The Times, They Have Changed, I Think–I Hope

Recently, the Smart Bitches had a posting on the rules and boundaries of the romance hero’s conduct—namely, is he allowed to sleep with other women in the course of his love story, once he has met the heroine, or even once the reader has cracked open the book?

This, of course, is but a corollary to the much older, much more pervasive, blood pressure-raising, and probably never-going-away debate on whether the romance heroine is allowed to have—and enjoy—sex with other men once we are past the dedication page.

I frankly don’t care about the hero’s chastity. If he’s pure as the driven snow, great. If not, I’ll judge his action—and any action he might enjoy with someone other than the heroine—in the context of the story. The rules—or stricture, I should say—about the heroine’s conduct, however, have chafed me more than a little over the years, precisely because such rules existed, unspoken perhaps, but very much adhered to and demanded from authors.

Schemes of Love, the first novel I sold, is, in a way, the first novel that I ever wrote. It got me the attention of my first agent. She saw some potential to the story. But she did not hesitate to tell me that the manuscript, in the shape and form as was presented to her, was unsaleable.

The basic premise of the story has always been girl meets boy, girl loses boy through her own misdeed, and many years later, girl meets boy again. My first agent gave me three pieces of advice on the book. One, she said, you can’t write the story in a linear fashion. Start the story when they meet again and not a minute before. Two, you can’t have the heroine do something morally wrong and then somehow vindicate her. Wrong is wrong. Three, you can’t have the heroine take lovers, even if she did it off stage, during a very long separation, with the hero having made it abundantly clear that he would never come back to her.

The majority of romance readers live below the Mason-Dixon line, said my very liberal New Yorker then-agent (those were her exact words). They would not tolerate the heroine’s unfaithfulness, she added, particularly not from a debut author.

That was in the earliest months of 2001.

When I returned to the story some four-and-half years later to rewrite every last word from scratch, I took her first two pieces of advice to heart—and rejected the third one outright. It would have been out of character for my heroine to mope for ten years and save herself for a man who has rejected her unequivocally. It would have been out of character for me to submit to the whim of some mythical, disapproving reader when I’m not even writing for her, but for me.

For good measure I emphasized in the first chapter that neither of my protagonists has been sleeping with only his or her feather pillows.

And then, of course, came the hand-wringing, as I waited for reactions to this heroine who is utterly unapologetic about her lovers—and to this couple for whom the lovers, his and hers, aren’t even an issue compared to what really divides them.

The contest judges were unfazed that neither the hero nor the heroine remained celibate during their long separation and I know for sure that some of them live below the Mason Dixie line (hasta la vista, stereotype). My agent has never said a thing. My editor at Bantam is resolutely unbothered.

Maybe the times have changed, thanks to the authors of erotic romances who have managed to smash a lot of rules while making money hand over fist for their publishers. Maybe the readers have become more accepting of heroines who differ rather dramatically from the old, agreed-upon feminine ideal. Maybe I’ve improved enough as a writer that people get absorbed in the story and don’t care about such peripheral distractions.

We’ll see by next year this time what reader reactions would be. In the meanwhile, I have a story to pitch to my editor in which, gasp, there is sleeping with other people again–and this time not quite so peripheral to the story.

A little side note. A reader inquired some time ago in the comments about the use of profanities in romances. It seems that in historical romances the f-bomb is still largely unwelcome (both my former and current agents have asked me to avoid them if I can, though I am trying again in DELICIOUS to sneak a few in by having the hero drunkenly comments on the fate of a particular piece of legislation—he’s a politician). But in single-title contemporary romances I don’t think those are frowned upon at all, especially when used by men. So go ahead, f-bomb away as you write. Take half of them out before submitting and leave the rest to the gods of obscenity.

The Theory of Accelerated Karma, it seems, needs to marinate some more before it will be ready for the grill.

Quick Update

I e-mailed my editor and my agent the manuscript for DELICIOUS at 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning. I said I’d give it to them on the second of April (first was a Sunday) before I went to sleep. Guess I kept my word.

The writing of DELICIOUS, as you probably already know, was a slog. The story didn’t quite come together for me until early January, when I finally understood the sort of relationship the hero and the heroine had with each other and with their lightning-rod of a brief history. Once the core of the story gelled, I absolutely fell in love with it. But then I hardly had any time left.

