Monthly Archives: February 2012

Confessions of a Romance Writer: I Don’t Really Like Hunks

There, I said it. I’m not taking it back, either. I get so sick of romance covers with men like this on the cover, as if bulging muscles are somehow a signifier of all the qualities that matter, like loyalty and honesty and humor and self-awareness and intelligence.

I get that romance is often considered the lazy woman’s fantasy, i.e., letting someone else do the work of creating a scenario and story for you. I get that cover artists (and publishers, and marketers) seem to think this means books need the visual cues of she-porn. I also get tired of a constant parade of images that are either (or both) inappropriate to the content within or shorthand for a fantasy I don’t happen to share.

I’m not saying I don’t like attractive men.  I like men with nice faces who are in decent physical condition–not emaciated, not obese. But there is just such a range in between, that is entirely ignored in favor of the “perfect” hero with broad shoulders, a six-pack, veiny forearms, and narrow hips.  I dare you to name me five romances off the top of your head where the hero did not have three of the four. I can’t do it.

And I know I can’t do it, because so many writers spend so much time describing the hero in all his physical glory. It’s always the same, and it’s always unexciting because the descriptions of perfect manliness do not allow the heroine to be appreciative of what is special about her man. And all I can think when I read those descriptions, especially if the hero is not like 22 and is any kind of dissolute, is how? How is he so perfectly muscled and has no hint of a beer belly and has these huge muscles even though he’s a fencer (if he is shown exercising at all)? It’s not realistic, and I am supposed to believe he just magically has that body while doing everything he can to wreck his health via his lifestyle? I guess it’s the same magic that allows the heroine to never put on a pound or be starving in a garrett but still voluptuous.

And I don’t buy it as a reader, and I never have.

I also dislike the expectation that that is the man I am supposed to be attracted to, as a woman. I have always preferred runners, swimmers, soccer players–men with sleek, athletic bodies but not a lot of muscle. And I like nerdy guys who are naturally thin because they forget to eat while they’re gaming/reading/playing their instrument…I like guys who are natural teddy bears, a bit overweight but also strong, capable dudes, and I like guys who are naturally big-muscled because they are big-boned burly dudes. Honestly, about the only guys I’ve not found myself attracted to in real life over the years are the ones described in romance novels!  I have just always looked at guys with the big bulging muscles and no fat and the slim hips and six-packs and just been…kind of grossed out. It doesn’t look natural. It looks like something a man works for, and to me it’s a big red flag that a guy is stuck on himself or stuck on appearances if he puts that much effort into his own appearance. What’s he going to demand of me, or what are his priorities going to be, or is he going to be as much fun to be with as a guy with 20 more pounds but a hobby I like more than working out?

I think what especially bothers me about the way men are described in romance is that women are supposed to be turned on by things like humor and not so much by appearances…I know I am much more attracted to mental qualities. There’s a certain level of attractiveness I need, but it can take many shapes and sizes, and beyond that it’s about the person. I know romance is part fantasy, but must the fantasy always be the same?

Beyond that, even, these men are all…the same. They are interchangeable. It’s kind of demeaning, really. And, again, unrealistic, especially if you have a group of friends all getting their turn at being a hero. Take any group of friends, and there’s going to be some natural variance. If there’s not…it’s like Stepford Wives, except in this case Stepford Heroes.

I’m sorry, I’d prefer a real man.

I’m going to let Longmire be my last word on over-developed masculine physiques in romance:

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Filed under Confessions, Reflections on Romance

Novel-In-Progress Status Update

My draft thus far just topped 60K words. Twice as long as the longest thing I’ve written till now. 

I have pretty much hit the point where all the set-up is taken care of, and from here on it is action that pulls in one strand or another until or knocks out one situation that has been foreshadowed or another. So that’s good.

