Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Threat Level: Cautiously Optimistic

As I posted last week, I’ve been in a real funk lately about my writing. I’ve had little progress on anything, and until the last couple of weeks it hasn’t been for lack of trying. I had hoped to kick start myself with the High Noon Challenge that took place over the weekend, and guess what? It worked! Cue choirs of angels.

From Wednesday until Friday of last week, I perused about half a dozen (and completely read three) Young Adult books recommended by various lovely people, and I sketched out a vague outline for a YA series I’ve been wanting to try. But whether it was my recent (repeated) viewing of Underworld, the YA vampire book that I could NOT put down (Jana, how much do I *heart* you for telling me about Twilight?), the Muse had a different direction in mind.

Between Friday night at 6pm (the start of the challenge) and Monday at 9pm, I wrote about thirty pages of an adult paranormal novel, the plot and characters of which I’ve only toyed with very briefly until now. Hmm. Where did that come from, you ask? No idea, but I’ve also written a pretty decent background for the characters and the Rules of Engagement for this particular universe. This is definitely not chick lit. It’s grittier than what I normally write, and the heroine is both a tortured soul and a calculating killer with super powers, so she’s not exactly someone I’m used to having in my head either. So far, though, I’m enjoying this departure. Maybe what the Muse needed was a break from the same old, same old and a jaunt into something a little darker.

One of the reasons I’ve shied away from paranormal thus far is that editors seem to want their paranormal with a side of steaminess, and I hate—HATE—writing love scenes. But while I haven’t progressed to writing that critical element yet, I can already tell that I’m a little more comfortable with it. The characters I’m writing about are not regular human beings, certainly not people with whom I have (pretend) relationships with. It’s easier to write sex scenes when you’re writing about slightly surreal characters. Or so I hope, anyway. Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t going to be erotica, not even close. But when you have a hot-tempered killer for a heroine and an ungodly beautiful vampire for a hero, you’ve got to have some shagging. It’s just expected. I’ll let you know how that goes when I get there.

At any rate, I am relieved and happy to be writing again. I’m still in the honeymoon phase with this project, in which I’m discovering how the characters mesh (or don’t) and shaping plotlines so that they will eventually intersect. I’m figuring out tone (though that seems to be coming easily at the moment) and working out character backgrounds, and doing some historical research because you can’t write seven-hundred-year-old characters without cracking some history books. This part is fun—the real test will be in the next few weeks when I find out if this puppy will work at all. But so far, all is well and I’m pleased with my progress.

This is SO much better than last week.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Beast

I have been cranky lately. No, I’ve been more than cranky. I’ve been a vengeful, crank-tastic, snippy, one-pushed-button-away-from-nuclear bitch. There are a couple of reasons for it (PMS, anyone?), but the main one is that I’ve been having trouble with my writing.

In late December, I sent off the first draft of my second novel (keeping up?) to my agent. I feel pretty good about that MS. It’s got good characters, good plot, good set-up for future installments. But once I finished that one and sent it off, I had to figure out what to write next? The sequel to Novel 2? The paranormal-ish scenario I’ve had knocking around in my head for ages? Something contemporary, set in Petersburg—the city I’ve been dying to write about for years? I finally settled on the last—a women’s fiction piece set in Petersburg—and wrote about twenty pages on that, only to find it wasn’t working. Undaunted, I rewrote those twenty pages. Still didn’t work. I then edited the rewrite, went back to the first draft and considered pulling it off the bench. A week later, I switched heroines. Nope, still nothing. At that point, I ate an entire Entenmanns’s devil’s food cake with marshmallow icing and a plate of chipotle ranch fries before indulging in a frenzy of reading other people’s books while feeling vaguely sorry for myself. Two weeks later, I’m still doing extra laps at the gym to get rid of that cake and I haven’t written a word.

Productive, no? And the thing is, I’m not happy unless I’m being productive. I hate feeling stuck, I hate to be without a project—something I can chip away at little by little and see my progress measured in word counts and filled pages. Basically, this time between projects sucks.

Fortunately, I’ve got an incentive to get off my ass. This weekend, Romance Divas is having a High Noon Challenge stretching from 6pm on Friday evening until noon on Sunday. The goal is simple word count—just sit down and write straight through without editing and agonizing over each paragraph. That’s actually not a bad way to write if you’re trying to break through writer’s block. I’ve found that what hinders me the most is not lack of plot, but lack of voice. I generally start a project with a pretty good idea of the plot. Voice is harder to come by.

