Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm Not Romantic

I've been known to buy a whole box of kid valentines, write sweet things on each and tape chocolates to them, then hide a few in my husband's work bag or business trip suitcase every now and then throughout the year. I've ordered a pizza with the pepperoni in the shape of a heart on Valentine's Day. And I've made heart-shaped meatloaf by hand. So maybe I am romantic. But I'm not big on sweet nothings and I tend toward the sarcastic when my husband gets mushy.

None of that is what this post is about. I mean romance as a literary genre, the modern version rather than products of the 19th century or languages derived from Latin, and I'm about to review a couple of romance novels next week so I wanted to get this part out of the way first so that it doesn't clutter up the review.

I've mentioned before that romance isn't one of my favorite genres as a reader, and my stock explanation for why is that what interests me more is the next part. That's really the reason why I don't write romance novels, though. I've actually tried. I plotted and wrote and found that the story I really wanted to tell was not how two people came to be attracted to one another, overcame obstacles, and then lived happily ever after, the end. I want to talk about what "happily ever after" means. I want to know about what happens five years in, or twenty-five. After that first flush of love, then what? And maybe from there the romance angle isn't even the most compelling part of the story for me.

There's no single thing that's true in every romance novel, of course. (Except, possibly, depending on your definition, the Happily Ever After, or HEA.) And many of the same themes in romance novels (and movies) also crop up in other genres. Besides, there's quite a bit of genre cross-over these days.

But, as a reader, there are some things I find frequently in romance novels that bug me and pull me out of the story:
  • A sense of inevitability about two people coming (and eventually staying) together.
  • A suggestion that sex (or a kiss, or a vow, depending on the author/story) cures all.
  • A heavy focus on the way one's loins react when someone special walks into a room.
  • Cliched language to describe all of this, especially body chemistry and reading things in others' eyes (mine don't have text boxes).

I'm reading along, right there in a high adrenaline life-or-death moment with the heroine when - bam! - the hero enters the scene for the first time. And you might know it immediately because her pulse quickens, she feels a sharp tug somewhere down deep inside her, she meets his eyes and time stands still, etc. Those moments take me out of a story and don't describe what the beginning of a relationship is like, for me.

I appreciate that everyone has a different experience with this. But I will say that I do think there's danger in over-romanticizing relationships. I think there's danger in sugar-coating what it takes to make a relationship work. I think that portraying a relationship as easy (once the external and/or internal conflicts have been resolved) is as disingenuous as the way mainstream porn portrays women and sex.

I started all this in response to the article Romance Is Not a Four Letter Word at Publisher's weekly and discussed here.

"There's something wrong with literature aimed at women?"

Not by me. (The same could be said of cozy mysteries, cookbooks, and lots of other genres that women buy more heavily than men. For me it's not the intended market, or the inclusion of a love story, just the style and language.)

"When someone tells me they don't read or don't like romances, I always ask them what romances they have read that caused them to dislike the genre. I think you can guess the most common response -- the person has never read a romance. Nope, they are just taking a snobbish attitude that they learned from others"

In my case, this isn't it. I have read romance novels: single title, category, sub-genre, etc. And they're just not for me, as a general rule (which is not to say that I don't make exceptions). See above re: style. Serious or funny, paranormal or historical, there are tropes I find commonly across the genre that annoy me and pull me out of the story. I like to lose myself in the story.

So these are the reasons why romance novels don't always work for me. (My comments about the dangers of over-idealizing relationships leading to unrealistic expectations notwithstanding.)

I also get annoyed by the frequent right-back-atcha-with-interest discrimination I see all over the place, including up there in the PW article and the comments that follow. From the article: "I started asking around and the feeling is the subject matter for book clubs must be deep (read boring) to be book club fodder. (Don't even get me started on Oprah's picks, I say let Gayle pick the books once in a while) They're supposed to be Book Clubs not Doom and Gloom Clubs. What about fun? What about enjoyment? What about characters actually caring about each other in a loving, adult fashion? Didn't these people ever hear about romance being combined with thrillers/suspense/paranormal/historical/humorous/erotic? What about variety being the spice of life??"