What’s bad is that I was so very far off my initial estimate of this being a 75K word story…yeah, my document word total (which includes all notes and pre-drafted scenes) is up to that already.  Oops.  Either this will end up being a romance at the long end of average (100K), or I am going to have some serious trimming to do when I get into edits, or both.

On the up side, I haven’t really run into any situations where I realized I have to go back and re-write a character’s motivation or an earlier incident. That’s a direct effect, I think, of knowing the entire story going in.  So while I may have a few scenes where I need to make the motivation more (or less) visible, that’s just…basic revision. For the most part I think revision will not be rewriting or restructuring so much as tightening.

On a curious note, I’m realizing that I have very little of the content that hallmarks so many romance novels–hardly any descriptions of the hero’s tight bum or rock-hard abs, and almost no references to the heroine’s bosom, of either the heaving or the quivering variety.  I don’t know how much of that will get added in later when I do the “sexual tension” swoop. Perhaps I really do simply write like Jane Austen plus a sex scene or two.  Or perhaps it is simply that these characters are too busy becoming friends who trust and rely on one another to spend that much time dwelling on their physical attraction?

In terms of how much more I have to write, there are at minimum 18 separate scenes still to go, and that number might expand with a few more bridge scenes (although perhaps not).  Of those 18, fully half are pre-drafted in full or in part, so I would say that at this point I am probably 2/3 of the way through writing the first draft. I would really love to have it finished by the end of March–that would meet my goal of spending a quarter of the year on each project I plan to publish in 2012–and while that’s not unattainable, it is not perhaps the most realistic of goals. It would require something close to NaNoWriMo level dedication.  Perhaps I will find it…or perhaps I will need April, as well, on the excuse that my other planned publications are all novellas.

I think seeing the end in sight (seeing the 18 scenes listed out makes me realize how little else but those scenes I will need to write, and how easy most of them should be) will be inspiring.  And perhaps one of these days my muse will pull himself out of the gutter. Then again, when he does that it might well come with a storm of new ideas for new projects, and for now I need to focus on finishing up what I’ve started!

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So Sick Even My Muse Is Turned Off

Faithless bastard. Here I have had a wonderful 2 days at home, and he is nowhere in sight! I could have written so many words…instead my thoughts have been trickling and wavering and falling off cliffs like a derailed train.

Le sigh.

The good news is I’m feeling better enough today to slog through a boring bridge scene that I don’t need Musie for, and hopefully back to normal writing AND blogging tomorrow. If not, then by next week.

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“And Your Bird Can Sing” about Why Artists Shouldn’t Judge Their Own Work

I’ve been on a Beatles kick lately. It’s beause I have recently acquired 90% of their albums–I had Sgt. Pepper’s since high school on CD, but not any of their others, and the tapes I had previous to that had long since been lost/disintegrated/become obsolete by the means I have to play them–and I’ve been working through their entire catalog of songs, many of which I hadn’t heard despite growing up listening to them with my dad, on my own, and with my best friend’s dad who is an archetypal Beatles Fanboi. I have somewhat unwillingly found myself picking up pieces of trivia about the band members themselves, their attitudes, their inspirations. I don’t care about that stuff (but that’s another post)–I just sometimes see it when I pull up a youtube video of a specific song and it’s in the description, or if I’m skimming their Wiki page to remind myself the year of release for a given song or album or something.

Anyway, one of my new favorite songs is “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and it’s one of the songs about which I accidentally saw some background.

The Wiki entry says something to the effect of “John dismissed it later, called it a throwaway song or a box of nothing in bright packaging.”  One youtube video I watched (just to listen to it at work) lists theories of what inspired the song, and the theories sort of back up Lennon’s point–they are all so lame. The most memorable was “Mick Jaggers’ girlfriend who was in a band.”

Both of those pieces of information (Lennon’s words and the fan theories) reinforce my belief that, as a consumer of art, you never want to know what actually inspired a piece or what it meant to the artist, and that as an artist you shouldn’t try to judge your own work. It doesn’t matter what it meant to the artist; what matters is what it means to the people who invest themselve in it.

