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On E-reading

Last night, unable to sleep, I went looking for books at the library and then, when I failed to find anything of interest, bought a few from a bookstore. That I did this at two in the morning only struck me as wondrous about an hour into reading the book that finally grabbed my interest (Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz, and it’s awesome, if you too have been bitten by the 1920s bug).

Insomnia leads to rumination, so as I lay on the couch, my pondering of the thrill of instant gratification yielded to memories of other kinds of gratification. more »

Two Weeks To Go Before RWA Nationals

Where did the time go?  Granted, RWA hits a month earlier this year, but still, wow.  Time to start packing.

I’m happy to report that Book 1 & 2 of the new trilogy have both been delivered to my new editor at Berkley.  On time.  The books are not bad, by the standards of my first drafts.  But still, I’m already thinking of improvements, connections, and deeper layerings to add to them, when they come back from my editor.  Now onto the updates.

1) Three-Chapter Critique from Yours Truly

On the 13th of June my Crit for Water critique goes up for auction here.  If you need three chapters looked at, by all means bid.  It’s an excellent cause and I am a terrific critiquer.  (You didn’t expect me to say anything else on the eve of the auction, did you? :-P )

And Mary Baader Kaley at Not an Editor was kind enough to interview me about my approach to critiquing.  But basically, I’m a good fit for you if you really need your work looked at by a pair of fresh eyes and you actually want to know what’s not working.  I will tell you what’s working for me too, but I assume that you, like me, are more interested in what can be improved than what cannot be.

2) Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Face

more »

Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 5

In this concluding installment, I’m going to play the role of the thought police.

It is inevitable that your H/H think about each other.  And they should.  But remember, do not duplicate real life here and write long scenes where nothing goes on except somebody reliving events that had already taken place.  We know what happened already. Move on to the next set of events.

But what about the non-POV character, you ask?  We need to know what the non-POV character’s reaction was to the kiss/screw/crisis.

It’s okay.  Move on with the story, have the hero and the heroine do what they need to do, and then to have them think what happened or think of each other only when triggered.

more »

Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 4

In fun news, Not Quite a Husband has been picked by two of All About Romance’s reviewers as their top read of 2009, which quite thrills me. But even more thrilling is the news that the big winner of this year’s AAR reviewers’s choice award (with a grand total of four votes, which, given the diverse tastes at AAR, constitutes quite a landslide) is none other than Bound by Your Touch, by Plotters and Manipulators United’s own Meredith Duran!

And I do apologize.  I completely forgot that I hadn’t quite finished the series yet.  But we are almost there.  :-)

Do your H/H affect each other’s growth?

Character growth can come from many different places.  But since we write romance, presumably our readers are most interested in growth that come from the events, realizations, epiphanies, and choices that originate from the core romantic relationship.

Pride and Prejudice–and I will totally challenge to a duel anyone who says P&P is not a romance—is beloved for precisely this reason.  [Well, and beautiful Pemberley too, but I will try to keep my shallowness in check here. :-) ]

Read what Mr. Darcy says to Lizzie at the end of the book:

“Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me.”

….

“My object then was to show you, by every civility in my power, that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to.

In more modern parlance, Mr. Darcy basically said, “Honey, you were so right.  About everything!  And I’ve changed because I recognized just how doggone right you were.”

Swoon!

Long live Mr. Darcy.

A Sinkful of Blood

Years ago, I read–listened to, rather–It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong’s memoir.  The book chronicled his struggle with cancer, his subsequent recovery, and the winning of his first Tour de France victory.  I have by now forgotten most details from the book, except for one particularly gory and memorable scene.

Armstrong had been hurting for a while, his body issuing miscellaneous warning signs.  But like most young men, and I would imagine, especially like most young athletes in superb conditioning trained to withstand tremendous amount of pain and discomfort in the pursuit of glory, he ignored his symptoms.  And ignored them.  And ignored them.

Until one day he threw up a sinkful of blood.

If you are sufficiently plugged into the romance world, you already know that it’s been an eye-popping, jaw-dropping couple of days.  Harlequin’s announcement of the self-publishing (or is it vanity publishing) venture it has branded, the riveting threads at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, and RWA’s swift and dramatic rescission of Harlequin’s status as a RWA-recognized publisher this evening.

