Sunday, December 31, 2006

Fast Women (Book #112)

Today's airplane read and my last book of the year was Fast Women (Jennifer Crusie, 2001). And it's a close call, but I think it may actually nose out Bet Me for my favorite Crusie thus far. It's just so intricate and tightly plotted, and the murderer's m.o. quite literally gave me chills.

Tomorrow I'll try to work on my Best of 2006 lists and talk a bit about my writing and other goals for 2007.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Night Remembers (Book #111)

I'm not usually a reader of contemporary romance, but there are a few exceptions, and one of them is Kathleen Eagle, author of The Night Remembers (1997). She writes gritty stories about characters with troubles and skeletons in their closets, and this book is no exception. I don't know how to describe it in a paragraph or two and do it justice. It's a character-driven story of the healing power of love, which sounds twee, but is moving as it plays out over 350 pages or so. It's suffused with spirituality, mostly Native American (which Eagle gets right AFAICT from my outsider's perspective), which gives it something of a feel of magical realism even though there are no true fantastical elements in the story.

Anyway. I know I'm being completely vague, but this is a very good book.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (Book #110)

I rarely read two books in a row by the same author, since I don't want to burn out on his/her voice and grow bored with someone I previously found entertaining. But I made an exception for Thomas Cahill by following Mysteries of the Middle Ages with 2003's Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. I was in the mood for more nonfiction, but not a hyper-detailed research tome, and it was the only one of my Christmas books that fit the bill.

Over the course of seven chapters, Cahill explores Greek ideas on war, politics, philosophy, art, etc. and then briefly discusses how those ideas came down to us, filtered through the Romans and shaped by Jewish values (Christianity being sort of a Greco-Roman-Jewish fusion with assorted pagan accretions from the societies it's passed through since its birth--none of which, should my mother happen to be reading this, means I don't believe it anymore). It's a good read, though relatively little of it was new to me. It did give me a better since of the chronology of Greek art relative to Greek power--the visual arts developed greater realism after Athens lost its political power and empire.

And because Cahill is Cahill, he draws some parallels to modern issues and events. (He really, REALLY, doesn't like Bush....)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mysteries of the Middle Ages (Book #109)

One of my Christmas gifts was Thomas Cahill's latest popular history, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: the Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (2006). It's a quick read, obviously, for me to have finished it by Boxing Day afternoon--I'm fast, but hardly a speed reader.

This isn't meant to be a thorough, detailed history, but, as with Cahill's other works, a story of important personalities of a particular era and their impact on present-day civilization. Here his aim is to show that we are on some levels children of the Middle Ages, and that the Renaissance wasn't strictly a case of discarding a millennium or so of history to pick up where the Greeks and Romans left off, but was also a flowering of political, religious, and intellectual trends planted by the likes of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Dante, Giotto, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, etc. Cahill doesn't check his own personality and beliefs at the door, which means that his work is never dry, but also that it'll be too opinionated for some tastes--for instance, it's clear that he's a Catholic, but one harboring major issues with the Church's theology and governance, and he engages in barely veiled Bush-bashing. None of his digressions into present-day issues bothered me, but, then again, I agree with most of his opinions.

The book made me curious to learn more about Dante and Giotto in particular. Though, it's interesting. I like to read about medieval Europe, and whenever I read a book like this, I think, "I'd like to learn more about X." But it almost never gives me plot bunnies--I don't think, "I'd like to write a novel about X." Muses are funny things that way. It's not that I think the British 18th or American 19th centuries are inherently more interesting than, say, the French 12th century. They just grab my inner storyteller more strongly.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Getting Stoned With Savages (Book #108)

Right now it's the calm before the Christmas storm. My daughter has played with her Santa toys, and Christmas dinner and the big family gift opening fest aren't till this evening. The turkey doesn't even go in the oven for another hour or so. I'll be glad when it's all over with--keeping Annabel from unwrapping presents while no one is looking is becoming a chore. In her defense, she recognizes her name and only opens presents with "Annabel" written on them, though her 2-year-old's reading skills don't yet extend to recognizing the difference between "to" and "from."

In stray moments over the past day or so, I read Getting Stoned With Savages: A Trip through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (J. Maarten Troost, 2006), a sequel to Troost's memoir of life on Kiribati, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. After a few years in Washington, DC, Troost and his wife decide they'd had enough of the semi-corporate world of work in the central offices of international development agencies and find a way to return to the South Pacific. The new book chronicles Troost's growing fondness for kava and assorted island adventures, including embarking upon parenthood while living in Fiji.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sharpe's Company (Book #107)

Sharpe's Company (Bernard Cornwell, 1982) was my airplane book for our journey from Seattle to Tulsa yesterday. It's one of the earliest Sharpe books in terms of publication, and it's a solid, page-turning entry, though Triumph, Trafalgar, and Gold remain my favorites. It covers the early 1812 sieges and storming of Ciudad Rodriguez and Badajoz, two key fortresses on the Portuguese-Spanish frontier. The British needed both cities to advance into Spain and stay there, and they paid for them dearly, particularly at Badajoz, in terms of casualties--some of the hardest-hit regiments had 25% casualty rates.

I read Company with particular interest because I used Badajoz as part of the setting for The Sergeant's Lady. I don't think my research steered me wrong--it plays a very different role in my plot and takes up a MUCH smaller portion of the page count, but it reads like the same battle.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Going quiet for a few days

Saturday morning we're flying down to Tulsa to spend Christmas week with Dylan's family. I've got the usual assortment of laundry, cleaning, packing, etc. to do, so I don't expect to post much, if at all, between now and Christmas.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

GH entries arrived today...

