So…About His at Night II

Now that the page proofs are on back in New York–meaning no more tinkering, ever–I’ve finally posted a full excerpt of His at Night.

(Funny how prescient I was.  Everything that came after what I dared to post earlier changed.)

A quick glance at the excerpt is quite enough to illustrate the difference between this new book and my entire backlist.  All three of my already published books immediately set up the relationship: Private Arrangements plunges into a description of the perfect marriage of the Tremaines; Delicious says in the first line that it is a Cinderella story; and Not Quite a Husband opens on the night Bryony decides to seek an annulment.

By the end of the 2,500-word excerpt of His at Night, the H/H haven’t met yet–and wouldn’t for another 4000 words.  Phew, all that to just set up a meeting.  Yep, no reunited lovers in this story, no past to draw on for instant conflict, no shared history to exploit for poignancy and heartache, just two strangers who’d never clad eyes on each other before.

So that’s one huge difference.  Another is that this book was originally intended to be a comedy.  In fact, when my agent read the proposal–nothing of which has translated to the finished product, by the way–she thought it was a farce.  (After months of bawling my eyes out writing Not Quite a Husband, I was totally ready for teh funneh.)

At one point, I even openly declared that I was writing a Loretta Chase book, Mr. Impossible, to be specific, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed.  Mr. Impossible has a hero who is mistakenly thought by the heroine to be a dumb lummox at the beginning of the book.  His at Night has a hero who is mistakenly thought by the heroine to be a dumb lummox at the beginning of the book, ergo I must be writing Mr. Impossible.

As it turns out, I might have written the anti-Mr. Impossible.  Rupert, the titular Mr. Impossible, is about the most irrepressible, sunny, forthright fellow you can hope to meet in Romancedom.  Vere from His at Night is just the opposite, repressed, secretive, and, gulp, damaged.  I’ve never done a damaged hero before–wounded, yes, but not damaged.  Camden from PA and Leo from NQAH wouldn’t have a single problem if it weren’t for their women.  Even Stuart from Delicious, who’s had a rough childhood, is completely normal. But Vere, Vere is effed up.

So a romp this ain’t.  And although I think it is screamingly funny at times–a dangerous statement as nothing is more subjective than humor–it is also possibly the darkest book I’ve written.  A romantic dramedy, I guess, with a side of suspense.

Let me see.  What else is there in His at Night that I don’t normally do?  I know, a virgin.  Oh boy, this book hits all the possible highlights of a historical romance: a lordship who’s a secret agent, a virgin, a forced marriage, and an evil uncle.  We are only missing a duke–Vere is a marquess instead–and a ball.

And this has been a post in reader expectation management.  Thank you.  🙂

Kristan Higgins in Da House

When I’m not reading Kristan’s books, I obsessively pore over her blog. I have New England envy, especially in summer, which lasts from March to November in Austin, Texas and grows hotter every year. So I lose myself in Kristan’s chronicle of her life in Connecticut, in her tales of late snow, cool summers, and fall foliage. Her family makes their own maple syrup. How cool is that?

And when I can treat myself to a new Kristan Higgins book, what strikes me the most is always the community that she builds: family, neighbors, friends, townspeople, a cohesive and caring whole. Her stories are affirming, without being treacly; funny, but still full of substance; and they always put a big smile on my face.

Not Quite Enough about Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins Photo

Kristan Higgins lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband, two lovely children, their devoted dog, and a regal and somewhat elderly cat named Cinnamon. They spend as much time as possible at their family home on Cape Cod, swimming in the Atlantic, shivering on the beach, swatting horseflies and watching fish evade Kristan’s lure at Higgins Pond. It’s as close to heaven as it gets.

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I have a major drawback as a professional writer: I can’t think and write at the same time.  Or rather, I can’t think and write and judge my own work at the same time.

I have a non-drawback as a professional writer: I don’t get blocked.  I can get words on paper, lots of words, if they are what’s required.

Combine the first two, you have a delivered first draft of somewhat questionable quality

I have a possibly unusual aversion: I ban anything that is remotely true–or even reminiscent–of my personal life from the pages of my books.

