The Thinking Woman’s Alpha Hero

There is something in romance that worships hyper-masculinity. It manifests itself in torrents of loving verbiage over the hero’s physical supremacy: he towers over all other men (except those who would be heroes in subsequent books), his muscles make the Governator in his Mr. Olympic days look like a high school nerd, and his sperm can puncture three layers of latex to impregnate a post-menopausal woman.

I roll my eyes a little at such freaks of nature, but not so much that I can see the inside of my cranium. Height, strength, and potency have been prized aspects for males of the species since time began, and I’m certainly not insensible to the allure of a physically imposing man. What I find far more unsatisfying is that height, strength, and potency are often taken as sufficient onto themselves to define alpha maleness.

Such heroes are everywhere to be found in romance, and they are spared my greatest wrath because one, they usually don’t interest me enough to read very far, and two, they are more often than not paired with heroines whose thoughtlessness and folly make these men’s imperiousness and immaturity look good in comparison. But that doesn’t mean their sheer quantity and generic-ness don’t exasperate me.

There aren’t enough real men in romance. Yes, you heard me right. Despite all the hot, all the testosterone, and all the claims to alpha-ness, there aren’t enough real men, but too many overgrown, my-way-or-the-high-way boys.

A pseudo-alpha says “Because I say so.” It’s his way or the high way. A real man does not presumes his authority, he earns it everyday and leads by example. Gandhi, anybody? (And don’t tell me Mahatma wasn’t hot in his homespun loincloth.)

A pseudo-alpha is always shown to have the upper hand over the heroine: if she’s strong, he’s stronger; if she kicks ass nine-to-five, he kicks ass left, right, and upside down 24/7. I sure wouldn’t mind seeing a kick-ass heroine paired with a academic librarian hero, a hot, erudite man who kicks ass only in the sense that he’s the best at connecting people with the knowledge they need, a secure man who’s not at all threatened by a strong woman or another strong man because he does not define his worth by how many bow before him in deference.

A pseudo-alpha is interested in power for its own sake. A real man understands that the flip side of authority is responsibility. When things go wrong, he doesn’t find justifications, or pass the bucket. Eisenhower, before the D-Day, had composed an “in-case-of-defeat” letter. He wrote:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troop, the air [force] and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Ike, dead but still sexy, just for these words alone.

My all-time favorite real-man hero is Ruck from Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. There have been other romances featuring a spectacularly high-born lady and a not-so-high-born man, and in most of them, the hero is shown to act in an over-familiar and commandeering way, quickly putting the heroine under his thumb to compensate for his lower birth and emphasize his hero-ness.

In For My Lady’s Heart, however, Ruck, a renowned knight in his own right, is ever respectful and courteous to Princess Melanthe. He observes every last detail of etiquette, whether it requires him to kneel before her or to lay out and serve her meal. And none of it diminishes him. None of it renders him any less a leader of men. Quite the reverse, his innate dignity, his quiet competence, his unassuming yet solid understanding of who he is make him, in this reader’s eyes, almost unbearably manly.

A true alpha takes care of people without patronizing them. He leads without shoving his decision down everyone’s throat. He is not necessarily humble, but he has an accurate understanding of his own pride, and doesn’t let his ego stand in the way of learning from his mistake.

And when he is in love, his lady is free to make up her own mind as to whether she loves him in return.

So, in other words, keep the hot, by all means. Have the hero be impossibly fit and impossibly handsome, but don’t stop there. And don’t stop with giving him a traumatic adolescence. Give him some depth and maturity. Give him some strength of character that he understands the difference between what’s easy and what’s right. Give him the sort of true manliness that would make him remain impossibly charismatic and attractive even when he gains a paunch and loses his hair thirty years into his happily ever after.

And give me a real alpha hero, instead of a pseudo-alpha.

It’s all about me

I love women. But as a healthy, overwhelmingly heterosexual woman, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that men, in all their varieties and flavors, bring to the table an excitement that is totally different from what I get in my interaction with women.

From watching tuxedo-clad, classically trained opera singers to watching rough-and-tumble soccer players half my age squaring off on the field during halftime of my own kid’s soccer game, I derive tremendous pleasure from men as they are, gorgeous, strong, fascinating creatures both familiar and mysterious.

That’s in real life. In a romance, however, I have trouble admiring the hero just like that. Because the romance hero is not some stranger there to provide a slightly middle-aged, slightly dirty-minded woman detached, uncomplicated enjoyment, he is there to exist in a relationship. And in romance, as in real life, I judge a man very much by the kind of woman he chooses.

And then, the kind of woman he chooses becomes very much all about me.

I am a damned fine woman—if you’ll excuse my immodesty here—but I’ve never been what would have been called a “good girl.” I was born a cynic. I never was innocent. As a child, I had very dark thoughts about life and people and wouldn’t know uncomplicated love if it kidnapped me and took me to a unicorn picnic.

