Friday, December 26, 2008

Dear Santa,

Thanks again for a great year in books. You really came through for us historical lovers with some really wonderful authors who are doing a fantastic job of rejuvenating the genre.
Please keep up the good work and add a couple of new authors, because it isn’t fair to ask Sherry Thomas, Elizabeth Hoyt and Joanna Bourne to write three amazing books a year.
One will do, if we have a couple more authors.

I’m going to second Molly’s wish for some great contemporary romances. Humour, no humour, I’ll take them any way I can get them.

And not to be too greedy, but a great last ten episodes to Battlestar would be fantastic and thanks for getting us a third season of Friday Night Lights. Is asking for a fourth being way too greedy?

More great movies would be also really nice. A third sequel to the Batman franchise that actually lives up the magic that is the Dark Knight would make my year. Another Wall E and Slumdog Millionaire perhaps?

And lastly, and this is me being really greedy. A burst of inspiration for the current WIP.. It can’t hurt to ask, and it would really help me out.

And that’s it. Hope you had a great Christmas and I know this letter is reaching you late but keep me in mind for Christmas 2009.

Drunk Writer Sinead

Monday, December 22, 2008

Drunk Letters to Santa

Over at All About Romance they're writing Santa letters. And I thought this was such a good idea and the letters that I read were so totally in sync with how I feel about the genre right now - that I am going to start Drunk Letters To Santa.

Hey Santa! I've got a great idea - this year let's get some really good books sold and out into the bookstores. You did a great job in 2008 - you really did, but lets keep the good thing going. Let's see some different books, exciting books. Russian mobsters and hungarian princesses would be fun. Let's stop glutting the market with books from authors who are barely even phoning it in - they're text messaging it in. Let's reward authors pushing the envelopes with fantastic covers that will draw readers in across genres. Marjorie M. Liu has suffered enough with her covers. Let's give Elizabeth Hoyt more time to write really good books, instead of rushing her into these so-so ones. Let's make Madeline Hunter go back to her brilliant unusual historicals. Let's make Laura Kinsale write again. And please Dear Santa - could you light a fire under Susan Elizabeth Phillips?

Also, please get editors and agents excited about contemporary romance again. The straight stuff. No vampires, no dead bodies. Characters working their crap out...with a great cover.

Oh! And lead me to those great new books - across all genres. Across category and ebooks - all of it. Get Rudolph to light those puppies up so we can all see them and buy them and love them.

And lastly, but not leastly - a million dollars. Thanks. Drunk Writer Molly

Friday, December 19, 2008

Doom and Gloom

It’s Friday and close to Christmas and everything in the media is gloomy. Right now, the economic outlook is anything but rosy, so in response, people have radically cut back in their spending, which again, makes the outlook even gloomier.

Publishers are cutting back - people, lines, authors, salary freezes, bookstores will buy less for 2009. Sales forecasts will be reduced, which means bookstores will buy safe, bestselling authors, known commodities.

It’s how I’m reacting in a different retail field.

I read a report in the paper today that over the next two years, the effect on business will be Darwinian. The strong will survive.

Depressed yet?

What will come of it? Recessions are cyclical. They last a couple of years, and then we see growth again. Out of that growth come changes to the way things have happened. It may result in changes to the way publishers operate. Whether the returns system changes, or adapts, how they buy new authors might change.

But the people who love to read will always love to read. And they’ll want new, exciting things, especially as the economy starts to improve. Perhaps this obsession with celebrities that has been such a fixture in our lives will reduce, as people go back to basics over the next two years. We might see a reduction in the number of Joe the Plumper stupid advances.

I know my retail strategy over the next year is a combination of core basics, the comfort buy and the new, exciting items that the customer might not have. So even in the next two years, there still might be room for new authors who bring to the table something new and exciting, something different.

I hope so.

But in the end, it’s impossible to predict.

But for Christmas, my friends and family are getting books as gifts.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To Return or not To Return

There have been many recent calls for reform in the publishing industry and one currently popular suggestion is to eliminate the consignment system. (The system where booksellers can return any unsold books back to the publishers for credit.) In fact Borders has agreed to a deal with one imprint (Harper Studio) to accept books with no right of return, but they are buying the books at a deep, deep discount. (And I'm quite sure this discount will be pushed down to the writers and decrease their royalties. In fact, my quick google search reminded me this is the same imprint that announced it was no longer paying advances to authors...)

I'm not enough of an industry insider to pretend I can predict what will happen if the consignment system is eliminated in publishing... But I do know business, and I do think it might not be as great for authors and agents and editors as many seem to think it will be. So, I'd like to present the contrarian case. Ahem. **Maureen clears her throat and braces for rotten tomatoes.**

Yes, the consignment system is antiquated. It's true that these days very few products are still sold on consignment. But the ones that are (music, books, art, designer fashion) are in areas where the items are not only discretionary (luxuries) they're in areas where it's more difficult to predict what consumers will buy and therefore the seller (publisher in this case) agrees to accept a lot of the risk along with the retailer (book store). (It might interest people to know that many high end items in department stores, e.g. designer clothes and bags and shoes, are also often on consignment or even further, the designer is actually renting a small space in the store and giving the store a cut of the sales price when/if items are sold. Seamless to the consumer, but the retailer is NOT taking all the risk that Dolce and Gabanna will be a big hit with their new line, or that all those pairs of thousand dollar Manolos will sell.)

Yes, consignment hurts publishers and authors. (Because they're taking most of the risk.) From the publishers' stand point, the consignment system makes cash flow planning tough, if not impossible, because they never know when books are going to come sailing back in the door for credit. From what I've read, this hit a record in October with returns far exceeding new orders and caused a huge panic.

And trickling down, the consignment system sucks for authors, because the publishers have all the power in that relationship, and to guard against paying authors royalties on books that then get returned, they maximize reserves on returns and make royalty statements difficult to understand to hide what they're doing. And take as long, as they possibly can justify, to pay authors their royalties.

But... I fear that bookstores will change A LOT if this system goes. Will it be better for authors? I'm not so sure.

If I were a bookseller, and I couldn't return the books I ordered to sit on my shelves, I'd be WAY more conservative about how many and which books I carried. I'd buy fewer titles and fewer copies of those fewer titles. And I'd stick mostly to the already proven best-selling authors, and cook books, and celebrity tell-alls, and picture books with kittens and puppies.

Bookstores, where one can browse and discover new authors, might become a thing of the past. (But maybe few readers do this anyway? Maybe most readers only ever buy books they find on the front tables?)

This conservatism will trickle down. If consignment goes, publishers will get way more conservative about the choices they make. (As if they weren't conservative enough already!) If aspiring authors are finding it hard to get a publisher to take a risk on them now, imagine if the publishers aren't sure whether ANY bookstores will stock a debut author's book once they've spent money on an advance, artwork,design, editing, printing, etc.. Right now, the big houses can be fairly assured that the big chains (at least) will take a few copies of every new title.

But even though I've been arguing the contrarian case here, clearly the current system's broken. Cash flow aside, it's a horrible environmental problem, with tons of books being published and shipped that are subsequently trashed.

I think until print-on-demand (printed and bound at the book stores) and/or digital books are more viable and popular formats than they are now... authors (especially debut and mid-list authors) might have a rude awakening if the industry gets rid of the consignment system. (And I really do worry about copyright infringement in the digital world. I think it will be worse for authors than musicians. We can't make money writing (or even reading) our books live at big stadium concerts or in bars, now can we? Many otherwise-honest people I know don't balk at illegal downloads of music and movies and TV shows. Why would books be any different? But that's veering off into a whole other topic. So I'll save that for another day.)

I know I'm going against the grain here... What do you think? Should the return system in publishing be dumped?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Everything Changes in Execution

So, we're trying this whole-work-stuff-out-ahead-of-time process. Sinead and Maureen have both had to do big rewrites and I'm sure I'm staring down a big rewrite in about three weeks time. Another member of our critique group is going to be starting her current WIP almost from scratch despite having already done a big synopsis. A synopsis we all read. A synopsis that sounded really good.

But this is what I realized - everything changes in execution. Conflict that fills up a synopsis, might not fill up a manuscript. Characters holding down plot in a synopsis aren't weighty enough in the pages. They need to change and grow and that starts to effect more than what was planned. Fantastic lightening bolts hit us in the shower and we tweak something while writing that has a gigantic butterfly effect in chapter 20 that we don't see until we get to chapter 20.

The problem with writing these big opus synopsis is that we think all the blood, sweat and tears we put into them are all the blood sweat and tears we're going to need. But writing is like my dog -- she never gets tired of pats and scratches and playing catch. The more I pat and scratch and throw a ball -- the more she needs. Which is why I hate my dog. And it's sort of why I hate writing - those days that I hate it -- it's so damn hard.

