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Archive for March, 2011

Okay, I came late to the train wreck that is the Jacqueline Howett/ Books and Pals fight, but a comment on one of my discussion lists stuck with me. One author said she’d stopped editing self-pubbed authors because, like Howett, they were just too hard to work with. This was her polite way of saying they were writers who considered their words to be pearls and their editors to be swine.

I’ve worked with a few writers like that myself, including a couple of academics who were so arrogant they refused to allow any changes to any of their words, no matter how bad those words were. But editors and reviewers have at least some things in common. And I’ve gotta say, I love good editors because I’ve been through the worst myself.

For most of my twenty-five-year academic career, I specialized in textbooks. In my field of professional and technical writing, textbooks were considered a legitimate type of research and I enjoyed writing them. Now notice, I said I enjoyed writing them, not revising them. That’s because of the way textbook publishers handle the whole editing process.

Rather than hiring editors who acquire the books and then work with the author on revisions, as fiction publishers do, textbook acquisitions editors hand the actual editing off to contractors, other academics in the same field who are hired to read and comment on the manuscript. That would be fine and a good idea (since the acquisitions editor may have no expertise in the field) except for one thing: some of those contractors secretly believe they should have written this book themselves. In a worst case scenario, these contractors have, in fact, written a similar book, but they haven’t yet published it. In this case, they have every reason to want to see the book they’re reading consigned to the deepest, darkest part of limbo.

Imagine what that’s like, if you will. Rather than being charged with helping you make your book as good as it can be, these “editors” are gunning for you. They don’t really want your book published. They want your publisher to offer them a contract instead. Fortunately, publishers are well aware of this tendency. My editor never forced me to accept hostile revisions, but he did require me to explain my reaction to what all of these “editors” had to say. I developed several tactful versions of “this guy is a total moron who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Sort of what Jacqueline Howett wanted to do but didn’t.

In contrast, my editor at Samhain is trying to help me make my book better. I usually don’t argue with her recommendations, I just do what she says (or I try to). If the copyeditor tells me to change some punctuation, I’ll do it unless I know for a fact that it’s wrong (and I can find the passage in The Chicago Manual of Style that backs me up). Working with textbooks taught me a big lesson—your words aren’t actually engraved in gold upon celestial tablets. They can be changed, rearranged, and sometimes dropped altogether and the result may be better. And if you don’t want to change them, you’d better have a much more effective argument than “My writing is fine.”

I suspect that Jacqueline Howett wouldn’t accept this advice. She’s already sold lots of books as a result of this controversy. But the question is, will she sell any more? If she’s satisfied with being a self-pubbed author, she may not have any problems. But if her real ambition is to be published by a real publishing house, I’d say she can kiss that particular dream goodbye. If you want to write, you have to learn to accept criticism. Otherwise, you can just keep those golden words clasped to your generous bosom.

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The Dumb Heroine

Hands writingSo here we are in this regency historical. The heroine is one of those “spirited” types who’s going to assert herself come hell or high water. She has a ring belonging to her dead sister that identifies the sister’s lover, the man responsible for her death. Our heroine is determined to unmask said cad by finding the owner of the ring. And what will she do then, a friend inquires. Why she’ll tell him she knows who he is and how he’s responsible for her sister’s death and that she intends to reveal his identity to polite society so that they can shun him.

This being a romance novel, her friends do not respond “Are you out of your freakin’ mind?”

This particular plot development is an example of what I think of as the hopelessly dumb heroine. Granted that regency romances are not always well known for their adherence to realism. And granted that in this particular historical the heroine doesn’t make good on her plans. Still, even in a slightly fantastic romance, the heroine can’t really ignore human nature like this unless she’s a dingbat.

Heroines who do things that we know full well will lead to disaster (without, apparently, being aware that disaster looms) don’t sit very well with me. It’s one thing for a heroine to undertake desperate measures because she has no choice, to do so, in other words, with the full knowledge that she may end up in terrible trouble. It’s another for a heroine to undertake some foolhardy activity because she’s too dim to understand the possible consequences.