As most of y'all reading this undoubtedly already know, I have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Annabel. This year for the first time Annabel understands Christmas, and she's really, REALLY into the present part. On two occasions we've come home from our work and her daycare to discover a package waiting on the doorstep containing a gift for her, and since we've never been too strict about waiting for Christmas morning, we've let her open them.

Today my husband picked her up from daycare, and they got home before I find a FedEx box waiting on the doorstep from the RWA National office--the Golden Heart entries I'm to judge. Apparently it took some work on Dylan's part to convince Annabel that it wasn't a present for her, but instead was something for Mommy.

The instant I got inside the door, Annabel pushed the box toward me, saying, "Mommy! A present, for you! Open it."

I did. Annabel looked disappointed and baffled to find that it contained nothing but stacks of manuscript pages--I'm sure she doesn't get why anyone would ship Mommy something Mommy creates plenty of all on her own!

But I'm pleased with my "present." All my entries are in the Young Adult category, and from glancing at them it looks like there's a lot of variety in style and subject matter, so it should be fun.

RWA Contests: Subjectivity

Every judge's instruction sheet or training class I've taken part in has urged judges to check our personal tastes at the door. You may prefer medievals to Westerns, but that shouldn't influence your scoring. If you hate vampire heroes, you really shouldn't sign up to judge the paranormal category. And if you have some narrow, specific turn-off and you get an entry that hits your hot buttons, you should send it back to the contest coordinator to be assigned to a different judge.

But it's impossible to achieve complete objectivity on something as subjective as what makes a well-written, enjoyable story. As a result, you can and do see scores that are all over the map for the same entry and the same scoresheet. I've seen this as both a judge and an entrant. As a judge, I'll read some entry that blows me away and think, "That one's a finalist for sure," only to discover after the first round is over that the other judges gave it mediocre scores--what I saw as A+ writing, they graded C-. And just as often, especially in contests that drop the lowest score, some entry that I thought was deeply flawed or just plain boring and average will make the finals.

As an entrant, I tended to get wildly diverging feedback. In the 20 or so contests I entered, I almost always got at least one very high or even perfect score--but I only got enough judges who liked me in the same contest to make the finals twice. This supposedly is a sign of having a strong, distinctive voice, and since that puts a flattering spin on my relative lack of success in contest-land, I choose to believe it.

But the last contest I entered with The Sergeant's Lady highlighted the subjectivity issue perfectly. I got Goldilocks feedback. One judge thought my story was too hot, another too cold, and the third just right. Literally. The issue in question was chemistry between my hero and heroine, and they were looking at my first 30 pages.

I deliberately play my characters' attraction more subtly in the early going than is typical in the romance genre for two important reasons: 1) In the first chapter, my heroine, Anna, is still married--her husband dies around p. 25. Though her marriage is miserable and we can see that her husband is a jerk, I don't want her to come across as someone who's looking to commit adultery, so I don't let her attraction to the hero, Jack, become overt until she's safely widowed. 2) Anna and Jack come from far enough apart on the social scale that they wouldn't naturally see one another as potential mates. To get past this, I opened the story by throwing them into a crisis that forced them to work together, which makes them get to know and appreciate each other as individual human beings as opposed to members of the categories Highborn Officer's Lady and Lowly Enlisted Man. But the class difference is still a pretty huge barrier (and the major conflict of the story), so I tried to write them as having a kind of chemistry and mutual attraction that the READER will notice, but that the characters themselves are oblivious to until a few chapters later.

I put a lot of effort into striking what I felt was just the right tone with their early interactions, and I'm pleased with the results. But in this case my judges read it three very different ways:

- Judge #1 thought it was too hot--she was troubled by ANY sign of attraction when one of the characters was still married to someone else.

- Judge #2 thought it was too cold--she didn't see any physical attraction or desire on the page.

- Judge #3 thought it was just right--she loved the entry in general, and specifically praised how I dealt with the characters' chemistry and attraction.

Naturally I think Judge #3 has wonderful taste, but can I really say that the other two are wrong? I don't think so. They just value different things, and I can't fault them for calling a perceived problem in my story as they saw it. We're in a subjective business, and contests are as good a way as any to get used to the fact that you'll never please everybody.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Miss Snark's Crapometer

Miss Snark the Literary Agent has her crapometer back in action for the holiday season. For those of you not familiar with Miss Snark, she's an anonymous agent blogger who occasionally allows readers to send her various things that an agent might see--synopses, opening pages, etc.--and then comments on them. I entered last year with my synopsis for The Sergeant's Lady, and her feedback showed me how to strengthen it significantly.

This year she's looking at hooks--the meat of a query letter or verbal pitch designed to entice an editor or agent to read more of your work. I didn't enter this time around, because to do so seemed vaguely rude to my own agent, not to mention taking up a slot that might be more useful to a writer at an earlier stage of the journey. But it's a fascinating read, and I can usually tell when a hook is strong enough for her to request more material (winners get to send her their opening pages for critique) or spot the flaws in the ones that don't pass muster.

At the RWA National conference last summer, I sat in on part of a workshop where a pair of agents and an editor listened to a designated reader read opening lines of stories contributed by the audience, then told us at what point they'd stop reading and why, or, in very rare cases, asked the writer to send more material. (Actually, one of the agents would actually shout, "Stop!" at the moment she'd decide to send a form rejection--often the very first line. Not a workshop for the thin-skinned.) I didn't enter my work mostly because I already had an agent and TSL was on the desk of another editor at the same publisher, so there didn't seem to be much point, but also because I couldn't quite trust myself not to leave the room in tears if my work got an immediate "Stop!" And I'm pretty sure it would've been gonged off the stage before the reader even reached my opening sentence--I have a log line naming the setting as "Spain, June 1811," and the agent wasn't even remotely open to non-traditional settings.

