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Archive for February, 2011

A few weeks ago, Amazon announced an interesting statistic: their e-book sales, which had earlier eclipsed their hardback sales, had now exceeded their paperback sales. E-books were officially Amazon’s best-selling format.

The response from a certain segment of the romance-writing community was immediate, although not exactly what you might expect. Amazon, they said, was lying. E-books couldn’t be more popular than print. They never would be. It was all marketing—Amazon just wanted to sell Kindles. E-books were just a passing fad and e-book readers were selfish swine who were destroying independent booksellers and probably responsible for the bankruptcy of Borders. Lalalalalala—I can’t heeeeear you!

Those of us who write e-books may not have found this response all that surprising. For years some segments of this community have tried to marginalize us or pretend we don’t exist. We were told our books weren’t “real” books. We were told that the “stigma” of electronic publishing would prevent us from ever being published by a print publisher. For a few years, we were even kept out of the Professional Authors Network of RWA because membership required a publisher’s advance of twelve hundred dollars, and most e-publishers give higher royalty payments instead of advances (the membership rules have since changed). One former president of RWA wrote editorials in the organization’s magazine that were so patronizing to e-book authors (and so dismissive of their work) that several e-book authors I know dropped their membership in protest.

RWA has become somewhat more ebook friendly since then. The current leadership is much less inclined to dismiss us and changes have been made to contest rules and rules for discussion and special interest groups to make it easier for us to participate. But the old attitudes still lurk around the edges, especially when the topic of e-book sales comes up.

Now let me go on record here as saying I believe Amazon is telling the truth: their e-book sales probably have exceeded their other sales. But I also believe that e-book sales in general are still not as great as print sales in general. I own a Kindle myself, but I read more hardbacks and paperbacks for the most part (courtesy of my trusty local library).

Still, I also believe the growth in e-book sales isn’t going to slack off for a simple reason: my younger son reads his newspapers and magazines on line. I don’t, you see. I have a newspaper subscription, also subscriptions to several magazines. I have no particular interest in reading them on my phone or on an iPad. But my son has no interest in reading them in paper. My son’s generation will eventually be the major book buyers, and my son’s generation has no problem with reading electronically. In fact, they seem to prefer it.

So will print disappear? Of course not. Will it become less common? I think so, but perhaps not soon. Will the romance-writing community learn to suck it up?

Lordy, let’s hope so. I’m really tired of these discussions about how e-books are either a flash in the pan or the end of Western civilization as we know it.

 

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Headhopping is one of those terms that’s well known to most people in the romance-writing community and probably unknown to anyone who isn’t part of it. It refers to shifting point of view from one character to another within a scene, and it’s a no-no. Actually, no-no is too mild. It’s a Mark Of Cain, absolutely forbidden, something that loses you major points in contests, that will convince editors and agents you’re incompetent, and that will result in your never, ever getting that contract you want so badly.

If you’re going to change POV for some reason within a single scene, you must indicate that you’re changing it by inserting a space between sections, perhaps even including a line of asterisks, to indicate that you’re switching POV quite deliberately. And once you’ve switched, you can’t switch back unless you go through the same business again with the spaces, asterisks, etc. Too many of these switches and your scene’s going to start looking like something out of a gossip column.

Everybody agrees that headhopping is evil, and that’s all there is to that. Or rather, it would be all there is to that if it weren’t for one large exception to this general rule, i.e., Nora Roberts.

Roberts headhops. She does it with abandon in every book of hers I’ve ever read. You’ll be reading along in one character’s POV and then the next paragraph will be in the other character’s POV. You’ll stay there for a few more paragraphs and then, as often as not, you’ll switch right back. No spaces, no asterisks, no nothing. Headhopping with a vengeance.

Now if it were just Nora Roberts who did this, we could probably come up with something we could call the Nora Roberts Exception. But she isn’t. Several other bestselling authors do it too. And yet they’re all doing something that should get them drummed out of the romance writing pantheon. Does that mean that headhopping isn’t such a dreadful crime?

Well, no. Not exactly. The reason headhopping is so strongly discouraged is that it potentially causes serious problems for readers. If you’re not anchored securely in one particular point of view, you can easily become confused about what’s happening and why. Now sometimes that’s precisely what the author wants, which is why writers like Faulkner play around with POV so frequently. But most romance authors aren’t interested in confounding our readers—we’re concentrating on the story and we don’t want to lose anybody.