I don’t love unselfishly—if I love you, you’d better love me back, a lot. I won’t bother charming some crotchety old bat with my sass and spirit—I’d sooner mix Ex-Lax into her morning cocoa. On top of it, I’m power-hungry and possibly narcisistic.

In other words, I am so not your typical romance heroine. And yet I’m a damned fine woman.

And every time a hitherto fascinating hero falls in love with a milquetoast heroine, I roll my eyes and discount both his IQ and his EQ by about 20 points. And if he loves her for her innocence, I bang my head on the wall. I’ve never known a man who is attracted to a woman for her innocence. They like us because we are beautiful, because we’ve boobs and hips, because when we walk they drool! What is wrong with you, hero dude?

One of my favorite examples of this kind of inexplicable heroine-worship happens in an old-timey futuristic where the hero, who can do everything and I mean everything, carries the heroine on his back and runs for about twelve hours straight through a weird forest that would come alive at night and eat them or some such. At the end of this super-marathon, he set her down and admires her for having held on. For having held on, when death was her other choice! I promptly lost all my interest in him.

Whenever a powerful, accomplished man falls in love with a baked-potato heroine, I want to ask him, what do you see in her? Why don’t you hang with someone of comparable experience and capability? Would you feel threatened if you are not the first or only man to give her an orgasm?

And this is one of the major reasons why as much as I delight in love stories, and relish a happy ending, I don’t read as many romances as I’d like. Because there aren’t enough fascinating heroines, and seven out of ten fascinating heroes end up devoting themselves to the sort of walk-on-water heroines that bear no relation to what I understand to be the fascination of femininity.

As I said, it’s all about me.

Looking for a few good women

I am very hard on romance heroines.

I don’t know why.

I sometimes wonder if we romance writers as a whole put twice the amount of effort into our heroes as into our heroines. Certainly over the years there have been lots of remarkable heroes created and I’ve read my share of hot, interesting men.

And yet if you ask me if I have a favorite hero, I would stare blankly at you. I don’t. I don’t approach romance that way, I don’t read it for the men. If you were to ask about my favorite heroine, however, I would instantly rattle off Louise Vandermeer from Judith Ivory’s Beast and Princess Melanthe of Monteverde from Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart.

Do I read it for the women, then? No, I read romances as I read any other works of fiction, I read for the story, for the journey, for the pleasure of immersion into another world. The importance of the heroine is that they are what often make or break a romance for me.

Perhaps it is because we women as a whole tend to judge other women more harshly than we judge men–I don’t know, I tend to judge men more harshly in real life–there is a lot of concern about making our heroines sympathetic. Nothing wrong with a sympathetic heroine–why would we want to root for the happiness of an unrepentant Wicked Witch of the West? But so often, it feels that the crafting of a heroine stops at inoffensiveness and proceeds no further. Or if it does go further, it is frequently an exercise in drumming up more sympathy, giving her more burdens and more sorrows, taking away her family, her friends, her house, and what little savings she has left. Is it any wonder that there are so many heroines who only have their innocence and their spunk going for them?

If you typical alpha hero is the grilled steak, then your typical spirited, virginal/not-very-experienced heroine is the baked potato. Baked potato is good. It’s a great way to get your carbohydrate and there are lots of ways you can spice up the baked potato: cheese, bacon, sour cream, chives, chili–the choices are practically endless.

But if you are like me and you just don’t like to eat the same thing over and over ad nauseam, whatever that thing is, then there are days, lots and lots of days, when you’ll be screaming, “Not another @@#$ baked potato! And I don’t care if that’s caviar on top of it, it’s still a @#$% baked potato!”

How about polenta, you moan. A loaf of good, crusty French bread, maybe? Some naan and roti? Risotto, oh risotto would be so good. Or briyani. Pasta in its infinite variety. Rice noodles. Buckwheat noodles. Oh, I know, blinis. Blinis, please?

I want some variety. We’ve had so many noble, self-sacrificing heroines that my heart actually flutter a little when I come across a heroine out for her own best advantage. “You go, girl!” I shout.

I want some depth. The characterization of a heroine tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep. She smiles and rainbows arc across the sky. Those mean to her are assured of a nasty end. Her magic hooha cures STD and roving eye with one dip. Such a heroine is wonderful. But when I’m faced with hundreds of such heroines every year, the wonder factor wears thin and the next fresh, lovely paragon to come along will have my shriveled, mottled hands around her throat before she can utter her first feisty, spitfire-ish line.

I want her to have an understanding of reality. Her love should have some limitations–no continual enabling of gambling papa or drunken brother, no endless forbearance of stupid mothers and sisters–they don’t get better with her coddling, they get worse. And she should spare a thought for herself since there is no one else to look after her: if she must sleep with the rake to save the house/the orphans/the farm/the nasty other guy her guardian wants her to marry, then she is to bring a condom with her–and yes, they’ve existed since antiquity–and save her brave, nutty self from the pox.

