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

Read more

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.

Food and Sex (a Quickie)

And no, it’s not what you were expecting. Sorry, I really should have gone into (false) advertising instead. 🙂

DELICIOUS begins with a quote from M.F.K. Fisher, from her foreword to The Gastronomical Me:

When I write about hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth, and the love of it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied.”

I’ve been reading M.F.K. Fisher again lately. And working on NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, in which one of the couple’s biggest problems during their married life–though no one was ever so ungenteel as to bring it up–was the heroine’s reluctance in the bedchamber, a stand-in for all their other problems. And suddenly I thought, what M.F.K. Fisher wrote about hunger for food could be equally well applied to the other driving human hunger. To wit:

When I write about desire, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth, and the love of it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied.”

And that is why I write about desire.

Zen and the Art of Self-Promotion

I hate self-promotion.

I’m not a particularly modest person but I prefer to let people discover my good points over time, rather than loudly and insistently advertise them up front. And I judge others more or less the same way—the braggarts and blow-hards are discounted, while I take time to get to know the more confidently interesting ones who don’t feel the need to tell me right away every last one of their accomplishments in life.

Now square that with a career choice that requires a heavy dose of my loudly and insistently advertising to others just how wonderful my books are. Not only that, but that people should open their wallets and joyfully watch those dollars flow my publisher’s way.


So I made a decision a long time ago that it would not be like that. There had to be better ways to self-promote.

One person who does it particularly well is my agent, Kristin Nelson, whose blog Pub Rants is a daily stop for many writers, both aspiring and published, and industry professionals. Kristin is a very nice person and she used to be a professor, so she genuine wants to impart useful information. But she is also an extremely savvy business woman who knows that a widely read, widely respected blog is a perfect venue to promote her authors—and herself.

It’s no secret that when I queried, I queried her exclusively—I wasn’t going to try any other agents until she’d turned me down. Part of it was Miss Snark’s consistent praise of Kristin as a fabulous agent. The other part was months of reading Kristin’s blog and seeing for myself how she adroitly balances helping others and promoting her clients and herself. The woman presents an absolutely stellar image online—every bit of it backed up by her real life demeanor and job performance–and it didn’t take me long before I decided that I wanted to be on her team.

Another person who does a bang-on job is Bettie Sharpe. The serialization of Ember, how brilliant was that? And Bettie might not have originated the pay-it-forward contest, but it was on her blog that I first read one.

So with all these luminous examples before me, what have I learned and how have I implemented my own self-promotion?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. The Hippocratic Oath of self-promotion: first, do not annoy. Jane of Dear Author scared the living daylight out of me with her sharp-eyed catching of blog comment abusers. Not that I was ever going to do it, but now I don’t even think about it.
  2. If at all possible, make sure others benefit from my self-promotion efforts, whether it’s by dissemination of knowledge, entertainment, or what have you.

Here’s the implementation part.

1) I volunteered to be the PAN (Published Author Network) Liaison this year for my local RWA group. Sure it’s work compiling things like everyone’s release schedules for 2008, and will be even more work when I get around later on to compiling an e-mail listing of local booksellers, but it gives me a legitimate excuse to cold call booksellers, introduce myself, and ask such fun things as whether they might want to join the PAN authors for lunch.

2) I queried and received editorial approval to write an article for the Romance Writer’s Report (RWA’s monthly magazine) on how library systems acquire fiction, particularly genre fiction. I am personally fascinated by how it works and I think a lot of other authors might be interested in knowing how their books do or do not make it into libraries. But it’s also a good opportunity to introduce myself to the adult fiction buyer for the my local public library system—not to mention get some questions answered by Super Librarian, whose blog I enjoy very much and whose purchasing dollars I would not mind coming my way.

