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Archive for June, 2011

Inside Information

Readers sometimes think they know writers based on what they write. Erotic romance writers are always running into readers who are certain they must be practicing the same exotic routines they describe in their books, while suspense writers sometimes have to explain that, no, they haven’t really used an AK-47 lately. This kind of knowledge is rarely accurate, but if you read a lot of things written by a particular writer, you may actually begin to pick up on a few of their personal quirks.

Jennifer Crusie, for example, obviously owns pets, based on the number of them that show up in her books. Actually, this isn’t much of a revelation since Crusie has admitted as much herself, but the number and kind of animals who haunt Crusie’s books is also a pretty clear giveaway.

To take a detail that’s a little more difficult to suss out, Jayne Anne Krentz is a tea-drinker. Most of Krentz’s heroines drink tea and complain if they’re expected to drink coffee. Frequently, the hero is a coffee drinker, but his willingness to adapt to the tea-drinking preferences of the heroine is a clue to his being the Right Guy. If this only happened once or twice, I might call it coincidence, but since it shows up in so many of Krentz’s books, I’m betting it’s based on her own preferences.

Nora Roberts, on the other hand, is either a former or current smoker. No other romance writer I know of has so many smoking heroes and heroines (and I’m not referring to their degree of hotness either), or so many reformed smoking heroes and heroines. In Roberts’ earlier books, they’re all still puffing away, but in her later books they’re frequently trying to quit. In Angels Fall, for example, the hero is a reformed smoker who still thinks about the taste of the cigarettes he’s given up, and Roberts describes that taste lovingly. QED.

The redoubtable Kerry Greenwood is either a cook or a gourmand, possibly both. You’d expect food to show up in her Corinna Chapman books since Corinna owns a bakery, but food is also lovingly described in her Phryne Fisher books, which take place during the twenties, not what you’d think of as a high time for good cooking. My guess is that Greenwood is reflecting her own preferences in both series.

So what can you tell about me from my books? I own pets, but again that’s not much of a secret since I’ve mentioned my cats in blog posts. I love wine and margaritas, reflected in the amount of both that my characters consume. I like to cook, and good food tends to show up in my books.

All of that is very straightforward and something I’ll readily admit to. But here’s the thing: the stories themselves are fiction. With a few very minor exceptions (e.g., the shooting of the cat in Venus In Blue Jeans), the events themselves didn’t happen to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Hill Country, but I’ve never lived there, never worked in a winery, and never had a sociopath try to kidnap my baby (thank the good lord!). And that’s probably true for most of us who write. The details of our books we may take from life. The stories, however, we take from our own personal, sometimes perverse, imaginations.

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The Screamer

Cameron DiazLast week the DH and I watched Knight and Day. Or rather, the DH watched it. I made it about a third of the way through, at which point I found Cameron Diaz’s character so annoying that I walked out of the room. She seemed to have possibilities at first—she restored classic cars and was traveling with some vintage parts in her carry-on. But then the movie lurched into the hand-to-hand combat part of the plot (Tom Cruise is a spy, Diaz is an innocent bystander who gets swept up in his plots, yadda yadda), and I couldn’t take it.

You see, she’s a screamer.

We all know screamers of course. They’re the female characters who react to every threat by shrieking in the hero’s ear, sometimes ducking and covering at the same time. They’re useless in a crisis, and they tend to whine when provoked. At one point, Cruise handed Diaz an AK-47 to defend herself. I turned to the hubs and said, “Just watch. She’s going to pull the trigger and the recoil is going to make her jump around and the gun is going to fire wildly in all directions.” Which is precisely what happened next. Damn, I’m good. But the movie wasn’t.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really demand Angelina Jolie in a cat suit, but I do like my heroines to be at least minimally competent. Even though they’re being thrown into a scary situation, I’d like them to cope (okay, I probably wouldn’t cope myself, but I expect heroines to behave better than I do under pressure).

Sandra BullockMy role model for how a heroine should behave in these kinds of situations is Sandra Bullock in Speed. Her character, Annie, doesn’t end up in the driver’s seat because she’s a superheroine; she ends up there because the bus driver’s been shot and somebody has to keep the bus from smashing into something. But once she’s there, she drives that bus like a champ. Yes, okay, we know she lost her license for speeding, but that’s not the kind of thing that qualifies you to keep a speeding bus under sixty while the hero tries to figure out the next step. And she doesn’t scream either.

