Friday, April 28, 2006

Progress Update

Isn’t it nice when there is actual progress on which to update people?

Last night I finished the edits on my spychick MS and sent the new draft off for review. Yay! The booty dance that ensued at Chez Melanie was a sight to behold, I assure you all. Now I just have to catch up on some other editing and then I can return to working on my paranormal. I’m hoping the initial confrontation between my hero and heroine won’t be so difficult now that I’ve let it simmer for a few weeks.

This morning driving to work, I had the usual frantic second thoughts about the completed MS—did I emphasize the action over the romance too much? Vice versa? Should I change the heroine’s job? Would it be more believable if she was a _______? So naturally, I called a friend who has read the MS and interrogated her about it. It took about half an hour, but she eventually convinced me that yes, it’s good, and yes, an editor has already requested it even after hearing about the heroine’s job and knowing about the romance/action equation. She also convinced me that I really do like the MS (or at least I did twenty-four hours ago). It’s just an attack of cold feet, and if I try to hang onto the MS until I have tried out every possible combination of hero/heroine/romance/action/career paths, I will never be finished.

The logical part of my brain knows that this is true, but I also know that there is a careful balance. I don’t want to send my baby out there until it’s ready to leave the nest, and yet at some point it has to go. So when is the right time? Every writer’s dilemma, right?

All of you writers (and agents, and editors, and CPs) out there, how do you know when a project is ready for submission? And how often do you wish you could reach back into cyberspace and snatch that puppy back five minutes after you’ve sent it on its way?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Editing, editing now I go. . .

I am still up to my eyeballs in edits for my spychick novel, which I fully intend to have to my agent by midnight on Sunday. It’s not that I think Nephele will drop me or lecture me or take away my booze if I don’t have it in, but I have this thing about deadlines. I actually work really well under them, and tend to set them for myself as a measure of my own progress if I don’t have an official one to work under. It’s going pretty well with this project because while there may not be an official deadline, there certainly is a time issue in that Neph (and I) would like to get this puppy out to editors before everyone disappears for the summer.

I’m closing in on the end now, fortunately, and have added approximately 9,000 words to the original manuscript. Just a few more chapters to look over and tighten and it'll be ready to go. I’m pretty pleased with the progress I’ve made since I pitched the MS not quite three weeks ago, and I think the additions I’ve made really enhance the story and the characters. It is definitely a better MS than I had a month ago—and really, that’s what editing is all about, right?

Back to the salt mines now, children. What is everyone else working on?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Equal Treatment

Earlier this week, Amy Garvey blogged about tortured heroines—or, more specifically, the lack of them—in today’s market. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but she’s right. Our heroines are strong and resolute and brave. They have to be, because they have to break through to our heroes and we like our heroes tortured, don’t we? We like orphans who become womanizing rogues because they never knew the love of a mother. We love heroes fighting their own hungers, whether it’s a vampire hounded by bloodlust or a junkie overcoming his addiction. We love it even more when a hero is burned by love and the heroine must break through the wall around his heart—come on, that’s one of our favorites, right?

My question is, since Garvey covered the lack of tortured heroines so well, why do we like our heroes broken? Do we have some need to “fix” these idealized male figures? Or is it the vulnerability we find attractive? Are we looking for someone who needs us emotionally, or do we just love the angst created when a hero can’t bring himself to express his feelings for the woman he loves?

I personally am an angst junkie. I love star-crossed romance, unrequited love—all that stuff. I especially have a fetish for couples who get separated at some point and have to fight their way back to each other. I think this may stem from one of the first romance novels I ever read, which was about two ballet dancers. The hero was Italian and ran off to fight Mussolini, and the heroine escaped her weird, controlling family in England and returned to America. It was years before they found each other again, and even more years before they finally got back together. I loved every minute of that book and am heartsick that it was accidentally tossed out in one of my frenetic anti-clutter fits. I also remember a fantasy series in which the hero and heroine were close enough to speak to each other for approximately three chapters, and actually a couple in less than one complete chapter—this was out of four books. And yet I ate it up.

So what’s the deal? Why do we torture our heroes? What tortured heroes stand out as your favorites, and how were they “fixed?”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Recommendation Tuesday

In the spirit of sharing, I hereby declare Tuesday to be Recommendation Day here at Novelist in Progress. Each week I will share recommendations for books, music and maybe some extras that strike my fancy. Everyone is free to jump in and plug what they’re reading/listening to/obsessed with. This week’s selections are below.

Book of the Week

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Seriously, get and read this book. Immediately. Even those of you who think you are too mature for YA books will be taken in. The characterizations are beautiful (who doesn’t love an ungodly beautiful, yet tortured, vampire hero?), the setting is marvelous and the plot unfolds at a great pace. The sequel is due sometime this fall.

