Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good News and Better News

Love in Reality did not final in the Golden Heart®.  That's not the good news, precisely, but here's what's making me happy nonetheless:

My overarching thought about not getting "The Call" was -- after all the stress was over -- "This will make RWA National a lot easier."

Now, I'm not denying I was disappointed, but I wasn't crushed, and I could see the balance in the situation.  I'd like to think if I had finaled, I'd have ignored the hassle and concentrated on the advantages of being a Golden Heart® finalist.

What makes all this good, for me, is that I haven't always been able to see the balances in life.  Which brings me to the better news.

I didn't feel rejected and I didn't feel as though my manuscript had been rejected.  Don't ask me where that degree of sangfroid comes from because the last time I looked I didn't have it.

But oh boy am I glad I have it now.

Hawaiian Sunrise
Or as the photographer puts it, "sounds like a cocktail with too much sugar in it."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Call

On Friday, someone from RWA will call certain writers to tell them their submissions to the Golden Heart® contest made it to the finals.

That phone call is one of several sorts of "The Call" a writer can get.  There's The Call from an agent saying she'll represent you, The Call from an editor saying they'll publish your manuscript, The Call from your agent saying that he got The Call from an editor, etc.

The "You're a Golden Heart® Finalist" Call doesn't ensure that you'll get an agent, The Call from the agent doesn't ensure that you'll get published, and The Call about publication doesn't mean you won't die in the mid-list or something.  No phone call is a guarantee of ultimate success -- unless, unbeknownst to us mere mortals, The Call from Nora Roberts tells other elite authors, "It's official.  You've arrived!" -- but getting The Call marks a threshold to the next stage.

I submitted Love in Reality to the Golden Heart® competition (for single-title contemporary).  I know it can't win (the synopsis is lousy) but it's not impossible that it might final.  Which means it is not impossible that I could get The Call on Friday.

Now, I could wait until Saturday to blog about how I feel about The Call after I did or did not get one, but where's the fun in that?  I'm all about Schrödinger's Cat -- I want to blog about the possibility of getting The Call and what that means.  You might be surprised -- I don't see it as a "consummation devoutly to be wished."  (Which is probably a good thing -- turns out that's a snippet from Hamlet's soliloquy about death...)

If Love in Reality finals and I get The Call, it means I step on to a moving walkway -- those conveyor belt-like contraptions at airports to get you along long hallways faster -- toward the next tasks needed for publication.  Those moving walkways are great when your feet hurt and you're lugging various bits of carry-on luggage.  They are not so great if what you want to do is get to that ladies' room you just saw, or buy a newspaper or a coffee at a kiosk the walkway is bypassing.

What if my writing isn't ready?  What if I'm not ready?  In that situation, I'd rather not get The Call.  (I don't want to find out the hard way if there's a slight stigma to being a GH finalist who then doesn't get an agent, a publishing contract, etc.  Apart from this blog -- which very few people read -- virtually no one even knows I submitted Love in Reality for the Golden Heart®, so if I don't final, it can't count against me.)

Clarissa Southwick over at Lady Scribes posted a wonderful blog telling us what to expect if we get The Call on Friday.  There's a lot of visibility inherent in everything she describes.  Is my writing ready for that?  Maybe it is, in which case it could be disappointing not to final.

Ultimately, this situation makes me think of medical tests.  Submitting a manuscript to the Golden Heart® contest is a bit like having your blood drawn.  If I get The Call, I have the disease.  Oh, c'mon -- not all diseases are fatal, you know.  Some just require a lifestyle adjustment.  Golden Heart® Finalist is one of that sort of disease -- I'll have to live a bit differently for the foreseeable future.

If I don't get The Call, that doesn't mean a lifestyle adjustment isn't in my future -- it must means it's not in my present.

Here's a post at the New York Times on a non-metaphorical either/or situation.  In it, Dr. Bach -- a cancer researcher and physician -- writes about his wife's breast cancer and how they asked her oncologist for a probability that her cancer would recur.  The oncologist refused to give a number -- 1-in-50 or 1-in-4 -- and said simply, "It either will or it won't."  His point was, no number could make either outcome happen or disappear, so they would have to live with the uncertainty.

I'll either get The Call or I won't.  I'll still need to pitch and/or query agents, and that will lead to more uncertainty.  If I get an agent, I'll then be waiting to hear if my manuscript has been accepted for publication.  More uncertainty.  Unless Nora Roberts calls me, I'm living with uncertainty for a long, long time.

Welcome to a writer's life.

