Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Which comes first: Premise or Story?

I’m so jealous of people like J.R. Ward and our own Stephanie Doyle who say that their stories and worlds and characters just land on them all in one lump, fully formed. While some of my books have been easier to write than others, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a book that came quite that clearly, where I didn’t seriously rethink some key element of the story while writing the first draft (never mind while revising).

And my latest book is proving to be one of the hardest I’ve ever tried to write. (I know, I know… I said that about the last one, too. And the one before. And the several I’ve abandoned midway. This one's the hardest, okay??? Leave me alone.)

But I had a possible epiphany last week and it got me thinking: which comes first -- the premise/high concept or the story?

I know it’s a chicken and egg thing and there’s no one right answer… and it’s much like the plot vs. character question -- and that's one I fully believe you can approach from either direction, as long as they’re integrated. That is, you can either think in terms of which characters would work best with a plot you've concocted, or what plot would best torture the characters you've imagined… And the end result can be a character motivated plot either way. In fact, if your brain works even remotely like mine, chances are you think about character and plot at once.

So, yes, I came to grips with the character vs. plot issue ages ago – probably while working on my very first novel, but I’m realizing with these slightly bigger, more complicated, world building books I’ve been writing recently, that in both cases (two different series ideas) the first thing I came up with was the world – the overall premise. Then, based on that premise, I developed a complicated world with lots of rules and lots of backstory (for one series, going back thousands of years), and finally, only once I had all that together, did I start to think of characters and plots to fit in with my premise and world.

And my possible epiphany, while agonizing about the story for my latest book and whether it really works and/or is the best story I can write at this point in my career, is that maybe I’m too wedded to the rules of my world and my overall premise. Maybe I spent too much time on the world upfront. Maybe I did it all ass backwards!

And regardless of how I should have started, (kind of moot, now), if I’m struggling to fit my story and characters into the world I’ve created, why not make the world bend instead of the forcing the story and characters into it? Seems like a “well d’uh” moment, now that I type it, but it felt like a serious lightbulb and/or slap my head moment an hour ago. That is: You idiot, Maureen, you’ve spent all this time trying to force a character and story into a set of rules and a backstory you chose for your world/premise… but if this is the first book in a series, even if that set of rules was cool, even if you already told your agent about it and she loved it, even if you liked it a lot yourself -- if it’s not working, um, change it.

Basically the problem is that now my characters have started to take shape, I no longer think the story I had mapped out for them is the best story for those characters (who are starting to seem real to me). So I’m thinking of changing some pretty major elements of my world. And I mean major. Maybe to the point where humans know that my otherworldly characters exist, whereas before the hero’s entire conflict, and the conflict between the hero and heroine, arose out of keeping his identity a secret… Hmm…

So, those of you who write "other world" stuff… paranormals, urban fantasy, fantasy, or sci-fi… which do you come up with first? Premise? World? Story? Characters? Or does it all come to you at once (and if so, I may have to kill you.)

Then, once you’ve set down the rules for your world, do you allow yourself to change those rules? I mean at some point it needs to be cast in relative stone, or the whole thing’s too fluid, (and I've been thinking about another post on this topic, related to world building...), but at what point do things need to freeze? I thought I was past the point of no return… but maybe not…

Why do I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a very high cliff with no railing????

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Petards, hoisting and other painful realities.

My friend Moe (short for Maureen, but not to be confused with our Maureen here at DWT although, trust me, Ms. Moe can bend her elbow with the best of them) has had a couple of seriously neurotic cats. There was Halley who was having a love affair with her arm. If she'd been out of town for a few days, he would not leave her alone until she would put on a wool sweater and allow him to spend some quality time with her arm. It was seriously unseemly.

Now she has Puck who curls up behind her while she's sleeping and nurses on her neck right where her hairline starts.

I used to laugh at her for having such neurotic maladjusted pets. I was a little smug about my normal happy healthy cats. Then my cat, Shadow, began to self-mutilate. I don't know how else to describe it. He scratched a hole in his back so deep that the hair still hasn't grown back three years later. The vet diagnosed him with idiopathic feline ulcerative dermatosis. Translated into English that means that my cat was clawing the hell out of his back for no apparent reason.

I had been hoisted by my own petard. I'd been smug about my well-adjusted pets (and, by extension, my superior pet parenting) and the Universe decided, as it often does, to give me a smack.

So now that my OTHER cat, Snowy (can you guess which of my cats is white and which is black?), has begun doing the same thing. I was reflecting on my sin of pet parenting hubris and realized that this is exactly what I need to do to my characters! No, not scratch the hair off their back! Hoist them by their own petards, pull the rug out from under them, take whatever they feel most confident in and have it fall apart on them! Awesome!