In many cases, I think the author intends that we’ll see this as the heroine’s adorable naïveté. But there’s a very thin line between naïve and stupid. When the heroine ventures forth to do something harebrained without any idea of the danger she’s getting into, she loses a lot of my sympathy. Now granted, I’ve done this myself—sort of. Deirdre in Brand New Me walks into a trap because she doesn’t take the time to either think about what she’s doing or let anybody else know what’s going on. But in her (and my) defense, she doesn’t have a lot of time to think about it under the circumstances, and she regrets taking that step almost as soon as she does it.

Of course, a really skillful writer can take this trope and play with it. My favorite example of this is Linda Howard’s Open Season. The heroine is a librarian who stumbles into a hazardous situation without realizing just how hazardous it really is. In the end, the hero sets a trap for the villain. And you, the reader, keep expecting (with a sinking heart) that the heroine will stumble into the middle of it because, well, that’s what usually happens. But she doesn’t. And when the hero commends her on it, she’s somewhat annoyed. After all, she’s not that dumb.

Amen, sister, amen.

 

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Avast, Me Buckos

Normally, I don’t comment on pirates and piracy. Yeah, it’s wrong. Yeah, it’s a royal pain in the ass. Yeah, it’s probably siphoning off some of my royalties. On the other hand, people who regularly download books from piracy sites probably aren’t going to be buying my books anyway since they don’t pay for books in general.

However, a recent discussion of piracy on Reddit.com got my attention (via Twitter) and finally prodded my out of my reluctance to get involved in this discussion. Several of the commenters on the site had what they considered a righteous reason for pirating ebooks. Publishers, they argued, were pricing their ebooks at the same level they priced their print books. That wasn’t fair, since ebooks didn’t come with the same benefits that print books did (e.g., no way to share, no way to sell used copies, requires expensive ebook reader, etc.). Therefore, those who pirated books were striking a blow for intellectual freedom. Down with corporate publishers and their cluelessness regarding ebooks!

Now let me say right here that I think some publishers are dumb about their ebook pricing. There’s no excuse for pricing an ebook at the same level as a hardback given that ebook production costs are so much lower. Having said that, however, I find this particular argument to be horsecrap.

It might work if the only books being pirated were by Steig Larsson and Stephen King, but we all know that isn’t so. In digital form, my books sell for somewhere between $4.50 and $5.50, depending on where you buy them. In other words, my books sell for about as much as a Vente Starbucks Frappacino. And when somebody pirates my books, they aren’t striking a blow against corporate publishing, they’re striking a blow against a relatively small, independent publisher (owned and largely operated by women, by the way).

But the thing is, I don’t think the average pirate really believes she’s doing anything like undermining the publishing industry. She’s getting something for free that she’d otherwise have to pay for. That’s basically all this is about—getting something free. In doing so, she’s refusing to pay me for my work and she’s refusing to pay Samhain for their work, but my guess is that’s not a big concern for her. The people who download dozens—even hundreds—of books are mainly chortling at having avoided paying anybody for anything.

Okay, so now, the rest of this post is addressed to the pirates; everybody else can take five because I’m honestly not talking to you (not you good, book-buying souls. Honest—please don’t think I’m talking to you). You’re stealing, bubbeleh. Yes, you are. And this isn’t Robin Hood we’re talking about—believe me, stealing my book is definitely not taking from the rich. And it ain’t giving to the poor either, unless you’re referring to poor little you. So don’t pretend that you’re making some kind of political statement. You aren’t. You’re just stealing. You think books are too expensive? Fine. Search out your local library; they’d probably be glad of your patronage. You want to read ebooks? Fine. Some libraries have them available, but even if yours doesn’t, you can confine yourself to Amazon freebies or low-cost publications.

But if you go on stealing, don’t pretend you’re doing something else. If you can’t be honest about buying somebody else’s work, at least be honest about what you’re doing here. You’re a thief, toots. And that’s all there is to it.

 

 

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A Matter of Luck

diceFor the most part, I’m not a very superstitious person. I’m not particularly nervous about ladders, although I may avoid walking under them simply because you’re more likely to get something dropped on you if you do. I had a black cat for many years and it never bothered me, although he did cost me a lot of money in veterinary bills (he was the model for Nico in Venus In Blue Jeans). I don’t have any particular rituals I go through in my daily life.

But there’s one big, honking exception to this lack of superstition—my writing. If I’m not careful, I find I can fall into magical thinking about my writing very easily.

