Friday, December 30, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Student

I dropped out of my writers' critique group; last week's holiday party was my last meeting with them.

I'm reflecting on this as 2011 closes because it's symbolic of what I suspect will be a number of changes, some exciting and some just sad, that come with the new year.

In the case of the writers' critique group, it seemed pretty obvious to me that it wasn't going to go well if I continued to attend meetings while I was working on my MFA program. And I can see already that my instincts were right. Even doing my homework, reading books about writing, makes me want to rave about what I'm learning to the other writers.

For so many reasons, that would be highly annoying. I'd be lecturing them--which they neither need nor asked for--and I'd be suggesting that I now know something they need to know--which is almost certainly not true.

Of course, I considered the alternative, namely to attend the meetings but not say anything. Ugh. I love these people, but not enough that I could glue my lips together, sit on my hands, and smile like a Sock Monkey for two hours.

So starting next week, working with a critique group will be confined to ten days in January and ten days in July. I'll have a mentor/instructor for the months in-between, someone I'll email pages of my WIP(s) and wait for comments and suggestions.

In other words, I'll be home, working on my own to learn everything I can learn so that my writing improves. Writing is already a solitary occupation; I'm about to make my education as a writer solitary for 11 months of the year.

It's worth it, and I'm seeing that already, even before the course has officially begun. One of my assigned texts is Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. It's about screenwriting, which I don't do, but it's really about what makes stories work. And sure enough, it showed me something that's (possibly) missing from Blackjack & Moonlight. Luckily, I'd submitted an excerpt from B & M for one of my Stonecoast workshops, and luckily that workshop is being run by the instructor who'd assigned Save the Cat! for a presentation she's doing on story structure. So I have hope that she and my fellow students can tell me what I need to do to add the missing element.

It's just that I want to natter on about this now. It's a bit like that boor in The Graduate: "Just one word...Plastics," only in my case the word is "Primal." But I'll spare you the details.

It's going to be a new year, that's for sure. I'll still post here as I think about romances and romance fiction. I'll just try hard not to post hectoring screeds about writing technique.

Because you don't need that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

TBR Challenge - It's Not Wallpaper But It's Still Not to My Taste

Over at AAR, Lynn Spencer posted a great piece on what a shame it is that so many Regency romances don't bother to take place in the Regency period.

Chatsworth House

Coincidentally, my TBR Challenge read for December is A Regency Christmas, a holiday anthology from Signet. It was published in 1989, theoretically the heyday of more historically appropriate regency romance. Apart from the issue of the value of money, which no one seems to get right,* there's enough of the flavor of the Regency period. For example, The Kissing Bough by Patricia Rice has two gentlemen soldiers returning from the Peninsular Wars. Gayle Buck's Old Acquaintances turns on a misunderstanding between the hero and heroine that resulted in her ending their engagement (four years before the story starts) without much discussion. That seems consistent with the lack of contact even engaged couples had back then; at one point Judith tells her erstwhile fiancé that there's been no opportunity to discuss anything: "Whenever we were private, we either fought or you kissed me."

Mistletoe in the wild
[It was at this point in my reading this post aloud to Brit Hub 2.1 that he pointed out how most of our ideas of what Christmas looks like come from the Victorian time. There's a wreath on the door in the cover illustration--a classic Allan Katt scene--and of course that's Victorian. But, to all five authors' credit, none of the Victorian traditions, such as ornaments and trees, show up in this collection.]

Alas, for all their sense of time and place, four of the five stories aren't romantic enough. Hell, one of them--Edith Layton's The Duke's Progress--literally doesn't identify the heroine (!) until the last two pages (!!). Drawn-out misunderstandings, the inconvenience of far too many extra characters (lecherous in one story and larcenous in another), and downright dawdling all add up to slow pacing and a distinct feeling that historical accuracy isn't enough on its own.

Mind you, I didn't need blatant sex. I needed romance. I needed the hero and heroine to meet each other quickly and have a relationship. Admittedly a troubled relationship, but one of interest or intrigue that leads to love. You'd think in a novella, this wouldn't have been hard, but it isn't until the very last story that the reader gets all the angsty goodness and charm of love rekindled.

Mary Balogh's The Star of Bethlehem makes up for the other four stories. It's got its own problems--we're asked to believe that a husband and wife can have marital relations for TWO YEARS and never discover that they love each other (well, maybe that's historically accurate, who knows)--but it's charming and sweet. And very romantic. I can't say much about the plot because I liked its surprising elements for just that reason: they surprised me. Period detail, a lovely romance, and even some surprises? Skip the other five stories, but don't miss this one.

* Here's the Parliamentary white paper on the subject, now updated to 2002. Yes, £1 in 2002 was the equivalent in absolute terms of £8 in 1812, but £1 in 1812 had the same purchasing power as £50 pounds in 2002.

So when the innkeeper decides to charge £2 for each member of a party of 8 stranded in a snowstorm--because, you know, there was a blizzard every single Christmas during the Regency--that would be the equivalent of £800 in 2002 terms. And they didn't all get separate rooms, either. For a night's lodging in a 3-star hotel, maybe, but that seemed a bit extreme for the coaching inn equivalent of a Red Roof Inn, even allowing for the market forces at work with insufficient choice and ultimate demand.

Me? I'd have had the innkeeper charge them two crowns per head--a crown for lodging and another for their meals. That's half as much and it strikes me as exorbitant but not nonsensical.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I, Publisher

This week, Ross and I become publishers.

Thursday, December 8, is the release date for Tara Buckley's first erotic novella, The Realm of You. In it, Tara looks at the ways communication in a marriage can get derailed by assumptions. Oh, and there's lots of kinky sex.

I am not Tara Buckley. To explain how I've come to be Tara's publisher, I have to back up and explain about getting rejected a lot.

In 2010, when my writing actually sucked, I minded the rejections. This year, my writing is pretty good and getting better. More importantly, I'm writing the sort of books I want to read. They just happen not to be the sort of books agents want to flog to editors, or that editors want to publish.

None of that means that there aren't a lot of other people who'd enjoy my books. At least two of my rejections started, "I love [the characters, the set-up, the dialogue, etc.]" and ended with "I just don't think [there's enough conflict, it can succeed in the market, etc.]." I take that to mean that even the odd agent or editor enjoyed my work, but didn't think it could succeed in a tight, competitive industry.

These rejections don't bother me any more. Last summer, I made a deal with Ross: I'd query everyone I could think of. By the end of the year, if I hadn't gotten an agent, we'd self-publish in 2012. I've sent out about 50 queries and, counting the no replies as "no, thank you," I've gotten about 50 rejections. Time to self-publish.

The more we talked about it, the more Ross and I realized this was a good fit. I could do the social media and some of the marketing (as well as write the books--or as we like to call it, "create content") and Ross could do all the formatting necessary for the three platforms: PRC (for Amazon's Kindle), EPUB (for B&N's Nook) and a modified DOC file (for Smashwords, which serves most other devices). Plus, as a former lawyer, I could handle the quasi-legal aspects of starting a business in Pennsylvania while Ross, who has had his own business(es) for decades, knows more about the corporate side of things.

That left two of the traditional roles of publishing to outsource: editing and graphic design. We're probably going to use a freelance editor who used to work for Silhouette for my novels, and we've used Heather C. Paye for our website banner and some cover art.

Which brings me to Tara. Tara Buckley is the pseudonym of a talented writer who wrote a BDSM erotic novella in her "spare" time. I offered to read it, and loved it. Tara was going to self-publish but hesitated because, you know, the whole business with Judy Mays getting slammed by some parents in the school district where Judy teaches English rather demonstrated that outing oneself as an author of erotica isn't always wise.

Harmony Road Press to the rescue. Ross and I offered to publish Tara's novella. That led to another writer thinking this sounded like a good idea, so Christina Thacher's BDSM novella, The Locked Heart, about a young woman whose sex life will never be the same after a chance encounter in an airport hotel bar is due to be released on December 15.

Meanwhile, for various reasons my own writing isn't likely to be ready until late spring 2012. So for a few months, Harmony Road Press is publishing erotica--really well-written erotica. If this takes off, it could be we have to start a different company to publish my legal romances. I mean, they have sex in them, but they could seem like flat beer next to the heady concoctions Tara and Christina have served up.

