Sunday, August 29, 2010

Realism and Romance

Yesterday, I gobbled up The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz.  It's not a romance; I guess I would call it a screwball mystery, although the more conventional mystery story embedded in it was pretty easy to figure out.  And there is a romance, although if -- like me -- you are able to guess who the hero is as soon as he appears, you quickly discover that the course of love does not run smooth in this book.

All the same, I loved it.  It's so much fun that even when the characters wander into a more realistic situation, no worries.  You just know they'll be back to their usual improbable hijinks before long.

 Cupid's bow & arrow in San Francisco -- Romantic Realism at its over-the-top best!

Here's a quick rundown of the Spellman family to whet your appetite for Lutz's books.  (There are four so far; you have to start with the first but if you only get the first, be prepared to buy #2 & #3 as soon as you finish it.  That's what I did.)  Albert Spellman is a retired San Francisco police detective turned private investigator.  His wife, Olivia, is petite & quite attractive for her age.  They have David, a perfect son turned lawyer (FYI: this family doesn't hate lawyers, as lawyers are prime clients; they do, however, hate dentists), Isabel, our heroine, and then the much younger sister Rae.  There's also Uncle Ray, who moves in with them.

Isabel is our narrator, and she's as flawed a heroine as you could possibly wish.  But Lutz does a great job of keeping our sympathies for Izzy without stretching our credulity.  We don't like Izzy's juvenile delinquency, but we reluctantly understand it and we see her mature.  She'll never stop breaking taillights on cars (it makes them easier to spot at night on surveillance) but she's no longer smoking weed.

Virtually nothing in this book seems realistic.  It's all frothy, fun, madcap adventures.  I laughed out loud more than I worried.  And there's virtually no angst.

But it got me thinking about realism in romance novels.  It's one of those clichés that romance novels aren't realistic.  Well, most of the romance novels I've read (barring the paranormals but including the urban fantasy books like Carolyn Crane's Mind Games) are more realistic than The Spellman Files.  That's not a slam on Lutz's work, mind you.  I think we want our books to be unrealistic.  Frankly, the t-shirt was right: We've given up on reality; we just want a good fantasy.

The Spellman Files reminded me that romance novels don't even come close to being the least realistic fiction out there.  At least characters in a romance novel eventually talk to each other and work out the conflicts between them.  And however novel the set-up and circumstances of their relationship, a romantic couple ends up with some very real emotions.  (As long as the book is well-written, of course.)

I think this is one of the more pernicious clichés about our genre out there. True, the bodices may get ripped more between the covers of romances than they ever did in real life, there are scores more dukes & marquesses in historical romances than any English monarch could have imagined, and I'm pretty sure (without gathering actual data) that the proportion of virginal orgasms is a lot higher in romance novel sex scenes.

Those things are less realistic, to be sure, but the emotional content of romances is, I think, right on.  To assail the emotional realism of romance novels, though, one would have to claim that the experience of falling in love is fantasy, and that people in real life are just deluding themselves that they're in love.  Because if you've read a well-written love scene, you know it can remind you quite powerfully of the pangs of love in your own life.  (At least it has for me.)

Which leads me to my one caveat about The Spellman Files:  You'll laugh, but you won't cry.  And the romance won't match up to even the dimmest offering in your TBR pile.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Danny Tucker For The Win!

Contrary to some people's perceptions, I love to be proven wrong.  I'll even celebrate the occasion!

A while back, I blogged about sex scenes where the characters seem to have shucked their brains along with their clothes.  I know it's crass even to think about this, but it's always bothered me when the hero (it's not always the hero, just most of the time) rips from the heroine's body some pretty, or pretty expensive, piece of clothing.  These scenes bother me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the possibility that she really liked that blouse/bra/panties and he just destroyed it.  What's the deal?  She comes out of the sex-induced torpor and actually doesn't care about the clothes and/or the expense of replacing them?

Here's a book I enjoyed:  Erin McCarthy's Heiress for Hire.  Remember that reality show, The Simple Life?  In it, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie have to spend time on a farm.  The heroine of Heiress for Hire, Amanda Delmar, bears more than a passing resemblance to Paris Hilton -- on the surface.  Underneath the surface, Amanda is just a nice girl starved for her father's affection.