But above all–and this is the most lacking aspect in romance heroines–I want her to have an understanding of power: not just the power of love and forgiveness, and not the simple physical power to literally kick ass or stake vampires, but power in all its dirty, rotten, wondrous incarnations.

Power of the mind. Nothing psychic or supernatural–just the power of a centered, clear-seeing mind that knows itself.

Power of cleverness. Being the physically weaker of the species, women have had to depend on their wits and adaptability to survive. I could stand to see a lot more cleverness in romance heroines.

Power of sexuality. Innocence is great. But innocence doesn’t last. For all the pages devoted to love scenes–there aren’t enough heroines who really harness the power of their sexuality, not even in erotic romances.

Power of the purse. I’d like to see the rich heroines wield their wealth like a weapon, because it is. And it’s one of the best around.

Power of conviction. Quiet conviction that doesn’t need to be shouted from the mountaintops and the inner strength that comes of it.

And seldom mentioned, maybe because it’s not romantic, but fundamental to any relationship that hopes to last, she should strive for a balance of power between herself and the hero. Because if there is not a decent balance of power, then twenty years later we end up with a relationship that’s ripe for women’s fiction.

Now that is an awfully long list of what I want. I don’t expect to see everything I want in a romance heroine–heck, I can’t even manage half of it in my own heroines. But I think of it less as a list of must-haves than as the menu in a restaurant, wherein a few choice selection of those qualities would be quite enough to make an interesting heroine.

Which is, in the end, all I want. We have so many nice girls and nice women populating romance, but not that many who are interesting in their own right, and precious few I’d consider fascinating. I want more fascinating women in romance, characters as layered and complex and nuanced as a bar of Scharffen Berger dark chocolate or a bottle of Chateau Margaux (and no I haven’t had either, I just like saying those names. :-P)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a few good women.

P.S. This is a reader’s rant.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled hiatus to bring you…A Delicious Ending

Remember our Delicious beginning?

In retrospect people say it was a Cinderella story.

Notably missing was the personage of the Fairy Godmother. But other than that, the narrative seemed to contain all the elements of the fairy tale.

There was something of a modern prince. He had no royal blood, but he was a powerful man—London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand—a man who would very likely one day, fifteen years hence, occupy 10 Downing Street and pass such radical reforms as to provide pensions for the elderly and health insurance to the working class.

There was a woman who spent much of her life in the kitchen. In the eyes of many, she was a nobody. For others, she was one of the greatest cooks of her generation, her food said to be so divine that old men dined with the gusto of adolescent boys, and so seductive that lovers forsook each other, as long as a crumb remained on the table.

There was a ball, not the usual sort of ball that made it into fairy tales or even ordinary tales, but a ball nevertheless. There was the requisite Evil-ish Female Relative. And mostly importantly for connoisseurs of fairy tales, there was footgear left behind in a hurry—nothing so frivolous or fancy as glass slippers, yet carefully kept and cherished, with a flickering flame of hope, for years upon years.

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The end–for now.

She laid herself across the bed and drew a finger down his sternum. “People are saying it’s a fairy tale. They say I’m a modern-day Cinderella.”

“I’m inclined to agree with them,” he said.

She kissed him on the lips. “Do you believe in happily-ever-afters?”

“You are asking a politician to tell the truth again?”

She reached over him and turned off the lamp. “Yes, for mine is an honest darkness.”

“Alright then, I do. I’ve always believed it–I only had to find you.” His kissed her in the sweet darkness. “And now I’ve found you.”

There, now you know the story. And you can save yourself $6.99. 🙂

Many Delicious Beginnings

DELICIOUS is the world’s hardest book to write. [And if you don’t think so, you can come write it for me. :-)] Fortunately, many, many months after I first set out to write a book of Victorian food porn, I’ve finally stumbled onto the story at the core of it.

I know perfectly fabulous authors who say that they don’t know how a book begins until after they have written “The End.” I don’t work like that. I can’t work backwards or write chapter 26 when I haven’t written chapters 1-25. So for me, the beginning of the book is always crucial. It tells me how the rest of the book should read.

This is the first beginning for DELICIOUS.

It was a truth almost universally acknowledged that Madame Durant’s cooking killed Bertie Somerset. The proponents of this conjecture intended it to be a moral lesson—Mr. Somerset, having paid for his gluttony with an early demise, would dine for the remainder of eternity where steaks were perpetually charred and soufflés everlastingly flat.

But the fortunate few who had actually been invited to Bertie Somerset’s fabled twenty-course spreads pondered that same theory with awed envy. Lucky chap, to have feasted upon Madame Durant’s delectable food for more than a decade, and then to have departed this earth with his face buried in a bowl of the silkiest, densest mousse au chocolat known to man. Lucky chap indeed.