Music of the Week

Demolition by Ryan Adams
I love me some self-destructive emo boy music. Highlights include a semi-cover of U2’s “Desire” that uses the same melody (albeit a slowed down, acoustic version) and new lyrics that bring the shivers. Love love love.

Bonus Rec of the Week

Polka Dot Wedges by C. Ronson
It’s spring—go buy sandals! Specifically, buy cute polka dot espadrilles for only $53. You might need a flippy skirt to go with them. Your call.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Where in the world. . .is this story taking place?

A few weeks ago at an RWA conference, I had the opportunity to do my first ever face-to-face pitch to a great editor who shall remain nameless—but trust me, she’s awesome. After talking to my lovely and very helpful agent, I decided to pitch my spychick novel. We both agreed that it was not precisely what this editor was generally looking to acquire, but that it would be good practice for me and hey—you never know, right? I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you that the meeting went well. I really liked the editor’s no-bullshit style and she not only liked my pitch, but asked to see the full manuscript. But what intrigued me most about the whole meeting was what caught her interest. The first minute and a half of the meeting went more or less like this:

Editor: Nice to meet you. I have a few questions to start off.

Me: Sure.

Editor: Contemporary or historical?

Me: Contemporary.

Editor: Genre?

Me: Romantic comedy/thriller.

Editor: Who’s your heroine and what does she do?

Me: __________________.

Editor: Who’s your hero and what does he do?

Me: __________________.

Editor: [Not crazy about hero’s occupation.]

Me: [Boy, this is going well.]

Editor: What’s the setting?

Me: Los Angeles and Berlin.

Editor: Reeaallly.

From there on, I really felt I had her attention. Said editor immediately remarked that she had never had a romance set in Berlin and proceeded to ask why it was set there, whether or not I had been to Berlin and how readers would know that the action was taking place in Berlin and not Topeka. So for the last few weeks as I run through my edits on this MS, I’ve been taking care to make sure I really have a sense of place about the story. Fortunately, I have been to Berlin so my recollections of the city and the places the heroine sees in her mad dash across it come from personal experience and not from a guidebook. Ditto with Los Angeles.

But since place has been on my mind so vividly recently, I’ve started going over the books I’ve read recently and thinking about how place is presented there. It may not be the first thing that jumps out at some readers, but I have to admit that place and the author’s use of it can make or break a book for me. Take Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, for a perfect example of this. The book is set primarily in a small town on the Northwestern coast, and while I have spent only minimal time anywhere in the Northwest (and then only in big cities), Meyer vividly paints the setting as both an important part of the story and as a background. When the action moves briefly to Arizona, the shift is dramatic and noticeable. As a reader, I felt disoriented by the move and that helped draw me even more into the character’s trauma. Very, very well done.

On the opposite end, I recently read a book (which shall also remain nameless) that took place in Budapest. Now, one of the reasons I picked this book up is because of the unique setting. I briefly visited that city two years ago and loved the history, architecture and culture. If I close my eyes, I can still remember the view from Fisherman’s Bastion, the weird up-and-down railway car that takes you to the top of the hill where most of the Buda side rests, the dark coolness of the labyrinth beneath the castle and the old Soviet monument park still visible from the river at night.

This book? Had none of that. By the time the book was over I felt certain that the author had not only never set foot in Budapest, but that she hadn’t even bothered to read a guidebook about it. I am not necessarily against setting a work in a place you’ve never visited; some authors have the ability to bring a place alive after reading about it and seeing pictures and that’s great. Sometimes a particular plot point or even a plot itself requires the action to move to a certain place and I understand that this might require an author to “write blind,” as it were. What made the entire lack of place stick out to me in this particular book was that it didn’t need to take place in Budapest. It could have been almost anywhere else—so why pick a city so unique and rich if you’re not going to use it?

When I read a book, I want to feel transported. I don’t care if it’s to a big city I’ve always wanted to visit (or have visited and loved) or to a small town that I’ll probably never see. I want to know I’m in a different place, and not only because the book jacket tells me so. Done well, setting can make a book rise above its competition and earn a place on my “keeper” shelf. Without place, the book—just like the reader—may very well end up lost in limbo.

Friday, April 21, 2006

What's up with all the evil?

I think I have a problem. Not a really bad problem like, you know, cancer. But a problem nonetheless.

I am addicted to evil characters.

There, I said it. It became clear to me last night while watching the return of Alias (Did everyone know that Irina is back? Because I kind of forgot and then BAM! Hotness!) that I am far more invested in the evil or morally compromised characters than the white hats. Okay, it’s nice that Agent Weiss has apparently done well for himself and that Vaughn is apparently alive and all, but. . .hey! Tom Grace might be working both sides? Irina’s been using Syd all along? Yes! More, more, more!