I wish I could say that no animals were harmed in the course of this epiphany, but I'm afraid poor Snowy is still pretty sad.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lessons From My 18th Book

I typed The End on my 18th book this weekend. Wow. It seems like I should know more. Or be more confident. But I'm not. I feel about the same as I did when I typed The End on my tenth. Or eleventh. Sort of like I've woken up after a great night of dancing and drinking too much. I hurt all over, can't remember everything, but what I do remember makes me laugh. And cringe.

This book was a bit of a doozey - it's the third in a series about the Notorious O'Neill family. Gem theft, gambling, sex, politics and mommy issues. What could be better?

But here is what I've learned - the sum total of my writing knowledge gleaned from dragging myself to The End of 18 books.

Some books are gifts. They just happen. Characters leap full blooded off the page and do all sorts of exciting things. Don't question it, don't expect it again, just write the hell out of it.

Some books are curses. Nothing works. The plot you thought was so unique will bottom out, your characters will be two dimensional at best and all that conflict will fizzle away. It's not you - you're not suddenly a terrible writer. It's just the damn book. Curse books usually always come after a gift book. Because the writer gods are vicious and think it's funny.

NEVER EVER EVER take a long break from your book while in the middle of a scene. Because that scene will play over and over again in your head while on that break and when you sit down to write- it will seems so flat and dead. And endless. Because you've spent a month thinking about it. Awful. Worst thing I did to this poor book.

When it feels good - capitalize. Order pizza for dinner, send the kids away. Do what Kathleen O'Reilly does and check yourself into a hotel, because that feeling won't last.

When it feels bad - figure out why. The one thing that has gotten better over eighteen books is my willingness to listen to myself when I start to dig in my heels. Part of me knows something is not working.

After 18 books sound critiques are more important than ever. This I know - when I have failed myself and my book - my critique group will save me. It seems like we should earn perspective as we go, the ability to look at our work with fresh eyes and a clear head. But no. It gets worse. And fresh eyes and a clear head are the difference between a great book and an okay book.

After eighteen books, I don't want to write an okay book. My goals are more cemented than ever. I want my books to be great.

Now...what to do for 19 and 20?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Required Reading

I made a comment in my last post about DWT’s required reading list. Obviously I was joking. But then Eileen posted about different books that impacted us at different phases of our lives. Everyone was going with the serious stuff – and I didn’t want to sound like a reading slacker – so I went with a classic.

But I will be honest – 9 times out of 10 the serious stuff bores me or makes me sad.

Now the difference between me, who blows off the serious stuff as sad and boring, and a “serious” reader, who blows off romance as silly and trivial, is this – I try the serious stuff. I try everyone before I make comments about them.

That said I think Nicholas Sparks is a bad romance novelist who is only popular because a) he’s a man who is sensitive and b) because he kills someone at the end of his stories. I have had readers – men and women - vehemently disagree with me. That’s fine. But I would never make a comment about Sparks if I hadn’t read him first. Anita Shreve writes beautifully… she also makes me sad. I am always sad when I finish her books. I don’t like to be sad. I like to be happy - so I don’t read Anita Shreve anymore.

I thought about required reading for romance. I know lots of blogs do these lists all the time, but I’ve never gotten to do mine. And well… now I can.

My required reads before you can talk to me about my genre are….

(Note: I am not including any - I’ll call them modern romances - because I could go on forever. These are just my staples. The things good or bad that established the genre as a major force in the 80s and 90s that have gotten us to where we are now. The books that got me hooked and taught me so much about storytelling. )

Classics: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and this is classic “light” - Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.

Category: Linda Howard – anything from Silhouette Intimate Moments - in particular: Duncan's Bride. Jayne Ann Krentz – anything from her Harlequin Temptations - in particular: Joy, The Pirate, The Adventurer and The Cowboy. Elizabeth Lowell – any of her Silhouette Desires - in particular: Too Hot to Handle.

Historical: There is great debate here… but I will go with Shanna – Kathleen Woodiwiss. But I will also accept by KW, The Wolf and the Dove, Ashes in the Wind, or A Rose in Winter. The Flame and the Flower ONLY is not acceptable. Johanna Lindsey – Secret Fire, Savage Thunder. Catherine Coulter - The Magic Trilogy. Dorothy Garlock – River of Tomorrow and Midnight Blue.