She's in Cuttersville, Ohio as a result of her cousin's romance with a small-town girl (Heiress for Hire is a sequel).  She's planning her return to her aimless life in Chicago when her dad cuts her money off.

Meanwhile, Danny Tucker is a second-generation farmer.  He gets a surprise when someone drops off a 8-year-old daughter Danny didn't know he'd fathered.  That's all you need: Amanda needs some work, Danny needs a nanny, and voila! we have Amanda working on a farm.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by acknowledging that these two crazy kids get it on.  Here, then is part of the scene that clinched my love & admiration for this book:
Her ankles moved restlessly against the bed.  "Just rip the panties.  Get them off, please."

It was tempting but he hesitated.  "How much did they cost?"

"I don't know!  Maybe a hundred bucks."

No ripping today.  "For something the size of a corn husk?  No, we'll just slide them down, nice and easy."

[Yeah, I left out all the really sexy stuff, because I don't want that "Do you swear you're over 18?  Really?  Pinky swear!?" control on my blog.  But trust me, it's good steamy stuff.]

Now, how hard was that?  It's consistent with their respective characters, it's still sexy (not everybody needs to go 90 m.p.h. to prove how hot they are for each other), and it made me respect Danny all the more.

Danny Tucker, you have restored my faith in romance heroes.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Reports of My Death (& Other Great Exaggerations)

I'm not dead.

Sorry for inadvertently taking a two-week break from blogging.  Want to know what I was doing that was more important than blogging?  Cleaning for guests, collecting guests from the airport, entertaining guests, cooking for guests, and (finally) recovering from eating all that yummy food I made for my guests.  Was there a moment when I could have blogged something?  Yes, undoubtedly.  I suspect I slept through it, though.

Here's someone who's dead: Ophelia.  She had a lot on her mind, poor dear.

I read this account of Harvard's annual showing of Erich Segal's Love Story (the movie) aloud to my husband this morning.  What is it, I asked him, with men writing "love stories" that end with death?  I was, of course, thinking of Nicholas Sparks' books.  I've never read any of Nicholas Sparks' books.  Nor have I seen any of the movies made from his books.  I take some pride in that, based at least on this account of what's in the books and the movies.

Basically, none of these couples have an HEA.  And here's my theory of why:  because to a guy, Being In Love means one of two things: Great Sacrifice (as when your best beloved dies of cancer and you are brave and resolute in the face of her death) or Love That Conquers All But Doesn't Have to Last (because Falling In Love is romantic, but building & maintaining a relationship is girly and stupid).

Clearly, there's some weird-ass Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus crap going on here.  Why wouldn't a man want to see love the way most romance novelists see it, namely: Hero & Heroine meet, have conflict and/or misunderstanding but fall in love anyway, resolve their conflicts and then Live Happily Ever After?

I think it's because men don't see the narrative of being in a committed, monogamous relationship as a Happy Ending.  In real life, I suspect a lot of men (most men?) like being in a committed, monogamous relationship just fine, but the fiction that they gave up their freedom and options to have that relationship is still a powerful idea for some men.

So, if you're a guy and you want to experience Romance and the Resolution of Conflicts and a Love Story, but don't want to feel hemmed in by the prospect of minivans and carpools and Pop Warner League games and dance recitals and 25th wedding anniversary presents -- well, then why not imagine that the Great Love of Your Life dies?  It reinforces your ability to give your whole heart without being tied to one woman for very long.

What boggles my mind -- and I doubt I'm the only woman in this camp -- is the notion that you can meet the Great Love of Your Life and not want, oh, I don't know, to have her around for a decade or so?  Don't men watching Love Story or a Sparks movie think, "Gosh, that's sad.  She's perfect for him, and now he's going to be so lonely"...?

Oh, and here's another question.  Why do women love Sparks movies?  I love to cry at movies as much as the next person, but none of the Sparks movies strike me as worth catching even on Lifetime.  (I'll admit here that I have never watched any of the Lifetime movies made from Nora Roberts stories; romance novels don't translate well to the screen, in my opinion, but that's a whole other theory.)  What do we get from the tragic love story?

