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!

The Best Job Around

Several years ago, at my local RWA chapter’s annual Christmas party, I struck up a conversation with a young man who happened to be a member at that time. What he wrote was more fantasy than romance, and I never learned how he came to join us romance writers, but there he was.

He took part in fantasy role-playing games. He made costumes and jewelry. When he went on vacation, he did crazy, adventurous things, rock climbing, and maybe gliding, I don’t quite remember. On top of it all, he looked a bit like Legolas, you know, Orlando Bloom in long, flowing blond hair.

For some reason, I thought he wrote games for a living and asked him about it. Not so, he informed me ruefully. He wished he made games for a living but it was only a hobby. Well then, what was his line of work?

He worked in a lab, making dental molds from what dentists around town sent to the lab. According to him, it was numbingly tedious work for not much pay.

For the rest of the night, and well into the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about the stark disparity between what he loved to do and what he had to do. And I made vow then and there: should I get published, I would never, never, ever complain about my job, because I’d number among the fortunate few who get paid to do what they loved, while so many around me lacked that choice.

Then I got published just as I returned to school. I’m in a one-year master’s program. How come it can be done in one year when most master’s programs take twice the time? Easy, we suffer. Classmates all around me are falling on their faces. And I have to hand in a brand-new, exquisite novel by the end of March.

What this has translated into is twelve to fourteen-hour workdays, every day of the week. In between the cases, the assignments, and the exams, I agonize over character development, pacing, believability, historical accuracy, and emotional cohesion. Is this story even doable? Can I make my deadline? And even if I do, would it be any good?

As with any writing, I’m taking stuff out as I go. But taking out stuff now makes me hyperventilate. I watch my word count the way divers watch their oxygen–every page I take out is a page I might not have time to write later. My nerves, in the meanwhile, fray, like the ends of my son’s shoelaces, the ones that drag on the ground all day long.

There I was last Friday, working at school, wondering why I can’t write faster, and why my first draft is such crap that every hour of output requires twice the amount of time to fix. Two fellow students in the program strike up a conversation next to me. The topic: jobs people in the program got after they graduated.

Some of the best graduates from my program have gone on to work at prestigious New York investment banking firms. And they are worked like dogs, so much so that they marvel at how nice it is to get back home by eleven o’clock at night, rather than two o’clock in the morning. People in their twenties burn out after five or six years. And to hear one student tell it, per hour they really didn’t make all that much more than folks at McDonalds, given the hundred-hour work weeks.

When I graduate, I will get to work in my pajamas, and pick up my children every afternoon from school. Sure, writing never gets easier, and first drafts will always be pure drivel, but you know what, it is still the best job around.

Live From New York, Anatomy Lessons

A few weeks back I blogged about the purplest sentence I’d ever penned: He was a burning pyre of concupiscence in a sarcophagus of despair.

Okay, you can stop chuckling now.

For that bit of over-the-top writing I have something of a semi-valid excuse. My agent, in her revision letter, had requested an additional love scene, a scene which I’d let fade to black in my original manuscript because I found it too daunting to do, given all the love, hate, anger, and anguish on the hero’s part, because of a course of action he’d already decided upon for the morning after.

When my agent insisted, I got to thinking, and came up with a totally new way of tackling it. I was so excited, I rushed to my laptop to finish the whole scene in one emotionally charged session. Ergo, the semi-valid excuse. It was done really fast and it was essentially a first draft when I dashed off the revisions to her. Had I a little more time, and a few more readings, I might have come to my senses and hacked the sentence myself.

There existed in my manuscript, however, a far graver error, that slipped by both my agent and me, even though I must have gone through the scene twenty times during the writing of the book.

The error took place in the aftermath of a love scene. She stands facing a table. He is behind her. Here’s the snippet. See if you can spot what’s wrong.

His cheek nuzzled against her neck. His hands were on either side of hers. They stood, practically in an embrace, with him leaning into her, surrounding her.

“Oh, God, Gigi,” he murmured, the syllables barely audible. “Gigi.”

She froze, the spell of the moment shattered. He had uttered that exact phrase on their wedding night, over her, under her, beside her, in what she had believed to be exultant bliss.

She twisted and slammed her palms into his chest. Her abrupt ferocity did not budge him, but his eyes widened in surprise. A moment later he voluntarily disengaged from her, withdrawing and stepping away.


See it?

Here’s what my editor, Caitlin Alexander, wrote on the page: “How can she slam her palms into his chest unless she turns completely around?” Then Caitlin put brackets around the word “withdrawing” and drew an arrow from the word to the part that said “twisted”.

I think my jaw literally dropped to the floor at that point, followed by hysterical laughter, thinking of what Caitlin must have thought but refrained from putting down on paper: indeed, how can Gigi do that, turning around, and hitting him, before he has withdrawn from her, unless he has—okay, let’s go with purple prose here—a love lance with the length and flexibility of a vacuum cleaner hose.

I’d have never lived it down had that made it to print. And you know some clever reader would have caught it and the Smart Bitches would be rolling on the floor laughing and blogging it. I’d have to forever hang my head in shame, the romance author equivalent of Dan Quayle. Worse, Dan Quayle only added an “e” to “potato”, I gave twenty-four whole new inches to the male anatomy.

That was my anatomy lesson from New York. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Professor Alexander. I promise to study harder for the next midterm.

Next Tuesday, hmm, I’ve both my contract and my author photo coming in the mail this week. Let’s see which one is more blog-worthy.