While England’s dozen or so gastronomes reminisced fondly over tarte au citron and escargot en croute, the rest of Society, master and servant alike, regurgitated old rumors concerning the special relationship between Mr. Somerset and Mme. Durant—namely, whether she slept with him and how often, though more intrepid souls went so far as to speculate on depravities involving pastry cream and rolling pins.

Long time readers might remember that I blogged about the demise of this opening back in November. I really adored it, but I decided to go with a more utilitarian opening, to help me grope my way in the dark. So for a month or so, the novel began thusly:

The kitchen door burst open and slammed into the wall, rattling rows of copper pans, startling one of them off its hook. The pan hit the floor hard, bounced and wobbled, its metallic bangs and scrapes echoing in the steam and smolder of the kitchen. Verity looked up sharply. No one made noises while she worked.

“Madame,” Dickie, the second footman, gasped from the doorway, sweat dampening his hair despite the November chill. “Mr. Somerset—Mr. Somerset, he be not right!”

Something about Dickie’s wild expression suggested that Bertie was far worse than “not right”. Verity motioned Effie Briggs, her lead apprentice, to take over her spot before the stove. She wiped her hands on a clean towel and went to the door.

“What’s the matter?” she said, walking in long strides to keep up with the second footman as he scrambled in the direction of the house.

“He be oot cold.”

“Has someone sent for Dr. Mead?”

“Mick from the stables jus’ rode out.”

She’d forgotten her shawl. The cold in the unheated passage between kitchen and manor made her shiver. They pushed open what seemed an endless series of doors—doors to the mud room, the warming kitchen, another passage, the butler’s pantry.

Her heart thumped as they entered the dining room. But it was empty, save for an ominously overturned chair. On the floor by the chair was a puddle of water and, a little away, a miraculously unbroken crystal goblet. A half-finished bowl of onion soup still sat at the head of the table, waiting for the lunch to resume.

As I said, utilitarian. And I can’t do dialect to save my life.

Somewhere in the first week or two of December, I was doing some work with the A&E Pride & Prejudice DVD playing in the background. As the mini-series ended, and the happy newlywed couples got into their carriages, I suddenly realized that my hero and heroine had met before. (This is the one big trick I have up my sleeve. Whenever I can’t think what to do, I make my h/h old lovers.) The “Aha” moment led to this beginning:

A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, Stuart Somerset had once read. He’d always supposed it to be a rallying cry for the crush of young ladies swamping London every spring, each seeking to marry and marry up. It wasn’t until he came into some successes of his own that he began to understand that Miss Austen had, in fact, penned an astute observation of the male psyche.

A man blessed by Fortune wanted a wife because he could brandish no greater, more visible symbol of that good fortune. His prowess and competence was measured by the fineness of her eyes, the music of her speech, and the elegance of her figure gliding across a ballroom floor. Her desirability augmented his stature; her virtue, his respectability.

These two elegant paragraphs opened the book in the version that went to my editor. A 16-page, single-spaced revision letter came back, promptly much soul searching. I wrote yet another new beginning.

Verity Durant was famous in Paris and infamous in London.

Her Gallic celebrity was the result of her culinary prowess, reputed to rivaled that of the great Auguste Escoffier. French gastronomes who had feasted upon her twenty-course spreads carried home with them reverent tales of her remarkable discipline, her impeccable technique, and most of all, her divine food–so potent that old men dined with the gusto and hunger of adolescent boys, and so alluring that even new lovers forsook each other, at least for the duration of the meal, for the pleasures she proffered.

The English public, largely uninterested in food but extraordinarily titillated by sexual improprieties, knew her mainly for her torrid affair with Bertie Somerset, her patron and employer. After all, it was repeatedly whispered that she ruled her kitchen with an iron fist, that she received an exorbitant salary per annum, that she threw pies in old Bertie’s face without fear of dismissal, and that in person—not that many had seen her in person—she was the most underrated beauty since Cinderella.

Now here, for pedagogical purposes, allow me to present the first three paragraphs of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS.

Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society’s stamp of approval.

Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding. Unhappy marriages were, of course, even more vulgar, on a par with Frau Von Teese’s special contraption that spanked forty bottoms at once: unspeakable, for half of the upper crust had experienced it firsthand.

No, the only kind of marriage that held up to life’s vicissitudes was the courteous marriage. And it was widely recognized that Lord and Lady Tremaine had the most courteous marriage of them all.

Yep. With DELICIOUS, I was very much trying to recapture the mood that I had set in those three paragraphs for PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS. And in doing so, I forgot two very important things. One, DELICIOUS is a very different story, not same but different, but different different. Two, in PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, a few paragraphs down, I had this:

Therefore, when Lady Tremaine filed for divorce on grounds of Lord Tremaine’s adultery and desertion, chins collided with dinner plates throughout London’s most pedigreed dining rooms. Ten days later, as news circulated of Lord Tremaine’s arrival on English soil for the first time in a decade, the same falling jaws dented many an expensive carpet from the heart of Persia.

