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.
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