Contemporary: This is a category I’m somewhat weak on. My easy pick is Nora Roberts – Born in Ice. It’s probably one of my top 10s of all time. But I know you’re going to be expecting SEP here – and I am hit and miss with her. Also with Cruise. So I will accept the Nora Roberts and allow you all to fill in my missing gaps. But you have to kick it old school. If I could I would include Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes –not technically a romance, but was a defining “heroine” driven book for me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Running into the Trees in the Forest

I've just started writing a new book. First of all, forgive me. I have book brain. I'm truly not sure if I'm making sense at all.

Here's my deal. I love creating characters. I love creating situations. I love writing dialogue and developing a setting that is meaningful. I'm hopeless at stringing it all together in a linear fashion which is pretty much necessary when you're writing a book.

I got so twisted up last week, a friend (you know who you are Serena Robar) had to spend several hours on the phone talking me through my own book. At one point, she said that it had gotten so big and complex that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. It's a good metaphor, but I'm not sure it's accurate.

I think I might actually only see trees and no forest. Seeing the forest would imply that I still had a sense of the shape of the book. When I'm at this point, I don't think I can see the shape of it anymore. If I could, I might now where all those individual trees (or scenes as we professional authors like to call them) might belong.

So it's a new week and I wrote ten pages today which is the Eileen equivalent of running a half marathon, but I'm terrified. I feel like I'm running through the forest blindly and at any second I might run into a tree and break my nose. Of course, then maybe I could get that nose job I've always wanted.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cliffhangers: Sinead had a.....

Baby girl! Everyone is doing great and I'm sure she's already sitting down at her computer to work over some edits. Sinead - not the baby. Though, you never know with her kids.

And while that's the best kind of cliffhanger, it wasn't totally what I've been obsessing over for the past few weeks. I've finished Catching Fire, the second in the Hunger Games Trilogy that has made me a lunatic the last few months, I read an interview with Dan Brown and Stephanie has me thinking far too much about True Blood - and I'm realizing the common bond that those three highly successful books/TV shows share is the cliffhanger.

Dan Brown, we can all agree is not the best wordsmith, but the guy knows drama. He knows how to keep the pages turning and the money rolling in - and he said in this interview that every ten pages there had to be another puzzle to solve. A cliffhanger. EVERY TEN PAGES!!!

And one of the things that made me crazy - in a good way - about True Blood were those episode cliffhangers. Holy Cats - how could you not watch the next episode with some of those cliffhangers? The queen with the blood down her leg? Layfayette's eyes turning black?

And Catching Fire - well, I pretended to be sick so I could finish the book. I cried. I laughed. I could not put it down and in thinking about it - there were the chapter cliffhangers, but then always in the middle of a chapter there would be a huge - OMG moment! The stakes get raised, things get reversed - something that changes the game. So, again, that's about every ten pages the world gets shaken up.

And to tell you the truth - I want to say - well, I write romance, I don't need all those cliffhangers. But I do. Emotional cliffhangers count. Probably double.

Now, I've stopped ending my chapters with characters going to sleep. At least I've learned that. And I try to add some drama to those chapter endings - but I think the real cliffhanger isn't edited in, or manufactured. I think learning how to write with that chugging suspense under all your words is the key - and again, I think it's double for romance. Readers know how the book is going to end, so figuring out how to keep them turning those pages is a crucial line in the sand between keeper and non-keeper.

Have you guys considered this? Are you obsessing over chapter ends? Ten page hooks?

I'm interested in what Eileen and Stephanie have to say as suspense writers -

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wait...

To be a member of DWT it comes with a required reading list. At least that’s what Maureen told me when she mentioned the idea at RWA.

She said… “You have read Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and The Star?”

I said no, I wasn’t really into Kinsale back then.

And she said … “Oh… it’s required that you do or you can’t talk competently about historical romances.”

Did you all know that Maureen had such a mean streak? Of course I’m kidding and paraphrasing but she told me about this book and I had to read it. It was amazing. On my RITA scale I would give it an 8. I had some problems with the suspense element at the end. Totally unnecessary in my point of view. But I digress…

What I was reminded about these “old school” romances is they allowed for build up. You spent time with the heroine. You spent time with the hero. Before anything really developed between them. You got to know who they were, what their story was. It added to the conflict because you had a sense of history about them as people.

Pulling this off is hard because you have to make that time spent with them apart still interesting. I think Kinsale accomplished this. However, I just read another historical by a new favorite author and sadly, I think she fails. She’s really trying to build the hero and the heroine independently, but I find I’m bored with the entire preface. Let’s get to the chase already.

I know this is a product of our times. We want everything instantly. Romance now. Sex now. Action now, now now. No waiting. Authors have a lot of pressure to make it happen and make it happen fast. But on the flipside of being bored by the wait I read a contemporary recently, again from a favorite author, and there is nothing that holds this couple together. It is entirely in the moment. And the only thing I know about either of them is some vague sense of a past and that they find each other attractive. When they finally come together… I’m like who cares.