Um . . . not all literary fiction is deep and boring. Quite a bit of non-genre fiction is fun. What about enjoyment? Characters care about each other in other genres. There's even love in other genres (where a romance might be a significant part of the story arc but not necessarily the main one). And yes to variety. But where's the celebration of variety in suggesting that all literary/book club/non-romance fiction is boring, unfun, doom and gloom, and unenjoyable, with characters who don't care about one another in a "loving, adult fashion?"

How does this sort of attitude support the oft-repeated assertion that "romance readers/writers are some of the nicest people?" How does it do anything except further highlight unnecessary inter-genre tension?

Diana Gabaldon's books used to be marketed and sold primarily as genre romance, though her books don't really fit into traditional/strict demarcations of romance, historical fiction, or fantasy. She also doesn't do any of the things I listed above that annoy me. I know that bookstores need to know where to shelve titles, but I think there's a great deal of room for lowering barriers between genres and I think Gabaldon is a great example of doing so.

Do you know who really drives such change (or lack thereof)? It's readers. So many of us - us, meaning readers - pick up a thriller and expect something just like X, or a cozy mystery just like Y, or a romance novel just like Z. But completely different, of course, though it has to turn out the same way. As long as readers prefer books that follow templates, that's what editors and agents are going to be looking for, because that's what they can sell.

So there's a challenge for us - as readers - to be willing to try lots of new things and be specific with ourselves about what worked for us, what didn't, and why. And there's a challenge for us - as writers - to avoid the stereotypes, comfortable forms, and cliches of our chosen genres. I think the work will be stronger for it.

And we'll have less of this inter-genre bickering, too. Maybe I'll put cozy mysteries in my cross-hairs next. I love 'em. But I get so tired of reading about murder. There are other mysteries to solve, people! But murder sells, because we buy murder mysteries, and so on and so forth . . .

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Writer D.A. Riser asked:

I forget who, but someone had a blog out this weekend that agents aren't interested in pitches at conferences. Basically, their point was that the agents are just too polite to tell you no to your face so they ask you to send them your query, regardless. Does that match your experience, or did you find some that you think were sincerely interested?

No and yes.

It's my understanding that most agents wouldn't be traveling to and accepting pitches at conferences if they weren't looking for new authors and interested in finding the next great/fresh/exciting voice out there.

I didn't expect that most agents at the convention would be interested in carrying home my manuscript - even just the first 50 pages - so I didn't bring that. I did bring along an extra thumb drive, just in case I needed it. Hey, it never hurts to be prepared, right? (I didn't need it.)

I was a little surprised to learn (though it makes sense, in retrospect) that the agents didn't want to be bogged down by any paper, including business cards and query letters. Some took notes during the pitch sessions, most didn't, all wanted the query and requested material to be sent via email or snail mail after the conference.

Love Is Murder is a great little conference (it's limited to no more than 300 attendees) and one of the most helpful sessions for me - someone who's just beginning the query process - was the session called "How to Pitch to an Agent or Editor" that was scheduled before the first Pitch-A-Palooza session. That single session taught me more about what the agents and editors were looking for, individually and as a group, than anything else I've heard or read. And it let me know which people I was most interested (or most uninterested) in working with, too. I loved that.

I pitched to 5 agents at Love Is Murder and got 5 requests for more material. I think that several of the agents were being polite and asking for material from everybody, preferring to deal out rejection via email or snail mail later rather than in person.

But I did overhear one of the agents and a couple of the editors bluntly telling other authors, "I can't sell that," and "I'm not really looking for that right now," or "this just isn't a good fit for me." I did see some authors walking away from pitches empty-handed, without the agent or editor's business card with submission information hastily scribbled on the back.

And even when the agents did ask to see more material, there were variations. For example, the first agent to whom I pitched asked me for 75 pages. She asked for material from the woman who pitched to her right after me, too, but only 50 pages. Random? Who knows. The other author and I dissected our conversations with the agent trying to figure that out. But the agent and I had a great conversation in which she highlighted the challenges of what I'm trying to do, then started talking about how those could really be positives in this market, etc. She seemed genuinely interested and called my pitch fresh, new, and interesting. (Yay!)