The DH tells me that Cameron’s character pulled herself together later in the movie and did a good job driving her GTO, but by then I was long gone. The bottom line is this: there’s no way I’m sticking around for a screamer. In fact, if I were the hero, I’d drop her on the nearest street corner and head for the hills. After all, there’s no point in hauling around somebody who threatens your ear drums at every tight spot and who apparently has no useful skills beyond the ability to snivel attractively. Granted, she looks cute in a pair of jeans, but is that really enough? Generations of teenage boys may say yeah, but I beg to disagree. I prefer somebody who can drive the freakin’ bus without a scream to be heard.

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booksOnce again, the Romance Writers of America finds itself in controversy. This is nothing new, of course. Given RWA’s widespread membership (and past hostilities), it’s inevitable that the organization hits rough spots. But this time they’re hitting a rough spot that most of the other writers’ organizations will also be hitting soon: What constitutes a professional writer?

The genesis of the problem is, of course, the self-pubbing phenomenon. For those who are just coming onto the scene, the advent of Smashwords and Amazon Publishing has made it possible for anyone to publish a manuscript electronically, without the intervention of a professional publisher. Several published authors have seized on this option as a way to publish out-of-print titles, as well as new titles that have yet to be contracted. The great attraction, of course, is that the author reaps all the book’s profits after publishing expenses, and for authors with an established reputation (and following) like J.A. Konrath the rewards have been immense.

But, of course, it isn’t just published authors who have taken advantage of the self-publishing business. Unpublished writers have also rushed to put up their manuscripts, frequently unedited and unread by anyone except the author. The result has been predictable. While a few authors have flourished, there have also been some very public disasters (e.g., the Jacqueline Howett trainwreck). And now the writers associations are faced with a dilemma: is self-publishing a book enough to qualify a writer for membership?

There are lots of ramifications for this decision, but let’s concentrate on one in particular where RWA is concerned—the RITA contest. The RITA is RWA’s award for published authors. The entries are dominated by large New York publishing houses and the contest depends on published authors to serve as judges. At the moment, all entries must be from established publishers, but if self-pubbing becomes more dominant among the RWA membership, there will undoubtedly be a push to open the RITA to self-pubbed authors as well.

So what, you might say? Well, as a past RITA judge, I’m here to tell you I’d think twice about volunteering again. I’ve also judged several contests for unpublished writers. Some of the entries I’ve seen are terrific and certain to be published. Some are decent but flawed—the authors will probably be able to publish with a little work. But some are dreck. The only saving grace with those is the fact that the entries are only twenty-five pages long. If I had to read several book-length entries that were that bad, I’d probably throw in the towel.

Would the self-pubbed books all be dreck? Of course not. But the chances of running into dreck will increase if the manuscript hasn’t been checked over by anyone but the author. And trying to limit self-pubbed entries to those that have been professionally edited is going to be, well, difficult.

So what to do? Do you limit the entries to those published by established publishing houses (which is what RWA does now)? Self-pubbed authors whose books have sold lots of copies will argue that’s hardly fair. But how do you clamp some kind of quality control on entries so that judges aren’t reading books that are semi-literate?

EPIC (the Electronic Publishing Internet Connection), which has longer experience with ebooks than RWA, has always refused to include self-pubbed books in its EPIC Awards. RWA can certainly do the same, but if it does, the debate is likely to be fierce since RWA is still reaping the results of the hostility created by its long-time anti-epub stance.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, and the ultimate result is still unclear. But organizations like RWA can’t wait to see how everything falls out. They need to start thinking about this now.

 

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I’m on record as not liking the traditional alpha male much. To me, these are the guys in eighties romances who hate all women except for the heroine, and she has to prove herself worthy. But now we’re hearing about beta males, and you’d think I’d really like them. But no. I must confess, they don’t do it for me either.

Kurt Wallander

Wallander

I say this after having watched one and a half seasons of Wallander, probably the ultimate beta male show. Wallander is based on several best-selling mysteries written by the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell about a Swedish cop named Kurt Wallander. Possibly because of his nationality, Wallander suffers from a terminal case of angst. He’s continually being reminded of the nastiness of mankind, particularly wealthy Swedish mankind. But what really got to me was Wallander’s breakdown, which came early in the second season. He was pursuing a nasty neo-Nazi who had burned down a migrant worker camp along with shotgunning an innocent immigrant. When Kurt finally caught up with him, the neo-Nazi started to turn the shotgun on him. So Kurt shot him. Fatally.

