Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tantalus and the Kindle

Tantalus's punishment, now a proverbial term for temptation without satisfaction, was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any.

When I imagine Tantalus standing in his pool of cool, clear water, it's azure.  And the fruit is ripe and perfect: red apples, amethyst grapes, sun-sweetened peaches.  But when he goes to eat or drink, not only do the branches evade his reach and the water soak away, but all the color leaches out of his world.  In other words, even the visual delight is denied him.

That's how I feel sometimes about my Kindle.  I love it, although not to the exclusion of bound books, but sometimes it feels like the reading equivalent of being tantalized.

I have tons of books on there, many (most?) unread.  But unlike my TBR shelves, I don't get the visual cues from my Kindle books as I do from paper.

Part of it is not having the cover art, although honestly that's not a pet peeve I choose to rant about.  Part of it is not being able to refer to the cover copy, although I do understand that I can access it as long as I'm in range of a wifi network.  (I don't have the 3G device.)

But most of it is the sheer grayness of what's on the Kindle.

I love the E-Ink technology, and I don't yearn for color in the visual display.

I yearn for color in the books themselves, in their words, their characters, their plots.  I want to start reading a book and lose myself in that author's world, see what she sees in depth and focus.  I want to taste all that yummy fruit, not chew on cardboard.

Recently, everything on the Kindle that I opened and started tasted like cardboard.  Finally someone recommended Shannon Stacey's Yours to Keep.  Not a perfect book, but cute, like a particularly lovely sundress on a pretty TV pitchwoman.  Definitely candy for the eyes -- the book, by the way, not the TV pitchwoman.

In Yours to Keep, Emma needs a guy to play her fiancé.  Actually, she's already cast the role -- she needs that specific guy, Sean Kowalski, to agree to a month-long run as the fake fiancé.  Her motives are pure, and conveniently, if implausibly, there's a sofa in her bedroom, so Sean figures yeah, okay, sure, why not.

Before long, they are sleeping together, but pretending not to be sleeping together for the benefit of those who knew that all along they're supposed to be pretending to be engaged (and pretending to be sleeping together) to keep her grandmother from worrying.  Only Gram isn't as stupid as she looks.  She sees through the entire charade immediately but figures she won't reveal that she knows so that Emma & her fake fiancé can explore the possibility that they're perfect for each other.

(My only quibble -- as someone already well into her fifties -- was the idea that Gram would be so retired at age 65.  Not been my experience of the people I know in their late sixties.  Oh, Gram was spry enough physically, but she seemed to think she was old.  And she wasn't.  That characterization of a 65-year-old told me a lot about how old Shannon Stacey might be...)

Look, it's an amuse-bouche of a book, but it's yummy and fluffy and perfect for a lazy summer read.  It will dissolve as fast as you read it.  It's cotton candy.  Best of all: it's pink, not gray.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

RWA National - Take Two

I've gotten to the "this time next week..." stage of anticipation about RWA National, held this year in New York City.  Not yet freaked out by everything I have to do (ironing and packing - oy vey!), but well aware that it's right around the corner.  A corner I can see from here.

I'm excited, and nervous of course.  I understand now that last year's National was a dress rehearsal, a chance for me to make ALL the mistakes when it didn't matter so much.

I did make those mistakes -- which I won't itemize here, just trust me that Mistakes Were Made -- and I learned from them.  I will try really hard not to make them again.  Because it matters a lot more this year, when I have a real book (a book that's finished and, more importantly, is pretty good) to pitch.

The challenge this year will be to socialize a lot more, meet more people, get together with the people I've known for years (Hi, Sharyn!), and all the people I've gotten to know online since last year's National.  That sounds easy, but for all that I come across as confident and self-assured, I'm not.  Especially with people I've only just met.  I worry I'm too loud, talking too much, talking too little, coming across as arrogant or just plain boring.  I'm convinced people don't like me.

That's not an invitation to assure me you like me.  I actually know at some level that most people like me well enough.  Some people don't, which is fine, and some people like me a lot, which is nice.

