Friday, February 25, 2011

The Color Chart of Religion: Why I Worship in Miller's Kill

I have good news and bad news for you:
  • Good news:  Janet W. lent me her advance review copy of the new Julia Spencer-Fleming, One Was a Soldier, aka "Book #7" in the Miller's Kill series.
  • Bad news:  I have to send it back.
  • Good news:  It's awesome!
  • Bad news:  I told you: I have to send it back.  Otherwise, I'd happily reread the entire thing.  At least once more...
  • Good news:  It's worth the years (literally) of waiting Miller's Kill fans have endured.
  • Bad news:  The ending will make you crazy desperate for "Book #8."
I'm a big fan of Spencer-Fleming's mysteries, and in particular of the romance between Russ van Alstyne, Miller's Kill's chief of police, and Clare Fergusson, rector at St. Alban's.  It's a wonderful love story that spools out steadily and deliberately over the course of the seven books.  If you're a fellow fan, you know what I'm talking about.

The trouble is, not everyone wants to read these books, or even try them.  Some people are put off by the suggestion of adultery, because Russ is married when he and Clare first meet.  I can't see it myself, but then I've been in Russ's situation.  I was married when I fell in love with Ross.  I still love my ex-husband and we're dear friends.  As luck would have it, Henry and I didn't want to be married anymore right about the time that Ross and I wanted to get married.  Worked out just fine for all three of us.  Events work out a little differently in the Miller's Kill mysteries, but if adultery is the issue that's stopping you, please know that the entire subject is handled with great care and credibility.

A bigger issue seems to be religion.  Some people are uncomfortable with Clare's profession as an Episcopal priest.  I don't know what to say to that.  I'm not religious and I love these books.  That might reassure other non-religious readers, but it's not like there are neat cubby-holes with Dyno labels that read: Christian/Protestant, Christian/Catholic, Christian/non-church-going, Mormon, Jewish & observant, Jewish-as-a-cultural-matter, and so forth.  If there were, I could maybe speak for my fellow Lapsed Episcopalians. 

Instead the question of who we are in the realm of religion is like that color chart where each precise spot has its own hex code.

My spot on the Color Chart of Religion?  Well, I was baptized and confirmed Episcopalian because my mother's parents were British & my dad didn't care where he went as long as he could sing in the choir.  I was the youngest, though, and with my father and brothers in the choir and my mother leaving for church at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings, I fell through the cracks.  I wasn't required to wake up super early to go with my mother.  (Plus, early service at St. George's Church in Schenectady meant no music.  What's the point of going if there's no music?)  And I couldn't go alone to the later service that did have the choral music, so no church for me.  No church attendance means no habit or ritual to refer back to in times of stress.

For what it's worth, I'm not precisely convinced there's a God the way modern religions explain it.  I'm more of a mystic: I believe there's magic in the Universe, but I also know (as an article of faith) that humans have no chance of knowing what that magic is.  Is it spooky action at a distance, a cool and inexplicable phenomenon in quantum physics?  Is it a Supreme Being?  Or is it something so "other" that we'll never come close to comprehending it?  I'm comfortable knowing I'll never know.  I'm also comfortable (most of the time) with other people being certain that they do know.

That's got to be a spot on the Color Chart of Religion, right?  Whatever that spot is called -- that's me.  Clare occupies a completely different spot on the chart, and Russ a spot rather closer to mine.  (There's a wonderful moment in One Was a Soldier when someone asks if, as a result of his relationship with Clare, Russ was going to become an Episcopalian and the reply is, "I think he's going to stay Law-Enforcementarian.")  But because my background includes a lot of stuff about the Episcopal church -- my uncle was an Episcopal priest, my mother was active in the church up to her death, and one year I had the Bishop of Maine living in the apartment next to mine -- the bits in Spencer-Fleming's books that deal with the Episcopal liturgy, the rites, the vestments, and the business of keeping a church alive and vibrant all seem familiar.  If anything, they make me nostalgic for something I never actually had.

They almost make me want to go to church.  Not for religious reasons, but for that sense of community, the spectacle and elegance of a church service, and a connection with someone as graceful as Clare is.  (I suspect a lot of people who read Spencer-Fleming's books secretly wish they could join St. Alban's.)