One agent to whom I pitched asked for the whole manuscript. I heard her asking for other complete manuscripts, which definitely took the wind out of my sails a bit, BUT. Even within that general request, there were hints about how she really felt (I hope.)

After hearing my hook and pitch, this agent asked me, "These threats, are they happening online as well as in person?" From the way she asked the question, I could tell that there was a correct answer here, and I immediately provided it.

"Yes," I said, mind racing, already thinking about how I could add that into the manuscript and getting excited about how the story could really be improved by this, a lot of tension added via the change.

"Send it to me!" she said quickly. "Immediately. Tomorrow!" She did ask for manuscripts from other writers; I heard her saying things like, "Send it to me; I'll take a look at it." She did not tell everyone, "The whole thing. Immediately! Tomorrow!"

So I'm choosing to think that's a good thing!

Over the course of the weekend, I refined my pitch quite a bit. At first I tried to downplay the online gaming part of my novel, thinking that would be a turnoff for a market that skews older and female (as interest in computer gaming skews younger and male). I was surprised to find a lot of interest in the online component to my novel - even from the agent who requested all follow-up materials via snail mail - and came away from from the pitch sessions with ideas about how to actually beef up that part of the manuscript and consider building a series out of the online community rather than (or in addition to) the analog community I've built for my characters. It turns out that there might be room for a conventional mystery that's not a cyber-thriller but still has a web 2.0 component to it.

I could have spent months querying agents via email without getting the same amount of feedback I got by pitching face-to-face at a conference, even before I got over my initial terror enough to start asking cogent follow-up questions. Both my pitch and my novel will be stronger for it.

Another thing I was surprised to learn was that the agents and editors did not want to see writers using notecards or crib sheets of any kind. And in the "How to Pitch" session, they kept telling us not to be nervous. As if! But I heard things like, "If you don't know what your story is about without looking at your notes," and "If you can't sell me with enthusiasm," then they didn't think you were ready to sell and promote your novel.

So I skipped the panel session immediately before my first pitching session and spent an hour in my room, practicing my pitch over and over and over in the mirror, without using my visual aids. I didn't think I'd be able to do it, but I had to, so I did! And I'm so glad I got over needing that crutch!

In my first pitch, I stopped, closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself, apologized, and started over. It all went great after that, and I had chosen an agent for my first pitch that I thought would be sympathetic to a nervous author. (She was.) She told me how she thought she could sell it, and asked to see 75 pages.

Now I just need to finish The Dreaded Chapter - not the last chapter, that's written, but the one before it, the chapter in which It All Comes Together, the hardest and scariest chapter for me to write. And I need to polish, then send my manuscript out to readers. And then I'll be ready to sent it out to these 5 agents and a few others.

En guarde!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Back Home

I have no idea what to say. My brain is numb. "You make it sound like you were there for a week!" Paul says of my 3 days at Love Is Murder. Maybe I'll have processed it all better by tomorrow.

Great conference.

The experience of pitching in person is terrifying.

And one of the best uses of time and money for a writer I can imagine.

In a letter or e-query you can't see the agent's face, can't see what she's really responding to, where you need to explain more, what's actually exciting her. And you can't ask follow-up questions.

I learned SO MUCH this weekend. And now I have a lot of work to do. Good night!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Love Is Murder (and so are sleepless nights)

I am trying not to have an entire blog that says, "I am very, very tired," for about 5 posts a week.

Instead, I will say these things:
  • I am planning to attend Love Is Murder this weekend, and if you're planning to be there as well, please seek me out to say "hi!"
  • It will be the first time I've left Ada.
  • I am a little anxious about the whole thing, but am really really really looking forward to it, too.
  • I have nifty business cards with a great little image that Paul designed for Seek Ye First. (It involves a thumb drive and coffee, so how could it not be great?)
  • I've decided that book sucks, by the way. I still love the characters and the story; I'm just convinced that I'm a talentless hack and will be rewriting it until I die. Which might be soon.
  • On an entirely related note, we are struggling with sleep. And by "we" I mean Ellie. And by "struggling" I mean that bedtime involves over an hour of working to get her down to sleep at night, while afternoons are currently a negotiation between "nap time" and "quiet time" in the hope that if we can keep her awake all day, she'll sleep better at night. That's not working as well as I'd hoped. She's cranky and tired in the late afternoons/evenings, while still waking up several times a night (she's been out of her room twice already since midnight tonight) and getting up before 6:00 am. But at least she didn't fight sleep as hard at bedtime today.
  • Have I mentioned that I'm sleepy? Oh, I wasn't going to talk about that. Nevermind.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Book Review Club (February)

I am excited to be a part of Barrie Summy's new Book Review Club. When I first signed on, I had such high hopes for myself. "I'll wow them all," I thought. "I'll be both funny and insightful. I'll review War and Peace like it's never been done before!"

