Archive for July, 2011

I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

They’d banish us, you know.

Emily DickinsonI’ve been thinking a lot about Emily Dickinson lately. I wish I could tie this post to some significant Dickinson date, but I really can’t. She was born on December 10 and died on May 15, so neither one really works with this. Nonetheless, I want to talk about her today and not only because I’m going to be heading off to one of those Big Conferences in a few days where I’ll truly feel like the first line of this poem applies to me. No, I started thinking the other day about Emily Dickinson and the self-publishing phenomenon.

You see, although Dickinson wrote literally hundreds of poems, fewer than a dozen of them were actually published during her lifetime. Moreover, the ones that were published were usually altered substantially because editors figured most people would be turned off by her idiosyncratic style (to say nothing of her occasionally heretical religious beliefs).

Dickinson herself was sort of a textbook agoraphobe. She lived the latter part of her life without venturing far beyond her own room in the family home in Amherst, MA. After her death, her brother’s Significant Other, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a critic who had corresponded with Dickinson, published the first edition of some of her poetry after carefully editing (i.e., censoring) her more unusual thoughts and her literary style. The real depth and daring of her poetry wasn’t revealed until Thomas H. Johnson returned to Dickinson’s original versions and published a complete edition in 1955.

So what does this have to do with self-publishing? Well, just for a moment, consider what might have happened if Dickinson had had access to the Internet. She wouldn’t have had to send her stuff to the unsympathetic Higginson for critique (he referred to her as “my cracked poet” when he discussed her with his friends). Today, she might find a congenial on-line class where she could try out her slant rhymes with less conservative readers. Or, more importantly, she herself could put together a small collection of her poems, unedited, and put them up on Smashwords and Amazon for ninety-nine cents.

I’d like to think that she’d have been treated much more kindly if she could have presented her own poetry to a wider audience in the way she wanted it to be seen.

And yet, it’s quite possible that Dickinson knew only too well how her own poetry would be received, even if she’d been able to get it out there where it could be read. It’s quite possible that Higginson and Todd represented the way most readers would have reacted to something so unconventional. Even if she’d been able to publish her poetry unaltered, there’s no guarantee it would have been read, or if read, understood and appreciated.

So maybe Dickinson knew what she was doing. Maybe she was one of those rare writers for whom writing itself was the reward. And maybe even now she wouldn’t want to present her poetry to the outside world for other people to see and maybe misunderstand. Unlike a lot of us who agonize over readers and critics and editors and agents, maybe Emily figured the hell with it and wrote strictly for herself. After all, that poem that I quoted at the beginning of this post has a second stanza too.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

I think I’ll keep those lines stored away in the back of my mind. They’ll come in very handy after the next rejection.

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girl writingNora Roberts’ Brides Quartet was a high point for a lot of us last year. It was a return to straight romance—no serial killers, escaped criminals, or power-mad master criminals to be found. And, of course, all four books were lovely, which helps quite a bit.

Those of us who write contemporary romance have been struggling a lot with a central question over the last couple of years—what’s the difference between contemporary romance and romantic suspense? The two genres are, or ought to be, distinct, yet they’ve seemed to drift closer and closer together. I think there’s one major reason for this—the necessity for creating some kind of conflict in your plot.

Now the conflict at the heart of contemporary romance is the one between the hero and the heroine—how, when, and where will they get together (the central “will they get together” question has already been settled since the novel is a romance). But that conflict alone isn’t enough to actually carry most novels. Thus the need to throw in something else. Maybe the hero and heroine work together and some huge project needs to be accomplished. Maybe there are economic problems involved and somebody’s home or business is in peril. Maybe somebody has an awful mother, father, sister, or brother (or, I suppose, uncle or aunt or cousin) whose baleful influence must be overcome. Maybe the awful person is the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend who’s made it difficult for the main character to trust other lovers. All of these are standard contemporary plots, and many contemporary novels use more than one.

But more and more these days, you’ll see contemporary novelists going for crime as the complicating element. These contemporary novelists include me, of course. Most of my Konigsburg books include some kind of nefarious activity, although I’ve never included murder simply because I think that would undermine my usual light tone. Crime is an easy conflict to create. You never have to worry about whether the conflict is serious or not because crime undoubtedly is serious. And you never have to try to come up with a way to make people care about the conflict. Again, crime is the kind of thing people care about automatically.

But then the problem arises—what separates the contemporary romance from romantic suspense. If both genres center around crimes and the way people react to them, how can we talk about them as separate genres?

Shaky as it may be, I’m going to go with tone here. Most contemporary romance is light, sometimes even comic. Those of us who write it don’t always take ourselves too seriously. Romantic suspense, on the other hand, is dead serious, and frequently deadly. The difference between contemporary romance and romantic suspense can be seen in something like Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time compared to Ghost Moon by Karen Robards. Both are ghost stories. Both involve a long ago murder and a more recent murder attempt. Both are fairly scary. But Maybe This Time is also funny, and Ghost Moon is not, nor is it intended to be.

