Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sex Scene Mad Libs

A friend and I recently discussed the role of sex scenes in most romances.  The conventional wisdom is that a sex scene should not just be Tab A & Slot B stuff, but should actually "advance the plot."

Only they all advance the plot to some extent.  In most romances, the reader wants to be reassured that the couple are sexually compatible.  Plus, when it's done well, reading about sex can be fun.

No, the real problem with sex scenes -- at least, my real problem with the sex scenes in the books I read -- is that all the protagonists' personality leaves the room when the clothes come off.  To my mind, the challenge of a well-written and fun-to-read sex scene is to make it sexy in ways that are consistent with the characters' lives, thoughts, goals and personalities.

What I read, though, is usually a lot flatter than that.  The hero and heroine become generic, mere bodies in the dance.  It's like there's a downloadable Mad Libs for sex scenes:
            Hero's name       ran his        body part       over        Heroine's name      's        body part       creating a delightful friction.   She trembled all over, arching against his        body part      , tense with her        passionate emotion       for him.
    "My        personal term of endearment      ," he murmured, pressing his        body part       along the length of her        body part      . "You drive me        adjective of passion       with        noun of passion      ."
    "Oh,        Hero's name      ,        period appropriate euphemistic verb for sexual act       me now."
    He        different period appropriate euphemistic verb for sexual act, past tense       her        adverb suggesting sexual prowess      ,        different adverb suggesting sexual prowess      , bringing her to a        period appropriate euphemistic noun for orgasm       before he        period appropriate euphemistic verb for orgasm, past tense       himself.

If I've inadvertently violated anyone's copyright, I apologize.  And to the nice folks at Penguin Group, parents of Mad Libs, I very much apologize for parodying your trademarked product.  Here's your widget so that people can play with the real thing (so to speak):

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Three Things

My apologies if I'm late to the "Well Duh" party, but here are three things I figured out recently.

I entered two contests at the beginning of the year.  I finaled in one and not in the other.  In total, six judges read the same 35 pages (or so) of Blackjack & Moonlight, plus synopsis.  Three judges loved it, two judges rated it "okay" or even "just meh," and one judge hated it.  (The scores, adjusted for a total of 100 points, were: 100, 95, 94, 91, 89, 58.)

Here's what I learned:  There is no objective truth in any of those scores.  No one's right, and no one's wrong.  That's what it means to have your work read by others.  Some may like it and some may not.

Which isn't to say there weren't some very articulate and credible concerns expressed by all the judges, and some things I feel comfortable opting to ignore.  That's my job in the process -- figure out which comments help me to improve my writing, and which do not.

What helped me to see this were comments by the two "meh" judges (so characterized because both of them answered the question, "Based on this excerpt would you want to read the rest of the book?" by saying no -- I take that to be the equivalent of "it was okay but it didn't grab me" or "meh").  They both had substantive comments about my writing in general and Blackjack & Moonlight specifically.  I could make the changes they recommend.  But if I did, it wouldn't be my book, my writing, my style, my emphasis -- it wouldn't be my work anymore.  Their comments were valid, they just weren't helpful.

There's "polishing" and then there's "homogenizing," meaning making all romance writing more consistent.  There's a spectrum here, as with a lot of things -- the truly different novel may not be publishable: see Theresa Stevens' recent post at RomanceU on this topic -- but does every novel have to be pushed through a sieve so that the resulting paste is completely uniform?  Of course not.

Is Blackjack & Moonlight perfect?  No.  Is it as good as it can or should be?  Of course not.  Is it meh?  Of course it is -- for some readers.  I personally love it.  And yes, I can see how someone can completely miss the point and think it horrible (I wrote about that here).

First thing I learned?  Everyone's opinion is an opinion.

Next up: Edits.

This is so flipping obvious that you really will scratch your head at my stupidity, but I'd just never connected the dots before.

When you're reading a book, you can't tell which sentences or paragraphs were added last.

Yup, that's it -- that's my big revelation.