What these books don't do is offend my sense that my world is neither explained nor "fixed" by a belief in God.  But again, that may be the result of my precise spot on the Color Chart.  So, can I tell anyone, "Don't worry, you won't be offended/disturbed/upset/angered by the fact that a protagonist is an Episcopal priest"?  No.  Because I don't know how anyone else's spot on the Color Chart is going to affect them as they read these books.

All I can say is:  Spencer-Fleming's Miller's Kill books move me to tears, make me believe in the power of the written word, and give me hope.  They've changed my life. 

Which rather sounds like the effect religion can have...

My spot on the Color Chart of Religion?  I'm a Miller's Killite.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why the Romance Genre Should Be More Like TV, Less Like the Movies

Here's the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott on the subject of television and movies:
I swear, I’m not trying to horn in on my colleagues’ territory. But the traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.

Mark Harris has a long piece in the current GQ about how Hollywood keeps making the same movies over and over, always trying to find the "right" demographic:
The rise of marketers has also brought on an obsession with demographics. As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, the American film-going populace is divided two ways: by gender and by age. Gender is self-explanatory (usually); the over-under dividing line for age is 25. Naturally, every studio chief dreams of finding a movie like Avatar that reaches all four “quadrants” of the audience: male and female, young and not. But if it can be made for the right price, a two- or even one-quadrant film can be a viable business proposition.

This is particularly bad news for women born before 1985, by the way -- we're old & the wrong gender.  If Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock isn't in it, chances are a major studio isn't making it.  They forget that we can tell a good movie from a bad one.  As much as I love those actresses, I won't got to see Eat, Pray, Love or All About Steve just because they're in them.

Of course TV executives are just as obsessed with ratings, demographics, and the appeal to certain subsets of the American television watching public.  The great thing about TV is that there's room for everything.  Period dramas on PBS, cooking shows on The Food Network, police procedurals on -- well, everywhere.  There's even room for smart writing about smart people.  Ross and I love The Big Bang Theory.

Now, it might look like the romance genre is like television in its diversity.  There are certainly a lot of different sub-genres.  But look again: is that paranormal you're reading that much different from the last six you read?  Or how about that Regency romance: how unique is the plot or characters?  And those of you who enjoy series romances -- how many authors, out of the hundreds published by Harlequin Enterprises, can you say write unexpected books, books that surprise you by being fresh and interesting?

I understand that there are constraints to every sub-genre, and I agree that there are some truly different and unusual books out there.  I have to wonder: are traditional publishers encouraging those authors, or do they have to build up a readership fast before the publisher pulls the plug in favor of the same-old-same-old?

I would be willing to bet a large amount of money that there are fresh, talented writers out there, who are writing unusual and compelling stories but finding it nearly impossible to get published because their manuscripts don't look like anything else that's already been published and sold well.

Déjà vu all over again.  When I was a law student, with good grades at a top ten law school, I literally couldn't get hired.  I went through two years of recruitment, with dozens of twenty-minute interviews, none of which led to call-back interviews.  Why?  Because I didn't look like, sound like, or behave like the other people those firms had hired.

Of course that's a defensible hiring policy: stay with what works.  It leads to a very homogeneous group of associates, though.  And I was "unusual" in two ways that didn't look good on the firms' recruitment brochures: I was overweight and I was old.  I ended up with a job at a top-tier Philadelphia law firm solely because I got a clerkship with a judge who had been a partner at that firm.  My judge knew about being different: she was the first woman appointed to the federal bench in the Third Circuit.

I'm retired from the law now but I want to write about lawyers, judges, law professors and the like.  And I want them to be smart.  (I don't rely on my own experience for that last element -- I always run legal arguments and scenarios past Henry, who genuinely is smart.)  Yes, in order to get published, my books need to be well-written.  Let's imagine that I'm accomplishing that.  What if I still get rejected because when a busy agent or editor reads the first paragraph or chapter of my submission, all she thinks is, "Boy. This sure is different."

