Archive for December, 2010

I have a friend who’s been trying to publish his novels for several years. He writes literary fiction, with an occasional foray into science fiction and fantasy. He’s come close to publication several times—I’d get a message that he’d gotten an agent or that one of his manuscripts was under review at such-and-such publisher. He even tried screen-writing, and again, his screenplays would get positive comments from someone in the industry and he’d be on the verge of being optioned. But nothing ever worked out for him, although he’s managed to produce lots of manuscripts over the years.

A few weeks ago, this friend asked me to lunch. He wanted to ask me a few questions about electronic publishing. As it turned out, he was very excited about electronic publishing in general. But more specifically, he was very excited about the possibility of electronic publishing in romance.

Now this friend has always been somewhat lukewarm about romances, including mine. In general, he seems to feel that romance is a second-rate genre, and that it didn’t take much talent to write one. Now, however, he’s seen that electronic publishing in romance has been growing by leaps and bounds. To make a long story short, he figured that with all the new electronic publishers around, he could knock out a few romance novels and get them published in no time at all.

As you might imagine, I did my best to disabuse him of this idea. His opinion about romance writing isn’t all that uncommon, though. A lot of people who write literary fiction are convinced that popular fiction in general (and frequently romance in particular) is easy to write, and that anyone who can handle literary fiction can certainly turn out publishable pop fiction with one hand tied behind his/her back.

I think the reason this opinion keeps turning up is the fact that pop fiction genres frequently depend on conventions, while literary fiction is, at least nominally, less convention-bound. Romance has several, of course—the happy ending is the most common, but you’ve also got minor conventions and tropes that show up repeatedly in various romance subgenres. Romance writers (and readers) know them well and have come to rely upon them. But the mistake these literary writers make is in thinking that all a writer has to do is plug those conventions in and voila, instant bestseller.

Now I still judge contests occasionally, and I’ve read a lot of wannabe romances in my time. I’m here to tell you, plugging in conventions is only a small part of what it takes to write a successful romance novel. Most contest entrants can use the conventions of whatever subgenre they’re working in, but only a few of them can do it in a way that makes you want to go on reading. There’s a vast difference between a contest entrant who knows that a Regency heroine is supposed to dance at Almack’s and a Julia Quinn who knows how to make that dance into something you’re really dying to read about. Like everything else in writing, handling conventions is a matter of skill.

I wished my friend luck, but I also tried hard to nudge him in the direction of science fiction and fantasy. At least he’d already had some experience and success in those genres, and they’re also areas where electronic publishing is increasingly widespread. He might actually be able to get one of his old manuscripts into shape for a publisher. But his chances of succeeding in romance writing, given that he doesn’t really read romance novels and also doesn’t like them much, are slim.

Electronic publishing has made it easier for more people to get their books into print, but it hasn’t made it any easier to write a good romance any more than it’s made it easier to write good literary fiction. And all popular wisdom to the contrary, good romances are still what publishers (electronic and otherwise) are looking for.

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The (Phony) Strong Heroine

Everybody loves a strong heroine these days. Nobody wants to write about a wimp who needs to be rescued by the big, strong hero. In fact, in most books that are being written now, the heroine stands up and at least attempts to rescue herself when she gets into difficulties. Only if she’s tried to untie herself from the railroad tracks and failed is the hero allowed to come in and get her loose. And in a lot of books, the hero is only allowed to show up when the heroine is already off the tracks and planning her revenge.

I have no problem with this at all. In fact, I’m absolutely in favor of it. But along with these strong heroines, I’ve begun to see heroines who seem to be strong but who are, in fact, phony. The present a counterfeit version of strength that actually allows the hero to go back to being a good ol’ alpha who takes care of the silly little woman and saves the day. Plus, of course, they’re really annoying.

You can spot this heroine pretty quickly because she’s almost always what the Old Folks used to call a “career girl.” She does something high-powered that provides a fat salary and fancy clothes. Consequently, she’s also a bitch on wheels (apparently high-powered women can be nothing else). She also spouts a sort of pop culture version of feminism, accusing the hero of belittling her or not valuing her skills because of her gender while showing that those skills are in fact pretty worthless in a pinch.

The phony strong heroine gets her comeuppance when she’s up against the villain. She gets into some kind of difficulty from which only the hero can extricate her. She is, of course, not grateful for being extricated. In fact, she frequently bitches at the hero again for his Neanderthal attitudes. The hero responds by becoming even more Troglodytic, but when push comes to shove, he once again extricates her from some other difficulty. This goes on until the hero finally vanquishes the villain. Eventually, the heroine, worn out and defeated, acknowledges that the hero’s version of femininity is actually the correct one.

This annoys me on a whole lot of different levels. First of all, as a feminist (yeah, sister!), I resent seeing an honorable philosophy reduced to a cartoon. And let me tell you—the Neanderthals I’ve run into in real life haven’t been all that endearing. Considering women to be basically inferior really doesn’t constitute much of a turn-on for most of us. But more than that, when you consider the strong heroines popping up all around us who really can at least make a stab at taking care of themselves (see anything recent from Nora Roberts or Linda Howard or Elizabeth Lowell), it’s doubly annoying to see what is basically an eighties heroine showing up at this late date and being held up as some kind of ideal.

So rah, rah for strong heroines. And boo, hiss for the phony kind. When it comes to female strength, let’s accept no substitutes.


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Contest Winners

The winners of the free copies of Brand New Me were Yadira, Fedora, and Loretta. Thanks to everybody who commented. I loved hearing from you!