So we wait… and we’re bored. Or we leap right in, but we get no sense of what led them to the conflict they must have in order for it to be a successful romance. Which is it?

As writers/ readers what do you like? A sloooow build up, or BAM action on the first page?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Technological Breakthrough

I'm going to be a lazy blogger today, because it's TIFF week in Toronto, and while I'm not going to my usual 45 films this year, I am going to a couple a day (13 in total), and it's occupying too many brain cells. I've been blogging about some of the movies: V.O.S. and Whip It so far.

I saw two fabulous movies today (I'm writing this Tuesday night): Balibo and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Both really, really good. It was a tough day emotionally because of those two films. Maybe that's why my brain's broken. Check my blog later in the day for mini-reviews of those. Assuming I retrieve some brain cells through this new method I heard of called SLEEPING.

All this is a long intro to say that my lazy blog for today will be plagiarized quoted from a bookmark I recently received at my local indie bookstore, Book City. (Does it make it better or worse that I'm stealing from them, if I link to them?) Who knows... perhaps they stole this from somewhere else... And I've heard it on good authority that two wrongs actually do make a right.

Anyway, this is what's printed on the book marks they're currently handing out with purchases. (I got mine when I couldn't resist buying my own copy of CATCHING FIRE, by Suzanne Collins, even though Sinead had already bought it and told me I could read her copy first... WOW, that's a book... But I digress, again...)


Introducing the new Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device -- BOOK.

BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology; no wires, no electronic circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It's easy to use. Even a child can operate it.

Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere -- even sitting in an armchair by the fire -- yet it is powerful enough to hold as much as a CD-ROM.

BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. The pages are locked together with one of two custom devices, a BINDER, or DOUBLE STITCH BINDING, which keep the sheets in the correct sequence, Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density.

Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly to your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet.

BOOK never crashes nor requires rebooting. The "browse" function allows instant movement to any sheet, forward or backward, as one wishes. Many come with an "index" feature, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

Portable, durable and affordable, BOOK is being hailed as a precursor of a new entertainment wave. BOOK's appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform and investors are reportedly flocking to the medium. Look for a flood of new BOOKs at... Book City.

This amuses me.

And no, I don't think it's a political statement about e-books (although I might be wrong, I don't think that was the necessarily the intent).

I think it's more about promoting books and reading vs other kinds of entertainment. And that reminds me of a great essay the lovely, Joanne Rendell -- whose new book CROSSING WASHINGTON SQUARE, was recently released -- wrote for the Huffington Post about promoting reading and books.

Yeah, books! Yeah, reading. Come on. Do it. All the cool kids are.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Timing is Everything

We joke about timing at our house a lot. My man has a lot going for him. He's handsome. He's smart. He's funny and talented. He does not have a shred of timing. Never has. Probably never will. We plan for his bad timing these days.

In publishing, timing is everything. Landing the right project on the right desk at the right time is the first step. Landing in the bookstores at the right time is a giant next step. Landing in a reader's hands at the right moment is the best step of all.

I was thinking about this the other day in spin class when they played Joan Jett's cover of I Love Rock 'n Roll (don't argue with me, The Arrows recorded it first in 1975). I love that song. It makes me think of those first few years in college, dancing like a crazy woman at parties, being all wild and rock 'n roll-y. There's that line about the boy by the record machine. The one who must a been about seventeen? I was closer to nineteen when the song came out, but it was close enough.

Now, however? Now I have a seventeen-year-old son and suddenly the lyrics to the song stuck in my throat and is wasn't just because we were doing jumps. The song is now ruined for me. Now it's about my kid, not me, and believe you me, if you're eying him by the record machine, you're going to have to go through me first. Okay, fine. I'm not going to be that kind of mother, but you know what I mean!

All of this made me think of books that I read at the perfect moment for their message to reach me. There was Heartbreak Hotel by Gabrielle Burton in my late twenties. The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve right after my husband passed away. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott back when I was a girl. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood around the time I was getting divorced. Those books spoke to my soul. As a reader, there's nothing sweeter. Every once in a while, I get some mail from a reader who I've touched, whose hands I've landed in at just the right moment, and I'll tell you know, that is the sweetest thing of all.