Well, I think it's that we see the tragedy as heightening the romance.  The tragedy is worse because they are so much in love.  We are happy they fall in love and conquer parental opposition, but when a character succumbs to cancer, we see that not as authorial pique (or worse, a calculated ploy to bring men's fantasies into play) but as Fate picking on the lovers.

Here's a clue to the male psyche.  My husband is (as far as I know) perfectly happy being married for ever and ever.  But when I read the New York Times piece out loud to him, and then asked why do men writing love stories have to kill off the heroine, he said immediately, "Oh, it's like opera.  And Dickens."  Only when I pressed him for the names of the Dickens' stories where a character is left bereaved and bereft, he thought of A Tale of Two Cities . . . and that was about it.

Even he clings to the notion that much Great Sacrifice is necessary for True Love.

P.S.  I fully concede that all our favorite operas result in death.  We like La Cenerentola (which has a happy ending) well enough, but we both happily shed tears at the endings of Madame Butterfly and La Traviata.  The soprano dies at the end of each of those operas, of course.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Magic Pen Revisions

Before law school, I worked in the New York State AIDS Institute.  It was not a very high-powered job.  To paraphrase someone I heard at a conference, I didn't work with people who had HIV, I didn't even work with the people who work with people with HIV -- I was about three or four layers removed from the actual front lines of providers and educators.

I also wasn't a proper public health professional, nor was I a proper New York State civil servant.  I had a friend, though, who was both.  Mona used to tell me about the civil service exams she had to take.  Her least favorite were the "magic pen tests."

If I understand the technology correctly, you took a standard multiple choice exam only with a "magic pen."  If you answered a question correctly, additional questions were revealed.  If you answered them correctly, perhaps even more questions showed up.  If you couldn't answer anything right, it was a quick exam!

Of course the technology was very buggy, which rather defeated the purpose and infuriated the test-takers.  Mona's descriptions were hysterically funny, though, so some good came of these tests.

I can only imagine what those tests were like (other than annoying), but I feel now as though I might have a better idea.  I'm revising my work-in-progress and it's a bit of a "magic pen" experience.  I didn't quite finish a full revision of all 24 chapters before RWA.  Since Orlando, I've had to start back at the beginning for a variety of reasons.

As a new writer, there are parallel tracks to getting feedback and possibly recognition.  I've entered a contest, so the first 7,000 words had to be worked over pretty carefully and proofread.  (I'm blessed to have married a man with a wide range of professional experience, including as a proofreader.  *bliss*)  Then, I needed to make sure the first three chapters were pristine as part of the query package I sent to the agent I pitched to in Orlando.  Then it was the first 75 pages (which works out to be the first 5 chapters), which go to a writing coach I've retained.

Sidebar:  I should explain about the writing coach.  A Famous Author, whose debut novel was so pristine and un-first-novel-ish that I had to ask her for advice, told me to do as she had done:  get a writing coach.  It's such diabolically superb advice I'm annoyed I needed to ask for it; I should have thought of it all on my own.  I haven't started working with my coach yet, but I met her in Orlando and liked her immediately.

I will admit to having had two silly reactions when I met her, both of which I banished immediately.  First, I wanted her to gush over my writing (she'd read the excerpt that's on my website) but that's dumb.  I don't want her to like my writing, I want her to see its flaws.  The second reaction was a fear that she'd treat me like the puppy that's left a puddle and rub my nose in my errors.  But she won't.  She'll show me what I need to improve, suggest how to improve it, then tell me how my improvements are going.

I haven't started working with her yet, and I need to keep going with the revisions even if she tells me to tear it all apart and start over.

Here's the magic pen part of this process.  Because of having abandoned the full revision near the end and starting again at the beginning, I should be finding the first few chapters nearly perfect.  But it's as if my previous changes had been made with that magic pen, and as I got those right, I'm allowed to see more changes I need to make.

Okay, I can actually hear fingers curling in anticipation of leaving me a loving & helpful comment about how I must guard against making too many changes and losing sight of my vision, my unique voice, etc., etc.  You guys are so great, but you're going to have to take my word on this one:  My writing still needs work.  I'm not wracked with anxiety and insecurity.  I'm fiercely determined to learn how to write.  (As I put it to the writing coach, also a former lawyer, "I have degrees in biology, philosophy and the law . . . and not a single creative writing class in 9 years of higher education!"  At least I know what I don't know.)

