Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TBR Tuesday - Sorry, But He Didn't Steal My Heart

I'm still looking for that keeper contemporary series novel, and still not having a lot of luck.  But I'm learning more every time about what I would like to see.

This week's entrant is Nancy Warren's Too Hot to Handle, in which beautiful jewelry designer Lexy Drake stumbles across Charles (Charlie) Pendegraff III burgling her safe.  The rest of the plot involves murder & mayhem, so I'll stop there lest I drift into SPOILER-infested waters.  Let's just say I neither loved nor hated the suspense elements of this book, and I don't think they added to or detracted much from the main plot.

No, what I minded was that I started with four intriguing characters (there's a sub-plot -- unusual in a series contemporary -- involving Charlie's chauffeur and Lexy's assistant) who never got more interesting than they were in the first third of the book.  Not long after I started it, I realized I was excited to get back to it, and I thought, "Ooh, this could be the one!"  Alas, it was not to be.

Here's what was missing for me:  romance.  It's a Harlequin Blaze, so there was sex.  (You'll learn what the Lyons Stagecoach position is -- for more information go here but this is definitely NSFW.)  But apart from the implication that a) our heroine has tried different sex positions, b) knows them by name, and c) tells her assistant about her favorites in such specificity that the answer can be used to verify the heroine's identity, nothing's very sexy about this book.

I can live without the sexiness, and I could even -- in a pinch -- live without the romance.  (No, I don't mean the HEA.  That was there.  I mean there was no satisfying sigh at the end as you close the book happy in the knowledge these two people have found each other -- the reader's HEA, if you will.)  But a book without sex and romance had really deliver the emotion.

Lexy and Charlie maybe score a combined 6 on the emotion scale.  Lexy has a momentary qualm about being in the presence of a criminal (which Charlie is -- the statute of limitations may have run on some of his, shall we say, more egregious crimes, but his activities in the present have dubious legal status; let's just say I'd have preferred to prosecute him than defend him).  Charlie has no qualms about anything, and I'm not sure that Ms. Warren, his creator, does either.  Which makes this a surprisingly morally loose book, but we romance readers are sturdy enough to deal with assassin heroes, highwaymen heroes, etc. . . . in fact, everything but heroes who cheat on their True Loves.  (Some crimes are unforgivable...)

I'm willing to believe they fell in love because I was told they fell in love.  Next week, who knows if they're still in love.  Maybe next week Charlie steals someone else's heart.  Maybe Lexy meets a cute guy who hands her his heart . . . in the form of some blood red rubies.  Any of those scenarios seem about as likely as the one we get, namely that these two people can and will make a life together.

Okay, so I'm building my checklist of the perfect series contemporary.  The following things are optional:
  • Super-rich heroes
  • Super-sexy and/or super-virginal heroines
  • Super-exotic locales
  • Super-unusual occupations
  • Super-sexy meet-cutes
  • Super sex
At least one of the following things are mandatory:
  • Emotion
  • Romance
And, as always, good writing and smart characters -- which Too Hot to Handle had, by the way -- but then I expect that of all the books I read.  (Explains a lot about why I'm a cranky reader, doesn't it?)

Friday, July 23, 2010

That Book

I'm reading That Book Which Must Not Be Named.  You know, the one by She Who Must Be Obeyed Worshiped.   (And if you don't know which book I'm talking about, consider that your absolute defense against reprisals: "Hey, it wasn't me, I didn't even know what Magdalen was talking about.  Honest, guv.")

I was actually excited to start reading That Book.  She Who Must Be Worshiped (hereafter, "Shehoo") ramps up the yummy factor from page 1.  Pick your favorite edible indulgence: dessert, high-fat snacks, whatever; it's a good proxy for the num-nums Shehoo provides.  You know it's bad for you, but you can't resist.

Then the regret sets in.  You start to notice the little things: infelicitous word choices, implausible characterization, improbable plot devices, etc.  But it's still yummy, right?  You eat some more.  Eventually you get a tummy-ache, and you start to curse the soulless businessmen who published That Book solely because it will make them a lot of money.  How dare they!  Why didn't anyone hold Shehoo's feet to the fire and force her to clean up some of her trans fat-laden prose?

