Monday, November 22, 2010

This Poor Excuse of a Blog Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Not Wrong, It's Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Promantica!

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NaNoWriMo, Dr. Diesel & Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I won't tip over.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Some Links in the Chain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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