Anyway, again I could almost always tell which entries would generate requests for more material. Good writing really does leap out at you. The major difference between my evaluation and Miss Snark's and the RWA panel's is that I'm looking for a book I'd like to read, while they're looking for that, AND a book they think they can sell. The agent at RWA would reject a story that opened in, say, Venezuela, because "romances set in South America don't sell." As a reader who's tired of the same-old, same-old, I'd consider the Venezuelan setting a plus. A story might be rejected because no one buys traditional Regencies anymore, which is perfectly true, and is why I comb used bookstores looking for them, because I love them and wish the market hadn't died. On the other hand, if we go twenty years without a single book more involving sinister conspiracies within the Catholic church, or, over in romance land, another series about a brotherhood of Regency-era spy dukes, it'll still be too soon for me. But those books sell, and so editors and agents are all over them if they're decently written. It's frustrating, because I wish my tastes were more in line with market trends--I'd have better luck finding good books to read, not to mention an easier time selling!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hot Toy (Book #106)

OK, so technically Hot Toy is a novella, Jennifer Crusie's contribution to the Santa, Baby anthology St. Martin's just released. But I've read a 700-pager or two this year, so I think I can count a novella as a book read. It balances out.

If you're cranky or stressed about Christmas, this is the book for you. The heroine goes out on Christmas Eve to buy the year's hot toy for her nephew and gets the last one in the store--only to discover that the banged-up, marked box meant that she got the copy with the spy codes hidden in it. Violence and mayhem ensue.

And as a writer, I've got to love a story where the last line of the first paragraph is "I need a Major MacGuffin." Deliciously meta.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Wellington: A Personal History (Book #105)

When I met Bernard Cornwell earlier this year at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, I asked his advice on researching the Duke of Wellington. He advised me to start with Christopher Hibbert's 1997 biography, Wellington: A Personal History, and so it's my research book for December. (I make sure I read at least one research book per month, even if I don't need it for my current project, just to help keep my imagination's wells filled.)

Wellington is a fascinating figure, and for the most part Hibbert lets him speak for himself without editorializing, using narrative to weave together Wellington's words and correspondence and the memories of those who knew him. I was more interested in events before 1815 than after, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of British history 1815-1850 than I did before reading this book. Whether I'll ever do anything with that knowledge I don't know, but at least it's there to be drawn upon now.

I find Wellington alternately admirable and infuriating. He was a great general, probably one of the best ever, with the (IMO) rare combination of attentiveness to practical, everyday details and a flexible, quick-thinking intelligence on the battlefield. He was pragmatic, well-read, and wonderfully snarky, all qualities I appreciate. But he was a man of his time and class, and I can't read his opinions on topics like the Irish, parliamentary reform, or the general worth of the "lower orders" without wanting to go back in time and scream at him. I mean, my ancestry could hardly be more common, and it's hard not to get angry at someone who would've deemed me not worthy of education or a voice in choosing my government.

I do cut historical figures--and, indeed, my living elders--a certain amount of slack for being people of their times. And I can't help liking Wellington despite his conservatism, because I'm so drawn to his intelligence and all that delightful snark. But I don't completely forgive them. Where would the world be without people able to step outside of the bounds of their time, place, and class and see the world as it OUGHT to be?

Friday, December 15, 2006

RWA Contests: The Over-the-top Story

Often when I'm judging a writing contest (and not infrequently when I'm reading a published book), about three pages in I'll roll my eyes and think, "Oh, come ON! That's just SILLY. I don't believe it for an instant." The published book moves straight to my library donation box, because life is too short to read bad books when there are so many good ones awaiting my attention. But when I have that reaction to a contest entry, I have to keep reading--and to keep all my comments and suggestions kind and tactful, because somewhere out there there's a real writer who loves that story as much as I love any of mine.

Sometimes my inability to suspend disbelief springs from a big factual/historical error. In that case, my job as a judge is easy. I point out the issue, striving for tact no matter how obvious whatever bit of reality the writer botched seems to me. (Because I am human, this sometimes requires pacing around the house grumbling about idiots who don't READ, and doesn't anyone do RESEARCH anymore, and why do people who don't care about history attempt HISTORICAL fiction. But I don't let myself comment on the entry until I'm past Outraged Historian mode.) I then try to offer a suggestion that would fix the error without drastically altering plot or character.

More often what throws me out of the story is that everything is just TOO something. Too big, too serious, too goofy, too black-and-white. In other words, over-the-top. I usually suggest striving for greater subtlety and working in some moral gray areas in both characters and situations.

But I always feel weird giving that advice, for two reasons. One is that books that strike me as over-the-top and ridiculous do get published, so maybe I'm telling a writer to fix something that ain't broke. I do try to set my personal tastes aside when judging, but it's not easy, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between "not to my taste" and "bad."

The other reason is that on some levels genre/popular fiction is supposed to be sweeping and over-the-top. Fantasy protagonists save the kingdom, or even the whole world, often over and over again. There's a strong thread of historical fiction where the hero just happens to meet all the important people and play a crucial role in every critical battle of his era. Romance heroes and heroines love on a grand scale. And I'm fine with all that. Phedre no Delaunay of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books can save Terre d'Ange a dozen times, and I'd be happy to read each new adventure. I love seeing the Peninsular War through Richard Sharpe's eyes and WWII through the Henry family of Wouk's Winds of War/War and Remembrance. All those books are GOOD over-the-top, IMO. And I think there truly is a qualitative difference between those books and the ones I want to throw at the wall--an art to the writing, a certain subtlety in the midst of the epic sweep, a certain humanity in the protagonists allowing me to identify with them no matter how much braver, smarter, or magically gifted by the gods with world-saving powers they are than I could ever hope to be.

