Monthly Archives: June 2011

“It’s a well-plotted, well-paced story; I’m glad that I took the time to read it”

Or, My First Review!

Subtitle says it all, yes?  One of the romance bloggers whom I’ve contacted over the past month about reading and reviewing What You Will just posted her review (there’s another who put up a star rating–5 out of 5, ahem, from someone who does not always give good starrings–but no review with it for me to praise as genius or ridicule as ridiculous fustian).  Yeah, so, first review.

It’s mostly positive.  More importantly it’s believably positive.  This was someone who had clearly read it, and who liked it and wants to see the next one even if it wasn’t perfect.  I would be suspicious if someone I don’t know in real life, who has more than a passing familiarity with romance, was all “OMG! Best book ever!” about it. I mean, probably not too suspicious, but I would go see if this was said about all books on the site as either the author or a prospective buyer looking for an outside opinion. 

Now, the writer in me would have loved a further discussion of the problem sections (WOODEN in places?  What?  OVERDONE in places?  Inconceivable!)  but, alas, I am left to the pleasure of discovering this 5 years from now when I decide to go back and re-read my earliest publications with a better distance and vision.  So I’ll wait to enjoy that surprise then. (The marketer in me does not mind the lack of those specific examples, in hopes that not everyone will see them, since, obviously, I didn’t and neither did my beta readers.)  Also, 1 typo per 23K?  Not good enough.  I am so firing my editor.

Here was my favorite part:

I read Courtney Milan’s Unlocked, and What You Will isn’t as good as Unlocked. The writing is a little more wooden in some places, a little overdone in others, and it doesn’t have as strong an emotional grip. However, it’s a sweet story with a fun concept, it’s very readable, and I’m interested in party girl Olivia’s story, due next month.

Bar none the most critical part (but also encouraging, since she freely admits to wanting the next story), and yet that isn’t even why it’s the part that made me smile.  No, that would be the fact that she just compared it to Courtney Milan’s new ebook novella that has landed her on the NYT and USA Today bestseller lists.  Um.  Yeah.  I so don’t mind coming in behind her.  Milan is one of the writers who I would consider an influence, based on the characters she chose to write about in her first two published works changing my perception of the character landscape for populating romance novels. Also, she’s awesome, and I love her work.  I am happy to have my novella come in as a lesser version of hers. 

Because, correct me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t that implicit in such a comparison?  I mean, you don’t write a review of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and end it with “It’s not as good as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” because, duh, those are so different that the comparison is irrelevant.  Ergo this reviewer must have felt my little bookie-wook (which, clearly I view as a child if it makes me baby talk when I get proud of something it has achieved, as if I had nothing to do with it) is at least vaguely similar enough to justify such a comparison.  Right?  I hope so, anyway.

You can go read the review here.  And if you’ve read my ebook, too, by all means leave the charming piratess your thoughts. Or leave them here for me.  Either way.

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“I Smell Sex and Candy”

Or, Sex in a Context

I alluded at the end of my last post—about how sex in a romance novel should be presented as part of the characters’ emotional journey together—to the expectation that romance novels contain a sex scene or two, even if it is not integral to their falling in love. 

This is an issue I struggle with as a reader and as a writer.  When is the sex right, and when is it there because a romance novel is “supposed” to have a sex scene or two?  Does it matter whether the sex scene really furthers the journey if the author makes you wait the entire book for it?  Should it be there at all, if it comes in only at the very end?  Is it appropriate to the context (i.e., historical period) to have it before the end, if the ending is, for example, the wedding?

I have read plenty of romance novels where I felt like the hero and heroine had sex before they got married simply so the readers could enjoy that with them.  I don’t exactly mind this, since, as one of those readers, I do enjoy the sensuality of sex scenes, but there is a discomfort for me as well when I see no good reason for the characters to behave that way.  In the social context of their time, it seems almost unthinkably reckless, and also shockingly…amoral? 

I want to be clear:  I am not a Puritan.  I do not believe you need to wait until marriage nowadays, and I don’t exactly have a problem with sex outside of marriage even in a historical context, if it’s the right context. 