Oh, we've all been there.  Even if you're maintaining your plausible deniability by insisting you don't know which book I'm writing about, there's a book in your head that fits this description.

Well, here's a fun trick to try next time you're fighting indigestion reading That Book or one of its ilk.  Imagine the protagonists as teenagers.

I did this with That Book, and it instantly made a lot more sense.  Our heroine isn't really a mature woman with actual issues to worry about -- she's 16.  Her attitudes toward the hero aren't grown up in any way, they're roughly on the level of "Ooh, do you think he likes me?  Wait -- he just smiled at you!  I'm jealous!!"  And our hero isn't a jaded sophisticate with Secrets of His Own.  No, he's 19 -- old enough to be sulky or curt with his well-meaning friends, and brimming over with unregulated desire while lacking any real direction in his life.  He admires her youthful curves, but knows he shouldn't go there (so to speak); she thinks he's sex-on-a-stick, but knows she shouldn't go there.  They sigh a lot.  They "go there," but then feel real bad about it.  They sigh some more.  They exchange longing glances.  There's something approximating a conflict, although neither one of them drinks poison or gets stabbed (more's the pity), and then there's something resembling an HEA.

I can't tell you how much happier I've been since I saw this about That Book's characters.  It makes me despise Shehoo even more -- why couldn't she have written Twi-Even-Lighter (i.e., a book whose characters are supposed to be acting like teenage twits) and spared us this drivel masquerading as a romance novel? -- but at least it provides a context for her writing.  It's Grease without the singing or talent.  It's the new version of Beverly Hills 90210.  It's adolescence.

It explains so much. 

But I'm still feeling queasy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My Website - A Thriller in Three Acts

My website, MagdalenBraden.com goes live today.  This is terrifying for all sorts of reasons.  First, that's my name -- people can search for my name and this site will come up first.  I need to be really comfortable with what people will find there.  (Better hide the photos from clown college, hunh?)

Second, this is branding.  I want people to go to my site and leave thinking, "I might like one of her books."  They wouldn't have to guess too much -- the first chapter of Love in Reality, my WIP, is there for people to read, plus back-cover-style blurbs for its three sequels.  After someone has read all of that, they'll have a much better idea if they want to read a full-length Magdalen Braden novel.

Finally, this is personal.  It's the great irony of writing: what we create in private in our heads suddenly is made real and shown to the world.  A site with my name on it isn't everything there is to know about me, but it's a self-portrait of sorts.  I'm not worried about the person who sends me hateful feedback; I'm worried about the person who wrinkles her nose, "Mmm, I don't think so."

Quiet condemnation.  That's what I fear.  But not as much as I fear doing nothing.

So.  It's live.  Go visit!

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Checklist (and Why This Blog Isn't On It)

  1. Buy shoes for RWA v/
  2. Finish work-in-progress -- finish 1st revision and do entire 2nd revision
  3. Finish tweaking the website (which is up but not perfect yet!)
  4. Do laundry and start to segregate clothes that need to remain pristine & cat-hair free for RWA.
  5. Get my hair cut
  6. Maintain some semblance of a presence on social media -- maybe 6 or 8 tweets a day?
  7. Cook healthy & nutritious meals for Ross Send Ross out for healthy & nutritious Subway sandwiches
  8. Make a list of all the things I absolutely, positively need to get done before next Saturday
  9. Make a list of all the things I absolutely, positively need to take with me next Saturday
  10. Source frozen venison
It's not that I'm not reading -- I enjoyed the latest Jane Feather, Rushed to the Altar, and even have some comments about it (see below).  It's not that I don't want to share with you what I've been thinking on a variety of subjects (I have a wonderful essay in my head on Barbie & Ken in love / in lust / in marriage -- for which I'll need to borrow someone's Barbie & Ken dolls for the illustrative photographs).  It's not even that I don't, technically, have time to blog.

It's that Promantica has fallen off the To Do Checklist and it can't get up.