Does anyone else have this experience?  You know: you're revising a bit you've already revised, only now you can see how that bit of dialogue is patchy?  It was patchy the last time you worked on that scene, but you couldn't see it then and now you can.  I am rather enjoying this "magic pen" stuff -- it suggests I'm learning -- but it's also just a bit freaky.

Oooh!  Writing fiction has a freaky element.  Who'd da thunk it?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Character v. Plot

Ooh, I just realized it would be fun to set this up as a faux lawsuit . . . hmm, why would Character be suing Plot?  But truthfully I don't have time to be that creative.  Nudge me in a couple months and I'll see what I can do.

No, I wanted to blog briefly about a question a friend asked me the other night.  Jenny is an attorney who does education law at a public interest law firm.  (That's jargon that says she represents children and parents who are having trouble with their school system, and also that Jenny doesn't make a lot of money.  Yup, she is that mythical beast: the poor lawyer.)  She's also a great reader of a lot of different genres.  She had checked out my website and read the excerpt from my work-in-progress, Love in Reality.

Jenny is a lovely person; she promptly insisted that she wants to read the rest of the book.  (I have generous friends.)  But it's clear she's not a romance reader, so she asked me what the differences were between a romance novel and any other sort of novel.  I hardly claim to be an authority -- particularly as authorities do exist and some of them even read this blog! -- but I mentioned two things I think are necessary conditions of a romance novel: the HEA and what I call the No-Broken-Toilets rule.

The HEA is self-explanatory.  If the book doesn't have a happy-ever-after ending, it's not a romance.  Novels have been judged on the believability of the HEA; if you can close the book and think, "Ah, I'm not sure they can make it for the long haul," then the book didn't deliver to you everything it should have.

By contrast, the No-Broken-Toilets rule is far more subjective.  First of all, of course a romance novel can have a broken toilet.  Maybe that's how the protagonists meet each other: she's a plumber, say, and he's called Aaron's Plumbing Service thinking he's getting some guy named Aaron, and it turns out that's her surname.  Meet cute over the clogged toilet!

I call it the No-Broken-Toilets rule because -- and I think we've all been there -- there is nothing pleasant or romantic about the broken toilet itself.  It's a pain in the ass (sometimes literally, as when the seat cracks and pinches your tush) and it is always a hassle to resolve.  I'm all for people fixing the toilet themselves, so a spunky, can-do heroine is a wondrous thing.  But I don't need to read about the mess, smell, inconvenience, etc. of the situation.

Life -- real life -- is filled with mess, smell, inconvenience, and hassle.  Romance writers are selective about which messes, smells, inconveniences, and hassles they detail, so that the resulting story is of a world without petty vicissitudes.  And I like that about the genre.  To paraphrase the old Calgon commercials, "Romance, take me away," is pretty much my ideal.

Well, I think I've stumbled upon another difference: romance novels have more plot, less character detail.  I'm reading Rococo by Adriana Trigiani.  She's an American author who appears to be very popular in the U.K.  At least, I've seen her books in Waterstones, but not in Barnes & Noble; not that that proves anything.  I have to finish Rococo by Sunday; it was loaned to me by my sister-in-law, Bryony, oh about 18 months ago.  Luckily, I haven't see them in the intervening time, but she and Ross's brother Michael are bringing their kids for a trip to the States, much of it spent with us.

You guessed it -- time actually to read this book.  (Bryony, if you're reading this, it's a great book.  I was saving it, like dessert.)

Now, if there was one single lesson I heard over and over in RWA workshops, it was that we need lots of hooks in our writing.  The first sentence, first paragraph, first page, the last sentence of each chapter, etc., etc. -- they all need to be great hooks, guaranteed to pull the reader into the action and keep her reading.  That's probably true of all genre fiction -- it is meant to grab you by the lapels and drag you into the story.

Here's the first sentence of Rococo:  "I want you to imagine my house."  That's a perfect opening for this book, which is about Bartolomeo di Crispi, an interior decorator born around 1930.  The story takes place in Our Lady of Fatima, New Jersey (a fictional town near the real town of Freehold), circa 1970.  The first few chapters are all about the various characters in B.'s life (and their interior decor, of course); nothing really happens until page 75.  (When B. has sex.  I'll count that in the Plot column, although B. doesn't think much of it.)