But I think what these big mighty synopsis do is they allow us to make changes that make the book not simply better - but bigger. Broader. It allows us to execute more fully our design for the book. It does a better job of matching what's on the page to the kind of book we want to write. So, this is my new change -- my new plan -- I'm going to gleefully accept these changes. I am going to expect them and then embrace them, like our critique group member did tonight -- because it makes the books better and it makes us better as writers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Clue

How do I keep missing Wednesday? The sad thing is that Wed is also garbage day for me, so there are worse implications than missing my DWT blog day -- well smellier implications, anyway.

The NYT opinion piece, "Typing Without a Clue", by Timothy Egan has generated a lot of discussion on writers' loops and forums this week.

I've been reading these discussions with interest, but have stayed out of them. Partly because I was trying to decide how I really felt about it, and partly because I'm finally learning to keep my mouth shut occasionally. But clearly I haven't really learned, since I've decided to blog about it here.

First, I loved, loved, loved Timothy Egan's rant. But that's what it was. A rant.

Mr. Egan's ire was directed at publishers giving huge advances to the likes of "Joe the Plumber", especially at a time when publishing houses are cutting back on acquisitions and/or advances to actual writers.

I feel Mr. Egan's pain. (And that of the many writers who've agreed with his piece.) But celebrity book deals have never really bothered me. To me, they don't have anything to do with what I'm doing, so why should I care? Yes, they are produced and distributed by the same companies as I'm targeting with my work, but they are such a different product I don't see what they have to do with what I do.

The line blurs when celebrities write fiction... but even then, those celebrities have something I simply can't offer a publisher -- fame and a ready-made audience. So I can't really blame a publisher for choosing a celebrity's book over mine, even if I think my book is better. (And I'm someone who got rejections citing a celebrity's wife's book with a similar premise to mine... One that's now a TV series... I could be bitter about that. But I'm not. It's just a bummer. Bad luck/timing on my part. And I'd have needed a crystal ball to know that this woman was writing her book at the same time I was.)

I also don't buy the argument that the money the publishers are throwing at these deals is necessarily eating into the available pot of money they have to offer fiction (or non-celebrity non-fiction) writers.

I don't buy this for a couple of reasons. First, publishing houses are businesses and aren't run by stupid people. Their motive is to make money, not ensure as many struggling writers as possible get published.

Any time they pay a big advance, or throw a lot of marketing dollars behind a book, they're taking a risk, making a bet that enough consumers will buy the book to more than cover the money they've laid down. Would I love them to make a big bet on me? You betcha. But clearly someone thought that the chance that they'd make money on a Joe the Plumber book was worth the risk of tossing a big advance at the guy. Yes, I find it a little hard to believe many people will buy such a book. But since I'm not a top decision maker at a publisher, it wasn't my call, and clearly someone else thinks this book has potential as a money maker.

The second reason I don't buy into (or like) the argument that the publishers should be holding back on celebrity contracts and allocating advances and marketing dollars to "worthy" books and "real writers"... is that I think it's a slippery slope from that kind of argument to saying that publishers shouldn't be paying advances or giving contracts to writers of genre or commercial fiction, but should be saving their money only for the "serious literature."

To that point, here's what Mr. Egan said:

"For the others — you friends of celebrities penning cookbooks, you train wrecks just out of rehab, you politicians with an agent but no talent — stop soaking up precious advance money.

"I know: publishers say they print garbage so that real literature, which seldom makes any money, can find its way into print. True, to a point. But some of them print garbage so they can buy more garbage."
My issue is: who gets to define what's garbage? I have a sneaking feeling Mr. Egan would include romance and chick lit and thrillers and sci fi (etc.) in his garbage pail, too...

Yes, it's like a slap in the face to hear that someone, who will undoubtedly require a ghost writer and is unlikely to have anything meaningful to say in any case, has received a multi-million dollar publishing contract, while so many of us are toiling away, working really hard to learn and perfect our craft, but I think griping about it is like complaining that apples are more popular than oranges. It just so happens that the same company produces both apples and oranges. And it's for the people running these companies to decide whether their resources are better spent promoting apples or oranges this year. (Even if it's clear to many of us that the apples are rotten.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Kid Movies and Wall-E

My son is finally off Toopie and Binoo -- hooray! Not that it wasn't cute or charming, but I've watched more hours of that little rat and his whatever it is friend than anyone needs to.

And joy of joys - Mick has moved on to movies. (Not that we don't encourage playing and exercise but there is a time and a place for some chilling out in front of the television.)

I have been excited about these movie watching days since getting pregnant with him. I can not wait to sit down and watch ET with him, and Star Wars. I am as excited about this as I am about him learning to read and wanting to read.

I love kid movies. And they've gotten so sophisticated and smart recently with those brainiacs at Pixar upping the bar for everyone involved in the industry.

We just recently watched Wall-E.

Best movie of the year by far. No question. Not that I've seen any other ones, but you'd have to go a long way to get better than this movie. It's visually stunning. Artful. There is no dialogue for almost forty minutes or something crazy - and yet my ADHD kid is totally riveted by this little robots earnest squeaks. And they are earnest and funny and sincere - there's more character revealed in the mechanical noises than in anything on television these days.

The story is fabulous with great twists and reversals of expectation. Seriously, I loved this movie and since it's the end of the year and about time I start thinking about those kinds of things - I will say it - best movie, for me, of the year.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The magic of mystery

It’s been a really good two weeks for inspiration for me. I’ve just finished the first season of Mad Men, which deserves all the acclaim. It’s so good, and in a really subtle way.
It introduces several characters in the first show and proceeds to show us them interacting with each other, but aside from the main character, tells us nothing about their back story throughout the entire season.

We know their actions, and can only guess at their motivations, which might annoy some people, but for me I found it fascinating and I cannot wait to learn more about these people. Had the writers told me everything about them in the first few episodes, the show would have lost its appeal for me. Instead they trusted in their plot and dialogue and how they showed the characters to do the work for them.

Same with the last couple of romances I’ve read. Another Marjorie M. Liu, that Molly loaned to me. She does mystery really well. She gives us very little backstory, and explanation, just feeds it into the story in little bits. She lets us see the characters for themselves, good and bad, form our opinions, basically shows us who they are while they are dealing with life and death crises.

Basically she is showing, not telling.

For me, the mystery is why I get pulled through a book. It can be character mystery, my need to know why a character acts the way they do. The mystery of when the hero and heroine get together, and how. Or the more obvious mystery of who is the villain.

The key to this is giving the reader the answer in a way they did not predict. Because if the reader predicts how things are going to happen, then where is the mystery?

The real challenge in writing a romance is not bringing the hero and heroine together, but doing it in a way that surprises and delights the reader.

Sounds so easy… doesn’t it?

Monday, December 01, 2008

What I Think About While Writing

Food, mostly.

I am home from Thanksgiving and while this year we did not deep fat fry the bird, my cousin, the devious Alyssa made two desserts - a dump cake (as good as it sounds) and that Hello Dolly bar, but she made a whole pie of it. Damn her! oh Damn her!

But Sinead's post made me think - of all the stuff we are supposed to remember to do and all the incredible things we've learned - what is the one thing I've managed to keep front and center in my head?

This is me every day:

Did I just kill the conflict? I did, didn't I? Let me...yep. Killed it. STOP KILLING THE CONFLICT!

Sadly, the other thing I obsess about while writing is the number of sentences I start with pronouns. That's it. All the gems and gold and keys to the kingdom I've been given I think about how many sentences start with 'he.'

Sad. But the conflict thing - that's helped. It's taken me a lot of books to make that number one and I think it's made my writing and my process more interesting. Of course, some dump cake would do that too...

Friday, November 28, 2008

All my poor little brain can manage

There is so much information out there on writing and the best of it is gold. Solid gold. Molly calls it handing us the keys to the kingdom and in many ways it is.
The scene and sequel description Maureen blogged about on Wednesday, Story, by Robert McKee, On Writing by Stephen King and countless other guides to writing fiction out there.
They help us refine, cut, and edit, they guide us where to start the story, how to increase tension and make every word count.
And they are really useful.
But hard to incorporate while writing. I know, having read the above, attended workshops, talked about all of the above with my fellow Drunk Writers, I’m not thinking about them when I’m writing. Sometimes when I’m editing, usually when I run into problems, but otherwise, I hope they’ve seeped into my brain, because most of the time they just aren't top of mind.
There are two things I’ve been thinking in my head when writing this current draft. The first is my new favourite quote from JR Ward. Plots are like sharks, they keep moving forward, or they die.
Friggin’ great, because it does not allow me to repeat myself, or get lazy and rely on a stagnant plot.
The second and it’s a constant drumbeat in my head, is ‘up the drama’.
The up the drama is really important for me, because it doesn’t allow me to make choices that reduce tension, or conflict, and always reminds me to make the choice that creates the most drama. Maybe not the easiest choice and sometimes the choice that paints me into a corner, but 9 times out of 10, it doesn’t lead me astray.
And even with this in my head, as I look over scenes to send to my critique group I find scenarios where I could still up the drama, choices I’ve made that cop out in some way.
For a first and second draft these two mantras are all I can have in my head except for my characters and dialogue and action.
There just isn’t room for more right now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Scene and Sequel

Molly's great post on Monday reminded me of a writing concept/technique I find really useful -- when I remember to think of it, that is. Scene and sequel.

