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.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Heresy in Three Parts: Part 1, The Magnet Effect

I am a heretic.

I don't believe in some of the most entrenched, best beloved tenets of romance fiction.  Oh the heresy!

Well, I don't care.  I respect that others believe in these tenets with absolute conviction, but their belief doesn't make these things universal constants.

Up first:  The Magnet Effect.

There are those contemporary romances that seem to work on the principle that if two people are meant to be together -- they're soul mates or something -- then the moment they get close enough . . .


They're glued together and let no reader put them asunder.

The Magnet Effect makes for ludicrous plots.  Like the "I Hate You, I Hate You, I Hate You, I Love You," plot, the "I Won't Notice That Guy Who's Perfect For Me For Most of the Book" plot, and the "Somehow I Was Damaged in My Prior Relationships Enough to Eschew All Men But Not So Much I Need Actual Help" plot.  Just to name a few.

What's up with this?  Why is it assumed that, in a romance novel for goodness sake, the author needs to keep her protagonists apart for the majority of the book?  And even loonier to my mind is the notion that they can sleep together -- more than once -- but still not even be close to falling for each other.

I understand what the fear is.  It's that if the author allows her heroine and hero to interact with each other -- if she lets them date, hang out, even talk to each other -- then they will be so irresistibly drawn to each other that SNAP! they cleave unto each other and all romantic tension is leached from the story.

What I find myself wanting to know is how stupid are these characters?  Don't they want to fall in love?  And if they don't, why do we believe the HEA?  But if they do, why are they sniping at each other non-stop, or avoiding each other, or constantly telling themselves how they can't, they mustn't, they won't even talk to each other?

The Magnet Effect relies on the assumption that all any couple, even two soul mates, can do is bond.  It's the instant oatmeal theory of romantic relationships: just add water & stir.  Or -- I know, those epoxy glues where you have to keep the two elements separate because once they even touch each other, you have precious little time left in which they're malleable.

All this seems so limiting to me.  It almost insults the characters.  Don't they have some internal issues that falling in love can trigger?  Deciding to make a life with another human being is a big step; surely it needs more than great sex and a declaration of love?

Plus, people fall in love differently.  My 2010 NaNoWriMo book starts with the hero falling in love in the first scene.  Someone said recently, "Well, it had better be a short story."  Nope, I'll still be aiming for 100,000 words.  Because I don't believe in The Magnet Effect.  I believe in slow-acting chemistry.  My NaNo hero, Jack, may know with complete conviction the moment he sees Elise that she's "the one."  And not to spoil the ending, but he's right.  He just has no idea how to get her to see things his way.  And she has a few things to teach him as well.

Watching them interact is so much more fun than watching them avoid each other.

At least that's what I believe.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Like a Hole in the Head

Yup, I've started another blog.  Trust me, I am well aware how stupid a move that is, at least from the perspective of time management.

But from another angle, it's not stupid at all.  I think about what I'm reading, and for a while now -- since I got my Kindle -- I've been thinking about the kinky sex books I've been reading.  What I think is:
  • They're well written.  Some of them are very well-written indeed and a lot of them are keepers because the romances are so angsty and lovely.
  • They are psychologically quite complex.  I want to explore this aspect of certain books, but they are books that can't be discussed outside the context of their sexual components.  It would be like discussing the relationship in a Regency romance without acknowledging any of the historical elements that distinguish the Regency period from, say, modern day.
  • Even the titles of these books are borderline racy and might make someone uncomfortable.
  • I don't want Promantica to be a place where anyone is uncomfortable.  
  • I need a new blog -- yes, with one of those annoying "Contains content that might make someone uncomfortable..." warnings -- so that I can write very unsexy posts about sexy books.
So, I've started Hedone's Blog.  Don't worry, the very first (and, as I write this, the only) blog post is completely G-rated.  It mostly explains why I named my blog after Psyche's & Cupid's daughter, Hedone (pronounced Hee-don-ee).