I know the difference is there. But I don't know how to define that difference in any way that's helpful to some struggling writer who's entered a contest just hoping for some useful feedback to help her improve her book.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

When history surprises you...

My research book for December is a biography of the Duke of Wellington, who will be an important figure in the alternate history that's tentatively set to be my next project. (Actually, he's trying to take over the story, much to my annoyance. I keep TELLING him the lead is supposed to be my youthful Everyman figure, but he won't listen, repeatedly pointing out that he's much more interesting than some Callow Youth from Central Casting. And he's right, dang it. "I need an Everyman" apparently isn't a route to building an intriguing character. Must work on that. Or just give up and let my muse run wild with the ghost of Wellington.)

Anyway, I just learned that Wellington was around 5'8" or 5'9". So, about the height of an average modern Englishman or just a little shorter. He would've been a few inches taller than the national average ~1800, but not tall for an aristocrat--people rich enough to have a plentiful and reasonably nutritious diet were as tall as we are now. For some reason this surprised me. I'd always pictured him as at least 6'0", maybe taller. I'm not sure why. I think some of his portraits exaggerate his height for heroic effect (the only way a 5'9" man could look as tall as he does in one of his equestrian portraits would be to ride a rather small pony), and he was slim and wiry, which tends to make a person look taller.

Still, I'm having to completely readjust my mental image. Next time I get in a argument with the ghost of Wellington, I'll get right up in his face, since we're about the same height... :-)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

RWA Contests: Scoresheets

There's no central standard for how RWA contests are conducted. Each chapter sponsoring a contest comes up with its own scoresheet, recruits judges according to its own standards, etc. (You might think a contest draws its judges primarily from the sponsoring chapter, but that's not always the case. They almost always have to recruit from other chapters. I'm a fairly ordinary unpublished RWA member--I'm a member of the "Pro" program and have finaled in a couple of contests, but that's it--and I probably judge 6 contests per year, only one of which is sponsored by a chapter I'm part of. And I could judge more often, but what with having a full-time job, a husband, and a 2-year-old, I'm trying to stop saying, "Sure, I can do that! Happy to help," EVERY SINGLE TIME a call for volunteers goes out.)

Anyway, though there's no set standard, chapters DO share information, and so there are a few common scoring systems. Most contests use a hyper-detailed scoresheet, with several pages of detailed questions on Pacing, Point of View, Conflict, Characterization, etc. As a judge, you score each question, usually on a scale of one to five, with a perfect score somewhere in the 200-300 range. A few ask you to score on the broad areas above, but leave the judge more discretion to define what constitutes good pacing, appropriate conflict, etc. And one or two use the Golden Heart scoring system where you simply rate the entry on a scale of one to nine, but unlike the GH ask you to provide feedback explaining your score.

As a judge, I prefer contests that use the less detailed scoresheets, such as the Molly, the Royal Ascot, and Romancing the Tome. I often feel the hyper-detailed scoresheets cramp my style and force me to major in the minors. E.g. occasionally I'll see an entry with some glaring flaw that ruins the reading experience for me. If the scoresheet doesn't address that flaw, or only gives it one five-point question on the 250-point scoresheet, there's no good way for me to score the manuscript as I believe it deserves. And on the other side, I've read fabulous entries that just don't quite mesh with that contest's scoring criteria--i.e. an entry where the hero and heroine don't meet in the first chapter, but the scoresheet devotes a lot of space to hero/heroine interaction, sexual tension, etc.

So, if you're entering a contest, always, ALWAYS look at the scoresheet before you mail in your entry. Most contests post them to their website, but if it's not there, you can always email the coordinator to ask. If your goal is to final and get your manuscript in front of an editor or agent, stay away from contests where you KNOW you'll be giving up points because of the nature of the story. Of course, you're always at the mercy of the judges. Some of the lowest scores I've ever received came from a contest where I thought the scoresheet was tailor-made to play to my strengths. But my judges didn't connect with the story and scored me accordingly. And of my two contest finals, one came from a hyper-detailed scoresheet, the other from a contest that uses the GH system. But as much as these things cost to enter, it makes sense to target your entries where you have the best chance of success.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This week's All About Romance

I thought this week's At the Back Fence column at All About Romance was a thought-provoking read. One of the reasons I'm thinking of switching from historical romance to historical fiction is my frustration with the claustrophobic nature of much of today's romance. I like secondary characters and subplots. I want to feel like a story's protagonists live in a three-dimensional world, surrounded by other people who matter, who have lives of their own, and are heroes of their own stories--not necessarily in the sense that they'll star in a sequel one day, but in the Joss Whedon sense of having their own agendas and self-interest to motivate their actions.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Eyes of Crow (Book #104)

It's been a good month of reading for me so far--maybe because I've finally given up reading books I feel like I ought to read for market research and gone back to picking books that intrigue and/or entertain me, regardless of whether or not they're popular, recently published, or in a genre I can see myself writing!

Anyway, my third book this weekend was Eyes of Crow (Jeri Smith-Ready, 2006). It's a fantasy set in a community of villages practicing a kind of animist religion where everyone has a totem animal that provides them with magical powers. Rhia, the heroine, is chosen to her dismay by Crow, who presides over death and dying, and this is a coming of age story about her learning to accept her powers. There's obviously at least one sequel planned, though I'm a bit worried, since the publisher is Luna, and the word is they're pulling away from classic fantasy to focus more on urban fantasy. I hope this series isn't orphaned by the switch, because it's quite good and I want to know what becomes of the characters. I like the worldbuilding, and I'm intrigued by the hints that this is a post-apocalyptic world, possibly even our world long after some kind of cataclysm.