The first few times I heard this concept explained at workshops, I didn't get it. (And frankly, I question whether the people presenting the topic got it, either.) The way they explained it, it sounded like: write a great scene, then write a boring scene.

In fact, I've heard writers use concept of scene and sequel to justify dull, narrative-reflection scenes that go nowhere -- claiming those reflection scenes are the sequels. But I think they're misinterpreting what scene/sequel means. It's usually plain lazy, and/or poor storytelling to write a scene where a character merely thinks about what happened in the previous scene.

But writers often do this. I know I have. In weaker romances -- certainly in many contest entries I've judged -- we often see a scene the hero's POV, followed by one in the heroine's POV, where all she does is think about what just happened (or vice versa). So basically, there's one scene where stuff happens, followed by one where nothing happens -- we just get to see it replayed from the other character's POV. "Wow, I couldn't believe when he did that. It made me feel this."

People. This is not what scene and sequel means. I don't think it's what a resting scene means either. You can vary the pacing and still have sh*t happen.

The (brilliant, I think) idea of scene and sequel was first introduced by Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer. (Which, full disclosure, although I do own a copy, I still haven't read. But I like to rant about the ideas in this book as if I have read it. Deal with it.)

On the other hand, I have read this great article.

Crib notes from the article:

The basic scene and sequel structure:
  • Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
  • Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
The magic part of applying this fast-paced storytelling technique is that the decision, at the end of a sequel, gives the character his or her goal for the next scene, so the entire thing cycles, driving a story forward. Magic, right?

To apply this structure to a crafting a scene, the writer needs to understand first, whether it's a scene or a sequel, and then:

- What does my character want / or what disaster/problem does my character have do deal with;
- What's keeping my character from getting what they want / or what choice (hopefully a lesser of two evils choice) does my character have to make; and then
- What happens to throw my character for a loop / or what does my character decide to do so that he/she can move on from the last disaster (and continue to head toward their overall main story goal.)

The problem in application, I think, is people getting lazy with the reaction, dilemma, decision part. Either they make it all reflective narrative, when it could be action and dialogue showing the character reacting, facing a choice, and making a decision. Or -- and I think this is may be a more common problem -- the "scene" scenes don't end in real disasters. So the we read through a scene that ends anti-climatically, or where a problem was already resolved, or the conflict defused, then we have to read through a scene where the character reacts to this not-dramatic-enough event, while gazing at his/her navel, (or worse, looking at the scenery or what secondary characters are up to), and it all gets very dull, very fast. There's not enough to pull the reader along.

I also think it's a slightly more complicated structure to use in books written with two main characters, as romances are... Sometimes one scene can be a scene for the hero and a sequel for the heroine simultaneously (or vice versa). But that's why romance writers have to work really hard to write great books.

I don't pretend to use this scene/sequel structure (or even think about it) all the time. But when I have thought about it before writing a scene, or when diagnosing problems in my work or that of my critique partners, I've found it to be extremely helpful.

In the end, it all comes down to understanding motivation and conflict... but the scene/sequel structure really helps keep you focused on motivation and conflict and to keep the pace moving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Killing Romance Cliches

I think we all want to kill the romance cliches. The romance cliches give us a bad name. Sinead did a great post on killing cliched characters and while some of the tried and true plots will live on (my December book is a secret baby book and I tell you - it was a blast to write. Go figure.) what really needs to killed and killed dead is the cliched writing. The throbbing and heaving, if you know what I mean. But more than that - bigger than that - we need to look hard at those cliched scenes. And right now I'm looking hard at the NARRATIVE RATIONALIZATION scene. Lovin' all caps.

When Sinead gave us her plan to not write the transition scenes between big scenes it seemed to me to be an EXCELLENT exercise in killing the cliches - in particular that narrative scene where in the hero or heroine reflect on whatever happened in the scene before and make it all okay in thier heads to be attracted to a possible murderer/be attracted to his secretary/to have had crazy monkey sex with an ex/to have lied to a kid/to have lied to a mom/to have stolen the gems/ WHATEVER!

I hate writing those scenes and I think when we are uncomfortable or hate writing a particular scene - we don't write well. In fact, I would guess we start using a whole lot of cliches when we're writing scenes we don't like. To be honest, I think the whole romance genre can live without that narrative scene -- good strong POV and excellent characterization practically kill the need for that scene anyway. Of course, good strong POV and excellent characterization are the hard part and knowing when you've done it right is even harder. So, we write that narrative scene because all the romances we loved reading and the ones that inspired us to write have those scenes.

Obviously, we can't just have one big scene after another (or can we?) but there does need to be some resting scenes. Not boring, not cliched, just a tad slower than say - hero and heroine killing a bad guy, or whatever your big scenes are. And maybe that's the real point of subplots. I think Anne Stuart knows that. JR Ward TOTALLY knows that.

Sinead is clearly on to something.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What comes easiest?

Had a great session of Drunk Writer Talk a few weeks back, and one of the things that came up was which scenes do we find the easiest to write?

For one of the Drunk writers it’s the conversation scenes between the hero and heroine, where they learn about each other and explore their feelings.
At which point, two, or possibly, three ciders into the evening, I grimaced and shouted to the entire bar, I hate writing those scenes.
For me, the easiest scenes, and the ones that in the end, need the least amount of work are the big action scenes, sometimes the big romance scenes between the hero and heroine. The scenes where they quietly explore their conflict and talk are hell for me. They take the most time, require the most editing and even in the end, I’m never happy with them.

Which is why I focus my plotting on big, dramatic events, where the hero and heroine have to learn about each other, while running for their lives, or fighting off villains. It’s why as a writer, I’m attracted to suspense. And knowing this helps me decide which books I want to write, and how I’m going to drive the story forward.

It also helps me move forward in my books. My current WIP has taken me FOREVER to write. I’ve had to re-write every scene pretty much, and I’m still only half way through. And too often I’ve spent a week on a scene, and thinking about which scenes stall me, they are always the quiet, introspective scenes.
So for the purposes of getting this draft finished, I’m not going to write the quiet scenes. I’m going to move forward by writing the big scenes, one after another, finish up and then decide how I’m going to connect the big scenes.

It’s a change in my process, as I’m normally a linear writer, but I’m getting desperate and perhaps a change in process is exactly what I need.

Anything to finish this draft.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Have To Listen To Your Characters...

For the record, I thought the idea of listening to your characters, and doing what they dictate - was total and utter crap. I am the writer, they are my creations, they are not voices in my head - I call the shots. Me. Writer. (How do you like the punctuation in that last sentence? Seriously, I need to get learn some basic rules.)

Anyway - characters not in control. I am. And then I started working on my new WIP.

I wrote a really, really, really detailed synopsis for my next series. Chapter by chapter. Putting my money where my mouth is in terms of trying to do more work up front, rather than editing (which I now believe is just a totally imperfect way to make your book better in a big, substantial way.) Anyway - detailed synopsis in which I had my characters doing the deed in chapter 5. It really really worked for me at that stage. I had the characters roughed out, their motivations were right there. Conflict accounted for. Sex, Chapter 5 was going to be awesome.

And then I started writing. And these characters didn't radically change - they just got better, more human, fully formed. Savannah was more guarded, more cautious about everything because of her past and Matt was less wounded and more conniving in the front half of the book. So, when I had them going at it in Chapter 5 - it did not work. No one believed it. Savannah, as I had written her, would not have gone so far. And Matt as I had written him came off like one big a-hole.

I knew it wasn't working, but the sex was in my synopsis. The synopsis I sweat over. The synopsis was king. So, I tweaked, I edited, I got angry with my critique partners when they suggested perhaps the synopsis was wrong.

But in the end I had to listen to the characters. And I realized, sex in the books I write and most of the books I read isn't about sex, but about being vulnerable in some way. And I had to figure out how to make them vulnerable without the sex. The result, because I listened to the characters (and my critique group) is much more effective.

Which, I think goes to show, all that work up front isn't perfect either. But it's better in terms of getting a head start on characters and plot. But the writing and our process has to be fluid and we have to be ready to adapt what's on the page to better fit what's in our head, even if that means sacrificing a scene we love, or a plot point that works in theory but not on paper.

Or, remarkably, after all these years, finally listening to our characters.

Friday, November 14, 2008

World Building

Lots of talk about this lately, what with the amount of paranormals, and sci fi romances out there. And (because I can be slow) it’s taken me a while to really understand what this means.

JR Ward said she cemented the rules of her world really early on in her Brotherhood series, knew what she could and couldn’t do, and you know, I really bought in to her world.
Her characters seemed to be true to her world, which made me believe it more.

I know that’s a cryptic statement, and the best way I can explain is using Historical romance. There is occasionally talk of world building in Historicals, but mostly it comes across as historical details and getting them right. And sure, don’t have your character flip a light switch in the regency period.
For me lately, it’s become less about the details and more about how the characters interact in their environment.