In a way, you can say that I have no dog in this fight.  Harlequin is not my publisher.  My personal eligibility status at RWA will not change.  And as I am so freaking slow writing for even one publisher, I really have not been eyeing anyone else in the business for potential contracts.

And yet I found myself on the phone this evening–a rare thing as I’m almost never on the phone–groaning together with my friend, who does write for Harlequin, among other publishers.  Her inbox has been inundated with hundreds of emails from the Harlequin author loops to which she belongs–and she gets her mail in digest form.

Afterwards I tried to explain the whole thing to His Hawtness, not just the facts of it, but why I was on the phone groaning.  And it was difficult.  The spouse is a very logical man.  He asked a series of very reasonable questions.  If there are already other vanity publishers, how does it make any difference that now there is another one?  If Harlequin Horizons tells people that they are paying for only possibilities, not concrete promised results, how does that hurt its current authors?  And how does anyone even know whether the venture would be a success, since the rates listed on the Harlequin Horizons website are, if not exorbitant, at least quite outside industry norms?

HIs Hawtness is not the only one asking such questions.  Jane of Dear Author, I believe, is also trying to nail down the exact source of the outpouring of discontent.  These two people have never clapped eyes on each other, but they have something in common: They have both long been aware of the decline and oncoming death of publishing as we currently know it.

We do too, we authors.  We see the unsustainable business model, the erosion of profits, and the stagnation of reading as a form of entertainment.  We prepare ourselves mentally for what news might come.  But we, in a sense, are Lance Armstrong: We are still ignoring the symptoms as much as we can.

Harlequin Horizon is that sinkful of blood that can no longer be ignored.  For me, it’s unease turning into anxiety.  For many other authors, I imagine it’s anxiety turning into near-panic.  How bad are things if Harlequin Enterprises, much envied and admired for its nimbleness, market penetration, and profitablity, not only turns to vanity publishing, but puts its vaunted brand name on the venture?

I understand business cycles.  I understand the changes often happen in bursts.  I even understand that Harlequin might NOT be pressured by its struggling parent company to produce maximum cash to help the entire conglomerate’s bottom line, but simply decided on its own to respond to a changing environment by trying something unprecedented.  But that does not alter the fact that the formation of Harlequin Horizons and the subsequent reactions to it together comprise the most visceral signal I have encountered thus far on just what kind of convulsive, likely cataclysmic changes there will be.

Let me make myself clear.  I am not saying that Harlequin Horizons will bring down publishing–far from it.  Publishing is already going down.  If publishing is the Titanic, then the current brouhaha surrounding HH is not the iceberg–not at all–but the scraping sound and the jolt that alert the passengers after the fact that something has gone awry.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happened.  Pandemonium.  First-class passengers got on the lifeboats while steerage passengers drowned.  And a lot of us authors, not to put too fine a point on it, are steerage passengers on the good ship Titanic.  What is going to happen to us now?

To me, that, more than anything else specifically about Harlequin Horizons as a venture, is the reason for the hundreds of email digests my friend is receiving from her fellow Harlequin authors.  It is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  It capstones all the worries and jitters that those of us who still have contracts have been experiencing–and fighting.

Of course, there is still hope.  To go back to the example at the beginning of this post, Lance Armstrong not only survived cancer, he went on to an astonishing athletic career, achieving more than he ever did before.  Who knows, maybe there will be a renaissance of reading.  Maybe the business will finally arrive at a sustainable, responsible, and profitable model.  Maybe we will in the end have less number of books published overall, but a far greater number of outstanding books.

But in the meanwhile, between that sinkful of blood and eventual glory, there were some awfully rough times for Armstrong.  And there will be in this industry for us.  No doubt about it now.

ETA: This post is very much influenced by Lynne Connolly’s post at The Good, The Bad, and The Unread, which I read last week.

Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 3

Physical description is a gold mine for a romance writer to heighten chemistry.

Especially when the hero/heroine is viewed through the eyes of the other.