Here's how I got there.  I belong to a writers' critique group with no other romance writers.  On Thursday night, I read another section of Blackjack & Moonlight, and then another writer read a section of her as-yet-untitled novel.  She's a wonderful writer, and some of her descriptions of her protagonist make the reader feel right there in the same room.

My work doesn't have enough of those touches yet, the bits that help the reader know what everything looks, sounds, feels like.  I plan on adding those in the final polish.

Still, I was just about to beat myself up for not being as good as this other writer when it hit me.  I know she needs to add more layers as she goes through rewrites, and some of the layers she needs are things I put in first.  Who cares in what order stuff goes in?  Not the reader...because the reader can't tell the order in which sentences were added to the final manuscript.

So I'm not beating myself up, and I don't feel like a failure.  (Today, at least, I don't.  That feeling makes semi-regular house calls, but that's a topic for another post.)

Final Duh! moment:  I have four plots with inter-related characters, so it's a series of sorts.  Turns out, Blackjack McIntyre is more or less the hub: one of his nieces falls in love in Book 1, a former colleague needs Jack's help in Book 2, Jack & Elise find their happiness in Book 3, and the other niece has her romance in Book 4.

I have a lot of ambivalence about the process of seeking commercial publication.  While I want to follow the guidelines we all know on how to pitch, how to query, what an agent does, what editors want, etc., I'm not convinced that commercial publishing will immediately warm to a series of single-title contemporary romances set in a fictional legal community in Philadelphia.  Maybe publishers will characterize them as "the Chicago Stars" only with "L.A. Law" characters instead of football players...or maybe they'll see my stories as just too different.

Here's the revelation:  All I can do is keep improving as a writer, pay attention to feedback, work on adding depth while keeping the stories unique to me, and then put them out there, best foot forward.  After four books, I'll have learned how to write what I want to write.

And if they haven't found a place in the rather iffy world of single-title contemporary romances, I'll self-publish.

(I know: not much of a rousing finish.  I did warn you.)

This is a huge weight off my shoulders.  I no longer have to assume that it will be my fault if I don't find an agent or a publisher.  After four books, I'll be a good enough writer.  What the market will have told me by rejecting all four is that commercial publishing doesn't think there's a big enough niche for my amorous attorneys.

Okay.  Then I can self-publish and find the smaller niche on my own.  By then, self-publishing will be even more ordinary and easy than it is now.  Other newcomer authors will have demonstrated how best to do one's own marketing and promotion.  And some method for reviewing self-published authors will have emerged.

I won't be alone, but I can still stand out.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TBR Challenge - The Melting Plot

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single aristocrat in possession of a fortune must be in danger of getting bumped off by his heir presumptive.

Here's why.  If it's plain Mr. Darcy, then he can will his fortune to whomever he cares to name as his heir.  But if it's an aristocrat, some portion of the estate is entailed...and thus the whole world knows who gets the entailed portions of the estate when the current titleholder dies.

Cornish cliff walk, made safe in modern times
So if you are Earl Bridgeport and things keep happening, like people slipping off the cliff path, carriage axles breaking under suspicious circumstances, or bits of the coping falling to the terrace just as you walk by...don't take the entire book to think, "Hmm, Cousin Harold is drowning in debt...d'you suppose he could be behind this?"

These wildly obvious attempts on his life fool no one except all the people in the book, although to her credit, our heroine, Mary Elaine Merriweather Thompson (all four names get used by the end) twigs to the ebil nature of the heir presumptive rather quicker than anyone else.  It only takes her witnessing four attempts before the penny drops.  The earl is unconvinced, although really I can't think why.

Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with the assignment for this month:  Marriage of convenience, arranged marriage or pretend engagement.  I got misled by the back cover copy on Allison Lane's The Earl's Revenge:
Elaine Thompson prayed she would never have to see the Earl of Bridgeport again.  She had been barely past girlhood when she fled a forced marriage to this libertine lord who had wanted a wife only to produce an heir...