I'm not going to advertise (through Tweets, for example) new posts to Hedone's Blog.  I figure people who are interested in that intersection of human psychology, sexuality and romance will find it if they want to.

Back here at Promantica, I'll still be reading good, even great, vanilla books.  And I daresay the posts for Hedone's Blog will eventually dry up in much the same way posts to my knitting blog, quilting blog, and even original blog have done.  But in the meantime, if you're wondering why I'm not posting so much here, you'll probably find me over there.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

19 Ways to Get A Romance Novel

Ross and I went to see Marc Cohn last Friday. He performed a Willie Dixon song, "29 Ways," from Cohn's eponymous debut album.

Don't know the song? Here's a 2007 bootleg video that's actually pretty similar to his performance last week:

I'm including this because I have -- well, not 29 but quite a few ways to get a romance novel. Here we go:
  1. Pick it up at Barnes & Noble.  Impulse purchase, perhaps, or it got released that Tuesday and I couldn't wait to own it.  I have the B&N discount card, so I always feel as though I'm saving a little money off the list price.  (I won't list it separately, but there's a Borders I occasionally shop at as well.)
  2. Buy it at the grocery store.  Again, all paperbacks are 20% off at Wegman's, so there's that illusion of having saved money.  But mostly it's habit -- once I've gotten everything on my grocery list I'll stop by their wall of books as a reward.  This method is useful for finding new books by old favorite authors, like Jane Feather, whose releases aren't touted on social media sites.
  3. Buy it at Target.  This is a rare occurrence; their paperback section is quite quixotic.  But it's happened.
  4. Buy it (new) from Amazon.  As a book.  (C.f. Kindle purchase below.)
  5. Buy it at a used bookstore.  This used to happen a lot, but now is a very rare occurrence as there are NO used bookstores around me.  None.  Seriously.
  6. [This space left blank.  It should say, "Buy it new from a local independently-owned bookstore" -- and believe me, I wish it did say that -- but the only one within 30 miles of my house doesn't carry romances.]
  7. Buy it (used) through Amazon.  One cent plus $3.99 s+h = affordable, particularly given the realities of #5.
  8. Buy it (used) through any other website, like Alibris.  This is uncommon, but if I really want some obscure & expensive OOP romance, I'll shop around.
  9. Buy it used from the occasional book sale at our local historical society.  I couldn't find my collection of LaVyrle Spencer romances, and as it happened, the "Strawberry Festival" book sale netted a dozen or more of her backlist -- for about $2.  Total!
  10. Order it from PaperBackSwap.  This isn't free, precisely, as I need to send out books in order to get books.  But it's still cheap -- the average cost of mailing a book to another PBS member is about $2.25, so that's approximately the cost of obtaining a book from PBS.  And it's a nice way of recycling used books.  (I have also donated them to the historical society for its book sales.)
  11. Buy it for my Kindle.  There's a wide range of costs here -- from, say, $12 for a book currently out in hardcover to $0.00 for an e-book they're giving away free.  An e-book selling for under $4.00 automatically seems affordable; more than that and I have to factor in a lot of stuff, like when am I actually going to read it.  But I can see this approach may supplant approach #1 for those "I have to have it immediately" purchases.
  12. Borrow it from my local library.  I wish this was an option more often because I like the library, but our library system is small and poor, particularly this year.  (State funding was slashed.)  Quick example:  while the library carries very few romance authors, it does carry Nora Roberts.  But it can be a couple months before the latest NR romance is added to the collection.  Also, I live at least 20 minutes away from each of three branches, so there's a cost associated with going to the library, making "free" a bit illusory.
  13. Receive it as a gift from nice friends like Janet W.
  14. Receive it as a loan from nice friends like Janet W.
  15. Get it at a conference as a free giveaway.
  16. Buy it at a conference as part of RWA's literacy campaign, for example.  I am proud to say I spent a LOT of money this way last summer.
  17. Buy it at an airport shop.
  18. Buy it at a bookstore on my travels.  Waterstone's in the UK, for example, or an independent bookstore in Staunton, Virginia -- places like that.
  19. Win it in an online contest.  This has actually happened to me, and it's lovely.
There you have it -- and as the Willie Dixon song puts it, "If she needs it bad, I could find two or three more..."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Romance Novel as Travelogue

You've read them -- the romance novels that make you want to travel.