I'm sorry about that.  I should have taken someone's advice and pre-written four or five blog posts so I could maintain the illusion of productivity.  Instead, I've been riding that fun house merry-go-round known as revisions leading to additional revisions leading to I can't stand this thing anymore someone take it away from me more revisions.  See?  Even here I'm revising.

This was mentioned to me recently:  It's facile and a bit insulting to suggest that "everyone has one book inside them."  I know I will never compose music, or create a painting of artistic merit, or write a beautiful sonnet.  I may never write a decent book.  But if I do manage that -- if, in fact, I'm working on a decent book now -- it's because I have two things: talent and the basic intelligence to know that talent only gets me so far; the rest is hard work.

No, we don't all have a book inside us -- maybe what we all have is the capacity to delude ourselves into thinking that we have a book inside us.  The real writers are the ones who can both believe in their talent and understand its role in the business of writing a novel.  I'm a better writer than I was when I started this book, but my writing is still clunky and inelegant.  If work hard enough, it might get good.

Speaking of getting and staying good, I enjoyed Rushed to the Altar, the first in Jane Feather's latest trilogy.  She may not be in the sweet spot anymore, but her writing still delivers for me.  The story is set in 1761 London, with the impoverished Earl of Blackwater desperately needing his third of his uncle's estate.  The condition set by his uncle?  The earl and his twin brothers must each find, marry, and rescue a "fallen woman," thus saving her soul.

The heroine, Mistress Clarissa Astley, doesn't qualify, but she pretends to be a prostitute because she is that desperate to recover her younger brother from the nefarious plans of their uncle.  (The Uncle Anti-Defamation League might want to protest this book.)  That, actually, was my only quibble with an otherwise enjoyable read: the younger brother is in a Bad Place, and I'd so much have preferred Clarissa to rescue him straightaway and then start her canoodling with the Earl.  But if you squint, and imagine Francis (the brother) to be a tidy package she has to recover and not an actual 10-year-old boy, the romance is pleasant enough.

Am I damning with faint praise?  I don't mean to be.  It's a keeper, mostly because I want to read it again with that squinting trick!

Now, where do you suppose I can get frozen venison out of season?

 Now this is a checklist!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Sweet Spot

Here's a rule of thumb:  When you're in the middle of revising your first novel, don't try to read other authors' first novels -- however well-recommended they may be.

I spent the whole day yesterday working over the middle third of my novel, believing that I would be on the road today.  My trip was canceled, leaving me with this odd substance on my hands.  Free time?  What's that?

I'm not stupid though -- I know that free time means time to read.  Only, to read what?  I contemplated my "traveling book," which I'd been lugging with me hither and yon for days, reading it in chunks when I could.  I'm 250 pages in and have lsst than 100 pages to go . . . and I've lost interest.  It's a fast-paced paranormal, but it's the author's first in this series, and it's just a teensy bit overblown.  If I could have read it fast, the way I normally read, it would have been fine, but drawn out over days and days?  I've spent enough time with this cast of characters.  I'll skip ahead to the ending and be happy.

If not that, then how about this first-time contemporary novelist?  She's gotten good reviews, and maybe I'll be wowed.  Well, I suffer from ALL the problems writers have with their first stories, which means I've been looking for places to streamline wording and avoid the obvious descriptors in my own WIP.  Guess what mindset I couldn't turn off?  Let's just say that editing while reading is not quite the relaxing "Romance, take me away," experience I was looking for.

Time to go back to the old TBR pile.  I've got a ton of long-established writers in my stash -- they're always reliable, right?  But I've seen a spate of reviews for recent books by much-beloved writers in which the reviewer felt compelled to say "I love you, but I didn't love this book."

Which leads me to conclude that there's a sweet spot for a lot of writers.  The first book may be wonderful for all the reasons we love that writer: imaginative, fresh characters and plot.  The writing may not be as good as it gets in later books, though.  Everyone gets better at a task, through sheer repetition if nothing else.

A career spanning several decades could mean, though, that a writer's best work is behind her.  If we're comparing an okay book against the entire canon of a writer's work and it's not as good, we're disappointed.  When one of your all-time favorite books is by a writer, there's that slow-to-die hope that this time she'll regain that lofty ideal of romantic fiction.