You know where this is going, don't you?  It's all about self-acceptance.  I'm the only person who has to think I'm speaking in a soft enough voice, not monopolizing the conversation, not showing off.  Part of that is to actually not do those things (duh) but the harder part is to reassure myself that I'm not doing those things...and then let it go.

That goes for my writing.  What's the flaw in the space-time continuum that makes us LOVE our bad first books (to the point of volitional blindness) but doubt our undeniably better second books?  (Or is that just me?)  There is a silver-lining to this phenomenon:  it means I'm more open to criticism of work that will actually benefit from it.

So I go next week to be with friends, make new friends, introduce myself to people who may be able to help my writing career, and tell a few professionals about Blackjack & Moonlight.  It's not yet the "other convention" that Emily Bryan (now writing as Mia Marlowe) wrote about last year -- the convention that you attend after you've gotten "the call" -- but it's not the head-down, one workshop after another, convention that I attended last year.

Last year, I went to National as a wannabe writer.  I'll go this year as a wannabe author.  I'm hoping next year to go to the post-"the call" convention.  I don't mind that I don't get to go to that this year -- among other things, I think there's that much more schmoozing involved.  Like my writing, my schmoozing skills are improving, but they're not ready for the big time.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

TBR Challenge: It Took Two Books This Month

Let me tell you three things about the first book I started for this month's TBR Challenge:
  1. It opened with our spunky heroine grudgingly heading back to the quirky small town of her youth.  She's speeding along the highway when she's stopped by the hero, aka small town cop, who needles her and writes her a ticket.  Sound familiar?  I'm pretty sure at least two other contemporary romances (by other authors) that have nearly identical set-ups.
  2. After a slow-paced and derivative opening, the book mellowed into a pleasant enough romance between our protagonists.  I liked them okay, the straight-arrow cop and the feisty, can't-wait-to-get-out-of-this-podunk-town Big City Career Girl, but a couple things bothered me.  First, how could BCCG get 6+ weeks of (paid?) leave off from her job?  And actually, how could she even be any good at her job?  I mean, yeah, sure, I get it, who cares about the job because she's going to be staying in Podunksville with the hero, but still...?
  3. It's too damned long.  I stalled out at page 241/372, mostly because I felt the story really only warranted 60,000 words, not 100,000.  I didn't care about the subplots, and the microscopically small mystery in someone's backstory just sat there, like a Troll doll, not doing anything unless someone played with its bright pink hair.
Okay, as I DNF'd it, I can't count that book for this month's challenge.  Luckily, Karen Templeton's Swept Away had just arrived in the mail. It had gotten a great review over at All About Romance, and it's a contemporary, so why not?

Here's why this one gets identified by name and author and its predecessor does not:  Templeton admires her characters, and so I did too.  Not sure if the first author admires her characters, but I didn't.  Oh, they were pleasant enough, but not particularly competent.  I like characters who know how to do something, even if the something they know how to do is just getting from place A to place B in life.

In Swept Away, the hero, Sam, is a farmer in Southeast Oklahoma.  He's a widower with six kids, so not at all the type Carly, a thirtysomething former ballerina, would go for.  But he's a great guy - steadfast, hardworking without being stressed out, and very patient with his children, even the only girl, Libby.

Libby's this close to being 15, so we have the eye-rolling attitude and raging hormones, but that's not the part of Libby's personality that Carly identifies with.  It's Libby's patent uncertainty that grabs Carly's heart and twists hard.  Carly remembers covering up her own insecurities with bravado and a "you can't make me" confrontational style.  She would really like to help Libby find a better path than the one Carly took.

Carly has no desire to be a mother, and Sam's kids terrify her.  But Libby needs a woman as a sounding board; her mother died before Libby became a teenager.  And Carly's own experience with adolescence qualifies her to help Libby out.