But in historical romance novels there is an epidemic of well-bred young ladies deciding to have sex as soon as their husband-to-be proposes—and yes, she knows and he knows and we knows that they really are in love—but this seems…off to me.  Too modern a view of morality, perhaps.  Too much “if it feels good do it”/“If it comes from love it must be moral” attitude.  It also smacks of an inability to wait patiently or maintain self-control (and yes, that is a criticism of impatient and poorly self-controlled decisions and actions on anybody’s part, including my own).  It…kind of makes me think less of all parties involved, even as I enjoy their consummation.  It’s weird, I know.

But then you also have the flip side of this, where you read a romance novel full of sexual tension (or at least a build into finally a good sexual tension near the end), only to have the characters reach the end of their journey at the altar and not have had sex yet.  Some authors simply leave be, and don’t include it—and those who do often make it quick and described in a paragraph, not a fully explicit scene.  And this sometimes bothers me, too.

I have two cases I’m thinking of, specifically, and in one it worked and in the other it didn’t. 

The first is Jo Beverley’s The Secret Duke.  I enjoyed the fact that these characters were so relentlessly moral.  That they wanted to jump each other’s bones, but chose not to until after they had been married.  Their journey did not need the sex to be whole; there was nothing broken in either of them that required a good sexual experience in order to be comfortable in a marriage or a relationship, and they fell in love with each other quite capably with sexual attraction being an element of their courtship but not a catalyst.  There was no reason they needed to have sex before marriage to bring them to the point of marriage, and they didn’t.  So while it was a little bit annoying to me to not get the sensual scenes, I didn’t mind it in the overall context of the book.

The same could not be said for Mary Balogh’s Seducing an Angel.  Boy, wow, was the sex mishandled in this book.  The characters have sex a couple times, not particularly enjoyably, because she is trying to manipulate him.  He vows off it unless and until she marries him, which is quite admirable—including the fact that he sticks to it—except for one thing:  if ever there was a heroine who needed a truly positive sexual experience to make her not fear marriage or men, she was this widow.  I hated the plot device of her having gotten pregnant from those first times being what brings her to accept him.  I think his vow should have been worded differently, like “not until you love me” or “not until you actually want to have sex with me” instead of not until you marry me when she fears marriage and sex and without anything to widen her realm of experience would quite probably never have married him if she didn’t get pregnant.  So instead of the quite lovely sexual healing there’s just a huge sexual build in the second half of the book that is summarily ignored, and it was disappointing.  Not just because of the lack of sensuality, but because for these characters it should have been part of their relationship earlier, but was not…in this case the need of the one character should have trumped the morality of the other.

So where does that leave a writer who wants the sensuality of including that sexual element in relationships but does not want to have characters behaving out of character, so to speak, for their time/value system or just wait till the end and have a lame “it was wonderful” summary of it?

I’ve seen a few different strategies for balancing this.

One is to have the characters marry by necessity and fall in love afterward. 

Another is to have them marry partway through the book for love (or at least lust) and then get sidetracked from reaching the happily ever after by interpersonal drama or emotional baggage.

Another is to have a fairly major secondary plot—often a mystery—that must be resolved before they can have their happily ever after.

The last one (that I can think of, anyway) is to simply not include the sex. 

This might be tricky, since a lot of romance fans explicitly want that sexual payout in a story, so in my opinion it works much better for novellas than for novels.  25,000 words of unfulfilled lust is a lot easier to shrug off than 75,000, and just be satisfied with the emotional connection.  Also consider that a story should have some balance between emotion, plot, and sex;  in a novella a 5,000 word sex scene is a huge chunk of the narrative, versus the percentage of the narrative it would be in the 75,000 word book (1/5 vs 1/13, if I am doing my division right).

Obviously the one kind of story that really suffers from a dearth of options is the virginal heroine whose story ends with either the declaration of love/proposal or the marriage.  There aren’t too many ways around the cultural barriers, there—sorry.

So to sum up:  sex has a proper context, even in romance novels.  Don’t stick it in just for the sake of sticking it in.  Have some other, better reason for it…it really does make it better.

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The Art of Being Lumrient

Or, Romance Novels Defined

So I had one of my first Twitter conversations the other day.  I know, I know, not a big deal really, it’s what the medium is for (since one can only say “hey, complete and utter strangers, go read my shit,I promise it’s real good” so many times in a day without getting unfollowed by everyone including your mother…and maybe especially by your mother, if you’re saying it like that).  Anyway, what made it especially fun was that it involved a romance author whose books I have bought from the bookstore shelf AND ME, which is of course very exciting for someone trying get any traction and name recognition at all.

