't think it's accidental that she comes into her own as a creative being before returning to her husband.

    Finally, love can be the precious gift we've always wanted but didn't think we were allowed to have.  It's easy to pin that on some external factor -- the hero fears he's not wealthy enough, or the heroine worries she's not good enough -- but it's not really that.  It almost always boils down to: "I'm not lovable enough."

    Loving someone, though, is very powerful.  Through loving the other, we learn to admire and appreciate ourselves.  That leads to more self-esteem, and eventually a feeling that maybe there is something in us the other person can see and like, even love.  Few characters in a romance novel are so narcissistic that it is the experience of being loved that makes them puff up like a preening bird.  No, our protagonists have doubts, concerns, cracks in their sense of self.  The act of loving can help smooth out those flaws.

    I think it misses the real power of love to save it all up for the last scene.  Love can drive the novel.  Those characters do and say very different things because they've met each other.  They maybe don't fall in love on the first page, but there's no reason to keep them clueless or too timid until the end.  Where's the growth there?

    Ultimately, it is the transformative power of love that fuels all my favorite romances.  Vibrant characters who fall in love and in the course of doing that change themselves for the better.  You can still get maximum angsty goodness in a book like that because the big mystery isn't "Do they love each other?" but rather "Is their love enough to make them abandon their fears and flaws?"

    I know the answer will be yes, but I still cry.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Heresy in Three Parts: Part 2, The Pretty Woman Defense

    My second heretical belief is that while every great story has compelling, memorable characters, those characters don't always have very strong goals, motivations, or conflict.

    Debra Dixon wrote a wonderful book, Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction.  It's very helpful for writers who need to work out a more thorough understanding of their characters.  It's also very helpful as a checklist for writers to make sure their story has enough oomph.

    Yes, there are some wonderful stories where the characters' goals & motivations are clear, comprehensible, and are at such odds that the resulting conflict makes perfect sense to the reader (or, in the case a movie, the viewer).  Dixon's example is Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  If she doesn't desperately want to go home to Auntie Em and Kansas, then she's just a feisty girl in a strange place.  (We have instant identification with her goal, too: who hasn't felt homesick?)

    But I would maintain that the strong goal is only one way to envision a character so that her story is dynamic.  There are others.

    Recently, I had someone tell me the characters for my NaNoWriMo novel lack sufficiently strong goals and that there was no way I could generate enough conflict for a full length novel.  I really had to think about that.  Surely there was a counter-example to The Wizard of Oz -- a compelling movie where the characters start off with weak or no goals?

    You guessed it:  Pretty Woman.  As the movie opens, Vivian (Julia Roberts) wants to pay the rent.  As the movie closes, she wants to get her GED.  Neither one of those is a very powerful goal.  Neither tells us a lot about her, or suggests how she can carry a full-length movie.  Edward (Richard Gere) has a slightly larger goal at the beginning of the movie -- to buy Morse Industries and demolish it -- but that's not why he picks up a hooker.  His specific goal is to get from his lawyer's house in the Hollywood Hills to the Beverly Regent Wilshire hotel.  For this he needs someone who can drive a stick shift:  Vivian.

    Absolutely no conflict there.  And really, what little conflict these two characters have is fleeting and rather inconsequential.  What Vivian and Edward have is alchemy:  Each of them has the power to change the other.  Mostly, Vivian changes Edward through example.  First, he identifies with her ("We both screw people for money") but gradually he sees the appeal in her approach to life.  She's spontaneous, she makes him relax and enjoy himself, she gets him to see the futility in destroying businessmen who remind him of his father, and she has integrity.

    We see that she has integrity in a variety of ways, but mostly it's in contrast with Stuckey, the dickwad lawyer played by Jason Alexander.  Over the course of the movie, Edward comes to see Stuckey as an unprincipled jerk and Vivian as someone he can't live without.  The Black Moment comes when Edward admits to Vivian that his specialty is impossible relationships.  Meaning, he's changed, but not enough to be really happy.

    Well, I used the Pretty Woman Defense in support of my NaNoWriMo characters.  I figure if that movie can make $435 million worldwide, then maybe I can write a compelling story about the transformative power of love.  My detractor countered by saying that all great romance novels have lots of conflict arising from Goals and Motivations.

    The Pretty Woman Defense, part two:  How about To Have and To Hold, by Patricia Gaffney?  Many people would rate it the best romance novel ever.  (If you don't know it, I blogged about it here.)  Both Rachel and Sebastian are vivid characters who stay with you for a long time after you read the book.  Let's look at their GMC profiles, shall we?
    Goal:  To survive
    Motivation:  Marginally prefers life to its alternative
    Conflict:  But really, how much cruelty will she have to endure?

    Goal:  To prove he's cruel and devoid of humanity
    Motivation:  Unclear.  Boredom?  Low self-esteem despite being a lord?
    Conflict:  He has to do some really crappy things to prove he's as bad as his friends, and in the end, he doesn't have the stomach for it.

    Survival is so universal a goal that it's almost invisible.  The only reason it shows up in Rachel is because of her backstory (married at 18 to a sadist & pedophile, tried & convicted for his murder, spared the death penalty but incarcerated and then released just before the book starts) -- she has none of the things she needs literally to survive: shelter, food, work.  Sebastian offers those to her because there's something so primal about her situation, it prompts him to this fake act of chivalry.

    Neither of these characters is very sympathetic, and the first half of the book is harrowing to read.  But in the second half, Sebastian changes his goals and motivation just enough that he starts to treat Rachel better.  She actually relaxes her goals and motivation just a bit to start to trust him.

    This is not a classically GMC-structured set up.  Rachel is very much a product of what has happened to her.  Arguably, Sebastian is also a product of his past, although that's harder for us to picture because we don't know much about his past.  All we know is that -- rather like Edward in Pretty Woman -- Sebastian has the chance to change the object of identification.  He identifies with Sully, a nasty piece of work from London, in the beginning, and then identifies with Rachel toward the end.

    If To Have and To Hold isn't enough of a counter-example to the strict rules of GMC, then how about LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory, where Will's goal is to survive and Elly's goal is to survive, and they can both help each other survive, but there are a lot of natural barriers to their love and then some artificial barriers, but in the end love survives.  Not a very conflict-ridden book, but still an excellent romance because the characters are so well-drawn and the writing is superlative.  *My husband guest-reviewed Morning Glory here.

    What Will and Elly do is -- you guessed it -- improve each other's lives.  She gives him a sense of home and belonging; he gives her a sense of security and acceptance.  They demonstrate the synergy of love: how two people can fit together so beautifully that as a couple they can do so much more than they could apart.  Again, the transformative power of love.

    Here then is my heretical belief:  Yes, we need to know who the characters are, including their goals, motivations, and conflicts.  But sometimes compelling characters are revealed in the course of the story, and the story is basically just how these two people affect each other.  The absence of a goal doesn't have to make a character weak provided she has a good reason for not having a goal.

    (And, it goes without saying, slapping a strong goal on a boring character isn't going to create a great story.)