3) I got up at the crack of dawn to write a double-review for Bettie Sharpe’s Ember and Like a Thief in the Night. Bettie is one of the fiercest writer to come along in a long time, but I did not actually decide to write the review until I’d read LATITN and enjoyed it—I’m one of those crazy people who take their own credibility dead seriously. But once I decided to do it, I made sure I did it properly. I contacted Jane of Dear Author–she has one of the highest trafficked blogs–and attached a giveaway to the review (which Jane graciously doubled)—who doesn’t love free books? It was for Bettie—especially the getting up at the crack of dawn part, so that I could get the review done in time for a high-traffic day and that she would receive the exposure she so richly merited–but I also knew I was publicizing my own name. I mean would you even believe it if I said that I wasn’t aware that such a gesture would harm me none?

4) Whenever I can, I write blog pieces that, if not useful or entertaining, at least try to be thoughtful. (Yes, I know it’s a disgrace how I’ve neglected this blog again, especially after I made a New Year’s Resolution to be less neglectful. Shame on me.) With a big line-up of guest-blogging spots in March and April, sometimes my head throbs just wondering how am I going to come up with original content for everyone. But I will, because that is the least I expect from myself.

Does any of it work? Who knows? But given all the publisher support that I’ve received, it is incumbent on me to do as much as I can on my end to promote the debut of Private Arrangements. And I can only do what I feel comfortable doing.

So far, I have enjoyed myself: it’s great fun talking to booksellers and interviewing librarians and promoting Bettie; it’s completely liberating to never participate in blog discussion with an eye toward putting my book out there; and it’s amusing to read over old blog posts and go, lol, I said that?

Tomorrow, mutually beneficial self-promotion continues with the Query Consultation Prize finally up for grabs. (It will be a separate post of its own.)

Confessions of a Former Special Effects Junkie

When I was a kid, I was a special effects junkie. I loved them. I just loved them. I would watch sci-fi movies with even the most ridiculous premise if it meant I got to see futuristic vehicles and technologies. One time I even watched a horror movie by accident because the poster looked as if there might be some interest special effects.

The first time I realized that special effects wasn’t enough for me anymore was at a movie called Lost in Space. It had some cool effects moments, but the story was so ridiculous, the characters so cardboard-y, that I came out of the movie theater shaking my head. But nothing drove home the limited effects of special effects like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The trailer of the movie gave me shivers. The imagery was beautiful and fantastic. I read every article about the movie leading up to its release, tried to download a second trailer onto my desktop on a dial-up connection, and saw the movie the second day after it opened, late at night. The whole theater exploded into applause at “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” There were only a few half-hearted claps at the end of the movie.

When I watched the first trilogy again, I marveled. How was it that the mere image of Tatooine’s twin suns setting could affect me so much? And why was it that a Death Star made of plastic toy parts felt so real while Jar Jar Binks, despite his photorealism and painstaking details, was a stupid cartoon who only wished he were Roger Rabbit?

I’ve come around full circle in a similar way about on-page sex in romances.

I think I am fairly typical for someone who cut her romance teeth as a teenager on books by Rosemary Rogers and Johanna Lindsey. I like that heat. I expect that heat. I’m a firm believer in that you can talk all you want about metaphysical true love, but sustained physical attraction has to serve as the foundation to any successful relationship.

In other words, I’m all for the hot. But the more I read, the more I realize that unfortunately on-screen sex ≠ hot. A lot of times on-screen sex can be as dull as PCAOB Standards, and a jumble of pink parts madly attaching, detaching, inserting, squirting about as arousing as stray dogs in rut–I’d stop to look for a moment, but I certainly wouldn’t be fanning myself.

Many a time I’d wished that George Lucas didn’t have a practically unlimited budget to diddle around with special effects when he was making The Phantom Menace. When you watch the Star Wars prequels on DVD and listen to the commentary, only the effects people are there–the visuals so consumed Uncle George that character, story, and everything else took a backseat. Similarly, all the emphasis on hot in recent years has produced some reading material that’s taboo, derivative, and boring all at once–committing the unspeakable crime of sucking the fun out of hot loving.