For example, a regency romance, where the focus is often on the heroine, a lovely young woman from a good family making a good match. And then in the course of the book, gives up her virginity without any real thought, for either herself, or her family.
This happens a lot and usually drives me nuts. For me, it’s often a case of the author setting the rules of their world, and then abandoning them to drive the story forward.

If the author started by creating a world of upper, upper class where money and position drove the marriage process and affairs were ignored, then I’d buy into the above scenario, which for the regency period isn’t historically inaccurate. (really awkward sentence, but can’t think of a better one, sorry)

Just something that’s been top of mind for me. My heroine is a young woman from an impoverished family, not hoping to make a good match and I’m trying to think how she feels about a pre-marital affair. And I’m setting rules for my world, that I’m hoping will take me through 5 books. I know if I screw it up now, I’ll end up paying down the road. (no pressure)

And on a completely side note: some amazing books out there. If we haven’t raved enough about Sherry Thomas, well here’s more. Read her second book, Delicious and it’s so good. And it’s a lesson in world building in a historical and characters staying true to their world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Good news: It's not all magic

Last time we had some DWT we were talking about how it makes each of us a little crazy when authors claim their stories simply come to them out of the ether, delivered by magic fairies to their keyboards.

While I'm willing to believe that there are some writers like that out there, I do question whether or not those same writers are getting better with each novel, or are able to build long careers by producing a consistently good product for readers each time. Particularly when they're on a 2-books-or-more-a-year schedule.

I'd also like to believe that most of these "it's all magic" authors are very hit or miss from book to book. Not that I'm suggesting everyone needs to write the same way, just suggesting that for most of us, it helps to have some idea of what we're doing and why some stories work better than others -- since not all of us have equal access to the keyboard fairies.

So this is all a lead in to more J.R. Ward admiration. In case no one's figured it out yet, I came back from the NJ conference, and the J.R. Ward/Jessica Andersen workshop in particular, all fired up and feeling better about the publishing industry than I have in a while.

Why? Because these two authors, who have very different processes, were both honest about it not all being magic. Sure, J.R. listens to her rice crispies, but she also made it clear how much work and thought and strategy (not to mention sweat, blood and tears) went into creating her highly successful series. Sure, she admits much of her best stuff, the stuff that knocks her readers off their chairs, came out of the ether (or the rice crispies) as she was writing, but the framework was already there. She had a plan. She knew why she thought these books would do well and where they'd fit in the market. She knew she was pushing the envelope of what romance readers were comfortable with reading, but she also thought about what themes and elements she needed to include to increase the chances romace readers would love her (quite violent and graphic for romance) books.

This got me fired up, because I love when the smart people achieve success. And by smart I mean the ones who don't get hung up on the rules and do oodles of things you're not supposed to do in romance, but do it with purpose and create great stories that are well plotted and have great characters and conflicts. ON PURPOSE. (Not by accident, or because the fairies came through.) I love it when those writers hit bestseller lists. LOVE it.

Because it gives me hope. Gives me hope that I can get there through hard work, and without full-time access to the fairies.

(The only thing that's terrified me, while reading her insiders' guide, was her saying that in 2005 she was worried the paranormal market was already peaking, so that even after she'd sold the first 3 books in her series, she wasn't confident she'd sell the seven more she had planned. That market peaking in 2005 doesn't bode well for me breaking into it now, but hey, I was already aware/worried about that. Just means I need to do even more to stand out. And I also think she revived that sub-genre. Took it in a new exciting direction opening up new doors for the rest of us. See? My optimism's back already.)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Endings part 2 or Credible Surprise or JR Ward blows my mind...again.

I've never claimed to be very smart. In fact I'm usually the first to point out what an idiot I am. Let me do that now, I am a total idiot. I had one of those moments this week, when I truly realized what something I've been yammering on and on about really means. It's like when I say over and over again "I have two kids." And the millionth time I say it I have a panic attack because suddenly I realize - holy crap I have two kids!!

Maureen and Sinead brought back the JR Ward guide to the BlackDagger series and trust me, I don't want to be this kind of fan. But apparently I am because I am gobbling the thing up, even the ridiculous things, like when the brothers show up on her message boards...yikes. But, she also talks about her process writing each book -what she knew and didn't know and the happy miracles that happened along the way in terms of plot, world-building and character. And anyone who has been blown away by this series should read this book -- Stephanie Doyle, I am talking to you.

She also gives us her rules of writing. And her rules Conflict is King and Credible Surprise is Queen, blew my little mind.

Yes, of course I know conflict. Conflict conflict conflict conflict. More and more, different and bigger and better and high stakes and internal and external - I know conflict. But this is it -- the conflict we give our characters WE HAVE TO RESOLVE!!!

It's easy to give your lovers roadblocks, but you've got to clear that stuff out of the way at some point. All of them. All that conflict that seems so riveting in your first act and the stuff you add in the second act because you think you need more conflict and then the stuff you shove into the back story because -- heck, your hero just isn't wounded enough. You gotta deal with it.

Sinead had a little rant a few weeks ago about how bad some endings are in books - writer's seem to get the idea of hooky beginnings and lots of conflict but then around page 260 they go...oops. And throw this crazy hail mary in an effort to resolve that conflict. And it doesn't work. I know that I am totally guilty of yadda yadda-ing my endings. In fact in my outlines to my editor I usually say "he grovels and they live happily ever after." And writing my endings is like pushing a boulder up hill and I just don't care at that point -- I'm so tired of all that conflict. And I am missing the chance to send a reader to bed at three am with a huge smile on her face. Endings are important - really important. They are why readers read romance. No doubt about it.

But, not only doing have to deal with all that conflict. Ward goes and ups the bar again with credible surprise. End your book in a way that the reader doesn't see coming and make it more satisfying than anything they were imagining. Reversing reader expectations to the tenth power. So, you have to make it something they didn't see coming but at the same time you have to plant some clues along the way so it's credible. It's not just about groveling, or near death experiences making character realize what they've lost or could lose. Or, as I can admit to having written - the hero taking a walk and figuring it all out. We've got to work on our endings as much as we work on our beginnings. We can't just let our endings happen. She talks about that ghost ending for those of you thinking of that. And for those of you thinking about that and saying perhaps Ward does not practice what she preaches, I remind you of Zsadist's ending, which was easily for my money the best ending in romance. Ever.

But what I need to think about every time I add conflict is how am I going to resolve it. How am I going to surprise the reader with my happily ever after? Good God - that's a challenge. I need a drink.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Pacing and my problems with Dexter this season

I’ve gone on record on this blog before talking about the genius of Dexter and the elements I love are still there this season.
Michael C. Hall is still brilliant, Dexter is still a wonderful, complex character, a seemingly perfect boyfriend, brother and employee hiding his need to kill. But this season I’ve approached each episode with a ho hum attitude.

And the amazing character references are still there, with Dexter stealing lines from a deluded murderer to convince his girlfriend to marry him, secretly wishing for a confidente, even the little touches of him pushing the barriers with his girlfriend. They are all masterfully handled.

But each episode has moved pretty slowly for me. It’s as if they are repeating scenes to convince of us the decisions the characters are going to make down the road. Dexter and Miguel’s relationship and his decision to trust Miguel. They’ve been building to it in a series of scenes that do nothing else. Where one great scene would have convinced us, they’ve used four. Same with him accepting Rita’s pregnancy.

And the previous structure where Dexter murdered someone every episode has been abandoned. And I understand the need for a show to evolve, but that structure drove the narrative of each episode in the 1st season. While the relationship elements were the secondary plot that intrigued me. Season 1 had the mystery of who was the Ice Truck killer, which is where the first show started. So between the over arching mystery, the murder per episode and Dexter trying to figure out how to balance his secret self with his public persona, there was lots to keep the pacing brisk in the 1st season.
This season, the overall mystery is really muted and not being driven forward much in each episode. The relationship elements have taken over, but they’re not enough to really move the story forward and keep the pacing in tact. And most episodes haven’t had the Dexter murder where he feeds his need.
In addition, the stakes for Dexter are pretty low this season. What does he have to lose? Rita? But even that’s not clear.

Going on record that I hope the show picks up and pulls the pieces together. Because I’ve loved it in the past and it’s just been renewed for another 2 seasons and I want to keep watching.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

J.R. Ward and Jessica Andersen Rock

I already knew their books rocked, and knew that Jessica rocked in person, but finding out that JR Ward is amazing in person renewed my faith in this business. Renewed my faith that the smart and talented people sometimes do get ahead. Renewed my faith enough (I hope) to get me motivated to push through the revisions I'm determined to finish this week.

The NJRW conference was great. If you've never gone to a regional RWA conference and are thinking about it--choose this one. It's big enough that there are lots of people (around 300?) and at least 5 choices of workshop in each time slot. It attracts tons of editors and agents (because of the proximity to NYC) so if you want to do pitch appointments, there are more opportunities than at Nationals. (And opportunities to meet editors in the bar, right Sinead?) Sinead and I lucked into having Alissa Davis from Dorchester sit down next to us the first afternoon when we were skipping a session to have a glass of wine. Loved her. Great taste in books and TV. She'd fit right in at DWT.