RWA contests: an introduction

I think most people reading this blog are Romance Writers of America members and are therefore familiar with RWA writing contests, but since I'm planning to post about them all week, I'll give a brief description for anyone else who's here. All two or three of them.

Many RWA chapters sponsor annual contests as fundraisers, mostly for unpublished writers, though there are a handful for published books as well. You send in anywhere from 3 to 60 pages of your manuscript--usually the opening, often accompanied by a synopsis, though there are a handful of contests that judge something other than the beginning, ranging from first kisses to sex scenes to last chapters. Two to four first-round judges evaluate the entry. In most cases, you're facing a jury of your peers, namely other unpublished writers. (Many contests try to have at least one first-round judge per entry be published, and a few have all published judges or only use unpublished judges who've finaled in contests themselves, received judges' training, or who are members of RWA-Pro, a special program for writers who can prove they've completed and submitted a manuscript.)

If you make it into the finals, your entry is then sent on to the editor or agent judging the final round. Otherwise, you get your entry back along with a scoresheet--hopefully filled with useful, tactful, and relevant feedback from your judges!

And those are the two main reasons for entering RWA contests: to get feedback on your writing and to get your manuscript in front of an editor or agent you're targeting.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

The Old Buzzard Had it Coming (Book #103)

The Old Buzzard Had it Coming (Donis Casey, 2005) is among my favorites of the books I've read this year. It's a mystery set in Eastern Oklahoma in 1912. I recognized most of the place names from visiting my in-laws in Tulsa, and the culture feels right based on what I know of Oklahoma and my own experience with the similar rural farm culture that still hung on in remnant form when I was growing up in Alabama.

Alafair Tucker, wife of a prosperous farmer, upon learning that her daughter's sweetheart and possibly her daughter could be implicated in the sweetheart's father's murder, sets out to find out what really happened. It's a page-turner and a quick read. Casey has a strong voice, and she nails the speech rhythms and dialect of her characters--I'm going to add her work to my list of recommendations for how to do accents/dialect right that I occasionally include as part of my contest judging comments. (Botched or overdone dialect is one of my judging pet peeves.)

I thought the mystery was handled well, though I don't read the genre enough to be an expert, and I consider plotting one of my weaknesses as a writer. But in this case I figured out what the key missing piece was, but was surprised by how it played out, so I feel like Casey struck the right balance of what to reveal and what to keep hidden.

There's a second book out now, also featuring a suitor for one of the Tucker girls falling under suspicion of murder. I'm looking forward to reading it, but if the pattern keeps up, I think the men of Muskogee County will start avoiding the Tucker daughters like the plague....

Golden Heart obsessing...

Next week I'm planning to post about RWA contests--my experiences as a judge and entrant, with maybe some tips on avoiding the most common flaws I see in the entries I judge. I judge a lot of contests, you see. I have trouble resisting those "judges needed!" pleas that go out on the RWA email loops. As my mother used to say, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.

Now that I have an agent, I don't enter as many contests as I used to, but I did enter The Sergeant's Lady in the Long Historical category of the 2007 Golden Heart, which is the RWA's big annual national contest for unpublished writers.

It's been a month since I mailed my entry, and it'll be ~3 months before I know if I've finaled. So the logical thing to do would be to not think about it until the day finalists are notified. But I still spent a good chunk of my shower time this morning wondering if for contest purposes I should've cut the section from Ch. 2 that's setting up a subplot that doesn't bear fruit until later in the book, or if I should have tried for a longer and more detailed synopsis, since I ended up several pages under the maximum allowed. And was it the right choice to use TNR to end on a strong hook, or should I have used Courier even though it would've meant stopping a chapter earlier on a less dramatic hook?

Friday, December 8, 2006

Mistletoe Kisses (Book #102)

Mistletoe Kisses is this year's Regency Christmas anthology from Harlequin Historicals, featuring novellas by Elizabeth Rolls, Deborah Hale, and Diane Gaston. All three stories are quick reads, very well suited to the busy holiday season, and all have a certain wistful quality. While I enjoyed the whole anthology, I thought Gaston's entry was especially good. My usual problem with short stories and novellas is that I don't have time to care about the characters before the story is over, and IMO she did a wonderful job bringing her protagonists to life and making me root for them quickly.

If you're interested in this book, buy it soon. It was a November release, and Harlequin Historicals don't have a long shelf life. As of today, it's available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eHarlequin.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Tale of Two Books and Four Covers, Part II

Today I'm comparing the US and UK covers for Sharpe's Fury, the most recent entry in Bernard Cornwell's long-running series about the adventures of a British army officer promoted from the ranks in the opening decades of the 19th century. As with the Novik series, these are books that I adore and highly recommend, though Fury wouldn't make a good entry point, IMO--better would be Sharpe's Tiger, the first book chronologically (though not the first published), or Sharpe's Rifles, the first of the Peninsular War stories.


US cover

UK cover

Both of these are, IMO, decent-to-good covers. Not the best I've ever seen, not even my favorites from the series, but they match the contents of the story (mostly--see my comments on the UK version below), and I certainly wouldn't feel any embarrassment at reading them in public.

In this case, the biggest US-UK difference is obvious: redcoats. They're a prominent element of the UK cover, while they're almost entirely absent from the US version. Which makes sense, because even though our countries are pretty much Best Friends Forever now, it's hard to get completely past the associations American children pick up in our elementary school history classes that redcoats are Other, even if you're happy to be reading novels all about the British army of the Napoleonic era! (I think I'm about 99% past those associations, but I'm a military history buff who's studied the era as inspiration and setting for my own writing. In other words, I'm not at all typical.)

