I’m a guest at the Novelists, Inc. blog today: Sometimes You Need Comics.
I have another “Fresh Meat” post up at The Criminal Element, this one on J.T. Ellison’s new novel, Where All the Dead Lie.
I’m over at Novelists, Inc. today, talking about why procrastinating by Googling yourself is bad in more than one way.
Monday, I post about critiquing outside my comfort zone, about a critique I’d done for a close friend. Here’s her side of the story.
But Mostly, I Just Remember Feeling Terror
I hadn’t felt this kind of writing terror since I quit grad school. After a lifetime of clinging to the safety of nonfiction, I’d written a fan work with traces of fiction in it, a Tarot reading of the relationship between two characters from a series. My beta reader, a fellow fan, had suggested running it past “a fresh set of eyes,” so I took Victoria Janssen to lunch and begged her to take a look.
I’d chosen carefully. Victoria has been writing fanfiction since it was stapled together and mailed in brown packages, so she’s internalized every common-sense rule (that I was probably murdering).
She’s been writing pro fiction for almost as long, so she’s become unsentimental about writing mechanics. She’s not in the fandom for which I was writing. And she’s really, really nice to me.
So my terror didn’t have to do with her. It was all about old stuff from my formative years. Oooooooold stuff.
We removed the curled wrappers from our straws and stirred our Thai iced drinks. I asked, “Have you ever gotten feedback so devastating that you stopped writing that piece?”
VJ, firmly: “Yes. Do you want some of this fried tofu?”
Me: “Sure, a little. Have you ever gotten feedback that made you feel like it wasn’t only a bad piece but it showed the world that you’re bad as a person?”
VJ, slowly and definitely: “Yes.”
Me, wide-eyed: “What did you do then?”
VJ: “I put it away for 24 hours until I got some emotional distance, then re-read their comments.”
I was awed. I mean, really. Twenty-four hours? Not, say, eight months?
Me: “Has it ever been just that the person is horrible and they’re wrong?”
VJ: “No. I don’t tend to get those people to read.”
Our green curry chicken came. I looked down at my plate and rattled off what I hoped she could do for me.
“I just want it to be all right. I just want you to check it for obvious glaring errors. The kind of thing that will give me away as someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Or that will be painfully unoriginal and make people complain that I write the same thing every time. I’m terrified to hear that the basic premise is irreparably flawed and I have to reformulate the entire piece and I’ve made twenty-five gruesome newbie mistakes and I’m the only person in the world who can’t see them while everyone else is laughing and I cannot in good conscience unleash this piece of crap on the public and…” I can’t remember the rest.
“I’m more likely to say something like ‘This sentence could be tighter,'” she commented mildly.
I exhaled, probably aloud.
“I’m worried you want this to be perfect,” she said. “Like glinting-off-the-teeth perfect.”
Huh. Is that how it sounds when I speak from my terror?
I said no, I just wanted it to be in the “okay” category. When I read fanfiction, there’s the “Brilliant! Life-changing!” category, which obviously wasn’t relevant to me. There’s the category that gives ammunition to those who deride fanfiction. And then there’s the vast middle, not always well-written but with some good or interesting quality that makes me pleased to have spent time reading the story instead of watching TV. I thought — I hoped — that this was a broad enough target for me to dare aim for it. Without people laughing at me for my presumption.
I gave examples of the kind of giveaway error I wanted to avoid.
Years ago, when Victoria and I shared an apartment, we watched figure skating tapes every day while she worked on her Master’s thesis about quilting and I made hundreds of quilts. So when we saw a sophisticated quilt block honoring figure skater Brian Boitano, we could identify the designer instantly as a casual, not serious, skating viewer: the design was a star, and the star rotated to the right.*
This example reminded Victoria of a huge publicity uproar over a paper towel commercial in which the “quilted” paper towels were shown being “quilted” by little old ladies somehow using…knitting needles.
Little old quilters from all over the country were enraged at the condescension and started a protest campaign. In large numbers. Mobs of them. The company hastily issued a new commercial with real quilting.
In both cases, the errors were committed by people who had no idea they had done anything wrong. You either know this kind of thing or you don’t. And I didn’t want to commit the fanfiction equivalent of Boitano rotating to the right or quilters using knitting needles. I wanted to show respect. And dodge ridicule.
I think that got across what kind of help I wanted. I think.
We finished eating. I paid.
I sent five e-mails that afternoon asking when she’d have comments for me. We agreed I’d call her at 9 PM. I called and she asked me how my kids were doing. Trying desperately to be polite, I answered. She asked follow-up questions about them. I gave up and yelped, “Are you tryingto be mean to me?”
So she started with some sort of introductory comment. I barked, “What do I have to do. Just tell me.” The words came out like bullets.