Just like that, I've gone from worrying about story structure and character development to learning about metadata, frontmatter, and the delicate minuet one performs to market a book without seeming to be shoving it down people's throats. I knew I'd have to learn this stuff when it was my work I was flogging enthusing about, but while it's easier to rave about someone else's stories, it's scarier to feel responsible as the publisher for a book's release.

I'm incredibly lucky to be working with Tara and Christina, who are both busy professional women with full lives and a sense of perspective. (Also a sense of the absurd, a very useful perspective when dealing with a neophyte like me.) Most of all, I'm floored by how gifted my husband is. He's figured out all sorts of tricks and shortcuts to making Harmony Road's books look right. If you like the table of contents or the progress bar at the bottom of a Harmony Road book for the Kindle, for example, that's all Ross.

If you like the books themselves, credit Tara's and Christina's hard work and deft touch with the kink.

And if you find any errors, let me know. We've all worked hard to put out great stories in a professional fashion, but mistakes can still happen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Groundhog Day: The Romance Novel Way

In the classic comedy with Bill Murray, a weatherman is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over until he gets it right.

I feel as though I've been reading that premise, over and over.

I'm a little peevish about this because it deals with my current bugaboo: external conflict. I got a rejection recently from an editor who read the whole of Blackjack & Moonlight and said, "There’s never a difficult choice or insurmountable obstacle in front of them, nothing at stake, and at no point am I brought to the point where I doubt the inevitability of their happy-ever-after."

(By way of rebuttal, here's a beta-reader's comment, which I received weeks before the rejection: "As is true with most books of this type, you realize that you are near the end, in your gut you know that the story has to work out, but you can't see how it can happen in only a few pages." Does it strengthen my argument or undercut it to tell you that this particular beta-reader doesn't normally read romances?)

Anyway, the archetype of external conflict is Romeo & Juliet (or, if that's too distant an example, how about Twilight?). Huge barriers keep the lovers apart, and yet they come together. Okay, so in R&J they [spoiler alert] both die, and in Twilight, well, I'll admit I stopped reading after Book Two, so I'm not sure, but it seems like Bella should have a tough time surviving the consummation of her love for Edward.

I write about urban professionals, however, and I base them in part on urban professionals I know, have worked with, or might have some resemblance to. What I've observed is that smart people can solve their external problems a lot faster and more easily than the problems they've made for themselves.

In other words, smart people can screw up their own lives more efficiently than anything rational I can throw at them from the outside.

What? Oh, right. Groundhog Day.

Here's the pattern of a book I started recently. Heroine is a child prodigy musician who gave it all up years ago and is now running a bar she bought. Hero is a rock musician coming back to record years after quitting when a band member died. When the book starts, the hero comes into her bar & orders a drink he doesn't bother to drink, all the while thinking about how attractive she is. He leaves. He comes in the next day, orders the drink, talks to the heroine briefly, thinks how attracted to her he is, leaves. Comes in a third day, orders the drink, talks a bit more to the heroine, thinks about her, leaves.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually she gives him the only one of her CDs he doesn't have (because he couldn't get it used on Amazon, presumably). He admits to himself that he decided to record the come-back album in this particular town because of the heroine.

Sorry, what was the conflict again? I'll admit it, I gave up at that point. I was supposed to believe these two people were locked in a situation that prevented them from having anything to do with each other, but clearly that wasn't what was happening. What was happening was Groundhog Day without any self-awareness.

I ask a bit more of my characters than illustrating that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

A book I'm reading now isn't quite so bad, but it shares the quality of assuming that if the characters repeat to themselves that ONE reason they can't give in to the attraction they feel for the other person, we readers will understand how vitally important it is for them never, ever to think they can be together. (I think the hero's reason is that the heroine is Italian. Yeah, like I'm moved to tears by his plight.)

The point of the movie is that eventually Bill Murray's character learns that he has to do things differently. Learning to modify the ways we trip ourselves up--that's not an automatic, one slap-to-the-forehead-is-all-it-takes, realization. And I know a lot of people who never get there. (I used to say of a relative that he kept hoping the airlines would lose his emotional baggage, but it never happened.)

I agree with the editor that it's nice when a book has believable external conflict, but I only like those stories when the conflict isn't something the characters are unable to see, won't acknowledge, are idiots about, or need an outside agency to fix magically. Having the hero and heroine stub their toes on an issue over and over again without thinking, "I should try a different path," that's just dumb.

I'll take smart over dumb every day of the week.

Edited to add: This post prompted some loving concern from good friends--and really, if your loving friends can't tell you when you've posted the equivalent of toilet paper stuck to your shoe, who can?--that I come across here as  a bitter crone  a holier-than-thou smartypants  an arrogant know-it-all  all of the above in this post.

So here's a confession: I don't know how to do this right. I don't believe anything I wrote here is "more right" than what I wrote in this post on how everyone's entitled to love what they love. I didn't intend to suggest that anyone who loves books in which the characters bumble about in a lovably dorky way is wrong to love those books. It's much more likely I'm writing the "wrong" books than that any of you is reading the "wrong" books. And that's without the obvious fact that there are no "wrong" books, just (maybe) a bad fit between the reader and the book.

Here's the irony: I wrestle with this issue. The balance between me as a member of Romlandia, as an individual reader, and as a writer--I don't have an answer how to get that balance right. I'll admit it: it's an internal conflict that I can't work my way through. Several times today I arrived at the following as the bedrock truth:
I just don't know.
So, yup you got it: a post defending smart internal conflict over dubious external conflict ended up making me admit I haven't got all my own internal conflict worked though. Which means if this were a romance, there'd be no HEA!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

TBR Challenge - The Child Detective

I had a mad crush on Encyclopedia Brown when I was little. I read as many of the Nancy Drew books as I could find. And I adored the adolescent detective in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, who seemed like he might have some form of autism.  So, to satisfy this month's "non-romance" TBR Challenge, I went back to a mystery with another child sleuth. I like their common sense and their ability to ferret out the obvious details that adults overlook. I like the way their minds work.

But Flavia Sabina de Luce, the 11-year-old protagonist in Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie just annoyed the hell out of me. She's bizarrely knowledgeable until she isn't, intrepid but rather cruel, clever when it suits the plot and dim at other times.

Or maybe I just didn't care who killed the red-haired man in the de Luce's cucumber patch.

Mind you, I can see why the book is an "International Bestseller." (According to Wiki, Bradley sold the rights in three countries based on a synopsis and the first chapter. Maybe that's why I didn't like it so much--sour grapes.) Set in 1950, it's got that made-for-PBS feel of an English country village back when you cycled everywhere. Flavia de Luce is "plucky." I can imagine she appeals to readers who would have enjoyed Joan Hickson's Miss Marple so much more if she'd only been pre-adolescent and thus inherently an idiot.

Mind you, Flavia isn't most people's idea of an idiot. She's a keen amateur chemist with a specialty in poisons. (She avenges herself against her older sister by contaminating Ophelia's lipstick with urushiol, the extract of poison ivy. Never mind that poison ivy doesn't naturally occur in England. It does grow in Canada, where Alan Bradley's from.) But there were times when it seemed implausible that a girl of her age could know some things, like the names of obscure volcanoes, but then not know what a "rhetorical question" is, for example.

Similarly, she knows what Leonardo da Vinci's Vetruvian Man looks like, but doesn't know what body part her sister is talking about with the advice, "If you're ever accosted by a man, kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes." Maybe I was the unnatural 11-year-old, but I think at that age I could have deduced what general area of a man's body was meant by the "Casanovas."

It's easy to see the antecedents for Bradley's inspiration. Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle for its wacky family dynamic, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm for its cast of wacky characters made wackier by virtue of shadowy past tragedies, and all of the Miss Marple mysteries. As with Agatha Christie, the implication in Sweetness is that the rural police are good-natured but dim, useful only for a) arresting the wrong person and then b) arresting the right person after our intrepid amateur sleuth has sussed out his or her identity.