I also have rather definite tastes in what I like as a romance reader: characters who have lots of legitimate beef with each other; characters who won’t make anyone else happy but each other.  I.e., somewhat strange, off-kilter relationships.

Which means that a lot of time when I’m just writing–and not thinking–I have no idea where this high-stake, grievance-laden, completely-unfamiliar-to-me relationship is going.  Who the heck are these people?  And why are their lives so eff-ed up?

Which means a first draft that goes entirely off the rail at some point: halfway, two-thirds, last quarter–maybe all of them.

Now let’s add one more somewhat strange aversion: I don’t like plot.  I don’t have anything against plots per se; I enjoy a good mystery, thriller, and SF as much as anyone else.  And one of the reasons I adore the first Harry Potter is precisely for the beauty of its impeccably woven plot.  I just don’t like a lot of external plot in a historical romance.  What I prefer is to place my characters in a situation, hopefully of their own making, and then just sit back and watch them dig their way out.  (Which in a first draft they typically end up tunneling directly into a sewer main, but hey, that just means they have to start over again.)

But HIS AT NIGHT had to have a plot, what with the hero being a secret agent and all.  But I resisted–oh, how I resisted.  In the first version I did away with the villain by chapter two–not the falling off a cliff only to come back at the end kind of doing away.  Dude was really, really dead and gone.  Buried.  Feeding maggots.  In the second version I offed him midway through the book.  Just have no interest in stand-alone villains.  Much more fun letting hero and heroine be their own worst villains.  And the hero is a secret agent?  Well, who gives a crap about the rest of his case once he has met the heroine.  Time for moody angst!

Have I mentioned that the first complete draft of HIS AT NIGHT was an EPIC FAIL?

Yes, it was.  *nods head sagely*  And this was  WITH my editor reading along the way, so as to avoid another first-draft fail.  Somehow her repeated advice that I give the story a backbone of a strong plot fell on deaf ears–or blind eyes, I guess, since we communicate almost exclusively by email.  I should have known, as in the final weeks before I handed in the first draft my head shattered in excruciating pain every time I worked on the damn thing–and my head never hurts while working on a book unless things are going horribly wrong.

At–thanks Jessica RRR–there is a de-motivation poster that says, “PERSEVERANCE: The courage to ignore the obvious wisdom of turning back.”  That would be me.

So…the overhauls.

No need to talk about the versions that had been discarded along the way.  Following the first complete draft, the overhaul centered on that backbone of plot–for the events of the book to cohere.  It was a 60-70% rewrite.  Which did improve the plot very much but when the line edits came back, it became obvious–after my editor pointed it out left and right–that the book had lost a lot of its urgency and sharpness.  So at the line edit stage, which should be the writing equivalent of sprinkling the chopped parsley and maybe a bit more of freshly ground pepper on the finished dish, I cooked the darn dish from the beginning again–another 40-50% overhaul.

(I was hoping this would be NQAH amount of work, but it turned out to be DELICIOUS redux–ack!–and in half the time, no less.)

As I progressed through this final rewrite, whenever I refinished a portion of the book, I would send it to my beloved Janine, who was reading it for the first time, for copyediting–the amount of changes I’d made meant that the official copyedits, which was made on the same line-edited manuscript, weren’t as useful–and critiquing.

It soon became clear from Janine’s copious and meticulous comments that in all that wrestling with plot and coherence, I’d 1)forgotten how to properly structure a sentence and 2)far worse, largely neglected the emotions in certain key scenes.  The two stem from the same source, i.e., trying not to sink too much time on prose when the larger structure of the book remained unresolved.  But at some point, especially in a book about the matters of the heart, one has to sink into character and feel, and that is impossible with pages upon pages of just dialogue and action.

It was like learning to write all over again: delving into character emotions, developing insights, ratcheting up the tension, making scenes matter.

Everything was working beautifully up until the beginning of chapter 20.  As my deadline neared again, it dawn on me that I still hadn’t properly resolved one of the major issues near the end of the book, when secrets and lies burst open, past and present collide, and LOTS OF STUFF hang in balance, because my God, who the hell are these people and why are their lives so fucked and how am I supposed to know how anyone would do in such a FUBAR situation?  The last time I led a double-life and my lies exploded in my face was when I was in fifth grade, when it was finally discovered that I, the model student*, had stopped doing my homework weeks ago.