Being dismissive of one’s own work when people love it reminds me a bit of Kaylee in theFireflyepisode “Safe House”:  “If that’s what you think of this life, then what must you think of them that choose it?”  I mean, if “nothing in bright packaging” was what Lennon thought of that song, and presumably some of his other songs, then what did he think of the people who loved them and found meaning in them? Did he dismiss them, too, find them easily fooled by the pretty words and prettier guitar licks?

I mean, I kind of get the whole “I don’t want to be worshipped” thing. In high school I had classmates who talked about me like I was someone special for being smart, but to me, it wasn’t something special. It’s what I was born, it’s what I had always been, and in my own eyes grades or test scores I got as a result of being smart enough to remember facts without studying was not something to be proud of, because it was easy for me. I didn’t want to be admired for what I couldn’t help being. So I can understand the perspective of an artist who sees their work as disposable, as not something to be admired or lauded because it came to them easy, and to see the people who look at it and think it meant something or is something worth admiring you for creating are just…fools. I can see that.

But the flip side is, when someone doesn’t know what depth (or lack thereof) created a piece of art…when they don’t have anything but that piece to look at…it might mean something to them. Its value to them is entirely separate from its value to the artist; the observer cannot see the effort (or lack thereof) that went into the piece. All they have is the piece, and what it makes them as observer think or feel or see.

In my opinion it’s arrogant for an artist to be dismissive of their own work once they have published it. Once it’s in the world, interacting with people other than yourself and those who know you well enough to guess where the work came from, it’s beyond your reach. Whatever meaning it had to you, it can still have for you…as an observer of the piece.  But you can’t control what others find in your work, and you shouldn’t try. I appreciate the authors and directors who create ambiguous or obtuse works and just smile when people ask what it meant. What matters is not what it meant to them that created it…what matters is what it means to those who observe it.

I know for me this song has a helluva lot more meaning to it than nothing in a bright package.  Sorry, John–that wasn’t for you to decide, my love.

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Filed under Muse Music, Ramblings

Excuse me, the Oxford comma is SO still necessary

I am an unabashed enthusiast of the Oxford comma. The reason is simple: punctuation exists to make your meaning clear. The Oxford comma–for you grammar heathens out there, the Oxford comma is the comma that precedes “and final item in a list of three or more”–is a tool of disambiguation, and as such deserves to be retained in common usage.

I find examples like this one in reviews I read fairly often:

As a follow up to the excellent Under Witch Moon, I expected more interesting adventures of the witch Adriel, her friend the shifter and her more than friend, White Feather.

We’ll just ignore the dangling modifier that begins the sentence and look directly at the list. Is she talking about two people here, or three?  We have the witch Adriel, and then we have…her friend the shifter (unnamed) and White Feather, who is more than a friend, or do we have White Feather her shifter friend who is actually more than a friend?  Part of the problem there is the inconsistent application of names, but mostly the problem is the lack of disambiguation between items 2 and 3 in the list. THE OXFORD COMMA SOLVES THIS PROBLEM.

For those of you who prefer visual humor, this illustration sums up the issues quite perfectly:

I stand strong in support of the serial comma!

I need a blog badge for that. Oxford comma 4-evah!

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An Open Letter to Big Publishing from the Free Market (including lessons from Kodak)

Or, Reblog from Reason.com, replacing “politics” with “publishing,” “mankind” with “writers,” and “duopoly” with “6-way shared monopoly” to move it from Replublican/Democrat duopoly to Big Publishing

You can go see the original Reason post here: http://reason.com/archives/2012/01/29/beyond-duopoly

You may have heard of confirmation bias, whereby people choose to notice and believe whatever rumors, news stories, and quasi-academic studies confirm their basic worldview. Well, get your mind around existence bias, where the mere fact of a person’s, business’s, political party’s, or country’s existence is taken as unspoken and unchallenged proof that the same entity will exist in largely the same form tomorrow, the next day, the next month, the next decade, forever and ever, amen. This despite the fact that the Western world, and the United States in particular, stands out in the history of Homo sapiens as the most vigorous producer of constant, dynamic change.