I think I submitted something decent. I also think it could be stunning instead of just decent. (Here’s my whole philosophy on writing. It’s hard and chances are I will make less money as a novelist than as a partner in an accounting firm. So there is no point producing only a decent product. In the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth tells Jane that nothing less than the deepest love would induce her to marry. For me, nothing less than the most devastatingly beautiful stories would induce me to keep writing–I hope.)

But I chose to give DELICIOUS as-is because I needed some time away from it to let ideas and thoughts percolate through my subconscious, because I could benefit from hearing from my editor and agent–both are wonderful at spotting shortcomings and do it ever so nicely–and because I’ve got some fires to put out at school. Ugh.

Anyway, here are some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that SCHEMES (or whatever it would be called by then) would not be released until spring 2008. Darn. The good news is that we made the first foreign rights sale on it. To Russia. Which was very, very cool. Look for me to post the Russian cover in about 2 years. 🙂

On the personal front, I would like to say to members of my family who might be reading this: thank you and I can’t thank you enough. SCHEMES I wrote largely on my own time. DELICIOUS I wrote on everyone’s time. Three generations of family pitched in to help me out during this very hectic year. I really, really couldn’t have done it without all of you.

I’m blessed beyond measure.

The Mother of All Hiatuses–Coming to an End Soon!

To my ten devoted readers,

I swear, I didn’t mean to drop off the face of the Earth. When I said I’d return in the new year in my last post, I’d meant the first week of January.

And then I started my internship. Believe me when I say I was composing my mind-boggling post “Theory of Accelerated Karma” on my way to work in the first few days. But it didn’t take long for the true meaning of “60-hour work week” to sink in (life’s like that during busy season for accountants).

Finally that got done on March 2. Now I have until March 19th before school starts again. I plan to write 21K words between now and then. And then edit, edit, edit.

So if everything goes well, hopefully Theory of Accelerated Karma, the best thing since Theory of Relativity, of course, would see the light of the day in early April. If not–no, think positive, think positive. This is no time to panic.

Much love and gratitude,

Sherry

Space Opera!

I don’t think I’ve told a whole lot of people about this, but I got into writing to write what was then called “futuristic romances.” I was going to redefine the subgenre the way Professor Tolkien redefined fantasy.

[Crickets chirping]

Okay, so I haven’t done it. Here’s why.

Back in the middle of the second Clinton Administration, during a period of ardent personal ignorance in the ways of the (publishing) world, I had the whole thing planned. I’d write one—count that—one historical romance. Then, once I had my foot in the door, I’d switch to futuristics. Woo hoo, the first step in Sherry’s Grand Strategy for World Domination.

Remember the Improbability Drive from THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY? If I could build a star drive that runs on naiveté and wishful thinking, I’d be halfway to Alpha Centauri already.

When I learned that once you publish in a subgenre, people kind of want you to keep writing it, I clutched my heart. I had a special hatred for research that people usually reserved for colonoscopies. And I never had any ideas for historicals beyond the current work-in-progress. But somehow, I managed to churn out historicals year in, year out, without my head visibly exploding. So I said, alright, I’ll write both historicals and science fiction romances. And wrote only historicals.

But now, times, they be a-changin’.

Last weekend, I sent off a three-chapter proposal to my agent. Science fiction romances suck in that they require a plot, and I’m weak on plots. But oh, baby, what freedom after a steady diet of nothing but the Queen’s English all these years. Here’s my personal favorite snippet from the prologue, where the hero and the heroine were about to engage in, ahem, unmentionable activities:

“Say ‘fuck me,’” he ordered.
“Fuck you,” she replied with equal courtesy.

Halleluiah! All praise to vulgar vernaculars. There are no two other words in the English language—with the possible exception of “I’m pregnant”—that pack quite such a wallop.

And this bit, from the first chapter, when our not-quite-amorous lovers reunite after many years. Watch out for another potent two-word combination.

“You look like shit,” she said.
He rubbed a knuckle along his jaw. “And feel even worse. You, on the other hand…”
He looked her over, once, twice. “Bitch goddess.”

Oh, yes, baby. Something else you can’t say in a historical.

I already write dark, powerful heroines in my historical romances. I hope science fiction romances would allow me the freedom to make them even darker and more powerful. The above proposal has just regular human beings. But I am intrigued by the concept of, say, a genetically modified woman who is physically much stronger than any normal man and made to kill. What can she do with that strength? What has she done with it? And what kind of man would have the big, brass balls required to go up against her?

Hmmm.

Update in the Mighty Struggle for a Good Shag: I have found The Way. But alas, The Way will require even more rewrites than originally scheduled. In fact, The Way changes the whole dynamic of the story. Forget short hiatuses. I am taking a medium hiatus from the blog to devote the rest of December to DELICIOUS. So have a great, memorable holiday, everyone. See you in 2007.