And that, was no empty atmospheric mumble-jumble. It set up the conflict and immediately pushes the story close to the brink–passion, Anger, SEX! Thud. None of my DELICIOUS openings had this crucial storytelling component, despite all the wordsmithing that went into them.

Finally, after much more soul searching–okay, I can’t lie any more, I never soul search. I was just sitting on the bus to school, thinking about the test I had to take, and suddenly I knew how I should begin DELICIOUS. It goes a little something like this.

In retrospect people say that it was a Cinderella story.

Notably missing was the personage of the Fairy Godmother. But other than that, the story seemed to contain all the elements of the fairy tale.

There was something of a modern prince. He had no royal blood, but he was a powerful man—London’s foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone’s right hand—a man who would very likely one day, fifteen years hence, occupy 10 Downing Street and pass such radical reforms as to provide pensions for the elderly and health insurance to the working class.

There was a woman who spent much of her life in the kitchen. In the eyes of many, she was a nobody. For others, she was one of the greatest cooks of her generation, her food said to be so divine that old men dined with the gusto of adolescent boys, and so seductive that new lovers forsook each other, as long as a crumb remained on the table.

There was a ball, not the usual sort of ball that made it into fairy tales or even ordinary tales, but a ball nevertheless. There was the requisite Evil Female Relative. And mostly importantly for connoisseurs of fairy tales, there was footgear left behind in a hurry—nothing so frivolous or fancy as glass slippers, yet carefully kept and cherished, with a flickering flame of hope, for years upon years.

A Cinderella story, indeed.

Or was it?

It all began—or resumed, depending on how one looked at it—the day Bertie Somerset died.

Is this opening truly superior to all the others? I haven’t the slightest idea. But it drives me. It tells me exactly what my characters would do, exactly how each scene should read, and exactly how much flab I should cut out from what I’ve written so as to achieve the desired emotional intensity.

And so I think I’ll stick with it.

P.S. PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS is now available for pre-order at Amazon.

I must have sacrificed myself to the rapacious lust of a gorgeous, domineering conqueror in one of my previous lives

In order to save my whole village. Heck, a whole cluster of villages. Because I have no other explanation for my good luck.

I had a wonderful time at the RWA National Conference in Dallas.

Tuesday night was the occasion of a great dinner meeting with Kristin Nelson, my agent. Then Wednesday was the event that should go down in conference history as the most enviable four hours ever: Kristin took a bunch of us lucky gals to the spa, and not just any spa, the fourth best spa in the whole of the U.S. of A. I had the best facial of my entire life. All my pores disappeared, completely. Completely. Can you beat that?

After the spa was the Bookseller’s Tea. Booksellers are to published authors what editors and agents are to pre-published authors–the Holy Grail. There was the big old ballroom, and likely a 15-to-1 ratio of authors to booksellers. It was like Almack’s, full of hopeful debutantes eyeing the few titled, rich prospects, dreaming of an introduction and a dance. And the Duke of Eligibility was, of course, Sue Grimshaw of Borders, who, along with the Marquis of Desirability, Tina Trevaskis (also of Borders), were pinned to a corner the whole of the reception by a mob of us eager authors dying to impress them with our saleability. They were both beyond gracious.

I’d briefly met Sara Megibow, Kristin’s assistant, at the spa. Sara’s photo, if you’ve ever come across it on Kristin’s website, does not do her justice. She is Adorable. After the bookseller’s event I saw her again, and her Adorable son, and her Adorable husband, who described her hair as having copper flecks when the light strikes it. Can you top that in a man? He just proved wrong every naysayer who said men don’t notice such things. I think they are the most adorable family I’ve ever met.

That evening I went to a cocktail party hosted by superpublicist Nancy Berland. Almost as soon as I walked into the door, I met someone who had an ARC of my book. I’d been to the goody room only 45 min before, and it hadn’t arrived yet, so it was very exciting to see that the copies did get there. The lady who had my ARC then proceeded to ask me to sign it for her mother, which I gladly did. My first signing ever. And guess who the lady was? Faygie Levy, the editor-in-chief of Romantic Times. You can’t beat that for a good omen. I think I must have willingly sacrificed myself to not one, but a whole horde of gorgeous, domineering conquerors, and saved cities, instead of mere villages.

Midway through the party, I was sitting alone at a table, munching thoughtfully–I semi-suck at mingling but never have trouble eating. Someone asked me if she could join me. Her badge said she was a librarian. I love libraries and librarians, so I told her of course she could join me. Only after she sat down did I realize she was RWA’s Librarian of the Year. We went on to have a wonderful conversation about books we love, so wonderful that I didn’t even once look at the Dallas panorama behind me (we were up high in the Reunion Tower).