Carly just doesn't know that she's qualified.  She also doesn't think she's the right person for Sam, or that Haven, Oklahoma is the right town for her and her recently-widowed dad to settle in.  Carly rather falls backwards into her future, which should make her seem wifty and less than competent, but that's not how she comes across.  She comes across as someone trying hard to get it right and even harder not to get it wrong.

There's a smoke-and-mirrors quality to Swept Away, a sense that none of the story should work even as it all does.  It should feel like a molasses read as Sam and Carly fall very, very slowly for each other -- they don't even kiss until page 177 (about 3/4 of the way in) -- but this is anything but a boring book.  In fact, it's dense with stuff.  Character, I think, but I'm honestly not sure.  Maybe it's Templeton's knack at conveying a sense of place.  To twist Gertrude Stein around, there's a lot of there there.

I just know I liked the people, the story, the book and Templeton's writing.  Best recommendation possible:  I finished it wanting to read Templeton's backlist.

Finished with three minutes left to make this TBR Challenge post legal!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Postscript - What Dhympna Said

Dhympna made a comment about how you will see covers for new books that look exactly like existing bestsellers.  No news there.

In a tiny bit of Twitter synchronicity, look what Miranda Neville just called to my attention:

Manda Collins has a book coming with this cover:

Very nice.  Look familiar?  How about this cover:

You could tell me that those were from the exact same photo shoot and I wouldn't disbelieve you.  (Although I think Ms. Collins gets an added fillip of contemporaneous zeitgeist as her cover model looks like Pippa Middleton in her maid-of-honor gown.)

That different books have the same art work is not news, of course.  Check out other examples here, here, and here.

But what makes this interesting is the timing of it all.  Thanks, Dhympna and Miranda Neville, for reminding me how publishers work: unsubtly.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Romances Are Marketed Like Food, Not Fiction

Quick: What sort of romance novels are these?

See?  I don't even have to give you the answers.  We're trained to recognize the sub-genres literally by eye.

Okay, what's the plot/style/genre of this book:

You can click on any of these covers to see what the actual book is, but I'm guessing you will only need to click on that last one to see what the book is about.  The rest of them, you know already.

Romance novels are designed to look immediately familiar and obvious.  No subtlety, no cross-marketing, no ambiguity as to the genre, sub-genre, publisher (in the case of Harlequin Enterprises lines), even plot line.

Next time you're in the supermarket, try this little experiment.  Go to the paperback book aisle, then go to the snacks aisle.

How much reading of the labels would you have to do to pick out the style of snack you wanted?  Not much.

Same thing in the book aisle.  And yes, this holds true to some extent with other popular fiction genres, but there the author's name can be very important.  You might know it's a thriller but you might not buy it unless you see Harlan Coben's name on it.

Did you need to know the authors of any of the romance covers above?  We're not being trained to look for any authors past a very small handful of famous names.  And even with the famous authors you get both cues:  Eloisa James's name is in large type, but the cover art still features the now-iconic backless ballgown suggesting a historical romance with some sex.

Finally, if you want to know why I picked that specific unidentifiable book, it's because it's got a claim to be considered a romance (HEAs!) and I wrote about it here.  But it sure isn't being marketed as a romance, is it?

As an added bonus: our old favorite, the YouTube clip showing how tight the constraints are on cover design for urban fantasy/paranormal romances:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Books to Read When You're In a Cranky Mood