I went to the editor panel and have never seen so many editors on a panel together. (Note to the organizers: is it really necessary to have 3 editors from one small e-pub on a panel?) Part of me thinks they could have broken it into two panels.

Overall messages from the editors? They're still buying/looking for new authors in spite of the economic outlook. (At least they say they are.) Paranormal trend is still going strong and the darker the better. Most were now actively looking for historicals and contemporaries, too. Haven't heard that for a while on a panel and hopefully means that those sub-genres will be building up again, soon. A lot of the editors were also interested in steam punk. If you don't know what that is... google is your friend. ;-)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Conference Bound

Is it Wednesday again? Wow.

Sinead and I are off to the NJRW conference this weekend. I'm sure Molly's a little jealous, but her daughter already went to one writers' conference when she was 3 weeks old, so she put her seven week old little foot down, refusing to join us at this one, JR Ward, or not. (Come on, Lucy. JR Ward!)

I used to go to conferences all fired up about pitches and getting requests, and now that I have an agent to do that job for me, I do wonder sometimes why I still fork out the money for conferences. I'm in that limbo place where I don't have book promo to do, but it doesn't make sense to do formal pitches, either. I should be trying to get speaking gigs (I actually love public speaking), but lately haven't been very motivated to get my act together there, either.

There's always lots to learn at conferences, but after going to so many, I feel lucky if I see at least one good talk at each one, now. Many talks give me a been-there-heard-that feeling.

So, it becomes about meeting up with friends and networking and maybe getting a chance to chat with some of the editors, even though I won't be formally pitching.

My time this weekend would be better spent finishing my revisions, but hey, it should be fun.

Plus, we're going on Porter Airlines, that flies out of the Island airport in downtown Toronto (okay, just a short ferry ride from downtown Toronto) and is supposed to be really cool. Rumor has it, they actually still give you a drink and snack without asking for money. How quaint. How nostalgic.

Monday, October 20, 2008

What sells? Or How Much Information is Too Much Information?

At the Ottawa conference, I sat in the back of the room while writers asked Editors Brenda Chin and Rose Hilliard questions. One of the questions was about print runs and I sat back there thinking - Wow? Really?

As an unpublished author I wrote in a bubble and my only concern was my book, my writing and making it sell able. Print runs and talk like that was like another language and not one that pertained to me.

And to tell you the truth, I'm still not sure if it pertains to me. I belong to a group of writers and every royalty period we pool our sales numbers. The numbers are anonymous, so we don't know which numbers belong to which book other than our own and two times a year, I poor over this information. But to what end? I can't tell if cowboy books sell better than secret baby books, or if hero alone covers (another thing I have no control over) sell better than couple covers. The only thing I can tell is where I fall in the month and if numbers as a whole are up and down - which is valuable information, but it doesn't tell me what the readers are loving and how to suit my writing more to the superromance reading public.

I recently subscribed to Bookscan - which tells me the top one hundred romances sold in a group of books stores - Borders, Barnes and Noble etc...(to tell the truth I'm not totally sure which bookstores are included - I think WalMart is not, but someone can correct me on that.) And I poor over this information too. And it's interesting - but what it really tells me is that Debbie Macomber and Nora Roberts are selling a lot of books. I knew that - we all knew that.

But then what I realized is that what it's really telling me is that what sells - is whatever the publisher gets behind. Publishers get behind authors by giving them decent print runs and helping the author with publicity and helping to create a buzz. There are newer authors on that list -which tells me the publisher got behind them. So, why does a publisher get behind an author?

My answer to this question is this -- the author writes good books - plain and simple. Sherry Thomas, Elizabeth Hoyt, Susan Mallery. Newer Single title authors writing good books and getting lots of publisher support.

The author writes fast and can create a demand for their work by keeping themselves in front of the romance readers face. The paranormal authors on that list seem to have this down to a science.

The author works well with their editor. Publishers get behind authors because the editor fights for them in meetings and editors fight for the books and writers they like. I really believe this. Maybe that's pollyanna, but it makes sense doesn't it?

The truth is, I could be talking out my ass about all this stuff, but I do know that I feel better about my career when I feel better about my books. The rest just seems like distraction, sometimes. And don't get me wrong, Drunk Writer Talk is filled with discussions about the industry and the market and how to figure it all out. Which we haven't. And won't.

But the writing is getting better and that is what's really important.

Friday, October 17, 2008

When secondary characters take over

Public Service Anouncement: there will be spoilers… so if you’re behind in watching Tru Blood, don’t read on.

I’m thinking right now of Tru Blood, a show I was iffy on to start with and have since come to really, really like. I wasn’t sure until a couple of episodes what the turning point was, but now I’m pretty sure.

It’s every character except for Sookie and Vamp Bill.

But it’s mostly Sookie’s best friend Tara, Sookie’s brother Jason and Tara’s cousin Lafayette. They all came off, initially, as bad sterotypes, but in the last few episodes I’ve come to love them.
Tara is my favourite, a large part due to the wonderfully appealing actress who plays her. In the first episode she seemed to be the loud mouthed, over bearing friend stereotype, but now, her backstory is tragic, and drives her bad decisions, but we understand the decisions she makes, good and bad. I even understand why she loves Jason and how that fact embarrasses her. And she is still overbearing, loud mouthed and rude and compelling like no one’s business.

The second reason is Sookie’s brother, Jason, who has been thrown into situations that are pretty unbelievable, but I still find him fascinating to watch. His decisions are unilaterally awful, he can be a total asshole, but again, they show us these cracks in his façade, where he becomes really appealing. The ending of this week’s episode where he’s crying during sex, because he just realized he’d lost everything.. so good.

And then there’s Sookie, who as the main heroine of the show, is burdened by having to make all the right decisions and be likeable and right and just and friendly to vampires and really tiresome to me. Although the scene of her eating the pie this week killed me.
But her relationship with Vamp Bill just hasn’t rang true for me, or really pulled me in.

It’s a case of the ensemble cast been given the best and worst traits, the most human characteristics and then running away with the show.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Keeping it all straight

Margaret Moore just blogged about the challenge of revisions when scenes move and motivations and reactions must alter.

I'm neck (eyebrows?) deep in a major revision on my most recently completed manuscript right now and it's taking way longer than I expected it to. (Way longer than my agent expected it to, as well, which is making me feel a tad uncomfortable. Will she ever trust me to meet contractual deadlines???)

After getting some great comments on an earlier draft of this novel from not only my agent, but also another TKA agent... I did some serious thinking, culminating in a few flashes of what I thought were genius ways to improve the novel. And the changes weren't even that big, I thought. Just tweaking some of the backstory and original motivations of the main characters, adding a prologue, changing a few scenes here and there, tweaking a few rules in my imaginary world. Piece of cake, right?

But, like the much more experienced Margaret, I'm finding the butterfly effect holds true on stories as well as time travel. One little tweak at the beginning and the ripple effects spread everywhere.

Wish me luck!

(Oh, and I participated in a big October Ovation blog round up over on my other blog today.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good Is In The Details....

I stole that from Pepperidge Farm. In the context of their commerical the details refers to cookies in ruffled paper cups and bread that is -- not kidding -- slow baked. Because there's another kind?

But I was thinking about that commercial and not, I repeat, NOT about Milano cookies and how it fits writing. I just finished Eve Kenin's latest Shomi - Hidden. Another fantastic read. But in that book, good is TOTALLY in the details and should be a lesson to all of us. The book is about medical/genetic experimentation gone wrong and the characters talk like scientists. They use medical and chemical words which could totally be made up, but it doesn't matter. The book is set in the future and food has new names, guns have new names, snow mobiles have new names -- and those names are used without explanation. It's world building to the hundredth power. And it works. But I think it might also be one of those tools that in the wrong hands, becomes overkill. Tara Janzen has gone that way for me recently. Knowing how much world to build is intuitive. Another thing we are supposed to learn, I guess.

It's the exact opposite of the legal drama I tried to read right after when every one's role in the case was really non-descript and their titles were pretty vague. Now, I am so guilty of this -- wall paper world building, rip away the minimum effort I made, and it's nothing. The world is gone.

The details are totally see through. Not Good.

You can apply this Good is in the Details maxim to every aspect of your characters. Those little minute details that WORK - that make you characters breathe. In Eve's book, her hero is trying hard to believe in some zen philosophy - so he's spouting it - most of the time without much conviction and when we just meet him -- it totally works. Tara Janzen had a book, not the last one but the one before, when the heroine climbs out of a jacuzzi. Janzen gives us the rundown of her great body, the pile of blond hair on her head, but the detail that clinches the CHARACTER is she takes a paper umbrella out of a drink, licks the stem and tucks it in her hair, along with about three other umbrellas. Excellent details that tell us she's had a few and is used to having a few.