I stopped sleeping.  At one point, so sleep-deprived, I started writing a farce of an ending, giggling all the while.  My critique partner, Janine, who stayed up one whole night and half the next day with me–I can never be grateful enough–sagely put down her foot and told me to stop and take a nap.

I did managed to get down a non-farcical version and turn it in to the typesetter.  But less than 24 hours later, I realized how I really should have written it.  So, over the holidays, I went over most of the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, and then took a ball-wrecker to the last 2.5 chapters.

Now I’m finally happy–ecstatic, actually–with the book.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard.  I have hated all my books during the writing.  All of them, passionately.  But somehow, by the magic of creative alchemy, by the time I get to the end, I am just in love: This book and I, we have come through so much, we have quarreled, fought, and battled through innumerable problems and now we have finally reached OUR happily ever after.

I often hesitate to recommend my books to people, because I never know how any given story of mine will interact with any given reader.  But this I can say: Whenever I look at one of my books on the shelf, I sigh and go, you are so perfect–for me.

And now HIS AT NIGHT has joined the ranks of those books that are perfect for me.

*Actually, by Chinese standards, I was a somewhat problematic student, but my grades kept my teachers from targeting me too hard.

What Happens in the Las Vegas Suite

Stays in the Las Vegas Suite, of course.

But below, in no particular order, are the highlights of my trip.

1) The Woodley Park Zoo metro stop.  The escalator coming out of the metro stop is the longest and steepest escalator I’ve ever seen.  Going up for the first time, I had the distinct sensation that the man some ten, twelve steps higher up was hanging on for dear life directly above me.  It was dizzying, but in the best way.

2) The digital publishing experts.  I think I’d met both Angela James of Samhain Publishing and Kassia Krozser of Book Square and Quartet Press before–Kassia owns a very cool Barbara Cartland romance board game, if I remember correctly from RWA 2008 in San Francisco–but I didn’t really have a chance to speak with either.  This time I did.  And it was informative and eye-opening and most reassuring, to know that the wild, wild frontier of digital publishing is manned by cool, calm, in-charge women who know exactly what they are doing.

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RWA and Bookplates for You

RWA National Conference is upon us again!  Meredith and I will be there, not with bells on exactly, but with enough wide-eyed eagerness that you can’t really see our deadline-induced raggedness underneath.

We will both be signing at the Literacy Autographing, which is open to the public.

Wednesday, July 15
5:30-7:30 p.m.
Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Exhibit Hall

I was reading Joanna Bourne’s blog a while back and Jo, much better prepared than either Meredith or I, had custom bookplates printed ahead of time so that she could give them to readers who already had her books at home.   And I thought, what a great idea.  I emailed Jo and asked her about it, she very kindly emailed me back with step-by-step instruction on how to obtain similar bookplates.  Alas, then I asked the crucial question: How long would it take?

Well, there just wasn’t enough time.  So I abandoned the idea for a while.  But then I since I regularly make bookplates from mailing labels–not very pretty ones by the way, just functional–I thought, oh, what the heck, let me give it a try at home.

So for Meredith, I took the masthead from her website and shrank it down to fit a 1″ x 2 5/8″ label.


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Ye odds and ye ends

I’ve been going through an Oscar Wilde phase, which has led me to some intriguing primary sources, all of them fierce Victorian debates about interior design. What with Ruskin and Morris et al convinced that beautiful architecture and interiors made for serene and beautiful minds, designing and furnishing one’s home was A Very Serious Business in the 1880s and 1890s. I am instructed by said texts that it is crucial to have a central focal point for a room — a painting or an object d’art (preferably Japanesque) to orient one’s attention and soothe one’s aggrieved sensibilities and draw the whole room into perfect accord.

With this in mind, I must admit that this blog post is officially Aesthetically Unsound. There is no unitary theme or accord to it; it is drawn from the drawer in my brain filled with random, rattling shiny bits. I suggest you gird yourself for the five-and-dime experience by spending a moment gazing upon this authentically Aesthetic objet.

Beautiful, no?

All right, on to the glitter: awesome sisters, book trailers, and bad music.