Dig up the time capsules for every decade preceding us, and you’ll find retrospectively laughable anxieties about seemingly intractable threats that no longer exist. At the dawn of the new millennium, for example, the overwhelming majority of media observers agonized over how mere mortals could cope with the advent of the new Big Brother–style corporate behemoth called AOL Time Warner. As it turned out, the company set new records for financial losses before disbanding altogether. A decade before that, the question wasn’t whether the Japanese would own and operate the U.S. economy but whether the American workplace would be free of insidious group calisthenics led by Toshiro Mifune types. The graduating class of 1980 could not imagine a world without high inflation and the growing communist threat, and its 1970 counterpart forecasted constant Southeast Asian war fed by an endless military draft.

In 2012, it’s tempting to give in to the pessimism and existence bias of the moment.

Yet there is a glowing ember of real hope in this gloomy picture, and it lies, paradoxically, right alongside our inability to detect it. The same revolutionary forces that have already upended much of American commerce and society over the past 40 years, delivering us not just from yesterday’s bogeymen but into a futuretastic world of nearly infinite individual choice, specialization, and autonomy, are at long last beginning to buckle the cement under the most ossified chunk of American life: [big publishing]. A close if idiosyncratic reading of recent U.S. history gives us a blueprint for how to speed up that process of creative destruction in the realm of [publishing]. Because it’s not true that nobody predicted such history-altering innovations as the Internet, nonviolent resistance to totalitarianism, and the home-brewing renaissance, among a thousand other happy developments in the modern world.

If we listen carefully to the theoreticians and practitioners who helped midwife these giant leaps toward the decentralization of power and the democratization of mankind, they have some surprisingly consistent things to say about changing or working around restrictive regimes, and—above all— altering the mindset that tolerates and perpetuates them. As any revolutionary will testify, there are structural impediments galore to our personal and global pursuit of happiness. Before we can sweep those roadblocks away, we have to declare our independence from the forces that conspire to keep us less than free and recognize that the status quo has no inalienable right to keep on keeping on.

Nothing in 21st-century life seems as archaic, ubiquitous, and immovable as the [six largest publishing conglomerates]. … While rhetorically and theoretically at odds with one another at any micro-moment in time, the [six houses] manage to create a mostly unbroken set of policies and governance structures that benefit well-connected groups [themselves, distributors, booksellers] at the expense of the individual [authors and readers]. …

But what if that’s the existence bias talking? What if the same elements that extend the incumbents’ advantage threaten to hasten their demise? Luckily, economists have a particular fondness for studying what [the big six] have become: the longest-lived [oligopoly] in American history. But while researchers have done interesting work explaining how [shared monpolies] collude with one another to carve up captive markets, they generally fail to address the most interesting moment of all: how customer-unfriendly collusion and customer-empowering technology combine to produce an inevitable consumer revolt, sweeping one or more of the dominant players into the dustbin of history.

In a widely circulated 2009 paper surveying the vast economic literature on the topic, the late Larry F. Darby presented a list of classic duopolies for discussion. Tellingly, several no longer existed, including MCI and AT&T (MCI, then known as WorldCom, became history’s largest bankruptcy in 2003) and Macy’s and Gimbels (Gimbels was the country’s—and the world’s—dominant department store chain in the 1930s; it ceased to exist in 1987). As such examples illustrate, there is nothing inherently stable about two organizations dominating a particular market in the hurly-burly of modern American life. In fact, there is plenty of reason to suspect that such arrangements are, if anything, unstable—particularly when technology allows captive consumers to flee.