Which is what gets a lot of scripts rejected in Hollywood.  They'd rather make another bad version of Top Gun (two good looking actors, action sequences, throbbing music video look, etc.) than take a chance on a quirky film like Inception.  (Yes, they made Inception.  But as Mark Harris points out, Hollywood would like to ignore Inception's success.  Because it's too "hard" to figure out what made it successful and thus too hard to clone it.)

By contrast, television currently is willing to experiment, to try off-the-wall stuff.  Here's Marshall Fine at HuffPo on the subject:
There are so many hours in a day and so many networks looking to fill them that strong, engaging fare seems to be on the rise. Apparently some networks finally decided, hey, maybe we can draw an audience with programming that doesn't insult viewers' intelligence. It's no more of a risk than something stupid.

Don't the numbers sound familiar?  If you'd read it as "there are so many romances published every year, and so many readers looking for something different...some publishers have decided, hey, maybe we can draw readers with books that don't insult their intelligence," wouldn't that have warmed your heart?

That's not what seems to be happening.  Partly, I suspect, it's a matter of dollars and cents.  There's a hell of a lot more profit in an hour of television than there is in any given book by a new author.  Next, the current cookie-cutter approach seems to work, so why take a chance on something that breaks the mold.  Plus, publishers are cutting down on the editors needed to find the unique gem in the slush pile.  But at the end of the day, I think it's undeniable that editors are saying no to books you and I would love to read.

P.S.  Yes.  Self-publishing "solves" the problem.  But how many books are you likely to want to read -- let alone buy -- to see if they're any good?  At least editors get paid to read submissions...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Licence Laws, or How to Wed in the UK

In Betty Neels' Never the Time and the Place -- one of her marriage of convenience stories -- the hero proposes that they wed in the church in Stourton (at right).  The heroine asks about the banns, which take three weeks.  The hero says, "Don't worry, I'll get a special licence."  I had to scratch my head -- the couple was planning to wed at a church, so why a special license licence?

I called Henry, because I recall when -- more than a dozen years ago -- we were planning a wedding that the rules in England are vastly different than here in the U.S.  Henry and I did visit All Hallows Church in Hampstead where Henry was resident, but neither of us was a churchgoer, so it seemed impertinent to marry there, even if we were were entitled to by sheer geography.  (In the end, we were married by the federal judge I clerked for, in her chambers in Philadelphia.)  But this is just the sort of intricate legal morass Henry loves, so I asked him to explain all this.  As you'll see, even The Great Betty got it wrong!

Hey Henry -- Here's the question.  I was reading a Betty Neels romance the other day and it had the hero saying that he had a special license.  Now, this might have been the one where the couple has agreed to marry at the church in Stourton, which is not the parish the heroine lives in, although she points out that her regular vicar is willing to co-officiate.  Would they really have needed a special license?

And I realized, not for the first time, that I totally don't understand the need for, and use of, banns, licenses, and special licenses.  But then I remembered that you do!

So could you explain how a couple in England in 1820, 1900, and modern day get married?  For example, when Ross and I got married at Fountains Hall (a National Trust property licensed to host weddings), we just needed a license, right?  If we'd wanted to get married in a church, we'd have had more trouble as neither of us was resident in a specific parish.  And there are places where one simply cannot marry, no matter what sort of license you have, right?

P.S.  Extra credit if you can work in the Marriage Act of 1753, the Marriage Act of 1836, and any other law you can think of.

1. "Banns" were a proclamation, read in the parish churches of both parties, at the main morning service on three successive Sundays, to give public notice of the impending marriage in case anybody wished to raise a just cause or impediment.  They were the normal proceeding for ordinary people.

I believe, though I am not certain without researching it, that the marriage had to be in one of the parish churches in question.  That was seldom a great hardship, since the bride was conventionally married from her mother's house, and an unmarried woman was automatically deemed to be resident with her parents.  (By the 1980's that no longer applied, and one friend of mine had to go and spend a two-week vacation with her parents to establish legally sufficient residence there before her wedding.)

2.  An ordinary licence was granted by the diocesan bishop.  It dispensed with the reading of the banns, and with the accompanying three-week delay, and with any requirement for the marriage to be in one of the parties' home parish.  However, the wedding still had to be in a parish church or other church regularly authorized for weddings, between 8 am and noon on a weekday, with the doors open to anybody who did want to rush in and object, and not in lent or advent.