The problem for me is that the wackier the characters and their dialogue, the less I believe in the mystery and its attendant danger to our girl detective.  For a taste of the wacky, here's a truly implausible bit of a long, long monologue by Laurence "Jacko" de Luce, Flavia's father, describing his childhood at a public school:
Mr. Twining was more kindly than adept [as a conjuror]; not a very polished performer, I must admit, but he carried off his tricks with such ebullience, such goodhearted enthusiasm, that it would have been churlish of us to withhold our noisy schoolboy applause."

I know this is supposed to be the translation of childhood into an adult man's vernacular, but Mr. de Luce is so bland and distant up to this point that having him spout sesquipedalian words just makes him even less interesting. As he's locked up on suspicion of killing the fellow in the cucumber patch when he makes that speech, it's particularly odd.

Sweetness is a wildly popular book--I know this because it took forever for my Wish List copy to arrive via Paperback Swap. Just as well I didn't like it; now I don't have to worry about how long it will take to get any of the sequels.

Now that's one way to reduce a TBR pile!

Friday, November 4, 2011

"It Must Be Good in Bed"

As the daughter of two Brits, my mother was hardly a profane woman.  Nonetheless, she had an earthy explanation whenever she was introduced to a dubious candidate as boyfriend / fiancé / husband of a female acquaintance: "He must be good in bed."

I love the philosophy imbedded in this. There was no intent to insult the woman's choice of man, even if his charms eluded my mother. Instead, she was respecting the fact that she couldn't know all his finer points, and that some of them might be quite personal indeed. We're not usually privy to the sex lives of our friends so we have to assume that both parties are making a fully informed choice for bed- and life-partners.

[And yes, the sentiment is rather lopsided with regard to gender. My mother was born in 1919. She had more experience with the concept of a woman discovering that a man was not good in bed than with the reverse.]

Two things happened recently to remind me of my mother's attitude.  First, I had a conversation with Janet W. about two highly-respected authors of historical romances.  Janet admitted that while she enjoyed the books of Author #1, she (Janet) had stopped reading recent releases as they came out. By contrast, she still read the books of Author #2 as soon as they hit bookstore shelves even if it's undeniable that Author #2's current work wasn't up to her best.

I took an opposite position. I do read Author #1's most recent releases even though I agree they aren't as good as her very best work. With respect to Author #2, I start each of her books - even the very famous ones - with a good bit of trepidation. A couple of her books rubbed me the wrong way - including one that Janet recommended very highly.

What followed was a spirited discussion along the lines of, "you've got to be crazy," at the end of which Janet and I just laughed and agreed that there's no point disagreeing with another reader's reaction to a book after the bedroom door is shut.  In other words, a book can strike me as a bad bet, but when I hear how much Janet loves it, I figure it must be the book equivalent of "good in bed."

The second incident had a friend asking on Twitter if any writers would like to write some fan fiction to expand a short story by Mary Jo Putney, "Sunshine for Christmas."  (She had no takers.) I had to find my copy of the anthology, Christmas Revels, in order to remember what the story was about. It's a sequel to The Rake, in which Lord Randolph Lennox travels to Italy in December to get away from the English weather. There he meets an English governess, Elizabeth Walker, who agrees to show him around Naples.

It's a charming story, and I enjoyed it, but it certainly doesn't leave me with a desire for more. Another story in that collection, "The Black Beast of Belleterre" does make me wish it were longer, even as I think it's actually perfect the way it is.

Ironically, the same friend on a separate occasion tweeted how much she loved about a story by Author #1 (the one I still read). I read that story and had to scratch my head. Again, as much as I love Author #1's writing, that particular work seems charmless to me, whereas I believe it's the only thing by Author #1 that my Twitter friend truly loves.

Now, obviously all of this is further evidence that we should allow people to like what they like for the reasons they like it. But there are times where it's perfectly reasonable to argue over plot points, characterization, prose style and the like. Nothing requires us to forgo the charms of discussing books.

Here's where the sentiment of "he must be good in bed" can be helpful. The love for a particular book is no less personal than the love for another human being. Even where a review points out its flaws, the reader may just love it. Once the discussion is at the level of "Why do I love it? I just do," then it's more polite to say, "well, it must be good in bed," and let each other love what we love.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

TBR Challenge 2011: The Kindness of Skin and the River-ness of Books

Yesterday, I finished Ava Gray's Skin Game (finally) for the October TBR Challenge, and immediately did two things.  First, I looked up who Ava Gray was when she wasn't writing romantic suspense with light paranormal elements.  She's Ann Aguirre.  I'm not sure why she wanted a pseudonym for a new genre so close to what she'd previously been writing, but hey, it's a fairly transparent disguise.  (And a side note: she looks nice, the sort of person you want to meet at a conference.  Impressive but not intimidating.)

The second thing I did was look Ava Gray up at All About Romance, my go-to source for reviews.  Their reviewer didn't like Skin Game as much as I did.  (It's not a perfect book, but I still paid it the highest compliment possible: I wanted to read the sequel immediately -- and even paid FULL AGENCY PRICE for Skin Tight to be downloaded to my Kindle.)

So what was it about Skin Game that worked for me?  I think it's how her characters are presented.  I may be projecting here, but I got the impression that Gray really likes her characters, even the bad guys.  Which may be why I think she herself must be a nice person -- as a writer, she seems to be pouring all kinds of love into her books.

That's a different issue from storytelling ability.  Anne Stuart is a wonderful storyteller, but her relationship with her characters is a lot darker than what I saw while reading Skin Game.  The storytelling in Skin Game isn't harmed by the affection Ava Gray has for her protagonists & secondary characters, either.  I deduce (on this very limited sample) that the relationship the author has with her characters is unrelated to her ability to tell their story in a compelling way.

But somehow that affection, that warmth and appreciation, that Ava Gray has for her characters did affect my experience while reading about them.  It didn't make me fall in love with them, or even miss them when the book was over.  The effect was more about the vibe -- I wanted to get invited back to another of Ava Gray's parties.  (And I've already started Skin Tight, the second in the series.)

Having read the AAR review, it's clear that my joyous experience with Skin Game wasn't universal -- the AAR reviewer liked it but in a fairly tepid way.  That's cool; I'm a great believer that books are both stable and mutable, like the river in Siddhartha.  The words are always the same, but each person's experience reading them is unique.  No one can recreate that first-read experience.

You can never read the same book twice.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Paranormal Superheroes in Love

She's actually reading a JR Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood book                          
I'm reading Ava Gray's Skin Game for this month's TBR Challenge, but I haven't finished it yet, so I can't count this as my official post.  But I will, because Super Wendy is so delightfully laissez faire about the challenge.  The whole idea is to read the books, not write the blog posts.  The blog posts are almost the reward for getting the reading done.

But I did read Cherise Sinclair's Hour of the Lion over the weekend, and it got me thinking -- as I work on revisions to my own contemporary romances -- what is it about paranormal phenomena that engages readers, inspires authors, and seems to dovetail so well with romance?

Here's my theory:  it's all about superheroes.  If you're within a decade or two of my age, you probably read some comic books as a child.  (I'm not sure what people born in the 80s did -- read graphic novels?)  Sure there were Archie comics, and Richie Rich, but most of what I read had superheroes.  Batman, Superman, even Casper-the-Friendly Ghost counts.  Human or not, they all had special, larger-than-life powers.

And that's what paranormal characters have.  They can run faster, or live longer, or see better, or something.  They're not like you and me.  That's for dead certain.

When they fall in love, it's a human scale phenomenon writ large.  They love more -- and I'm not talking about the sex.  (Frankly, even human heroes in historical or contemporary romances love more than real life heroes do.  It just goes with the territory.)  But when a superhero falls in love, it's huge.  It's a tsunami as opposed to normal surf.  It's an avalanche, not a snowfall.  There's no mistaking the metaphorical thud a paranormal hero makes when he falls for a human heroine.

Now, I write about mere mortals, but yeah, I've tried to make them just that little bit special.  They have jobs most people don't have, they get into situations most people never experience, and they are -- if I'm doing my job right -- smarter and more articulate than most of us.  But they're not paranormal.