It’s worth taking a closer look at a single such case, one of the duopolies on Darby’s list: Kodak and Fujifilm. …Kodak was for much of the 20th century synonymous with color photography. Memories captured on film were “Kodak moments.” Eastman Kodak was a bedrock member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for more than seven decades. At one point the company enjoyed an amazing 96 percent share of the U.S. market for photographic film. Such was its dominance that the federal government sued Kodak for antitrust violations not once but twice, producing out-of-court settlements in 1921 and 1954. As recently as 1994, long after Japan’s Fujifilm had entered the scene, the Justice Department argued that the antitrust settlements should remain in force, since Kodak had “long dominated” the industry, still enjoyed a U.S. market share of around 75 percent, and could “greatly outsell its rivals despite charging a higher price.” (Careful observers of and participants in capitalism may notice in that latter claim a wonderful market opportunity.)

Fujifilm began competing with Kodak globally in the 1970s and seriously in the United States after the 1984 Olympics. Though always the junior partner on Kodak’s home turf, the conglomerate held its own enough that the duopoly soon attracted academic studies such as “Entry, Its Deterrence, and Its Accommodation,” “Vertical Restraints and Market Access,” and “Advertising Collusion in Retail Markets.” The underlying assumption was that you could assume the duopoly’s equilibrium for the foreseeable future. Even those who noticed Kodak faltering in the late 1990s at the dawn of the digital age were still apt to say, as Fortune magazine did, “The Kodak brand remains solid gold, and its quality is not in dispute.” No one could conceive of a photography world without Kodak playing its customary leading role.

This, stunningly, is no longer true. Eastman Kodak share prices tumbled from $60 in 2000 to $40 in 2001, to $10 in 2008, and under the $1 threshold by the end of 2011. The Dow Jones kicked the stock off its bedrock industrial average in 2004, and the New York Stock Exchange threatened the company with de-listing. Kodachrome—subject not just of a hit Paul Simon song but of the 1954 antitrust settlement that the federal government was trying to maintain four decades later—vanished from stores in 2009, and developers stopped processing the stuff for good on New Year’s Day 2010. The company closed scores of plants, laid off more than 10,000 employees, and has now filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

What happened? Technological advances gave consumers choices that Kodak’s fat bureaucracy was unwilling to provide. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in November 2006, William M. Bulkeley explained how the implications of this insight ranged far afield from the world of processing photographs:

“Photography and publishing companies shouldn’t be surprised when digital technology upends their industries. After all, their business success relied on forcing customers to buy things they didn’t want. Photo companies made customers pay for 24 shots in a roll of film to get a handful of good pictures. Music publishers made customers buy full CDs to get a single hit song. Encyclopedia publishers made parents spend thousands of dollars on multiple volumes when all they wanted was to help their kid do one homework paper. The business models required customers to pay for detritus to get the good stuff. . . . Eastman Kodak and Fuji Photo Film had a highly profitable duopoly for 20 years before digital cameras came along. They never dreamed customers would quickly abandon film and prints.”

When given real choice, especially the choice to go elsewhere, consumers will drop even the most beloved of brands for options that enhance their experience and increase their autonomy. We have all witnessed and participated in this revolutionary transfer of loyalty away from those who tell us what we should buy or think and toward those who give us tools to think and act for ourselves. No corner of the economy, of cultural life, or even of our personal lives hasn’t felt the gale-force winds of this change. …

…Kodak couldn’t count on a guaranteed revenue stream: Consumers abandoned its products, and now the company is basically done. The history of private-sector duopolies and even monopolies is filled with such seemingly sudden disappearing acts: The A&P supermarket chain—if you’re under 40 years old, or from the West Coast, you probably haven’t even heard of it—enjoyed a U.S. market share of 75 percent as recently as the 1950s. Big-box music retailers and bookstores were supposed to bestride the land like colossi at the turn of our new century, but Virgin megastores have all but disappeared, and Borders has been liquidated. Dominant newspapers in one-paper towns were able to book some of the economy’s highest profit margins for four decades—more than 20 percent a year, on average, positively dwarfing such hated industrial icons as Walmart—yet with the explosion of Web-based competition, these onetime mints are now among the least attractive companies in the economy.