This weekend I’m going to start an entirely new project—I’m consciously choosing one that I haven’t tried to work on in the last two months only to get bogged down. The goal here is a new start, not continued frustration, right? This project is a Young Adult paranormal, something I haven’t attempted before. I’ve gotten some excellent suggestion as to YA titles to peruse in order to get familiar with the market, and I quite enjoyed the two hours I spent last night at Barnes & Noble reading Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty. I plan to go back tonight and flip through some others, and then on Friday. . .things get serious.

Hopefully, this time next week will find me back in the writing saddle and not quite so bitchy. Fingers crossed, people!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

It's That Time Again. . .

I don’t really have to specify, do I? We all know what today is—even those of us who have vowed to ignore it, or to instead celebrate Singles’ Appreciation Day. I’m not that cynical (not yet, at least). I will admit to being a V-Day junkie. I love the profusion of hearts and roses everywhere from Tiffany’s to Stop-N-Shop, I love the schmoopy cards and the Very Special Episodes of my favorite television shows. Most of all, I love the ridiculous kiddie Valentines that come in boxes of 20 from CVS and other quality retail outlets. The Ricky Martin card I received one February stands out as one of the most amusing—it gets a special bonus because it was written in Spanish. Basically I think that love, in any form, should always be celebrated, and yet I know that many of us are too busy running from one project to the next and juggling family/career/relationships/social life to really concentrate on it every day out of the year. If we need one particular day to help remind us, one day on which we take the time to show our honeys and friends and families that we love them, so be it. Years ago, a college friend pulled me into his tradition of showing compassion—a kind of love that this holiday isn’t exactly focused on—for one random stranger or acquaintance on Valentine’s Day and now that we live several countries apart, I keep that tradition and then call him to tell him that I haven’t forgotten. I won’t tell you what I did this morning on my way to work (that’s part of the tradition), but it was a nice way to start the day.

What? What’s that you say—this blog is supposed to be about writing? Oh. Um, hang on a second. I can tie this together. . .yes! Okay, romance is in the air—or at least, it’s supposed to be. I know that a lot of people don’t like Valentine’s Day because it creates high expectations that are almost never met. I see that point, and I raise you this: what is it like to be a romance author on February 14?

There are a couple of stereotypes out there about romance authors—that said author is a sexually frustrated housewife or (gasp!) virgin writing about what they wish their life was like; that said author is really a man writing about the women he wished he’d met in high school; and, of course, that said author really gets around and has actually tried out all the steamy things she writes about. I’m not sure which category I’d least like to be consigned to; they all have their issues. But think about it—bookstores usually incorporate romance novels into their V-Day displays, and sometimes even seek out authors to do signings or talks on the day. Would you want to be answering the questions that must crop up at those events—or the e-mails that I’m sure find their way to various authors in preparation for this holiday?

Cue dream sequence:

Yes, Ms. Author, I have a question. In your bookRide the Cowboy, you have a scene where the hero and heroine make love on the back of a galloping horse. Have you tried this? Does it really work? Do you recommend side-saddle, or Western for best results?

Or, alternately:

To: author@sexypublishing.com
From: reader@hopeful.net
Subject: Helpful Hints

Dear Ms. Author,

I love your books (especially the nookie LOL) and was wondering if you have any bedroom tips for me and my husband. Our sex life has been kind of dull lately and I’d like to spice it up. You seem to know a lot about [improbable sexual experiment possibly involving some sort of food]. Can you help me?


A Reader

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of either of those. (Did that sound dirty to anyone else? Maybe I’ve been reading too many romance novels.) At any rate, being a romance expert has the potential to be a headache around this time of year.

On the other hand, maybe a holiday dedicated to romance could inspire an author to write a really great proposal scene, or one of those “oh my goodness, I think I love the man I’ve purported to hate for the last 200 pages!” scenes. Or—just throwing it out there—a really toe-curling love scene. Not that I’m going to attempt that later. Nope. Just a thought. Really.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Good news for the literary world: Oprah approves of Eli Wiesel—it is now safe to read Night. Whew.

I can’t say exactly why I get so annoyed whenever I see that Oprah has chosen a classic for her book club selection. I mean, I love classics. I’m disturbed by the thought that there are entire classes of high school students that graduate without ever having read To Kill a Mockingbird and Johnny Tremain. Theoretically, anything that gets people reading classic literature is okay with me. But in actuality, I am also disturbed by the thought that the American public needs Oprah’s recommendation to pick up Anna Karenina.