This is not a new concept: the super hero.  It's one of the secret hallmarks of a romance novel: the heroine might be a Plain Jane or have an average body or work in a dead-end job.  But the hero is special.  He's better looking, makes (or just has) more money, is a business tycoon or a duke...or he's a werewolf, a vampire, able to time travel or something.  He's huge.  (Yup, still not talking about the sex.)

One of the effects of the standard paranormal romance is the ease with which all the stakes are ratcheted up.  Human heroine and werewolf hero?  Instant conflict.  When your lover could bite or maul you to death, the romance is going to have its ups and downs.

And that makes for a more thrilling read -- or at least it does if the reader can stop thinking about how someone who's been alive for a thousand years may not be someone I want to chat with at the breakfast table.  (I also have a problem with the physiology of shapeshifters.  Even if I accept that their bones and bits are capable of all that transformation, I keep thinking of how much arthritis is in their future.)

Another cool feature of paranormals is world building.  Don't want your readers to be thinking about arthritis?  Make your shapeshifters have superhuman healing.  Cuts and scratches disappear within hours, life-threatening injuries might take a couple days.  Arthritis?  What's that?

To recap:  The hero is extraordinary but falls in love like a human, only with a bigger thud.  The heroine has instant conflict with the hero because -- well, you know, he's weird.  Lots more action -- no couch potatoes need apply.  And the laws of real life, the vicissitudes of daily living and the toll it takes on our bodies and relationships, are simply written off in the world building.

I can totally see their appeal.  But I'll be honest here:  when I went to look for a paranormal for the November TBR Challenge, I passed over some fae and some demons in favor of Ava Gray because she opted to write about humans with a little bit of extra ability.  (I like Carolyn Crane's Disillusionists series for the same reason.)  The real difference is that the world as we know it is still in force, so people can get hurt, feel sick, and even die.  They just get a few extra toys to play with along the way.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Readable Book

I just finished Hour of the Lion by Cherise Sinclair.  I love her Club Shadowland series, but this was paranormal suspense erotica involving shapeshifters.  I don't much like "fur & fangs" books.

Oh, but it was so "readable."  Like sinking into a comfy chair, putting your feet up and having a cup of tea brought to you.  I settled in and I didn't want to get out.

Chambers (my go-to dictionary) defines "readable" as "interesting without being of highest quality."  That seems a more tepid compliment than I intend.  Merriam-Webster defines it as simply, "interesting to read <a highly readable novel>," and the example evokes the feeling I'm going for more than the definition does.  (It could be that "interesting" isn't a very informative way to define another word.  I keep thinking of the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.)

What I mean by "readable" is a book that meets all your minimum standards for hookiness, character, plot, writing, accuracy, and so forth.  If your standards are generous, then lots of books may be "readable" and therefore it's not going to be a glowing recommendation.  If you're a cranky reader like me, "readable" is high praise.

I value readable books and I want to celebrate them.  In a heirarchy of encomiums, I'd put "readable" just below "keeper."  I may never reread Hour of the Lion, but I'll not give it away.  (Yeah, okay, it's digital and therefore not easy to give away, but you know what I mean.)

Readability is so subjective and mutable.  Take Linda Howard's early series contemporaries, for example.  I reread An Independent Wife recently and was struck by how readable it was despite having a old-fashioned world view of the tension between a woman's role in the home and her "right" to pick her own career.

In An Independent Wife, Sarah "Sallie" Baines, neé Jerome, is a dashing international correspondent for a weekly news magazine that has just been bought by Rhydon "Rhy" Raines, a former war correspondent for a TV network nightly news program.  They've been married for eight years and separated for seven.  Sallie doesn't get spousal support now that she's a decently paid reporter, but it's going to be a bit awkward having Rhy as her boss.  Oh well, maybe he won't recognize her now that she has a nickname, lost weight and grown her hair.

Yeah, like that's enough of a disguise to fool a Linda Howard hero!  He recognizes her, goes all caveman on her ass, and actually maneuvers it so that she can't go travel to a Middle Eastern country for an interview because of some local civil unrest.  They may not be living together, but she's his wife and women aren't allowed to have jobs that put them in danger.

The irony is that this is what broke them up in the first place.  At 18, Sallie couldn't handle the stress of having Rhy leave for an assignment and not know if he was going to come back to her or get blown up in some war zone.  She got clingy and whiny and he walked out and she grew up.

Yes, Howard stacks the deck.  Sallie's whining annoys us as much as it annoyed Rhy.  His trying to stop her from doing her job comes across differently.  It's wrong but it's more understandable.  He loves her and worries, they should be together, he's her boss so he'd feel terrible if anything happened to her, etc.  That conflict, written today, would be resolved in the time it takes for the heroine to say, "Hey, bub -- it's my career.  Back off."  Thirty years ago, men and women's roles in careers and in relationships weren't what they are today.

If someone else were to read An Independent Woman and hate it because of this antiquated notion of women's rights, I wouldn't argue with them.  That's the beauty of "readability" -- it's irreducibly subjective.

Here's an excerpt from a Regency romance written forty years ago, Mira Stables' A Match for Elizabeth:
[The hero, the Earl of Anderley, is questioning his newly-found ward, Miss Elizabeth Kirkley, about what subjects she'd prefer after she had refused to study those languages and pastimes deemed fitting for a young woman about to be launched in society.]
"I would like to study the lives and writings of people whom I admire," she said at last.
"And they are?"
"Cobbett and Jeremy Bentham and Elizabeth Fry. [ . . . ]"
"Dear me," said the Earl, divided between amusement and amazement.  "For a female you seem remarkably well informed.  May I ask who has helped to guide your tastes in social philosophy?"
"My Aunt Clara, my lord, was an admirer of Mr. Cobbett, having once heard him declare that the best religion was the one that gave all men plenty to eat and drink.  [ . . . ]"

I'll admit, I'd only heard of Jeremy Bentham.  I had to look up Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker social reformer, and William Cobbett, a pamphleteer who worked to end poverty in rural communities.

That Elizabeth should make the speeches she does (which I've shortened here) comes across as realistic -- meaning a young woman raised as she was could know what she knows and feel as she feels.  It's liberal by today's standards and by the standards of the time Stables wrote it, and for the period it depicts.  Plus, it demonstrates that Stables had a far better knowledge of the time period than I do.

But is the book readable?  Well, I found it to be, but I *like* Mira Stables' booksA Match for Elizabeth isn't her best, but it's a keeper for me, and I'll almost certainly reread it at some point.  Other people don't Stables' style -- and their complaint usually reduces to one of readability.  So a historically credible book isn't necessarily a "good" book.

Mind you, if a reader is so knowledgeable about the period that she can fault Stables because Cobbett never made public speeches (for example), then that reader might get disgusted with the book for other reasons.  But Stables was a canny writer.  She seems to make the mistake Carla Kelly did in Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, where the heir to the title is the sister's son.  But where Stables refers to the Earl's nephew as his "heir" it's never in the context of the earldom.  There are Scorton family properties, and it makes sense that the only son of his only sister would inherit any unentailed estates in the event that the Earl never marries.  Stables just doesn't explain it, so the reader has to trust that she knows her property law.

Mira Stables, Linda Howard and Cherise Sinclair are among the authors I trust to write a book I'll want to read.  You undoubtedly have your own list of readable writers.  And we annotate those lists to account for our shifting tastes and an author's improving or diminishing writing abilities.

Above all, readability is a deeply personal perception.  For all that it's glaringly obvious which books have it and which do not, I see no point arguing with someone who disagrees.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How to Convey and Evoke Emotion (or: Stargazing 101)

Full disclosure:  I don't know yet all the ways to convey emotion in my writing.  If I'm managing to evoke emotion in my readers, it's a happy accident.  That's why I'm off in January to coastal Maine to start an MFA program.

Yup, I'm committing two years and a lot of money to get a degree I don't need and won't likely use just so that I can write a scene that plays that most beguiling trick: it makes the reader feel.