  1. This is a very legitimate way to build physical awareness.  Because as one character is taking in the other physically and processing that information, they are, by the very nature of that act, becoming increasingly physically aware of that person.
  2. We are full of minor, interesting imperfections that if we observe about ourselves, would make us come across as either anal or appearance obsessed.  By having another character do it, particularly if it is a little detail that might not even get noticed by someone paying less attention, underscores that person’s physic al interest in us.
  3. By what he or she notices, you are revealing things about the POV character.
  4. By what he or she thinks as he or she observes the other character, you are revealing even more about the POV character.

And here is a massterful example from Meredith Duran, excerpted from Bound by Your Touch: more »

Chemistry 101–Mini Lesson 2

A critical element to great chemistry is respect.  Your hero and heroine should see each other as equals, and not out of some politically correct we-all-have-the-spark-of-divinity worldview, but because they forcibly strike each other as so.

A perfect example below, from the Loretta Chase classic Lord of Scoundrels:

“Perhaps I had better demonstrate how the thing operates,” said Dain, yanking her attention to him.

In his low voice, Jessica recognized the too innocent tones that inevitably preceded a male’s typically idiotic idea of a joke.  She could have explained that, not having been born yesterday, she knew very well how the timepiece operated.  But the glint in his black eyes told her he was mightily amused, and she didn’t want to spoil his fun.  Yet.

“How kind,” she murmured. more »

Chemistry 101–Mini-Lesson 1

Reader Beth had suggested that I make a blog post of the workshop on romantic chemistry that I gave at RWA National.  My immediate response was a demurral.  I had 11 pages of speaking notes–it couldn’t be done.  But then I gave the workshop again recently to my local RWA group, and afterwards I thought, you know, the best part of any such workshop is always the examples.  And I definitely can put up the examples and why I used them as a series of blog posts.  So thank you Beth, and here we go.

What makes for good chemistry?  Great conflict.

What makes for great conflict?  As my critique partner Janine asks, what are the lies that your character tells himself to get through the day?  Who is the person who by the very fact of her existence, by everything she says and does, exposes your character’s lies to himself as just that, lies?

In other words, who is this person who would cause the greatest amount of emotional disturbance in your character?  Who is the person your character most fears for the truth she represent, and yet who cannot be dismissed, precisely because of the truth she represents?

Put these two people together and you have tension, conflict, and chemistry.

Example: more »

Uncritical

Toward the end of December, I took a break from emergency revisions for NOT QUITE A HUSBAND and went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I shed my first tears within moments of the beginning, when the clockmaker’s backward-turning clock was revealed, and he spoke of how he wished that time could flow back and bring back all the young men (his own son included) who had perished in the Great War.

The tone of the movie was set. From then on, I was completely and rapturously enveloped in the gentle yet unsentimental journey of a man who ages backward. I’d read other aging backward stories, most notably in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, so I already know it is a peculiar genre that moves me. But still, I cried and cried at the end of the movie and then went home–it was like 2:30 am when I got back–and cried for another half hour. Because it touched me so. Because for me it spoke so eloquently of the fragility of life, the inexorability of death, and the gallantry of love, knowing in the end that it might not even be remembered or recognized.

But I seem to be in the minority in my uncritical love of this movie. When I’ve talked to people about it, they feel the movie was too long and rather boring at parts. My mom in particular, from whom I inherited my shallowness, complained at length that there wasn’t enough young Brad Pitt for eye candy. :-)

Now, what else do I love uncritically?

Some of you might know that I had a lot of trouble with DELICIOUS, that I had to throw out the equivalent of two entire drafts before my editor accepted the third version. (I am, without a doubt, the best edited writer in all of romance–bar none.) When I received the first final copies of DELICIOUS hot off the press, I sat down and read it through–for probably the very first time, since before that I always had to make changes. My verdict? “Powerful but imperfect,” as I wrote in an email to my editor, vowing to keep the powerful but get rid of the imperfect with my next book.

Some of you might also know that I had some major trouble with NOT QUITE A HUSBAND in the home stretch–namely, I sent it in and my editor sent it back with a few choice words that had me wander around my house shellshocked for half a day or so before I pulled myself together to redo the book in the three weeks. (Otherwise my pub date would have to be moved back to 2010.)

Having gone through three drafts with DELICIOUS, getting a sucky draft sent back shouldn’t be anything new for me, right?