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In which Meredith interrogates Sherry on craft

Meredith: Look at any forum devoted to writing and you’ll find a few topics dedicated to the “standard questions” that writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas? How do you find the time?  How do you figure out what happens next?  How do you manage to actually finish a story?

These questions may be standard, but the answers are anything but.  Every writer seems to have a slightly (or drastically) different way of working.

Some of the methods I’ve come across make me white with terror.  For example, covering my entire living room wall with color-coded 8×6 Post It notes. Or outlining.  Others turn me green with jealousy (ahem: the Shitty First Draft).  All of them fascinate me. There may, in fact, be something a bit neurotic about the avidity with which I read explanations of methods that I know won’t work for me.  It reminds me of that phase in eighth grade when my friends and I used to get together to bake brownies, drink milkshakes, and watch exercise videos.

Anyway, there’s a specific reason that craft — and in particular, craftly excellence — is on my mind.  I’ve just reread Sherry’s new release, Not Quite a HusbandNQAH effortlessly blends superb prose, incredibly nuanced characterization,  sizzling chemistry, very hot sex, and other manner of high drama (rebellions! potentially fatal illnesses! death-defying treks! many whizzing bullets!) into a moving, dare I say epic romance that traverses a not-so-familiar but altogether fascinating part of the world.  It’s a tour de force, and since I share a blog with her, I get to ask how she does it.  Sherry, brace yourself for interrogation!

(Sherry: When I first joined RWA–after finishing the first draft of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS–and heard people mention the RWA craft-loop, I used to think it was women more dexterous than me talking about their macramé.  That should tell you how much I know about craft.  So read at your own peril!)

Sherry, I understand that the idea for NQAH was sparked by a viewing of The Painted Veil.  How do you proceed once you’ve got the seedling of an idea?  Do you outline, do you daydream, or do you simply begin to write?

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NQAH: A Visual Companion

UPDATED: Now with map!

Because every unfamiliar setting deserves one.  🙂  Passages in blockquote are from the book.

NOT QUITE A HUSBAND starts in Rumbur Valley, on the North-West Frontier of British India (today’s North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan) Rumbur Valley is one of the three valleys known as the Kalash Valleys, so called because of their unique Kalasha population. The Kalasha are a tribe of pagans who worship a pantheon of gods. They believe themselves to have descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Greek–and it is not unusual to find among the Kalasha fair hair and blue/green eyes. Unlike the Kafirs of Afghanistan who were forcibly converted to Islam in mid-1890s by the Amir of Kabul, the Kalash Valleys happened to fall on the British side of the Durand Line, and the Kalasha were allowed to continue in their ancient beliefs first under the British, then later under the constitution of Pakistan.

Across the stream, fields glinted a thick, bright gold in the narrow alluvial plain—winter wheat ready for harvest. Small, rectangular houses of wood and stacked stone piled one on top of another along the rising slope, like a collection of weathered playing blocks. Beyond the village, the ground elevated more rapidly, a brief stratum of walnut and apricot trees before the bones of the hills revealed themselves, austere crags that supported only dots of shrubs and an intrepid deodar or two.

Image by Yodod
Image by Yodod

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Google and the Resurrection of Ghosts

I have no idea how other authors begin a new project.  But with Bound by Your Touch rushing toward the shelves (the first review is already in!) and Written on Your Skin off to print, it’s time to start working on the next book.  For me, that usually begins with a backstory that pops into my head, fully formed.  (This is not as cool as it sounds.  The backstory is what happens before the book starts.  Suffice it to say, I would much prefer to have PLOTS pop fully formed into my mind.  (Plotters, you have my undying envy.))

The question then becomes: how does this backstory make for a plot?  To answer this question, I… procrastinate. I play with random ideas, read everything I can get my hands on, and daydream to a long and inspiring playlist of Music that Deeply Offends My Boyfriend’s Superior Taste.

I also occasionally entertain myself by searching Parliamentary records and date-restricted Google results. During my most recent search, I discovered a Ghost in the Google Machine: Eva Fox-Strangway, birthdate: unknown; death: March 1910.

Eva Fox-Strangway: who were you?  Not who you said you were: that much is clear.

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