Often, the story is set someplace I've been and want to visit again: Cornwall, New Zealand, Paris.  But most recently, I read Desert Honeymoon by Anne Weale (a Harlequin Romance from 1999) and -- for the first time in my entire life -- I wanted to see India.

I don't know why I haven't wanted to visit India.  I have friends who have been and adored it.  I've seen movies, PBS programs, even episodes of The Amazing Race set in India, and in all of them, it looks exotic but accessible.  I just didn't want to go.

Then I read Desert Honeymoon.  It's not a great book -- Anne Weale writes consistently opinionated romances that you either like or you don't like -- but as a Chamber of Commerce advert for India, it's amazing.  And although she's given her locale a fictitious name, she explains at the end that it's based on various cities in Rajasthan, which is the northwestern state in India, on the Pakistani border.

Here's the plot:  Nicole gets a job as a graphic designer that takes her out of London, where she lives with her 12-year-old son and her dad & his second wife.  Her son, Dan, is old enough to be busy with school, and the money is good.  The job is in India; although she's employed by His Highness Prince Kesri, the Maharaja of Karangarh (that would be your fictitious locale), she's actually interviewed by Alexander Strathallen, an anthropologist who spends a lot of time in the prince's compound.  Alex and Nicole fall fastidiously in love.

All Weale's characters are very fastidious.  I recall one of her romances, read over two decades ago, in which the heroine makes the point that women who don't remove their eye makeup before going to bed are so NOKD (not our kind, dear).  One just knew that this is actually Anne Weale's own personal opinion.  It says something about the uh, force of her opinions that I remember that specific detail in a book that has otherwise faded entirely from my memory.

Anyway, Nicole had Dan out of wedlock, which Weale is hip enough not to criticize.  But how to reveal the existence of a son to both Alex and the prince?  Once that bombshell turns out to be a squib, Alex proposes, they marry (because this is a Harlequin Romance, natch) and have the titular desert honeymoon.

Even without the postscript about how Karangarh is a mash-up of places Weale herself visited, the book fairly screams, "I took a holiday & here's the book I'm setting in the place(s) I stayed."  What's unusual, and what makes the book worth reading if you do stumble upon it in a used bookstore, is that she has a deft touch with the details.  Oh, her writing isn't great -- I'm sure there are info dumps in here -- but she describes interesting details like the texture of the sandstone and the intricacies of the grille-work.

And she made me want to visit India.

So I thought, "Hmm, I wonder what photos I can find on Flickr of Rajasthan?"  I have to do this for my "other" blog; I routinely raid Flickr's Creative Commons-licensed photos for the bi-weekly posts I do for Ross's Crossword Man blog.  (Quick example:  here's the puzzle & some related photos to figure out, and here are the answers.)

All of these photos are of Rajasthan -- click on any of them to see the original Flickr photo and its explanation.

Want more?  Here's the search I used.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ten Things I've Learned AK (After Kindle)

I've had my Kindle for two weeks now.  It's great.  I don't regret not owning one three weeks ago, but I definitely am glad to have one now.

Here are 10 things I've learned since I got my Kindle.

1.  I am reading several books at once. 

I didn't used to do this.  There was the book I was reading, and a lot of books I wasn't reading.  Of the books I wasn't reading, a few I might have started and even had the intention of finishing.  But they weren't the book I was reading.  Which meant if I wanted to read on a car trip, I had to ensure I had that specific book in my purse.  With the Kindle, of course, all the books come with me, so I can pick up where I left off as I please.

