Sunday, October 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can never read the same book twice.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Paranormal Superheroes in Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Readable Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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

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

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

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

Go ahead.  I'll wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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