But then the other night husband and I watched the Californication premiere. A show I LOVED last year. And I realized how the Good is the in details rule can backfire. Hank is still Hank, the characters are still fantastic, the hi jinks very zany -- the details - perfect. But there is 100% no core. It's all wrong. details do not a story make. This year of Californication also proves that happy characters do not make for exciting story telling. Hank is just way too happy.

Anyway -- thanks Pepperidge Farm for the cookies and writing insight. And thanks Eve Kenin for another great book.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Characters I could happily never see again

One of the more interesting things about romance these days is that the bar has widened for heroes and heroines. They can have greater flaws, be, sometimes, unlikeable, even do bad things.

Some of the best recent examples, the wonderful heroine from Private Arrangements, who is far from perfect and whose character flaws drive a lot of the conflict. I’m reading a Kresley Cole book where the heroine, was (now she’s a ghost) slightly promiscuous, an exhibitionist, and a thief when she was alive, and as a ghost. The heroine makes this book a keeper. Everything else is pretty standard Paranormal, down to the tortured hero and the assortment of vampire type creatures.

I think there’s a real opportunity right now to take chances with our characters, makes them less than the standard heroic, but more interesting, more flawed, and I do believe if we do it well, readers will love it.

But back to the point of the post.

Here are the characters I never want to see again.

The all-giving, saintly, will give up her virginity to save her reckless father/brother/dog, heroine. The heroine that seemed to be a fixture in too many of the regency historical romances published in the last ten years. She’s become a cliché and I find this heroine boring.
Give me a heroine who’ll let her stupid father/brother/dog go to jail, or at least have her come up with a plan that doesn’t include prostitution.

The I’m tortured because my mother/dead wife/ imaginary girlfriend abandoned me hero. Seriously, I just want to yell ‘get over it’ at the book. I know as authors we need to create internal conflict, but this one’s been done to death. Although if an author could come up with a new way to do this and keep me enthralled, I’m probably be hers forever.

Anybody who spies, be it hero or heroine. So many authors are trying to convince me young, upstanding, cultured lovely women and titled men turned to spying for shits and giggles. Even if I bought it, and I don’t, so many of these characters think and act like normal people. Joanna Bourne not included because her spy heroine thought and acted like I believe a spy would have.

The vampire who struggles against drinking blood. Do I really need to explain this? Anne Rice did it first and a very long time ago.

The obscenely rich, handsome, bored playboy/ceo/sultan/mime who falls in love with his mousy secretary because gorgeous women get boring, but mousy lasts forever. I know this is a pretty appealing fantasy and truly this is the one I’d probably be convinced to for go given the right book. And ten million Harlequin Presents can’t be wrong.

That’s it. That’s all my tired brain can come up with. I didn’t mention the chick lit, heroine who shops too much cliché, because I’m ready to read a light, amusing chick lit again, even with a heroine who shops too much.

Anyone else have any characters that bug them?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Writing to Entertain

Okay, this is a subject I've touched on before, and both Molly and Sinead always smack me in the head for coming back to it, but a few things I've heard and read lately got me thinking about it once again. I keep coming back to this, and my fellow drunk writers keep smacking me about it, because we all know that I once was someone who looked down on books written for entertainment. But that was before I started learning about the publishing industry and thinking about what kind of books I really wanted to write. Boy was I wrong-headed.

And here are some of my perpetually never answered questions...
  • Why is it considered a bad thing, or at best an embarrassing leisure pursuit, to read books purely for entertainment?
  • Why is writing books, with the primary goal of entertaining readers, considered "beneath" many writers?
  • Why does the publishing establishment belittle the popular books (that make the bulk of their money and therefore allow them to publish other more "worthy" books) by using words like "trash" or "fluff" or "bodice ripper", or by likening them to the adult film industry, or by diminishing their authors by calling them "chicks"? (Or damned scribbling women.)
I admit this kind of semi-snobbish dichotomy exists in other disciplines in the arts. Graphic art/vs fine art. Opera vs pop music. Ballet vs Hip Hop. David Mamet vs Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hollywood vs independent films.

But I would argue that no other group of creative people try so hard to belittle other creative people than literary authors and critics do to genre authors.

Romance bestseller, Jo Beverley, talked about this in her keynote luncheon speech at the Ottawa Romance Writers conference a couple of weeks ago, with lots of references to other periods in time, when it appears no such distinction was made, and she wondered when it all changed. Her great speech raised my indignation about this issue again... She called on all romance writers to stop using the words "just" and "only" when describing what we do. "It's only a romance novel." "I'm just a romance writer." And she's so right. Romance authors say things like that ALL THE TIME. It's unconscious. And often we're just beating others to the punch to avoid confrontation. I'm sure it's partly because we're mostly women, but why do we diminish our hard work like that??? Work that so many people love and admire and want to pay good money for? Work we sacrifice so much to create??? Crazy.

Then my indignation leapt up again after Donald Maass made his much read The Career Novelist, available for a free download. I'm not criticizing his book. I think it offers tons of great advice and have read it. But him posting it online prompted me to open it and skim parts of it quickly again. One of his chapters, titled "The Bottom Line: Story Telling" is subtitled: "Why Trash Sells". ACK! So if even Donald Maass, who earns his very good living from representing (and writing) books that emphasize good story telling, is calling such books trash.

Why? I suppose because he wanted to sell lots of copies of his non-fiction book (and the subtitle's provocative) and he probably also wanted to maintain some credibility with the literati who seem to think all books that entertain must defacto be trash. And to be fair to Mr. Maass... I agree with much of what he says in that chapter. He talks about how certain bestselling books are not well written, in that they may have clunky prose or too many cliches, repetitive words etc... And he admits that these flaws didn't matter to him as a reader. He couldn't put these books down, because of the story telling. (He mentions Sidney Sheldon whose books I remember devouring as a teen. My list right now would include Dan Brown. Anyone who's studied the craft of writing knows that little Da Vinci book of his was not technically well written... and yet, it was highly readable and entertaining.) But I maintain that applying the label of "trash" to such books, implies that story telling, in and of itself, has no value, and that's sad and just wrong headed. How can it possibly be trash, i.e. worthless, if so many people spent their good money to get their hands on a copy and read it? And why would writers, who spend their time crafting great stories, working on the turning points and reversals and pacing, so that readers won't want to put their books down, let their work be so easily diminished?

Short aside: I also wish the great hosts of the Smart Bitches blog didn't use the word trashy. I think it only exacerbates the problem. But it is provocative and perhaps the name draws people to the site who might not otherwise go to a romance novel review site... Who knows. I admit, if I were them, I might have done it, too...

But the final thing that prompted me to make this post, was a segment I heard on CBC radio yesterday morning, discussing a recent quote from one of the current Nobel prize jury members on why so few American writers have been considered for, or won, the Nobel prize for literature. Part of the jury member's answer? Because American writers try too hard to entertain. Oh, what a crime. Writing books that people want to read. For shame.

During the same segment I learned that the records of the Nobel prize jury discussions regarding Ernest Hemmingway have recently been made public, and turns out he was considered and rejected several times over the 10-15 years before they finally awarded him the prize. Some of the reasons for rejecting him in the earlier years were things like: he jumps right into the story; he just draws the reader in with little set up. Those are criticisms???? Those are requirements of any novel, literary or otherwise these days.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Stephen King, or JK Rowling, or Norah Roberts should necessarily be up for a Nobel Prize in literature. I don't think the big literary prizes should be popularity contests and/or mirror the bestseller charts. I think it's good that such prizes exist to support the writers of less commercially viable novels and champion the writers who pour tons of philosophy or psychology other such fields of study into their work to create thought provoking fiction that might even forward or change the way societies look at the world. That's all great. (Not that popular fiction isn't capable of doing that, too... It's just not typically the primary objective.)

But reserving some prizes and awards, for books that most readers might never discover without those prizes, doesn't make books written to entertain readers, or written with a more determined goal of appealing to a lot of readers, deserve labels like trash or fluff. Not in my opinion. (Says the unpublished writer of trashy fluff.)

Rant over.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Fall TV and how I’m coping.

It’s that time of the year again. New shows are coming on air, old shows are returning and I’m trying to figure out what I can watch.
Realistically, I have an hour of TV viewing a night. Some nights I can stretch it to two, but that’s rare.
Usually I figure out what makes the one show a night cut based on what languishes on my DVR. Right now True Blood, House and Life are stuck there.
I haven’t really come to love True blood yet, and so I’m not really excited about the next episode. House and Life seem too repetitive from episode to episode so my enthusiasm for them is winding down pretty quickly.
And then there is Dexter. I sort of loved the first episode of this season. It reminded me of the very first episode. The writers have taken the series back to the very beginning, with Dexter in control, feeling great, and really comfortable in his relationships.

Which of course makes me think they are going to devastate him this season. And now I’m thinking of all the ways they are going to do so. First and foremost being the great ending to the first episode of this season.