Another somewhat more subtle difference is that there are more people on the UK cover, and none of them really stand out, while the US cover focuses on the hero. Since I've noticed this group vs. individual distinction on multiple US vs. UK covers across several genres, I think it's reasonable to deduce that this reflects the hyper-individualism of American culture.

(In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, all my thoughts on cultural differences on both this and the Novik covers arose out of a conversation with my husband, and the ideas are as much his as mine, if not more so.)

As for my own opinion, again, I like the American cover better, for reasons that I'm sure reflect just how American I am. When I see the British cover, my first thought is, "Where's Sharpe?" Well, on the American cover, he's right there, front and center, the focal point that my eyes are drawn to. It just makes sense to me that the cover of a book should focus on its central character, and all the more so when that character is a sexy man. (OK, so my preference for the American cover also reflects the fact that I'm a heterosexual woman. So sue me.) I don't claim 100% consistency in this area, by the way--some of my favorite covers, including my favorites from the Sharpe series, don't feature people at all. But when it's a crowd vs. an individual, the individual is almost always more intriguing to my eyes.

Also, I like how the American cover has the darker illustration on top and the lighter panel with the author's name below. I don't know if it's a typical American taste or just a personal quirk, but I like strong contrasts like that--they just catch my attention.

Last but not least, the British cover pings my "nonfiction" sensors. (This is what I meant above in saying the cover doesn't quite match the contents of the book for me.) I have a shelf full of books with similar covers at my house--namely, the military history collection I'm building. To me, that kind of illustration belongs on a history of a battle or a regiment, not a novel about a character's experience set within that history. I'm not saying the cover actually confuses me--being a fan of the series, I instantly recognize the author and character's names, after all. But there's just an eensy bit of gut-level dissonance.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

RWA Christmas party

My local RWA chapter is having its holiday party tomorrow night. Our tradition is a white elephant gift exchange where we don't unwrap the gifts till the game is over, so you try to package your gift so the wrapping alone will make people fight over it. One way is to wrap it in hot guys, because we are, after all, an almost exclusively female organization devoted to the writing of love stories. So there are always a few people who show up with beefcake gift bags.

The first year I went to the party, I decided to make my own man wrapping paper related to my writing. I wrapped a box in fairly generic Christmas paper, labeled it "why Susan writes Regencies" and glued pictures of various hot actors in period attire all over it. I had Colin Firth as Darcy, Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower, Sean Bean as Sharpe, etc., and it was a big hit. Last year I went with the men I would pick if I got to choose my own cover models.

This year I couldn't think of a theme for the longest time. Just a few days ago I decided to do Stephen Colbert's Formula 401 for Women. For those of you unfamiliar with the Colbert Report, he purports to be selling his sperm to female fans. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a good image of the packaging he uses on the show, but I found a few geek-sexy Colbert images and decided I'd just glue them to a plain wrapping paper background, label it, and call it good.

One problem: the wrapping paper I bought this week is so flimsy as to be useless. I ransacked the house looking for something else to use, and found exactly one roll of wrapping paper.

A roll I bought for a baby shower a few months ago. It has duckies and booties and teddy bears all over it. And, now, pictures of Stephen Colbert mugging for the camera. Everyone is going to think I'm WEIRD. But that's OK, because they're right. And, you know, at least it kind of fits the Formula 401 thing...

A Tale of Two Books and Four Covers, Part I

(See post below for an introduction to this topic.)

Naomi Novik is a new fantasy author writing an alternate Napoleonic-era world in which each country has, in addition to its army and navy, an aerial corps staffed by dragons and their human companions. Think Aubrey/Maturin, if Maturin had been a dragon. And if you're at all into either fantasy or historical adventure, you must read this series, because it's truly wonderful.

Here is the US cover for the first book:

His Majesty's Dragon - US

And here is the UK cover:

Temeraire - UK

Note the difference in titles. I don't know why this is the case (and the US and UK titles are the same for the second and third books in the series, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War). But my guess is that the publishers concluded that UK readers would have an association for "Temeraire," since several British warships bore that name, including one at Trafalgar, while US readers would not. (Temeraire is the dragon--the human protagonist, formerly a naval captain, names the dragon hatchling after the ship.)

Moving on to the covers, note that both show a black dragon and a tall ship flying a British flag--a perfect choice, IMO. The dragon tells you this is a fantasy novel, the flag reveals that it's set in an alternate version of our world rather than an invented realm, and the ship gives you a good idea of the time frame. Both art departments nailed the "truth in advertising" side of cover design. And, for me at least, dragons and tall ships are both inherently evocative images.

The main differences I see are the backgrounds--a textured scarlet for the American cover and an antique map for the British one--and the relative prominence of the elements. The dragon dominates the US cover, while the UK cover gives more space to the ship. And if you think about the nations' histories, that makes perfect sense. Britain was THE great naval power for quite a few centuries, so the UK cover evokes Trafalgar, Britannia ruling the waves, etc. On this side of the pond, while the US navy has won its share of glory, it's not as much part of our identity, and in any case its finest hour was after the Age of Sail. So the US emphasizes the dragon and therefore the story's fantasy element.

As I stated in my previous post, I like the US cover better. But that's not because I'm more interested in dragons than ships. Patrick O'Brian is one of my top ten favorite authors, probably top five. Put a tall ship on a book, and I've picked it up before I've noticed I'm doing so, with John Masefield ringing through my head. No, what I like about the US cover is that there's a certain stark simplicity about it, with the contrast between the red background and the black dragon framing the ship. It draws my gaze. The UK cover, on the other hand, strikes me as busy. The map background, while beautiful, gives the image a more cluttered look to my eyes, and separating the dragon and the ship makes the cover lack a single focal point. The individual elements are all beautifully done, but it just doesn't grab my attention in quite the same way.