Maybe I'm a numbskull, but I rather thought the wedding had taken place, even if not consummated when she ran away.  Alas, no.  She runs away on the morning of the wedding, leaving our rakish earl at the altar.  (She had her reasons.)

Antony House, a National Trust property in Cornwall
But this book still fits the general intent of the assignment.  Elaine is tied to Bridgeport whether she likes it or not.  She can't marry anyone else, which is no great loss from her perspective, and when he shows up on her doorstep through pure coincidence, she's acutely aware of him.  She ends up playing hostess at his Cornish estate Treselyan, which requires her to quit her cottage with her companion and move into the manor house.  She may not be his countess, but in every other respect they're behaving a lot like a marriage of convenience couple.  So I'm going to say I think the book meets the larger intent of this month's challenge.

Okay, so we have the murderous cousin.  We have a rakish hero who needs to reform.  We have his poor little virtual orphan daughter (because when Elaine left him at the altar he had to marry someone else who conveniently died giving birth to Lady Helen).  We have the mystery of how Elaine can support herself for eight years.  And we have a lot of poetry tags, meaning she quotes some poetry and he supplies the name of the poet and, often, the poem. Then they switch off, so she's the one supplying the tag.  They may not see a murderer when one wanders by, but they know their assonances from their elbows.

Short list of the poets, etc., our nearly-married-for-convenience couple quote:  Byron, Shelley, Keats, Pope, Thornton, Shakespeare, Sheridan, and the Bible.  (There were more, but I wasn't taking notes.)  Wait.  What's that?  You don't recognize Thornton?  Um, there's a good reason for that.  But having spoiled the murder mystery for you, I'll leave the uh, thorny question of our mystery poet alone.

With everything that's going on in the plot of The Earl's Revenge, there's only one question left:  Does it work?  Well, Allison Lane's writing is far better than most authors of romances set in early 19th century England, so on balance I would say yes.  It's a Signet Regency, so no sex, but her characters are fun enough.

I just wish she'd followed the literary equivalent of Coco Chanel's famous advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory, less is always more.”  Ms. Lane might have done better to remove one of her plot devices.  I'd have voted for omitting that hoary cliché: the murderous heir presumptive.  It's been done to death!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Hero: The Stalker

Here's something lovely about blogging as a writer:  I can tell you about Jack McIntyre, my hero.

He's a federal judge, a job he's held for two weeks when my story starts.  He's the youngest judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  Before that, he'd been the United States Attorney (i.e., the lead federal prosecutor), where he'd successfully prosecuted Dino "T-Rex" Reggiano for money laundering and RICO violations.

He's good-looking in the black hair & chiseled chin-mode of Superman, rich and single -- the kind of guy the glossy magazine "Philadelphia" would describe as an eligible bachelor.  He owns his own tuxedo, and looks damn fine in it.  He's a good cook and a considerate lover.  He's never been in love.

Got a mental image of this guy?  Good -- because if I can't get him across in a blog, I'm toast as a novelist.

In the novel, of course, telling is verboten.  I have to SHOW the reader all of this, and I have two and a half paragraphs, or less, in which to do that.  Two and a half paragraphs in his POV.

There's the rub: Jack's not a particularly conceited guy.  I can show the clothes sense, I can reference his age (because it's a liability in his mind), but he's not going to be thinking about his looks, let alone his success.

When Blackjack & Moonlight begins, Jack's still nervous about being a newly minted judge.  Now, I happen to know from clerking for a very experienced jurist, those nerves never entirely go away.  It's a pretty lonely job, sitting up above everyone, deciding stuff that -- if you get it wrong -- you won't know until a panel of three appellate judges tells you a year or more later.  Most judges have some awareness that any mistakes they make will have an immediate effect on the case before them -- so they work really hard not to make any mistakes.  Especially since the lawyers will behave as though everything the judge does is right.

First lesson for a lawyer in a courtroom:  no matter what, thank the judge.