P.S. Yesterday, actor Patrick Swayze lost his battle against pancreatic cancer. I know I'm a hopeless romantic, but RIP Johnny Castle. Because of you, nobody will ever put Baby in a corner.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rejections Happen On Friday and Other Nonsense

I have a project out in the world and the rejections are beginning to roll in. The first three all arrived in my in-box on Friday morning. And so last Friday with all the conviction in the world I thought to myself:

Rejections happen on Friday. Of course they do. That makes perfect sense. They take the week to read and then Friday morning they sit down with a cup of coffee and a stack of heartbreak to dish out and they send out the rejections.

And I added that little nugget of information to the other nuggets of information I had about the ever-mysterious publishing industry. It took a few hours before I realized what an idiot I was. I am so desperate to make sense of this business that I'm all too ready to declare rules out of the tiny coincidences or overheard tidbits that I experience.

I feel like an Ancient Greek looking up at the blazing sun and thinking - of course that's a fiery chariot! Pulled by a golden god - that's what Maureen told me and Sinead said she saw him one night. Must be true!

Because so much of publishing is truly subjective (every single rejection said - I just didn't love it enough,) we want there to be reasons or rules. And because we all totally love our work we need there to be reasons other than someone else not feeling as passionately. We want outside factors, concrete things we can point to and say - yep, that's why my book didn't sell, and all those rejections came in on Friday.

So, what are some of the things you think you know, or know you don't know - or wish you knew about that blazing chariot - I mean publishing Industry?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Baby is eating my brain

I'm incubating right now. 2 weeks to go before my due date, and it seems as though my brain has shut down. Sane, rational thought seems like a fantasy and even the simplest words are beyond my grasp.

So, do I have a blog post. No, not one that makes sense, but since Stephanie's post yesterday, I've been thinking about Vampire Eric and how he's become the main sex symbol from the show. A man less than nine episodes ago, went into the basement wearing foils in his hair, and flip flops and proceeded to tear apart one of his captives.

But a little vulnerability later(in addition to a hot actor, and he's a sex symbol. And I'm completely on board. Add the right characteristics, and we're so forgiving of bad behavior, because let's face it, no one's sexier than a reformed bad boy. At least in fiction.

Stephanie has great taste in boyfriends.

Because if Vampire Eric can make great boyfriend potential, then, where does that leave us as romance writers?

With as wide a choice as we want for our heroes, as long as we don't make them weak. I'm starting a new book soon, and the hero's characteristics have been top of mind. Because I always wimp out with him. I add vulnerability too soon, worry about his likeability, rather than make him truly alpha. And Stephanie's post reminded me not to do that again.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My new boyfriend is Eric from True Blood

I told Molly when she asked me to blog that I would spend a ridiculous amount of time talking about my newest obsession… Eric from True Blood. As a single woman whose dating life is relegated to whatever I have my characters doing… I like to have “boyfriends”.

No I’m not weird or delusional or desperate… well maybe a little desperate - “boyfriend” is just my way of identifying those people who speak to me. Fictional characters, real life actors, sports figures… those who I would date if I were a super model and had my pick of all men.

Tiger Woods is my boyfriend. I’ve been steady with him for sometime. Russell Crowe used to be my boyfriend but we’re sort of on a break. There’s George Stephanopoulos when I want to be brainy. Jon Stewart when I want to be amused. David Cook and I hooked up for a while when he was on Idol because I needed to be entertained. You get the idea.

My newest boyfriend is Eric from True Blood. Please if you’ve never watched an episode just watch Season 2 Episode 9. That’s all you need. Just the sheer physical beauty of the man…. I go dreamy even thinking about it.

But of course this is a writer’s blog – so let’s take the sex and good looks out of it. (Although can we ever really?) For me his character works far better than the lead hero Bill. Bill is supposed to be a “sensitive” alpha male vampire. Sensitive, romantic, thoughtful and so so sad he has to suck blood for food. But then he snaps and yells at the heroine and tells her that she must obey and crap like that.

Eric, however, is not a good guy. Eric does what he wants, when he wants, for only his purposes. And he doesn’t seem to have a problem eating anyone…(heheheh.)

But then we see he has this odd vulnerability when it comes to the heroine. Which of course makes him a perfect romantic foil.

Beyond just his physical dominance over Bill – which cannot be ignored – he just screams the part of alpha vamp better because he’s meaner.

Of course it got me to thinking as a writer who loves to read and write about alphas… are they all jerks? Do they have to be mean? Is this just a case of my lust running amok that I’m not giving sensitive-vamp enough credit? Or does size, power and flat out ruthlessness make the alpha?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Are Contests Worth it?

We've blogged about contests (well, I have) a few times before on DWT, and usually when I talk about entering contests, I talk about the advantages of possibly getting good feedback as a beginner, of getting objective feedback, of possibly landing on the desk of an editor or agent you'd like to work with, of getting your name out there, of gaining the courage to submit, of learning how to accept criticism -- even sometimes very harsh and unfair criticism, of learning to discern between good advice and downright dumb advice.