Thoughts? Which cover do you prefer?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Judging a book's cover

I'd planned a series of posts on the benefits and pitfalls of entering and judging RWA contests, but a discussion over on the Word Wenches blog has put covers on my brain--specifically the cultural ramifications of the different covers developed for the same books in their UK and US editions. So over the next couple of days, I'll be comparing the US and UK covers for Naomi Novik's debut fantasy novel His Majesty's Dragon/Temeraire and for Bernard Cornwell's most recent Napoleonic-era military adventure novel, Sharpe's Fury. In both cases I prefer the American cover (though the British covers are appealing, too--this isn't about beauty vs. ugliness so much as subtle differences in the standards of beauty). And I mean to try to figure out why.

But for starters I'm going to lay out my theory of the purpose of a cover. None of this is original to me. Authors talk about covers all the time, possibly because they/we have next to no control over them, and I'm pretty sure I'm paraphrasing Jennifer Crusie and several others here. That said, this is how I analyze a cover's effectiveness:

  1. A cover should catch the eye of a browser in a bookstore and make him/her pick up the book. Therefore you want some kind of visual hook, something to make the reader think, "ooh, pretty," or "ooh, that looks like my kind of thing." Granted, if I love an author, I'll buy his books no matter how dull or garish the covers are. But if you want to draw new readers and maximize sales, you need a look that will somehow pop off the shelf or display table and make them stop and pick up the book.
  2. A cover should sufficiently reflect the contents of a book that the reader doesn't get cognitive dissonance when she starts reading. Cartoony, bright covers don't belong on dark, gritty stories. Contemporary images are out of place on historical fiction. Sexy books shouldn't have overly sweet covers, or vice versa. Etc.
  3. A cover shouldn't be so garish or tacky that I'm ashamed to be seen reading it in public. This mostly applies to a certain sort of romance novel covers, but I've seen books from other genres, notably horror and fantasy, that I wouldn't be comfortable whipping out on a plane or a Metro bus. If you stop to think about it, this is a marketing issue. I've often had coworkers or fellow commuters ask me about my book--do I like it, would I recommend it?--but if the cover is so embarrassing that I only read it in my own house, trying my best to hide it even from my husband, that publisher/author has lost my word-of-mouth advertising.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Of Paupers and Peers

Of Paupers and Peers (Sheri Cobb South, 2006), Book #101 of 2006, is a light, quick, engaging read, the kind of story that first made me a fan of traditional Regency romances back in high school, when I read Marion Chesneys and Clare Darcys by the boatload. It's barely over 200 pages long, so the characters fall in love improbably fast, but it's a pleasurable read for all that, making playful use of those well-worn romance tropes, amnesia and mistaken identity.

That said, what I'd really like to see from South is a sequel to her mystery from earlier this year, In Milady's Chamber.

My stories thus far...

In the possibly vain hope that anyone besides my husband, my MIL, and a handful of critique partners ever happens across this blog, I figured I should describe just what it is exactly that I write:

I started writing in third grade, when as part of a class project I wrote a longish short story, something like 20 single-spaced typed pages, about a group of children drawn into a magical realm with talking horses. Yes, I was reading the Chronicles of Narnia at the time. Yes, I was a stereotypical horse-mad girl. It was the most fun I'd ever had on an assignment, and it planted a seed in my mind that I'd like to do more of this.

All through junior high and high school, I wrote semi-autobiographical wish-fulfillment teen romances set in small Alabama towns. (I grew up outside Birmingham.) The heroines were just like me, only they were petite and had curly red or black hair instead of straight brown, blue or green eyes instead of brown, played clarinet, flute, or trumpet instead of saxophone, and they actually GOT the cute drummer, trumpet player, or wide receiver. I never got much beyond Chapter Three, maybe because I couldn't really imagine myself getting the required happy ending.

I didn't write in college, but during my senior year I got an idea for an epic fantasy series. A year or two after graduation, I started work. I filled notebooks with my worldbuilding notes and got a good ten chapters into Book One of my planned trilogy. I very well might have finished it, but somewhere along the way my politics shifted a lot and my theology shifted a little, and I found I no longer believed in my basic premise enough to continue writing it.

For a few years afterward I didn't write. I'd concluded that I just wasn't the type who finishes things, and that I therefore wasn't meant to be a writer. I got married, moved to Seattle, and started looking at graduate school, though I wasn't sure what I'd study or what I wanted to do with an advanced degree.

Then one evening my husband and saw the 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park. All the way home from the theater I talked Dylan's ears off with all the things I would've done differently if I'd been adapting MP for a modern audience. In the weeks that followed, I couldn't get the idea out of my head--how would I show a modern reader what might make a strong, intelligent woman act as meek and mild as Fanny Price, all without violating the historical realities of the times? It grew into a story in my head, a story with the same initial set-up as Mansfield Park--a poor relation goes to live with her wealthier and better-bred cousins--but I started changing things from there. Among other things, I made the Henry Crawford figure the hero, largely so the story would be different enough from the original to justify its existence, and I made the Edmund Bertram figure a cavalry officer rather than a clergyman, a random choice that would have major implications for the eventual direction of my writing. I thought about the idea so much that I eventually started writing it down to make it go away. I was sure I'd get three chapters in and quit, just like always, and that would be that.

Two years later I had my first manuscript, LUCY AND MR. WRIGHT. With the blind confidence of the newbie, I was sure that the publishing industry would be blown away by my brilliance and immediately offer me a three-book contract.