2.  The Kindle changes how I perceive the length of books. 

For the uninitiated, I will explain that there are no page numbers in Kindle books, just a progress bar along the bottom with three bits of information:  Percentage read at the left, total number of "Locations" to the right, and in the middle the specific range of "Locations" for the text on the screen.  I understand why this is so: because you can make the text bigger or smaller, the concept of page numbers becomes so elastic as to be meaningless.

The result is that all Kindle books "look" to be the same length because the progress bar is always the same width and the number of Locations is pretty meaningless.  Obviously a book with 3,000 Locations is shorter than a book (e.g., Outlander, which I got free the other day) with 13,000 Locations.  But as I have no concept of what a Location is, I find I rely on the "percentage read" function to help me figure out how long a book is.  And that brings in the concept of speed.

Clearly, if I've read 10% of a book by the end of the first chapter, it's not a long book.  And if a book is a "fast read," I might look down and be dismayed to see that I'm already 65% through it.  The converse is unfortunately true as well.  I was reading what should have been a fast-paced thriller, but I noticed that the progress bar wasn't filling up as fast as I would have liked.  Not a good sign.

Watch out, though:  just as with paper books, a Kindle book can look bigger than it is, if the progress bar and number of Locations include the extra material at the end, e.g., excerpts from the next book and so forth.  I've caught myself thinking I had another 10% to go when, boom, the book ends.

3.  It's way too easy to buy books.

I've mentioned this before, that the 1-Click system is just way too easy.  I do not want to see the credit card bill.  More to the point, I don't want my husband to see the credit card bill.  (Can I claim this as a business expense?)

On the other hand, I just pre-ordered Lee Smith's latest Jack Reacher novel.  It's $9.99 for the Kindle, will download automatically on the release date, and it saves me the hassle (and gas, and time) of requesting it at the library and then going to get it.   That's not a bad deal when it's a book I really want to read, like, NOW.

4.  The economics of the "free" book are not obvious.

I had a rather misguided notion of the free Kindle book, namely that the adage, "You get what you pay for," would apply.  I thought that when I was offered a "free" book, I'd figure, "Oh, why not?" click, download, and ignore.

When one of the free books was by Jennifer Ashley (Penelope & Prince Charming, alas now back to costing actual money), I thought, "Who am I kidding?  I'll take one, please."  I haven't read it yet, but I'm not ignoring it as much as just not reading it.  (I have dozens & dozens of paper books I'm just not reading.  They're my TBR collection, and they breed at night.)  And when the free book on offer was Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, which I have never read, it was a no-brainer.

In other cases, the "free" book was basically the first third of one complete story; parts 2 and 3 costs modest amounts.  (I bought them all -- even double a modest amount isn't a lot of money.) (See #3.)  Clearly the "free" book is a teaser to get you to buy #2 and #3, and therefore a front-loaded "buy two, get one free" offer.

For more on the "free" book, see #5, below.

5.  I'm (still) unconvinced about the self-publishing revolution.

Here's the theory, as I understand it.  It doesn't take a lot of money/entreprenurial spirit to get YOUR book uploaded to the Kindle store.  Want people to read it?  Offer it free!  They will love it, recommend it highly to their friends, and so forth.

Maybe this works, but here's what I experienced.  Someone tweeted about 35 free Kindle books.  I clicked on the link and found myself at a Kindle blog with 35 book titles, each highlighted to show I could click on them to -- presumably -- go to that book's Amazon page.  No authors' names, no other information.  (The posts were edited to add the size, in KB, of the download.  This information, it seems to me, is even less useful than the number of Locations on the Kindle progress bar.)

In two weeks, I already have a modest TBR list on my Kindle.  So why would I want to download a book about which I know nothing?  If I had an hour to kill, I could have clicked each of the 35 links, but with an hour to kill, I'd rather read.  So if the best independently-published ebook was among those 35, I didn't bother to learn about it.