The exchange had 3 people* involved and went roughly like “Lumrient…I meant LUMINOUS.  What is lumrient? / Luminously prurient?  / That should be goal of every romance writer [my contributed observation] / My thought EXACTLY.” 

It’s a damn fine bit of coinage, if I do say so.  Lumrient…luminously prurient.  Yes.

So how does one go about creating work that would fit that definition?  Where is the line drawn between the luminous and the simply prurient, and how wide is it?  Is the line even the same for everyone, or is it like everyone’s lexicon of their native language, a unique and personal matrix of words and understandings? 

There are some obvious qualities:

  • It should be written well.
  • It should be sexy and exciting to read.
  • It should serve some purpose to the story.

The last is, in my opinion, the defining difference between romance novels and erotic fiction; in erotica, the sexiness is the point.  In romance, the sexiness is subservient to the greater point of the story–the love story.  It’s not a particularly fine distinction in my mind.  In my experience the two genres are distinct, and I prefer one to the exclusion of the other.  I read (and therefore write) romance because I am like Marshall on How I Met Your Mother:  I need an elaborate story that involves great and sincere emotions in order feel truly comfortable enjoying a sexual fantasy.  I have tried and failed to enjoy erotica about chance encounters on the train and mile-high clubbing with strangers.  To me, it is not sexy without the emotional bindings or the potential for them to be formed.  This is also the reason romance novels in which the primary mode of emotional bonding between the two lovers is sex or sexual desire tend to fail for me.  They leave me thinking, quite cynically, but what happens in 2 years when the lust runs out?

If we want to be all linguistics nerd about this (clearly, I do), you could also look at the word luminous and extract the related word of illuminate quite easily:  lumrient is to be prurient in a way that illumines the emotional journey. 

 So there it is.  If it’s not going to further the emotional journey, then it’s out of place.  This can actually create problems within the context of romance novel constraints, where the sex is expected (at least a scene or two) but isn’t really integral to the falling in love–but that’s another post….

___________________________

*the other two being Carolyn Jewel, who coined the term, and Tessa Dare

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The Lure of the Predictable

Or, Why I read romance novels

Romance, as a genre, is not for everyone.    It’s not even for the entire audience of erotica readers (although the reverse is also true, and I for one do not enjoy erotica without the full story of love and emotional attachment behind it).  Romance novels have specific plot points and constraints that must be met in order to be a “proper romance,” and if you try and pass off as romance something that isn’t, then you will lose your audience—even those who might, given a clear perspective on your work, choose to read it.

The reason I, and presumably many of my fellow romance-readers, read these books is the same reason cited by many people who don’t read them:  they guarantee a happy ending. 

I say:  Exactly!

They say:  But why would you want to read a story when you know how it ends?

To which I say:  Because I like knowing how it’s going to end.  Duh.

That’s a snarky way to answer it, but also the truth.  I read a lot of books, for a lot of reasons.  Some I read for the information they contain.  Others I read for the cultural value they have been imbued with over the years or centuries since their writing.  Others I read when I want to weather an emotional storm worse than something battering outside the windows of my life (or the absolute lack thereof).  Some I read for the adventure of following a story wherever it goes.  And some I read for the journey and the sentiment along it, because I know where the story ends but not where it roams in between.

Romance novels are obviously that last category.  I am the sort of reader who gets very anxious about What Is Going To Happen if it’s not a story I can predict; I will stay up all night and read a book just to find that out, and then have to go back and re-read it over the course of the next week to savor the actual story and the small moments and the prose, when those things are worth savoring.  It’s not the same impatience that drives people to skip to the end, so much as it is an impatience that does not allow me to put a story down once I am fully invested in it.

With romance, I am relieved of the anxiety enough to read slightly more patiently, more savoringly.  I know the hero and the heroine will end up together.  It’s a romance.  It’s the way they are.  My job is to fall in love with them, and solve their problems with them, and enjoy the ride knowing that it’s going to let me off in a safe and familiar place:  happily ever after.

I like reading romance because, when I know what’s going to happen, I can really read a story and not zoom through it at warp speed just to find out what happens. 