Okay, back to Jack.  He's nervous about being a new judge, he walks out to the bench, starts the hearing, looks over at the lawyer for the defendant...and falls in love.  That's my heroine, Elise Carroll, he's looking at.  They've never met each other, but one look and he's convinced he's going to marry her.  That leads him to disqualify himself as the judge on the case, and when Elise demands to know why, Jack announces that he's in love with her.

Do I personally believe in love at first sight?  It's not actually happened to me, so I don't know.  What I believe is that some people think they've fallen for someone and when that relationship works out and the story is told later, it's called "love at first sight."  I figure if the relationship doesn't work out, the feeling fades and is forgotten.  No one ever says, "I fell in love at first sight but s/he was a jerk..."

I've submitted Blackjack & Moonlight in two contests and I've read the first ten pages to my (non-romance) writers' critique group.  The first chapter (which you can read here) has generated some interesting comments, of which my favorite is that Jack is a stalker.

You may think, "That's crazy."  (I would agree.)  But that's because I told you about him.  In the show-don't-tell version, a reader could see that he's a judge and immediately load in a lot of presumptions about judges.  They're all-powerful, they're deliberate and decisive, they're arrogant.

If an all-powerful, arrogant guy takes advantage of his position of power to hit on a woman, and then follows that up with a lot of phone can get to the label "stalker" pretty quickly.

Other misconceptions by readers:  Jack's a sex-fiend, Elise is spineless, she doesn't get angry at his presumption (that one made me laugh -- I exhausted the thesaurus entry for "angry" describing Elise's reaction to Jack's announcement!), and that oldie-but-goodie: there's not enough conflict.

My take-away from all this is two-fold.  One, some comments reflect my failure to convey my characters thoroughly enough to avoid confusion but other comments reflect the reader's inclination to read into my story stuff that's not there.  Two, I should pay attention to the first sort of comments, and ignore the second.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Joys of Sin (or Synergy)

I have a confession to make.

I've been cheating on you, Promantica.  Yes, I'm busy with my WIP, and yes, I'm traveling a lot, and yes, I'm even making another quilt.  They all help to explain why my posts have dwindled to a trickle.

But I also have another blog.  One that I post to twice a week.  Oh yeah.  It's been a long time since you saw twice-a-week action, Promantica.

The "other blog" is actually my husband's blog on crossword puzzles.  He used to write daily about the New York Times crossword; he claimed it helped him to figure out all the American sports terms and pop culture references.  But after two years he felt he'd learned enough to discontinue the daily posts.  In the meantime, I'd taken over the posts on NPR's  Sunday puzzle, and didn't feel like stopping those even though Ross was done discussing the crossword.

So it's his blog, but I'm the one who posts there?  What can I say -- they're easy and fun posts to do, and involve lots of pictures and not so many words.  Plus, I get to tease Will Shortz.

There's a small cadre of regulars who comment and try to guess how many entries NPR will get each week for the puzzle.  (We give out a puzzle book when someone guesses the correct range.)

In fact, one of the regulars is a guy -- Dave Taube -- who's been the on-air contestant and twice gotten a puzzle selected by Will Shortz.

And it's Dave who's totally saving my bacon with my WIP, in which my characters have left the familiar confines of Philadelphia and ended up on the West Coast.

My heroine's mother had a heart attack two chapters ago, so Elise has rushed to Eugene, Oregon, to be by her mother's bedside.  (Peggy survives, btw.  Not a spoiler, just reassuring you.)  Don't ask me why I picked Eugene -- it seemed smaller and thus more accessible than Portland, while a bit more hip than Medford.

I suspect I picked Eugene because subconsciously I knew Dave lives there.  Dave's been a generous and wonderful source of information about Eugene's culture and community.  The portion of my novel that takes place in Eugene will seem just a bit more accurate thanks to Dave's help.

Now I understand those heartfelt Acknowledgement sections at the beginning of certain novels.  Because of Dave, I know where to have my protagonists lunch at the Saturday Market (where these guitars can be purchased) and I can have Elise refer to the hospital as "RiverBend" just like a local would, even though "RiverBend" isn't in the actual hospital's name.  How cool is that?