For the record, I predict I will not get The Call on Friday.  But I'll tell you either way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fractal Plot

My TBR Challenge book is A Scandalous Proposal by Julia Justiss, a new-to-me author.

The set-up is familiar to fans of Regency romances:  A beautiful and genteel war widow needs to make a life for herself, so she opens a hat shop.  An aristocratic gentleman calls in to collect a bonnet for his mother and falls madly in love with the widow.  When she's forced to deal with extortion, the gentleman takes care of her, and then...takes care of her in a more traditional arrangement.

Not that different from the classic, His Lordship's Mistress by Joan Wolf.  But Wolf's book is completely linear:  Jessica needs money, the Earl of Linton needs a mistress, they fall in love but clearly can't marry...until they can.

A Scandalous Proposal is a fractal where His Lordship's Mistress is linear.  We start with Emily, the hat shop proprietress, but we'll end with a cast of dozens -- friends, family, business associates, and social equals -- and some rather odd juxtapositions of social status and profession.

When the book opens, we meet Emily as a widow with a young son.  We know she's hiding from her former father-in-law, and like Jessica, she needs money.  Unlike Jessica, Emily doesn't intend to seek a man's protection; she just wants to make a living using the skills she has.  Still, she and her earl fall in love just as Jessica and Linton do.

We know that these books have to end the same way: with two people of seemingly incompatible social standing happily married and not shunned by the aristocracy.  Wolf just tackles the problem head-on:  Jessica has kept her identity hidden from Linton, so he first has to find out who she really is and then see if her actions -- which are undeniably scandalous -- can be twisted to seem almost noble.  It helps that his sister is a patroness of Almack's.

Here's a third example of this plot.  In Mary Balogh's Longing (which I rather imagine gets referred to as "the Welsh romance") a marquess falls in love with the illegitimate daughter of a minor noble.  Because the protagonists live in, and wish to stay in, Wales, one rather supposes the HEA will work as long as they stay in Wales.  By the time their children need to be presented in London, most people will have gotten past the distasteful nature of the Marchioness's origins.  It helps -- it always helps -- that there's a good bit of money in the estate to fund the entail, settle on any younger sons, and provide generous dowries for the daughters.

In A Scandalous Proposal, Emily and Evan, Earl of Cheverley, find their situation complicated by trade.  Emily is a tradeswoman.  That's not socially acceptable.  She has waited upon women she will later wish to treat her as a peer.  Justiss solves that problem -- not particularly convincingly -- by just stating that of course Emily will be allowed to continue to design dresses for the ton.  But while that hardly seems plausible, it's also not necessary.

Without giving too much of the game away, Emily -- like Wolf's Jessica -- is revealed at the end to be more than the penniless widow of an army officer.  In a linear plot, that would be the solution the protagonists needed to solve their problem.  By the end of A Scandalous Proposal, the plot has been so complicated by frilly detail that the truth of her birth is but one revelation in a sea of revelations.  The reason she was hiding isn't quite as we think, the details of her upbringing aren't quite what we think, her options aren't quite as limited as we think, and frankly, she's not quite what we think.

In addition, we have a hero, a back-up hero, a non-villain, a secondary romance that takes place entirely off-stage, and a truly bizarre subplot that involves that most hoary of Regency romance traditions: the Napoleonic War Spy!

We also have wounded war heroes, dead war heroes, dying war heroes, and a Portuguese maid.  Oh, and a landscape painting that sounds far too small to put over a mantel in the house of a lord.  I'd have placed it lower down, at eye level when he's sitting at his desk.

Yes, you read that correctly.  With such a complicated plot, I ended up fixated on the best position for a specific painting.

Not that A Scandalous Proposal is a bad book.  It's not.  I can recommend it to fans of the sub-genre of "Lord X wishes to marry his mistress" books.  But His Lordship's Mistress is better.  In this case, linear is better than fractal.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To Every Character There is a Season

I have no idea why anyone writes for a living.  Maybe they have the right skill set, get paid well for it, and find it a more pleasant lifestyle than anything else they've tried.

Then again, maybe the old adage is right: we write because we have to.

I don't have the right skill set, I doubt I'll ever make much money, and as I was previously comfortably retired, no, the lifestyle isn't more pleasant.  So, yeah, I'm guessing it's the "because I have to" line for me.  Or more specifically, because of all these stories I need to tell.

I have a score of characters inside me, waiting patiently (well, really -- what choice do they have?) for me to get around to writing about their romances.  I know these people, some of them very well, some more casually.  But I could sit down with any one of them and have a detailed conversation about anything -- what their 7th birthday party was like, for example, or whether they attended their senior prom.  How could I not write about them?