A licence was commonly used by the gentry, who considered having the banns read out to a church full of tradesmen and servants to be undignified.  It was also used if there was some reason for urgency.  Because the banns were not read, the licence application required proof that the people likely to know of an impediment (such as the parents of an under-age girl) assented.  One of Heyer's heroes simply swore a perjured oath that he had her parents' consent.  In later years, actual counter-signatures by the assenting parties were required.  An ordinary license would have been sufficient for your Stourton bride.

3.  A special licence was granted by the archbishop of Canterbury. (I am not sure whether York could grant one within his province.)  That dispensed with the requirement for the marriage to be in a church with open doors.  It was used, for example, when people at my college at Cambridge exercised their privilege of marrying in the college chapel (above), because the chapel was not generally approved for weddings. 

A friend at work in the late 1970s got a special licence from the archbishop of Canterbury to be married in a nonconformist protestant church, because they realized that the church was not licensed for weddings too late in the proceedings for any other solution.  Another of Heyer's heroines needed a special licence to be married at her dying father's bedside, because he was too ill to get to the church.

4. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 had the effect that a marriage without proper banns or licence was void.  Before that, clandestine marriages, though illegal, were valid once completed.  After 1753, you had to leave the country, usually to Scotland, where a 16 year old could marry without parental consent.  The Scots put a stop to that a century later, by requiring that one of the parties had to be resident in Scotland (for 14, or was it 21, days, but that was long enough to louse up an elopement).

5.  The Act of 1836 changed the whole system, and required all marriages to be performed by, or in the presence of, the Registrar General or his appointed deputy.  Instead of banns, a notice was posted on the notice board at the local register office for three weeks.

Under one of those peculiarly British fudges that is totally indefensible in theory but worked very well in practice, all Anglican parish priests were automatically Registrar's deputies.  I think the Jews and Quakers were given a similar privilege from an early date, but it was only gradually extended to other denominations.  If your particular priest or shaman was not approved, he could still marry you provided that the approved forms of wording were used, and provided that the local registrar was there to witness it.

I remember in the 1970s the registrars staged a work-to-rule and refused to work on Saturdays, so all those with religious weddings on the Saturday had to have a separate register office ceremony on the Friday.  The Roman Catholic church issued a special reminder to its flock that they were not allowed to consummate the marriage until after the church service on the Saturday, so at that date their priests were still not routinely accredited as registrar's deputies.  (I think the RC priesthood were deputized shortly after.)

The Act of 1836 broadened the list of places where weddings could be held to include register offices (duh!) and a progressively increasing number of non-Anglican churches.  Note that the church might be approved even if the priest was not: most Roman Catholic churches in the 1970s were clearly in that position.  In general, however, the wedding still had to be in a recognizable church with open doors.

Ross and I sign the register, with Jill, a "duly authorized equivalent"
6.  I don't really know the ins and outs of the current system, which was introduced about the time I left England.  My understanding is that the main change is that far larger numbers of secular buildings are licensed as venues for weddings, and the open-door rule has been abolished. You still need a registrar or duly authorized equivalent - didn't you have one sitting at the side at Fountains Abbey? - and you still need to have certain forms of wording in the ceremony, but they're probably more willing to accredit officiants other than conventional Christian priests.  They may have abolished the requirement for three weeks' public notice: it was pretty futile in these days of increasing mobility.  I recall one registrar saying that in 20 years' in the job, he had had exactly one objection raised as a result of all those notices.

7.  Strictly speaking, I believe the Church of England is still required to marry anybody resident in the parish, though they can exclude divorced people (my sister in law fell foul of that rule) and if you are not a regular Anglican they may be as strict as the rules allow about whether you are actually resident.  However, if you are not in a class they are compelled to marry, a lot will depend on the charity of the parish priest in question.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

TBR Challenge: The Secret Pearl

Fascinating assignment this month:  Read a book with a less-than-conventionally-attractive protagonist.