On my way down the Tower that evening, Nora Roberts and a bunch of her friends came into the elevator. She stood next to me for 200 feet down and I silently basked in her glow. There’s no need to talk to La Nora. She just is. And I just bask.

Thursday I met Jane from DearAuthor for lunch. Jane is gorgeous. I mean, the woman made partner at her law firm when she was 28, runs one of the most influential romance blogs in her spare time–all that, and did I mention she is beautiful ? (I’m sorry but I believe I’ve said on this blog before that I’m shallow as a dinner plate.) The caliber of women that I’m fortunate enough to meet never fails to astonish me.

Thursday afternoon I had to do homework. You would think I’d resent the heck out of it: 2000 women having a good time at the bar (no workshops Thurs pm) and I was doing homework. But the truth was I rather enjoyed it. The homework was for a corporate taxation class, and I love tax classes. I just do. I don’t know why. Nerds write the hottest romances, yeah!

Friday I attended a rather august luncheon, with heavy hitters from Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, American Library Association, Borders, and Books-a-Million. And a whole bunch of bestseller authors–and me (I’m not sure how that came about either). Most everyone else was dressed business casual. I looked as if I was hoping to nab a beau at a garden party. 🙂 So thank goodness for Linda Lael Miller, whose outfit was as colorful as sunrise over the Mediterranean.

Friday night was the cocktail reception hosted by Random House, my publisher, where it was great fun meeting Sandy Coleman and Anne Marble from All About Romance, which I’d been reading since at least 1998. Sandy and I reminisced over Susan Johnson’s earlier works. And we shared some fangirl love of Judith Ivory, who has unfortunately dropped off the face of the earth. I told her the story of how I always pounce on Steve Axelrod, Judith Ivory’s agent, whenever I see him, to ask about her. Alas for the rest of you Ivory lovers out of there, at least according to Mr. Axelrod, no releases for her this year. So much for the hopeful rumor that I’d heard.

After the cocktail party, a bunch of Bantam authors went out to dinner. I sat next to Shana Abe and Lara Adrian and we had a great time imagining ourselves living close by to Mr. Clooney on Lake Como. We would join the local council and be very active in the community and he would, of course, admire our public spirit and talent. And from time to time, he would bring over his good friend Mr. Pitt. And between Shana and Lara and me, we decided that we might just have boobs and lips enough to steal his attention away from Miss Jolie for a minute or so.

The big event for me, on Saturday, was the signing. So of course I would forget to change out of my sneakers (thank goodness for table skirts). I saw Sybil from The Good, the Bad, and the Unread helping setting up the tables. We’d met on Thursday. For some stupid reason I’d imagined her as middle-aged. But she, like Jane, turned out to be Young and Hawt. What’s with all the attractive bloggers taking over the world? So I helped her set up tables. And it wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized I was setting up tables not for Bantam, but St. Martin’s. But what the heck. We went on to set up another table or two for St. Martin’s. 🙂

And then, of course, just before the signing was about to start, I realized I’d forgotten both my camera and the huge box of 81 gel pens I’d bought for the signing. I’d been lusting after those pens for years, but told myself I couldn’t have such useless items unless I actually had a signing. Taking pity on me, the wonderful Sara Megibow went and fetched the pens from my room. They were a tremendous hit, especially the glitter gel pens in all colors of the rainbow.

What can I say about the signing? It was fabulous, the best signing of my life! 🙂 Bantam had done a wonderful poster for each author, provided tons of books, and the attendees who lined up were all so nice to me. A huge contingent from my home chapter of Austin turned out to support me, as well as several readers of this blog–Bev, Maria, and Karmela, or did I meet Karmela some other spot in the hotel? Lovely to meet y’all!–plus the ladies from the Romance Divas, and one of the Head Bitches Herself, Candy from SB, who is–I repeat myself again–another young, hawt blogger taking over the world.

Sorry for the lack of photos. Leslie Langtry, one of Kristin’s authors, graciously lent her camera to take a picture of me at the but it might be a bit before I get hold of it.

So at this point I’m thinking that the conquerors to whom I’d sacrificed myself weren’t gorgeous at all. And I’d saved whole countries. Because good karma on this magnitude just doesn’t happen naturally. But I’m not quite at the end of my run of good luck yet.

It took me a while to unwind from the autographing. Then I went with my roomies, including the gorgeous and talented Catherine Avril Morris, out to dinner. Of course I overstuffed myself. And of course when I got back I had trouble getting into my Rita gown. I’d told Kristen Painter from Romance Divas I’d clap for her during the Golden Heart awards, so I wobbled down to the ballroom, very gingerly sat down, mindful of my dress’s likelihood of exploding from containing too much of me, and clapped (It was sooooo considerate of Kristen’s category to come up as soon as I sat down!) So five minutes later, I wobbled out of the ballroom, headed for the privacy of my room and the luxury of exiting from the very restrictive Rita gown.

