Monthly Archives: September 2013

First Times

I made kind of an astonishing realization this morning: the scene I am currently chipping away at, 100 words at a time, is the very first scene I’ve written in which a hero and heroine meet for the first time.

Not a joke. In all the other stories I have finished or seriously begun, the hero and the heroine have known one another, at least peripherally, for some time before the story begins. The one exception is the novel awaiting serious revision, but in that book the lovers meet at a masquerade, and she takes him for a man she used to know and he takes her for no kind of lady, so it is definitely not this kind of first meeting, where you are on good behavior because it’s a stranger but you maybe aren’t quite being yourself until they seem to respond to the nuggets of your true personality you show them.

I was kind of floored by this realization, because, if I haven’t mentioned it here, I have like…15 stories in one degree of being started or another. Some of them involve people who have known each other for years, or who knew each other long ago, and some involve people who have met in society but never gotten to know one another….but none of them are first-time meetings.

When I think about it, though, this is not that odd if you compare it to real life. Most of the relationships we form, be they friendly or romantic, don’t really get going with the first meeting. It happens occasionally. On exactly one occasion, in junior high, I made a friend out of the new girl in school on a hay ride with my church the weekend before school started. We’d never met but spent the whole ride talking and laughing, and we are still in touch today. Exactly one time I met a guy for the first time and thought anything of it, romantically speaking; ironically that was the only time we met in person, and I still spent years convinced I would marry him. (Didn’t happen, obviously, at least not in this universe.)

So with that context in mind, suddenly I get why so few of my stories involve strangers, since my characters are so deeply based in my actual experience of human relationships. Every now and then the first meeting with someone can have a dramatic influence on you…but most of the time it’s the second meeting. Or the third. Or the thirtieth. As a writer, I think I avoid those initial meetings because they don’t matter. They are boring, because nothing happens in them that matters later. Idle conversation that can’t be recalled afterward; at best you leave a general impression on someone that speaks to actual qualities you possess. It might be enough to get someone to talk to you again (or it might create a barrier you have to overcome later, if they found you obnoxious on first acquaintance)…but that first meeting itself isn’t even the inciting incident. That happens later, when you hit that conversational turning point in which you consciously realize you like the person and find them interesting and want to know more about them. That moment is the inciting incident for all relationships.

Knowing this is the first time I’m putting down a mostly-insignificant first meeting on paper might help me get through it faster, because it will remind me that it’s not meant to be scintillating or engrossing. It’s supposed to be polite, stilted, and perhaps sprinkled with hints at the interesting people beneath the social facade. The reason it’s in the story at all is because the entire story is that these two people meet and turn out to be perfect for each other. It’s a short piece, with little plot and less drama. So, boring as it may be, the first meeting is an integral part of the story.

I just have to remember that it shouldn’t be a particularly memorable meeting – at least not for him.


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One New Novel Idea and 475 Words Later…

I think my mental fog is lifting. In true Lily’s muse fashion, of course, the story that has finally caught my imagination’s attention enough to bring it back into the normal processes of my mind is a new story, not one I am currently writing nor one I had been writing and drifted away from. But I don’t even care. Having that free-form creation in my head at all is apparently enough to let me get back to my Sisyphean grind, and right now that is all I need. I can take it from here, no matter how many early mornings it means. What I can’t do is an endless procession of early mornings in which I do nothing but feel my thoughts falling in disarray around me.

In other words, we’re back to this:

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Perspective Matters: “Jolene”

I finally remembered to download the version of “Jolene” that Cody Belew sang on The Voice last season, which was the first time I’ve heard that song covered by a man (though not the first time it’s been done, obviously). I’ve been listening to it in contrast with Dolly Parton’s original, and I am fascinated by the fact that two different singers basically tell two different narratives with words that are almost exactly the same.

I couldn’t find the full version of Cody’s cover anywhere on Youtube, and the shortened version he sang onstage really doesn’t show the subtle changes to the lyrics, since it is so abbreviated. If you want to get an idea of the orchestration of the song, here’s how it sounded on air: (embedding disabled, sorry you have to jump). The version for sale is the full song.

Anyway, the main lyric change is that instead of “please don’t take him just because you can” in the first two choruses, he only sings “even though you can,” which Dolly only sang in the last iteration. Also there is a shift of the last line in Dolly’s first verse to  open the second verse, either to balance the song a little better or because the producer thought the line fit better thematically with the ending verse.

So how do those changes impact the song?