Try this:  take a book that really provokes strong emotion every time you read it.  Maybe it's the sadness of saying goodbye to a lover, or the suppressed longing of admitting you can never have this person, or anger that your spouse has failed you, or just love -- a sweet pang at the thought that this special person is really in your life.  Go find that book, flip to a scene that always does it for you: makes you cry, rage, sigh, whatever.  Re-read that scene.

Go ahead.  I'll wait.

While I'm waiting, let me tell you about a trip I made with Henry (Brit Hub 1.0) to Tucson, Arizona.  This was early on in our 50-States-by-Age-50 tour (or, as it got to be know, the "50-by-50") and it was the next to last stop on our "Four Corners" trip.  We'd done Sedona, the Grand Canyon (which was solid white with snow and cloud so we saw nothing), the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods (Utah), clipped the corner of Colorado, stood on the Four Corners, visited Route 66 in Gallup, NM, seen more snow in the White Mountains (Arizona), and were now in Egypt.

No, there's no Egypt, Arizona.  We were at a B&B that featured an astronomical observatory so that guests could stargaze in the evening.  (It's now just an observatory.)  We'd booked the services of an astronomy student from UofA for the evening and booked some time on one of the large (but not the largest) telescopes.  And our room was decorated in early Nile: a replica of Tutankhamen in the corner, lots of gold leaf everywhere, and as much early Egyptian-style furniture as you could manage in a conventional bedroom.

Messier Object #8 or "M8" (courtesy of NASA)
The star-gazing was fun.  First, all the guests gathered on a roof terrace to look at stars and planets in the twilight-to-early-evening.  Then, when it was dark, we met our student in the observatory.  Henry is an amateur astronomer, so he knew all about Messier objects, but it was an education for me.  Charles Messier cataloged over 100 blurry things in the sky -- too large to be stars but not distinct enough to be planets.  We now have gorgeous photos from the Hubble telescope of these Messier objects, photos that show just how huge and complex they must be -- entire galaxies in some cases.

M64 "The Evil Eye Galaxy" (courtesy of NASA)
Messier himself was using a telescope not a lot bigger than the one you'd pay a couple hundred dollars for and give to your daughter or nephew as a birthday present.  And here's the thing I learned in that amateur observatory outside Tucson: the way our eyes work, we see Messier objects better when we're not looking right at them.  If you focus on a spot just a bit off, the Messier object shows up quite clearly in your peripheral vision.  You can even study it, as long as you don't look right at it.

Okay, enough with the pretty star pictures.  Everybody done rereading their favorite emotionally provoking scenes?  Now if you didn't well up with emotion, I'm predicting you noticed something interesting.  The emotion is not discussed as directly as you remembered.  Instead, it something inchoate and irreducible that gets you every time.

That's because the author isn't having you look right at the gaping wound of loss or the moral minefield of a forbidden love or raging inferno of anger.  Any of those things would probably leave you with a contrary reaction -- annoyance at the lovers, impatience with the grieving, etc.

I'm guessing the author got you to focus on something else while the emotion, like a Messier Object, is off to the side.  You can see it and marvel at it, even study it, and it moves you.  You're just not staring at it.

I don't know how writers do that.  But I hope to find out.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TBR Challenge: Caught Up In Mary Balogh's Webs

The TBR challenge for September is to get caught up in a series I'm behind in.  I'll admit it: my TBR collection has a lot of options for this month's challenge, but because the fabulous Megan Mulry read Mary Balogh's The Devil's Web last week (and loved it), I thought I would both get caught up with the Web series and actually finish it!

I think of the Web books -- The Gilded Web, The Web of Love, and now The Devil's Web -- as the slow-cooked books.  Each one has a large cast of characters, some sizable issues, and takes a long, long time to get everyone sorted out.  That's much closer to real life, but as a romance reader, I've been conditioned to think we should get right to the action.  Still, there's a lot of pleasure in these books, if you have the time and patience to enjoy them.  (Like Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Chicago Stars series, the Webs might be a good choice for a recuperative stay in hospital.)

Unfortunately, I didn't like the characters in The Devil's Web enough to really enjoy the book.  We met them both in the first book, The Gilded Web, when the Earl of Amberley (our heroine's brother) and Alexandra Purnell (our hero's sister) made a match of it under non-ideal circumstances.  James Purnell is taciturn, but underneath his gruffness we know him to be awkward and tongue-tied, particularly around Lady Madeline Raine.  She's a bit of a social butterfly, imagining herself in love with the nearest attractive suitor, but underneath her fluttering we know her to be desperately afraid that her feelings for Mr. Purnell are real, but not in a good way.

"Not in a good way" is an excellent catch phrase for The Devil's Web.  James and Madeline love each other, but not in a good way.  What they feel doesn't make them happy, or even allow them to take pleasure in each other's company.  They're intensely aware of one another but then avoid each other.  Or they seek each other out, but they quarrel.  For the first half of the book, it's not fun being with either one of them.  I'll admit it, I skimmed a lot of the first half.

Then, precisely halfway in, James's father dies.  Lord Beckworth was a bit of a religious zealot/nutter.  It's a relief when he dies because he truly was toxic; he was almost certainly the real reason James has spent the last four years in Canada in the fur trade.  With Lord Beckworth's death, James should feel free, but if anything, he signs up for a new sense of imprisonment.  He's ascended to the title, of course, and now owns the estates in Yorkshire.  Why not get married to the woman he loves but can't bring himself to like?  A perfect plan, but not in a good way.

Marriage of inconvenience plots aren't my favorites.  Why should I read a book that requires me to voluntarily spend time with people who don't behave well toward each other?  And for virtually all of the second half, Madeline and James behave badly.  He thinks, "Oh, I love her.  I should smile at her, call her by her name, something," and yet he's grim and unyielding.  She thinks, "Oh, I love him.  I should tell him, trust him, let him know how much pleasure he gives me," and yet she's shrewish and nasty.  And not in a good way.

This might have made for a delightfully angsty book if either character made sense or was enjoyable.  James comes closer to making sense -- his was a particularly grim childhood and his father hardly displayed any skills useful to the conducting of human relationships -- but then he's just dim about it all.  Why not tell his wife about his childhood?  Madeline comes closer to being enjoyable -- she's good company in normal circumstances -- but she makes no sense.  Her upbringing was pleasant enough and she's had ample opportunity to see how couples can love each other.  So what's stopping her from telling James that she loves him?

The happy ending similarly makes no sense.  Why wait until page 425 to do and say what they could have (and should have) done and said on page 225?  Either there was a good reason, in which case why is it no longer in effect, or it was all a big misunderstanding, in which case they're both TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).

Sorry I can't enthuse more about a Mary Balogh.  I'm glad I finished with the Webs, though.  Just not in a good way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why Have an Antagonist?

I understand why romantic suspense and thrillers need a bad guy, but I prefer the idea of one to the reality.  And for less scary romances, I can do without a specific third party as an antagonist.

As a reader, I skip all sections written  from the villain's POV.  (I love when those sections are in italics so it's even easier to see when they end.)  I've got my reasons.

First, I don't trust them.  The whole point of being in a character's POV is learn what they're thinking.  But villains are, usually, plot devices.  They need to be thwarted or vanquished by the end of the story, so the reader isn't supposed to be invested in them the way we come to care about the protagonists.  But they're still supposed to be internally consistent.  One romantic suspense I read recently had a psychopathic pedophile poet as the baddie.  Halfway through the book we started to get sections in his POV.  But because we weren't supposed to know who it was, all mention of his poetry was excised from his scenes.  Which made no sense: wouldn't a psychopathic pedophile poet be thinking, "Oh, and when I get done with you, girlie, I'll let you be my muse...?"

Of course on paper, the psychopathic pedophile poet can reveal the psychopathy but not the poetry lest we figure out whodunnit.  But what's fun about being in a psychopath's head?  So the POV scenes are hokey and unbelievable.  Why read them?

Second, it's a bad way to build suspense.  Bad guys are planning bad things.  We get that part.  In a movie, you frequently get a camera angle that suggests there's a baddie lurking in the shadows -- that builds a lot of tension. But books work differently.  Better (I think) to stay in the protagonist's POV in a scary situation.  We like that person, we're concerned for that person, we may even identify with that person.  If they're looking at shadows, hearing strange noises, driving on a deserted road -- we're right there, scared for (and possibly with) them.