Before I was published, when I entered lots of contests, I used to wait to drop my entry in the mail if I’d been having a bad day in other areas. I didn’t want my MS to go out if my mojo seemed negative. Now, when I send most things out electronically, I may wait until afternoon before hitting the “send” button because I want to make sure this day feels like the right day to do it. Or sometimes I’ll send it out first thing in the morning, before my luck has a chance to go bad.

For a while, I even let my morning ritual solitaire games determine how my luck was running. If I won my first game, my luck was running hot. If I lost, maybe I’d wait a day or so before sending that MS off. I managed to break myself of that habit, but it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.

I think the reason my writing makes me superstitious is that it’s one area of my life that’s out of my control. I can polish my MSS to their brightest and send them off, but I can’t determine how the person on the other end is going to react to them. Maybe she just read something very similar and she either hated it or loved it—either way, she’s liable to read my MS a lot more critically. Or maybe she just had a fight with her SO. Or maybe she had a bad lunch or she’s coming down with a cold or she’s mad at her kid. Or maybe she just doesn’t like my style because she’s in the mood for something very different. Any or all of that can have an effect. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

All I can do is rely on the fates and luck. Many of us like to downplay the role that luck plays in our work, but the truth is that luck is a major factor for most of us.

So I find myself going back to practical magic. Rubbing good luck charms. Muttering incantations as I drop something in the mail. Not opening emails until I’ve written my minimum number of words (lest I jinx myself with a rejection too early in the day). None of it has much effect on the ultimate outcome, of course. And in my rational moments, I know that. But writing isn’t always a rational business, and who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll happen upon the right incantation.

Knock wood.

 

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I’m a romance writer, which means I write sex scenes. It goes with the territory. It’s also the hardest part of my job.

Why? Despite the usual heavy-handed jokes (“Bet you do a lot of research, har, har, har”), trying to come up with an interesting way to describe sex between your hero and heroine is usually tough. Add to that the fact that the rules against head hopping mean that you have to stay with one POV for at least a large part of the scene—you can’t show what both of your characters are feeling, or at least you can’t do it simultaneously. And then there’s the fact that I write contemporary romance rather than erotica. That means I’m limited in the kind of sex my characters can have. No ménages, no exotic sexual accessories, no acrobatic positions. Actually, that’s not something I get wistful over. The thought of having to come up with something new and different each time my characters get busy makes me cringe.

Then there’s the whole vocabulary problem: what do you call genitals anyway? When the Nine Naughty Novelists did our first serial (The Zillionaire Vampire Cowboy’s Secret Werewolf Babies) we had a lot of fun using outrageous euphemisms for body parts, but in reality there’s a very thin line that most of us have to walk. Usually, you can’t use the more clinical words for genitalia without sounding like a sex ed textbook. On the other hand, certain euphemisms are too raunchy for regular romance, although they’re permissible in erotica. Predictably, there are more acceptable words for male genitalia than there are for female, so you have to make do with certain generalities (e.g., “opening” or “core” or “nub”). Sometimes they work, but sometime it sounds like the sex is taking place in a very dark room with a couple of people who have no idea what they’re doing. Jennifer Crusie once wrote a blog post about saying something like “his sex” to describe male genitalia and how it seemed to reduce the male character to his genitalia alone. But using a phrase like that is a mark of how desperate you can become in trying to find a word that’s both acceptable and specific.

And then there’s the actual act itself and the description thereof. The toughest part in doing this is not falling back on the same description you used in the last book or the one before that. Actually, I know one prominent and quite successful romance writer who basically writes the same sequence of moves in each of her novels. Nonetheless each of her books includes longer and longer sex scenes, largely because she concentrates on the feelings of the protagonists rather than the actual physical activities they’re engaging in.

That’s a good strategy, but again it has its down side. Unless you’re into something tantric, the average sex scene can only go on so long, particularly if it’s a sex scene in a genre other than erotica. The more time you spend talking about how neither of your characters has ever felt anything this wonderful in their whole, entire lives, the more you bog things down.

I remember once having a conversation with some other writers in which we concluded that what we’d really like to do is write something like “And then they went into the bedroom and had the absolute greatest sex they’d ever had. Afterward they slept in each other’s arms.”

Sigh. Don’t worry. I won’t do it. But don’t think I’m not tempted.

 

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