The folks from RomanceNovel.tv were shooting interviews with Rita nominees outside the ballroom. Jane had pimped me to them earlier. They were just wrapping up. Guess who was helping them out? Sybil. I don’t think I’ve said it yet but Sybil is a tiger. An absolute tiger. She grabbed me, grabbed the RomanceNovel.tv folks, and got them to agree to interview me, a nobody whose book isn’t even coming out for another six, seven, or is it eight months?

I realized then that I had no makeup on, but what the hell. So there I was, in my naked face, standing next to the very tall and very elegant Sophia Nash, my kindly interviewer. And two minutes later it was done. Now the good folks from RomanceNovel.tv might feed the tape to the shredder when they get home, but it was certainly fun getting interviewed.

I must have single-handedly diverted a giant meteor from crashing into earth.

Okay, finally, the end of this long, rambling post is in sight. I think I’d written it down more for myself–so I don’t forget–than for anyone else. It was wonderful in Dallas and it is wonderful to be back home. Now I’d better get back to all the homework piled up. School ends on August 13. I’m going on a long-awaited vacation with my family shortly after that. Then I’ll come home and spend the rest of the kids’ summer vacation playing computer games with them. So expect regular posts to resume in early September.

And in honor of the new Harry Potter movie and the imminent arrival of Book 7, let me leave you with my favorite Harry Potter Youtube video–Ron and Hermione as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. Enjoy.

I know I’m on hiatus, but…

Update 7-11-07: My editor tells me that ARCs should be in the goody room some time today. I would imagine later in the afternoon.

This has been a very exciting couple of days. While I’ve been buried deep under the inscrutabilities of consolidated financial statements and the mysteries of Access databases, all the while trying to keep my hair from spontaneously combusting, Caitlin Alexander, my wonder-editor at Bantam, has totally been on top of things in getting ARCs of my first novel into production. Today I got the covers (front and stepback) for the ARCs Bantam would print for distributing at RWA National.

They are totally SQUEE-worthy!

Not only are they such beautiful covers, but these beautiful covers contain very generous blurbs from Mary Balogh and Jane Feather!



(Right, forgot to tell you guys that SCHEMES OF LOVE is now called PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS.)

I’m thrilled to share this day with you. And I hope that very soon I will be able to share in your pleasure and delight as your publishing dreams come true, too.

The Theory of Accelerated Karma II: You can type this @#$%, George

One of my favorite anecdotes from the Star Wars mother lode involves Harrison Ford, George Lucas, and the script for Episode IV: A New Hope. I adore George Lucas, I would love to have his as my uncle—or sugar daddy—but homeboy has been known to churn out a few clunky dialogues here and there.

As the story went, one day, Harrison Ford, fed up with his lines, went up to George Lucas, whom he’d known since American Graffiti, and said, “You can type this @#$%, George, but you can’t say it.”

Sometimes, when I read a book, I have a similar reaction: you can type this @#$%, but you can’t make me believe it. A lot of times, books that elicit such a reaction from me have violated a fundamental tenet of Accelerated Karma, namely, you can accelerate it, but you can’t make it materialize out of nothing.

Take romances, for example. One of the most frequently logged—and grievous—complaints against an unsatisfying book is that the reader doesn’t buy the Happily Ever After, because for the sake of conflict/plot/sexual tension/length the protagonists quarrel like harpies/keep secrets from each other and never communicate/think of each other only in hate/lust dichotomies/so on and so forth for 95% of the book. And then, all of a sudden, on the penultimate page, the hero and the heroine are deeply in love and deeply committed and deeply desirous of sharing a Life Together.

Remember the Chinese saying “Plant squash, harvest squash; plant peas, harvest peas?” A romance writer cannot plant nothing but peas and suddenly show her readers bushels and bushels of squash. The romance gods have gifted us with a Wonder Squash that can go from seed to fruit in all of one week. But we’ve still got to plow the field, plant the seed, and nurture it with water and fertile soil and plenty of sunshine, and show the readers how this one tiny seed grows into a beautiful, bountiful harvest.

I write mostly relationship-heavy books. But these are not the only kinds of books that suffer from the Sudden Squash Syndrome. In more plot-heavy books the Sudden Squash Syndrome is known by its Latin name Deus Ex Machina, whereupon a god previous unknown to the universe of the story appears just as all plot threads seem headed for implosion, rains down squash, and voila, all problems solved.

To which I can only say, dear fellow scribes, plant your squash early and plant them often! Cuz otherwise, karma is a lady dog.

Hiatus alert: I know, I know, I just came back. And it’s such a pleasure and a privilege to have readers, but I would have to give up blogging for a couple of months. I’ve four classes this summer, major revisions, and a mid-July deadline for those revisions. I’ll be back again as soon as the revisions are done.