Okay, that's suspense/thriller/dark paranormal territory, where the baddies break the law.  What about more domestic romances?  Even there, I'm not fond of antagonists.  But before I go there, allow me to give credit where credit is due:

The best antagonist ever in a romance novel?  I'd give that award to an unnamed person in Mary Balogh's Slightly Dangerous.  If you've read the book, you know who I'm talking about.  If you haven't read the book, read it -- if only to see how cleverly it's done.

Back to the rest of the genre.  Antagonists are the characters who make it hard for the protagonist(s) to achieve the stated goal -- road blocks, if you will.  Well, if the goal is to get someone to fall in love with you, various nasty-minded people can try their darnedest to make trouble.  Again, though, why are they doing it and why should the reader care?  If it's revenge, jealousy, competition, etc., then we don't like the antagonist.  And if we don't like him/her, that character is flattened into a plot device.

Better would be the well-intended, even lovable, close friend, family member, or confident whose love and concern for one of the protagonists endears the antagonist to us even as he/she is working hard to prevent the happy ending we're waiting for.

The trouble with that scenario is that the protagonists themselves have a lot to do with such a situation.  If Mom/Sis/Uncle Harry is interfering in the heroine's love life, who's given them permission to do that?  The heroine, presumably.  Well, that's pretty dumb on her part.  Wake up and smell the toast, babe.  Which is precisely what she may need to do in the course of her character arc: grow a pair, get out from her family's shadow, find her own feet, etc.

All good goals, but not entirely consistent with a romantic happy ending.  I prefer my romantic protagonists to have done that work already, lest the romance be more about getting away from the family and less about the beloved.  Yes, family members can and will meddle, but protagonists should have established boundaries that prevent the relatives from being true antagonists.

That leaves the jealous ex, the "other woman," or the plain old troublemaker.   This is right up there with the Misunderstanding for stupid conflicts.  Unless it's "Sleeping With the Enemy" territory (in which case we're back to thrillers), I have to wonder what a protagonist is doing listening to venomous tripe about the beloved?  Tell the rat bastard (or evil crone) to crawl back into their lair and leave the romance alone.

My bottom line is this: in romances, as in real life, I believe that people do a far better job getting in their own way than what others can do for them.  So I'm not a big fan of the external antagonist.  I don't see any reason why the hero can't be both the goal and the antagonist for the heroine, and vice versa.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I Read to Cry

I've been thinking a lot about "I Read," a song from Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion.  As I recall, it comes two-thirds of the way through the show -- Fosca and Giorgio get a bit closer after he loans her a book he particularly loves.  She reads it, but when he suggests she keep it longer to meditate on the characters, she demurs.  She tells she doesn't read to think, she reads to dream.  Here are the lyricsAnd here's a video of Donna Murphy, the original Fosca, singing it.

When I saw Passion in 1994 with Eric Besner (a fellow law student at the time -- and a Sondheim scholar: here's his article for The Sondheim Review on the revisions to Passion during the previews), I was blown away.  (I actually liked it better in the raw state before Sondheim's changes -- but that might just be the result of how it affected me emotionally at the time.)

Fosca is the ultimate producer of Magical Thinking Romance Theater.  That's my term for the sort of imaginary romantic relationship where one person doesn't know the relationship even exists.  I wish I could find it now, but I saw a T-shirt in law school that said, in effect,
Before he can wine and dine you,
Before he can fall in love with you,
Before he can propose marriage,
Before he can father your babies...
He has to call you!

Leap-frogging over inconvenient truths, assuming that there's more than casual friendship in someone's smile, envisioning a rosy future when the other person has other plans -- that's all evidence of staging a Magical Thinking Romance Theater production.

I used to be a lot more active in Magical Thinking Romance Theater myself, a long time ago, so I know the signs.  But by the time I saw Passion, I lived less in my head.  Seeing Fosca -- this plain, awkward woman in mid-19th century Italy who imagines herself madly in love with a gorgeous army officer -- wear her heart so blatantly on her sleeve gave me a frisson of recognition.

Then she sings about why she reads:
I do not read to search for truth
I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need.
I read to dream.

I read to live. In other people's lives.
I read about the joys, the world
Dispenses to the fortunate,
And listen for the echoes.

I read to fly, to skim -
I do not read to swim.

I really know what she's talking about.  It's not just the preference for happy endings over variations of a misery the reader knows too well.  It's the way reading can take us out of our own lives, waft us over the the ugliness of reality and give us a few hours in a prettier, easier place.

But there's one aspect of reading that Fosca didn't touch on: the cathartic read.  Some of my favorite comfort reads are ones that make me cry.

I don't think that's inconsistent with Fosca's reading style.  We want relief from our own unhappiness, and we can get that both from reading about other people's happiness, but also from discharging a little of our own pain while reading about their fear of loss.

Of course, this only works for me if there's a happy ending.  I don't want to close a book and still feel bad about the characters.  It also doesn't work for me if the book is emotionally uninvolving, perhaps because the protagonists are annoying or the prose doesn't prompt that cathartic response.  I would imagine that this is very reader-specific.  The books that reliably make me cry might well leave other people dry-eyed, and vice-versa.

Plus, I like to cry.  I expect a lot of people don't enjoy it as much, rather in the way that some people don't enjoy being scared on roller-coasters.

Just more proof that what we read, why we read it and why we praise it, can be so personal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Don't Mess With Texas Trademarks

Christie Craig has a book out called Don't Mess With TexasTexas's Department of Transportation believes she is, in fact, messing with them.  They've filed suit on the grounds that as they've trademarked that motto to protect their right to be the exclusive purveyor of "Don't Mess With Texas" souvenir items, Craig's book violates that trademark.

I've got Henry, my intellectual property attorney (and first husband) here, so I've put it to him:  Should TxDOT prevail?  His answer:  No.  Okay, but why?

Henry: The phrase "Don't Mess With Texas" is so widely used, the trademark should be invalidated.

Me:  But according to the spokeswoman for TxDOT, they've already won a lawsuit in which they asserted their exclusive right to the "Don't Mess With Texas" motto.  Here's an article about the origins of the motto as an "anti-litter" campaign dating back to the 1980s.

Henry:  Nobody in her right mind would conclude that a steamy romance novel with that title was supplied by the TxDOT, so there's little chance the state can prevail on the confusion argument, which leaves dilution.

Me:  How does the dilution argument work in this case?

Henry:  Basically what TxDOT has to argue is that this used to be a good anti-litter motto but it's losing that thrust, so to speak, so the state is trying to get people to stop misusing it.

Me:  How does having a romance novel called Don't Mess With Texas dilute the anti-littering campaign, or is TxDOT really concerned about the tchotchkes it sells in stores like Barnes & Noble, where Craig's novel is also for sale?

Henry:  Well, the trademark only applies to items for sale, not the anti-littering signs by the roadside.

Me:  Ah, okay.  So you be the judge:  Can a steamy romance novel do sufficient damage to the mark for TxDOT to prevail?

Henry:  One argument would be that the genie's already out of the bottle -- there's no reputation left to dilute.

Me:  But I thought Texas wanted to limit the items that can bear the motto, such as T-shirts and key-chains, so that having an unauthorized book with that title on sale violates the mark?

Henry:  Which leads me to think that the mark is invalid -- as there can be no confusion about TxDOT writing romance novels, and too many people use the phrase "Don't Mess With Texas" without meaning anything to do with littering, there are no legal grounds left.

Me:  See, I can understand TxDOT's efforts to make sure only their T-shirts and key-chains say "Don't Mess With Texas," so I'd be inclined to rule in their favor in cases where they are trying to block the sale of unauthorized "Don't Mess With Texas" souvenirs.  A book, I figure, is different.

Henry:  TxDOT's trademark registrations seems to cover a lot of printed paper materials, including pamphlets but not novels.  You could argue that books and pamphlets are too similar for comfort, or you could argue that associating the slogan with steamy sex in any concept tarnishes and dilutes it.

