Sunday, May 31, 2009

Breaking Bad

In an effort to close the giant gaping hole that The Wire created in our lives, husband and I started the first season of Breaking Bad - the AMC show about the science teacher diagnosed with cancer who decides to make Crystal Meth in order to make money.

It's a great show. Bryan Cranston is spellbinding with his tears and white brief underwear.

But it's made me think about likeable characters, or in this case truly truly sympathetic ones. By the time Cranston's character decides to cook Meth, we're practically begging him too, that's how sympathetic he is. How much we feel his plight.

But my problem is this: (of course there's a problem. I have too much time to dissect this stuff.) Once a truly likeable and sympathetic character takes that step off his regular road, we know what's going to happen. Really really crappy things. The writers are going to turn the screws by having the character regret getting on this path, or repent from the path. But they won't be able to, things are going to keep them on the path.

That's good story telling, no doubt about it. I can't wait to see what decision is going to be made about the guy in the basement in Breaking Bad. But it's also a little predictable, right? Because these people are good and the screws are being twisted, I pretty much know what's going to happen to that guy in the basement. But the how and the when and the why, are all still super super compelling questions.

Now, good writers flip this stuff on their ear and I really hope that continues in Breaking Bad - I'm sure it will. But it made me think of our always likeable, always boring heroines. We know what's going to happen to them the second they get on the page - we can turn the screws all we like, but the end is the end.

Which is why we like those dark characters. The ones that live in the grey area. For some reason I'm thinking of Brisbane in those fabulous Lady Grey novels. We just didn't know that guy right away and it was good. Mysterious. Something Borrowed - again, grey area. Anne Stuart's heroes -- very grey. It just leaves room at the beginning of the novel for doubt.

And in this case a little doubt might just be a good thing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Harlequin Behind The Scenes...

Where in the world did May go? Honestly. It was April a minute a go.

I had the very cool opportunity to go down to Harlequin's direct to consumer distribution center outside of Buffalo last week as a part of their employee appreciation day. I had lunch with the customer service reps who handle all the phone calls from subscribers. For those who might not know Harlequin offers their books on subscription, so every month, should you subscribe you get deep discounts and all the books from a line you subscribe to right in your mailbox. This system not only sets them apart from other publishers, but is a huge part of my royalty check.

Numbers for the subscription service have gone down over the years, due in large part to the aging demographic (average age of subscriber is around 63) but they still manage to ship out THOUSANDS OF BOXES A DAY!!! Granted they also do Internet orders, but still, I was totally gobsmacked. And the fifty some men and women I talked to handled thousands of calls a day too. This place was hopping.

The distribution center sits right in front of the printer - so books are delivered to the back of the building - packed into boxes and shipped out the front. Harlequin is undergoing what seems like a huge effort to cut down their waste. A lot of authors are reporting that they can turn in manuscripts via email (which is a huge savings for the author!) and now this distribution center has bought a printing press capable of printing a few thousand copies of any book. So while the print runs may have gone down in an effort to save on returns, they are able to print and ship in a matter of hours thousands of extra books, should they be needed.

I was hugely impressed by this. Hugely.

We've talked about how the return system is so wasteful and antiquated - Harlequin loses millions every year due to the return system. And the impact of this system on the environment is enough to make anyone shudder. But it's sort of like a huge barge in a small river, hard to turn around.

I was really proud to be a part of Harlequin last week. And I got free books - so seriously, what's not to love?

Friday, May 22, 2009

How many great scenes make an amazing book?