I assume every one of those authors has a blog, a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and is doing everything possible to build a social network so that people can find her (his) book.  But it's hard work, and at least from my perspective, offering the book free isn't a surefire hook.

6.  By contrast, a free Harlequin Blaze?  Sure, why not.

This is the flip side to #5.  I won't do the work associated with figuring out if independently-published books are worth the gamble, but I will snatch up a free Harlequin Blaze (Slow Hands, by Leslie Kelly) that I would otherwise not have read.  Hey, 10% in, I should know if I like it.

Why won't I accord an independently-published book the same courtesy?  Because of two things.  First, someone at Harlequin liked the Leslie Kelly book enough to publish it (that's the "quality assurance" component to commercial publishing -- what some people call "curating" -- the idea that someone else has read a thousand manuscripts and picked the best), and second, several people at Amazon have posted reviews that say, in effect, "I got it for free and it's not bad."  I don't normally go by Amazon reviews, but on a free book?  Sure, why not.

7.  I don't know what to do with the crummy books.

This would actually be something I haven't learned yet -- how to organize my Kindle books into something other than page after page of book titles.  And is there a way to delete books?  Yes, I understand I don't have to -- the Kindle will hold thousands of titles -- but maybe I want to.  Or at least, maybe I want to stick the stinkers someplace where they won't clutter up my KTBR (Kindle To-Be-Read) offerings. 

On the plus side, though, even a cluttered Kindle doesn't present the obstacle course my office floor does at the moment.  I've got piles of paper books waiting for further disposition.

I'll keep working on challenges of organization -- electronically and in three-dimensions!

8.  The Kindle is like a paper doll.

Thanks to my cousin, I have a skin on my Kindle.  This one.  And, also thanks to my cousin, my Kindle has a little sack dress coming from an Etsy store.  (I don't know which one, but I'll edit this post when it arrives.)  The temptation to make it multiple outfits is considerable -- I certainly have the fabric for it! (see right) -- but the time involved would definitely eat into my reading time.  And while the Kindle does lend itself to multi-tasking (see #9, below), I don't actually think I can read and sew a straight line at the same time.

9.  I really can read with one hand.

When I tried a first-generation Kindle a year ago, I was unimpressed.  Particularly annoying to me was the ease with which the "go forward" and "go back" buttons worked.  I kept getting lost in the book, and with no page numbers for guidance, I was not happy.

Well, they've fixed that -- it takes a distinct and intentional click on the go-ahead button to advance the story.  And with both the go-ahead and the go-back buttons on both sides of the Kindle, I can hold it in one hand, read, and do something else with my other hand.  Like play Castle Age on Facebook, or stir something on the stove.  You get the idea.

10.  I haven't forgotten how to read a paper book -- nor lost the desire to do so.

After a week with the Kindle, Ross teased me by suggesting -- complete with a pantomime -- that I had already forgotten how to turn the pages of a paper book.  Hah.  Very funny.  But not true.  And it's a good thing, too, given how huge my paper TBR piles are.

If there was a "1-Click" approach to turning my existing paper books into Kindle books, I'd be tempted only to do it for my Betty Neels collection and a handful of other books.  The Betty Neels canon is special simply because of the rapidity with which The Uncrushable Jersey Dress blog is reviewing them.  They post a new review every few days (and posts every day); with each new review I find myself thinking, "Now, if I could just pull that book up on the Kindle, I'd reread it."  Why don't I just find it in paper and read that?  Because somehow the paper Neels books "compete" with a lot of books I haven't already read several times.  Yes, you got that right.  I've read many of the Betty Neels books more than once, and some several times.  Still, I'm tempted to buy them for the Kindle . . . if it weren't that Harlequin is e-publishing them one per month.  With 134 books?  Are they crazy?

So, as long as I can get paper books from PaperBackSwap or for a penny through Amazon's used book function, I'll own and read paper books.  And continue to trip over them, more's the pity.