Me:  Can the court hold that the "Don't Mess With Texas" trademark be invalidated solely as to fiction?

Henry:  Because you're arguing about similar but not identical goods, they wouldn't be that specific, they'd just say that the goods are not similar enough for TxDOT's argument to work.  Even if TxDOT's trademark registrations for printed matter were broad enough to include novels, I've never seen that sort of carve-out in this country, but back in England the registrar was willing to carve out exceptions.  You've heard of Penguin paperbacks?

Me:  Of course.

Henry:  That's a trademark covering all books -- except for books about penguins.

Me:  But it's unlikely that an American court would do that in this case.  If TxDOT prevailed in the case of Christie Craig's book, I assume Hachette would have to republish the book with a new title -- but only those copies to be sold in Texas, right?

Henry:  As it's a federal registration, the prohibition would cover all book published in the U.S.

Me:  Wow.  Okay, and if Hachette and Craig prevail, what's the likely ruling then?

Henry:  The court would likely hold that the nature of the goods is different enough that there's no confusion or dilution.

Me:  Which certainly seems the least disruptive ruling.  One last question:  How was Craig to know that this was a trademarked phrase?

Henry:  She could have checked the federal trademark database -- if the question had ever occurred to her.

Me:  But as so many of us know "Don't Mess With Texas" as generic braggadocio, why would it have occurred to her even to look?

Henry:  Clearly it didn't.

Me:  So is there anything writers can do to protect themselves prophylactically?  I'm thinking also of the lawsuit Kathryn Stockett had to face when her brother's black maid, Ablene Cooper, sued on the grounds that Stockett's character, Aibileen, in The Help was based on her.  Stockett gave Cooper a copy of the book in 2009 but Cooper didn't read it until after the one-year statute of limitations had run, so her lawsuit has been dismissed.  Maybe Stockett thought the standard "This is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is purely coincidental" disclaimer protected her.  (And it might have; the case obviously never got to the merits so we're unlikely to know.)  I realize you can't prevent all lawsuits -- and maybe Christie Craig is happy with the amount of publicity she's getting for her book -- but can you give writers any advice in these situations?

Henry:  With respect to titles, writers can search to make sure the title they want isn't trademarked.  Go to the index page for trademarks and start a search.  Of course, there are also state trademark registrations, but doing all 50 searches is a much more complicated process.

Me(groan)  No, that's okay, Henry.  I think we've give people enough to think about already.

Edited to addThe judge denied TxDOT's request for an injunctive relief in the form of an order that Hachette recall, destroy and retitle Craig's book.  The court held that TxDOT's trademark registration didn't extend to books -- just like Henry said.  (That's why he's my intellectual property attorney -- and why I won't allow him to retire.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

TBR Challenge -- Neuroscience, Philosophy & Ice Cream in BDSM Erotica

This month's TBR Challenge is, and I quote, "Steamy reads (Erotic romance, erotica, something spicy!)"

However, this post will itself be spice-free.  Because my one and two-thirds TBR books interest me in non-sexual ways.  And because I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

Okay, let's get the two-thirds out of the way.  An online friend highly recommended an anthology of novellas about police officers.  I had to stop reading the first story about an undercover cop falling for the bookkeeper for the mob, when it used expressions like, "He made me an offer I couldn't refuse" and it wasn't talking about sex.  The Godfather clichés were as stupid as the conceit that the cop could be losing his mind about this woman while he's undercover and at risk of getting them both killed.  I dunno -- maybe a better writer could have made the situation work, but I found it insultingly silly.  And not sexy.

I abandoned the mob and tried the second story about a cop going undercover as a male stripper to catch the Black Widow, a serial killer preying on strippers (a set-up Linda Howard herself couldn't rescue).  This story was better written, although the notion that he'd actually have sex with a woman he'd thought was a killer just ten minutes earlier is just crazy.  I managed to finish it, but I'll never get that hour back.

I had no stomach even to start the third story, so maybe it's great.  I'll come back and edit this post if it is.  Oh, and you noticed I haven't told you the name of the book or the novellas' authors?  The names have been omitted to protect the guilty...and the innocent, namely my friend who recommended this book in good faith.

But to satisfy the TBR Challenge rules, I had to read a book I could name and discuss, so I picked an ebook I had in my TBR, Fortune by Annabel Joseph.  Ms. Joseph writes BDSM erotica, and her early books (Mercy, Comfort Object) are pretty hardcore stories with the romance -- and yes, there's a romance in each one -- playing a supporting role.  But her recent books, Caressa's Knees, Deep in the Woods, and Fortune (the last two are connected), have focused more on the relationship between the protagonists, with the kinky sex being one aspect of that relationship.  (I'm pleased to see from her website that she's writing non-BDSM romances as well.)

In Fortune, Kat is a second-generation Russian-American who haunts dance clubs for one-night hook-ups with college-aged guys.  She'll also sleep with the DJs, and sometimes with the bartender, but never with the bouncer.  As almost all of Kat's life is shadowed with bone-deep ennui, her reluctance to sleep with a bouncer seems odd.

One of the bouncers (she thinks) catches her eye -- Ryan, who's actually a neurosurgeon (stop rolling your eyes) helping to train the bouncers in something or other.  (Really -- don't dwell on this.  It's absurd, but Joseph is so assured in her writing that I just went with it.  Ryan's a complicated guy, so of course he's at that club hanging out with the bouncers when Kat notices him.)

He chats her up but she's not interested.  Or, to be more precise, she is interested in him, but she's more interested in being disinterested in stuff that might make her happy.  She's deeply invested in her weltschmerz and she's not letting him mess with that.

Which raises some fascinating questions about paternalism and self-determination.  If someone offered to help you get more organized, or lose weight, or eat better, would you be interested?  What if the methods he was going to use were distinctly paternalistic, ordering for you at a restaurant for example, so while they worked, they also took away your casual self-determination?

I say "casual self-determination" because as David Eagleman shows in his book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, there's no monolithic entity controling our preferences and ultimate choices.  He likens it more to a parliament, with majority members and the "back benchers," -- you want the ice cream but you also don't want the ice cream, so the factions fight over whether to have the ice cream.  We all know what that feels like.

In Fortune, Kat wants Ryan (who she learns is a Dominant in the BDSM lifestyle) but she also doesn't want him.  He scares her not because he'll harm her physically, but because he'll make her feel wanting, or even love.  He senses her ambivalence and just decides to override her stated objections because he can tell what she "really wants."

Yeah, don't try that at home, folks.  But it's fiction, and if we held all romances to the standard that "real life doesn't work that way," we'd have nothing to read.

When Kat pulls away, Ryan lets her.  The decision, ultimately, is hers and eventually her desire to be with him wins over the weltschmerz.  She moves in with him for a month, never intending it be permanent.  There's a nice mix of vanilla and non-vanilla sex, and it's more on the "we'll be serious about the lifestyle part of the time and just be a couple the rest of the time" end of the kinkiness spectrum.  (The other end of the kinky spectrum is better represented in Mercy or Comfort Object.)

Unfortunately, the intriguing conflicts of their relationship are all much more vivid and engaging than the sex.  (Just because leather is involved doesn't mean the sex is intense.  It's intense when it's blowing someone's mind.)  As a result, the final quarter of the book drags in places.   I can't wait to see what Joseph's writing is like when she doesn't have to meet the requirement of X number of sex scenes with Y yards of rope and Z leather objects.

Overall, this is a wonderful romance between a very complicated and sad heroine and a resourceful hero.

One final thought:  I like BDSM heroes because they're very obviously thinking a lot about what's in the heroine's head.  The Dominant hero stuff is okay (I don't like the humiliation and name calling, but if both parties find it a turn-on, that's great for them) because really, how different is this from a cowboy romance or a billionaire sheik romance?  He's got power, she's got something he wants (smokin' hot bod, or perhaps a secret baby), they work out a way for both sides to be happy with the arrangement.  Usually that involves taming the wild man -- getting the hero to behave in a more civilized and sensitive manner.