I could stand to read a technically adequate but not perfect book, but I think I'll go for the sweet spot.  And maybe even a little bit outside the romance genre.  Next up for me, then?  Dana Stabenow's second in the Liam Campbell series, So Sure of Death.  Because I'm so sure I won't want to change a word.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Writing in Two Dimensions

Yesterday someone said to me, "It must be difficult to write in two dimensions when you live in four."

What a wonderful observation.  It is hard, and I'm guessing I'm still pretty bad at it. But I'm starting to see the contours of the problem, and maybe even one or two of the steps I need to take to get better.  Based on my progress so far, this will be a life-long tutorial.

Here's how I see the problem.  I have characters in my head, and while I recognize that they should behave like stop-action plasticine figures I move around precisely the way I want, that isn't entirely what happens.  They don't defy me, but they do reveal themselves in unexpected ways while quietly rejecting some of the elements of motivation and plot I try out.  It feels a bit like trying to dress a doll in the wrong-sized doll clothes.

It is possible my characters are actually boring people that I merely delude myself into thinking are interesting.  It's much more likely, though, that they are interesting people that I'm failing to portray in a strong enough way.

In their efforts to write in two dimensions, I suspect some authors cheat a tiny bit.  I don't have any specific books in mind with these stratagems, but see if these fit any books you've read recently:

Labels -- The aristocrat spy, the over-worked professional with a short fuse, the risk-taking firefighter, the shy, insecure woman who hasn't been introduced to passion, the jaded rake, the shapeshifter accepting human vulnerability, etc.

These aren't cliches, necessarily, but they are coded cues -- read any of those labels in a back cover blurb and you immediately have a shortcut into the book.  It's up to the author to take the character beyond his or her label, so that we see more than the superficial framework.  Some authors do that beautifully, some just slap on the counter-label (e.g., the aristocrat spy who is clueless about women; the jaded rake whose moral code requires him to bond exclusively, etc.), and some authors merely explore the label for 200+ pages, then hey, presto! the character wakes up, reforms, and falls in line in time for the HEA.

Huge Drama -- Nothing wrong with a lively plot, of course, but sometimes authors can overdo the characters' backstory.  I can see the appeal; nothing like a breathtaking past to make a character seem really interesting.  But the risk is that either the backstory overloads the character with motivation and conflict -- too much childhood trauma and it's hard to believe that the relationship will work -- or the past is dramatic but unrelated to the romance.

In my current work in progress, the heroine has an identical twin sister.  Twins aren't inherently dramatic, so what if I add a childhood bout of leukemia, where one twin donated bone marrow and saved the other twin's life?  Now that's drama!  But why?  I figure my fictional twins are already bonded enough & devoted enough to serve the plot.  I don't assume all identical twins are like that, but mine are.  They're just bonded in a non-dramatic way.  It's just that they are potentially boring; I get that.

Similarly, my hero grew up in Hollywood.  What if I had him breaking the law as a juvie, and his high-powered dad had to pull strings to get my guy off?  Ooh, that would surely set up some father-son conflict.  It's just that's not my hero; he's not like that.  He's got his own identity issues with a famous father, but he's not the type to have broken the law.  (He breaks some rules in the book, but it isn't done in the spirit of "That'll show Dad.")  Again: potentially boring . . . if I can't make the conflict he does have seem very real.

Roller Coaster Rides -- Of course these are a staple of romantic suspense, but in a regular romance the twists and turns of the plot can seem manipulative and arbitrary.  Meeting cute, getting locked in a cabin, even the "rule" that opposites attract -- these things may seem artificial but it's true they whiz the plot along.  But what if these dips & curves and precipitous drops aren't the natural result of the the characters and their experiences, but just a ride the author has constructed for the reader?  It's exciting, but does it seem real?

»   ¤   «

I'm not a purist about this.  I have adored books that used any or all of these conventions.  I don't congratulate myself for not using one myself.  I just -- well, can't.  These are the doll clothes that don't fit my characters.