And I like being able to pick the proper story for my mood.  When you go to rent a movie, you don’t always want a romantic comedy just because it’s a genre you like; sometimes you want a horror flick and other times you want something like Beaches that will make you cry.  Why should reading be any different?  Yet sometimes people seem to act like it is.  It’s not, to me, and I will say this:  when I rent what I think is going to be a fun kids’ adventure movie and end up sobbing for an hour because one of them dies—I’m looking at you, Bridge to Terabithia—I am more than a little bit annoyed.  I wasn’t in the mood to cry.  I didn’t want to cry.  Why did you make me, you flipping jerk of a producer who advertised that movie as something else entirely?

Likewise, if I pick up a Bronte sister thinking she’s the same as Jane Austen, I will be disappointed, and if I pick up a romance where they don’t end up together I would be pissed.  Put it in the general fiction section, then.  When I want something that doesn’t guarantee the ending then I’ll pick it up then, when I’m in the mood to follow a story to see where it goes. 

Sometimes, I just want to be able to experience the heartwrenching emotions attendant upon falling in love without the danger of reality intruding—I want the journey, not the destination.  I want to take the overland mule trek to Colorado and not the flight to Denver, because I’ve been to Denver and know what’s there, and what I want is to see what’s in between, not play at Lewis and Clark and go explore unknown and uncharted territory. 

That’s why I read  a lot of romance.  Because my reading is often mood-dependent, and the most prevailant mood is “I just want to relax and enjoy escaping my problems,” and I find it easier to enjoy a story if the only anxiety is when and how they come to the ending, not whether they will come to an ending at all.

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Sophomore Slump

As I have mentioned or at least alluded to before, my first two novellas (one of which is out in ebook format, the other of which will be out before the end of the summer) are companion pieces…the events of the same night for two different couples, which interconnect and influence each other’s stories.  These pieces were not written concurrently, but they were planned together, and the same week I finished writing one I started the other.  So in a way they are one story–my first story.

What I am writing now could, then, be considered my second story, and I’m finding that it’s harder to do than I expected. I hadn’t really considered the idea of second story as harder to write until I saw this post from Courtney Milan, which implies a lot of writers struggle with book 2.  (Also I’m sad this discussion won’t be recorded, since it sounds apter than apt for where I am right now!)

 Was the relative ease with which the first story came together just beginner’s luck?  Or is the difference that the plotline there was tight–it was one night, and characters who only had to be led to the point of revelation of extant feelings–rather than characters who have to begin from scratch and need at least a couple weeks to come to the point? 

I am enjoying working on a story that is more like a novel in scope, if not final length (although, my projections right now put it much closer to the novel-length rather than the short story border of novella country), but it is also frustrating to me.  I can’t hold the entire plot in my mind at once.  I don’t have one moment of revelation to lead the characters into, but several.  It’s…complicated, for all that I thought I knew the whole story going in.

I can also tell that it’s going to need a lot more revising than the first story.  That one, I wrote out and essentially only had to line-edit.  This one is going to need parts trimmed down and others padded up, certain threads pulled to the front in places where they’d gotten lost in the shuffle in order to keep those themes visible throughout, and scenes re-written whole cloth when the first attempt turned out to be from the wrong point of view or just entirely off

Perhaps what I’m struggling with the most is my own perfectionism. I have a tendency to shut down on moving forward until I fix the parts that I’ve written that I can tell are not perfect or even close-enough-to-perfect to stand in its place with just a tarnished halo to differentiate it.  It is hard for me to write forward knowing that I will have to rewrite what is behind, but on the flip side I won’t actually know how I need to revise what’s already down until I have the rest of it written.  Conundrum!  

Since I’m not clairvoyant, obviously I  can’t see into the future to look at what the finished rough draft will be to tell me what I then need to revise on the front half.  That is beyond my control.  Therefore the only part I can control is the creation of the full draft, therefore the only thing I can do is keep going until it’s finished, no matter how tough it is.  The point that I have to hammer home through my thick head is that what matters is not getting down something perfect, but getting something down.  It can be fixed later.  It can be deconstructed and reconceived later…but I have no way to tell that it will need to be until I first construct the wrong thing.

Better start hammering.