If writing the stories was all that was required, I'd be good to go.  I'd be an unpublished writer of bad fiction, but I'd be happy enough.  (I'd have a lot of imaginary people to talk to, at least.)  That's not what we writers think we want.  We think we want to be published, to be read, to be admired, etc.  And so we enter the marketplace, hoping someone will buy what we're selling.

Frankly, I don't care if it's self-publishing, getting an agent, submitting to an editor, or handing out leaflets on the street corner -- it's all ordeal by market.  Other people can argue about which is the best approach for new writers; I just know all approaches involve reviews, rejection, obsession about sales, and so forth.

Well, if I'm that much of a Debbie Downer about the process, why do I bother?

Because of situations like this:  The other night, as I was driving through heavy rain to a new-to-me critique group meeting only to find out it had been canceled because of the weather (!), I met some new people waiting in the queue.

Alex was twelve when his mother, who'd been drinking (but that was nothing new), ran a red light and broadsided a hatchback with a little kid in the backseat.  That was the last thing Alex saw before his airbag deployed -- the startled smile of a little girl who had no idea her parents were about to be killed.

Alex's mom survives the crash, thanks to expensive German engineering.  The passengers of the other car -- Cindy Lennox and her parents -- aren't so lucky.  Cindy was in a car seat, so she's okay, but her parents are killed instantly.  Unrepentant, Alex's mother hires killer lawyers to prevent a massive wrongful death verdict filed on behalf of the Lennox estate.  She wins, she remarries -- Alex's stepfather adopts him -- and then Mom and Stepdad drink themselves to death while Alex is in law school.  Alex ends up being very wealthy indeed.  Too bad you can't buy peace of mind in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

There is one thing he can do with the money.  He funds Cindy's college education -- anonymously.  All he asks is that she write him a letter every month while she's at school.

If you guessed that I'm revisiting the plot of Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, you get a gold star.  I love epistolary novels although I don't think I could do an entire romance novel in that format.  (Nope, not even if it was entirely in text messages, Gmails and Twitter DMs...)

But I have a problem because Alex has deliberately set up his bequest so that he doesn't get her letters directly.  He has a lawyer act as an intermediary.  The letters go to the lawyer who redacts anything that would disclose where the recipient of Alex's scholarship might live.  So there's no way for Alex to do what Jervis Pendleton does in Daddy-Long-Legs, namely go find his protogĂ©e and fall in love with her.

Instead, his heroine has to come find him.  Every year, in the six weeks leading up to the anniversary of the car crash, Alex rereads Cindy's letters, one by one, night after night.  He thinks they keep him sane, mostly because he can't see how how squirrely he's become.  He resents the well-meaning efforts of his colleagues at the firm to cheer him up, particularly the impossibly chipper new file clerk, Thea Adams.  She wants to pull him out of his darkness, while that's the one place he feels at home.  I'm smiling just imagining their arguments.

I could sit down and write their book right now.  I clearly want to.  (I particularly want to write Cindy's letters from college.  I plan to send her to Swarthmore, where my niece went.  There are some great stories from that school, like the April Fool's Day someone replaced all the labels for the trees & plants -- the entire campus is an arboretum -- with dummy ones in Latin that, when translated, read "small purple flower" and "large leafy tree.")

But I have at least three books ahead of Alex and Thea's story.  At least.  So they'll have to wait.

I hate that -- putting characters and stories off because I need to keep working on my skill set and capacity to endure the marketplace.  But I guess it'll be okay -- after all, the characters in the book I'm writing now have been in my head for 15 years.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Pinky Swear

I read Becca Fitzgerald's blog post, "Be Nice" with interest, but the juicy part was the reaction online.  Her thesis is that as authors we should be nice to people because you never know whose good opinion you might need some day.  The reaction included some "Hear, hear!" but it also included a good bit of derision.

If I understand the backlash, it's that the "Be Nice" movement is telling writers (who are, obviously, consumers of other writers' work, and may even be reviewers/bloggers/commenters) to censor their honest opinion of specific books and their authors.  In other words, by being "nice" we're caving in to some stupid peer pressure just because The Man (Woman?) wants us to, and we're stifling our own free speech in the process.  (I wonder if latent contempt for authors generally fuels the backlash, but even if it's a straight-up free speech argument, I still reject it.)

This makes me flash back to RWA National last summer. That's when I realized that organization would really like me to make a metaphorical "pinky swear" to honor all my fellow RWA members.  (Which means honoring everyone in Romlandia because it's not that easy to see who is and is not in RWA.)