Drunk writers is not a review site. We sing the praises of the authors we love, and happily, but we never really speak critically of books, or authors, at least using specific names or titles.
But recently I read a book, Broken Wing, which had been given amazing reviews by at least two review sites I really respect.
And while there are some wonderful aspects about this book, I can not say I loved it. I can't really say I even liked it.
That this book was a labour of love was clear on every page, the characters were wounded and dark, normally characters I love, but the plotting, and pacing, was uneven, to the point of slow.
Scene upon scene, all really lovely written, went nowhere, and really didn't progress the plot. There was a ton of telling, and so many pages that I skimmed, or skipped, and in between, gorgeous, lush scenes that were dark and dramatic and compelling. For every one lovely, entrancing scene, there were five that didn't seem to do much.
I feel like I'm missing something when it comes to this book, because some of my favourite review sites are calling this book the best historical of the year. To me, it needed a good editor and a complete rewrite.
But is it just that as historical readers, we've needed a dark, dramatic Laura Kinsale type romance for so long, we'll take a book with deep flaws and some greatness and love it anyway?
Or is is that three, or five deeply emotional, amazing scenes in a book can make it great, despite the other scenes?
Or is that I need to go back and re-read this book and figure out what I missed?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fly on the wall

Tuesday, I spent an interesting (if unproductive) hour in a Starbucks.

Sitting next to me was a man who appeared to be a sales rep for Universal Records and another who I assumed was the owner of a record store.

The sales rep gave him a few CD's, they talked music and upcoming concert tours... then the rep pulled out a catalog and talked up a few new recording artists and new titles he had from established artists.

The buyer (record store owner) then took the catalog and flipped through it saying, I'll take one of these, I'll take five of the new XXX. Oh, that's a nice cover, are they any good? (Shrug from sales rep.) Owner: Okay, I'll take one of those. Etc. etc. Until he worked through the catalog.

And from everything I've heard, this is essentially how booksellers choose books, too. Flipping through a catalog with a publisher's sales rep saying, okay, I'll take some of these, one of those, that looks like a nice cover, I'll try one of those, etc. etc. Even for the big chains.

Even if what I saw was simplified, because it was clearly a small business owner who didn't need to be looking up past sales numbers for the bands, and was only buying for one small store, I was witnessing a process not unlike a publisher's sales rep selling books to a bookstore owner.

It made me realize, once again, how authors (especially debut authors) need to recognize that even if our book rocks, the decision for a bookseller to say: I'll take five of that one, or one, or none, depends less on what's between the pages, and more on whether the sales rep has chosen to talk it up, and whether the cover looks good in the catalog, and the personal tastes of the buyer, and even what kind of mood the buyer is in the day he/she makes the order.

Yet another few ounces of out-of-our-control random to face in this business. Yet a reality.

Eye-opening. And for me, a reminder to only worry about the stuff I can control. First and foremost, my writing.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek and the joys of Genre storytelling

Saw Star Trek last night, a movie that when I first heard was coming out this summer, did not excite any interest for me. And then I saw the reviews and had to see it.
And it’s good. It relates back to the old TV series in clever ways, but at the same time the movie is a thousand times faster, more relevant and well, better written.
Hell, I even loved Kirk, a character up till now, I’d found annoying.

It’s a movie that seemed to really understand it’s genre, and rather than try and be something it’s not, it just tried to be the best of the genre and it really succeeded.

I still don’t understand, why, after both Battlestar and this movie, sci fi continues to get such a bad rap. Some of the most interesting story telling lately has been happening in this genre.

How does Star Trek relate to romance? Other than the common joys of great storytelling, there was a love for the genre on the screen. Whoever wrote this movie loves sci fi.

To me, to write romance well, you have to unabashedly love the genre. Which seems like a no brainer, but I’ve known people through my local RWA chapter who are trying to write romance, but really don’t enjoy the genre. Some, even expressed a disdain for it. They see it as an easier way to get published and hopefully by now have learned the error of their ways.

We don’t have to love all the books, but we have to be passionate about some romances to really write well in this genre. Because if people pick up a romance and are consistently surprised by the quality of the storytelling, then eventually, romance will no longer bear this stigma of being trashy.

Or maybe I’m just in an optimistic mood today..

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On rats, hope and publishing

Recently, I was directed by a few different people, including Kathy Holmes, to a great article written a few years ago by Jennifer Crusie.

You should read Crusie’s article here.

But in case you don't... Here's a prĂ©cis of the part that most resonated with me. Basically, psychologists proved rats that’d been trained to believe there was an island in a vat of opaque water, kept swimming (even when it wasn't there) much longer than rats that had no previous knowledge of an island.