I guess my point here, and yes I do have one, is that the genres aren’t strictly divided, but you can sort of make distinctions between them. Crime isn’t strictly the purview of romantic suspense, but there’s an attitude that I think belongs more with romantic suspense than with contemporary. It’s not much of a distinction, I’ll grant you, but it’s a real one. And, you can argue, if there’s a little slop-over either way, nobody’s really going to be hurt. Unless you take your genre identification very seriously indeed.

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Critiques and Rants

Writing handsI’m a big believer in critique groups. I feel like I have to begin this post by reiterating that because what I’m going to write may sound like I’m not. Good critique partners can help you find your voice and see your way clear to whatever you need to do next. Bad critique partners, on the other hand, can, well, ruin you day.

I got a bad critique partner a while ago. In this particular critique group, you’re assigned critique partners somewhat randomly. The only requirement is that you get at least one review from a published author. This time around I got my published author review last. I debated whether to look at it before going to bed or to let it go, and I decided to look at it. Bad idea.

What I received wasn’t so much as critique as a slam. The author didn’t give me a point-by-point reading, she gave me a couple of splenetic paragraphs in which she ranted about my characters, my plot, and my writing, all of which she hated.

Let me assure you, first of all, that that’s not what a critique is supposed to be. Even if you don’t much like something you’re reading, you’re still supposed to read it carefully and point out things that are and aren’t working, even if you can’t find much of the former. Moreover, you owe it to the writer you’re critiquing to take her work seriously, even if you suspect it’s not going anywhere. Ranting about how much you hate it doesn’t qualify.

I was annoyed enough by this particular critique to do a little online background checking on the author. It turned out that we had a publisher in common, and she was having some problems with them at the moment. It’s not much of a stretch to believe the vitriol she directed at me was actually directed at the publisher who was annoying her. In other words, there was a Personal Problem involved here.

But the nastiness of that particular critique put me off that critique group, although it obviously wasn’t their fault. I haven’t been back there since. And that’s the problem with bad critiques. You can shrug them off, but they leave a bad taste in your mouth afterward. Which perhaps brings me to my point.

You may sometimes do a critique in a bad mood. You may sometimes do a critique of a genre you don’t particularly like. You may sometimes do a critique for someone you know personally and don’t regard too highly. None of that matters. Difficult though it may be, you can’t let your personal feelings get in the way. You have a responsibility to the person on the other end. Whether you like it or not, she put some work into this piece. And you owe it to her to do the same.

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booksI just finished rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh. There are a lot of reasons I love this book—it’s the culmination of a series, this one about the Bedwyn family, and it concerns the romance of the bull goose Bedwyn, Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle. Wulf falls in love with a woman who’s totally wrong for him—wrong class, wrong temperament, wrong age, etc. But one of the things that makes this book work so well is that it’s a rare story where the “he-won’t-say-he-loves-me” trope actually works.

You know the trope I mean, of course. It’s the plot where the heroine works herself into a lather because the hero won’t tell her he loves her. If it’s a Regency romance, the heroine sometimes refuses to marry the hero until she’s somehow assured of his love, preferably by some high-flown announcement of the same.

The reason I frequently find this plot so annoying is that it doesn’t take into account the way most people think: we look at actions rather than words. If a politician tells me he just loves little kiddies and that children are the future, etc. and then cuts education funding to the bone and beyond, I’m going to assume he’s a liar and a hypocrite. Similarly, if a hero is stalwart and true, treating the heroine with affection, respect and passion, what the hell does it matter whether he says he loves her or not? Only an idiot would assume he doesn’t.

But in Slightly Dangerous you’ve got real doubts about Wulf’s feelings when he first proposes to the heroine. Sure, she’s a terrific woman, but he’s a very flawed man. The first time he proposes, she rejects him, and you feel that she’s made absolutely the right choice.

The rest of the book is devoted to bringing these two very different people together, and it’s an enjoyable ride. Through the other five Bedwyn books you see Wulf develop and you know he’s a decent, albeit arrogant man. But he’s seldom shown much humanity, the quality he has to have in order to win Christine. At the same time, you’ve seen Christine’s justified dislike of aristocratic society and you know that overcoming it is going to be a major hurdle. Since this is a romance, there’s never any doubt Wulf will become the man Christine wants him to be or Christine will find a way to become the kind of duchess Wulf needs, but the fun comes in seeing how Balogh works the whole thing out.

I guess what it comes down to is that the heroine’s he-won’t-say-he-loves-me fetish needs to be justified and that justifying that trope is often tricky. Balogh manages it by making the question crucial to the denouement of the story. The heroine isn’t being a dingbat here. What she’s asking for is central to the couple’s future happiness.

And that, I’d suggest, is rare indeed.

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