First challenge:  locate a book in my stash that met that criterion!  I started reading back cover copy for book after book and quickly discovered that all heroines are “beautiful.”  Seriously – pick up five books from your TBR pile and I predict all of them will describe the heroine as “beautiful.”  Not “attractive,” “pretty,” or “lovely” – definitely beautiful.

I’d gone through 20 or more books before I got bored and went to the helpful "Less Than Beautiful" list on AAR.  As it turned out, the easiest way to make a conventionally attractive protagonist “less than” is to give him or her some scars.  Allowing for a pretty sorry, beautiful person to be scarred takes care of the problem easily.  (Well, unless I’m counting a Betty Neels romance as part of my TBR stack: she has scores of “plain but with lovely eyes” heroines.  But they aren’t in my TBR, so they were off the table, so to speak.)

Thus, I picked Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl.  Adam Kent, the Duke of Ridgeway, is facially scarred as a result of a British bayonet wielded by a terrified youngster, and elsewhere on his body by enemy fire.  The facial scars are bad – far beyond rakishness – while the latter has torn up his left hip and thigh.  But don’t be fooled – his grace is Richard Armitage after a few hours with the make-up artist.  Darkly handsome, broody, and dangerous to know.  Not exactly Quasimodo.  So did I cheat on the assignment?  Enh, who cares – it’s Richard freaking Armitage.

And Fleur Hamilton (nee Isabella Fleur Bradshaw) is Nicole Kidman: strawberry blonde and lovely, if a bit Botox’ed.  (Seriously – there’s stoicism and serenity, and then there’s a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles.  I’m not sure Fleur wasn’t edging toward the latter in a couple key scenes.)

They meet, with a romance novel’s proper disregard for logic and common sense, in the shadows of the Drury Theatre.  Fleur is there to sell her body (she believes her virtue is already lost to her) simply because it’s the last thing she has to sell.  And, as fate would have it, she manages to pick the one night when Adam Kent is willing to abandon a long stretch without recourse to prostitutes.  (I’ve written elsewhere about my distaste for Mary Balogh’s belief that there is only one word to describe a woman who accepts money in exchange for sexual favors or activity: whoreThe Secret Pearl is as bad, if not worse, than A Precious Jewel on this point.)

But if you look past all the other things Fleur might have done to avoid the necessity of selling her body, you quite quickly get to all the fun parts of this book, many of which evoke a Jane Eyre sort of angsty-ness.  Fleur gets a position as the governess to Adam Kent’s daughter, Pamela.  That puts Fleur in service at Willoughby, the Duke of Ridgeway’s estate.  His grace is married, but the wife, Sybil, isn’t locked in the attic, although she seems just as demented as Mrs. Rochester.  And there’s a full-blown Gothic plot with Matthew Bradshaw, Fleur’s cousin and nemesis.  And another Gothic plot with Adam’s half-brother Thomas.

the role of Happy Endings, Dorsetshire is being played by Kimmeridge
Okay, so look past all the Gothic high drama, you quickly get on to the bumpy road toward Happy Endings (a quaint village in Dorsetshire) that Adam and Fleur must travel.  And that brings me to the BEST character in the whole book:  his grace's secretary, Peter Houghton.

I lurve Houghton.  He’s Bunter in the Dorothy Sayers books, who had a special knack for chatting up older women in his efforts to bring back information for Lord Peter Wimsey.  Houghton’s a behind the scenes Hercule Poirot, well able to ferret out the very juiciest gossip necessary for a successful resolution of Fleur’s troubles.  And Houghton serves as a wonderful Greek Chorus vis à vis the duke’s feelings for, and about, Fleur, whom Houghton believes is his grace’s ladybird (see? Houghton knows the correct form of address for a female of dubious sexual virtue in the care and keeping of an aristocrat...!).  Quite late in the book, Houghton thinks for the very first time, “She was not his grace’s ladybird after all.  She was his love.”  It is then that Houghton pities the duke.

I would have loved the Duke of Ridgeway more if it weren’t for two things.  First, he’s not the Duke of Bedwyn, who does the supercilious, omniscient, and omnipotent agent-of-justice-rendered-powerless-by-love so much better.  Frankly, Ridgeway takes too long to solve stuff he could and should have solved sooner.  Second, he doesn’t seem to love himself enough.  He’s far too quick to settle for no loaf at all.  By the time he’s on the outskirts of Happy Endings, he seems to dawdle.  (Well, to be fair, Fleur dawdles too.  It’s a long enough book; I have no idea why, when all obstacles on the road to Happy Endings have been cleared, they dawdle.  Propriety’s sake?  Or sheer stupidity?)