The Theory of Accelerated Karma—Part I

Why do I write romance? Why does anyone write genre fiction? I have a theory, the Theory of Accelerated Karma.

The Bible says, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

The Chinese say, “Plant squash, harvest squash; plant beans, harvest beans.”

An anonymous sage once said, “Watch your thoughts, for they become words.Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits.Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

All pretty darn good definitions of karma, which is but action and reaction, cause and effect.

God moves in mysterious ways. And so does karma. It’s all a question of timing. The eastern religions take a longer view of things, through multiple lives and cycles of rebirths and re-deaths. See the corrupt fat cat who goes to his grave feared and respected? Don’t worry. In his next life he would be a pincushion. Okay, okay, not a pin cushion, a garden slug. Or that hen in Chicken Run who becomes dinner.

Karma has no hurry. It is ineluctable, but not always timely. Whirling about in our brief, chaotic lives, looking at the mess that surrounds us—that sometimes is us—it’s tempting to throw in the towel and say, I give up, the literary fiction writers have it right, we all live in quiet desperation all the time, I never writ, nor no man ever loved, and certainly no woman ever achieved happiness.

And then there are us dauntless genre writers. We say, bollocks. We know quiet desperation—what writer doesn’t?—but we also know it’s not all there is to life. We know happiness is possible–heck, better than that, doable. We know Justice not only exists, but is inevitable.

Genre fiction is karma on a compressed time frame. In genre fiction, when people make the hard choices, when they sacrifice what’s easy for what’s right, their karma work out all its kinks by the end of 400 pages. It means that when Darth Vader breaks with Darth Sidious and saves Luke, the evil galactic empire is rent asunder and Anakin Skywalker redeemed. It means that Pinocchio gets to be a real boy. And it means that as Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy rise above their pride and prejudice, we close the book with an unshakable belief that they would live a happy life together.

It is not happy endings that we deliver, but a fresh slate, an affirmation of the fundamental balance of the world. We might not see it played out before us, and certainly it’s not often portrayed in the news, but we feel it in our bones, the turning wheel of karma, the retribution and reward just around the corner.

And we write what we know to be true. And we accelerate it.

The Element of Style—Blades of Glory

My friend Janine wrote a heartfelt entreaty a few weeks ago at Dear Author, wondering why we don’t see more breathtaking writing from genre fiction in general, and the romance genre in particular. Her opening example was a bit unfair, being that it was only from the greatest American novel ever penned. But Janine’s lament on the dearth of style and gorgeous word-smithing has long been my own.

As I read the elegant examples she gave, my mind turned, not to words, but to something that has occupied a special place in my heart since I first saw it fifteen years ago.

This program, skated to Franz Listz’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love), was and remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. From the choreography, to the execution, to the individual qualities the skaters bring to the ice—his strength, presence, and flair, her loveliness, fragility, and seemingly inborn sadness, their unusual chemistry of both intimacy and distance—I lose myself in it every time.

It is a dance of poignant longing and stunning intensity. And yet it is more than a dance, it is a sports program that had won world championships and an Olympic gold medal in its time. The skaters—the great and, alas, no-long-together team of Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev—performed all the risky elements required of elite pairs skaters in their era: side-by-side triple toe loop, side-by-side double axels, one triple twist and two triple throws.

Because mere beauty is not enough to make a competitive program work. You have to deliver the elements too. Falls on the jumps and breaks in unison make the audience groan and ruin the overall effect. In this, I feel, an Olympic-eligible figure skating program is very much like a work of genre fiction.

People read genre fiction with some rather specific expectations. SF is about saving the world. Fantasy is about the quest. Mysteries need to bring the murderer to justice. And romance, in my understanding, has to deliver hope and fulfillment.

Ergo, since most genre fiction is driven by factors other than beauty of prose, cadence of language, and powers of imagery and metaphors—as if a figure skating program required only the elements—most genre fiction isn’t known for stylish writing. And what stylish writing we get is from writers who, though they choose to work within the boundaries of the genre and compete on its terms, can’t imagine sending their stories out of the door without having polished their prose until it gleams like the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Meaning, they are doing extra work. Work that may or may not be appreciated by readers who pick up a book mainly for the story—not for splendor of the writing itself. Work that would demand extra time and effort on the writer’s part when s/he already has to contend with the major elements of plot, character, dialogue, pacing, and, if you write romance, character growth and chemistry. Work that doesn’t have a market mandate, given that a breakneck pace or a pair of hotly interacting lovers can sell quite well even when depicted in pedestrian language.

I choose to do that work. Because the stories that touch me most are not only beautiful, but beautifully written. Because I find that lovely writing, when married to an expertly crafted story, adds immeasurably to my enjoyment. Because I want to build the Taj Mahal.

One day.