And I still believe in all of those reasons. I think contests are great. I've coordinated a few. But at some point I decided, for me, none of those reasons for entering applied anymore. I had an agent, so no need to attract one. It's my agent's job to get me onto the desks of editors, so no reason to use a contest for that. Objective feedback is always good... but I've reached a point where I have enough critique partners with varied enough tastes, whom I trust to tell me the truth. (We've moved past the blowing smoke up each others asses when someone's clearly struggling and has blown it, stage.)

So, I just didn't see the point. Plus, I felt as if, when it comes to contests for unpublished authors, it's possible to get your name out there too much. I mean... I finalled in a few contests back in 2003... How does it look to be adding to that list of accolades now? I've finalled in the Golden Heart and in the ABNA contests, did I really need to enter chapter contests anymore?

I discussed this with a good friend in DC this summer. A friend who, in spite of being in a similar position of being agented for a few years, has taken the opposite approach to me and has kept entering contests, and in fact has about six GH nominations at this point. After talking to her, I decided it was time to shake things up. Clearly the status quo hadn't been getting me where I want to go, and so I thought maybe just tossing something into a contest would at least give me some forward momentum.

And guess what? I remembered another reason why it's nice to enter contests. Positive reinforcement. :-)

My women's fiction manuscript SWITCHING SIDES -- that's kind of Freaky Friday meets Will & Grace -- finalled in the paranormal category of the Get Your Stiletto in the Door contest! Yay!

It's a strange little book (well, not so little) that doesn't seem to really fit any known genre, but I love it. And now I know at least two other people who aren't my critique partners, two total strangers, love it too.

Yay. :-)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Grammar Warrior

So there's this gentleman in England who is terribly unhappy about the decision to leave apostrophes off street signs. He is braving accusations of vandalism and tagging to make sure he lives on St. John's Close, not St. Johns Close.

Despite the fact that I love the part where he says he knows more than "a mere Corporal," I have mixed emotions about Mr. Gatward's Punctuation Crusade.

I am not much of a grammar maven. I was blessed (or possibly cursed) with a father who spoke well. I grew up speaking well. I never actually learned the rules, I just sound like I've learned them. This whole post could be full of egregious grammatical errors and I wouldn't even know. I am a total Grammar Fraud and live in constant terror of being found out.

Maybe this has made me a tad over-sensitive. While I was among the first to crack up when the barbecue restaurant had "Bowels of Chili" on its Specials board, I felt bad when a friend suggested we sneak over to a neighbor's house in the middle of night and add an "ly" to his "Please Drive Slow" sign. Or maybe I felt badly. Hell if I know. I just know he wants everybody to slow the heck down as they go around that corner so they don't run over his children.

In the end, the message is more important to me than anything else. Still, if we keep letting things slide, will we eventually end up in a place where the message is lost because we can't read it anymore?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Is a perfectly balanced romance possible?

Been thinking about Stephanie's post from yesterday, and I believe I know the book she referred to. A delicious, wonderful hero and a so-so heroine, made an almost amazing romance.

But, honestly, I can't think of a romance where the hero and heroine were both amazing, and wonderful and complex. Even with my favourite books, either the hero, or the heroine, is more interesting.

All of Laura Kinsale's books, where the heroes are unbelievable and the heroines pale in comparison. JR Ward, the Zadist book where the heroine seemed almost extraneous to his storyline.

One of my favourite books is The Promise Of Jenny Jones, and in this book, the heroine is the star, and the hero is a little stock characterish.

My favourite SEP book is Ain't She Sweet. You can tell by the title of that book where the focus will be.

In Sherry Thomas's books, the heroine's all seem more memorable to me than the heroes, but she comes close to balancing the two.

I honestly can't think of a single romance where the two were perfectly balanced. I'm wondering if it's even possible.

Would love to know if anyone has read a romance that is perfectly balanced?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Close... but no cigar.

I’m two-thirds the way through a book that came highly recommended. Yet another break out historical romance (where can I just say all the buzz seems to be happening lately.) I don’t want to give the name of the book or the author – because my review of the book is not all positive. And I feel really bad about that.

This author took SUCH a risk. It was just a mind blowing, no-way-would-it-work, risk that I have to bow my head to her for even trying it. And as I’m reading the book I think… she almost got it. The hero is almost the most fascinating one I’ve ever read.

Almost a perfect book… but not quite.

Of course this just my opinion. I’m sure others believe she nailed it. But I think my disappointment comes from wanting to read that perfect story, with the perfect hero and the perfect heroine and the perfect story and just not finding it.