This got me thinking. What goes into a really good villain—the kind of twisted, sadistic bastard you just love to hate? My spychick MS is the first time I’ve really sat down to create a larger-than-life villain who has enough gusto to last through what I hope will be several installments, and it was harder than I thought. You can’t give away too much about a villain, not at first anyway. If his motives are crystal clear, he’s just evil and not intriguingly evil. But at the same time, you have to hook a reader’s interest in what made him intriguingly evil and so there has to be some sort of backstory to him (or her).

Take one of my all-time favorite villains: the above-mentioned, awesomely hot and almost always eeeevil Irina Derevko of Alias fame. I’ve faded in and out as an Alias fan over the years, but one hint of an Irina appearance and I am parked on the couch rubbing my hands in gleeful anticipation. The key here is that she is a complex character with more layers than a five-pound onion. She evil! She’s misunderstood! She was forced to betray her husband and daughter! She’s always been working toward her own endgame! We never know what to think, and yet we always want to know more. It’s taken four seasons (okay, so she wasn’t actually in season three but she’s always lurking, even when she’s off-screen) to peel back her mystery and reveal. . .more mystery. Yet along the way the viewers have been given enough crumbs to make us sympathetic to the woman who has quite possibly been playing all of the white hats for fools all along. That is one masterfully-drawn villain.

In the case of my story, it’s told from the heroines POV and she has precious little information about the villain. Her CIA masters (some of whom are less evil villains) may or may not have more, but they’re not telling—yet. So I had to come up with some other way of making the reader care what happens to him and ended up working in a tie to a future plotline that is just hinted at in this book. The reader, like the heroine, might just as well want him dead but if that happens he’ll never have a chance to elaborate on what he knows. Mwahaha—


There’s no secret formula for a good villain, just as there is no formula for a good hero. Character development is not a science, no matter what all those books on writing would have you think. But just like a main character, a villain is a key part of the story and can either advance it naturally or simply appear as a one-dimensional plot device.

Bottom line? Write me a good villain and I’m yours forever. Or at least until I find a good therapist.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What a Feeling!

You know that great feeling you get when you recommend a book to someone, and then that someone hands it back to you a week later with a huge, satisfied sigh and a demand for more? Yeah, I love that. I just got back the copy of fellow NEC member Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation that I lent to a colleague and she loved it. Bonus points because she’s recovering from a stroke and reading is part of her therapy to help her concentration. So it’s not only enjoyable, but healthy!

Seriously, y’all, that was a great book. If you don’t have it already, now is the time to pick it up because it’s finally out in paperback.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I have always struggled with the concept of balance—and not just because I am a born klutz, either. Yoga? Not my forte. Surfing? Only because I don’t mind falling into the water. Career/personal life? Perpetually off-kilter. Writing projects? An object lesson in tipped scales.

Recently I’ve been dealing with an upswing in activity at my day job. It isn’t unexpected—this is an election year, after all—but the crush of projects and research that have appeared on my desk lately appear to have begun breeding to produce gnarly, genetically-altered work that mysteriously causes my head to connect repeatedly with my keyboard. At the same time, I have two writing projects that I dearly want to be working on. One is my unfinished paranormal, which whispers (and sometimes shouts) sweet nothings about vampires and destiny and doomed love stories in my ear until I am dying to write ANGST. The other project is an edit of my spychick novel that my lovely agent and I have hammered out together. (Side note: how encouraging is it to open a project you haven’t looked at in several months and find that you still like it?) I’m enjoying being back in that world again, too, and honestly it’s nice to have a break from the more serious and complicated world of my paranormal. This edit is exactly what my spychick novel needs, and it’s progressing well. If the vampires would shut up—just for a couple of weeks, guys, I swear!—all would be well in Muse World.

When my longer work hours, I’ve had to really think about the way I use my writing time. Dabbling in other projects has had to go, and obviously I’ve neglected this blog for a while now. But--but--I’m writing. In a little over two months, I have 150 good pages and about a hundred more of backstory and brainstorming for my paranormal. In ten days, I’ve made edits on about half my spychick novel, adding around 6,500 of my target 10,000. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

I’m not sure if balance is something I’ll ever be able to attain (or keep) in my writing process. I’m not even sure if balance is my style. I write a lot more in the bursts of creative output that my Muse seems to favor than in systematic, Stephen King-like routines. My ideas don’t come in convenient packages that fit into wordcount goals and carefully planned writing sessions. Instead, I find myself dictating messages into my cell phone while walking through underground parking garages, furiously jotting down notes on the subway and toting my laptop with me day in and day out just in case I have ten minutes in which I can lose myself in writing. That is what works for me, and I’m beginning to realize that messing with the formula just causes me problems. I can meet deadlines. I can shut the door and force myself to write (or edit) when the occasion calls. But that’s not how I write best, or how my best ideas foment.

So for now, I will thank the Muse for those bursts of creativity that send me fumbling for paper on my morning commute and even for those nights when I don’t stumble to bed until 4am because I just had to finish a chapter. Maybe balance is for the birds.