I think (hope) she was amused. [VJ: I was, a little, but mostly I was sorry I hadn’t realized she was that stressed.] (This was a piece for an online fan festival. Not even like I was getting paid for it. Probably no one would die if I wrote it imperfectly.)
She zeroed in on one section she described as having been written in “tight third person.” Huh? What’s that?
She carefully broke down what she was saying so I could understand. She gave examples of possible alternate wordings and what kinds of effects they might create. She explained her feelings of disappointment when she read one passage and told me what wording she’d been hoping to read. I tried to keep my defensiveness to myself. I felt like I had become an automatic nailgun with a broken catch, shooting nails of defensiveness unstoppably and just trying not to hit anybody.
This got worse when Victoria complimented some aspect of my writing. I tried to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t scream, sobbing, “Stop mocking me! Surely it is not necessary to mock me.”
She gave me her comments. We hung up. I put my kids to bed. I peeped cautiously at her suggestions and ended up implementing every single one.
*Figure skaters have a dominant direction when turning, the way almost everyone is left-handed or right-handed. Most skaters, including Brian Boitano, turn to the left. I didn’t notice this phenomenon or understand its importance until I’d watched quite a bit of figure skating. After I’d been a skating fan for a couple of years, I understood that skating observers note dominant direction for everything from identifying jump takeoffs (left toepick? That was a toe loop — if you rotate to the left, that is) to calculating difficulty in step sequences (a skater who does many turns in their non-dominant direction has just done something difficult and deserves more points). I’d had no idea about any of this when I started to watch. I’d just liked the sport because it moved me.
Please welcome my guest, Janet Mullany!
A woman wiser than myself—my agent—told me I had a contemporary voice and although I didn’t believe her, I gave it a shot and ended up with a two-book contract for contemporaries for Harlequin Spice. The first one, Tell Me More, is on sale at the end of the month; it’s about what happens when fantasy and reality collide, and the erotic lure of storytelling. Find out more at spice.janetmullany.com.
After the initial elation the shock—you mean I have to write them now?—set in and I realized I had some problems. I wrote historicals. I was used to all the props and effects of historicals and I thought I’d really miss them.
For instance, you find very few mantelpieces in contemporaries. My characters, particularly the men, seem to spend a lot of time leaning against mantelpieces (which are about chest high in a Georgian house) elegantly—of course—being witty. Generally they are drinking tea and wearing great clothes.
The contemporary substitute: Hero, wearing blue jeans and plaid shirts leans on his pickup truck with a can of beer in his hand which raises the responsibility of the writer in letting her characters drink and drive. Although the Regency hero starts off with beer for breakfast, progresses through the day to claret and brandy at night he is rarely legless, and besides, he has servants to pour him into his carriage.
Communications. The heroine writes a letter regarding the truth about the hero, a crucial plot point, and dispatches it to her BFF across the other side of London in the care of a footman. While waiting for an answer, massive plot developments can take place: she/her sister/the footman/the hero are kidnapped, she has time to attend a few balls and routs, start an affair with someone else, or …
Substitute: She texts her BFF if it’s true about whatever is bugging her about the hero and the answer comes back within seconds, leaving a huge 10,000 word hole in the middle of the book.
Clothes. Oh boy, the clothes. Are we historical writers lucky in that respect. All those gorgeous fabrics and garters and gloves and corsets, all those exposed bosoms; and for the gentlemen, all those tight pants and trussed up neckcloths; it’s enough to make a fetishist out of anyone.
Substitute: There really is no substitute, at the risk of sounding like a Fredericks of Hollywood and/or Lands End catalogue.
I still think, though, that it’s all in the details to build the credibility of the imaginary world you’re building. The small town full of hot single straight male cops/mechanics/firefighters/nerds bears a strange resemblance to a Regency London where there are at least three dukes for every single woman. It’s everywhere and nowhere, a distillation of our fantasies.
If your hero and heroine are going to get naked, you still have to know what they’re wearing so they can remove it. They probably fantasize about each other’s underwear (a fantasy of a rather limited nature for a Regency character) and the frilly, constraining, fancy items are entirely voluntary.
So, yes, I still write like a historical writer because that’s how I do it. How else can you do it?
Thanks, Janet! It was great to have you! Even though I now hurt from laughing….
I’m over at the Novelists, Inc. blog today, posting about romance in academia in relation to the IASPR conference in New York City.
I’ll be at the conference next week, followed by RWA Nationals, but am not sure of my posting schedule here. I’m hoping to be able to share some photos.
If you’re not going to the RWA conference –
Romance Divas’ annual virtual conference features workshops, publisher spotlights, pitch-your-book opportunities, fabulous doorprize giveaways and more.
And nobody says you can’t wear fabulous shoes while you’re recharging your writer batteries from home.
LIKE the NGTCC on Facebook for future updates in 2012 and beyond.