Bzzzt! Wrong. After assorted rejection letters and mediocre scores in RWA contests, I was forced to admit that maybe the story DID lack conflict, and that maybe I wasn't yet God's gift to writing. Rather than keep tweaking and rewriting it, I decided to bury it under the bed and work on my next project. It happened to be a sequel to LAMW, but one that I thought worked well as a standalone. I had a secondary character, Anna--my Mary Crawford figure, though she never resembled Austen's character in much beyond being my Henry figure's sister--who'd started out as a sort of amiable ditz. In those first drafts, my Edmund figure (Sebastian) was dull but well-intentioned, so I figured he and Anna deserved each other. But as the story evolved, Sebastian turned into an actual villain, cold and misogynistic with a streak of cruelty, and I realized that the one thing that Anna wasn't was stupid and fluffy--young, clueless, very spoiled and not a little vain, sure, but smart as can be, intensely passionate, and honorable to the core. IOW, heroine material. Since the plot fell apart without it, I made her marry Sebastian anyway, but I promised I'd kill him in a year or two and give her someone better.

During the time I was writing LAMW, I'd turned into a Peninsular War buff, so I decided that Anna would follow the drum, Sebastian would die in the war, and Anna would find a soldier worthy of her. For years I'd wanted to write a cross-class love story where the lower-class character didn't miraculously turn out to be the long-lost child of a lord in the last chapter, so I decided this would be that story. And so THE SERGEANT'S LADY, the manuscript my agent is currently shopping, was born. Here's how I describe it when pitching to editors:

Highborn heiress Anna Arrington cannot mourn the death of her cruel husband, a captain in Wellington’s army. All she wants is to leave the battlefields of Spain behind and return to her beloved family in Scotland.

But when her journey home turns perilous, Jack Wilcox, a common sergeant of uncommon courage and intelligence, rescues her from an unspeakable fate. Fighting their way to safety through dangerous, contested territory, they spend four days alone together--and discover a passion far deeper than either has known before. But Jack and Anna must return to a world that would never condone a match between a sergeant and a viscount’s daughter. For such an unlikely pair, building a life together will take a battle...

By the time I finished TSL, I decided I wanted to revisit LAMW, but the plot has changed so much that I consider it a completely different book (now titled THE INCONVENIENT BRIDE). I haven't recycled a single word of the previous version. It's still several months from being done, but since I'm a freak who actually enjoys writing pitches and blurbs, I already have one for it.

THE INCONVENIENT BRIDE is the story of Lucy Jones, an orphaned poor relation in 1809 England who wants to provide her younger brothers with a good start in life. But when the man she's always loved abandons her for a beautiful heiress, she must marry that heiress's brother or see her own brothers thrown into abject poverty.

So. Those are my stories so far. I'll try not to make a habit of lengthy posts, but sometimes when I get talking about my writing I just keep going and going and going...

Sunday, December 3, 2006

In the Wake of the Plague

In the Wake of the Plague: the Black Death and the World it Made (Norman Cantor, 2001), was a milestone book for me--the 100th book I read this year. I'd feel like my reading year was a bit of a flop if I didn't make it into triple digits.

"My" era, the one I've written about so far, is the early decades of the 19th century--the English Regency and the Napoleonic Wars. But I doubt it's the only era I'll ever write, and in any case I don't want to develop too narrow of a focus. Not good for the mind, IMO. So I read a lot of history, as my schedule allows, whatever appeals to me.

So. Cantor's book doesn't try to be a thorough history of the plague. It's more a series of essays, a bit rambling and impressionistic, discussing the culture the Black Death struck and how the great mortality changed that world. Each chapter describes a person or institution impacted by the plague. He doesn't dwell on the biomedical aspects of the plague, though he seems convinced that the epidemic wasn't entirely plague, but may have also involved something like a mutant strain of anthrax. It sounds wacky to me, but I'm curious enough to want to learn more.

On Book Reviews

My first foray into blogging was a LiveJournal, mostly a scattershot discussion of whatever happened to be on my mind. The one feature of that journal I decided to bring to this new blog is summaries/reviews of all the books I read.

Reviewing books feels like a risky endeavor for an unpublished writer. You don't want to go around bashing someone who's by definition ahead of you in the game--they have a work in print, while you don't. You don't want to make enemies or pile up bad karma. The decision I made, at least for now, is to only review books I liked enough to finish. I've never been the type to stick with a book I don't enjoy. Life is too short to read bad books when there are so many good ones out there. So any book you read about here is one I like enough to give at least a qualified recommendation--if you like that sort of thing, you might find it worth a look.


I'm Susan Wilbanks, an aspiring author with two completed manuscripts and a third that's about 60% of the way to a rough draft. The first lives in a box under my bed and the second is making the rounds of the publishing industry under my agent's guidance. All three manuscripts are historical romance, but I think my next project will be either straight historical fiction or an alternate history.

Why "Conversations With Dead People"? Well, when in doubt about what direction to take my stories, I often ask "What would Joss Whedon do?" It keeps me from being too easy on my characters, which is always a temptation because I like my heroes and heroines and want them to be happy. So it seemed fitting to give my blog the title of a Buffy episode. But the main reason I chose the name is because it's something I often do. Talk to dead people. Mostly my characters, who if they'd really existed would be long dead, because most of the important ones I've written so far were born in the 1780's. But also actual historical figures. One thing I catch myself doing when I'm deeply into my imagination is not exactly talking to myself, but making the hand gestures and facial expressions appropriate to the conversation that's going on inside my head. Recently I realized I was doing this in broad daylight walking down the street on the way to lunch when a passerby gave me a funny look. I thought, "You know, she'd think I was even crazier if I explained that I was just arguing politics with the 1st Duke of Wellington."

Writers. We're a mad breed.

Anyway, this blog will be all about life as a writer and reader. I'll talk about what I'm working on, my research, the books I read for fun, the publishing industry, writers' organizations (I'm a member of Romance Writers of America, and I just joined the Historical Novel Society), etc.