As a writer it’s not possible (at least for me) to be completely non judgmental as I read a book. I’m always looking for what works and what doesn’t. Partly as Eileen spoke about on Tuesday because I’m trying to learn what makes it successful – so I can steal that and have my own success.

And then it makes me realize how freakin’ impossible it is to really get to perfection. It’s not just about having an interesting hero and heroine, but also how they work together. It’s not just about having a fast moving plot, but does every element of it make sense. Does their conflict work? Does the resolution work? Was the sex (or lack thereof) pertinent to the story?

On what planet did anyone deciding to be a writer think this could be done!!!! We are all insane!!! I know this is not news. So you all have to tell me… what in your opinion has been the perfect book? Flawless, in all regards from beginning to end. For me most recently it would be… The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt. Flat out if I had gotten that book to judge for the RITA it would have been a 9. And in terms of a category book I’m going with Worth Fighting For… by Molly. (See fancy widget at the bottom). As the end of a series and all the things that had to be “emotionally” wrapped up that for me that was a perfect book.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Asking the Right Questions

Of course, there are no wrong questions when you're learning, but the more you learn about the publishing business, the more you realize how common it is for beginners to ask the "wrong" questions at the outset. I blame the portrayal of the publishing industry on TV and in movies. Ah, if only publishing worked like it does in the movies we'd all be rich and jet setting on all-expense paid tours to well-attended book signings....

Last week, a newly discovered Drunk Writer Stalker, posed a question in the comments of another post. The commenter is an aspiring writer wondering what line at Harlequin to target. And the way he framed his questions reminded both Molly and I of me -- of my six-years-ago self, anyway, so I thought I'd draw on Molly's advice to him for my blog post this week. Notice how I'm stealing from Molly? Shhh... Don't tell her.

Our new stalker's criteria for weighing the pros and cons of different Harlequin lines had to do with comments he'd read (here and other places) about the extent to which the various editors required revisions before buying, and how many books each editor was likely to ask her authors to write every year.

Molly quite rightly pointed out that all editors at Harlequin require revisions for most new authors, before acquiring...

Molly also pointed out that none of the Harlequin lines want one-hit-wonders, so no matter which line you write for, your editor will hope and/or expect you to produce at least two books a year. (Most hope for 3.) That's just what it takes to be a Harlequin author.

When I started writing, I asked different, but equally "wrong" questions about Harlequin. I was asking things like: which line is shortest? Which line is new and more likely to be picking up new authors? Which line fits this story I already started writing before ever reading any Harlequin novels? (Ultimately I chose the first line I targeted, based on the fact the editor of that line was coming to our chapter meeting and taking pitches. Sure, I can make it fit her line. Yeah, sure I can...)

The second of my "wrong" questions above isn't completely wrong-headed, but as both Molly and Stephanie can attest, there's a huge risk selling into those newer lines at Harlequin, because they don't always last. I never even got a chance to submit the second manuscript I wrote, because I was targeting the very short-lived Flipside line.

All this right question/wrong question stuff reminds me of a great talk I saw at nationals this year, given by agent Kristin Nelson, and her client Ally Carter. The format of their talk was a series of "wrong" questions to ask about writing YA, along with the "right" questions.

For example:
Wrong question: "How can I develop a young adult voice?"
Right question: "Will my voice appeal to teen readers?"


Wrong question: "What's the right word count for Young Adult fiction?"
Right question: "How important is pacing in Young Adult fiction?"

And this got me wondering, could we develop a similar list for people who want to write romance but don't know what kind of romance they want to tackle?

Romance is probably the most diverse genre in publishing with oodles of subgenres (just check out the annual Romantic Times award list). Sure, there's a lot going on in speculative/sci fi/fantasy, too... but I really think (contrary to an article done a few years ago in Writers Digest) that romance is the most diverse. That article on genre fiction showed a gazillion different branches of fantasy and sci-fi, but only five or six sub-genres for romance. I thought this was crazy, especially since I could go along the branches on that fantasy/sci-fi tree and tack the word romance after almost every branch to yield a fully formed sub-genre of romance that probably outsells its fantasy counterpart... But I'm going off on one of my tangents... **Maureen pulls herself back.**

So, let's take romance's diversity as a given. If you're starting out, what kind of romance should you write?

Even if you're not just starting out, this is a hard question. The single hardest lesson, I continue to work on learning, is to stop asking: What's hot right now? What are the editors looking for? AARGH.... Get that question out of my head.