Crusie related this to publishing and how we all need to believe there's an island and keep swimming.

Right now, I happen to be in one of those mind-spaces where I truly believe there's an island in my particular vat of opaque water. I truly believe it's just a matter of time. I truly believe that my not-yet-sold manuscripts, will sell eventually, (just not first), and will be published "better", than if they'd been contracted earlier. These already-shopped projects aren't dead, they're hibernating.

My island is out there. I believe. I'm happy to be swimming again.

Problem is... Even if you’ve seen evidence that your island is there (by way of various bits of success along they way), once you've been around this business long enough, if you're bright, realistic and non-delusional, at various points in time, no matter how much faith you have, you stop believing in the island.

I'll bet the island-believing rats would’ve eventually converted to non-believers, if they’d subsequently been dumped into island-less vats enough times. You can only be smacked in the head so many times before you start to anticipate head smacks. And the publishing business is rife with head smacks. (And writers, even successful ones, are rife with self-doubt.)

Still, thus far, every time I've suffered a major publication defeat, there's been something that keeps me believing in my island. I find reasons to rationalize my failure based on market timing, or some flaw in my project I'd do differently if I had the chance to do it again. Or I remember that the reasons editors failed to bite might be completely out of my control and more to do with their existing list and what they were looking for the day they considered my project. That if I'd been a month (or a year) earlier or later, things might've been different. And there is no getting around the shear randomness of this business, either.

But I do admit, the longer I continue, the more evidence I find to negate previously held beliefs in my island. So I have to find new evidence. New reasons to believe.

And I think that's why many writers revel in the small triumphs. The contest finals. The pats on the back from critique partners or agents or editors or reviewers or readers. The small pieces of outside evidence proving we know what we're doing and the island does exist -- even if we feel, at times, very, very far from shore.

Maybe I need to start entering contests, again.

If you're thinking of entering one... Check this out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Literary Snobbery...It Starts So Young

I had this really fantastic, surreal experience. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a high school literary event held at my old high school. It was very cool - the kids were incredibly keen and incredibly focused and laughed at all my lame jokes.

But little did I know the brouhaha I would create when I referenced the Stephanie Meyer Twilight phenomenon. The cheers and boo's - the fist waving and sneering. Seriously, there could have been a high school literary rumble. And this crowd probably would have broken into the appropriate song.

Anyway - the kids asked questions about the quality of the Twilight books and my response was - Stephanie Meyer is loved by millions of people - she's a gazillionaire. A kid on the "down with Meyer" side of the debate asked why such bad writing gets bought. And I said, publishers need to make money and sometimes making lots of money means appealing to lots of people. And, swear to god, someone said "isn't that like totally selling out?"

My response was - you will need to make up your own minds about what kinds of books you want to write. Selling out, or not. And then of course, someone else yells; "what did you do?"

I said, I chose to be the best writer I could be in a genre I love and buy groceries.

But as I've thought about that talk and the budding literary snobs in attendance, I wish I had answered the quality of books question differently. This is what I wish I had said:

You know how you feel when you read something you love? That jittery, excited, revved up feeling like the world is smaller than it was a minute ago and anything is possible and someone, somewhere is thinking or feeling the exact same thing you are? That feeling is why people read and it's why other people write. Now, if you love reading why in the world would you negate someone else's reading experience? Why would you diminish their joy and their excitement? Because you don't like it? Fine. Don't like it. Don't read it. But leave it there - because everyone deserves to have that joy.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The best heroines are found in real life