I'm in a cranky mood, and I'm reading one of a variety of books suitable for just such an occasion.  I happen to be reading a #3, but as you'll see, I had a lot of choices.
  1. The comfort read.  You know what I mean -- the book you love so much it can't help but cheer you up.  Advantages: It's familiar and soothing.  Disadvantages: Your cranky mood could ruin even the sunniest comfort read or, worse, the book could actually cheer you up.  (Some cranky moods really deserve respect.)  Likely caption:  "Ahhh."
  2. The completely new-to-you genre.  More of a distraction, like when you utter nonsense to a tantrum-y toddler and he has to stop screaming to assimilate this new datum.  Advantages: Who cares if you hate it? You can always blame your reaction on your cranky mood. Disadvantages:  It could make the cranky mood worse: where before you had independent reasons for being cranky, now you have new, genre-specific reasons for über-crankiness.  Likely caption:  "People actually like this crap?"
  3. The high-concept book that everyone is (or was, if it's been in your TBR for a while) raving about.  It's quirky and different, with world-building and odd dialogue and complicated backstories for all the characters.  You can hate it with impunity, thus cementing your status as the naysayer, the cranky reader who, like Mikey, hates everything.  Advantages:  You didn't really want to like it.  Disadvantages:  You'll alienate all the die-hard fans who swooned over the dreamy other-worldly hero.  Likely caption:  "I really have to stop buying books just because everyone else loved them."
  4. That book you started months (years?) ago and couldn't bring yourself to finish but didn't hate enough to declare it a DNF.  Advantages: Either you finish it ("yay") or you officially slap the DNF sticker on it ("double yay").  Win-win!  Disadvantages:  You read six more pages and toss the book to the side in disgust because its banality is no match for your cranky mood.  It's not a bad book, just too wimpy for this situation.  Likely caption:  "Can I be bothered to skim the bits I've already read but forgotten?"
  5. An anthology.  Multiple authors means more targets for the arrows in your cranky quiver!  Advantages:  There's probably a short story in there you like and one you hate and a third somewhere in-between.  That means if you want to feed the crankiness, there's fodder in there, but if you find you're ready to cheer up, there may be a gem among the stories.  Disadvantages:  More pages means more time wasted finding whichever story best fits your mood.  Likely caption:  "You ever notice how there's one famous author, one author who sounds familiar, and a complete nobody?"
  6. A book by a "frenemy," i.e., an author you know in person or online whom you don't particularly like but don't dare say anything bad about.  Even if her writing is sheer bliss, you'll be able to fold your feelings for her into your preexisting crankiness.  Advantages:  Next time you see her (on Twitter or in real life), you'll be able to say truthfully that you read her book and it perfectly matched your mood.  Disadvantages:  You still won't be able to sell the book to a used book store or on Amazon given that it's signed by the author.  Likely caption:  "See?  I just knew her work wasn't as good as everyone says."
  7. A book beloved by your best friend.  You know you're going to hate it, you've insisted to her that you're going to hate it, but she so loves this book ("the vampires wear kilts!") she won't take no for an answer.  Advantages:  You'll hate it, but you'll have an excuse: "Sweetie, I tried.  I must have been in a bad mood."  Disadvantages:  She makes you give it another chance, insisting that it's actually better upon re-reading.  Likely caption:  "What the hell was she smoking when she fell in love with this dreck?  `Cause whatever it was, I want some."
  8. The best selling author's latest effort.  You knew it was going to be wildly sub-par for this particular author but out of loyalty you just felt you had to buy it.  Advantages:  With any luck, you won't ever need to buy another of her books -- or at least not in hardcover (or digital but with the elevated agency price tag).  Disadvantages:  It could actually make your cranky mood much worse.  Likely caption:  "She used to be so good!"
Damn.  I've managed to cheer myself up.  I hate when that happens.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I Don't Like Martyrs

I really don't like martyrs.

I recently read a classic Mary Balogh (I won't mention which one because I want to discuss the ending, but you can email me [Magdalen (at)] if you just have to know the title) where there were two things keeping the hero and heroine apart: a rather flimsy confusion about what "in love" means and the fact that he had a commitment to another female.

This is a Regency romance, so the commitment was rather of the "I've spoken to her father about possibly at a later date seeking his permission to approach her on the question of whether she might like to marry me" combined with "my mother and her grandparents are certain it will be a great match."  Which is hardly grounds for a breach of contract suit, but that's not the point.

The point is that the young woman in question Has Expectations and if the hero reneges on those Expectations, he will be a cad and she might be heartbroken.  So the fact that he's wildly attracted to, and might be in love with, another woman is irrelevant.