Some of the right questions might be:

What books do I love to read?
Do my strengths as a writer lie in fast-paced plotting or slowly-developing, delicious, emotional moments?
Am I drawn to supernatural or suspense or futuristic elements?
Do I like writing tame or hot?
Do I enjoy doing research about historical periods?
Is my natural writing voice formal or casual?
Can I consistently deliver wit in my writing?
Can I write great action scenes, or scary scenes, or really hot sex scenes?
Are my story ideas big enough to carry a 90K+ book, or are they better suited for shorter novels?

But ultimately it all comes back to: "What books do I love to read?"

Sinead and I were chatting the other night about some changes I'm making to my current WIP. My concern (pre changes) was that given the premise and the conflict, the reader would be able to see the climax of my story coming from about chapter 3, if not sooner. I feared readers would know exactly what was going to come between the couple in the end, would see all the decisions and compromises and sacrifices each would have to make. Sure, they wouldn't know the details, but there was no getting around the core of the conflict between these two characters and it was cliche. And I wondered whether if I were reading this book -- even if it had an interesting premise, even if it was fast paced -- if I was 99% sure I knew where the story was leading me, would I just put the book down. (Sure, all romances end in a HEA, it's the climax or black moment that should sneak up and grab you.)

And Sinead, as usual, said something really smart. She pointed out that for the two of us, right now, because we're still sans publisher, (hey, we're publisher free!), we have no one to please but ourselves. And that's perhaps the one luxury of being unpublished. No one to please but yourself. If we don't write books we, ourselves, would like to read, then what's the point? Why not save the "do I really need to write another book like the last one, just to please my publisher and readers" stage until we run up against it?

Right now, we need to write for ourselves. (With an eye to the market of course. We're not that dumb.)

Can you think of other wrong and right questions to ask about writing romance?

And Milo. Ask more questions. Please. :-) We hereby promise never to say you've asked the wrong questions again.

Oh, and to answer your question about whether being a dude will hold you back? Short answer is no. It might even help you because you'll stand out from the crowd of submissions. You might want to use a female pseudonym, but not necessarily. And that's something you don't have to worry about now. That's something you can discuss with your editor after you sell. But contrary to the movies... you won't be jet-setting around on book tours where you'll be outed as a man. You won't need to hire a woman to pretend to be you like Hugh Jackman did in that silly movie. No worries, mate...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Killing the Magic . . . Or Finding It?

I had several idea for blog posts for today (Kyra Sedgwick's wardrobe in THE CLOSER, my love of themes, grammar vandals) all of which I threw out the window after reading the following quote from James Cameron, the man behind TITANIC in Entertainment Weekly (because I am that kind of classy intellectual girl):

" I don't feel competitive with TITANIC . . . In all cultures in the world, everyone just happened to like that movie. But I can't run my career as a filmmaker trying to reverse-engineer the combination to that lock."

I sat there (I'm not going to mention where I was sitting) totally stunned at the profundity of that statement. How many times have I seen that happen? An author (or a film maker or a painter or a musician) scores big with something and then keeps trying to reproduce it, but it doesn't always work. The result can be cold and lifeless, because the heart that originally went into the book (movie, painting, song) just isn't there in the pale reverse-engineered duplicates. Or someone else tries to emulate the book and you get the same thing. An imitation of its external factors, but none of the internal guts that really made it work.

I know I'm guilty of it. I can think of several proposals that were shot down for various reasons, but I really think this is the real one. I reverse-engineered the life out of the story. Instead of letting the story grow organically out of my characters, I forced situations on them that I thought would fit a certain mold.

Then (because I am incapable of only seeing one side of an argument which is why even trying to pick what to make for dinner can be excruciating for me), it occurred to me that some times, reverse-engineering is really about learning my craft.

When I started working on my first urban fantasy, DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER, I really didn't know anything about the character. I'd had a snippet of a scene pop into my head and wanted to figure out what to do with it. I started thinking about which books that I'd read recently that I'd loved. Not liked. Not enjoyed. LOVED. Robin Hobb's Assassin series popped into my head.

I loved those books. Couldn't put them down. I adored the main character. I asked myself why? I did some rereading and lot of thinking and came up with the fact that the hero didn't really look like hero material at the beginning. Sure, he had some special skills, but he didn't even know how to use them correctly and some of them had to be kept secret. He was essentially a little cog in a very big machine, but ended up being the crucial piece that allowed the good guys to win. He became hero material. He had to. I wanted to make a character like that and that's where Melina Markowitz, Messenger to the supernatural world in Sacramento was born. Her story grew out of who she was and who she needed to become.

I love writing Melina. I think she's one of the better heroines I've created in a while and I don't think she would have happened without a little bit of reverse-engineering.
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