But in BDSM novels, the hero's already "civilized" in that he knows what he likes to do, he knows women who want to be on the receiving end, and he's happy to accommodate them.  And I mean that word seriously:  the hero either knows at the beginning of a BDSM erotic romance how to accommodate the heroine (so the character arc is hers) or he doesn't yet, and he'll have to figure it out by the end.  Even in a story with wildly unequal power status, there's a vital negotiation going on.  Both parties have a vote, and both parties have to vote yes for the relationship to work.  (Joseph looks at the dynamic of a failed BDSM relationship, where the man removed the woman's right to veto the relationship, in Deep in the Woods.  She leaves no doubt about how wrong that situation is, and how it's vital for the submissive always to retain the power to get out.)

Clearly, these books aren't for everybody.  It's a shame, actually, because Annabel Joseph's writing and characterizations are very fine and she raises some philosophical questions about passivity and paternalism that I wrestled with in a paper I wrote for grad school 30+ years ago.  (I left out the sex, of course.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Food for Thought

Grace Burrowes's The Heir is a litmus test book -- people either love it or hate it.  Not many people online have read it and said, "It was just okay.  I didn't love it but I didn't hate it."

Most of the chatter has been about the historical inaccuracies.  It's true -- the book is studded with them.  You could make a drinking game out of it:  take a drink every time she has a character mention something that didn't exist in early 19th century England, or do something they just didn't do, etc.

Actually, I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book because Burrowes has a pleasant voice.  Her characters didn't sound like refugees from the twenty-first century, even when they were spouting nonsense.  I was expecting to be much more enthusiastic, but she lost me with the intrigue that has to be resolved at the end for the protagonists to marry.  It wasn't very compelling, particularly as one would imagine a duke could marshal enough solicitors and cronies in the House of Lords to get the heroine's situation sorted out.  Oh, well.  Whatever.  I'm hoping Burrowes will get better, building on her strengths and diminishing her weaknesses.

Among the anachronisms -- the implausible running of the household, the multi-talented sole horse in the stables, the odd use of ducal honorifics -- I was most fascinated by all the American food the characters consumed.  Lemonade, for example.  There's supposedly a heat wave in London bad enough that everyone keeps drinking lemonade.  Two things are immediately clear.  First, Ms. Burrowes is imagining the American style of lemonade, which is made with lemon juice, sugar and water.  Second, she's never made it herself.

Supposedly the hero is fond of lemonade with a lot of sugar.  But if you just dump a lot of sugar crystals into some lemonade, the sugar doesn't dissolve.  The way around that is to make a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar, heat it just enough for the sugar to dissolve then cool it down, and sweeten the lemon juice and water with that.  Anyone who's made lemonade in any quantity would know that.

Burrowes's heroine, Anna, comments on the prohibitive cost of sugar in the early 19th century, and Wiki bears that out.  But where were the lemons coming from in mid-August?  Someone's orangery, presumably, but whose?  The hero's family estate might have a source of lemons -- but that many?  The characters were chugging lemonade like it was water from a well.  (Except for the brother who insisted on drinking "cold tea."  I mentioned that to Brit Hub 2.1, and he said, "Oh, my gawd!"  Cold tea is anathema to the British.  And don't even get me started on how it's impossible to find iced coffee -- even today and even during a British heat wave.)

Next up: cookies.  I thought we all knew the Brits eat "biscuits."  The word "cookie" comes from the Dutch "koekje" or "little cake" and entered the English language here in North America.  The British know the word, obviously, but the only comestibles known as "cookies" in the UK are things identified as American, like "Maryland cookies."  (I've never met a Maryland Cookie, here or over there, but Wiki says it, so it must be true.)  Come to find out, the actual foodstuff has been around for a long time (here's the Wiki article), including throughout Europe.  It just wouldn't have been called a "cookie" in early 19th century England.

Finally, muffins.  I suspect that Burrowes was imagining our sort of muffins -- cup-shaped with a rounded top -- but actually the "English muffin" sort of muffin -- flat and dusted with cornmeal -- was eaten in 19th century England.  The "muffin man" shows up in Austen's Persuasion, and muffins are consumed by characters in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.  Here's the Wiki article on the flat, intended to be toasted, sort of muffin.

The real problem with such gustatory anachronisms isn't that they ruin the book -- that's still a matter of taste (heh heh) for the reader -- but that they take one, at least someone food-oriented like me, out of the story.  Every time Burrowes had her characters quaff some lemonade or eat a cookie, I would think about the history of food more than the characters.

Here's my real question, though: where's the editor in all this?  Aren't we all supposed to be steeped in the basic elements of the Regency romance?  Wouldn't an editor have circled the first instance of the word "lemonade" or "cookie" and scribbled in the margin, "Are you sure?"  With global search-and-replace, it would have been so easy to change that to cider.  Or tea -- regular hot tea, which yes, the Brits drink in ALL weather.  (Or, as it's known in my transatlantic household, "the sweet elixir of life."  Someone here is an addict.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Help and Historical Accuracy

Halfway through reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I thought about the perennial arguments in Romlandia about historical accuracy.

The Help is a story about domestic workers -- maids -- and the women they work for.  If it had been set in Edwardian England, it would be Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey.  But The Help starts in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962.

Governor's Residence, Jackson, Mississippi

That's in my lifetime.  I even knew that Shake 'n Bake wasn't around in 1963, a fact Stockett acknowledges at the very end of the book.

The thing is, I was growing up in upstate New York during this time.  The Help is about black domestic workers in southern middle class households during the last throes of the civil rights era.  I may have known about Shake 'n Bake, a national product, but that was pretty much my extent of ability to judge whether Stockett got it "right."  And as she was born in 1969, Stockett writing about the lives of black and white women in the early 60s would be like me writing about World War II, a feat only slightly less difficult than writing about World War I.  (At least my parents lived through WWII and told me about their experiences.)

Which is why the most fascinating bit of The Help, for me, was the section after the acknowledgements, which come at the end of the body of the novel.  Stockett calls it "Too Little, Too Late," and in it she writes of her experience with her family's black maid, Demetrie.  Then Stockett quotes Howell Raines's Pulitzer Prize-winning article, "Grady's Gift":
There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation.  For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Stockett then writes, "I read that and I thought, How did he find a way to put it into such concise words?   Here was the same slippery issue I'd been struggling with and couldn't catch in my hands, like a wet fish."  Later, she writes:
What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s.  I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand.  But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.

"Too Little, Too Late" answered all my questions about The Help, a book I inhaled in less than 24 hours.  (I've even asked Ross to get The Help out of the library as an audiobook -- I'm pretty sure I wasn't doing the regional accents in the book justice.)  I enjoyed it tremendously and am very thankful that I read it before seeing the movie, which the trailer would suggest is trying to be "the feel good movie of the year."  The book isn't quite that unalloyed to be called "feel good" -- and I can imagine it's been criticized on both ends of that spectrum.  Some might say its ending is a bit of a downer (happy, yes, but happy enough?) while others might kvetch that most of the black women are a bit saintlike while most of the white women are just plain nasty as well as racist.

I noted those things in the same spirit as the Shake 'n Bake -- I can see why she presents her characters as she does, why the ending is as it is, and why she needed to have Kraft advertising Shake 'n Bake on TV a couple years before they did.

It's the things I didn't know, the things that a white girl growing up in the integrated Northeast had no way of knowing, that stunned me.  The Help -- like all engrossing books -- put me in a foreign land, showed me believable characters, allowed me to observe their interactions and empathize for their hurts, and become deeply concerned that everything turn out all right for them.  If it had been set during the Civil War -- if it had been The Wind Done Gone about the slaves at Tara -- then I'd have accepted the characterizations as accurate, partly because its author Alice Randall is black and partly because what do I know of America in the 1860s.  But a book set in the US of the 1960s invites a false sense of certainty on my part.  I was "there" so I should "know."

Well, I wasn't there.  The South of my youth might as well have been Almack's or the Battle of Waterloo for all I would know.  I trusted Stockett to get it right.  She's from Mississippi, her family had a black maid who cared for the children, and even if Stockett was twenty years too young to have experienced the period of The Help, she knows a lot more about it than I ever will.

So I trusted her, and I trusted The Help to help me get a sense of what it was like to live in that time.