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“They Were Born on Twelfth Night to a Father Who Thought Himself Marvelous Clever”

That is how I’ve always described my first two heroines, Olivia and Viola Gardener, in my head, only to get through the writing of both of their stories without ever once finding an appropriate place to use it.  But sending words to be repurposed instead of to die is half the point of keeping a blog, is it not? 

I am also quite proud of myself for not forcing the phrase in somewhere.  My writing professor referred often to the concept of “murdering your darlings,” which I have employed with…shall we say, a flexible interpretation of the rule.  The basic idea comes from a letter by Beckett, maybe, or Coleridge (some luminary of English prose, at any rate), and the advice is essentially “if you write a passage you are especially pleased with, cross it out.”

Personally, I find that a repugnant piece of advice to use as he states it, because it supposes that a writer cannot read a passage and recognize that s/he has just written something beautiful, or haunting, or funny, or anything else good.  It suggests that a writer can have no taste as a reader.

Granted, I admit that it can be hard to be objective—why else does every writer who ever wrote get sick with nerves the moment s/he sends the draft to even a trusted first reader?—but I find it insulting to suggest that because I created the words, I cannot trust my own opinion of them. 

The way I have used this rule, then, is not about passages I read and found exemplary prose, but for lines of dialogue or jokes or descriptions that I particularly like but which do not fit the story.  In drafts of various stories this has ranged from making a gratuitous reference to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to the titular line of this post, which would fit the tone and voice of the two stories it refers to but which never fitted naturally into the prose line of either.  In both cases, when the moment(s) came to discuss the girls’ birthday, names, and relationship as twins, other points were being emphasized than that their father had made a gratuitous Shakespearean reference in choosing their names.

Part of this also might have been my not feeling it necessary to underscore further that the reference was intentional.  I was quite obvious with it; the name of the two parallel stories are “What You Will” and “Twelfth Night”—the title and secondary title of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or, What You Will.  The girls’ names are Olivia and Viola.  The action of the stories is all based around characters disguising themselves as each other, first Viola as her sister Olivia and then their two beaux as one another.  Hell, the inspiration for the story, at its most basic level, was the play, and my desire to write something light and fun and mistaken-identity-ridden.  I think “What You Will” succeeds on that level better than “Twelfth Night” does, because the second story has a much darker emotional turn.  The first one uses disguise for hopeful means, the second for despairing ones.  But, still, that play was the genesis of them both, and the stories’ lineage is clearly stamped in their basic features.

And as much as I do love that line of description, I also recognize that it didn’t belong within the text of either story to which it could refer.  I’m just happy there’s a place where I can let it shine, however briefly, however dimly, out in the open for all to see and admire.  Because for all that I murdered it, it’s still one of my darlings.

Or, The graveyard of murdered darlings

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“Summer Days, Drifting Away, to Those Summer Nights”

Or, Writing seasonally.

I put a question to my friends when I conceived the idea to write and publish multiple novellas a year instead of just, say, one novel, namely, would it be a good idea for me to try and time my stories to the seasons–for example set a story at a summer house party if it was to be released during the summer?  They all said that while it might be fun, it probably wouldn’t make a significant difference in appeal to anyone with the sole exception of Christmas stories which, obviously, need to be released between October and January.

While I might eventually get into that rhythm with my storytelling and deliver to my readers seasonal offerings, what I actually see as more likely is that I will write seasonally to the season that I am living with.

Right now the full heat of the Southern summer is still building, and already I have slipped into the routines of my childhood–not leaving the house between 11 and 6 in the day, moving as little as possible, and eating less than usual because it’s just too damned hot to each, much less cook.  This is my climate.  But the stories I am writing currently are all set in the winter or the spring, and I find myself having to consciously include descriptions of frost and banked fires and gloves.  It is not second-nature to do so when my reality is dew and sweat and sleeping in as little as possible to stay cool.

Just as I don’t know whether readers prefer to read with their seasons or against them–to escape the oppressive heat of summer with the winter snows, or to ease the relentless chill of icy winds with the smothering sun of August–in the end I am not really sure whether I as a writer prefer to write with them or against them.  Because, for all that I might describe the summer heat with more empathy while I sit awash in it, I might also be more prompted to describe the weather at all when I am reminded that it is not the same in my story as what surrounds me in reality.

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