Now, I know this post reads as a rather mocking commentary on the book, so you're forgiven for thinking I didn't like it.  Actually, I gobbled it up.  But when I’d read the last page, it was done.  No need to reread the ending or the angsty-est bits or otherwise wallow in the book’s many pleasures.  A wonderful read; now on to something else...

So my ultimate impression of The Secret Pearl?  It’s Chinese food: delicious and exciting, but not all that memorable.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I Bought Sylvia Massara's Book

Hey, it was $0.99 for the Kindle.  But you can be sure I wouldn't even have known to look for it if her recent blog post about a review (and the reviewer) hadn't stirred up a mini-controversy in the larger literary blogosphere.  (And, no, I'm not linking to it -- go Google her.)

I have no idea how much money she makes on my measly sale -- 50¢ perhaps? -- but whatever the amount, score that much for Authors Behaving Badly.

Did I buy the book (Like Casablanca) to support Massara or because I agree with her?  No.  Did I buy the book as a put-down to the forces that believe she's a troll or a cow?  No.

I bought it because it sounded interesting enough to justify the price.  (She also has a $2.99 book, but that was too much money for me.  And one's enough to find out if she's any good.)  But I wouldn't have known it existed if it hadn't been for the kerfuffle.

By buying her book, I undoubtedly put myself in the minority (story of my life) among those who read her blog post.  I think it's safe to assume that most of the people who read her screed decided on the spot that they would never buy one of her books, not ever.

Fair enough.  I recently divested myself of the backlist of an author whom I discovered I didn't like much in person.  That's just market forces.  Undoubtedly some people already swear blind they won't read anything by Magdalen Braden, assuming there will ever be anything for them to eschew.  Perhaps there are people who read my blog and want to read a book of mine.  Still just market forces.

Being active on the Internet is now standard operating practice for writers and authors.  We're supposed to have a "platform" and a presence in the online worlds frequented by people who might read our books.  We are supposed to present ourselves as nicer, cooler, smarter, funnier, more interesting versions of our real selves.  These airbrushed versions are supposed to reward fans and attract new readers.  We can't be too bland, but we need to be careful not to ruffle too many feathers.  And absolutely we shouldn't flame out in public.  All sound advice.  Not always easy to do.  (Except for that last bit -- it's really easy to avoid flaming out in public.  It's called email.  Email is still private.)

Here's what I don't get about all this.  Massara's screed against "unprofessional" reviewers was aimed at - whom, exactly?  Other authors?  Did she worry that it might piss off some readers and potential readers?  Or was it just a flare in the shape of an extended middle finger, sent up into the sky with the hope of -- what?  Pissing off the reviewers in question?  (In which case, it worked.)  Garnering name awareness?  (Worked -- whether in a good or bad way rather depends on whether you believe that there's no such thing as bad publicity.)  Laying entire villages of bloggers and book reviewers to waste?  (Not even close.)

But to read the comment threads and meta-comment threads, you'd think it was time to stage an Egyptian-level protest!

This reminds me of the concept of standing in the law.  Not everyone can sue; a litigant has to establish an injury, causation and the possibility of redress, or risk getting thrown out of court.  So who really has the standing to say they were injured by Massara's post?  The reviewers in question.  No argument there.  But who else?  Can all other book reviewers say they were injured by Massara's diatribe against "unprofessional" reviewers?  Where's the harm?

Of course everyone's entitled to her or his opinion -- that's just basic free speech, limited by the common law torts of libel, slander and defamation generally.  So all the people who commented anywhere yesterday on this issue (I was one) are entitled to their (non-defamatory) opinion.

But moral outrage -- the sort of moral outrage you express when you believe harm has occurred -- is blunted when the harm could have been prevented.  Just don't go there, and once you're there, remember you came of your own free will.