I am not wholly opposed to the idea of celebrity book clubs—or book clubs in general. A lot of my reading is based on recommendations from other people. And the simple truth of the matter is that Oprah sells books. If her endorsement can get Night on the bestseller list—even for a week—part of me thinks I should just shut up and be glad people are reading it. But on the other hand, I don’t really trust her taste. I mean, seriously—you can’t read Tolstoy without reading Dostoevsky and come away with a decent idea about Russian literature. You get no context, no counterpoint. It’s maddening that Tolstoy’s moralistic bombast will be all some people know of the great Slavic writers. C’mon, Oprah—throw us a bone!

Oprah’s book club, of course, has been in the news most recently because of her public endorsement of James Frey’s faux-memoir, A Million Little Pieces, just before his public unmasking as a liar. While I respect Oprah for retracting her endorsement and having Frey back on her show to give him the chance to apologize and/or explain his actions, I’m bothered by the whole-hearted support she gave Frey after reading his book. Does Oprah simply not have a truth/fiction filter? Frey’s falsified accounts of his own debauchery should and did raise alarms with everyone I know who read the book. The Smoking Gun’s revelations were not even the first time Frey was publicly questioned. And if Oprah’s bullshit detector is really that flawed, do we really trust this woman to choose our reading material for us?

Just a few questions to ponder while we wait for Ms. Winfrey to approve the next return bestseller.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Defending our Young

I recently entered my first-ever contest—a nice, low-key one over at Romance Divas. The premise of the contest was “Best First Meeting,” meaning the first encounter between the hero and heroine. Now, I am lucky enough to have some great people who read and critique my stuff before I send it along to my agent, and I appreciate their candor and their enthusiasm more than I can say. But. . .well, I know those people, and they know both me and my writing. Even if that first chapter (or first meeting, as the case may be) doesn’t grab them, they’re going to keep reading. They trust me to follow through and to provide them with a good story.

Strangers are a little bit different.

The scene I entered in the contest is the first encounter of my hero and heroine in my most recently completed MS—a romcom/adventure hybrid that I hope is the first installment in a series. Because of the hybrid nature of the work, I had trouble deciding what category to enter it in, how to set up the scene (or if I should set up the scene—isn’t the scene supposed to speak for itself?) and how much of the chapters before and after I should include. Eventually, I decided to restrict it to just the scene between the two characters and, since the story has barely begun when they meet, to forgo adding in lots of background information. I mean, really, what was I going to write? Well, see, the heroine is secretly a spy—only she doesn’t want to be one, and she only does it part time, and she’s really not very good at it— Yeah, that was going to get complicated fast. So I submitted my severely edited scene and waited.

I have to say, the Divas give excellent reviews. I’ve gotten seven as of this writing, and every single one has been thoughtful and thorough. When the contest is over, I plan to print out the reviews and keep them on hand for the next round of edits on this MS—I’ve gotten some good ideas from the comments. My only complaint is that all submissions are anonymous at this point, so I can’t defend, explain or elaborate. This is the problem with scene-specific contests—there is no context, no follow-through. One of the questions on the review form asks if the conflict that will keep the characters apart is apparent, and I think that is a legitimate question. But it doesn’t fit for every entry. In mine, for instance, the main plot is what keeps the characters apart: the heroine is off being a super-secret spy and the hero is back in LA wondering why she doesn’t return his phone calls. That isn’t going to come across in a scene that clocks in at just over 2,000 words. Honestly, if the conflict is that clear-cut after 2,000 words, I have to wonder what the rest of the book is about.

This complaint is, obviously, no reflection on the contest or on the excellent nature of the Diva reviews. This is about ME, about MY insecurities and about MY desire to defend my work. One of the reasons I entered the contest was to thicken up my skin, so to speak, in anticipation of the day when my work hits the public and I have to see it ripped apart by reviewers who don’t care for my brand of humor or suspense or romance or whatever. Clearly, I have some work to do on that front. But really, beyond the extremely gentle criticisms I’ve received, I am incredibly heartened by the response to the scene. If a reviewer can fall in love with my hero in 2,000 words, there must be an editor (and readers!) who will like him, too. And if a bunch of strangers who read enough romance to be frequenting a website dedicated to it think my work is worth reading and reviewing, maybe I’m doing something right after all.

Overall, this contest has been an extremely positive experience for me—frustrations and all. I’ve got some great ideas, some honest critiques and, above all, a desire to show reviewers and everyone else that my story is worth a try. I highly encourage any other writers out there to enter and enter often!