Hot loving, like fab visual effects, should not be an end in themselves. They should exist only to serve the story. They should be an AND, not a BUT, as in “The movie rocked, AND the visual effects were kickass,”–The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, anyone?–and not “The sex was hot, BUT the story made no sense and the characters were made from soggy construction paper.”

The story always has to come first.

No pun intended. I swear.

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.

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.

But I’m So Much Better Than What’s Her Name

My publishing career officially began in July 2006, when my agent accepted a two-book contract offer from Bantam on my behalf. My writing career, however, started eight years before that, with my throwing a tree-killer of a romance against the far wall while experiencing the grand epiphany of “I could write better than this piece of crap.”

I did. Everything I wrote—okay, almost everything—was better than that piece of crap. Yet while I crafted one unique, complex, beautiful story after another—bear with me for a sec—that went unloved and undesired by the publishing industry, the author who was single-handedly responsible for the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and all native habitats south of the equator went on appearing on the NYT charts on a semi-annual basis.

I’m not talking about professional jealousy here. That’s a whole different Pandora’s Box. What I often went through during my pre-published years was not so much envy as bafflement and incomprehension. Why was my story rejected for being “slight” when another book published by that house was clearly 40% filler and fluff? Why do debut books that make me yawn or roll my eyes get put on the shelves while mine, my own, my precious darling languished in slush piles all over the 212? Getting published required talent (check), hard work (check), and luck. Where the hell was my luck?

Looking back, all my questions remind me of the Poisoned Arrow Parable. Shortly after the Buddha attained enlightenment, a seeker came to him and asked what we today would call the “Big Questions.” How did the Universe come into being? Does it have a beginning and an end? What happens when we die? So on and so forth.

The Buddha’s answer was—and I love this phrase—thunderous silence. After a while, he spoke of a man who’d been shot by a poisoned arrow. Rather than letting his servants pull out the arrow, the man insisted on first knowing who shot the arrow, who made the arrow, and the provenance of the poison on the arrowhead. In the meanwhile, he died.

I’m sure you see the analogy here. The time I spent pondering the questions that had no answers was time I didn’t spend obsessing over my story, my characters, my techniques. Time I didn’t use to study better writers. In the grander scheme of things, it was time I didn’t spend being happy.

After a while, I stopped comparing my work to the stuff out there that I really didn’t care for. What’s the point of wondering how those books got published? A book got published because somebody somewhere thought money could be made publishing it. And those books, for whatever reasons, passed the test.

Instead, I changed track and began comparing my work to books I loved, books that made me glad that I’m alive, books that renewed my faith in humanity (yeah, the best romances accomplish all that and more). This has its own risks, the chief among which is that at times I don’t know why I still bother to write, when I could never write as well or as beautifully. But then it becomes exactly the challenge, to write that well, to write that beautifully, to craft a story that steal the breath and break—then heal—the heart.

At the moment I’m in equilibrium. But that’s only because I’m so inundated with work I can’t see beyond the next homework, next test, and the next 4000 words I have to finish in the next week. When my publishing career goes into one of those ineluctable lulls or even setbacks, I’m sure the Big Questions will raise their soft, insidious voices and once again demand why I’m not successful as I should be when it’s obvious to even a room full of illiterates that I’m so much better than What’s-Her-Name.

Ah, the crappy nature of life. Even when you have learned your lesson, you must re-learn it again and again. I hope when the time comes, one of you will reach through the screen, grab me by the lapel, and tell me to shut up and write. Write. Write something so freaking marvelous that trees all over the world would lay down their lives for the immortality of my words upon their cellulose fibers. And screw everything else.

Next Tuesday, you’ll just have to see. I’m so tired I’d kick Brad Pitt out of my bed if he wouldn’t leave me alone. There has to got be some higher purpose for me to have sold just as I returned to school fulltime, but so far all I can think is that God loves the sound of me whimpering.