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Blog Tour and Contest

All this week and next, I’ll be touring around the web, celebrating the December 7 release of Brand New Me, my fifth Konigsburg novel. And since it’s Christmas time, I’m also giving away three copies of Brand New Me to people who comment on my blog tour. Just stop by and say howdy, and you’ll be entered into a random drawing. My blog tour schedule: Friday: Savvy Authors; Monday: Tina Donahue; Tuesday: Romance Lives Forever; Wednesday: Nine Naughty Novelists and Romance Junkies; Friday: C.J. England.

And today, of course, I’m here! So without further ado…

Honky Tonkin’

My newest Konigsburg book, Brand New Me, takes place in a bar, or actually a honky tonk. Now a honky tonk, according to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, is a bar with live music, and that’s certainly true. But it’s also not the whole story. I’ve been in bars that had live music that weren’t close to being honky tonks, and I’ve also been in the genuine article so yes, I do know the difference.

The bar in Brand New Me is based, physically at least, on a honky tonk called Hondo’s in Fredericksburg, Texas. Although Hondo’s is relatively new (at least in this incarnation), it’s named for the legendary Hondo Crouch, owner of the honky tonk in Luckenbach, Texas, that was celebrated in the Waylon Jennings song, so it’s got the right pedigree.

San Antonio, where I used to live, is located in Honky Tonk Central. Along with a multitude of small venues scattered around the hills and countryside outside the city, San Antonians are within an hour’s drive of two of the most legendary honky tonks in the state: Gruene Hall and John T. Floore’s Country Store.

Gruene Hall

Gruene Hall

If you’ve seen the movie Michael, you’ve seen Gruene Hall—it’s the setting for the dance scene. It’s located in Gruene (which, all evidence to the contrary, is pronounced “green”) and it’s billed as the oldest continually operating dancehall in Texas. The hubs and I used to hit Gruene regularly for people like Joe Ely and Steve Earle, as well as lesser known but no less talented musicians like the Band of Heathens, the Bellevillle Outfit, Audrey Auld, and Guy Forsyth. The accommodations are pretty rudimentary: long, scarred tables with benches that fill up pretty fast for acts like Joe Ely. The hall isn’t really closed in, either. The walls are made up of screened windows that stretch from one end of the room to the other, letting the people strolling the streets of Gruene peer in and listen to the sounds of the bands as they walk by. Much of the time you end up standing in elbow-to-elbow crowds, trying not to go deaf from the nearby amps and hanging on to your longneck (beer is the drink of choice at a honky tonk). Dancing is encouraged and occasionally even possible, assuming people can get out of the way of the flying feet. It shouldn’t be fun, but believe me, it is.

John T. Floore's Country Store

John T. Floore's Country Store

Floore’s Country Store is less well known, but no less celebrated. It has the distinction of having been one of Willie Nelson’s first steady gigs back in the seventies when he moved back to Austin from Nashville, and they still display the “Willie Nelson every Wednesday Night” poster. At Floore’s it’s a little easier to find a seat on the benches to listen to people like James McMurtry, and they actually had the temerity to set out chairs for the audience at a Steve Earle/Alison Moorer show (they also sold tickets, which meant they could control the number of people who showed up). On the other hand, Willie does still play there on occasion and if you go to see him, prepare to stand shoulder to shoulder with three or four hundred other dedicated fans.

The honky tonk in Brand New Me is called the Faro, owned by one Tom Ames, a relative newcomer to Konigsburg. Like a lot of honky tonks, it’s replete with colorful characters, pool tables, and the occasional live band. My heroine, Deirdre Brandenburg, takes a barmaid job there so that she can earn enough money to rent the ideal location for her coffee roaster right next door. The Faro’s staff teaches her the in’s and out’s of honky tonk etiquette. Needless to say, hi-jinks ensue.

So what’s the attraction of honky tonks? It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been to one. For me it’s the fact that they’re the opposite of slick. They’re usually old buildings, beat-up, lived-in. The stages are sort of basic, without a lot of special effects. You’re usually close enough to the performers to see the sweat and the grins. They’re the antithesis of the arena show. They’re what live music is supposed to be about.

My favorite memory of honky tonk life comes from a Joe Ely show at Gruene Hall. It had been one of those nights where everything that could go wrong did. The sound system went out. One of his band members was late. Joe forgot the lyrics to some of the songs. Most of us didn’t care—we were dedicated fans, and the dilettantes had already left long before. At the end of the evening, Joe decided to do “Gimme a Ride To Heaven, Boy” rather than the usual Buddy Holly encore (nobody does Buddy Holly like Joe Ely, believe me). “Gimme a Ride to Heaven” is one of those weirdly hilarious songs you hear on Americana radio late at night and in honky tonks when the band gets really loose—it’s a Terry Allen number about a tipsy honky tonk patron who picks up a hitchhiker he believes is Jesus, an assumption the hitchhiker cheerfully encourages until the point where he steals the guy’s car. The last line is a classic: “The Lord moves in mysterious ways, and tonight he’s gonna use your car.” That night Joe and the band launched in, clearly relieved to finally be done with the show. When he got to the last line, Joe delivered the first part “The Lord moves in mysterious ways, and tonight my son…” pausing as the singer is supposed to do before hitting the punchline. Suddenly, from the streets of Gruene there arose the most godawful unified chorus of Harleys I’ve every heard, a veritable menagerie of roaring bikes. Joe stopped, dumbfounded, looked at the crowd (all of us, of course, helpless with laughter), looked at the heavens, and finally delivered the punchline with the thunder of the bikes as accompaniment.

Ah, honky tonks.

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