When you read a post like Massara's, you can see it as an uncensored rant by a petty person who thinks -- probably erroneously -- that she got hosed.  Or you can see it as a Massive Injustice Against All Bloggers and Further Evidence that Authors are Cows and Shouldn't Be Allowed to Comment on Reviews and Book Discussions.  Your choice.  No matter how outraged you are, I doubt you'd have standing to sue.

Jane (of Dear Author fame) quite presciently tweeted on Monday (before the Massara kerfuffle, I believe):
as a general rule do not read author blogs. Too afraid of running into a blow job post

Smart woman. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

No Good Reason

We're sad today at Chez Promantica.

My husband, who for 25 years was prominent in the small, insular world of British cryptic crosswords, has been asked by Will Shortz (who is prominent in a much larger way here in the US) to give a brief 5-10 minute talk at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament next month.  Ross's subject would be the differences between cryptic puzzles constructed by and for Americans, and the British style.

I immediately saw some wonderful possibilities:  Craft a clue that yields a valid answer if solved by a Briton, and a completely different answer if solved by an American.  Deconstruct one of Ross's classic British clues.  Make a joke about how the way you know British cryptic crossword puzzles are hard: the pseudonyms used by puzzle constructors were, for decades, names of Spanish Inquisitors.  Frankly, it wouldn't be hard to stand up and talk for 20 minutes.

But that's me.  For Ross, it would be hard even to stand up.  Speaking in front of 500 fellow puzzlers would be excruciating -- the actual Spanish Inquisition might be easier to endure.

I love my husband with all my heart, and it breaks that heart to see him sad with this lose-lose decision.  If he tells Will Shortz no, Ross will probably have trouble letting that missed opportunity go by.  If he says yes, he's got 5+ long weeks of anxiety to get through.

Coincidentally, the Saturday of the ACPT is the date of a writers' conference in Iselin, NJ.  It's not specific to romance novels, but the workshops look good and there will be editors & agents accepting pitches.  I don't participate in the ACPT, so it would actually be convenient for me to nip across from Brooklyn and go to this conference.

But I have not done well in my efforts to pitch at conferences.  My pitch at RWA National last summer was to an agent who seemed interested, but never responded to the query.  (I'm told that "silence" is the new rejection.  Forgive me for a moment if I express a tiny bit of contempt for that.  A form email,
Thank you for your interest in our agency.  We do not believe we can represent your work.  We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

would do the trick.  Isn't that a more professional and more courteous way of dealing with the situation?  At the very least, have a cut-off on the website:
Due to the volume of queries we receive, we may not be able to respond to each one.  If we have not responded within 6 months, we regret that we are not interested in pursuing a business relationship with you.  We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

That's just polite.)

I pitched to two agents in New Jersey in the autumn and never followed up with queries.  I know: it's the one thing they tell you *never* to do.  But by that time, I was reasonably convinced that my completed manuscript, "Love in Reality," was disadvantaged by some aspects I couldn't, or wouldn't, change.  I knew, and still know, that I should have queried them anyway, but I also know there was a slim chance they'd be interested in "Love in Reality" in its old, clunky format.  I did a complete rewrite and it's now much better, but by the time I'd finished that, it was December.  Agents don't accept queries in December, and after the holidays, I rather felt too much time had passed.

Plus, I was on to the next thing.

My current work-in-progress, "Blackjack & Moonlight" does not have any of those disadvantages.  I actually think it's pretty good.  Strong characters, a unique set-up, valid conflict, and satisfying story arcs for both protagonists.  I love it, and I think it has a much better chance for success than "Love in Reality" has.

But is it good enough?  I have no idea.  And that makes me very sad.  I'm now like Ross.  I don't want to take the risk that I'll pitch it, be told, "Yeah, sure, go ahead and send me the first three chapters," and then not hear anything.  Or worse, get explicitly rejected.  (Because the discourtesy of not hearing anything isn't that it's crueler, it's that it allows hope to linger, like the ghost of a scent unique to a long-gone guest.)

Which should tell you that I lack a vital ingredient for success as a writer: courage.  And you'd be right.  I'm a coward.  There's no good reason for that, just as there's no good reason for Ross's reluctance to give a very short talk at the ACPT.  We both have something unique and valuable to share with the world.  It's stupid and wimpy to be afraid of the steps necessary to get noticed.