I'm afraid that's all the result of my adulterous relationship with another blog.  The wages of sin?  Hah - I feel rewarded for cheating: that's synergy at work.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In Defense of the Know-It-All

I recently had to read an excerpt of something (an unpublished something, I hasten to add) that had two characters and three points-of-view.  Most of the scene was in the older detective's POV, a sentence or two was in the younger detective's POV, and in two places I got the omniscient narrator.  Wow, I thought -- you don't see many of them around any more.

The omniscient narrator is your parent reading you a bedtime story:  "Once upon a time..."  It's a kindly, compassionate soul with no role of his (or her) own in the story, but with the ability to see everything that's going on, and the wisdom to know which bits you -- the reader -- need and want to know.

It's also almost universally decried in romance novels these days.  Avoriana, over at The Indigo Menace, didn't finish a Joan Wolf Regency, The London Season, because, "The tone was like a fable or Roald Dahl."  Now I'll have to reread The London Season to see if what Avoriana means is that the book was written with an omniscient narrator.  (Incidentally, it could be she was talking about something totally different.  I'm just guessing here.)

I recently loaned my copy of Mira Stables' Lissa to Janet W., who didn't like it much and dutifully sent it back.  I must not have felt very tidy last week because it was still lying around when I was snatching up books for a trip.  So I reread it.  It's one of the best examples of the omniscient narrator I can imagine, mostly because Stables was clearly committed to maintaining that measured distance from all the characters.  She describes precisely what's happening and, in the same careful voice, what everyone's feeling.

Yes, that narrative distance blunts the emotional force of the book.  In a conventional romance, it would seem stuffy and old-fashioned.  But in a Regency romance -- particularly one with a plot that requires some suspension of disbelief -- it's perfect.  With the currently popular deep POV, Lissa would have seemed implausible and overwrought.

Here's the plot:  Lissa Wayburn is the foster-daughter of a middle-class widow in a village.  Everyone knows that Lissa's different and they assume that she's the base-born daughter of a member of the nobility.  She's 16 when the book starts; ready to go into service.  But she's not quite right to be a parlor maid and soon enough she's back on her foster mother's doorstep.

Our hero is Jervase, Viscount Stapleford, heir to the marquisate of Wrelf.  The current marquis is Jervase's grandfather, and as the book starts, he's tearing into Jervase for a regrettable taste in politics (all that republican nonsense from the Colonies and the Continent) and women.  Jervase accepts his punishment: banishment to Stapleford Place, where his sister, Lady Mary, is currently immured.

Lady Mary is a bit younger than Lissa, but the association seems to improve Mary's mood so much that Jervase encourages it and even engages Lissa as a companion for his sister.

Here's where the omniscient narrator becomes extremely useful.  We trust the storytelling, which means we believe what we're told about the characters.  Lissa is painfully good.  Not priggish but actually a good person, one who wants to help and feels quite acutely the risk that her presence could hurt the viscount.  In deep POV, she'd be intolerable -- not to mention unbelievable.  But she makes the perfect heroine for a fairy tale.

Our know-it-all narrator also helps out with the rather complicated plot, most of which happened before the book begins and is explained at the end.  What's between the covers is actually fairly simple:  Boy meets girl, feels kindly towards her, wants to help her out, in the course of which he falls in love.  Girl meets boy, has a crush on him, sees that perhaps her situation might hurt him, and worries what to do.  Boy can't marry girl without upsetting his grandfather; girl can't dishonor her foster mother by accepting a carte blanche.

Of course, by the end of the book it will be revealed that Lissa isn't a nobleman's by-blow.  Again, in deep POV the explanation would be ludicrous.  But the mellow certainty of our kindly narrator ensures our trust.

In the end, I would argue that we have a charming love story.  Angsty?  Not especially -- emotional fervency is lost or blunted with omniscient narration.  But for a story like this, a story where all the characters are different from each other and from us, the omniscient narrator does a nice job indeed of telling us what happened once upon a time.