There is a positive correlation between an organization’s former dominance and its present inability to cope with 21st-century change. As technology business consultant Nilofer Merchant has aptly put it, “The Web turns old industries on their head. Industries that have had monopolies or highly profitable duopolies are the ones most likely to be completely gutted when a more powerful, more efficient system comes along.”

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief ofreasonand Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor in chief ofreason.comandreason.tv. They are the co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America (PublicAffairs), from which this essay was adapted.

I really don’t have any words to add. Welch sums up the effects of market disruption and the fallacy of the existence bias for even the most ubiquitous of industries quite brilliantly.

In fact I will let another person speak for me as I end my open letter to big publishing with a dedication: to traditional publishing, from Amazon, where the eponymous “her” is all the authors eyeing the DIY side of the fence.

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Publishing

How Reading Fantasy Influenced My Perception of Homosexuality

I was trying to think this weekend, due to all the posts flying around about the recent decision to declare California’s Prop 8 unconstitutional and Rick Santorum’s strident anti-homosexual overtones, about where it was I first learned about homosexuality.

For as long as I have understood the concept, I have had no issue with it. The choice (or natural imperative) to find a same-sex mate has never bothered me on a philosophical, emotional, or existantial level. I choose (or am naturally drawn to) something else, but your lifestyle in no way affects mine, ergo I care not what that lifestyle is. I am not disgusted or offended by homosexuality; I am disgusted and offended by people who want to dictate how other people live their private lives, and, even worse, seek governmental coercion for it.

But you can be tolerant of something that makes you uncomfortable (my philosophical point of view demands tolerance even of things that do make me uncomfortable), so my comfort with homosexuality is a different issue from my tolerance of it. And what got me curious was not my tolerance but my comfort. See, I was raised in an era before the widespread “token gay friend” on TV shows, yet I remember knowing what “gay” meant by the time I was 13 and it became something my classmates giggled over on the school bus. My parents did not have any openly gay friends. We never saw a gay couple that made them sit down and give me the “other people have other lifestyles” talk.  I didn’t know anyone who self-identified as homosexual until I was in high school.

So where did I learn the concept?

Then it hit me:  a book (hardly a surprise for a bookworm-cum-butterfly). 

Specifically, Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage trilogy, which I read when I was around 11 or 12. The hero of that series is gay. In the first book he discovers that about himself when he meets his true love, and in the context of the story and Vanyel’s journey of self-discovery it seemed…completely natural. Just exactly what he was, what he was meant to be, who he was meant to be with. His homosexuality was a part of him, but it wasn’t the defining struggle of the story, or really even an ancillary part to the defining struggle of his story.

That presentation, as much as anything, is probably what planted the idea in my mind as other but not repellent or unnatural or really even particularly noteworthy. It simply was, but he was such a strong character and his problems so very much did not revolve around issues of self-acceptance because of his homosexuality (there were self-acceptance issues but they had almsot nothing to do with his being gay) that I never thought twice about his sexual orientation. That is not to say the lifestyle was accepted in the fantasy world where he existed…I believe his family was stridently disapproving, and he did not always wear his homosexuality on his sleeve. But some people around him knew it an accepted it, and generally his life problems were so much bigger than his sexual orientation that he just…didn’t really have much angst left over to devote to it.  All of which led me to the place where I just assumed if that’s what you naturally are, what’s the big deal?, because it was presented to me in such a way that it did not seem like a big deal.

Which is still my attitude today.  I think what this reflection really hit home to me is the intrinsic power of stories to inform young readers about aspects of the world they have never considered, in ways that will shape how they view that aspect for years–possibly for life.

Words are powerful. Stories, empathatic examples, have the ability to change minds. 

And it’s absolutely beautiful.

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