So it's back to work for me: trying to express in two dimensions what I can easily imagine inside my head, and in the process, conveying to the reader what makes these people interesting and their romance compelling.

It's a bit like a roller-coaster ride, I have to admit.

Speaking of which, here's the ride on the coaster pictured above: the New York New York ride in Las Vegas:

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Wussy Heroine

Back before law school, someone at work said something about how confident I seemed.  I was stunned; inside I was a mass of trembling anxiety.  They weren't telling me was that I was confident, merely that I hid my uncertainties well.

So I am not unaware of the feelings heroines can have when they seem overwhelmed by their families, their lives, and yes, the hero.  I just wish they'd deal with those feelings differently.

First up in the Wussy Walk of Shame:

Annie Jameson, a nurse in an emergency room in Australia, and the heroine in Carol Martinelli's Billionaire Doctor, Ordinary Nurse (Harlequin Presents).  She falls in love with Iosef Kolovsky, an arrogant trauma doc from a very famous, very rich family in Melbourne.  But before she can fall in love with him, she has to put up with a lot of his crap.  Seriously, in one scene she returns to a cubicle where Dr. K has been suturing someone and discovers that it's a mess -- he hasn't even disposed of his sharps (medical lingo for hypodermic needles and the like).  She calls him out on this (one point for her side) but he's dismissive of her concerns.  Which left me thinking he was a jerk, a bad doctor, and sexist (female nurse to clean up after male doctor?) in one fell swoop.

Why's she attracted to him after that?  Because he looks good in his swimsuit?  He's either being rude to her or ignoring her and yet she can't resist him.  She's convinces he's out of her league.  When he gets them a hotel room after a colleague's wedding reception, she confesses that she's not very good at making love.  No problem; he'll do all the work.  The sex is great but still he dumps her, then comes back, saying no one must know that they're sleeping together.  She keeps her looks up (spray-on tan, frequent leg shaving, etc.) just in case he comes over.  She's convinced that she's not good enough for him, that he thinks she's not good enough for him, that he's stringing her along.  She does eventually dump him, but it's a preemptive strike; she actually knows (because he's told her so) that he always meant to dump her.

There is an explanation at the end for some of his bad behavior, but the rest Annie just sloughs off.  She actually says, at the end, "I love you because you're so horrible and rude but you still make me laugh."  I'm all for humor in a relationship, but does it really excuse rudeness?

To all of this, I found myself stuck back at the very beginning.  Why would a smart, competent, attractive woman even contemplate caring about such a schmuck?  Maybe he's redeemed at the end, but why did she start a relationship when it had such a low probability of future happiness?

Me, I don't think I could have forgiven the mess in the cubicle.

Next, we have a more sympathetic hero, and a more neurotic heroine.  The protagonists in Janice Kay Johnson's Match Made in Court (Harlequin SuperRomance) have their hands full dealing with the fallout when her brother allegedly kills his sister.  Brother is arrested, and the six-year-old daughter, Hanna, is taken in by our heroine, Linnea.  The deceased's brother, Matt, flies in from Kuwait where he'd been working as a civil engineer.  He's understandably outraged by what his brother-in-law is accused of doing; he wants custody of Hanna so that the Sorenson family is kept away from her.

There are so many wonderful things about this book -- the conflict is very real, the characters are appealing, their romance doesn't feel contrived.  But Linnea is a mess.  She's extremely passive and submissive to her overbearing mother and intimidating brother.  She rises to the occasion to protect Hanna, but she's so convinced that she herself isn't entitled to any happiness that she can't even begin to demand basic decency from the people around her, let alone respect.

I don't want to spoil this book -- which is very good -- but there is a complication in the relationship between Matt and Linnea.  She loves him, but is terrified to talk to him.  That's just not healthy.  And she knows that but she can't even have the meta conversation, meaning the conversation about why she's having trouble talking to him.  (You scoff, but sometimes the meta conversation is the really important one.)  Even when he asks, she sloughs it off.  (Now her behavior has ratcheted up to passive-avoidance; next will be passive-aggression, where she takes out on Matt all her resentments against her family of origin.)