Other aspects of POV are also very, very tricky, even if you follow the rules about not headhopping. Most romances are done in third person (except for Chick Lit, which is usually in first). It’s axiomatic that you can’t switch POV in first person, but even that’s not exactly true. Margaret Maron uses both first and third person in her Deborah Knott books (first for Deborah, third for her husband Dwight), although never in the same chapter. Since there’s clearly a shift in person, you’re not likely to become confused. In contrast, Alan Gordon has two first person points of view in his Jester books, Theophilus and his wife Claudia. He confines each voice to separate chapters, but even then it’s sometimes confusing when you lose track of which “I” is which. Even spacing out alternate points of view may not be enough.

POV is one of the most important, and slipperiest, parts of writing. Roberts and her fellow headhopping writers succeed because, despite the movement back and forth between points of view, you’re never confused about whose eyes you’re looking through. The rest of us struggle, perhaps because we’re not quite that skillful.

So budding romance novelist, you’re right to be confused when your critique group climbs all over you for headhopping. You’re right when you say that Nora Roberts does it. But you’re not right when you argue that you should do it too. Trust me, getting POV to work is harder than it looks. And putting in those spaces and asterisks is one way to keep yourself on track, even if it is a pain in the tuchas.

 

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Cognitively Impaired

A couple of months ago, the DH and I decided to look into long-term care insurance. A relative of his had had a medical crisis and ended up in an assisted living facility. The costs would have been ruinous had she not had the insurance to pay for it. The insurance agent came to our house. We chose a policy with a well-known company. He told us we’d have to go through a short phone interview, but after that the policies would be issued and we’d be good to go.

A couple of weeks later, I had my twenty-minute phone interview with a very polite lady. Everything seemed to go fine. It was the holiday season, so the agent told us it would probably be a little while before we got the final okay. Then a few weeks ago, the DH got a call from the agent at work. The company had agreed to insure him, although at a higher rate because his blood pressure was two points over their limit. However, they’d rejected me because I was “cognitively impaired.”

To say I was flummoxed would be putting it mildly. I didn’t know what “cognitively impaired” meant exactly, but it sure didn’t sound good. I checked it out on line (of course) and the news was even worse—basically, it meant I was on the way to dementia. I was simultaneously horrified and furious. Clearly, I wasn’t cognitively impaired. I’ve published five novels over the past two years, for God’s sake! How could they say that about me? On the agent’s advice, I requested a copy of the report.

There it was on the front page: “Cognitively impaired.” But there was no indication of what the problem was other than the fact that I couldn’t remember names. I wracked my brain trying to remember my conversation with the interviewer. All I could come up with was an offhand comment about my memory being fine except for forgetting the occasional name. The thing is, though, I’ve never been good with names, even when I was a teenager. And I’m in good company—around fifty percent of the American public claims to have the same problem.

When the agent came over to deliver the policy to the hubs, I let him have it. He wasn’t particularly sympathetic. Supposedly beyond my problem with names, I’d also scored poorly on their memory tests. But I had the results of those tests in the report; I showed them to him. They looked fine to me. Again, he shrugged it off. The tests were proprietary. There was no way to tell how they were scored. Finally, I walked out of the room and turned on the TV; to say I was distraught would be putting it mildly.

And then something amazing happened. My insurance agent went home and began to think about what I’d said. Something about the whole report bothered him. The scores looked okay to him, too. Plus my doctor’s report didn’t indicate any problems, and she’d seen me for a lot longer than twenty minutes. The next day he called the insurance company and asked one of the supervisors to please check my interview again to see if perhaps there’d been an error. A few hours later, the supervisor called back. He said he’d reviewed hundreds of these reports, perhaps thousands, and he very rarely found any error. But this time he had.

It turned out I’d passed everything with flying colors. I should have been given a policy and the company would be doing that ASAP. He apologized. The company apologized. My insurance agent apologized for any part he’d played in the whole thing.

So happy ending, right? Well, yeah, but… For a couple of weeks, I  was fighting the assumption that my brain was on the blink. And I also found myself fighting a tiny, niggling voice at the back of my mind that kept saying “What if they’re right? What if you really are losing it and you just haven’t realized it yet?” I fought that voice whenever I heard it, but I never really got rid of it.

So now I’ve forgiven my insurance agent because he really did go the extra mile. I’ve sort of forgiven the insurance company because they did finally admit their mistake. But I’m not sure I’ll ever entirely forgive the fact that I spent two weeks wondering if my mind was coming unhinged.

Maybe I’ll get over it eventually. Maybe it will just be a matter of time. Maybe, but I doubt it.

 

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