Give Me Sex or Give me Death

Apologies to Patrick Henry.

Way back—gosh, was it only six months ago?—when I sent off the partial for SCHEMES OF LOVE to Kristin Nelson, I wrote an accompanying cover letter that contained a “one paragraph blurb that summarizes your work and highlights your pitch” that she specified in her request.

Not being shy, I informed Kristin in the cover letter that my romance novel contained the best hook of all: mandatory sex. Yep, in those exact words. The heroine wants a divorce, the hero insists on an heir before he’d allow the divorce to go through. And we’ve got one very hot book.

There is a reason that romances with setups that stipulate mandatory sex—marriages of convenience, girl selling herself to the highest bidder, etc. etc.—remain perennially popular. We are, or at least I am, hardwired to enjoy the frisson we get when we know something steamy is afoot.

And for that very reason, I am usually drawn to write historical romances that take place in what I call a hermetically sealed bedroom. Hero, meet Heroine, meet Four-poster-bed. What do you mean you don’t know what to do? You are married, aren’t you? And even if you aren’t, you’ve signed a deal in blood to boink for three months straight. I have it right here in chapter three, so get on with it. And neither of you are allowed out until your cynical black hearts break a little bit.

I’m sure you see now why I was pulling my hair out over DELICIOUS. No mandatory sex. This couple, for perverse reasons that drive my muse to the opium den, do not need to sleep together. They want to, but they don’t need to, and the reasons against it are legion, and all I’ve got, in my puny armory of writerly devices, is whatever overriding passion I can foment in them.

And then, because I am a charter member of Romance Writers against Deliberate Character Manipulation, I can’t make the heroine run outside during a freezing downpour just so the hero can find her and strip her of her sodden night rail. Or put the hero in a hallucinating high fever, because damn it, she is his cook, not his maid or housekeeper, and she won’t be the one standing by his bedside should he yank someone down on top of himself. And even when I abandon my principles and have her get tipsy, he wouldn’t take advantage of her inebriation. What has the world come to, I ask you?

So what is a writer of reputedly hot romances to do? Write, I guess, and pray, and stake out all the opium dens nearby in case her muse wobbles out, ready to be taken home for some tender loving care.

Stay tuned for irregular future updates in The Mighty Struggle for a Good Shag.

Another Hiatus?!

I’d hoped to post today. But I ended up spent all day doing the copy edits for SCHEMES, going to class, and prepping for a presentation due on Thursday and my last midterm tomorrow morning. I can’t believe it. The last day of classes is Dec 7, and there is a midterm tomorrow.

Hope everyone had a good thanksgiving.

R.I.P.

I’ve been killing my darlings in the past week. And not just any darlings.

The summer of 2005 marked a turning point. My big martial-arts action-adventure epic bombed at literary agencies across the country. I had no idea what was wrong with my writing other than it wasn’t good enough. I was never less sure of my ability to sell a work of fiction in this century.

So I went on writing.

And one day, I wrote the following opening to a historical romance:

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.

I remember being astonished. That writing had a voice. Where had that come from? I’d never had a discernible voice before. And suddenly there I was, writing as if I’d always had this voice that perfectly reflected my cynical, sly take on life.

I’d finally hit my stride. Six weeks later, I would rediscover the old manuscript of SCHEMES OF LOVE in a cardboard box, flip through it, and be inspired to re-tell the story, with this brand new, slightly arch, self-assured voice of mine.

When my editor approved the proposal for DELICIOUS, I tossed most of what I’d written in 2005 to start afresh, but there was never any question that this opening would firmly remain in its place of honor. Because it instantly establishes the book as a Sherry Thomas book. Because it is fun and slightly naughty. Because I am ever so fond of it, my darling, my own, my precious.

I chucked that whole opening this past week. I tried to save it. I tried long and hard. But my darling has become like that favorite blouse from fifteen years ago. It looked wonderful then. There are so many good memories. But it doesn’t go with anything else in my closet and I just can’t wear it anymore.

Taking out the old beginning has opened up the story to go where it needed to go (I hope). It has uncorked my thinking, sharpened my editing pencil, and given me renewed zest. After all, if I can handle taking a knife to my most beloved darling, I can scare this story into shape (I hope).

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

When You Can’t Go Forward, Go Back

I’ve been away from my manuscript for a while. Partly because of all the demands of school—tests and cases being their own unalterable deadlines—and more because I was stuck.