Well, it was a new experience. Each time I handed in a not-okay draft of DELICIOUS, I sort of knew that it wasn’t okay. The first time I actually prayed that my editor wouldn’t hate it too much–she did, and I wasn’t too surprised.

This time I was really, really shocked. Even after I’d rewritten and resubmitted and had my new version accepted, I couldn’t stop wondering about it. Why was my assessment of the original version of NOT QUITE A HUSBAND so diametrical from that of my editor’s? The ability to judge one’s own work is an important quality to have for a writer, especially a professional writer. And I’d thought that I’d finally acquired that ability.

Then I read the new version of NOT QUITE A HUSBAND in anticipation of the line edit and the copy edits. I cried–and cried and cried. It dawned on me finally that NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, even the much-flawed original version, was just like Benjamin Button for me.

Have you ever read a book that hurts so good that you lose all critical faculties? A book of deep lovely pain that make you feel with such intensity and rawness that you cannot grade it on any objective measure, because you don’t care, because it just knocks you out in all the right ways?

That is NOT QUITE A HUSBAND for me. Me, not my editor, fortunately. The book as it originally stood had a couple of significant structural weaknesses which I completely ignored because I was an emotion junkie getting her fix with the rest of the story. My clear-eyed editor pointed them out and made me fix them.

And the new version gets to me even more.

It feels unsettling, almost, to speak of a book of my own that way. And I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I could very well end up in the minority here, as NOT QUITE A HUSBAND is not an easy story, nor does it have a secondary romance to lighten things up from time to time. But it is, in a way, a marvelous experience, to write something that jives with me so much that I’m utterly blind to its faults, that upon reading it I am incapable of anything but teary-eyed happiness.

The rest of you, prepare to be sorely disappointed. :-)

Write What You ——

I know a very limited number of things. I know what it is like to grow up in China in the 80s in a safe, comfortable, loving home. I know what it is like to move to a different country and feel like I’d been transported to a parallel dimension. (8th graders hugging and kissing in the hall, truly America must be going to hell in a hand basket.) And I know what it is like to be a suburban soccer mom from a very young age. That’s about it.

What I don’t know could float supertankers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Well, as you can see, that would put me in real trouble. Not only have I never been to any of the places or times I’ve set my stories in, but I’ve never committed a fraud or run away from home or fallen in love with a boss.

Or, as is the case in NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, ended a marriage.

Instead, my own rule has always been, Write What I Understand.

There are things I do not understand. Ménage-à-trois is the first thing that comes to mind—or basically any kind of multi-partner arrangement. Not that I don’t understand why people do it, but that I do not get, given my own views and experiences, how that leads to durable contentment for all parties involved. My take on relational happiness is two people focused on and devoted to each other, in faithfulness and equality.

But beyond a few such dead ends, I understand a great many things. Based on what I already know of my own immaturity, impulsiveness, and lack of will power, I can see how people would go beyond where I would pull up to a dead stop. I can see how they would do the unforgivable. I can see how they would make stupid decisions because they either cannot see any other way out or choose to ignore the consequences for the gratifications of the moment.

And then, there is my other rule: Write What I Can Imagine.

Or perhaps, What I Aspire To. My greatest aspiration is to one day achieve true generosity of spirit. It is easier to understand human frailties than to forgive them—all cynics understand human frailties. And it is easier to just understand that I’m a certain way rather than to undertake the effort to be better, to explore my own true potential.

So my books, in a way, are my meditations on this sincere but frequently bumbling aspiration of mine, on true generosity of spirit. Given that I understand how my characters get into such troubles, how do they extricate themselves from it? How do they rise above? How do they deal with their often justifiable hurt and anger? And how do others among them deal with their regret and self-loathing over things that cannot be undone?

I like to believe that my characters find the strength and courage and maturity in themselves to do what they need to do, whether it is to refuse to back down, to sacrifice, or to forgive.

Getting them there is the most difficult and, in the end, most rewarding part of writing. Because it is like getting myself there, however briefly. To bask in the extraordinary grace the human heart is capable of.

What I know is and will always be very limited. But my understand is deeper, and my aspiration has the potential to encompass the whole universe. (Why not dream big, eh? )

That’s why I do not confine myself to writing what I know.