Thank you RWA for commanding me to do the right thing.  I'll admit, I resented it at the time.  I blog.  I wanted to keep blogging about what worked and didn't work in specific books.  Post pinky-swear, I wouldn't be able to mention authors by name.  But you know what?  I don't think it's resulted in self-censoring at all.  Read my last post.  I didn't censor anything.

What I did was mask the identity of the book, its author, and the reviewer.  I don't know the author at all, but I know and like the reviewer.  I treated them the same: as though both of them are my dearest friends.

Where's the lily-livered cowardice in that?  I'm writing about colleagues of mine.  People whom I respect and want to respect me.  Even if I don't like someone, I still want her to think I'm not the kind of person who would say in public, "I don't like X's work and you shouldn't either."

Now, I don't have a problem saying, "I don't like bad writing," and I agree I rather blunt the force of that statement if I discuss a book without identifying it.  That's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.  It puts the onus on me to make very clear what sort of bad writing I'm talking about.

I understand the human instinct to KNOW -- know who the author is, know the book title, know the review's name -- but why am I being courageous for satisfying that curiosity in public speech?  A conversation I have with a friend, privately, is a different matter.  That's not public speech, and anyway I trust my friends.  As they trust me.

So here it is:  I took a virtual pinky swear with a huge bunch of writers and would-be writers that I wouldn't bad-mouth them in public.  In effect, I'll be nice.  If that's elevating their interest in my discretion above other's people's interest in my unvarnished opinion, then you know which side you fall on and you know whether I picked you or the other team.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Book Review Conundrum

When I want to go to the movies, I get recommendations from reviews.  I start with the film critics at the New York Times, and maybe the guys at Entertainment Weekly.  Even when they don't like a movie, the review includes enough information for me to know if I would like it.  Case in point:  "RED", the recent action thriller cast with a bunch of AARP-eligible actors.  Here's the line in A.O. Scott's review in the Times that told me I would enjoy "RED":
It is possible to have a good time at “RED,” but it is not a very good movie. 

Sure enough, I had a great time even though it's not a very good movie.

By contrast, music reviews might as well be written in Italian for all they help me figure out if I'll like something.  That's mostly my failing; I lack the musical intelligence to understand what people who have that intelligence are saying to each other.  For musical recommendations, I find Pandora to be a better way to go.

Book reviews of romance novels are tricky -- they ought to work really well, but they just don't.  I  recently bought a book (I'll call it Reckless Dream just because that's a nice anodyne title and, according to Amazon, no one's used it yet) because someone I know and like gave it an A in a glowing book review.  Alas, Reckless Dream was a DNF -- I got two-thirds of the way through the book and had to give up.

So what went wrong?  Obviously, I thought I was getting one sort of book after reading the review, and instead I got something that was just badly written.  The prose in Reckless Dream -- all of it -- was the sort you get in sex scenes: misty allusions and gauzy metaphors to prevent calling a penis by its anatomically correct name. As a result the sex scenes in Reckless Dream weren't bad, but the rest of it was deeply frustrating.

That style of writing -- soft-focus with Vaseline-on-the-lens prose -- is useless when applied to exposition and excruciating in internal monologues.  No one I know thinks in wispy, tangential metaphors when wrestling with the cock-ups in his or her life.

Okay, so the writing wasn't very good, and as a result the pacing seemed off.  It also didn't help that Reckless Dream's author withheld a lot of back-story that could have kept the reader clued in to what was going on.

Here's what I'm struggling with.  Why did the plot and characters sound crystal-clear and sparkling in the book review and then be ditch-water gray and murky in the book itself?

One explanation is obvious: the book reviewer is a better writer than Reckless Dream's author.  The reviewer made the characters more coherent -- in the book, they were a mess -- and presented the plot as compelling and intriguing.  Maybe the reviewer was able to tease out all the good bits for the review and ignored the rest.  Maybe I'm just intolerably cranky.  But for whatever reason, my cynical verdict is that the book was a snore but the review was great.

Most reviews focus on a recap of the plot and characters, and then finish with a short statement of the reviewer's enjoyment level plus one or two things that were particularly pleasing or disappointing.  It's rare that I read a review that actually discusses the style and techniques the writer used.  Sometimes it seems the review is of the romance, and not of the book presenting that romance.  You know -- the review's all about how much the reviewer liked the characters and believed their relationship, with no mention of whether the book is any good.

What's your experience with book reviews?  Have books lived up to, exceeded or fallen short of what the reviewer(s) led you to expect?  Are there reviewers you trust, or is it the review itself that helps you to know if you'd like the book?  Finally, what elements in a review help you know if you want to read the book?