The forward momentum on Delicious had been decelerating for a few weeks before it halted altogether. And where it finally ran aground was an unexpected place, a mere reaction scene, or a sequel, if you’ve heard of scene-and-sequel. (If you haven’t, imagine the scene is a big fight that ends with everyone banging the door storming out, the sequel would be one or more of them trying to sort out what happened, what it all meant, and where to go from there.)

The heroine, Verity, is a cook. The hero, Remus, is her new employer—and half-brother to her late employer who had, at one time, been her lover. There is a strong attraction between Verity and Remus, but neither of them wants it to go any further: he, being a rising politician, does not want the complication; she, because she’d long ago stopped believing in Cinderella stories. Finally, one night, Verity gets a little tipsy and almost manages to land Remus in the sack.

That scene is done and in the can. The scene that followed, during which Remus directs Verity to return to his country seat, ostensibly to prepare for the Christmas feasts, is also finished and usable. Then I thought, hmm, we never got to know what was in his head during his near-seduction, better put in a few paragraphs.

The few paragraphs refused all cooperation. I wrote and deleted and wrote and deleted, baffled by my inability to make progress. What was the matter? Why didn’t the words flow? Why couldn’t I accomplish something as simple as describing a man’s reaction to almost sleeping with the woman with whom he was in deep lust?

Then it hit me: I’ve lost all touch with him.

From the moment my proposal for Delicious met with approval from my editor, I’d been racing against the clock, pushing hard to move the story along. I’ve written many scenes but almost no sequels: no introspection, no reflection, no layering of character and very little revealing of backstory.

And that is no way to go for a character-driven story. The estate Remus inherits should have been a character in its own right, full of scents and sounds and textures that trigger long-forgotten memories at every turn. Remus himself, born illegitimate, and not legitimized until just before his mother’s death when he was in his late teens, should have been a much more interesting and multidimensional character than just this handsome gentleman who arrives once in a while to speak a few lines to startle Verity.

I knew, of course, that the beginning of the story needed much reworking. But I kept putting it off in the name of progress. Now I’m totally pumped to go back and flesh out the skeletal frame, to give weight that would anchor the story much more firmly, and to make my characters real people, as opposed to obedient pawns in my drive for victory against the deadline.

Midterms went swimmingly. Thank you so much for all the good wishes.

The Best Job Around–with the Following Caveats

Last week I wrote a bit about simultaneously being in school and being on deadline. A couple of curious readers wondered why I am in school at all, given that I already have a publishing contract in hand and can devote myself fulltime to the best job in the world, right now, without the daily struggle to do both at the same time?

The big reason? Publishing is a freakishly uncertain business.

I am a beneficiary of the swing of the pendulum, having a good historical romance ready to shop just as editors are looking for historicals again. Some years back historical westerns went as dead as peace in the Middle East. An author like Lorraine Heath, who made her name writing western historicals, had to switch to European historicals. Then the whole historicals subgenre went down the toilet, and a number of historical authors had to switch to writing contemporary romances if they wanted to stay published.

The same is happening to contemporary single-title romances now. An author from my local group told me that things are just dreadful for straight contemporaries, that the market is glutted and that USA Today best-selling authors couldn’t get their contracts renewed.

Now I, like everyone else, plan to be so big that these market fluctuations wouldn’t affect me. People still bought Lisa Kleypas when historicals were in the dumps. People would still buy Susan Elizabeth Phillips even if they skipped over every other contemporary title out there.

But even big authors with loyal fan bases aren’t immune to the vagaries of fate. Take two of my favorite authors, Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory. Laura Kinsale went seven years between the publications of her last two books, because she simply had to take time off to recharge her muse. Judith Ivory hasn’t come out with a new book in three years. I waylaid her agent at RWA nationals in Atlanta. He had no more information to give than that she’s been having severe back problems.

When my agent says, “I think you’ll have a long career in publishing,” that is her opinion and my fondest hope. But as predictions go, it is writ on water. Anything, absolutely anything, could happen. I might never be a practicing CPA, but you bet I’ll still sit through the CPA exams because I want to have something other than good old housewifery to fall back upon should the fecal matter hit that oscillating mechanical device on the ceiling.

Sorry for the late post. Had a test yesterday afternoon so was studying all day for it. Started this post on the bus ride back home and then, wouldn’t you know it, got sidetracked by my tax textbook. Bet you never knew corporate taxation was so un-put-downable. Nerds write the hottest romances, yeah!