The change to the chorus matters more. I think it was changed because the song is about competing with a woman. With a woman singer, “just because you can” is a subtle way of acknowledging sisterhood – we all know that impulse, and that women can be that cruel, that perhaps the singer personally could be that cruel. If a man were to use those words they lose a certain…complicity. The shift of “I could easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene” to the start of the second (and final) verse is less impactful on the song as a whole, but I do think it de-emphasizes the line that is the heart of the song, which in the original leads off the last verse: “you could have your choice of men, but I could never love again; he’s the only one for me, Jolene.”

The biggest difference is the performances, though, of course. Cody’s is over-the-top dramatic where Dolly’s is almost unemotional, it’s so understated. And I think the two approaches fit the male/female dynamic. A man singing this song is obviously presenting the point of view of a gay man regarding a lover who is bisexual. A woman poses a very different threat to him than she would to a woman; if the bisexual lover chooses her, it could be construed as a rejection not merely of the person but of a way of life and the struggles and perhaps stigma that go with it. Even aside from stereotypes of gay men being overdramatic and emotional, the pleading in the song comes from desperation, so an emotional rendering suits the storyteller.

When the song is sung woman to woman, however, I think the overemotional approach actually mutes the power of the song. In putting my thoughts together for this post I listened to several different covers from female singers, as well, and they all sang the song with emotion. They all sounded like they were begging. The brilliant thing about Dolly’s version is that…she’s not really begging, even though she is using the word, except possibly at the very end.

The emotional place a woman should sing this song from is resignation: knowing that another woman could take her lover away and having no option to stop that from happening except to ask the other woman not to do it. The “just because you can” is important because it implies that Jolene doesn’t actually want him, while the singer doesn’t want anyone else. She “has this talk” basically from a place beyond ego; she’s laying out the realities of the situation, that it’s up to Jolene. It’s a plea for a gentleman’s agreement, for lack of a better term, and it’s done with logic and pride, even as the singer self-effaces in comparing herself to Jolene. The places in the song where emotion cracks through are when she’s talking about the man, not when she is talking about Jolene or even “begging” her. The final chorus ending with “even though you can” is the only place the despair creeps through in a direct address to Jolene, because saying it that way relates the fact that she can back to the singer’s reaction not to Jolene’s motivation.

In my opinion it’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that the other female singers I’ve heard don’t deliver because singing the song like you’re really begging, singing it from a place of despair, basically eliminates the sort of matter-of-fact discussion Dolly’s song has. I can picture the woman singing Dolly’s version sitting down at a bar and calmly addressing the woman her husband’s having an affair with, then getting up and walking away with her head held high, secure in having the moral high ground and in having held onto her dignity no matter what happens. The ones who are reduced to literal begging walk away from the encounter humiliated.

Somehow the emotional rawness of Cody’s version doesn’t give me the picture of losing ground to the mistress by actually begging. Again, I think it’s the male-female versus female-female dynamic. It’s a different kind of competition and a different kind of desperation. And I am just fascinated at the difference in stories told merely by changing the singer.


Filed under Muse Music

Morning Pages

It’s been a long time since I tried using morning pages as a means to get into writing gear. Probably since writing camp, in fact (what’s up, fellow Ghost Ranchers!). The truth is they never really worked for me as a means to trigger my fiction narrative stream – it’s a different kind of writing and it uses a different part of my brain. Probably because I have never been able to let go and just write my fiction, or, at least, not on demand. Sometimes it happens that way on a mad inspiration.

But anyway here I am trying them out today because it’s 5:16, I have been awake since about 2:30, and there is just a point when you realize you’re not going to stop tossing and turning so you might as well make some use of the time you’ve been given. That is the German in me, that ruthless practicality. If I were more of a sybarite I would no doubt just continue to lie there and relish the fact that I did not have to get up and start my day for hours yet.

I haven’t been able to write again lately. I can’t tell anymore if it’s actually a narrative block issue or if it’s just that my brain is going haywire. I feel like the retarded kid holding two magnets together at the same poles, wondering why they won’t stick the way they are supposed to, because, duh, magnets. That is how my thoughts feel when I try to find my narrative voice. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Why won’t it click? Clunk. Clunk. If I just keep hitting them enough times this is bound to work, right? Clunk.