Because this show is at it’s best when the writers focus on the character first and the writers, aside from the occasional blip, really seem to know this. It’s smart, and surprises me and what more could I ask.

Well, I could ask for Direct TV, so I could watch Friday Night Lights, but I’ll wait till NBC airs it, even though I’m itching to see it.. so much I may have to re-watch season 1.

Between that and Mad Men, which I plan to start watching soon, and the Wire which has been on my radar forever, I think I will be watching a lot of great TV.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The ORWA Sweet Spicy Conference

I love the Ottawa conference. It's focused, it's small, it's always run well and the people are great. I truly like all the women I've met from that chapter and alot of Toronto writers head up and it's always fun to spend the weekend with the friends I have in TRW. They also draw from Canadian writers for their speakers and it's always amazing to see the big caliber writers who live in the area. Jo Beverly and Kelley Armstrong were this years heavy hitters and they were fantastic -- accessible and friendly!

For anyone looking for a small conference to go to - I highly recommend this one.

I went this year with my newborn daughter and my folks, which sadly meant I couldn't see all the speakers I wanted to, but I did get a chance to see Opal Carew talk about how she schedules her time in order to write 2 100,000 word books a year. I also got to see some of Sharon Page's talk on how she outlines.

And I think what Maureen and I both walked away with is how much time these authors build into the pre-writing stage. Previous to this conference, I planned most of my time for writing followed by a good chunk for editing - with some built in "iIreally screwed this up" time in the tail end for good measure. But both Opal and Sharon take upwards of four weeks to outline, plan and work on the books. Before writing. BEFORE WRITING!!

FOUR WEEKS!!! It seems outrageous. Ludicrous. Even though we've all been talking about doing more work up front instead of trying to fix everything at the end -- it still seems like so much time. But their arguments were sound and looking at the number of books both of them have been able to push out in the last two years and how their popularity has grown -- well, the case is pretty much made.

Now, I don't know if I can do four weeks - but as I am coming up on contract again, I need to think of what I can do, because I think it's smart and I think it's advice I am going to take.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Repitition, otherwise known as the dumbing down of my entertainment choices

Been noticing a really annoying trend lately. Characters in shows spouting the most inane dialogue in an attempt to recap what’s been happening. The most recent case was Fringe where a main character basically recapped the highlights of the previous two episodes and the shows focus so a viewer just tuning in would be very clear on what’s happening.

Which is great for that viewer, but as someone who has been watching, really annoying and on top of that it was poorly interjected into dialogue flow.

The guy that created Fringe also created Lost and I guess he took some criticism for Lost being impossible to follow, so he decided to make Fringe really easy to follow. Too easy to follow..

The same happens in reality TV, where each moment is recapped three times for us, so twenty minutes of actual events becomes an hour long show.. (sadly, I still watch… I’m a weak person)

I’m even noticing it in a book I’m reading, it’s a contemp, sort of chick lit and the heroine has an interesting job, but the author keeps telling us. And reminds us again, and again, and how she got into it, and how it’s a secret from her family and friends.
And then in case the reader missed it, reminds us again..

And I’m just about ready to throw the book against the wall.

I’d rather not understand enough than be hit against the head with explanations.

I am ready for a great contemporary read, or a chick lit. I’m all paranormaled out.. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Writing Lesson from Woody Allen

And it's not the kind of lesson you're probably expecting. It was a lesson in what not to do.

I used to be a big fan of Woody Allen, and Crimes and Misdemeanors is still one of my favourite films (note to self, must watch it again to see if it still holds up), but lately none of this films have really worked for me. I think I liked Match Point more than most people did, and I found last year's Cassandra's Dream kind of interesting, if only for him casting Colin Farrell against type, but based on the reviews I checked out on rotten tomatoes, I certainly liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona less than most critics. Why did so many people think this film was so great?

To me, this film was a lesson in why as writers we should show and not tell. It was supposed to be a film about love, exploring many kinds of love and questioning conventional ideas about love, but it seemed intent on pulling the audience as far away from the characters and possibly getting emotionally involved as possible. While the story was interesting and some of the performances were excellent, overall, the storytelling didn't work for me.

I think the biggest problem was the decision to use a voice over narration. Always a risky idea. But I've seen a few films in the past few years with narrations that I think really worked. Little Children, The Assassination of Jesse James... and Into the Wild are three recent ones that come to mind. In all of those, the narration added to the films and made the story telling more interesting. (While I didn't love Jesse James -- too long, too unfocussed -- it wasn't the narration that was the problem.)

But in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the narrator tells us things we can clearly see. It's like Woody didn't trust his actors, or his own choices in staging the scenes, to convey what we needed to know. For example... picture a scene with Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz sitting on a blanket in a pastoral setting eating and drinking and laughing with each other. Do we really need a voice over telling us they went on a picnic and that the initial tension felt between the three had ended??? There were constant examples of this. Even much of the dialogue was the characters expressing emotions that were already clear to us from their performances.

I'm not sure if I missed some great symbolism in this use of narration, or what... but while I was entertained by the film it mostly disappointed me. On the positive side, Penelope Cruz was amazing and Javier Bardem was astoundingly sexy. I also loved the idea of a couple who love each other but need the ingredient of a third person to smooth out the edges so that they can actually be around each other... And Rebecca Hall (who played Vicky) was great. Scarlett Johanssen felt a little flat.. but then her character was supposed to be a little lost and scattered and unsure of what she wanted, so perhaps that was acting???

Anyone else see it?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Emmys got it right!

For the most part, I thought. 30 Rock, John Adams and Mad Men -- seems about right to me. It's time to cut loose Two and Half Men - there's nothing about that show that deserves an Emmy, seriously. A nomination for Jon Cryer? Really? For Penis jokes? Is that where we're at?

It seems like the shows that everyone loved two, three years ago have fallen off the map -- House, Desperate Housewives, My Name is Earl. I think, in large part because they didn't hold on to what made them so exciting, or they didn't change enough to keep what was so exciting fresh. How many times can we watch House be an ass? And My Name is Earl -- one of the best concepts - but it's fallen apart. Makes you think of those shows like book series -- first season is all premise and if your premise is good -- you get the viewers. Think Lost. But after the first season there has to be a plan. A big plan, if you want to keep those viewers. Think Dexter. Which, was I think the only place the Emmys fell down on the job.

Just listening to the caliber of guests on 30 Rock is an indication that the show has some serious magnetism - and it's Tina Fey. Funny ha ha, mixed with absurd, mixed with heart - I love it. I want to be Tina Fey when I grow up.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Hurt Locker

It's official, my brain is broken. At least the part of my brain that I use for writing/revising my manuscripts and for thinking of topics for this blog. If it's not broken, it's certainly on strike.

So, I thought I'd talk about one of the films I saw at the TIFF. I saw some really good films this year, although none of them totally blew me away. This year I didn't come out of the fest babbling about any films in particular. Seems like there were a lot of mob films and films based on true stories and films about war.

One of the good war ones was The Hurt Locker, about a team of bomb defusal experts in Iraq. I think the best part of this film was the performance of the lead actor, Jeremy Renner, whom I've seen before, but never really paid much attention to. If this film is any indication, he could have a real career ahead of him. As I type this, I'm half-watching Renner in The Assassination of Jesse James.... which I saw at the fest last year, but didn't recognize him from that until I looked him up. Oooo his character in Jesse James just got shot in the head. Oooo. He just got dumped naked into a snowy hole. Damn, if that's really his body, he's got a great butt.

But The Hurt Locker has more going for it than the performances (and great butts). I found it interesting from a storytelling perspective, too because, at least based on my cursory first viewing in the middle of a marathon week of films, it doesn't really have a standard screenplay structure. No clear hero with a goal, no clear character arc, no escalating narrative, no single evil bomber they're trying to stop, no explicit turning points. At least not in a typically obvious way. Yet it worked for me.

The screenplay is based on events witnessed by a journalist who was embedded with the troops in Iraq so by nature it's episodic, but what the filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow, did that was smart was to add a ticking clock type of structure to the film, which essentially gives all the characters the identifiable goal of: survive x more days. At the beginning of each vignette, we're told how many more days until the end of the company's tour, so it becomes about surviving until then, with each dangerous situation having the potential to either kill them or take them one day closer to going home. Seems to me a ticking clock plot device is a smart one to use for a film about defusing bombs.

I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say how, but the ending uses the ticking clock, too, in a way that was clever and true to the character, if not in a very Hollywood ending kind of way. This film won't be for everyone -- certainly not as commercial as some of this filmmaker's other films like Point Break, but I for one was riveted from beginning to end and was really taken by the performances.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Joys of Fall Television

The last few weeks of television, after the Olympics, have been so bad. They've been so bad that I've had to come face to face with my television addiction. I'm watching bad reruns of House. I am considering taking on a CSI franchise. I'm even watching Prison Break. However, last night...light at the end of the tunnel. Entourage - which I love, I mean really love. Jeremy Piven, so incredible, so totally captivating and entertaining. And frankly, it's a show about hedonism and watching those boys stress about weed and scripts and parties makes me forget just for a few minutes that I'm a Mommy. And with the added benefit of a Mark Whalberg cameo -- what a hunk.