What makes Rococo fun to read is the thoroughness with which Trigiani evokes a time and place.  I was 14 in 1970, so a lot of what B.'s talking about sounds just familiar enough to amuse me.  But I have some doubts about this book growing much of a plot in the next 300 pages.  Things will happen, B. or one of his family or friends will have opinions and reactions, rooms will get redecorated, and life will go on.  No toilets will stop up (I predict this) and there may even be a full-blown HEA.

Without a plot, though, it's not a romance novel.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Women are Smarter Than Men, and Here's Why

The first workshop I took at RWA was "Sex Appeal" with Suzanne Brockman and Lee Child.  I haven't read a Suz Brockman book, or at least not so that I recall.  (I don't claim to remember every last bit of my reading in the 1980s...)  But Lee Child -- for me, he's one of those "I'll read it as soon as it comes out, yes, even in hardcover" authors.  In fact, there was a bit of a panic because last year my cousin & I shared the hardcover she bought, but this year she downloaded him onto her Kindle and no sharing could take place.  Here's where my poor & sparsely populated county's library system holds its own: I put it on reserve and got to read it within days.  #librariesFTW

The premise of the workshop was this: Men read Suz Brockman's books about Navy SEALs, and women read Lee Child's books about a former US Army M.P. named Jack Reacher.  So, how do we write our books so that both men & women want to read them?  In point of fact, the workshop was a bit more about Lee Child's books and their appeal -- which was silly as most of us in the room already knew what was so appealing about them.  I'd have loved to have heard sales figures for Brockman's books -- just how many men actually read them? -- but it's a sure bet that Child sells orders-of-magnitude more books than Brockman does.  (She was very gracious about this, by the way, or at least it was an issue she neither brought up nor ducked.)

Fast forward to yesterday morning, when I'm in the car listening to "Radio Times" a call-in show broadcast from Philadelphia and carried by XM/Sirius.  Marty Moss-Coane's guest was Jennifer Weiner, the popular novelist of such books as Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, and most recently Fly Away Home, in which a 57-year-old wife of a politician has to endure The Press Conference in which her husband confesses his infidelity and asks the electorate for whatever (forgiveness? another chance? I'll admit I haven't read this book yet).  Weiner explained that she was curious about the conversation between husband and wife before The Press Conference and in the car ride home, and that was the reason she wrote the book.  There are two grown daughters as well, and Weiner believes the book shows how all three women grow up in response to the politician/husband/dad's confession.

(Full disclosure: I've met Jennifer Weiner precisely once although she would have no reason to remember, and I know her husband rather better although I haven't seen him in ten years.  I'm not sure if that makes me biased in one direction or another, but I thought I should mention it.)

A year ago, I wrote about the cultural divide between the perception of romance novels/writers as compared to other writers & genres.  I made the point:
Let's say that Jennifer Crusie's books evolved from the classic contemporary romance novel -- where she got her start, as it happens -- and Jennifer Weiner's work evolved from smart, snappy journalism -- where she got her start, as it happens.  Different paths, but their books end up pretty close together if you're visualizing the respective family trees: funny, descriptive, nice story arcs and cheery characters.  I suspect you can be certain with a J.Cru book that there will be a heroine, a hero, some sex & lots of laughs; with a J.Wein book, I'd bet on a heroine, some trouble, but lots of laughs, and a life lesson or two.  Not really that far apart.  But look at how differently they're marketed.  I've not seen Jennifer Crusie's closet pictured in Entertainment Weekly, for example.  I'm just saying.

which translates to: Romance novels rank below "chick lit" or "women's fiction" in the marketing and media coverage of genre fiction.

When Marty Moss-Coane mentioned the label "chick lit," Weiner was only a little annoyed by the limitations of that pigeonhole.  She did point out, though, that a novel with a 57-year-old protagonist wasn't stereotypically "chick lit."  (And she's right -- that's stereotypically "women's fiction," another pigeonhole!)  But then she went on to note that the New York Times has never reviewed her books, apart from a fly-over in their "Great Beach Reads" type articles.  Carl Hiaasen gets reviewed in the Times, she noted.  He used to be a journalist.  She used to be a journalist.  He writes funny books.  She writes funny books.  Implicit was: What's up with that?