I could discuss whether it's ever a good idea to marry a woman when you love another, but that's actually a morally debatable matter and much more subtle than the pretty obvious point I want to make here.  But if you're interested in that subtler issue, I recommend Pamela Morsi's The Bikini Car Wash, which has a nice subplot on this topic.

Here's what irked me about the Mary Balogh book -- the hero and heroine couldn't be together until the young woman to whom the hero had an attenuated commitment was safely paired off with her convenient secret love.  The whole business was absurd to the point of lunacy: Young Woman just happens to have feelings for her second cousin who just happens to be the Heir Presumptive to her maternal grandfather's title and estate and who just happens to have feelings for Young Woman.  Seriously?  In any rational scenario, the grandparents would have had these two married off as soon as Young Woman was of age.  (Downton Abbey, anyone?)

But because these poor secondary characters have to keep our hero and heroine apart by any means possible, the entire denouement takes FOREVER and strains credulity to a breaking point.

Whew!  Glad I got that off my chest.

I don't understand the compulsion for authors to ensure that every "other woman" short of a true villainess is happily paired off by the end of the book.

Betty Neels often let her heroes make the mistake of assuming that they had to marry someone, and that beanpole female wearing an orange lamé jumpsuit that's cut too low to suit her flat bosom seemed just the ticket.  These engagements, as well as indicting the hero's intelligence, could only end with the Veronica (the The Uncrushable Jersey Dress name for the generic other woman, as per Archie Comics) happily paired off with some distasteful academic or rich American.  (Exceptions were made where a specific Veronica had attempted a felony, such as engineering an accident to befall the heroine...those Veronicas could be banished sans happy ending.)

I doubt authors do this because they love all their female characters equally.  In the Mary Balogh, the Young Woman is a bit of a wet blanket, mopey and not fun to be around.  Betty Neels' Veronicas are universally unpleasant, either thoughtlessly or purposefully rude to the heroine.

At least in the Mary Balogh romance, the hero has a cultural expectation of being faithful to Young Woman although it wouldn't have been hard for him to suggest to YW's grandfather that now that they'd spent some time together maybe YW would be happier with ... that Heir Apparent standing over there!  Betty Neels' heroes are often actually engaged to the Veronica, but modern-day engagements can be broken rather more easily.  Still, each of her heroes seems to wait until some other guy shows up to take the Veronica off his hands.

Here's my rhetorical question:  Why can't these books conclude with a mildly disappointed Other Woman at the end?

In real life, there's an alchemy to romance that can allow for person A to dump B, a perfectly lovely person, for C, a similarly lovely person simply because the A+C romance is "better" than the A+B romance was.  We feel for B, who did nothing wrong, and maybe it even sours us to the resulting A+C romance.  (Woody Allen, anyone?)

But in romance novels with a Hero-Heroine-Veronica triangle there's always a contrast between the nicer, funnier, more compassionate Heroine and the Veronica.  As readers, we see why Hero prefers Heroine; it's really no contest.  Our sympathies aren't engaged by the Veronica, not the way they are by the Heroine.

Plus, doesn't this equation:  A-B  B+D  A+C rather insult the intelligence, grace, and independence of B?  Balogh's Young Woman wasn't stupid.  She could have sorted her own life out on her own, and as no official announcement had been made, she didn't even have to pretend she was the one who ended the not-quite-an-engagement.  Neels' Veronicas are so unpleasant that we really don't care about them, but as they managed to get their hooks into the hero, they can presumably replicate that result with some other guy.

Finally, the aspect of these triangular plots that I find the most distasteful is the lengths to which the hero will go to honor a bad or misguided arrangement with the Other Woman.  Mary Balogh's hero seemed perfectly prepared to walk down the aisle with Young Woman -- all because his mother and her grandparents thought it would be a good idea?  Lunacy.  The Neels heroes -- well, they play their cards close to their vests so who knows for sure but in several books it certainly appears as though the hero might well marry the Veronica just because.  In other words, they're willing to martyr themselves.

I hate martyrs.