And we know this.  Which is why we're sad.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Counsel for the Defense

I haven't practiced law for over a year, but I'm tempted to hang a virtual shingle and start representing unjustly accused protagonists.

Take Alexander, for example.  He's a professor of surgery and a consultant.  He's fallen in love with Beth, the nurse hired to care for Alexander's sister, who's recuperating from an operation.  And then, when the sister no longer needs medical care, Alexander arranges for Beth to stay with the family looking after his nieces and nephews, all under the age of eleven.  They're good children, but bored with their father on an extended business trip and their mother still a bit under the weather.  Beth has been doing a great job caring for them.  She's good at her job and they like her.

Alexander is about to operate on a critical patient when he gets a phone call from the police.  The family sailboat is in a harbor miles from where it's normally docked.  All four children and Beth are on the boat but there's a storm raging and they all could quite easily have been drowned.  Alexander has to abandon his patient, rushes to the harbor and finds, by some miracle, that the children and Beth are safe.  But the eldest, Dirk, rattles off an explanation, something about how Beth convinced him and the other kids that she knew how to sail, only, of course, she doesn't know how to sail.

Alexander loses his temper with Beth.  She was supposed to keep the children safe, not take them out on a boat she can't handle in a storm that any experienced sailor would know spelled trouble.  He demands an explanation, but Beth says nothing.

When they get back to the house, Alexander has calmed down, although the details Dirk has added only make it look worse for Beth.  Still, there was that trouble with Dirk misbehaving a few weeks back, where it was clear that Dirk had lied when he'd suggested Beth had egged him on.  So Alexander thinks, there must be some explanation.  He takes Beth's hands in his and asks, gently, "Beth, will you not tell us what happened?  You had some reason..."

She says only, "Dirk told you -- I have nothing to add to that.  I'm sorry about your patient.  I hope you'll still be in time."

Okay, you're the jury:  Is Alexander guilty of failing to believe in his beloved?  Should he have rejected Dirk's repeated story of the events and concluded that Beth couldn't possibly have been on the boat when it was launched?

It's not quite a trick question, but there is some slight of hand at work.  I told the events from Alexander's POV.  We're more trusting of a character when we're in his or her POV because we think we'd know if there was an improper act or a bad motive.  I tried to be scrupulous about presenting the facts as Alexander knows them, but then I believe he's innocent or, at worst, complicit with Beth in screwing up their romance.

[For a lengthy (and I mean lengthy) discussion of Alexander's alleged crimes when you read the story from Beth's point of view, check out this review of Betty Neels' A Star Looks Down and the subsequent comment thread.]

Even in a book with very tight POV -- which I freely admit wasn't Betty Neels' strong suit, as there's more than a little omniscient narrator action thrown in -- we know the characters better than, say, a real jury would in a court of law.

The subject of sexual harassment came up over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress recently as well.  That's a sore topic because Neels's romances so often have a significant disparity between the hero's economic and social status and the heroine's.  Bluntly, he's always richer than she is, is always at least a half-dozen years older, and often hires her in some capacity as a means of keeping track of her.

But we rarely worry about sexual harassment because we know from the heroine's POV that she doesn't feel pressured or trapped by her need for employment so that she has to be "nice" to him or risk losing her job.  (In fact, it's usually the opposite -- she's secretly in love with the hero, so working for him makes it seem all that much less likely he actually wants to have anything to do with her.)

Her confidence and comfort level reassure us that everything's fine.  Still, I wonder if the hero ever thinks, "I can't put the moves on her yet because she works for me..."  We rarely get his POV so who knows.

In Alexander's case, if Betty Neels had flipped over to his POV long enough for the reader to be reassured that he'd weighed all the evidence, had discounted completely Dastardly Dirk's version of events, and had counted on Beth to tell them all the truth -- then we'd forgive him and be a bit more peevish with Beth's decision to say nothing.  But, absent his POV, we jump to the conclusion that he must believe Dirk.

In fact, we're guilty of what we accuse him of doing:  we read more into the situation than the facts support.

The defense rests.