And then, after Entourage -- True Blood. Anyone watch this? What a freaking opener! The show opens with the Anna Paquin character getting viciously, viciously attacked and then saved by some paranormal force. At the same time her brother is being questioned for the murder of a local woman and is forced to watch the video tape he and the woman made of them having sex. But, not average sex, which would be interesting. No, he's chocking her to death while having sex with her. Which is really nuts.

This is the first five minutes. Then there are a bunch of you know Bob conversations, but there are enough character reveals and twists - the gay gangster? to make me come back for more. But again, I'm easy.

It's not nearly as elegant as Dexter or subtle as Mad Men, in fact it's about as elegant and subtle as a jackhammer -- but I'm in. For the time being anyway.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Trends, historical romance and Lust, Caution.

Before I begin, I write historical romance, so if you note any bias in this post, you’re probably right.

Hearing a little on the loops, and in some of the industry blogs, about the return of Historical romance. Now the smarter people out there will tell you, historicals didn’t go anywhere. Sales have remained strong over the past few years, especially for established authors and new authors did get bought, just not in the quantities they had five years ago.

But we’ve had some amazing historical authors hit the scene with some fantastic books and all of a sudden, historicals are being talked about again.
What does this mean, well for those of us who write historicals, perhaps a historical query has a better chance of getting interest, if well written.
Which is great, but then the book has to deliver. And give the standards that Elizabeth Hoyt, Joanna Bourne and Sherry Thomas have set, that’s no small task.
So is it easier to get a historical published, I’d say, probably not. Perhaps just easier to get one read by an agent or editor.

At least, I’m hoping..

And on a completely different topic, but still talking about a historical romance. I finally got around to seeing Lust, Caution. A movie set in early 1940’s Shanghai.
Without giving away spoilers, the director made a choice to start the movie with a scene from the middle, that gave away nothing and everything. A fairly simple scene, where nothing seems to happen, but the heroine shares a look with a man in the scene that, to me, spoke so much about their relationship.
And from there I was riveted to find out what had happened prior to that look and what would happen after, which is exactly how the movie is structured.
It’s fairly graphic, mostly in terms of the sexuality portrayed, and slow at times, and subtitled, but really brilliant.
And a movie portrayed almost entirely in the heroine’s POV. A really interesting choice, because as a viewer we never completely understand the hero(?), at least not his motivations, but the glimpses we’re shown through the heroine are fascinating, conflicting and perplexing.
In many ways it reminded me of a gothic romance, where the hero is at times both compelling and terrifying.

It started me thinking about the use of POV. Romance used to be two or three POV’s in a book. Now that number has increased, which is great, but being in all our character’s heads can often mean we know them all too well. It can remove the mystery of that character.
I’m going to try to create more mystery with my characters. JR Ward did this really well with Zadist in those first two Brotherhood books. She showed up glimpses of a compelling, angry, dangerous character, and never explained why. At least until his book.
Something I need to remember, as I keep working on the current WIP, book 1 in a series of what I hope will be 5 books.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Beginnings vs. Endings

Busy week for the drunk writers. Molly is (hopefully) going to give birth any day now and Maureen (I’m a lot jealous) is at the film festival.

Me, I’ve been reading some good and not so good romance novels. I’m about to re-read JR Ward, because I need a fix.

The book I just finished; the beginning was amazing. Really gripping, intense, both the romance plot and the suspense plot. At half way through it fell off the rails. Lost focus on the suspense, which had been driving the romance and the whole book.

This was a first book for this author and I know she’s gone one to write better books. A great beginning and some interesting writing sold this book, I think. I usually pick up a book based on the first few pages, but I buy that author again based on the ending.

Because endings are hard. You can sort of luck into a great first three chapters, but keeping that momentum going, all the balls in the air, answering the questions raised while still keeping your reader completely enthralled.
Total magic and complete skill.

I’ve leaned in the past year to give my endings more thought than the beginning. And hope somehow I keep the book on the rails all the way through.

On another note, so excited about the new Tv season. I am really hopeful that something new in there will really excite, give me a reason to turn on the TV, because I’m dangerously close to watching another season of Next Top Model.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Mama Mia

My mom is in town to clean my ceiling fans, stuff my freezer full of casseroles and take care of me and the new baby that won't come. And since I only have so many ceiling fans and one can really only make so meatloafs and because the DAMN BABY WON'T COME!!! We've had some free time and so mom took me to see Mama Mia. Yes. The all singing, all dancing Stellan Skarsgard. He sang. He danced. I cringed.

The real stars of this movie -- that yes, is lots of fun. And yes, is the first sign of the apocalypse -- is the set design and Meryl Streep. The set design is so utterly charming, from Meryl Streep's Greek fisherman pants, to the jam jars strung with butterflies, to the vintage tablecloths that nearly had my mother passing out with envy - the set is amazing. And authentic.

And for crying out loud Meryl Streep -- this woman was in Sophie's Choice and when, in Mama Mia she sang the Abba hit - Winner Takes It All to Peirce Brosnan - it was so freaking moving. It was heartbreaking and sad and sweet and beautiful -- and it was ABBA!!! There is nothing that woman can't do and I think so much of it goes back to Sinead's post about committing. She commits. It's just the way it is. However, Peirce Brosnan committed too -- when he sang SOS. He really really threw himself at it -- but sadly, I laughed. I laughed because the whole ludicrous notion of this movie was brought home when 007 sang SOS. And I think it's because while he did throw himself at the role and the song and the concept -- he's no Meryl Streep.

The best part is at the end when the cast comes out in ludicrous ABBA style costumes and sings and dances on a huge light stage and it just lets you know that oscar winners, Mr. Darcy, independent film stars, and 007 - have senses of humor about themselves and their art and deciding to not take everything so seriously.

I can not believe I went to go see this movie. The things you do for your mother.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

But it's true!

I got an e-mail from a contestant, for one of the contests I'm coordinating, who was very upset and wanted to draw my attention to what she felt was some bad judging. In a nutshell, her judges questioned the events in her story and the motivations/actions of her protagonist. In her mind, the judges were wrong to question these elements because they were true. In fact, she'd lived them herself.

This reminded me of a few reactions I've had to critiques in the past, particularly on my first novel. Someone would question my heroine's actions/reactions and I'd respond: But I know people like that. Or I know someone who's done that.

I soon came to realize that whether or not it's "true" doesn't really matter, or at least it isn't enough. Our job as fiction writers is to convince readers that the actions/reactions made by our characters might happen and that the external plot points could also happen. BUT even if we know someone who's done the exact same thing in the exact same circumstances in real life, or was the victim of the same set of circumstances, it isn't enough. We need to ensure readers understand and believe our characters' motivations and/or believe the circumstances would happen. And this is a tricky balance because we don't want to do too much "telling", nor do we want to spoon feed readers to the point they find our writing/storytelling sophomoric or repetitive.

Now, certainly every reader is going to have a different reaction to a story and no matter how wonderful a job we do as writers, we won't please every reader... But in this case, 3 out of 3 judges offered this woman the same opinion: that the basic premise of her story was implausible, and she e-mailed me to say, "They're wrong. I know they are wrong, because I lived it."

I just politely responded saying I was sorry she didn't find the comments more helpful, but what I really wanted to tell her was that if 3 out of 3 judges held the same opinion, she wasn't doing her job as a writer to convince readers that these events might happen (even if she knows they're possible.)

Whether plot points are plausible is a tough one in judging contests. But ultimately, all contest judges can do is express their honest opinions based on their particular experience as writers/readers/people on this planet.

And the contestants can choose to learn from it or not...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mind Fu?? or Best Book of The Year?

I'm writing this with the most swollen fingers ever seen on a pregnant woman. Why isn't this baby here yet? My fingers can't take much more of this...

Anywho, while waiting for stubborn baby I finished reading the fantastic Amanda Eyre Ward's latest - Forgive Me. Amazing freaking book. She's an amazing freaking writer. But, with all of her books she has a "device." A clever, stylized something that ends up being something different than you thought it was when first introduced. I love it. I loved it in How To Be Lost and I loved it in Forgive Me -- I don't want to tell you more in fear of spoiling it. But, it reminds me of McKee and one of his tirades about "mind fu??'s" In his opinion The Sixth Sense was just a film student's mind game and he hated it. Another example is the great book Water For Elephants and the prologue that ends up being something other than what you think at the beginning. By leaving out a few pronouns and descriptions - the author paints a totally different picture than the reality -- but at the end of that book I shrieked with delight. McKee would have called it a mind-game - a trick.

But I love devices. I love that little wink to the reader - I think if an author is clever enough to think of it and good enough to carry it off -- brilliant.

Poor M.Night, though, he really only had one device up his sleeve. Not so however with Amanda Eyre Ward -- she just gets more and more clever. Forgive Me is a great book - check it out.
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