So Jennifer Crusie doesn't get coverage in Entertainment Weekly, but Jennifer Weiner does.  And Jennifer Weiner doesn't get reviewed in the Times, but Carl Hiaasen does.  (To be fair to Weiner, she admits that a review in the New York Times wouldn't jack her sales up much.)  And, for all we know, Hiaasen is never reviewed in the New York Review of Books, and that annoys him.  There's greener grass for everyone.

There weren't a lot of callers in to the show, despite the fact that Weiner is a local Philly writer (the movie that Curtis Hanson made from In Her Shoes was filmed in Philadelphia, and Weiner was cast as "Smiling Woman in Italian Market").  But one guy -- an older man, maybe in his late 60s or 70s -- phoned in to demand of Weiner, "Why should I read your novel when there are no men in it?"  Three women and the only man, he said, was "an empty envelope."  (I'd have said the only male character was "a used condom," but maybe that would have been too raunchy for this show.)  The caller sounded really angry, and Moss-Coane (whom I learned later yesterday is married to a psychotherapist) used her best soothing voice to defuse the guy's hostility and thus protect Weiner.

Actually Weiner seemed willing to take the guy on.  She pointed out that maybe he'd like to read her books to find out how women think.  Well, as you might imagine, the caller was not appeased and that's not like to be another sale for Weiner.  I don't think she minds.

Here's what I think the guy was saying:  When a book focuses on three women and doesn't look at the man's point-of-view, why should a man read it?  (He might also have been thinking that Fly Away Home is not likely to be a book that spends a lot of time seeing the husband/politician as worthy of our attention, but he didn't say that, and it is likely not to be true.  I think Weiner's a better writer than that.)

Which brings us back to Lee Child's books.  Half of them are written from the first-person voice -- Reacher's voice -- and the other half are in the third-person, but still predominantly focused on what Jack Reacher is doing.  All guy, all the time.  And women read them.  Child said that women are the majority of his readers because they have time and money to spend on books.

What do I take from all this?  That women are SMARTER THAN MEN.  Yup.  We are.  We're smart enough to read a good book regardless of whether a man or a woman wrote it, and regardless of whether it features a man or a woman or both (or two men or a woman & a shapeshifter, etc., etc.).  How outrageously honest and arrogant was that caller to presume that because a book was focused on women, there would be nothing in it for him?  Oh, and narcissistic.  Because he only wants to read books that have guys in them, guys like him, presumably.

One of the women in the Child/Brockman workshop told Lee Child that what she -- a stay-at-home mom with pre-school kids -- most loved about Jack Reacher was his rootlessness.  He has assets & resources but he has no home; he just moves around the country until he finds a place that needs his particular brand of wits and activism.  For the mom, that seemed glorious -- not to shirk your responsibilities but simply not have any responsibilities that tie you down.  What a wonderful reason to love a character -- and it has nothing to do with gender.  Too bad our arrogant caller lacks the open mind, imagination & intelligence to think, "There may be something in this female character I can relate to, and even if there isn't, it's a great story."

Ah, but there's one last battle to report.  When I went looking for Lee Child's sales figures, I found this blog post about a vodcast of a panel of genre writers talking about the divide with literary fiction.  The blogger, an Australian woman, Kirstyn McDermott, has a bone to pick with Lee Child, who believes that he could write a Martin Amis-style literary novel in three weeks, and it would sell 3,000 copies like Amis's own novels sell.  But Martin Amis can't write a bestseller the way Bryce Courtenay does and make pots of money.  The way we know Amis can't is that if he could he would -- for the money alone.

McDermott is incensed that writers at that caliber can't all play nicely in the sandbox, but she overlooks the fact that the panel was set up specifically to look at the divide between literary and genre fiction writers.  As I see it, Child was just delivering the goods the producers wanted.

My disagreement with Child's position is the assumption that Martin Amis or Ian McEwan would want to write a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies if by doing so they were betraying their own unique style, voice & vision.  Instead, I suspect Amis & McEwan simply want their books -- their literarily acclaimed books -- to sell in the six- and seven-digits...  McDermott believes this as well, but still seems incensed at Child's presumption.  I was, I'll admit, startled by her vehemence.  And her belief that what he said in any way tells her (or us) what he's actually like as a person.  (She does go there, by the way: she accused him of being "well, childish.")