That’s my brain right now. I can’t stand it. The reason I could not fall back asleep is the same reason I haven’t been able to write – I couldn’t find the narrative voice inside my head. I don’t know if I have talked about my old battles with insomnia much here, but I started telling myself stories when I was early in my teenage years because I had terrible insomnia, and the only way to make my mind settle down enough to sleep was to get so engaged in a story I forgot to stay awake. At some point I realized I liked my stories and wanted to preserve them. Hence the novel-writing. Anyway. I couldn’t get back to sleep because whatever is going on in my head that is keeping me from writing is also keeping me from telling stories at night. My head has become this dead space. It’s like the part of me that creates things is just…gone. I don’t even know if it’s walled off somewhere. It feels gone. And I have no idea what to do to get it back. When I try to imagine anything all I get are thought trains that literally drive off the end of tracks that just stop. Over and over again. Like my brain just short-circuits. I feel like I’m goddamn Harrison Bergeron.


Ah, well. Now it’s 5:34 and suddenly I think I can sleep again. Guess this was good for something. Even if it wasn’t what I wanted it to be good for.


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Building Reader-centric Ebooks

One of the tasks I have set for myself for this fall is to reformat and republish the ebooks for my Twelfth Night stories so that they will be in line with the look and feel of the new work I have coming out.

Probably the biggest difference in my mindset since I started my experiment 2 1/2 years ago and now is how I use ebooks. In 2011 I rarely read ebooks because I could only do so on my PC, and it was unpleasant. Now I read 80% of my fiction on my iphone. Waiting for someone to buy me a Kindle for Christmas (ahem, husband) because, while I want one, even the $69 cheapie is still signifiant cash for me to outlay on a true luxury product (something nonessential, which performs a task that other equipment I already have *can* perform). But. I do actually read ebooks now, and being a user of a product gives a certain insight into production. So I am basically planning to format my ebooks with the things I as an ebook reader wish everyone did.

1. List on either cover or title page what the story is – a novel, a novella, a short story.
2. Put the synopsis that made me buy it at the front so I can remember what the story was 3 months later when I finally open it to read.
3. Move all front matter – copyright, extended TOC, author’s note – to the back. Leave only title page, synopsis, and abbreviated TOC (with link to full), and dedication/epigraph if either exist.
4. Include a fully linked table of contents.
5. Include live links to places of interest on the web like my other books, my website, etc., for those who want them. (Personally, I never use this but I can see where others might want it.)

I also want to do a better job stylizing my ebooks to be pretty and functional. This would be things like graphics for scene breaks instead of *** and chapter headings that are more than just words in a larger or different font.

What about y’all? What sorts of features do you wish more ebooks had?


Filed under Digital Revolution, Publishing

Courtesans in Romance

Editor’s note: Fair readers, I do not want to be here at this particular moment. It is 8:30 p.m. after a grueling week at my day job that culminated in a workday that started before 7 this morning. If it had not, I would have written this before work when I am fresh as a winter night and equally clear-headed. I mention my state of mind not to discourage you from reading but to explain that I am writing this now because this conversation matters to me. 

One of my favorite blogs is The Honest Courtesan, whose byline explains it all: “frank commentary from a retired call girl.” I love Maggie’s perspective for many reasons – because I am a libertarian and criminalized prostitution is a violation of the Constitution and the moral standard I believe in, because she articulates issues I have with feminism and the language of PC liberals often better than I can, because her stories never fail to deliver a narrative that I have experienced nowhere else. I don’t consider myself naive, but in many ways I have a theoretical knowledge that has never had to be applied to the real world, and her posts often either force me to do so or force me to take a logical progression to an end I might otherwise have avoided.

This post is not about her, or her blog, however, except as an introductory point about why I am writing about this topic today. Maggie asks every Friday the 13th that people who support decriminalization of sex work to publicly acknowledge that position, so that, for at least this one day, people who don’t work in the field but other people, mainstream people, vanilla people, can be seen to support the cause, as well. So that is why I’m tackling this topic tonight, when I’m tired and grumpy and would truthfully rather be heading to bed – to raise my voice and say it’s wrong to make a crime out of consensual sexual relations, no matter how morally repellent other people might find those relations. It deprives women of the right to make an honest living, it makes their work more dangerous, and it empowers the police and the judicial system to humiliate and discriminate against individuals at will. That is not justice; that is a perversion of justice.

That said, I present tonight’s topic:

The Courtesan in Romance Novels

Is it just me, or have courtesans slowly been disappearing from historical romance? I remember a time when every rakish hero had a mistress on the side, and she was always a paid bit of fluff who didn’t raise a fuss when he ended the relationship – as long as he gave her a generous severance gift, at least. For the past couple of years, or maybe even longer, though, I feel like the mistresses have been women of the hero’s class. Adulterous wives or merry widows who know the man socially and possibly know the heroine socially and can therefore create drama when he ends the relationship.