Now, I've never actually read War and Peace. Not even the Cliff's Notes version. I'm not proud of that, but I'm not too ashamed to admit it, either. And what did a little detail like that matter, anyway? The first review wasn't for ages. It was days and days away! Blink. It's today.

And the book I've spent the most time reading this week is Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel.

There are different versions of this classic tome, and I'll be talking about the one we have, the Girl version, complete with matching Prudence doll, her plastic potty, and an accompanying DVD.

When Ellie was about 18 months old, she developed a great interest in the potty and her developmental therapist recommended this book. Ellie loved the book from our first read through, and still requests it regularly nearly 4 years later. She was, however, completely creeped out by the weird-looking Prudence doll for quite a while so we substituted a beanie Dora the Explorer on the plastic potty. She loved that, and the DVD was an even greater hit.

But this is supposed to be a book review, right? Ellie immediately "got" this book, and wanted to keep it right next to her potty chair to read every time we were in the bathroom. Which, as you might imagine, was frequently. Her favorite part was the page where Prudence sat on the potty. "And sat and sat and sat and sat." 77 times. Even now, as a five-year-old, she's happy to sit on the toilet as long as it would take her to sound out the words "and sat" 77 times. I'm not kidding; I counted. 77. I've certainly had ample opportunity to do the math.

Now Ellie has a little sister who just turned two and is very interested in all things potty-related, including this book. Fortunately, Ada prefers me to truncate the "and sat and sat and sat" page. She likes the next page more, where Prudence stands up and sees what's inside the potty. Both "Wee-Wee and Poo-Poo!"

As we all know, a good picture book tells a story in both words and pictures, where the illustrations work as hard as the text to convey meaning. This book is no exception. It's just that I'm not quite clever enough to have figured out what Frankel was trying to illustrate with her drawing of "poo-poo."

Ada gets the whole potty concept, in theory and in practice (if somewhat inconsistently). But she studies this one illustration with her head cocked to the side, then looks up at me. "Ice cream?" she says. Now that she draws (hah hah) this to my attention, I see that she does have a valid point. (Ah-hem) It's just that now whenever we read this book - a mere 2-3 times a day - I sort of want to vomit 2/3 of the way through.

The whole time I've been writing this - and for entire months of the last few years - I've had the fabulous little jingle from the DVD stuck in my head. Because I think you'd enjoy the same experience, here it is. My gift to you: The Potty Song

Final thought: highly recommended! A very good read. Appeals to all ages.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Draft Pitch

Edited and significantly changed 2-4-09

I'm working on the "pitch" for my almost-completed novel. On good days, I feel like Seek Ye First is good enough to be published. In tired moments and on worse days, I feel like I need to rewrite and go in a different direction completely. It should be more literary! It should be more genre! It should be funnier! It should be darker! It should be more "women's fiction" with the mystery riding backseat.

When the book is finally ready, the next thing I'll do is start pitching the story to agents. The idea is to pique an agent's interest enough that she - or he - requests more (a partial or full manuscript). The first step in the agent query process is to identify appropriate agents and note their submission guidelines. The second step is to send a query letter, and the "pitch" is a paragraph of the query letter describing the book. It often sounds like back cover copy and is also the verbal pitch you might give to an agent or editor were you riding an elevator together or sitting across the table from one another during a pitching session at a conference.

In the meantime, I'm taking this draft pitch down to keep working on it. Thanks to all those who sent suggestions via comments or email!

It’s the eve of the year’s most hotly anticipated video game release, and someone’s trying to permanently delete the game’s secretive lead designer. . .