In any other cop show, that would probably be it. Clearly self-defense. Clearly somebody whose death isn’t exactly a loss to society. But not Wallander. Kurt goes into a tailspin. He turns in his badge and disappears for six months. When he returns, he’s a broken man.

Now you’d think, given my dislike of alphas, that I’d be one of Kurt Wallander’s biggest fans. I mean, here’s a cop who’s so sensitive that killing somebody, even a neo-Nazi who’s trying to kill him, throws him into a clinical depression. If that ain’t beta, I don’t know what is. But perversely enough, that episode was enough to convince me I didn’t want to see any more of the series.

There’s a thin line between sensitive and dopey, you see. I’m not in favor of a return to the Stallone/Swarzenegger tradition of gunning somebody down and tossing out a quip, but I’m also not in favor of going overboard in the opposite direction.

rylan givens

Rylan

I found myself wanting to introduce Kurt Wallander to Rylan Givens, Elmore Leonard’s quirky hero in Justified. Except that I’m fairly certain Kurt and Rylan would have nothing to say to each other, not speaking one another’s language in more ways than one. Rylan, you see, works in a very different environment, surrounded by hardscrabble poverty and murderous meth dealers. He doesn’t have the luxury of Kurt’s moral qualms, although he does run into (and arrest) the occasional wealthy scoundrel in the course of the show. He doesn’t kill people for fun, but he doesn’t hesitate to protect himself or those around him.

By Wallander’s standards, Rylan is impossibly quick on the draw, but I’d argue that Rylan’s actions are never unjustified (hence the title of the show). And Rylan himself is never less than serious about what he does.

And that’s maybe the difference between the eighties alphas I find annoying and the contemporary alphas I like. Because I like Rylan a lot for one major reason: he knows his stuff and he’s not a jerk. Eighties alphas were jerks; contemporary betas like Kurt Wallander are frequently ridiculous. But Rylan? To me, Rylan’s just right!

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RITA and Me, Part 2

booksAs some may remember, I’ve already posted about judging for this year’s RWA RITA contest. It was an interesting experience—some of the books were first rate (I’ve discovered a couple of authors I really enjoyed whose other books I’m now reading), others were less so. I plan on volunteering again next year.

But one response I got to my judging was a little unexpected. A couple of ebook and erotica writers told me they refused to judge the RITAs, even though they were members in good standing of the RWA Professional Authors Network (which RITA judges must be). Their reason? They felt their work was unfairly excluded from the competition because of its format or its subject matter; therefore, they refused to join in the competition as judges when they couldn’t be contestants.

I understand this point of view quite well. Like a lot of other PAN members, I’d like to see RWA accept ebooks as RITA entrants and I also believe RITA badly needs a specific erotica category (since erotica authors shouldn’t be forced to compete in categories where they don’t fit and since some PAN members object strenuously to reading anything they consider erotic). But although I understand the logic here, I’d also urge these writers to reconsider their position.

For a while, RWA had a kind of “two-tiered” membership, divided between writers who were published by the big New York print houses and writers who were published by small houses that specialized in epubs and POD (print on demand). Not surprisingly perhaps, writers in the first group tended to look down upon writers in the second group. That attitude is changing I think, given the widespread popularity of ebooks and the rise of a new self-publishing industry that even some print authors have embraced. But that way of thinking still occasionally rears its head. I wonder sometimes if RITA entries from small independent presses receive the same attention from judges as those from the big print houses. They should, of course, but I’m not sure it always happens.

Old attitudes die hard. If those of us who publish with smaller houses want to be taken seriously, we need to make our presence known. A judge who publishes with both majors and minors or a judge who publishes with an indie press is much less likely to dismiss a book from a smaller publisher when it shows up in her RITA bundle, even unconsciously.

It only makes sense for writers from all types of publishing formats to take their place in RWA. If changes are ever to be made in the way RITA entries are categorized and distributed, writers from smaller publishers need to make their voices heard. And one way to do that is to stand alongside other PAN members in judging the RITAs.

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