It seems to me that heroes tend to drive book sales. Come up with seven delicious men, and the readers will forgive you lackluster, occasionally dull heroines. Some of my favourite authors have written books, where the heroine pales next to the wonderfully complex, dark, conflicted hero. See most of Laura Kinsale's books for example, and from there go to JR Ward, both authors I read compulsively and love.
And I'm pretty sure Molly has a shrine to Laura Kinsale in her house somewhere and I find nothing wrong with that.
But what makes Jenny Crusie a goddess is her ability to create a hero and heroine that were both complex and interesting and complemented each other wonderfully.
It's something I keep in mind as I edit this book, that will never be done. I'm thinking about the traits I've given my heroine, her drive, her independence, and ensuring that somewhere in there, I'm also making her likeable, but never a pushover.
The women I most admire in my life are more and more coming to mind when I start thinking about my heroines. I write historicals, so some of it has to relate to the time period. But I have a friend, who's personal life is a disaster, who is basically a single mom and both her parents are very sick. And somehow every day she manages, not only to get out of bed, but also to laugh at something, usually herself.
She occasionally bemoans her fate, but only for a short while, and then gets back to the process of moving on. Her sense of humor, her refusal to dwell on the negatives in her life, and her need to carve out some pleasures for herself are all traits I would love to somehow embue in my heroines. Because she is not self-sacrificing, and she does wish for easier times, but she still deals magnificently with everthing that is on her plate.
In romance, in our need to make our heroines likeable, make them too self-sacrificing, never complaining, too serious and not real. The best of chick lit and women's fiction gave us heroines that felt real and fully developed, but usually in the process, the male lead suffered.
We at drunk writers have been thinking about what will make the next best selling contemporary, and I think right now, it's combining a fully realized hero and heroine and making them equals, and real.
I would read that in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Human/monster action

Thinking about paranormal romances today... (My copy of Lover Avenged finally arrived!!! And I'm reading Melissa Marr... So lots of vamp and sympath and faery action in my literary life right now.)

And wondering... Those of you who read/write in the genre, do you like humans in your paranormals? Is part of the thrill, imagining the heroine with someone/something dangerous and not quite controllable? Or do you think monster/monster books work better or just as well?

Seems like a lot of authors get around this by having heroines who are half-human and half-demon, half-vamp, half-whatever...

Sorry this isn't a meatier post, but hoping some of you will add some beef in the comments... OMG, we're back to paranormal beef, zombie cows and all that jazz.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

There's nothing like a twist....

Recently I had begun to doubt my new love of writing plots and subplots and external conflict, worrying that I had begun to neglect inner conflict and frankly the love story. According to my agent, editors are asking for THE BIG LOVE STORY. And I was wondering, did I even know what that was anymore? Was it time to drop some subplots and have myself a good old fashioned "let's talk" kind of romance?

Then I watched Dollhouse on Friday -- I won't give it away, because Smurphy hasn't seen it and frankly the twist was so delicious and perfect I sat up on my couch and "WHAT THE @)!?" I fell in love with the twist. I want to have twist babies with that twist. And I realized, sure good old fashioned romances are great -- but man, nothing absolutely nothing beats that moment when you get hit over the head with something you didn't see coming.

Friday, May 01, 2009

What to write when you have nothing

Some blog posts are hard.
Especially when it's Friday and I just want to ramble on about why I love chocolate pudding, and how I've been fantasizing about a Dairy Queen Blizzard, and want to read interviews with the creator of the Wire all day, instead of doing the many, many things I should be doing.

I've been trying to understand what it is about that show that we all love so much. I'm a small ways into Season 3, and itching to watch the rest, but not completely obsessed. Yet. The one thing about the Wire is that, is drops you in the middle of it's world, without ever explaining the world, but takes its time to really build the storylines. Almost the opposite of what every other show does... or book for that matter, where we spend endless paragraphs building and explaining the world and start the story immediately..
See Molly's paranormal beef post.

I've been thinking about getting my hands on the next Sherry Thomas and Elizabeth Hoyt historicals and when I can see Wolverine.. because I don't care about reviews when Hugh Jackman and Taylor Kitsch are in the same movie.

And really, I've been editing. The nuts and bolts stuff, fixing details, deepening POV, making sure the scenes make sense, not really thinking much about the actual storytelling.
It's not my favourite part of the process, by a long shot. And I'm nowhere close to being on my self-imposed deadline.

It's an exciting life....
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