Matt's not completely without responsibility in this situation, either.  He notices Linnea becoming quieter and quieter, but he doesn't do anything to stop it except have more sex with her, until finally it's too late.  He comes across, reasonably or not, as a guy who just doesn't care about her feelings.

Here's my question:  Matt and Linnea are smart people.  They knew they needed to get a counselor for Hanna, who was in the house when her mother died and who's not precisely comfortable with her dad.  So why can't they talk about needing some help themselves?  Linnea clearly needs to work on her issues of passivity and blind compliance; Matt could brush up his basic relationship skills, including how not to make major decisions by assuming your beloved's silence is enthusiastic agreement with your suggestions.

Is it a taboo for couples in romance novels to talk to someone about these issues?  Doesn't have to be Dr. Phil -- what about a pastor or Hanna's counselor?  What about -- radical concept coming up -- each other?

Neither Annie nor Linnea is a bad person, or even a bad candidate for an HEA.  But a happy ending doesn't solve their wussiness; Annie's still going to have anxiety and insecurity about being "good enough" for Iosef, and Linnea's still going to struggle to exert her own personality in her relationship with Matt.

Would it be so wrong for there to be a subtle suggestion at the end of the book that the heroine might also seek out some guidance so that her HEA is even H-ier?

A note on the photos.  The first is of a hospital in Melbourne; the second is the view from West Seattle of Puget Sound.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thinking Like a Lawyer

When I was in my 20s, I told my mother I wanted to write romance novels.

"Oh, you can't do that," she told me.

"Why not?"

"You forget -- I've read your philosophy papers!"

I was indignant with her dismissal.  I knew I needed to write fiction differently from the way I wrote term papers.  (Plus, my philosophy papers were pretty crappy.  Which isn't necessarily a good defense of my ability to write fiction, thinking about it now.)

Obviously, you don't write a story the way you write a term paper, or a legal brief, or a blog post.  But here is one common characteristic to these tasks:  they all require heart.  Which is why my papers and briefs were all sadly flat and anemic.  I didn't know how to inject passion into them.

A year ago, I realized that.  The reality fish slapped me but good when I read Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill books.  (You can read a lot more about that experience here.)  Suddenly I felt as though I could express my passion in my writing.  So I started writing a romance novel.

Okay, I don't blog a lot about my writing because . . . well, because it's boring.  I tend just to let the ups and downs of writing slide by without mention.

But I had an epiphany recently, with a lot of help from two fellow writers.  I realized I needed to stop thinking like a lawyer when I write.  Which is ironic because my romances involve lawyers.

See, I like the law a lot.  I always enjoyed legal research.  I love talking with Brit Hub 1.0 about legal matters.  I watch Law & Order (all three flavors).  I tend to enjoy romances written by former lawyers.  (Tellingly, Julia Spencer-Fleming is a lawyer.)  And the practice of law is fascinating to me.

I just can't stand real life lawyers and judges.  There are exceptions of course, but my recent experiences have been profoundly depressing.  Which is why fiction is so much fun.

In my fictional legal community (based in Philadelphia, where I went to law school, had my clerkship, and did most of my legal work), lawyers are smart, ethical, interesting, and will make good romantic partners as well as law firm partners.  (I joke that this means I write paranormal romances, but I don't really think it would take a genetic mutation for real life lawyers to be nice people . . .)

Now all I have to do is stop thinking like a lawyer when I write about them.  See, lawyers are trained to include all relevant information.  Ah, but in fiction, reading "all relevant information" is a bit like eating one of everything in a dessert buffet; a little goes a long way and too much is really uncomfortable.

One of my writer friends read the first four chapters of my WIP.  Her critique was beautifully succinct: she liked my writing but she wasn't interested in the characters.

Hmm.  Maybe that's because I had been thinking like a lawyer when I introduced them.  So with help from my lovely critique partner, Sarah Tanner, I rewrote the beginning -- losing 3,000 words in the process.  Yup, an entire chapter's worth of unneeded calories!

This is such a great lesson, and I've just begun to learn it: When writing legal romances, I need to stop thinking like a lawyer and think like a novelist.