Please welcome my guest, Saskia Walker!
The joys and challenges of creating historical worlds
by Saskia Walker
As writers of historical fiction we aim to create historical worlds that are as believable and accurate as possible, in order to enhance the reader’s experience of the story. This is a challenge, but a rewarding one when we feel we’ve done a story justice. The scary part is getting it as accurate as possible, knowing that it’s so easy to slip up.
When I think about the historical world my characters are living in I tend to think of it from two different angles. Firstly there’s the everyday world, and this is the one where it’s easiest to make a slip up. We need to know and understand the minutiae of everyday living in the period in such a way that it becomes second nature to describe it appropriately, even when we are swept away with the writing of the story. Secondly there’s the external world, the greater history of the period and how that impacts on the character’s lives. Much like my hostess, Victoria, I enjoy researching both the minutiae and the greater historical picture. It’s part of the gift of writing, always learning and being able to share that through our imaginary worlds.
In my most recent publication, The Harlot, the central romance characters—Jessie and Gregor—are what I tend to call “grassroots” characters. They aren’t privileged, and they’re tough because they’ve learned to survive on their wits. Jessie is an impoverished Scottish woman who is under an accusation of witchcraft. Forced to become a whore, she’s trying to save enough money to escape to the Highlands, where people with “the gift” are not shunned the way they are in the Lowlands. Gregor is a man who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps after immense tragedy. He’s been away at sea, and has returned with his savings in order to reclaim land that was taken from his family a decade before. Both these characters have big personal agendas, but they don’t play an overt part in the history of their time. The history of the time does, however, impact their lives. This is the challenge of the writing, to indicate how the greater world affairs of the period impact even the lowliest people living in that world.
Jessie scarcely gives any notice to the greater history of the period in which the story is set—the union of Scotland with England—and yet the charge of witchcraft she is under is very much a product of the time. The Witchcraft Act was in force between 1563 and 1736, and nearly 4,000 individuals were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during those years. My story is set towards the end of this tragic period, when humanity and justice began to replace the fear and condemnation of the years before.
Gregor also exists largely outside the larger historical picture. He left Scotland a decade earlier and has had no part in its history during that time. Yet when he returns he inevitably looks for the changes that might have been brought about by the Union with England, and he encounters suspicion when he tries to buy land as a stranger. The man who Gregor considers his enemy is attempting to raise funds to support the battle for independence. Gregor is surprised when he discovers this because it is a cause he too supports, and he never believed they would have anything in common. He also discovers that the people who used to hold power no longer do so, and he wonders if his plan might be more difficult to implement as a result. It is this positioning of the historical character in their everyday as well as the greater world that fascinates me as a writer.
One of the best bits of advice I read early on was that your research should show as much as the tip of the iceberg—the bulk of your knowledge being the mass that underpins it—making it a seamless read that easily transports the reader back in time. That is a great analogy, and it’s helped me immensely to think of it that way. If you pick up The Harlot I hope you enjoy Jessie and Gregor and the way they interact with their world.
It is a Dark Era, one when a lusty lass will do what she must to survive. Even if it means bartering flesh for a palmful of coins…
Forced to watch her mother burned at the stake and separated from her siblings in the aftermath, Jessie Taskill is similarly gifted, ripe with a powerful magic that must stay hidden. Until one night when she’s accused by a rival, and Jessie finds herself behind prison walls with a roguish priest unlike any man of the cloth she has known.
In reality, Gregor Ramsay is as far from holy as the devil himself, but his promise of freedom in return for her services may be her salvation. Locked into a dubious agreement, Jessie resents his plan to have her seduce and ruin his lifelong enemy. But toying with Gregor’s lust for her is enjoyable, and she agrees to be his pawn while secretly intending to use him just as he is using her.
Thanks, Saskia, for visiting!
I’ve been doing some blogging for a new mystery/crime novel site, The Criminal Element, and it’s finally launched this week!
My first post for the site is Crime’s Couples: Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January and Rose Vitrac, from her series of historical mysteries set in 1830s New Orleans.
“Macmillan announces the launch of a new crime and mystery-focused community website with a focus on sharing and enriching the experience of crime story fandom…the site will highlight different areas of the genre, from noir to cozies and everything in between.
The site will feature pre-release excerpts, original short stories from various authors in the space, topical blog posts, and will eventually be offering downloads and podcasts.
Much like its successful sister sites, science fiction community Tor.com and romance community HeroesandHeartbreakers.com, CriminalElement.com is “publisher neutral,” meaning that it will include author participation from all publishers and other content creators, and is not exclusive to Macmillan authors.”
At Heroes and Heartbreakers, I analyzed Mary Balogh’s Tangled as an erotic romance.
I focused on the first two sections of the novel, and how the marriage of the two main characters develops and changes through their sexual relationship.