I am trying to decide if this shift has to do with the influx of chick lit readers who need the kind of petty drama that only a “woman scorned” can provide, or the publisher-driven move away from big sweeping adventure romances into teacup tempests that clock in at 70K instead of 130K, or if the actress-courtesan mistress is merely the latest victim in the whitewashing of romance for the bourgeois sensibility that has been happening over this same span of 2-5 years.

One of my favorite older romances is An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley, in part because of the friendship that the heroine strikes up with her new husband’s ex-mistress, who was a consummate example of the intelligent, educated, and discreet courtesan. Even among romance whores, however, she was a rarity – most of those characters were merely a bellwether to show the reader where the hero’s heart was.

I haven’t seen a Blanche Hardcastle in years. Maybe I am just reading the wrong romances…but I doubt it. I find this sea change to be a shame. Romance is not, perhaps, a genre that is known for challenging reader expectations or worldviews, but a sympathetic character can sneak under anyone’s guard.

For me, Blanche did. I was shocked that a man of good society wanted to marry her when he knew she had been a whore, and a celebrated one, at that. When I read the book and the subsequent ones in the series for the first time (at 18? 19?), the idea of a man marrying a whore seemed really outlandish. Even though, even then, I didn’t think prostitution should be illegal (just because I wouldn’t doesn’t mean no one should be allowed to), I did believe in the “fallen woman” myth – basically, that a woman’s worth is defined by her sexual history, and that once a woman becomes a whore she’s ruined for any other life. Blanche’s story was the start of cracking that myth in my head. Inara Sera from Firefly was another character who helped break it. I am sure that the setting helped, where her profession is revered and respected, but most of it was simply her. The amount of training she has in all the gracious arts is evident in every word she speaks and every smile she offers, and as a result Inara is more of a lady than even the “ladies by birth” we meet during the series. What drove the myth into oblivion, though, was the movie Once Upon a Time in the West, where the character of Jill is so utterly, brilliantly, capable…able to survive, able to live through and move past anything, able to laugh at the men who try to use her body to demonstrate power over her. “Go ahead. Call your men and let them have a turn, too. No woman ever died from that. Afterward I’ll be just the same as I was before.”  Nothing encapsulates more clearly the stupidity of reducing a woman to her “virtue” or lack thereof.

So I find the collective choice to stop offering even slightly positive depictions of courtesans and prostitutes in romance a little sad. I am not sure whether I find it troubling, because I can’t decide if it’s an intentional part of taking the grit out of historical fiction or if it’s a side effect of newer writers wanting to have woman scorned drama in their stories. I do find the sudden lack of discussion about whores inside the books kind of weird, though. They and their work was certainly part of every historical time period, and most of the heroes would have trafficked with at least the upper echelon of them. I have at least one whore story I intend to write, and maybe two. If nothing else, if there is a publishing conspiracy to lock romance into the ivory tower of upper-middle-class sensibilities, self-publishing continues to give every other voice an equal opportunity to be heard. Viva la revolution!

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Filed under Ramblings, Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance

If You Won’t Tell Me, Someone Else Will

Or, No (Fictional) Man Is An Island

Ugh. The hero of this little short, which should be totally easy to write, is being stubborn and cynical and refusing to let me get much inside his head.

I made the executive decision to have him meet the heroine in the most logical places the first few times (logical meaning where were they both most likely to be given the people they know and the things they do with their time) and to just start writing and see what he does. I figured even if I wrote it all wrong the first time and had to re-do the work, at least eliminating the wrong path would help me figure out the right one, thus writing even at the risk of having to re-write was better than sitting paralyzed, waiting for him to trust me enough to let me in.

No update on how this has gone; my husband is on his off days right now and keeping me up too late to get up early enough for writing. Not that I am complaining. 🙂  The reprieve also gives me a couple more days to batter away at hero’s inner walls.

In the meantime, I have also discovered his song, and in a way having this song to speak for him makes getting inside his head irrelevant. The songwriter described so perfectly the dynamic between the hero and the heroine that…I almost don’t even need to be more intimately in his mind to write the story. This is me sticking my tongue out at my hero.

There are ways, dude. You don’t want to know. But there are ways.

The song? For the curious: “Easy” by Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers. I couldn’t find a youtube video of the song that I liked enough to use as your introduction to it. I recommend just previewing on iTunes or Amazon if you want to hear it.

“I don’t know how you got through security, you picked all my locks by being so low-key. I’ve never been easy, but I’ll be easy for you…. So, baby, what am I up to? Getting back into another thing I said I’d never do…I’ve never been easy, but I’ll be easy for you”

Yeah. Who needs a hero when you have a songwriter around?

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