Implicit in McDermott's post is the assumption that genre writers need to "sell" their books to the fans and aficionados of literary fiction.  Oh, puhleeze.  There are too many books for everyone to read all of them, and clearly Lee Child's books -- like Jennifer Weiner's -- are finding their audience: WOMEN.

Just think of all the books men are missing because they're too stupid to read outside some arbitrary and narrow construct.  And now think how much better women authors' sales might be if their books were judged on merit and not on gender -- the way women readers judge the books they read.  I'm not incensed about Lee Child's attitudes about Martin Amis -- I'm incensed at men's attitudes toward books in general.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My RWA Lessons

I had an orange ribbon on the bottom on my name tag at RWA that pronounced me a First Timer.  Apart from earning me the chance to tell total strangers how my conference was going, being a First Timer was pretty meaningless.  (I met a fellow newby, Carla, who complained these ribbons should have labeled us as "Virgins" although she could see there might be a problem with "truth in advertising.")

I've been to conferences before, though, so I knew what to expect.  Essentially it was like four days of combined Continuing Legal Education and job interviews, with the occasional reception thrown in for good measure.  Most of the lessons I got, though, were outside of the workshops.

Here's what I learned:

Genius comes in all shapes and sizes.  I doubt many people see Susan Elizabeth Phillips on the street and think, "Now that's a woman who's written several superb romance novels."  She looks like the friendliest hostess and grandma on the block, lively and funny all in one.  Which in no way precludes her awesome talent; it just doesn't telegraph it.

There's a corollary to this principle, namely that authors don't much look like their publicity photos.  The photos might look better, or younger, or even glossier.  But every writer I met looked a lot more human in real life, and I mean that as a compliment.

The author-reader barrier is still in place -- for me at least.  I had a very short list of authors I wanted to meet, mostly at the literacy event on Wednesday night.  I really could have skipped them all -- while I'm certain writers are lovely people in their real lives, at RWA they are working in an artificial environment and not (I presume) looking to make new friends.  If introducing oneself to a working author is a sign of respect and acknowledgment, then I'm glad I did it.  But much nicer was . . .

. . . The chance to meet fellow-bloggers and online contacts at the blogger bashes.  (Some authors also attended, I hasten to note, including some I didn't know before.  That was a much nicer venue for getting to know everyone, writer and reader alike.)  Thanks to Wendy (aka Super Librarian) and Elizabeth (aka Anime June), there were two bashes at which bloggers, reviewers, authors and readers all gathered to mix and mingle.  Those events were nearly perfect because we all came together with approximately the same degree of prior social interaction.  Now I have names & faces to go with the online personae; without exception people are so much more interesting in person.

One workshop presenter suggested "never be negative" as a general rule for a writer's online interactions.  I can see her point; within hours of arriving in Orlando, I was introduced to B.K., the real-life nickname of an author whose pen name sounded familiar.  I had to come back here to Promantica to find it: a post I did explaining why a certain book of hers wasn't to my liking.  Ooops.

I have no reason to suppose B.K., who's a friend of a friend, knows me from Adam.  But as one author explained, most writers have "Google Alerts" set up to see every mention of their names.  So maybe B.K. saw or was linked to my post, read it, didn't like it and (this is the part I find hard to envision) remembered it had been written by someone named Magdalen.  As my name turns out not to be indelibly memorable, it seems unlikely that B.K. had been walking around with it in her head just in case I materialized in front of her.  However, it is true that when our mutual friend introduced us, B.K. shook my hand, turned around and walked out of the room.

I've reread my post about her book and I stand by it.  I don't think I was unduly harsh or unkind.  I don't subscribe to the theory that books are writers' "babies" and thus deserve the same level of blind oohing and ahhing by commenters that we accord newborns.  Nonetheless, I got the conference's "don't be negative" message.

I'll work out the appropriate compromise for Promantica.  Romances still fascinate me, as a genre and as a source of reading pleasure.  I should be able to find insights to share without being negative about authors.

But RWA didn't appear to have a workshop that covered that trick.